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China Tiger Leaping Gorge
There is Chinese saying that “it is easier to heaven that to Yunnan.” It is indeed a long and difficult journey to Yunnan to explorer one of the deepest canyons in the world-Tiger Leaping Gorge . the Changjiang or Long River, which we know as the Yangtze, flow through many gorges on its way across China to the Pacific Ocean, but none are s deep or as dramatic as Tiger Leaping Gorge. Deeper than Grand Canyon, the wide Yangtze Valley narrows into a vertical 7,000 feet deep, not separated into rims but falling straight down.
Philosophically it was also difficult to make the decision to travel to China in the face of the tragedy that took place in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. The same government that was in power then remains. But contact with Westerners is vitally important to Chinese citizens who are interested in learning what western people and politics are all about .
Physically, the journey is demanding –first flying form San Francisco to the bicycle-thronged megalopolis of Shanghai, and form there to Chengdu ,capital of Sichuan province, the agricultural breadbasket of China; from Chengdu ,via an overnight train with hard benches to stretch out and maybe sleep on –know s a hard sleeper –to Dukou , an adventure in itself . From Dukou , we counted ourselves lucky to find a bus leaving within the hour for Lijiang, a thirteen-hour ride on dirt roads over major mountain passes. Arriving in the medium-size city of Lijiang about 1:00 a.m. ,there was little chance to rest , for the bus to Baihangchang left at seven in the morning . but once at the small crossroads town of Baihangchang, the place changed.
Leaving the main route and heading toward the well-groomed farms of the Yangtze River, the rickety country buses were few and far between.. sitting down on a wooden plank between the roots of an ancient tree, we jumped up and waved at each canvas-covered lorry as it passed. Empty or full of furniture or pigs, none would stop. By 6:30p.m.we were getting worried we might not make it the 30 miles to Qiaotou that night. Finally , as dusk crept in, a walking tractor-a diesel engine with a seat pulling a metal wagon-came by. The middle aged diver in his blue Mao suit dropped passengers off. Asking if he would take us to Qiaotou- the “Bridge Head ” across a tributary of the Yangtze, and the closest town to the entrance of the gorge – he considered a moment. He seemed to be weighing the distance and the drive back in the dark, but his only question was how much would we pay . we offered twenty-five yuan , but he insisted on fifty (u.s.$10). That seemed an exorbitant price considering a bus ticket costs eight yuan . but having charged a first-class price ,our driver was determined to provide a first-class ride. He offered cigarettes and then , from farmers selling fruit by the side of the road , he bought Asian pears. Our driver was conserving fuel, and so he turned the engine off whenever we went downhill. As we coasted down, the evening sun filtered through the tassels of corn plants in fields lining the powerful Yangtze . the mud-red river shone as the sun slipped behind the ridge three thousand feet above .
After an hour and a half, a nineteenth-century stone bridge across the Yangtze loomed – the last before the gorge . as our driver started across the bridge, two bridge guardians -70-year-old men dressed in Peoples Liberation Army uniforms-one with a rifle-motioned the driver to stop .“ Foreigners are not allowed to cross the bridge ,” the bridge guards insisted. Despite our explanation that we were going to Tiger Leaping Gorge ,an open area ,and had been there before ,one of the guards went into his kiosk and pulled out a book of regulations. He found the one with the English translation：“Foreigners are not allowed to enter this area.” Showing the guard our previous Chinese visas to demonstrate that we lao pengyou – old friend- of China , the guard changed his mind and let us pass. Since Tiananmen Square, there has been much confusion stemming from local officials” interpretation over which parts of China are open to foreigners and which are not .
Early the next morning ,once again traveling by walking tractor, a mile from Qiaotou we passed the official entrance to the gorge – a marble statue of a plump, friendly looking tiger running towards the edge of the gorge . the legend is that a tiger ,running away from a hunter ,leapt across the gorge to make his escape. At the narrowest section of the gorge – a mere 30 feet across – one imagines it might have been possible .
At the end of road ,a building under construction will be become a tourist hotel . the road all the way through the gorge to Daju , the small town on the other side of the river , will be completed in three years , in its constant effort to attract foreign currency , China is changing the character of its natural wonders, including Tiger Leaping Gorge ,by developing them to appeal to tourists who want to stay in high – quality hotels and demand Western – style amenities. It is planned that what is now a remove the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.
