Monday, February 4, 2019

Trekking Through Tiger Leaping Gorge

                                  by Jim Goodman     

on the trail through Tiger Leaping Gorge
       Once upon an ancient time, where the River of Golden Sands rushes between the steep slopes and towering cliffs of two snow-capped mountains, a tiger came hurrying through the forest.  Guided by the clatter of snapping twigs just ahead of them, a band of Naxi hunters followed in hot pursuit.  Their prey rushed headlong downhill until it reached the bank of the turbulent river.  There was no way to swim in that current and the hunters were drawing near.  Summoning all its primordial strength, the tiger made a mighty leap of over thirty meters to the other side, scampered out of crossbow range, and successfully eluded the astonished hunters.
       After the hunters returned home to tell the tale, the local people began calling the place Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Eons later it became one of Yunnan’s most famous tourist attractions; not for the legend behind its name but for the undeniable magnificence of the tale’s setting.  Here the river has cut an 18 km-long cleft between two of the biggest mountains in the province—Yulongshan (5590 meters) on the east bank and Habashan (5396 meters) on the west bank.  Picturesque villages lie scattered on the west bank slopes.  Birds and flowers fill the forests above them.  Across on the other side the sheer cliffs of Jade Dragon (Yulong) Snow Mountain rise straight up from the rapids of the river.  No wonder then that when Lijiang first opened its doors to foreigner travelers in the 1980s, most included a trek through the gorge on their itineraries.
Walnut Grove
       It was a popular though grueling way to enjoy natural scenery.  Conventional wisdom advised two full days of hiking from Daju down to Qiaotou, or vice versa.  That was assuming you were in relatively good shape, you didn’t turn your ankle on the trail, no rockslides or rainstorms impeded you, and your travel schedule was too tight to allow for a more leisurely, less physically exacting adventure.
       With villages popping into sight every two or three hours, and guest houses set up for travelers in each of them, the slower, less exhausting, more appreciative option was always available.  But in general people followed the guidebook dictum and did it in two hard days.  It became a fitness test to cover the route in only two days.  It was something to boast about in the Lijiang and Dali cafés afterwards, until you met the inevitable maniac who did it in a single day’s dawn-to-dusk mad rush.
the trail to Daju from Walnut Grove
       Since the late 1990s another option has been open for going through the gorge—by bus or car on the new paved road that runs on the west bank side all the way to the ferry landing for Daju at the northern end.  Close to the river for the first third of the route, the road gradually climbs up the slopes and is several hundred meters above the river by the time it reaches Walnut Grove, the northernmost village in the gorge.
       This road has enabled a great many more people to see and appreciate the gorge, who would otherwise have neither the time nor ability to go on foot.  Every day tour buses bring big groups to view the scenery, while taxis and minivans shuttle visitors and villagers back and forth between Qiaotou and Walnut Grove.  Veteran trekkers from the gorge’s pre-development days might assume that the new road has spoiled the adventure.  But actually, except for improved facilities and the option of fancier accommodations at roadside villages like Walnut Grove, the new road has not interfered with the traditional trekking experience.
hulling maize near Daju
view from rural Daju
       Tour buses generally just take their passengers to the spot where the tiger allegedly made its leap.  The tourists go down to the bank to pose for pictures next to a statue of the tiger.  Across the river a newly paved road ends at a creek just opposite the tiger statue and buses drop visitors here to shoot telephoto shots of the tiger from the eastern bank.  Depending on the season the river’s width here is 30-35 meters.  It’s hard to imagine even a frog or a jackrabbit twice as big as the tiger able to make such a prodigious jump.  But for people who came to bask in the aura surrounding the site of a famous legend, scientific arguments challenging the authenticity of that legend are irrelevant.
Habashan, from the Daju plateau
       For most tourists, the gorge is just a day trip out of Lijiang.  They will take a minibus to Qiaotou, a town on the Jinshajiang—River of Golden Sand—at its confluence with the Zhongdian River just inside Shangrila County.  Also called Tiger Leaping Gorge town, it is full of tourist services, especially restaurants catering to the organized groups.  A great view of the ’teeth’ of Jade Dragon Mountain is possible just upriver from the town on the road into the gorge.  And the tiger’s alleged leaping point is just a short ride away up either the west bank or the east bank.
       A few go on to spend a night or two at Walnut Grove, a short hike up from the road and the biggest settlement in the gorge.  It has several hotels and the rooms have televisions that, if the electricity works that night, offer programs not only from all over China, but also North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.  No need to feel cut off from the world even while being in a place that looks like it’s cut off from the world. 
the gorge's northern end at Daju
hiking above the road
