Day 7 – Conquering the Tiger Leaping Gorge Part I

So after barely getting 6 hours sleep, I’m awoken by my alarm and rushed to get ready. The shuttle is already here waiting for us as it makes its rounds picking up tourists from other hostels. Me and Sylvian have a quick breakfast across the road as the driver didn’t seem to mind waiting for us. As someone who doesn’t eat breakfast usually, it’s nice to enjoy some steaming hot dumplings and xiaolongbao.IMG_20161230_072532.jpg

Then off we go, our bus gets more and more full with each stop. I’m still sleepy as hell so I drift in and out of a nap, but at one stop I saw on the opposite isle there was a cute Korean grill sitting by herself. I thought about talking to her but then a group of Koreans got on the bus and sat down behind her, I figured it was her family or tour group or whatever, should just let them be. And back to sleep I go.

It takes almost 2.5hrs for the bus to arrive at the village at the start of the trek. The Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) is a 2 day trek through the mountain ranges beside the famous Yangtze river, and on the second day you descend to the river itself. I’ve only done one multi-day trek before and that was the Machu Picchu, although I pretty much got babysat by local porters who carried up to 20kg of our luggage (including even a propane gas tank for cooking) and trekked with sandals while I struggled with a 5kg backpack and full hiking gear. I figured this can’t be that hard, even though I’m unfit AF, besides it’d be a good exercise even if I get rekt. Hurts so good…94f.png

Not everyone gets off at the village, as there’s two way to see the TLG. The high way – hiking through the mountains for 2 days, and the scrub way – sit on the bus and drive along the newly built road next to the river for a 2 hour trip. The Korean group seems to be remaining on, guess that’s the last time I’ll see her.

Getting off the bus we meet another pair of hikers, Eduardo and Woman A (forgot her name) are both Spanish teachers in a private international school in Beijing. They explain that the hard part of the TLG is at the start, where there’s a gruesome section called the 28 bends of GG, where it zigzags up the mountain 28 times. Not looking forward to that 😦

Me and Sylvian are the last to get started, since I had to wait to put my bigger backpack on the bus, which will get dropped off at the half way point where we’ll spend out night. And then, it begins.

So I immediately find out that to no surprise, Sylvian is fit af compared to me and he has to slow down so I can keep up. As usual he always has a bag of fruit and he’s just casually walking uphill on the main road of the village while I’m already starting to lose my breath. Not doing too bad though, we eventually overtake all other groups of hikers by the time we reach the end of the village, then no more roads and it’s time to scale the mountain.

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After about 30mins of uphill consisting of 100% pure rekt, we reach a small viewing platform that gave us amazing view of the river itself! On the right you have rice paddies and on the left you have the foot of the famous Jade Dragon snow mountain (which I shall visit in the future), separated down the middle by one of the most famous river in China – the Yangtze. IMG_20161230_102505.jpg

The uphill continues and the only reprieve I get is the increasingly better views, we also come across some farms that look beautiful with the ice-capped tip of the Jade Dragon snow mountain.

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I thought by now we’ve definitely become head of the pack, but only after a while do we see that ahead of us is a family of 4. They must be amazingly fit as even the younger daughter is tackling the uphill at a blistering pace. Sylvian is already starting to put some distance between me and him, and I make an excuse to check out some horses/donkey/mules??? to take a small break.

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Along the way we meet various local people going about their business, whether its tending to their fields or taking their sheep out for a snack. To them scaling this mountain is probably no big deal since they do it day in and day out. Some more entrepreneurial ones have set up small stands selling drinks and chocolates to scrubs like me.

Some REALLY entrepreneurial ones clearly understand that fellow hikers are often very tired and could use a pick-me-up in the form if a certain not so legal substance. Seems like they are home grown, as I’d really doubt any law enforcement bothers to give a shit in places like these. They are also RIDICULOUSLY cheap, these bags are 50 yuan each which is about 10 AUD, that’s probably enough for many many people (and probably sessions). I wonder how it’d feel to do a hike like this with such amazing scenery while 420 blazing it up O_O

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I don’t really wanna risk spending rest of my life in a Chinese gulag or slip on a rock and fall to my death, so I kindly refuse the elderly man offering me a bag.

