A flight delay of more than two hours is never a good way to start a holiday. However, the prospect of a nine-day adventure tour was enough to offset the inconvenience. Indeed, the very thought of escaping the city - where life is predictably unpredictable - for lands truly unknown produced an unfamiliar sense of real excitement.
As a long-term resident of China, I've grown accustomed to risk, and so I signed up for a Tiger Leaping Gorge tour. Our flight arrived in Kunming, the sub-tropical capital of Yunnan in southeast China, late at night. The next morning our party of 11 traveled by long distance bus to Lijiang, home of the Naxi ethnic minority.
Lijiang Old Town (officially, Dayan Old Town), founded more than 800 years ago, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with charming cobbled streets, quaint tiled-roof buildings and red lanterns hanging from the street lamps. That said, about one-third of the town was destroyed by an earthquake in February 1996, and subsequently restored. Controversially, the local government has added new sections to the "old city," a move designed to accommodate more tourists, and one that might result in Lijiang losing its UNESCO status.
Not far from the town itself we visited one of the must-see sites: the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Clinic, which is in Baisha, the ancient capital of the Naxi people. The clinic is also known as "Dr. Ho's," after the 84-year-old Ho Shitiu, who is something of an international celebrity. Most visitors, myself included, request an examination. The good doctor took my pulse, had me stick out my tongue, and inquired after my eating habits. He then prescribed a dose of "healthy tea" and some advice: "Be happy - happiness is best medicine, you know."
And so I left Lijiang on a natural high. The next stop - six hours by bus - brought me higher still, up to 3,200 meters, where I entered the fabled Shangri-La. Actually I had arrived at Zhongdian, a pleasant enough Tibetan town that was renamed Shangri-La in 2002 to attract tourists. The strategy seems to have worked. Like the fictional Shangri-La, Zhongdian boasts a medieval monastery, known locally as the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, perched high above the town. The monastery was razed during the "cultural revolution" and subsequently rebuilt. While one can take the steep steps that lead to the monastery compound, I chose the road that winds along the back and provides a more rewarding journey, especially on a sunny day. Indeed, the view of the lush green pastures, distant town, and smiling monks on their way to prayer was a reward in itself.
After returning to Zhongdian proper that evening I visited the old town, which hosts a nightly communal dance under the stars. A word of advice: go easy on the alcohol. At this altitude it only takes a few drinks to knock you out. Not having had the benefit of that advice the night before, I cured my hangover with a hearty breakfast at Noah Cafe, and then joined the group as we set off for the most spectacular part of our trip, Tiger Leaping Gorge. Deeper than the Grand Canyon and almost 15 kilometers long, at its narrowest point the gorge measures just 25 meters (this is the spot where, as legend has it, a tiger once jumped across the raging torrent to escape a hunter). Technically part of the Yangtze River (known locally as the Golden Sands River), many a risk-taker has died trying to navigate the rapids. The best way to follow the river is not on it, but above it, on the hiking trail that runs the length of the gorge.
Following a hair-raising minibus ride from Zhongdian, we disembarked at Margo's Cafe in Qiaotou, and began the hike. Margo is a friendly Australian who for nearly a decade has been helping hikers traverse the rocky trail. Her husband Sean runs a guesthouse at the other end of the gorge, in a hamlet with the unlikely name of Walnut Grove.
After a few hours hiking along a steadily rising gradient, we reached the infamous "24 Bends," a tortuous sequence of twists and turns that rises almost vertically to a height of 2,660 meters. At the summit, out of breath and with muscles on fire, the gorge appeared in all its majesty. Thankfully, from that point on it was all downhill to our encampment for the night - the Teahorse Trade Guesthouse, an establishment that has possibly the best view (from the roof of the toilet) in China.
The next day, on a path so narrow that at some points we had to walk single file, we made our way to Sean's guesthouse. Treading carefully, so as not to fall on the slippery rocks and slide down into the deep ravine below, our hike lasted four hours. We arrived at the guesthouse and were greeted by Sean (Xia Shan Quan), a Tibetan who has hosted adventurous travelers since 1983. A friendly and hospitable host, he provided me with a very welcome cold beer, and talked to me about the proposed construction of two large dams nearby which would create a 200-kilometer reservoir and turn Tiger Leaping Gorge into a stagnant lake.
This sobering scenario stayed with me the next day as I boarded a minivan that took me back to Qiaotou, and from there, another bus to Dali. More sobering still was the driver's insistence on not using his brakes on a road that, at times, looked like it was only seconds from collapsing into the swirling waters far, far below. On the other hand, by not slowing down for anything, he had us in Dali in just 30 minutes, over the same terrain that had taken us eight hours on foot.
Once a haven for backpackers, in recent years Dali has been "upgraded." It now has an airport, and is connected with the rest of the nation by a network of highways. While it may have lost some of its appeal for the hardcore traveler, the increased accessibility is no doubt appreciated by flag and cap-style tourists, who clog the town's streets.
If nothing else, the hordes of tourists served as a reminder that my adventure was nearing its end. The next day, I boarded a midday bus for Kunming, and from there began my journey back to the big smoke. Still, there was time for a beery night at the Cafe De Camel in the company of local celebrity ¡°Bike Mike¡± and the local chief of police, but that¡¯s another story altogether...
(That's Beijing April 11, 2007)