Dozen of workers chipped stones and moved rubble by hand ; the three-year estimate seemed over-ambitious. Past the end of road , the trail became a single footpath leading up and down over landsides, clinging precariously to the side of the cliffs as the river rushed ever downwards.
Within a mile of the end of the road ,one arrives at the upper falls – a quarter – mile – long furious cauldron. The river plunges down and curls back on itself in the holes beneath a huge triangular – shaped boulder. From there the river rush down the gorge ,but the trail ,etched in the Cliffside, headed up. Within minutes, the river was hundreds of feet or more below us. The black, oxidated limestone cliffs rose in ridges and peaks along the opposite side of gorge. Five ,six thousand feet above the river the black peaks soared. On our side of the river the mountains fell back and open slopes appeared above us. The gorge is sparsely inhabited by farmers whose high –angle fields are located high above the footpath that connects them to the outside world. The course of the river can be described as pool drop, which is rapids or falls into a clam stretch. Despite attempts, no one has yet run the length of Tiger Leaping Gorge by boat.
Half a dozen spectacular waterfalls hundreds of feet high run down side canyons and across the trail. A fellow walker joined us: he was a Naxi trader who bought jade and jewelry in Lhasa, then took them to Guilin to sell to tourists. Of course, since Tiananmen, Western tourism was down, but Taiwanese tourists were up, and they in particular liked the old jade from Tibet, he said.
We had hired a horse to carry our packs. After a little more than one hour, we came to another waterfall, plunging hundreds of feet down before its final drop into Yangtze. The crossing was nicely leveled stone work, but narrow. It did not appear especially hazardous. But as the young horse owner led his horse out into the water, the inside pack caught on a protruding boulder. Taking one sideways step, the horses back leg thrashed over the edge of the three-hundred-foot waterfall. Desperately we tried to loosen the load and finally dragged the packs back across the path. With nothing on its back, the horse regained its footing and gingerly picked its way across the waterfall.
It was clear the horse-packing for afternoon was over; shouldering our packs, we hiked until we found a flat spot for the tent. While staking the rain fly, an old Chinese farmer in faded clothes walked by. He pointed to the overhang above us then pointed to the clouds. “wanshang xiayu (evening rain falls),”he said,“shitou xialai (rocks come down).” We reviewed our situation. The man had given us fair warning. The nylon tent would withstand rain, not rocks. Reluctantly, we decided to move. The sky cleared a bit and the sun came through – just enough to turn the clouds drifting in the peaks across the gorge a pale peach. As the sun set, the light reflected and the clouds glowed, while the river rushed on endlessly below. Then it started to rain and continued heavily through the night.
Morning was completely gray. Clouds laced their fingers through the ridges of the canyon. A few steps from the tent we looked up the length of gorge. The brown river churned, carrying 75,000 cubic feet of water per second to the sea. From there, the gorge appeared to have three distinctive levels: a pale set of cliffs rising directly from the water, a second level of diamond-shape face, vertical cliffs of black oxidized limestone and a third level of spires and towers, deeply eroded into majestic forms. Above the spires, hidden by clouds, were the peaks. We caught glimpse of the highest summits through the clouds, but never a clear view.
By early afternoon the weather cleared. The trail headed up a substantial hill, then, as it leveled out, we rounded the corner into the largest side canyon entering this side of the gorge. A waterfall roared down multiple levels of limestone, worn into towers and smooth-sided pools. The opposite side of the gorge was covered by green plants, despite the steepness of the walls and lack of soil. In places, waterfall channels had been worn slick and reflected the sunlight like mirrors.
Continuing along the trail, we came to a sign:
HOSTMEN IS FRIENDLY HELPFUL AND SPEAKS ENGLISH
We were on the edge of the only village in the gorge, Walnut Garden. A stream flowing down from the mountain above and springs provide the water required for habitation. A women sitting on the dirt patio of the guest house cried out and a smiling man in his mid-twenties flew around the corner of the house to welcome us. Sean could not have been more delighted to see Westerners. Since Tiananmen, he has had a hard time of it. Not only do Westerners give him valuable currency for lodging English from one small grammar book, a pocket dictionary, and his guests.
