Dali and Tiger Leap­ing Gorge: The Amaz­ing Trip Con­tin­ues

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text and pho­to­graphs by He­lena Vil­lar Se­gura

It took us al­most a day to reach the north­west of Yun­nan Prov­ince from Yuanyang. With the ter­raced paddy fields still in our minds, we con­tin­ued the trip. To get to our next stop, we needed sev­eral means of trans­porta­tion. A shared car, a lo­cal bus and more than 11 hours on a train later, we were fi­nally in Dali. I had trav­eled on an overnight train in China be­fore. How­ever, while I found it un­com­fort­able and tir­ing those first times, the more time I spend on the slow train, the more I en­joy the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. It is a very rare con­trast, peace­ful and stress­ful at the same time: go­ing through a chaotic line, feel­ing the ex­cite­ment of peo­ple around you car­ry­ing tons of ar­ti­cles of all kinds, chil­dren run­ning up and down the car­riage, the unique smell of in­stant noo­dles that flies around the aisle, the sound of snor­ing, a hard bed and five room­mates, jokes, laughs, and ex­tra­or­di­nary conversation in an im­pos­si­ble for­eign lan­guage for us. And, all the while, China passes by the win­dows—non­stop. Trains are amaz­ing.

It was re­ally early when we got to the main en­trance of the city, from where we could see a long, busy street with two-story build­ings. Small shops, cafe­te­rias, youth hos­tels, his­tor­i­cal sites, lo­cals and vis­i­tors were start­ing their days. In the back­ground, a stun­ning moun­tain em­braced Dali. The thing I re­mem­ber most vividly when I look back is the way the clouds fell down from the top of the moun­tain range. Af­ter try­ing in vain to cap­ture the land­scape with our cam­eras, we started look­ing for the hos­tel we had booked to spend the night in. The place was in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful. It was made of wood and full of col­or­ful or­na­ments and, as usu­ally hap­pens in small hos­tels in China, every­one was will­ing to help. Since we had just one day to go around the place, the girl on the re­cep­tion rec­om­mended that we wan­der around, rent a mo­tor­bike and go to some of the ad­join­ing vil­lages. That is how we dis­cov­ered why some peo­ple con­sider Dali Old Town and its sur­round­ings to be the most vi­brant place in the en­tire prov­ince. We had Yun­nan food, sweets made of roses and cof­fee. We saw farm­ers com­ing to work and vis­it­ing the Three Pago­das and the Chong­sheng Tem­ple, as well as Xizhou. About 20 kilo­me­ters away from Dali, this tiny town has a to­tally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment, which is less touris­tic and very au­then­tic. Fol­low­ing the sun­set, we shared some drinks back in Dali, say­ing good­bye to the city. The next day we left for the Tiger Leap­ing Gorge, ar­riv­ing late in the af­ter­noon at the gate of the scenic area. We spent one night there be­fore the hike. Peo­ple had told us amaz­ing things about that place; we were re­ally look­ing for­ward to it.

If we had lis­tened to the sug­ges­tions of the guest­house owner be­fore start­ing our hike, we would never have gone to the moun­tains. While we were hav­ing our break­fast next to a Ger­man fam­ily—two chil­dren and their par­ents—the guest­house owner came to our ta­ble. “Is it good?” she asked about our food. Then we started a conversation. It’s al­ways that easy in this coun­try, no need for for­mal­i­ties: you can ap­proach any­one and talk about life. She told us that the next day, she was ex­pect­ing her daugh­ter back from univer­sity, thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away. To her, it was the most im­por­tant mo­ment of the year. “I have been think­ing of to­mor­row for weeks,” she said, be­fore go­ing on to look at

the grey sky. “It’s dan­ger­ous to climb out there to­day. Maybe you should wait un­til to­mor­row.” It was the rainy sea­son, and for the last few days, the rain had not stopped. In those weather con­di­tions, land­slides are fre­quent and rock piles are com­monly found across paths. If a strong storm catches you on the hik­ing trail, things can turn dif­fi­cult. So we dis­cussed whether we should go on and take the risk, or just skip the Tiger Leap­ing Gorge and con­tinue our trip to Shangri-la. Our time was lim­ited; we could only spend a cou­ple of days there, and post­pon­ing the hike was the same as giv­ing up on it. That kind of “now or never” sit­u­a­tion is some­thing that no­body likes. None of us wanted to make the de­ci­sion, so we asked the Ger­mans. They were cross­ing the gorge, chil­dren in­cluded. So we went too.

