A two-day trek of Tiger Leaping Gorge

By Jacob Jarvis

As with many things in China, my headstrong British enthusiasm, or ignorance if you prefer, led me to underestimate the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. A route so frequently undertook by wandering ramblers was sure to be easy. Six hours they said, surely not, more like four I deduced. Including a lunch break, I took eight.

The first half was arduous with a view which, despite being impressive at first, was tarred by the modernity of a large car park and wide roads. The 28 Bends then required me to put my head down, grit my teeth and simply stride across rocks and undergrowth, with nothing much to see but thick greenery closing me in.

My advice for this first section of the walk; find an interesting companion, whom you can bond with via conversation during the easier parts, but will also provide silent support as you trudge your way over the difficult sections. I was fortunate to bump into a well-travelled and well-spoken American, whose tales of China, and knowledge of Mandarin, were equally entertaining and helpful along the way.

Once you reach the upper realms of the trail and the peaks of the gorge itself, every painful step is forgotten and all words become superfluous as you take in the other-worldly scenery. Clouds float just overhead, teasing you into thinking they’re within touching distance, as they circle the snow-tipped surroundings. Every shade of green is represented in the seemingly unending landscape, ranging from the soft shades of fledgling patches of grass, to the deep hues of the towering trees, which stand like silent guardians preserving the natural grandeur of the spectacular location.

Continuing along the path, two waterfalls greet you with bubbling sing-song, the first a small, almost shy looking cascade of liquid, which proves to be a perfect resting spot – with its shaded stones and cool unspoiled stream. The second is a larger monument, which bellows as appose to babbles, as the white water stumbles unstoppably down the spiked crevice in the rocks.

From there it took only slightly over an hour to reach Halfway House where I took in the views from the safety of one of the wide-windowed rooms and its expansive balcony. Here I rested for the night, taking in what I could before night fell, then the dazzling, unpolluted, star-filled sky after darkness had descended.

The next morning, after a breakfast of locally baked bread, banana, and rice porridge, I decided to head to the Tiger Leaping Stone, where, as legend claims, the Tiger which gave the gorge its moniker undertook its now world-renowned leap.

On this second day of walking I first had to drag myself along for two-hours across the winding walkway. We were greeted by dozens of mountain goats – all of which were undertaking the climb with much more ease and grace than any of the humans attempting to do so. To begin with they seemed shy of our group, or perhaps they didn’t want to be associated with such pitiful climbers. Slowly they began to develop confidence, and before long were seemingly posing for photographs, showing off their best footwork to dance up to increasingly precarious spots.

Before long we also met two of the more spectacular waterfalls, one which would give the bravest of trekkers vertigo should they decide to look over its edge, and another which even our band of clumsy-footed wanderers could climb into. I made the decision to climb up and across the fall, drenching myself in the somehow ice cold water, enjoying the natural shower and adrenaline rush which came from the sudden dip and balancing across the slippery fall.

After two hours or so I reached the path to the stone, where I began the difficult descent to the famous vantage point. Uneven stairs, impractically low handrails and vertical ladders led the way down, which was done in silence as everybody’s individual focus was put into not taking a surely fatal trip. It took around forty minutes, going at a reasonable pace, to reach the renowned rock, which was being attacked by a torrent of churning waves that dived viciously between the water-filled valley, bouncing off its rugged walls.

Slowly, I cautiously clambered across the breach to sit next to the stone, and carefully observed it. It became quite obvious why the mythology around this landmark was created, as I sat and perused the incredible sight. Equally terrifying as it is beautiful, the intimidating scenery almost tells the tales itself.

Surrounded by the gushing white water, contemplatively absorbing the surroundings, all of the hiking was undoubtedly justified. Upon realising the hard work done by nature to bestow upon us gifts such as the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a little bit of effort from myself was truly put into perspective.

 

Revelling for free in Lijiang Old Town

By Jacob Jarvis

Despite multiple requests for a name, the amicable, kind-faced, and clearly intoxicated stranger would not give us one. Instead, translating via an app on his phone, he granted us a few simple sentences: “Enchanted to meet you. I hope you like wine. Because all we do is drink. It is free.” Before ushering us into the lively and peculiar bar in Lijiang’s Old Town.

With such an inviting and to the point introduction, there simply was no way we could say no.