The windowless house and guest house were made of stone, a minimum of wood and roof tiles. Stone is free and easy to obtain in the gorge. Trees now grow only at elevations high on the mountain. The roof tiles, and probably the wood as himself, he replied with a smile that no, the stones were very heavy and he could not do it because of his arm, which is deformed, so his wife and friends had built it.The house has a main room, half of which is the kitchen, arranged around a fire pit in the center. A wood fire burns under a metal grate on which a tea kettle or work balances. The cook squats next to the fire. Short –legged benches run along two walls. Against the other wall are two tables. Food is kept on one. A large work full of pig slop sat on the other. In the other half of the room was a short table and small chairs, a desk with a regular-sized chair, and an unsteady set of shelves for dishes and important items. The house had a separate bedroom. The guest house is divided into three sections, partitioned off by walls of newspaper mache.
Just at dark, as if by magic, the electricity came on. The house had one light bulb. The family listened to their radio. Questioning our host about wildlife in the area, he replied,“there are lots of wild animals. Many monkey: big and small, brown and black, gold and white. They live up on the mountain, but sometimes come into farms to steal chickens, or, when the corn turned yellow, to eat the corn. Some of the monkeys are as big as my pig, others as big as my children. Some monkeys have faces and hands like humans. I saw twenty or thirty of them last year at the wooden bridge over the large side canyon. Some people kill the monkeys to eat them, but not me. There are tigers on the mountains on both sides of the gorge. Even though I have lived here all my life, I have never seen any alive, but I have seen a dead tiger brought into my village by the men who killed it”
He went on,“There are black bears on the mountain. Three weeks ago I saw a freshly killed bear for sale as meat at the market in Qiaotou. And there are also lots of snakes, all sizes and colors and patterns. Many are poisonous.” He imitated the head and movement of a cobra. The concept of endangered species has no meaning here. By the time the gray clouds had lightened enough to see, the pony was loaded and we were on our way down the gorge. Sean chatted, “I am having a sign made out of local marble for my doorway to say WELCOME SEAN”S GUEST HOUSE. The boatman on the ferry across the Yangtze is ruining my business. He is so unreliable and charges rates so high the tourists will not cross the river to hike up the gorge to stay at my guest house. But ,” He went on ,“that is nothing compared to the disastrous effects of what the central government did at Tiananmen Square. There have been so few tourists because of what. My family and I have suffered, even here.” It was not a question of politics to Sean, and we did not discuss that aspect. For him the effect has been financial, directly impacting his family well-being.
Farther down the gorge, the trail side of the canyon opened up, but it is inhabited only by sage and other scrubby bushes. Sean explained why there are no people. “There is no water here.” It is true. Despite the constant, low roar of the Yangtze in the bottom of the gorge, there is no water. There is no side stream following down from the high mountainside. It is a paradox that where the configure-requiring terraces, inability to move water up from the Yangtze or divert it from the mountain above renders this land unusable.
At one side-canyon waterfall, now waterless, Sean’s mule stepped carefully along the eroded path. Below, at the bottom of the drop, were broken pieces of what might have been a table. Stopping to look more closely, we saw that next to the broken table was the rotting carcass of a mule, bones just beginning to show through the shrunken skin. If all goes smoothly, hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge is a moderate adventure. But a single misstep, so many miles from anything even resembling medical help, could spell life-threatening disaster.Pausing for one last view of canyon, we looked past a walnut tree overhanging a garden, its wooden gate embedded in a stone wall. Prickly pears grew in the garden alongside banana trees. Beyond the garden, the cliffs of Tiger Leaping Gorge rose to the mountaintops, once again lost in clouds. The trail switch backed down to the river. Road construction workers headed up the hill. We could see a couple of Westerners among the crowd on the other side of the river, but the ferryman would not allow them to get in the boat. Potential customers for Sean,so near, yet too far away. The ferryman delivered his load of passengers-Chinese only –to our side. The handsome young ferryman, a baby strapped to his back, headed the open 40-foot motorboat back up the eddy. I looked down into the swirling brown water. Skillfully he headed the bow of the boat into the current, allowing the powerful river-its strength felt clearly even here, miles below the gorge –to pull the boat downstream to the bottom of eddy on the other side. Taking one last look at Yangtze , watching the construction workers reach the top of the hill, it was clear that few Westerners will see Tiger Leaping Gorge unchanged.
