I THE SPIRIT OF DIS­COV­ERY A leap of faith

The ups and downs of a fam­ily trek in China’s Yun­nan province

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PENNY HUNTER

ONE of the golden rules for hik­ers in the moun­tain­ous ter­rain of China is that should you en­counter a yak, mule or other beast of bur­den on the trail, stand on the up­hill side of the path to avoid be­ing bumped off the moun­tain by an over-en­thu­si­as­tic rump or hoof.

Warn­ings about the per­ils of over-en­thu­si­as­tic chil­dren don’t get a men­tion — but they should. My sev­enyear-old son is de­ter­mined to take the lead as we tackle the nar­row and pre­cip­i­tous path down Tiger Leap­ing Gorge, in Yun­nan province. Far be­low, a sec­tion of the mighty, muddy Yangtze known as the Jin­sha River is pow­er­ing through a se­ries of rapids. Our goal is to see the rock that, le­gend has it, a tiger used as a step­ping stone when it leaped across the river to es­cape a hunter.

Gusts of wind hurl dust in our eyes and it seems my whip­pet of a son could eas­ily be blown over the edge. There’s no safety rail­ing, loose rocks slip un­der our feet and a rusty metal lad­der is to be our only means of re­turn. I be­gin a silent in­ter­nal de­bate — should we turn back?

The gorge is not a hard­core trek. We are tread­ing where thou­sands of feet have gone be­fore, along the gorge be­tween the po­et­i­cally named Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain (al­most 6000m) and Haba Snow Moun­tain (5400m), part of the Three Par­al­lel Rivers of Yun­nan World Her­itage site.

It’s a pop­u­lar route for trav­ellers seek­ing to es­cape the tour-group hordes that swarm over the pic­turesque old town of Li­jiang, also a World Her­itage site, 80km south. We have spent two nights in Li­jiang. The town, with its shapely tiled roofs and red lanterns, is pretty, but too full of shops and ped­lars.

In the gorge there are no trin­ket shops, no laser-lit night­clubs, no crowds. But there are moun­tains — jagged grey peaks, some still dot­ted with the re­mains of win­ter’s snow in May, just made for con­tem­pla­tion as the dusk light trans­forms their slopes.

Our fam­ily of four (the afore­men­tioned son and our daugh­ter, 8) starts the trek at the un­re­mark­able town of Qiao­tou, an al­most four-hour bus ride from Li­jiang. Just out of Qiao­tou is a ticket of­fice, where we pay 195 yuan ($31.70) to en­ter the gorge. We are off and, in the dis­tance, Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain is al­ready an en­tic­ing sight.

Af­ter two hours of climb­ing steadily, we ar­rive at the Naxi Fam­ily Guest­house, in step with an older Aus­tralian cou­ple our chil­dren have adopted en route. We are wel­comed, with smil­ing faces and pots of tea, into a tra­di­tional court­yard house with a ter­race of­fer­ing views to­wards the moun­tains.

The Naxi are one of the main eth­nic mi­nori­ties of Yun­nan and dom­i­nate the gorge, cul­ti­vat­ing the steep hill­sides with rice ter­races and thriv­ing veg­etable patches. Din­ner al­lows us to en­joy the fruits of their labour — egg- plant, mush­rooms, leafy greens, all lib­er­ally doused with chilli, an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in Yun­nan cui­sine.

As the sun­light fades, we sip cold Dali beer and dis­cuss what lies ahead, for to­mor­row we will tackle the famed ‘‘28 bends’’. It’s an up­hill slog that gains walk­ers much­needed al­ti­tude but at a price to calves and lungs.

Naxi men pa­trol the trail with their sturdy ponies, wait­ing for the moment that a hiker may crack and be tempted to climb into the sad­dle, but we’re hop­ing the only pony we’ll need will be shanks’s.

The next morn­ing, af­ter hearty por­ridge (the real deal), ba­nana pan­cakes (that re­sem­ble a lo­cal roof­ing ma­te­rial) and noo­dle soup (when in Rome . . .), we hit the trail and the chil­dren start count­ing. Af­ter an hour we have reached what we guess are 20 bends, drunk a litre of water be­tween us and are de­bat­ing ex­actly what con­sti­tutes a bend in the wind­ing path when we reach an un­manned shack adorned with rows of empty Red Bull cans. On a wall are red let­ters in English and Chi­nese that read: ‘‘Gain en­ergy to tackle the 28 bends.’’ Our hearts sink. We haven’t even started. The kids are crest­fallen, but there’s not a pony in sight so on­wards and up­wards we go.

For the next hour pant­ing takes pri­or­ity over count­ing un­til we look ahead and see our Aus­tralian friends from the guest­house perched on rocks over­look­ing a stun­ning moun­tain vista. We’ve done it — we have beaten the bends.

The re­main­der of the morn­ing’s hike is spent along a gen­tly un­du­lat­ing trail as the tem­per­a­ture does the climb­ing for us. Our shoes kick up clouds of dust (it’s been months with­out rain) and we are soon coated in an un­savoury mix­ture of sweat and dirt. Then sud­denly our lunch stop, the Tea Horse Guest­house, comes into view. The kids dine in cool shade on wal­nut and honey pan­cakes and a de­li­cious Naxi ver­sion of ap­ple pie (doughy bread filled with grated ap­ple and fried) while we or­der lo­cal dishes. Re­fu­elled and re­hy­drated, our young trekkers are ready to hit the road again.

Our goal for the evening, only two hours away, is the World Ex­pe­di­tions has 10 per cent off its Yun­nan Cy­cle and Tiger Leap­ing Gorge bik­ing and hik­ing tours (from Kun­ming re­turn) for book­ings made by March 15. More: 1300 720 000; world­ex­pe­di­tions.com.

GETTY IM­AGES

The Yangtze River in Tiger Leap­ing Gorge, Yun­nan province

DAMIAN HAARSMA

A Naxi man on his moun­tain pony

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