We finally reach the peak of the hill and in the distance I can see it’s time for my favourite, down hill! I thought geez this 28 bends of ez was no big deal, I didn’t even have to keep count! From this vantage point, you get an even nicer view of what I saw before, as well as the other side of the hill

In the 3rd picture, you can see a small village after going down hill, and from the basic map we got at the hostel that seems like the place to get lunch, not bad for 1.5hrs of work! Just for good measure, here’s a pretty cool paranoramic view.

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We reach the village and decide to just go with the first restaurant we see. I say restaurant but it’s really just a family’s home that also serves tourists. The family of 4 has already beaten us here and got their order. I take a closer look and it turns out it’s not the first time I’ve seen them! In fact, I first saw them in Kunming dining in El Salvador, and the son waited in line with me at the toilet. Then in Dali, as I checked into the Jade Emu hostel I saw them check out right after me. Not that I’ve been stalking them but it seems like our itinerary have been identical so far, so I thought this must be fate why not go talk to them.

That turns out to be a very good decision. Colin and his wife Amanda is backpacking with their son Henry and daughter Lily. They’re from Brooklyn, NY and were some of the nicest people I’ve got to meet on this trip! They’re only spending 1-2 days max in each city so they are missing out on a lot of the stuff Yunnan has to offer, but it’s so that Lily can do all the main things before having to go back home as her school term is starting.

The main minority tribes in this region is the Naxi people, and it’s really annoying typing this out on my phone as it always autocorrects it to the Nazi -_________-. Me and Sylvian decided to split some classic Chinese dishes with a Naxi twist on them. It was really not a bad meal considering how remote this place is.IMG_20161230_122037.jpg

As we leave the village and begin the next leg of our journey, I thought we might as well stick together so we all have someone to talk to as a way of passing the time. It’s not long before we reach a sign telling us this is the real 28 bends, and the realisation that the rektoning has just begun slowly settles in…

This time I could tell it was the real deal, I started struggling after the 10th bend and by half way we’ve all lost count of how many bends we have made it past. It’s amazing that the whole O’Donnell family is carrying all their stuff in their backpack and still seem to have less trouble than I am T_T. As we reach the top, once again we see the Korean group, but they’ve skipped the hard part by renting out mules and riding them to the top -_- the cute grill is nowhere to be found though, but I’m honestly too dead to be worried about anything other than catching my breath.

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Throughout the next 3 hours it became a leisurely walk mostly on flat paths. I get a chance to take in the amazing scenery while finding out more about each member of the O’Donnell family.

Colin is the founder of a tech start up which he sold few years ago to a group of investors including Microsoft and Google, but he still stays on as Chief Innovation Officer. Their company is called Intersection (it’s legit I checked on LinkedIn) and they do some pretty interesting projects so if you’re into tech stuff maybe go check them out. He told me one of the current projects they are doing is installing WiFi on NY trains for free in return for some ads and doing data analytics using the data they collect.

Amanda initially worked in the same company with Colin as the CFO, but is now doing a career change by studying a Masters in the not for profit sector. She’s a Giants fan from the NFL and I take this chance to actually ask some legit questions about one of the most popular sports on the planet, i.e. wtf exactly is so fun about this sport. Seriously it seems so lame it’s just some big dudes running at each other wearing armor, I honestly don’t know whether the various insignificant forms of Australian rugby or NFL is worse. I guess it’s not as bad as some other perennially terribad sports to watch, such as golf and baseball.

I can only assume when you sell your equity stake to the likes of Microsoft and Google, you’d be doing fairly well financially. But unlike some of the rich Chinese families I’ve seen with their spoiled princes and princesses, both Henry and Lily seemed really down to earth and you didn’t get the sense that they were spoiled at all. They could probably all travel in 5 star luxury but they still prefer to experience the culture etc. by backpacking, so kudos to them!

Henry is in his 2nd year of university at a small college, studying biology. He seems to have a genuine passion about biology and has even traveled to South Africa on a previous holiday to undertake research. Actually the whole family is well traveled, and I thought I was fairly well traveled! He’s into quite a few of what I’d call more exotic sports such as snowboarding, rock climbing and surfing. While Lily is in the American equivalent of 11th grade (I think it’s called their sophomore year? Or junior? Definitely not freshman that’s all I know). Naturally at that point she doesn’t really know what she wants to do, but I think she mentioned photography or something. She’s also a fairly accomplished track athlete and plays basketball as well, so it’s no wonder shes so fit and usually at the front of the pack.

