8 September

I was looking forward to settling into a quiet pace of life in Dali for a while, when the opportunity to join a couple of people on a trek at Tiger Leaping Gorge landed right into my lap.

We put our main bags in store at the hostel and caught a 17-seater at 1pm from Dali for Lijiang, just managing to make the last connecting bus at 5pm for Changuan, a small town two hours further north, and the start of the Nature Reserve. We had to pay the entrance fee of 50 Yuan (5 pounds) to get to Jane’s hostel, run by a swarthy Tibetan woman in indeterminate age, but probably early 40s, who has clearly seen the harder side of life.

After having indulged myself for three days in Dali with a double en suite – with extraordinary pink lacy bed linen – I was in a rather dark and airless dorm of eight beds and a very basic squat toilet across the courtyard with a door that didn’t close. The light didn’t work either, but maybe that was a good thing. Sarah and I chose beds by the window, while Eric had a modicum of privacy behind a curtain near the door.

The eating area could cater for troops of hungry trekkers on their way to, or from, the Gorge, but apart from us and a few late visitors who booked into double rooms, we had the place to ourselves.

I was woken by a very pre-dawn cockerel and the intermittent scurry of what I can only surmise to be rats in the rafters. At 7.30am I was surprised to hear a morning drill of school children in the nearby school yard. Then it was breakfast and off and out down the paved road to the start of the climb, past a cluster of horsemen plying they trade. With the main tourist season over there would be small pickings – those setting out now would want to walk the trail, not ride it.

Gentle at first, past walnut trees and smallholdings, fields of maize with sunflowers still very much in bloom, winding up and around the base of the hills, arrows painted on stones and messages urging you to stop at the next, “the best”, tea-house or hostel.

And on we climbed, the path now rugged, stones protruding, the red eroded soil spilling into the fields washed down by sudden rain – but now dry, the sun hard and hot and barely a breeze.The rugged trail - 4393

The rugged trail

To our right the land fell away into the valley and as we worked our way around the mountain into the gorge. And behind us now, keeping pace with gentle persistence, one of the horsemen followed, stopping when we stopped to rest, offering with gentle persistence to carry at least one of us over the mountain. For two hours he tried. Once we thought, we hoped, he had turned back, only to hear the horse’s bell growing steadily louder, ringing clear in the still, mountain air. I was convinced he had singled me out as the weakest – which I was, being quite unused to even hill walking and now embarking on a 2-day mountain hike – and was just biding his time until I realised it was all too much for me and would gratefully clamber onto his trusted steed. But he didn’t count on my grit. Even his eventual offer to carry our bags over the mountain for 18 Yuan (less than 2 pounds) met with smiles and dismissive waves of the hand and we climbed ever more steeply upward towards “The 28 Bends”.Sarah, Eric and the persistent horseman

Sarah, Eric and the persistent horseman

And what a feat that was, as the deeply cut, rocky track zigzagged sharply towards the ridge and the jutting edge of the mountain. My heart was hammering, and I felt like stopping every few yards, but struggled on around this bend and that until I gratefully spotted an interesting plant to investigate and photograph – and was able to finally catch my breath. The flora was indeed very interesting, and I wish I had been with someone who could explain the plants and ecology to me – but instead found myself identifying some of them for Eric who is a keen gardener back in north Canada, although be bemoans the extremely short growing season there.

As we approached the highest point we were amazed to find two elderly women tending a small stall selling fruit, water and a few crystals. We had brought our own water and food, but I felt a sense of guilt, perhaps, at my lack of compassion as we walked past without stopping. The effort they had put in to try to sell just a few things, right on the edge of the mountain. The horseman who followed us for two hours for a few Yuan. A threadbare existence in a harsh, unforgiving countryside.Refreshments in the most unlikely places - 4381

Refreshments in the most unlikely places

I’m not sure what one does with these feelings – understand and accept the inequalities of life? Strive to change them? I can certainly not ignore them…

As we moved around the precipitous edge, so below us the roar of rapids grew. Far down below us now, the turbulent silt-brown river rushed through the Gorge. Opposite, dark green forest rose almost sheer – the range Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, distant peaks lost in the cloud.Looking back down into the gorge - 4404

Looking back down into the gorge

The path was close to the edge of the mountain, but the route was easier and we dropped down slowly through the trees until the mountain softened into open cultivation, small villages settling in the hollows. It was well into the afternoon, and a rest at the Tea Horse guest house became an over-night stop, just 1 ½ hours short of our aim for the day.Tea Horse Hostel - Tiger Leaping Gorge 4443

Tea Horse Hostel – Tiger Leaping Gorge

The evening cooled, but it was still warm and dry and we had no need for the fleeces and rain jackets we’d brought. And what stars in the clear, black sky! We watched them shift against the mountain silhouette until the gathering clouds obscured them – and then thrilled to the lighting caught inside, flashing wide across the night, distant thunder rumbling amongst the peaks.

After some discussion we had rejected the 20-Yuan-a-bed dorm with its low, dark-wooden ceiling and cell-like window in favour of a newly constructed pine chalet-style room, with toilet, with a view over the mountains. I didn’t want to sleep for watching, and lay in bed gazing through the window at this natural wonder.

Next morning was bright and clear, the distant peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain dusted white, and we hit the trail again. But the rugged forest track of yesterday had given way to a concrete paved road servicing the village and although the views across the Gorge were good, we felt as though we had experienced the best part of the trail. This, together with a developing migraine probably caused by the heat, physical stress and my back being out of alignment, caused us to finish the trek at the next Guest House and take a car back to the starting point, Changuan, to catch a bus back to Lijiang and then Dali.Looking across towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain - 4412

Looking across towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

The car arrived about 40 minutes later and took us almost straight down the mountainside on a newly constructed concrete road in an endless sequence of severe hair-pin bends which the driver approached, thankfully, with some caution. Each bend was exactly the full lock of the steering – there were no crash barriers and any misjudgement would have seen us toppling over down to certain death. We dealt with this in different ways – I gripped the seat with whitening knuckles, Sarah enjoyed the views, and Eric, in the front seat, closed his eyes unable to bare the tension.

Eventually we joined the tourist road that runs alongside the river at the base of the Gorge, navigating around rock-slides, sheer drops, and tour busses throwing up great clouds of dust. The tour bus car park was overflowing and the side of the road for about half a mile was nose to tail, with great troupes of Chinese tourists excitedly following their leaders to view the Tiger Leaping Gorge rock in the middle of the river: a sight that we forwent in favour of retaining our wonderful memories of an almost deserted mountain trail.

At Changuan we parted company with Sarah who was going north to Shangri-La, and waited at the side of the road for a bus heading south, only to meet  up with our fellow trekkers who had completed the whole route. We shared the mini-bus – affectionately known as “a toaster” being a little white oblong box on wheels – down to Lijian where Eric and I stayed the night before going back to Dali.

And here are a few Botanical Specimens…..Wild Delphinium, Tiger Leaping Gorge 4406

Wild Delphinium, Tiger Leaping GorgeWild Begonia

Wild BegoniaWild flowers - unknown species

Codonopsis Pseudocodonopsis forrestii? As identified from my blog by Tom Lammers, Herbarium Curator, Oshkosh Department of Biology and Microbiology, Wisconsin, USA

The ancient city of Lijiang was a whole other experience…