About an hour later it stopped rain­ing—we couldn’t be­lieve our luck. Car­ry­ing some of our lug­gage and some pro­vi­sions for the hike, we en­tered the moun­tain­ous area on a very cloudy day. There were col­or­ful prayer flags hang­ing every­where along the road. The trail was muddy, slip­pery and nar­row in some parts, but it was pos­si­ble to make it through. Af­ter a few kilo­me­ters, we ar­rived at Naxi Guest House, lo­cated in a small moun­tain town where vil­lagers were work­ing here and there, car­ry­ing veg­eta­bles and har­vest­ing Sichuan pep­pers. It was the first time I had seen them grow­ing on a tree. Back home, my fa­ther is a cook, and I have grown up hear­ing about them and try­ing food fla­vored with Sichuan pep­per. Now I was there—so far, so close. I sent him a pic­ture to let him know. “I love you. En­joy,” was his re­ply. And so I did.

Feel­ing the cheer­ful­ness of the place, we sat and rested for a while and had some fla­vor­ful Chi­nese food. The next sec­tion of the hike was the hard­est one, and we needed to reach the crest be­fore sun­set. Leav­ing the Ger­man fam­ily be­hind, we kept walk­ing. The Tiger Leap­ing Gorge has a length of around 18 kilo­me­ters and a height of al­most 3,800 me­ters. The wa­ter in the river be­low roared wildly, deaf­en­ing and vi­o­lent, but as we climbed the hills, the sound dis­ap­peared and every­thing be­came quiet. There were tow­er­ing moun­tains on ei­ther side, the Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain and the Haba Snow Moun­tain. Stand­ing there, they made the place colos­sal, iso­lated from the out­side world. We were fraz­zled, and had started count­ing the sharp bends—28 in to­tal, said the map—that it would take us to get to the up­per part of the hike, when the mist cov­er­ing the sum­mits dis­si­pated for the first time. I re­mem­ber point­ing be­hind my friend, wide-eyed, speech­less. The beauty of the land­scape was im­mea­sur­able and im­pos­si­ble to com­pare or de­scribe. Of all the pic­tures we at­tempted to take, there was not even one that showed the true mag­nif­i­cence of what we saw.

We had thought that this was the high­light of the whole hike. We were wrong. I could de­fine the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing through the canyon as ex­haust­ing, tough or dif­fi­cult, but that would be un­fair. Hik­ing the Tiger Leap­ing Gorge ex­ceeds all ex­pec­ta­tions. Just be­fore night fell, with pain in our feet and backs, dream­ing of a tasty din­ner, we ar­rived at the Half­way Guest­house. And there, as a back­drop to a ter­race full of trav­el­ers of all dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties, was the most amaz­ing view of the whole trip. Gran­diose, rugged and im­pos­ing, the sum­mit emerged in front of us. It is so big that you would think it was pos­si­ble to touch it, to jump across the gorge to get to it. A leg­end tells of a tiger leap­ing from the east­ern bank of the river, clear­ing a huge rock in the mid­dle to land on the west bank. Who knows? Maybe that tiger felt the same as I did.

En­joy­ing sun­set in a tiny town just a few kilo­me­ters from Dali. As the sun drops, all the clouds cov­er­ing the moun­tains be­gin to dis­si­pate. This mys­ti­cal en­vi­ron­ment is the re­sult.

Car­ry­ing tons of flow­ers, a lo­cal wo­man walks up and down the main street of Dali, giv­ing a col­or­ful as­pect to the old town. There, el­derly peo­ple im­press us the most. They are al­ways smil­ing, and their eyes look younger than their faces or bod­ies....

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