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.