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The Tiger Leaping Gorge
2014년 03월 12일 (수) 14:35:52 GLOBE globe@jbnu.ac.kr

China’s most south-western corner is famed for its diversity of culture and climate. Bordered by Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnan province has a wonderful blend of Han Chinese and indigenous people spread over a great variation of landscapes and elevations. From the steamy jungles and rice terraces of Xishuangbanna to the glacial lakes in the mountainous north, the province is firmly on the checklists of tourists. And why shouldn’t it be? Travel is cheap, transport is efficient and plentiful and the region is fairly stable and far from the whims of government in Beijing. The gateway and very modern capital, Kunming, is known locally as the Land of Eternal Spring and possesses a clean city centre bustling with Southeast-Asian flavour and attractions within an easy day’s reach. But what people mostly come here for is the outstanding nature. The stone forest of Shilin, the lakes of Er Hai and Lugu Hu, Jizu Mountain – these all kowtow to one place in particular: the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
It was two days before New Year’s Day, 2014. My partner and I woke early and bussed sixty kilometres north of Lijiang to the small town of Qiaotou at the foot of the trail. Though it should have taken only an hour, the roads were slow going and circumnavigated the imposing Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We didn’t arrive until around ten o’clock but we weren’t worried; we had intended to take things slowly. At over 3,000m from the Jinsha River to the snow-capped zeniths either side, the canyon is a serious contender for being one of the deepest in the world. It’s also one of the most striking.
Within an hour of walking uphill out of Qiaotou, the view of the 5,596m crown of peaks was already very impressive. The seven summits were a snow-dusted metallic grey, offset by fields of lush green crops below and framed by a deep and clear cerulean sky. There was no noise, not even of the mighty river a thousand metres below. Everything was peaceful. We were exhilarated and so headed quicker along the track. But it was hot work, especially with such heavy backpacks, and the winter sun was noticeably stronger at that altitude too. We followed yellow arrows along narrow paths dotted with patches of scree, all the while passing beneath impassable cliffs of arid brown. Within a few hours we reached the first village and Naxi Family Guesthouse. We stopped there for a welcome lunch of stir-fried broccoli and egg and tomato fried rice. The place was busy with ladies in wide-sleeved loose gowns, richly decorated belts and colourful headdresses serving guests simple food and loading and unloading mules. In fact, one of the perks of the gorge is that every few hours or so one will encounter somewhere homely and affordable like this to refuel. The Naxi are the indigenous inhabitants of the Himalayan foothills of Yunnan and Sichuan and are spread out along the entire canyon. Heavily influenced by their Tibetan neighbours, and with remnants of the matriarchal family structures of the Mosuo, they are a kind and welcoming people. One can see their traditional expressions all about the province, from religious Dongba wooden carvings and paintings sold in weekly markets to the ubiquitous yak meat and baba bread cooked on street corners.
The next few hours of the trek were the most famous, the twenty-eight switchbacks. The panoramas were distracting and so this portion wasn’t half as daunting as it was made out to be. We were soon at the highest point of the hike overlooking a very dramatic sheer drop towards the turbulent, teal Jinsha below. Feeling elated once again, we pressed on. Two hours farther down the trail and we reached the Tea Horse Guesthouse where we spent our first night in the canyon celebrating my partner’s twenty-seventh birthday with Dali beer and local fortified wine. It was peaceful there and we slept incredibly well. The next day, though, was cold, and the sun took a long time to rise in the valley. It was New Year’s Eve and so we didn’t feel like going in much of a hurry. A six-hour walk took us to Walnut Garden, the largest settlement along the hike. We found a bed at Châteaux de Woody (we had the place to ourselves) and opted for an early night to make the most of another treat of the gorge.
Legend says there is a place where a tiger once leapt across the river to escape a local hunter. Tigers have long since been hunted to extinction in this region of China, and as the point from where it jumped was around twenty-five metres wide it seemed unlikely. Regardless, the hike down from Walnut Garden to the river was spectacular. In addition to the ¥65 entrance into the gorge itself, there were small fees which local people charged for a variety of dubious bridges, paths and ladders. The most renowned of these was the Sky Ladder. The trail back up from the river was carved into the rock face and precarious to say the least, but the pièce de résistance was a fifty-metre section of ladder an old entrepreneur had installed a few years back and charged ¥10 per person to use. My partner took the lead going up and I followed her very cautiously. The ladder was in fact a series of ladders held together with wire and propped against the cliff with sticks and nothing more. I remember climbing up it and thinking, without doubt, “One day this will come unstuck.” We survived, of course. Out of breath and weak in the knees, we stood at the top watching the river wend through the canyon below. It had been an exciting end to a beautiful hike, and the perfect way to kick off 2014.

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