When you book a tour a day trip anywhere, it’s not always clear what’s going to happen. In China, the language barrier and a few shady operators can make you even more unsure, yet, you never know unless you try. We met on the corner of the street where the tour office told us to go and a few minutes later we were directed to hop on a bus with several tourists from China and all around. Our first stop was ‘the great bend of the Yangtze river’ an overlook with a shop selling a wide range of unidentifiable medicinal herbs from the area along with some pickled creatures and a chance to shoot an arrow at a target for no obvious reason. We switched to a smaller bus along with two other westerners and four Chinese and headed toward the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
We bounced along a dirt road through the tourist gate and to a park and overlook near the beginning of the hike. Everyone stepped out to look down nearly 1000 m to the the river below where more tourists were gathered on a lower overlook shouting at each other over the sounds of the river crashing and cascading past them. Their shouts floated up to us and were softened to earnest whispes by the time they arrived. After brief glimpse we were asked to board the van we travelled a bit further up the very rough, narrow, and pitifully unprotected road for about a kilometer before we suddenly stopped and Daniel stepped out and asked just the two of us to join him. The van managed to turn around and drive back towards the overlook while we discovered that Daniel would be our guide and we’d be hiking up a series of switchbacks to the Tea Horse Guest House, our first stop on the trek.
What about the others? Daniel said that Chinese don’t hike. “They just want to look at sites and then move on to the next one. Never spend any time…,” He likes westerners better anyway, he explains; “not so rude.” And indeed, while we definitely didmeet Chinese who hiked down to the river, we didn’t see any on the trek.
The gorge itself (Hǔtiào Xiá) is one of the deepest in the world, flanked on one side by the 5,596 m Jade Dragon Snow mountain (玉龙雪山; Yùlóngxuĕ Shān, ) and on the other by 5,396 m tall Haba Shan (哈巴山; Hābā Shān). The river is 2000 m below the peaks and 25 m at its narrowest, the spot where a legendary, but very impressive, hunter leaped across to avoid being eaten by a tiger! The gorge is just16 km long although we only hiked about 13 km of it. Check here for a map of of the area.
The trail, above the main road below, is a well used dirt path mostly easy to walk along, although occasionally steep, narrow, washed out, or covered over with small landslides. It’s used by local farmers herding their goats, carrying supplies, and foreign hikers. Along the way graffiti marks rocks with directions to several guest houses like billboards on American highways telling you you’ve only got four more miles to go before a cool beer.
Daniel is a helpful guide and very considerate that we may not be able to go as fast as him; he does this once or twice a week, or that we might need to rest. We’re from Colorado, damnit, we have to represent! Fortunately, the views are stunning so there are plenty of chances to stop and
take a breath take pictures (even if the light is all wrong….) and to admire the tall five leaved plants that smell suspiciously like an illicit substance gaining popularity for its purported medicinal value. Daniel explains that, yes, they’re hemp plants. The farmers harvest them for rope…also. To be fair, they don’t seem to be growing in any organized fashion; they are simply scattered all over the place.
After our peaceful lunch at the Tea Horse, we continue on the trail looking up at Haba Shan and across to Jade Dragon. The river below is milky gray and silty and an enormous distance away. In autumn there are a few late summer flowers and the occasional western trekkers (both with and without guides). As pretty as everything is, it’s hardly undisturbed country. Above us is the tungsten mine where Daniel, a chemistry student, used to work. There are power lines cris-crossing the area and leaking water pipes 20 cm in diameter zig zagging around us. To be fair, many hikes in Colorado can be spoiled by old mine tailings and rusting, abandoned, equipment as well.
Daniel is happy to be a guide and no longer working at the tungsten plant. His description is the familiar stereotype of an industrialist: unconcerned about the gorge or the people who live here and only interested in money and digging tungsten out of the top of the mountain. The local people have a few jobs there, but the rest settle literally for the dregs. Because we’ve shown so much interest, Daniel leads us on a detour to a shed housing a farmer’s handmade mechanical sluice. Runoff water from the mine is diverted to the sluice where the incredibly heavy ore is shaken off into buckets to be sold off for extra cash. In trade, the water in the area is not very safe to drink and many of the streams tumbling down to the Yangtze below are polluted. We’re starting to agree with Daniel here.
The hike winds through another lodge with enough time for us to have a beer and then finally down the slope a ways to our hotel and restaurant for the night. The moon sets dramatically over the high cliffs on the other side of the gorge and we’ll hike down to it the next day. So far, Daniel’s right: we’ve seen no Chinese hikers, but a few foreign travelers. And the tour we’ve booked is turning out to be a fantastic deal: our very own tour guide and a quiet, educational journey up close with Tiger Leaping Gorge. Nope, when you book a tour it’s not always clear what’s going to happen.