Sunday, 15 May 2011

Tiger Leaping Tastic

Saturday 14th May 2011

17 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: Eye of the Tiger – Survivor

Weather: A beautiful day with no rain clouds in sight.

The day didn't start off as well as it could have. I woke earlier than I wanted to and so, with the spare time, I checked my emails; there weren't too many to read however there was one from British Airways (BA). Apparently, as I'd booked my flights through an agent, I wasn't allowed to upgrade my seat whether I had enough points or not. I sat back in my chair, wondering how I was now going to make an appropriate ending to my trip. I didn't fancy paying for an expensive meal because, even if the food was divine, I wouldn't have any company to share it with. For the same reason booking into a posh hotel didn't really seem adequate either. I flicked through the '31 things not to miss', within my Chinese guidebook, and discovered that watching an acrobatic show, within Beijing, is something to remember. That did sound interesting though this was a thought for another day, time had ticked on and it was now appropriate to meet my coach.

As I'd booked my 'Tiger Leaping Gorge' trip from another hostel I had to walk there for my pick-up; it only took five minutes and I still found myself early. I'd just sat down when the driver appeared and asked if it was okay to depart earlier. 'Sure' was my reply; the quicker we go the sooner we arrive I thought to myself. Before leaving the hostel the receptionist made sure that the driver would remember to pick me up later and bring me back Lijiang; I thanked her for all her help as I followed the driver, out of the door, and down the path to my left.

Lijiang's old town is made up of old, narrow cobbled streets therefore, because of this, the coach couldn't pick me up from outside the hostel. It took five minutes to walk to the main road where a sixteen-seater coach waited. As I boarded I discovered that I had the pick of the seats; I opted for one with good leg room and a stunning view. We drove off quickly before stopping moments later and the driver, without a word, switched the engine off. There we waited, and waited, until all the time gained earlier was lost. I didn't notice the driver leap out of the coach but, as I looked out of my window, I could see him across the road speaking to a group of Chinese tourists looking as though they were about to start a hike. I couldn't hear the conversation – and even if I could it would have been in Chinese – but he beckoned them over and the group of six choose seats within the coach. The wait continued until a group of five young Chinese people boarded leaving only four seats for, thankfully, a small group of Europeans. The driver looked over his should and did a quick head count before turning the engine on and off we went.

It took a while to leave the city of Lijiang; confined between mountain ranges the city seemed to sprawl forever outwards. As the number of buildings reduced our altitude increased; the view, at first, wasn't that spectacular but as we climbed, deep valleys, mountain ranges and small rivers could be seen. Even though we departed late the driver was taking it easy and, considering our chosen path consisted of a heavily used single lane road, our progress was painfully slow. We stopped after an hour and the driver, yet again, leaped out of his seat unnoticed. He positioned himself at the side of the vehicle and kept looking underneath; I watched him from my window as he would look under the coach before walking back to the driver’s seat to change a setting or two. He repeated this process a number times and it didn't take a genius to work out that we'd broken down. Some people got off whereas I sat there hoping the problem wouldn't take long to fix; as I'm coming towards the end of my trip time is of the essence and I couldn't really afford today to be cancelled. The driver became a legend; he kept making alterations before grabbing a nearby empty cardboard box. After dismantling said box he strategically placed it under the vehicle, within the mud, where the problem was. It didn't take him long and he was soon back in the drivers seat taking off his muddy coat; the engine started and everyone was back on-board. The driver seemed happy that the coach was road worthy but still you could feel hesitation within his driving. As this was an issue I could not rectify I decided not to focus on it and to concentrate on the view outside. Peaks started to soar into the clouds and snow could be seen on top of some; we had a photo stop which, as I didn't know how long said stop was for, I decided to act quickly.

