Wednesday, May 11, 2005

“Return from Tiger Leaping ‘Kick Your Ass’ Gorge”
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, Southwest China

Ni hao!

We've just returned from several days trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge...a world heritage site in the Sichuan Province. It's around 30 miles long (can't remember for sure) and is framed by the majestic, snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain and Snow Mountain. The Yangze river has been cutting a deep cleft into the heart of the granite gorge so immense that Jade Dragon Mountain rises nearly 9,000 feet above the river.

We trekked several thousand feet above the river at around 6-7,000 feet altitude. May is a gorgeous time of the year to be in the mountains. There were wildflowers and stands of bamboo throughout the walk....waterfalls and streams cutting across our path and herds of goats. We passed through small Naxi villages where men and women dug up potatoes and farmed wheat and strawberries. This area of Sichuan is home to the Naxi people....distant Tibetan ancestors who live at around this elevation and are matrilineal....all land and family names are passed down through the women.

Mother and I had heard from other backpackers that the trek would be difficult but we have to admit that we felt rather cocky about our trekking ability after several tours of duty in the Nepalese Himalayas during the winter.

All I have to say is this: Tiger Leaping Gorge kicked our asses. A kind Naxi man shadowed us as we made our way deeper into the gorge and further up the side of the mountain. He trailed a large mule behind him draped in bells and a Tibetan-style red, blue, and yellow carpet thrown over its back. he kept offering to take us by mule or take our bags my mule.

"Wo bao- Wo bao," I kept telling him. "I don't want it."

By lunch there was only a thin line between my pride and the donkey's back. It was mom that made the brave decision. Right after a scrumptious soup of fresh pumpking and potatoes she leapt up, walked proudly over to another Naxi man and said in her own form of sign language...."I'm ready for the donkey!"

An Austrian woman and I eyed each other over our bowls of soup. "I'll hire one for my backpack if you will," I told her. She smiled mischievously. "Alright...but only if you do. There's no sense in being miserable for this....for the cost of a cup of coffee in Switzerland."

Thanks to mom we hired a mule to carry our backpacks which is about the same thing as hiring a porter in Nepal. The hiking still kicks your ass. In my backpack was several days worth of clothes, two pairs of shoes, a 40-gig hard drive, converters, cords, and my SLR camera.

We continued on after lunch and the terrain became steeper and steeper. More men with donkeys continued to follow us motioning that they could carry us over the treacherous "28 bends" ascent for the small price of $5.

Hell no!

After 7.5 hours of hiking and a lunch, we made it to one of the most beautiful tea houses we've ever stayed in. Situated in the very heart of the gorge several thousand feet above the river but dwarfed by Jade Dragon Mountain was a Naxi-run guesthouse named "Halfway House." Either the name was lost in translation or the trek makes foreigners go a little mad. We sure as hell didn't see many Chinese tourists trekking it.

Our room cost $3.75 for the night and had super comfy beds with clean sheets and quilts and a wooden framed window that looked directly towards the face of the vertiginous giant stretching skywards. The body of Jade Dragon Mountain filled the entire view through our window and below were the fields of Naxi farmers.

We stayed up late that night watching the stars appear in the sky feasting on beef noodle soup and hot ginger tea. For breakfast we ate muesli and yogurt, homemade apple pancakes, and more hot tea.

One of the girls who worked there brought out a plastic cup full of dried herb seeds and stems and motioned for us to eat it. The canadian guy with us--Roan--and I both tried it. We thought it was harmless and couldn't figure out what it was. It had no familiar taste or smell. When mom came to breakfast I pushed the cup towards her...

"What's that?" she asked.

"I don't know...they told us to eat it."

She chewed on it for a while and made a funny face.

Much to mother's surprise, we found out last night that it was the leftover pot supply from some of the euro trekkers before us.

We met several wonderful other travelers on this trek. It's amazing the connection that backpackers can make when we're out in the world travelling. We spent a couple of days with a Canadian 19-year old guy named Roan and a Swiss woman who's a specialist in Russian Literature and is headed up to take the Trans-Siberian railroad.