Tension: Domestic and
foreign visitors will bring profit and
profound Change to
LangfittSan Foreign Staff
Dragon Snow Mounting into
the churning rapids of the
More spectacular and more
remote than the famous Thee Gorges, The area
opened to foreign tourists mostly
backpackers-in 1993.Today travelers can still
hike in relative solitude, chatting with Villagers and stopping to rinse their heads in the
waterfalls that Pour down the limestone and
granite walls. In the next several years,
all of that will almost certainly change. Local officials plan to
carve a trail across the gorge’s eastern
will, Which includes a giant stone monolith larger
than Yosemite National Park’s 3,600-foot
E1 Capitan. Across the River , officials
from a Competing county have blown
through a road that they hope to pave. Buses carrying an estimated
500,000 to 600,000 tourists annually
Are expected to follow, altering one of the
most tranquil and Spectacular Spots in
Attractions include bumper
cars and what appears to be a hybrid of a Polynesian village and a
Western frontier fort with to tern poles. Profit and preservation Few
people more clearly illustrate the tension between profit and
A few streets over, elderly Naxi women in blue aprons and caps pad about the streets with wicker baskets strapped to their backs.
The tension between the modern and the ancient is not as severe as it might appear. In the past two decades, the profit motive has been one of the most powerful forces in this nominally communist country .in Lijiang, a city with a thousand years of history, the story is not entirely different. Despite concerns about being overrun by visitors and preserving their way of life, some Naxi complain that they see too few tourists not.
STORY EVER TOLD BY SCOTT CARRRIER
I spent the evening next to the Wood burning stove in the café at the Long life Hotel, listening to Karen Carpenter sing that song about her favorite song, wondering if had fallen into a twilight zone. Perhaps my plane had crashed over the pacific and I was dead. Or perhaps I was just fucking up in a major way here. Either way, the mark as on the wall seemed ready to pounce.
Then, as if on cue, a Tibetan man, about thirty-five, walked into the café and sat down next to me. He was short, with long hair that hadn’t been washed in a while and a face that broke into thirty pieces when he smiled. It was the smile of a man who’d spent a long time in the mountains. He was wearing a large wind-beaker, but his left sleeve was pulled up, and I could see that his arm was shrunken, his hand mangled and upside down..
“Where do you come from?” he asked me in good English.
“Utah, in America.”
“Yes,” I said, “Exactly.”
“I saw photos.Very beautiful.”
His name was XiaShanquan. But he went by Sean. he was a guide and owned a guesthouse in Tiger Leaping gorge. He’d come to Zhongdian for a meeting about tourism but was going back home in the morning. I told him I was trying to get to Haba, and he said I could go with him to his house in the gorge, which was only a day’s walk from Haba.
“Are there fish near Haba?” I asked him.
“There are fish in the Yangtze. People catch them with dyna-mite,” he said, laughing so hard he almost fell over in his chair.
“But how about up on the mountain, in the lake called the Black sea?”
“I think ,maybe there are snow fish in the lake. People catch them with insects,”
“I will show you . I don’t know the name in English.”
I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Tiger leaping gorge had the shape of a very narrow and deep v. At the top of the v were two peaks, haba show mountain (sixteen thousand feet) and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (eighteen thousand feet), and at the bottom was the Yangtze River (eight thousand feet), which seemed to go out of its way. Turning almost180 degrees, to run between the mountain. The name tiger leaping gorge came from the canyon being so narrow that tiger was said to have once leapt across it.
Sean’s guesthouse was twenty-two kilometers into the gorge along road that had been cut into the wall of the canyon. We rode there in a toy like pickup truck, Sean sitting up front in the cap with the driver and four other men. I sat in the bed with bags of rice and corn, five – gallon cans of gasoline, and five other people. The road was muddy, as there had been there straight days of rain, and the truck’s little engine struggled mightily, the rear wheels spinning and fishtailing. Sometimes we all got our to push and pull with a rope, sometimes we moved boulders that had fallen in the road, and sometimes we stood and watched while the driver crept between spaces just inches wider than the four-foot wheelbase of the truck.
The road had been slowly gaining elevation above he river, so looking down at it produced an instant rush of vertigo. The river was monstrous. Exploding through canyon walls that were only twenty-five yards apart. I’d never seen anything so powerful, and it yanked hard on my heart. I could hear a stream of water running under the truck , and there was no road that I could see. If the truck were to slide over the edge, the fall line would start as a series of tumbles and pirouettes-a flinging of would pound everyone and everything into miscellaneous bits of unrecognizable pulp and flattened metal.
I was deeply scared, but I was also happy, even overjoyed. It was wild and beautiful, and so it counted. It was what I’d come for.
