A Toddler on the Trail of a Chase
After our time in the tourist-swamped area of Lijiang, we wanted to escape to nature. Bruce, our incredibly helpful hotel owner, drove us to the bus depot and bought our tickets (40RMB apiece). We took the bus to Shangri-La (a town renamed by the Chinese government in order to increase tourism revenue), but we disembarked in the mile-long village of Qiaotou. This is one gateway to Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest canyons on the planet. The name of the place comes from a local legend, which, while commonly repeated, does not seem to have been written down as a real story. So, after recovering from the hike, I [Joel] have taken a shot at creative writing. It’s okay if you want to just skip storytime to see toddler pics – I won’t find out. 🙂
Once Upon A Time, a lone hunter and his dogs were walking on Haba SnowMountain. Goats and donkeys had been disappearing, and several people had seen tiger tracks. The hunter’s people, the Naxi, had come westwards from Tibet to the fertile valleys where nearly anything grew. Now the Naxi were losing livestock, and no tribe could afford such loss. With crossbow and spear, the hunter and his pack set out to kill a tiger.
The hike along the canyon wall (the High Trail) is especially popular with foreigners as the Chinese are not as “outdoorsy”-minded. A new road by the river, 14km long, is often driven by the Chinese tourists. This means that our portion of High Trail, with its bends and turns, has to be easily more than 9 miles long. Added to that we climbed 4,400 feet up AND down during our hike. Some can do this in a single day, but since we are older and carrying a toddler and all of our gear, we did it over two days.
On the first day, Simon loved seeing the goats, horses, and donkeys. Susie made her first Chinese pun by declaring that she was Simon’s “ma-ma”: a combination of the Mandarin word for mother (flat tone “ma”) and horse (up-down tone “ma”).
The hunter followed goat and horse trails. No imperial soldiers, Tibetan or T’ang, could be spared in these impassive wilds. They were too busy fighting in places where an army could actually march. The hunter, like all Naxi, was on his own.
We stowed our luggage at Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou (5RMB per bag) and found the trailhead, just past the elementary school. It is marked by arrows spray-painted onto rocks and cliffs, often advertising the various guesthouses that are dotted every two hours along the trail. One of us carried Simon, the other carried a very full backpack containing his bed (the Peapod), toiletries and a change of clothing for each of us. Water and sodas would be bought along the way.
Yunnan province has the most ethnic diversity of any province in China, and the Tibetan-descended Naxi and the Bai live at various altitudes in the region. We met some really nice foreign hikers – two American brothers and a Filipina woman, who kept us company in the first portion of the trail. The young woman spoke Mandarin fluently, and she could barely understand the local accents. Some were very nice, others not so much. One local woman staked out a scenic overlook, charging 10RMB for photos. When our young friends attempted to take pictures without paying, the elderly woman yelled, flailed, and blocked the path.
Across from Haba Mountain loomed the Jade Dragon. Even in this hilly country, Jade Dragon SnowMountain stands apart lonely and unyielding. Its vertical cliffs and deep crags made it look as if some fantastically large hand yanked it up from the Earth as a single rock. And yet its insides lay bare – wildly folded bones of silt and sand turned to dark stone, hiding sparkling crystals and the shells of ocean monsters long gone.
The High Trail is on Haba SnowMountain, in the same sort of sparse pine trees that you could find in Colorado or Idaho. Far to our right was the backside of the same mountain we saw from Shuhe – the Jade Dragon SnowMountain. Jade Dragon is a massif, a single mountain formed by an entire chunk of earth being pushed upwards. The whole province of Yunnan is one of the most geologically active in China (or anywhere). It is still changing from India’s northwards crash into Asia some 40 million years ago, forming the Himalayas. Between the two mountains the Jinsha (Golden Sands) River has carved a deep gorge.
Tiger sign! The dogs had the scent now, and the hunter raced to keep up. The dogs whined and bayed — switching between excitement and frustration. A tiger can leap nearly straight up, but its pursuers had to crisscross back and forth, running wildly into the mists above. The hunter wondered if the tiger would even be able to hear the dogs above the roar of the churning river far below them.
The most arduous trek was the second one. The “28 Bends” portion is supposed to take 1.5 hours, but it took us nearly twice that. Here is where we climbed to the trail’s highest point, over 9000 feet above sea level. This portion simply kicked our ass. It also claimed a victim – Susie’s pedometer fell off somewhere along the trail. Beware, FitBit would-be purchasers: the online complaints about the cheap clasp are not exaggerated. And, damn it all, this is probably where we’ve taken the most steps in our life!
Standing atop one of Haba’s lower points, the hunter finally saw its target below. It was hard to spot, for despite an orange coat, dark stripes made its shape cut into the dark ribs of mountain stone. Both hunter and hunted had seen each other at last. The great cat proclaimed its defiance in an echoing roar, and then sprang along the mountainside. The chase was on.
After 28 Bends, we reached HalfWay Guest House. Here we met two Americans on holiday from their jobs in Shanghai (we would later keep seeing this nice couple on the trail and, days later, in another town). Ironically, Simon was itching to walk around after hours of being carried. Of course, the local women were more than willing to play with the blonde toddler boy, even giving him a lucky cat that waved back at him. Susie was too tired to eat, but Joel and Simon had yak meat (salty, but delicious) in rice for dinner. We had paid the extra fee for our own shower (best $7 we’ve ever spent!), and collapsed into bed.
Downwards they flew, man and beasts, scrambling over boulders, dashing across cascades of icy water, racing down paths of red mud packed smooth as silk. The chase had gone far enough down Haba that the hunter could see villages above him. While below, the roar of the Golden Sands River, which other men would name the Yangzi, grew ever closer.
The trek down was more treacherous than the way up. We’d had light rain sprinkles for ten minutes every hour, so the downwards trail was super slippery. So we moved slowly and still were amazed by the views and the rocks.
All along the way, we wished we’d had a geologist with us. Over two days we’d found beds of rock so soft that you could crush them in your hand. Some were fibrous green-blue (copper?), and rain would stain the ground the same color. Other were ivory white (chalk?), and the waterfalls over them looked like pure milk. The last portion of the trail, near Tina’s Guest House, was brick red and cut through fenced (but still steep) pastures.
Despite aching legs and gasping lungs, the hunter’s heart now pumped even harder. A score of yards in front lay the golden violence of a frothing river, and beyond that the Jade Dragon. Between river and hunter there paced the tiger, snarling death to both the man and his dogs. The hunter’s pack formed a jumbled noose that would slowly trap the beast. The single man uttered a quick prayer, and with raised crossbow, stepped forwards.
Finally, we reached Tina’s Guest House, just above the highway. The High Trail continues, but we took a cab back to Qiaotou to sleep before continuing our Yunnan adventures.
The great cat turned to face the river, and the pack leaped in elation at the sight of the tiger’s back. Suddenly pursuers on two feet and four could do nothing but gape in amazement. The tiger had leapt to a fallen boulder in the middle of the river. Another jump, and Haba’s loss was now Jade Dragon’s gain. Muscle and claw pull the tiger to safety after a leap of over 70 feet. Never again would death stalk the herds and villages of Haba SnowMountain. Later, after many beers, the hunter would publicly rage over his loss. But now (and in the future, when alone) the hunter’s fierce grimace bent to a smile.