As we strode in, taken aback by our luck, the throngs of revellers, sat at tables and in booths, turned their heads, equally taken aback by our entry. Before it happened to me, I’d been told tales of Westerners being invited in to clubs, supplied drinks and food, having as much as they liked, then leaving without paying for a thing. And I’d been assured it wasn’t a scam, it purely just so happened that their new found Chinese friends wished to enjoy a night with them. Still, I couldn’t quite believe it, and constantly I asked for reiteration that the pricey drinks being pushed upon us were in fact gifts. I was thoroughly reassured, by our new found and oddly generous companion, using his phone once again: “Yes. Free.”

Without question we were taken swiftly to a VIP booth, sitting parallel with a stage where a variety of musical and comical skits were endlessly taking place. The crowd seemed completely drawn in and would hang on the performer’s every word – unless one of us were to saunter by, and unwittingly show a glimpse of ourselves to them. In which instance their attention would temporarily wander, as they became bemused by the Western audience members, who were sat just in front of them as if it were an ordinary occurrence.

Throughout the days in China, it’s not rare at all to be asked for photographs, or have people in the street stop and speak to you, purely due to you looking different to them. Unlike England, where multiculturalism has reached an extent where we are generally unconscious of it, it’s still rare for Caucasian people to be spotted even in major Chinese cities. In Beijing and Chengdu, both of which have populations exceeding ten million, we were similarly harangued, politely, by passers-by. So in Lijiang, we should have expected to be taken as commodities. It is a small place in a country which only opened its doors officially to outsiders within the twentieth century, so despite growing tourist numbers, the sight of a foreigner is still fairly rare.

Although we were being somewhat treated as alien visitors, goaded into sitting on a pedestal, to be paraded to the other inhabitants of the booth and the rest of the bar, it didn’t feel like we were being mocked. We had been singled out, yes, but it was certainly positive discrimination. Our fun craving host appeared to have a seemingly endless supply of beers, which he insisted on us drinking in one go, after a raucous scream of ‘cheers!’ He was all the more delighted when we bellowed ‘ganbei!’, the Mandarin translation.

We stayed there for a few hours, until realistically we could take no more of the stage show which we could not understand, and communication with the other VIPs had grown stagnant, due to our diabolical language skills. Following how are you, nice to meet you, where are you from, and after an obscene numbers of photos being taken of us, we didn’t serve much of a purpose other than being a slightly unusual presence.

Thankfully, though, we were spared the awkwardness of leaving early, when the anonymous partier who invited us in conceded: “I have drink much. No more. Sick.” Despite the message’s lack of grammar and general bluntness, we got the key points well enough.

After he told us all that we were beautiful in broken English, we thanked him for his generosity and left.

Hopefully he understood it, hopefully he got a good night’s sleep, and hopefully his head wasn’t too obliterated the next day. But I have reservations on all three.

 

China Travel Diary: Hectic journeys and guilty rest-stops

By Jacob Jarvis

Last week started with a two-day long trek across Tiger Leaping Gorge, and then ended in back to back sleeper trains, as I travelled from Lijiang to Guilin. After non-stop journeying and sightseeing, I realised it was time stop feeling guilty for resting; so on our days in Lijiang and Dali, we bumped into a group of Aussies and all decided to go slow for once.

The Lijiang Old Town is a picturesque, though thoroughly commercialised, window to times gone by, where the inhabitants still peddle their goods to those passing through. We went once in the morning, when it was tranquil and relaxing, before the thick crowds filled its winding streets. Then at night its whole persona changed, with flashing lights parading around the swarms of shoppers and revellers, laughing and joking their way around the markets in a jovial manner. Whereas crowds such as these can sometimes be intimidating, the atmosphere here was warm and welcoming, with less pushing than you might expect and, as a Westerner, plenty of well-intentioned photo requests.

These calming mornings and giddy evenings provided a perfect time to rejuvenate ourselves before and after embarking on the gorge. Some may describe Lijiang as nothing but an unnecessary and perhaps tedious stop on the way to the true landmark of the region, but with a well-furnished and comfortable guesthouse, ran by a kind-hearted family, and the quaint walled market place, the stop was more than simply wasted time.

Following the trek of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, we took a relatively short sleeper train to Dali. The city itself to me is one of few I have visited in China I might actually wish to live in – as it is hugged by gorgeous mountains, and in turn embraces a gloriously still lake in its centre. Like Lijiang it has a quaint Old Town, which plays host to an array of food and trinket stalls, as well as some Western bars. These gave us a needed respite from the at times daunting culture we’d plunged ourselves head first into, and allowed us to meet travellers from across the globe, with whom we shared stories over our drinks.

On our second day we took a stroll to the lake, where we conversed and enjoyed each other’s company, slowly taking in the area on foot. We then sat at the lake a while, deciding against taking a boat tour in the full force of the sun or embarking upon a tough walk around it. We also chose not to take the mountain, after having our fill of heights at the gorge just a few days before.

