I THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY A leap of faith
The ups and downs of a family trek in China’s Yunnan province
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.
The Yangtze River in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan province
A Naxi man on his mountain pony