       Walnut Grove is a good base for short hikes to the waterfall above the settlement or the steep path through the farms to the spot on the bank known as Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.   The narrowest part of the entire gorge is just above here, but the sheer vertical cliffs on the Jade Dragon side precluded any chance of the tiger making its leap here.  The Daju plateau rises just beyond this crevice and, on clear days, snow mountains crease the horizon further on.  With its traditional Naxi houses nestled on the hillside, a spectacular view, and the conviviality at the guest house dinner tables, a trip to Walnut Grove alone can be easier on the limbs and lungs, yet amply rewarding for the eyes, ears and nose.
Naxi mountain village in the gorge
       An option from here could be to hike to the ferry landing a few easy kilometers away and cross over to Daju.  While there is a point on this side to view the end of the gorge, the landscape around Daju is stark, with barren cliffs on the hills, few trees, a rolling plain mottled by Naxi villages and their farms and swift streams lined by mini-canyons.
       The village nearest the ferry offers accommodations for travelers and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Minibuses take people back to Lijiang, but the scenery all but demands a day of leisurely hiking around the area, never as strenuous as through the gorge.  The snow peak of Habashan is visible at various points.
maize harvest on the drying rack
       Yet for the fullest experience of Tiger Leaping Gorge, nothing beats taking the trek.  You tread the same high, rocky footpath the local villagers have been using since the land was first settled many centuries ago.  It is well above the road and its traffic, where the air is pure and fresh, with continuously changing vistas of the lines and shapes of the slopes and peaks. 
       The trail is interspersed with villages of the Naxi minority nationality, the same people who dominate Lijiang County and spill over into adjacent areas in neighboring counties like Ninglang, Weixi and Shangrila.  (In fact, all of Tiger Leaping Gorge lies within the boundaries of Shangrila County.)  The Naxi are a Tibeto-Biurman people with a long history, including several centuries as a powerful autonomous state.  Confucian precepts govern most of their social and cultural norms and, compared to the Tibetans, they are not as religious-minded.  No monasteries or temples stand anywhere in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
       Their villages are of a moderate size, about 15-25 households.  For the trekker, every village has a place to stay the night.  A few families have converted one of the compound buildings into a boarding house with several simple bedrooms.  If none are available, local people will put up the trekker in their own home, vacating a room for the night to accommodate the visitor. 
protective fish on a Naxi house roof
Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge
       Villagers live in one- or two-story houses of wood and stone or mud-brick, with tiled roofs and often featuring carved wooden fish hanging down from each apex of the roof.  This reflects the persistent Naxi animist belief that the fish, representing water, protects the house against the fire of lightning strikes.
       Except for those settlements at a lower altitude close to the river, Naxi villages in the gorge do not cultivate rice.  Maize is the main crop instead, supplemented by buckwheat, vegetables, hemp and sunflowers.  After the maize or buckwheat harvest, people hang the crops on tall wooden racks in their courtyards to dry them before threshing or hulling.
rough gentian
colorful mountain flower
       The view is broader and constant on the northern half of the route, from Wenjia Stream to Walnut Grove.  The trekking trail runs only a couple hundred meters above the road and is relatively level, with no forests or groves to pass through, all the way to Walnut Grove.  This is an easier stretch to hike, quite in contrast to the really rugged section between the stream and Nuo Yu village at the southern end, which is where most trekkers start.  For those who are elderly, corpulent or otherwise physically not up to such a grueling ascent, they can hire a pony with a handler to lead them.
Jade Dragon peaks on a misty morning
       Within this part of the route the trail ascends sharply to the pass at 2670 meters altitude.  On the southern side the path zigzags up what is called the 28 Bends.  The northern side, only marginally less steep, passes through a thick forest all the way to the stream.  But though the trees block views of the mountains, flowers of various kinds, shapes and colors decorate the paths, including two of Yunnan’s prize species—the rhododendron and the bell-shaped rough gentian. 
Nuo Yu village at the south end of the gorge
       At several points along this section of the trail viewpoints devoid of obscuring trees offer a clear view of the gorge and the peaks of the eastern bank.  These are ideal spots to revel in the scenery, watch eagles glide by, chat with trekkers hiking in the opposite direction and perhaps sit and fantasize upon what the gorge might look like if, as rumor has it, it gets dammed up and a huge reservoir is created as a result.  Will future generations of tourists ride a cable car to this pass, sit in an expensive restaurant and sip cool drinks while enjoying the reflection of Jade Dragon’s peaks in the limpid waters of Tiger Leaping Lake?
       Meanwhile, the river still flows freely and in the end the dam may never be built.  For the time being at least, visitors can still marvel at a spectacle wrought by time and the elements.  And inevitably they will depart with the fervent hope that the powers-that-be will ultimately rate the value of the gorge not for its hydroelectric potential but for its positive effect on the hearts and souls of those who travel so far to bear witness to its beauty.

view from Qiaotou of the 'teeth' of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
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for more on the Naxi and Lijiang County, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon

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