At first I felt guilty for this dawdling, wishing I’d filled each day to the brim. In hindsight, though, I was granted some of my most memorable days, bonding with friends I’m sure we will keep in touch with, recharging ourselves a little, and avoiding any journeys by motorised transport.

China is gigantic, and with just five weeks here I have to accept my limitations. As much as I would wish to, I cannot see everything. And by missing certain things, opportunities for companionship I might have missed presented themselves, and the other trips have begun to stand out even more vibrantly in my mind. I’ve no intention of slowing down too much (who needs more than four hours sleep most nights really?), but now I won’t feel too guilty when I need to. While marauding across China there’s plenty of change, often though, unlike the proverb leads you to believe, it’s far from anything like a rest.

 

China Travel Diary: Getting by with the kindness of strangers

By Jacob Jarvis

In the last week I’ve visited Leshan, Jiuzhaigo and Kunming, and at every place, at some point, I’ve felt completely helpless and unable to communicated. Luckily, every time someone has come to help me. This, I believe, is one major aspect of Chinese culture which the West could take on – the openness to communicate with strangers.

In Leshan, after visiting the Grand Buddha, I was at a loss in finding the train station. My friend Steve and I jumped on the nearest bus, and hoped that we’d reach our destination. It didn’t seem like we would, no matter how much faith we had. A voice next to us then asked, “Where are you from?” It happened to be a Chinese student, currently training to be a translator, who spoke English perhaps better than I do myself.

Sensing our helplessness, she took us to the station, spoke to the ticket officer for us, and we thankfully got on the last bus back to Chengdu. I’m not a believer in fate, but that situation might just have changed my perspective. And it’s made up my mind that if I ever see anybody looking lost when I’m back home, I’ll make sure I help. So I guess I’m a karma convert too.

Just a week before, we were similarly aided when attempting to navigate our way to the Badaling section of The Great Wall. While lost in an endlessly confusing bus depot, we overheard a family, speaking in Mandarin, say the word Badaling. At this we took our opportunity to look over inquisitively, perform a few unintelligible hand signals and repeatedly say Badaling. With no need for a common language, we were soon adopted into the family, and guided along to where we needed to be by the smiling and waving young father, who was leading his wife and daughter.

In China, it seems that any native person who knows English is desperate to use it. A fellow traveller who was born in Shanghai explained to me how although English is taught in school to everyone, most rarely are able to speak to anyone in anything but Mandarin. So this has worked massively in our favour as well – whenever we’re stood staring at a map, attempting to navigate public transport, or generally meandering in the hope for a sign, people often come over and attempt to help. Plenty of times, I don’t know what we’d have done without them. This helping attitude, shared by many people in China, has made me want to become a more approachable person, and to make the effort to approach others more often as well.

So, next time you spot someone looking a little confused at a tube station, or waiting for a bus, train or tram, there’s no harming in saying a quick hello – you might need someone to do the same for you some time.

An early morning show from Chengdu’s pandas

By Jacob Jarvis

It was around 8:00am when the city’s five monochrome celebrities arose from their slumber and nonchalantly bumbled outside – seemingly unaware of the horde gathering to greet them, waiting to coo over their every move.

Nearly two million people visit Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding each year, and, after the gates opened at 7:30am, there were already hundreds of guests weaving their way around the bears’ home.

The sun was low in the sky and, oddly for China, the air felt fresh and crisp, which clearly appealed to the fluffy compatriots. All five bundled themselves over to the bamboo which had been laid out for them, with an almost impressive lack of coordination, and immediately began to bury themselves in the leaves and branches. Their comically round bodies became hidden under the foliage, as they each greedily tucked into their favourite dish. Like children making snow angels in the depths of winter, the cartoon-like creatures rolled around in their morning meal, steadily chomping through it with ease.

Once finished, the most aloof of the pack decided he’d had enough action for one morning, and sauntered off to a shady spot of overgrowth in the enclosure – where he proceeded to stay for the next hour. Looking almost comatose, he stretched out his limbs, tucked his face into his paws, and ignored every gushing sound of adoration aimed in his direction. Clearly he had his own set morning routine, something we can all relate to, and was sticking to it.

In his absence the others seemed to confer for a few minutes, huddling up into a mass of black and white fur, and decide it was their duty to create some entertainment. After having a collective power nap, it’s apparently extremely exhausting work being a panda, the show began.

