Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 7-10: Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

Back in the motherland, home of delicious dumplings and efficient transportation.  After a couple weeks in Burma, China feels straight up luxurious.  We reentered China in the Yunnan province in the southwest of China.  Our first stop was the old town of Lijiang.  As the railway doesn't go further west of Kunming we took our first overnight Chinese bus.  Stripped of any seats, the bus is three rows of double-decker beds.  Strangely, the length of each individual bed varies greatly and the Chinese seemingly know which ones are better than others, leaving us with the shortest ones.  Not the best night's sleep, but not our worst either.  For anyone considering this route, take an upper berth bed.
Arriving in town we experienced our most major language barrier snafu yet.  Having neglected to have someone write down the name of our hotel in Chinese, we were stuck with only the name of the hotel in English.  Knowing it was near an elementary school, we found another traveler who was volunteering at an elementary school and showed her scrap of paper with its name to the taxi driver.  30 minutes later we are in a completely different town at dawn with no one around.  To make a long story short, three hours later we arrived at our hostel, after what should have been a 10 minute drive.  We won't make that mistake again.  The complete lack of English speakers in the west of China is a real shock at first.  Even the simple phrase "Speak English?" draws a blank stare more often than not.  The exact same thing would happen if someone said "Speak Chinese?" in Chinese in the US, it's just the first place on our travels where it's been this ubiquitous.

The old town of Lijiang takes you back to the China of past centuries, mazelike cobblestone alleys, stone bridges over narrow canals, tiled roofs, the picturesque Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming in the background.  If you get up around dawn you can watch men making fires to boil tea water, women shaving fresh rice noodles from a gelatinous mass and frying up the local Naxi bread.  By about 9 AM, however, the Chinese tourists arrive en masse as part of tour groups, the trinket sellers take their places in the town squares, and the pseudo-indigenous women in pseudo-traditional garb begin their weaving, in front of whom the Han Chinese tourists enthusiastically take pictures for a small price.  With its canal-side cafes and unexplored alleyways the charm is not completely gone, but it's quickly heading that way.

Lijiang wasn't our favorite stop but it was the jumping off point for a spectacular two day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.  One of the deepest gorges in the world, the river flows 2000 meters (6600 feet) below the upper track of the gorge where we hiked.  Every few kilometers there is a small family run restaurant or guest house, which means you can stop and rest wherever you get tired.  We spent the night near the highpoint of the gorge, at a guesthouse with a terrace that practically floats above the gorge, a great place to enjoy a beer after a strenuous climb.

Here's the view from the open-air bathroom (hole in the floor):

One of the joys of traveling is the freedom to change your plans based on the advice you get from fellow travelers along the way.  Our original plan was to head from Yunnan to Lhasa, but due to some riots surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile to India, travel to Tibet proper has been severely restricted to package tours where you must have a guide with you at all times.  Which means you will only see the places that Beijing wants you to see.  Accompanied by the exorbitant prices of these trips, this wasn't a very appealing option.  Fortunately we ran into Sonny, a solo Brit, who faced with the same dillema introduced us to the idea of taking the "backdoor" into Sichuan via the rough and fairly untravelled road across the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau which not officially part of Tibet is open to foreigners (although just recently as their were riots there a few weeks back).  So we've busted out our cold weather gear from the bottom of our packs for what should be many hours on a chicken bus, but a rare chance to see a bit of real Tibetan life. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done ! You are so brave and adventurous! These are great pictures of Tiger leaping Gorge! Which reminds me… I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of trekking the Great Wall, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers. http://www.wildgreatwall.com/which-part-of-the-great-wall-is-the-best-to-visit/