We also befriended a hilarious pair of guys traveling together...a South African guy named George who's been living in Taiwan and speaks Chinese and a Dutchie marine Biologist named Michele. After accidentally eating some of their pot supply for breakfast, mum and I made our way further down the gorge and stayed at the last guest house.

We met an even larger group of trekkers that night many of whom had walked all the way through the gorge just to buy good pot from the couple who owned the tea house. I couldn't figure out why we were all so giggly during dinner until I realized that all 8 of the people at the nearby table had been smoking up for the past three hours.

We feasted on pizza made with catsup for a red sauce, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, noodles, homemade bread. Ten of us gathered around the table...made of a giant slab of granite...and enjoyed our dinner looking out across miles of gorge that will all be flooded in less than five years. Aussies, English, Americans, Israelis, South African, and an Austrain. Together we communed under the stars and enjoyed one of those magical nights of laughter and silliness that can only occur in the middle of nowhere with fellow travelers.

A good friend once said, "traveling is makes you live moment to moment and always be in the present." It's truly amazing how close you can feel to others who we hike with or share meals with out here. Many whom we've met are traveling around the world for a year or three months. Our one month trip is quite short in comparison.

After dinner and more stories, i joked about the pot smokers and how mom doesn't even drink alcohol...growing up Quaker. George, the South African, used his charm and cunning to convince my mother that beer would taste better mixed with sprite.

Seizing the opportunity before mum could protest, he hailed one of the staff and had poured her a cup full of beer and sprite in less than fifteen seconds.

I thought the stuff tasted god awful and figured she would, too but when he gave her the cup she didn't stop drinking until it was gone. She licked her lips and grinned big. "That was pretty good!"

We returned to old towne Lijiang last night and shared dinner with new friends at a Tibetan restaurant.

Random things happen in China. A jovial...and i mean JOVIAL!...chinese man walked to our table with two crickets crafted from bamboo leaves and began singing chinese opera. When he learned that one of our group was Dutch he sang a song in Dutch, then French, English and Spanish.

We wandered along the stone walkway with a Dutch friend after dinner past little tables lit by red lanterns and along the tiny canals and footbridges leading into restaurants. We walked past a bamboo-constructed bar where drunk chinese tourists attempted to dance to Shaggy's "Wind Your Body" and past another bar where a Naxi man serenaded two chinese girls with a guitar and a folk song. Several men gathered around a giant Tibetan bull horn which stretched all the way from the restaurant across the canal to our side of the street.

Funny things happen here. We've been given so many gifts. A shop owner offered us hot black tea and presented mother and i with tiny rings made of elephant hair. A wood carver gave me a hand-burnt gourd with Chinese lettering and a sweet couple from the Ganzou province just gave me two apples at the bus station.

People give with their hearts here and rarely expect anything back. I continue to be impressed by the Chinese people as well as the Naxi. Their sincerity, good humor, curiosity and patience. I hope to study Chinese at some point in the coming years.

We've met few other travelers who don't know Chinese.

From here we're heading to the fabled Shangri-La. A Tibetan town at the edge of the Tibetan plateau called Zhongidan. We'll see monks and monasteries, yaks and mules, giant eagles, prayer wheels, and wide open space.

From there we hope to rent a car and driver to take us deep into the heart of East Tibet, the region of Kham. A place noted for the fierce Tibetans who are incredible horsemen and wear daggers on their belts. These are the Tibetans who fought a fierce battle against the Chinese when they invaded Tibet several decades ago.

We've met several other travelers--three women from Austria, the u.k., and Connecticut, and the guy from Holland, who are interested in splitting expenses so we can go further into Tibet.

I'll try to email when I get the chance but I have a feeling there will be a shortage of internet cafes North of here.

Adieu to you all!
If you're thinking of quitting your jobs to travel....then do it!

There are so many people out here on this "circuit" who are free in the world following their hearts. I hope that each of you do, too...whatever that may mean-

much love,
Rachel and her Mamacita