In their enclosure, was a three levelled wooden platform, with plenty enough room for them all to doze and dawdle for eternity should they wish. However, none of them seemed content with any position except for the top deck, which offered elevation above the fellow bears, shade, and the chance to really pose for the doting onlookers. The battle for this coveted spot led to a clumsy, somewhat half-hearted, play fight breaking out between the comical creatures.

With fair agility, which was rarely on display, the first ‘King of the Castle’ as it were hoisted himself skywards to the desired position. He spread out, seemed ready to rest, looking smug and accomplished – appearing to believe he’d outwitted and outmuscled his contemporaries. Before the self-proclaimed monarch could truly get comfortable though, an alliance formed between the other three bears, as they joined forces to literally knock him off his pedestal.

Paws were thrown, bodies were rolled over each other, light and ineffective bites were exchanged as each tried to steal the top spot. When any bear was pushed to close to the edge, it would almost begin to appear to move in slow motion. A look of mild horror would spread over their face as they tried to steady themselves. Though, to the observers of this adorable conflict, it became apparent that not only could they physically not prevent themselves tumbling, they had too little spatial awareness to figure out how to do so anyway. Instead, in a disorderly and uncontrollable manner, they initiated a cycle of clambering and tussling – which ended in a flailing fall each time.

This routine continued for around an hour, until the gracious performers believed they’d given their fans enough, and decided lounging in the shade and stretching out was more preferable to fighting. Gradually they dispersed and snuggled into the plants around them, or what was left of the bamboo they’d munched for breakfast. Who knew pandas performed as amateur wrestlers in their spare time?

If you’re thinking of visiting Chengdu and would like to see the performing pandas yourself, the entrance fee to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is 58RMB – make sure you arrive early to beat most of the crowd. For more information, please click here

China travel diary: Restless nights on sleeper trains

by Jacob Jarvis

Getting the train in England is usually uneventful. You sit, read a book, perhaps spark up some casual small talk with a fellow passenger, a disgruntled member of staff comes and scribbles on your ticket, and you get to where you need to be in a few hours.

Travelling by rail in China isn’t quite so simple. In fact, it’s a pretty intense cultural experience in itself. However, by accepting its idiosyncrasies journeys have become a really interesting part of my trip.

When I first told another Westerner I’d travelled by hard sleeper, they looked at me completely aghast. I can see why, the atmosphere is hectic and, despite their name, sleeping on them is pretty tough.

Three bed high bunk beds are stacked side by side, so each ‘compartment’ contains six beds, and then these are placed completely open plan along a corridor spanning the length of the carriage. I was on top bunk from Xi’an to Chengdu, which meant I was directly under a light, next to speakers which intermittently played traditional Chinese music, and physically couldn’t sit up.

It felt like I’d smuggled my way on, not like something I’d paid for the privilege of doing. Then for the first hour or so, I felt constantly observed. English people are evidently unusual on this mode of transportation, and every time I spoke to my friend it was listened to intently, every move I made was viewed, small children and smaller old ladies pointed and whispered. This isn’t unusual in China, but normally it’s for a fleeting moment, not while you’re trapped in metal box hurtling between cities with no chance of escape.

Then, shyly and unconfidently a young guy, around 18, came over to me, and asked where I was from, which was the catalyst for me to be treated like I had celebrity status for a few hours. He asked me at length about my home, relaying this back to his family, expressed his desire to visit, told me of his plans to become a police officer, while constantly apologising for his English despite his clear proficiency.

Adorable toddlers used me as a way of trying out their budding language skills, telling me their names, asking mine, incessantly and proudly saying hello to me, amused at each reply due to my accent and inherent Britishness. Before we departed, whole families wanted photos with me, paid me compliments, wished me well, and offered advice for the rest of my stay.

In most places it’s been impossible to see the real Chinese culture behind the façade that tourism creates, but on the trains I’ve seen families being families. Children truly behaving as they usually would and the older generations acting as those in Britain tend to; doing whatever they want, staring at whatever they want and saying whatever they want.

The train wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable either, but if I wanted to stay cosy, I’d have kept tucked up in my bed in England. I want experiences, so I guess I’ll be sticking to hard sleepers.

Feeling small atop The Great Wall

By Jacob Jarvis

Before I headed to the Great Wall, multiple people told me ‘it’s cool, but it’s just a big wall’.

I thought they must be understating its grandeur, but it still meant my expectations weren’t high when I went to tackle the Badaling section of the mighty structure myself. Honestly, I’m glad those I spoke to didn’t appreciate it, as it meant I was all the more overwhelmed.

