An escapade into China’s serenity
China is a goldmine for any traveller looking for adventure. While urban China will shock you with its unique culture and hustle and bustle, rural China can be a magnificent adventure train for the off-the-beaten-path experience lover.
Being an avid traveller and living in Hong Kong, I always took China’s proximity for granted. The possible future regret combined with a new found love for hiking, I decided to venture the mountains of China. Days were spent researching the perfect route. Something that was for the thrill seeker, yet accessible for the independent hiker. I finally set my eyes on the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Bordered by farmlands, rivers, waterfalls and mountains reaching over 5,000 meters, this trail was my idea of a perfect three day getaway.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge separates the Jade Dragon and the Haba mountains with a high current river that can be seen flowing from 750 meters over at the highest point of the hike. The name of the Gorge is inspired by an ancient myth of a tiger leaping over it to escape hunters. While the months between October and May is the best time to be on this trail, September did not disappoint, despite a bit of rain and haze.
I had a flight booked to Lijiang, a small city in the Yunnan Province of China. From there, I would make my way to Qiaotou, a nearby mountain village where the hike begins. Qiaotou can also be reached by train from Kunming, another nearby city with an international airport.
After two flights, a 7-hour layover and a 3-hour drive to Qiaotou, I was not in the best shape to transcend into active mode, so a leap of faith was necessary (although not recommended) given the tight schedule planned. The foot of the trail is an hour walk from Qiaotou, and it is evident you reached that point when you start going up a narrow, steep path covered in shrubs and horse faeces. It is also the point where I realised my comfortable flat sneakers needed replacing with hiking boots and that I had massively over packed.
Needless to admit, the desertedness of the area was worrying but to my relief, a Chinese family from the city of Dali started the hike at the same time as me. Communicating only through hand gestures and my toddler-level proficiency of Mandarin, I would establish over the two days just how hospitable locals can be.
The initial part of the hike entails a 3-hour ascent along a steep slope that will test your fitness – it sure made me question mine. Several breaks later, frustrated by the lack of scenery and drenching in sweat, I arrived at supposedly the most strenuous part of the trail- the 28 Bends.
The 28 Bends is what you expect it to be from the name – winding slopes that leave you dizzied, wishing for them to end. The trail had become more rugged at this point. Then came the drizzle. As the rocky path became slippery, I quickly realised that the mud and horse faeces I was trying to avoid stepping on had now become my friends. To anyone that wishes to make this climb, I recommend carrying a hiking pole or at least a solid bamboo stick for better balance during this section of the trail.
The bends start off physically daunting but the thought of making it to the peak soon numbs the pain – at least it did for me. After crankily making my way to the top with legs feeling like jelly, my labours were rewarded with an unforgettable view of surrounding mountain tops covered by sporadic clouds. The view of limestone ridges bordered with farmlands from 2,700 metres above sea level truly is one for the nature lover. I spent a good hour embracing the scenery and staring down at the Gorge from a heart attack inducing height.
What came following the Bends was a relative breeze – a 2-hour walk on flat surface, surrounded by sceneries, that would lead me to the Tea Horse Guesthouse, my abode for the night. The Guesthouse was rather appropriately named given Yunnan’s famed black tea and the number of times mountain folks had offered their horses to carry my bag along the trail (which I politely declined).
After sleeping at an airport floor the night before followed by a 7-hour hike, this place was just what I needed for a recharge. The Guesthouse was simplistic, only lined with several wooden structures and a restaurant serving basic Chinese and Western food at questionably modest prices. The Guesthouse was rather deserted because of the low season. The room met all elemental necessities, however, lacked any concept of heating to suit the climate. Naturally, I gorged myself at the restaurant, loaded up on carbs and then slept in a bundle of jackets to get ready for the day to come.
I made a late start on the second day. It had rained through the night and the rocky paths were slippery as ever. Once back on the trail, it took little time for the first rush of adrenaline.
A half hour into lazily walking in light rain, a loud abrupt thud from the cliff above got me stopping in my tracks. This was followed by the sound of a heavy object rolling down at speed. Anyone’s natural instinct at this point would be to run but the decision is made difficult when you are on a muddy meter-wide path sided by a deadly drop. Panicked, I managed to scurry to safety to observe a rock the size of a small car roll down the spot where I was standing few seconds prior.
The trauma was soon lifted when it hit me how closely the incident imitated a scene out of the Road Runner Show, one of my childhood favourites. Humour can be an excellent tool for countering fear!
While the second day started off less strenuous, there was more caution to be taken as the trail became progressively menacing. It got narrower and the depth of the drop became more visible. A waterfall going through the path on the side of the cliff did not help either, making things slipperier than comfortable. It became a test of wit and balance more than physical fitness.
Despite all that, there was no escaping the majestic surroundings. The neighbouring mountains were the nearest they had been and the skies cleared. It was the picture-perfect moment I had wished for before making the descent. The descent began four hours into the day and continued for another two. Though less eventful, it gave me time to relax and reminisce about the blissfulness of what I had just experienced. Desperately wishing that this was only one of many “experiences of a lifetime”.
The trail ended at Tina’s Guesthouse, a landmark for those making this journey. Starving, I ordered a massive meal at Tina’s that made up for the two days of living off mostly on granola bars. From there, I would make my way by bus back to Lijiang.
Upon arriving at the hostel I had booked in the city, I was told by the owner that I was the first Bangladeshi to step into the place. Though happy, I wished for more fellow countrymen to venture outside, create their own memories and let our presence be known. Travel does not need to be luxurious. It can just be about making lasting memories.