I’m actually very fascinated by America, my favourite news source is the NY Times which I read pretty much everyday, so it’s awesome to get a chance to talk to some New Yorkers of both a older and younger generation. I got to discuss a huge range of topic about America that I’ve read about over the years, such as the college debt crisis, GFC, racial tensions, police brutality, drug problems, college sports, gentrification in NY and of course, the hottest topic at the time – the presidential election. Being New Yorkers they were obviously devastated when they found out the Big Orange won, and I can only imagine how they feel as people who’d be most directly impacted by his stupidity. 3

Oh yeah, totally forgot about the scenery. Get ready for a picture dump.

We finally reach the half way point, where most hikers spend the night in one of the hostels in the small village. Our group was the first to arrive, and as it’s low season, there aren’t really many other hikers so all other subsequent groups just followed us to our hostel. Only the Spanish teacher duo decided to stay in a different place, probably for the peace and quiet. The O’Donnells took a 3 bed room while me and Sylvian went to the 8 man dorms. Our windows face the Jade Dragon snow mountains directly, giving us probably the best view I’ve ever seen from a lowly hostel costing 8 AUD a night!

Soon, the other travellers trickle in and we have a full house in our dorm. Some weren’t too keen to socialise so we left them alone, but there was a group of 3 dudes who seemed about my age. I overhead the word “thongs” and to me that could only mean one thing, fellow Aussies! Wilson, George and Michael are from Melbourne (seriously I’ve met 5 Melbournians on this trip and 0 Sydneysider, where are you people -.-), they are actually exactly my age, just starting work as accountants and financial advisors. They actually bought along a 4th person on the way – the Korean grill from the bus. I was pretty surprised to see her as I really didn’t think there’d be a female solo traveler out here in rural China, which is why I thought she was with the Korean tour group. She was lagging way behind us on the hike and eventually grouped up with the 3 Melbournians, who I presume arrived at the hike later than us on a different bus. She’s an exchange student from Korea currently studying Chinese in Jiaotong University in Shanghai, which is actually not too far from where I used to live in Shanghai once upon a time. Oh also her name is Yuna, kinda like Yoona from SNSD (shoutout to Karl).

I arrange with the O’Donnells to have a communal dinner around 6 and in the meantime I walk around the village and admire the views as the sun sets and the quaint village that obviously depends 99% on tourism. You can also kinda see the Melbourne group + Yuna in the first picture.

It’s not long before we all gather together for dinner. While the food was your average home cooked Chinese food (which by the way was surprisingly good given the circumstances they have to cook under, i.e. literally middle of nowhere), the atmosphere is what really made it a great night. It’s quite cool when you think about the fact that rarely would you get a chance to sit down with people from all walks life and all over the world, to share a modest meal in the middle of rural China. You can see the Korean tour group behind us having an absolute banquet, seriously they had so many dishes that looked waaaay more grand than ours, but we seemed to be the only one’s actually enjoying dinner and this whole experience!

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This was honestly one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time! Other travelers saw us and wanted to get in on the fun, so we had Yanna and Maxim from all the way in Siberia join us as well. They reminisced about home, where they lived near Lake Baikal – the deepest lake in the world – that freezes with up to 1m of ice in the winter, enough to run around on. We also met Luke a while later, a Brit who’s an investment banker and have jumped around the world working for HSBC, previously working in Turkey before relocating to Shanghai.

The dinner went on for a while and by the end it was pitch black outside. Not like night time in the cities, this was actually pitch black and without any of the light pollution. You could see the stars in the sky very clearly, and from the faint moonlight you could see just a tinnnny outline of the giant mountain ranges that stood next to us.

We’ve all had a long day and nobody was in the mood for a particularly raucous night, so we all decide to have an early day to prepare ourselves for the hike tomorrow. I really enjoyed today, the combination of amazing scenery and people makes this one of the best days so far on the trip.

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