It’s just a wall, yes, obviously. But no matter how much I explain its vastness, you’ll certainly underestimate it until you actually go and see it. The small stint which I walked across left me completely exhausted. I went to the most popular part, with the least steep walkways and most handrails, and only 2.3 miles of it is walkable.

Now imagine that I, a relatively fit and healthy young man, felt tired from just moving across that. Now imagine it being built, with no modern-day equipment, and that it is in total over 10,000 miles long. That’s something to be appreciated. The magnitude of the work which went in to it is almost confusing.

When you reach the higher points, the views are something else. I was at Badaling the day after a flood, the air still felt heavy, there was the usual smog, and the sun was blocked by clouds and a small pattering of raindrops. And, regardless of those factors, I could still see a daunting expanse of the wall stretching out each way I looked.

The peaks and then descents of the iconic feat of architecture particularly made me appreciate the work which had gone into its construction. Those who designed and built it seem to have realised the gravitas of the job ahead of them, and closely followed the curvature of the ground of the regions it covers. Although something similar built in a more up-to-date style would clearly be an eyesore, it lends itself entirely to its surroundings. Despite its stature, it blends in with the already spectacular expanse of nature around it beautifully.

The perspective it lends to the woodland around it means that mighty trees and colossal branches are left feeling somewhat fragile. This in turn only lends to their appeal, and that of the wall.

Standing on it gave me one of those rare moments which allows you to take note of how little and, in the end, delicate we all are. Despite the thousands of tourists queuing along the walking routes, the Great Wall still manages to remain a tranquil spot. Somewhere that allows you, even if just for the briefest moment, to reflect. And for that, it’s more than just a wall.

China travel diary: Arriving in Beijing

by Jacob Jarvis

The smog, the heat, the traffic, the language barrier, the transport systems – no matter how many travel books you read before you set off to China, nothing will truly prepare you for any of these.

I spent five days in Beijing for my first stop in the East and at first I was pretty appalled by how many people spat all over the street, now I honestly just feel sorry for them. I’ve been out of the capital for two days now and I’m only just losing the hefty smokers cough I developed during my time there.

Before you go to any points of cultural interest, the first sight your met with is the air itself. It’s almost like a permanent layer of brown fog masking the entirety of the city and, whilst you’re there, it’s impossible to avoid. The putrid pollution teamed with temperatures of thirty degrees and upwards makes it tempting to become a stowaway in your hostel, with the cool embrace of air-conditioning and windows to seal out the pollution.

The first truly daunting experience you’ll probably have is simply crossing the road. Just because the light is green, doesn’t mean the cars will actually stop. The taxis almost definitely won’t, nor will the mopeds. My advice, look for someone who seems to know what they’re doing and tail them. After a few near death moments, where you might feel like an extra in The Italian Job, you’ll get used to it.

On day one my flight arrived into the airport at 2:00am. After sleeping on the flight and my body clock feeling completely out of sync, thanks to 19 hours of travel and a layover in Kiev, all I wanted was sleep. Instead my travel companion and I decided to power through and visited Lama Temple.

We stayed at Dragon King Hostel (nice enough, clean, pretty decent bar, slightly pricey for China) which was a few minutes’ walk from Zhanglizhong subway station. The Lama Temple was just one stop away so we decided to walk, which gave us the chance to explore the hutongs, side streets, along the way. These little microcosms all huddle together to create the distinct and vibrant communities in the area. Hundreds of shops vie for your attention and custom, each with its own charms or, politely put, eccentricities. If you want authentic food or something obscure to eat, these are the places to go.

If I learned anything from the first temple I visited it’s this; no matter how many Buddhas you see, there’s always a bigger one. Every room was covered in gold paraphernalia surrounding a giant statue of the Sage in varying forms and sizes. At first I was in awe of those around ten feet high, then there was one round four times as tall, endlessly ascending into the purpose built roof which homed it.

Inside the halls I felt like an intruder, but was welcomed to join in with burning incense and paying respect along with the those there for religious reasons as well. Until I showed myself up for the ignorant Brit I am and held up the wrong number of incense sticks in front of a statue – prompting a startled looking Chinese lady to come to a halt, point at me, and squeal, “three!” I had originally had the correct number, but my friend had taken one, so this unfortunately prompted the ridiculous response of, “my mate nicked one,” and me pointing at him. This wouldn’t have been my most eloquent moment in England, so, as you can imagine, here it went down absolutely abysmally. The woman walked on, and I shuffled off.

Thankfully since then I’ve learned the Mandarin word for sorry. I’m sure I’ll say it plenty more times in the coming month.