AFTER TWENTY KILOMETERS, and truck stopped at a guesthouse and everybody got out “My place is two kilometers from here,” Sean said . “but the road is gone up ahead. We need to look at it.”
We walked up the road, lifting fallen boulders out of the way. It was getting dark., hard to see, but up ahead there was no road. the side of the mountain had slid away. I wanted to get closer, but Sean stopped me . “You see, it’s still dripping,” he said, pointing to a patch of mud sliding down the slope. “not good. It rains for three days and this is what happens.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“We can ran across it, very quickly.”
“Run?” I said. My pack weighed fifty pounds. It was almost dark. The slope was slippery and steep.
“Yes,” he said, “ Unless you what to stay here or ride back to town in the truck.”
“I’ll go,” I said.
“Then follow me.” And he took off running. It was a mad dash for three hundred yards, some of which was out on the muddy slope, completely exposed, so that a slip would mean a long slide to some cliffs and then a longer fall to the river. I ran with my hand for balance, following Sean’s step as closely as possible. He ran fast, without stopping, and I thought I heard him laughing. And then I realized / was laughing it seemed impossible to run across that slope in the dark, and yet it also seemed as if all I had to do was keep up with Sean and everything would be all right. It was like ski-ing right behind a friend. It was follow-ing someone off a cliff. It was much fun as I’ve ever had in my life.
We stopped at a waterfall where the road started again. I was saying something like “ that –was-unfucking-believable-you’re-completely-out–of–your-mind—I’ve-never-done-anything-“when a boulder as big as house came crashing down the slope and rolled across where we had just passed, launching itself in to thin air and disappearing into the darkness before being smashed into a million pieces.
“you like this?” Sean asked.
“I love this” I said, and we both laughed and ran down the road to wards his house.
Sean’s Guesthouse was two stories high, Framed in post and beam, with big windows looking out over the canyon. Standing on the patio out in front, I could see four or five lights from other houses across the hillside. I could see the dark outline of the mountain on the other side of the canyon. I could hear the roar of the river a thousand feet blow.
We ate in the kitchen next to the wood stove .It was there where he told me what happened to his arm. He was born healthy in 1964, but when he was two years old, during the Cultural Revolution, the red army came looking for his father. His father wasn’t home, so they grabbed Sean and Threw him in the fire, and then grabbed his sister and threw her off a cliff. Sean said it was not just his arm but the entire left side of his body that had been burned.” They called me ‘flower pig’ be cause my skin was like a flower pig- many colors,” he said.
“There was no hospital?”
“There was no road, no bicycle, nothing. They would have had to carry me.” As a kid, he went to grade school, but the communist party wouldn’t allow handicapped kids in middle school or high school. So he educated himself.
When the communists allowed small-scale capitalism in the late eighties, Sean started the first store in the village, When they opened the area to tourism in 1993, he built the first Guesthouse. He learned six Language.
“Do you hate the Chinese for what they did to you?” I asked.
“Its not a very good culture,” he said And then he smiled and his face broke up.
That night, be fore I went to sleep, I realized that in order to catch my flight out of kunming in five days,I would have to walk all the way to the black sea lake and back to Sean’s Guesthouse in two days, which seemed like it might be impossible. Walnut Garden, were Sean lived, was on the south side of Haba Mountain. at about nine thousand feet. Haba village was on the east side of the mountain. At about twelve thousand feet. The lake was three thousand feet above the village. I would be able to do it only if I could see well enough to walk at night. I turned off the light in my room and looked out the window and saw nothing but black.
The next morning I told Sean that I was going to try to get to the lake and back in two days, and he said he didn’t think I could do it.” is very far, and there is snow up high, around the lake.”
“Snow is okay,” I said. “A little bit Anyway.” I told him I’d pay him to come as my guide, but he said he had clients who were flying into Zhongdian and he had to go back up there and meet them..
“Today,” he said you can go to Haba. Tomorrow go to the lake. But, I’m thinking, maybe there are no snow fish now. They are very expensive, more than eighty yuan[ten dollars] per pound.”
“You mean the lake has been fished out?”
“They take the film off the skin and sell it as medicine. It is a wild fish, so it is a medicine.”
“All wild fish have medicinal value?”
“Yes, for the Chinese. So maybe there are no snow fish left.”
That was kind of a letdown, but I still wanted to go to the lake. Sean give me some directions to Haba that included a shortcut that would take three hours off the eight-hours walk. I said goodbye and thanks, and I left feeling sad that I’d never see him again.
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