Our final week in Yunnan and it’s yak to the Himalayas…374 days in.
We are sat looking out over the roaring upper Yangtze 50 metres below us deep in the heart of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The khaki coloured river tumbles to a turbulent froth for a furious 100 metres, sending a crescendo of sound upwards to our vantage point. We have decided to end our journey here as opposed to continuing down to witness the violent rage at close hand, this is not due to the fear of being swept away but just because it’s tiring being continually pestered for more money.
Our journey along the gorge began three days ago. Alighting the bus we had briefly been swapped onto after a three hour climb from Lijiang, we began slogging our way up the northern side of the gorge with a French couple. A tough two and a half hours in which we never managed to lose the sight or sounds coming from the huge construction work on the southern bank and we entered the hanging corn filled courtyard of Naxi’s guesthouse. A delightful late lunch of an ‘omelette’ that came on a pizza style base helped make up our minds that we had put in enough effort for the day. We said adieu to our companions and sat on the balcony entertaining the kids with my magic trick, which was quickly solved and performed back to me with as much finesse as you could expect from a 12 year old. A night of wonderful food including aubergine (which I never imagined myself saying before we entered china) and enlightening conversation from Larry Taiwanese Lee, aided by some Norwegian questioning sent us to bed happy, if a little chilly in our open air eatery at 2500 metres up.
We emerged from under our duvets to rain and decided to wait it out, after all, the food was excellent. The rain never ceased, just like the dribs and drabs of hikers passing through, making that tough call to continue on in the rain or call it a day. For us it was easy, and we spent all day taking shelter, blogging, reading and playing cards. Our box room was akin to the type we had stayed in whilst trekking the Everest region of Nepal and offered little in the way of warmth; and to make matters worse there was no communal yak poo stove to keep us snug. Fortuitously the following day gave us a reprieval from the rain, if a little overcast. We struck out early, head on into the infamous 28 bends. Carrying our full rucksacks rather than leave them behind (we weren’t sure if we would make a return to the start or if other directions would beckon) made for a tiring trek, and three hours in, a hot chocolate at Tea Horse was just the tonic. Further up the trail we reach a group of guest houses, and set about deciding which we should grace with our presence. With barely any walkers on the trail, I was sure of negotiating a bargain, but try as I might, no one would budge, even the completely deserted Come Inn with around 50 beds seemed happier to keep it that way; a complete contrast to Nepal where you can sleep for free because once you are in a hostelry they make their money on supplying you with food; this is not what I expected from entrepreneurial China. No sooner had we selected our beds at the much cosier Half Way guesthouse, the sun made a rare appearance and we sat above the rubble of what Michael Palin concurred as being the number one toilet in heaven and earth. All but a few sinks and half demolished tiled walls remain where Palin once perched, but the sentimental Mr Fang has built another trough toilet next to the new dormitories that now hug the gorge cliffs that once again give unparalleled views. As we’re on the subject, many of you will be familiar with one of my Facebook albums “toilets of the world”. Once in the world outside of China, this will receive many updates of the variety of ways this nation chooses to deposit it’s deposits; China may be racing towards becoming a world leader in magnificent engineering feats, but their loos are stuck in a bygone era!
Our fourth day in the gorge was wall to wall sunshine. The two hour stroll downhill to Tina’s was full of huge vistas, though telegraph poles and water pipes had a habit of cropping up at each photo opportunity. Arriving at noon we had three hours to make it down to the bottom of the gorge before the bus left Tina’s. We parted with £3 at our first ‘path maintenance’ check point, handing over the cash to a lady well into her eighties who lives in the stately pad on the opposite side of the road. Further down, a fee of 50 pence was required to follow the path which led to a bridge that required a extra pound before the return leg up the Sky ladder for another £1.50. I don’t care if your dad built the path, my dad worked on the A406 but he doesn’t send me out to collect cash from the passing motorists. On the other hand, these families need to earn a living somehow, so I shouldn’t begrudge them so much, even though I suspect that barely any of the money is used for maintenance!
The journey back up the steep sides of the gorge in the searing heat and thin air was tough on Helen’s lungs which are now 50 % dust, 20 % mucus and 5 % rice porridge after a fortnight of Chinese living and for a moment I was thinking how me and that little old lady at the ticket booth were going to manage to carry her up. Of course that was obvious, the little old lady would stuff Helen in a bamboo basket and whisk her up in no time. But needless to say, Helen’s resolve got us to Tina’s in time for the bus and a wonderful journey passed the snow capped Haba mountain (an ‘easy’ 5500 metre climb) and to the mystical village of Shangri-la.
One day I might write a book. It will be about a fantastical village set between a famous river and a national trail with a magical railway line and spectacular power station. Then in years to come when historians pin point the setting and the tourists flood in they’ll have the same expression as we did when we got off the bus in Shangri-la. Maybe it’s the effect of experiencing other ancient cities, maybe it’s the chill in the mountain air, it’s almost certainly a bit to do with the mass hype around the place! Now I don’t know what it was that James Hilton said about the town, but I doubt he used the words bland, concrete and regimental government buildings. Though given it’s reputation, in our four days of eeking out entertainment for ourselves we have barely seen any tourists; and the same locals seem to crop up at all the same places: the prayer wheel, the evening dance and in between walking the empty streets. Even commerce seems to be at a standstill, with myriad hardware, tool shops and plastic pipe work stores bereft of all but a frozen looking owner staring blankly at his mobile phone.
Now, to add a little balance, I must dilvulge that a fire in 2014 did destroy a great passage of the old town, and as a result, all the buildings around the central temple are either brand new, or soon will be. The town is also under the grip of the great railroad expansion and huge chunks of land are bumpy dust balls, including the final few kilometres on the bus. But that doesn’t explain where the town’s population are, they can’t all be washing cars (though a good many of them do, and with a constant stream of dusty white cars, I dare say it’s a rather lucrative business).
Of course, there are a few attractions around town, we could have visited the largest three dimensional mandala (sand art thing) had we decided it was worth £12 each, or popped into the Sumtsaling temple to look at monks for a whooping £16 each, but funnily enough, we’d rather spend the cash on food glorious food and anyway, we’ve been to Nepal!