We made good time and you could tell that we were approaching the gorge as the mountainsides got steeper and the road became narrow. We stopped at the entrance, to the gorge, where we each had to hand over £5 to enter; we drove for another five minutes until the coach stopped outside the first guest house along the 'two day' Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. The Europeans were off like a short whereas the younger Chinese group dithered. They seemed to be more interested in investigating the contents of their bags, and talking to the driver, than departing which became annoying as every minute sat here could be spent hiking. Finally they disembarked but they left most of their luggage on the coach to be delivered to 'Tina's guest house' ... further along the route.

We turned this way and that a stunning view of the gorge lay before us. Unfortunately I found myself on the wrong side of the coach; normally this wouldn't have mattered however, during our last stop, we'd picked up two young locals who pulled their curtains to block the sun giving no thought to tourists wanting to look outside. In reality it mattered not; luckily I was near the front of the coach and so I stared out of the driver’s window at the enormous gorge below. The 'Tiger Leaping Gorge' is the world’s deepest canyon set at an altitude of 2500m with mountains rising either side to a staggering 3000m. These mountain sides were almost vertical and the points at the top sharp; I gazed in amazement wondering how much water, and how much time, were needed to create such a beautiful natural scene. We had one more photo stop before arriving at 'Tina's Guest house'; by this point my appetite had been wetted and I was raring to go.

I jumped off the coach and asked the receptionist, for information, about the path down to the bottom of the gorge; as she explained I drank a newly purchased bottle of coke, saving the fluids I'd bought for the hike. Once both acts were completed I was off following her directions to the letter; she'd stated that, instead of walking down the road we'd just driven up, there was a path that descended quicker but, as I approached it, I decided to keep on the road as the path wasn't that well defined and I thought that the view from the end of the first 'S' bend would be worth the extra distance. I took photos along the road, from various locations, before I'd descended enough to find the path to the gorge. Time was tight; I'd been told that it would take three hours to walk up and down the path and, as I looked at my watch, I realised that I had just over four hours until the coach departed.

I found a sign explaining that the path, I needed to take, was built by locals without funding from the government therefore a ten Yuan fee was requested. Next to said sign sat an old lady who seemed proud that she had only two teeth left. I handed her the required sum to which she thanked me and told me to be careful. As I started to descend the sun was beating down and I was looking forward to getting further into the gorge and out of the sun. The path consisted of loose stones and dry dirt making pace slow due to the lack of grip. It would appear that none of the ten Yuan fee was pumped back into maintaining the path and it started to look more and more like one of my Dad's DIY jobs. What's worse was that I'd been told that there was a vertical ladder, further down, which I hoped was a little better constructed than the path. As I descended further the sun's force became less, shade increased and the sound of water became louder; there were many rest stops along the way, all with refreshment sheds, but I persevered and continued down as I had refreshments of my own. I met very few Chinese tourists however I did meet Sim and Laura – an English couple that I met within Lijiang – and we chatted briefly, allowing us to get our breathes back. As I departed they told me that the feared ladder was not part of this route ... which cheered me up.

Soon enough I could make out the bottom of the gorge. Within the middle of the water stood a large rock with a bridge linking it to the mainland; the location looked ideal for photos and so I made a bee-line to it. There was a five Yuan fee to cross said bridge which I paid without complaint. Once on the rock I took many photos before sitting down and having something to eat. Reading the time I realised that it had taken me just over an hour to get to the bottom leaving plenty of time to relax and to eat my snacks. As I munched I looked at my surroundings; the powerful Yangzi River, full of minerals, was in constant conflict with natural barriers resulting in rapids being formed along its route. Ancient Chinese legend stated that a tiger leaped across the gorge to avoid capture and you could almost believe it; the vertical mountain walls made the area claustrophobic and, at the same time, made you feel very insignificant. The width of the gorge may have been easily measured but, as I looked forever upwards, the height of the mountains loomed above like skyscrapers would appear to an infant. The jagged tops could be seen and, all-in-all, I doubted that there were many other places better to have something to eat than where I found myself.

Unbeknown to me but the rock was starting to fill with tourists. I eventually noticed when a constant stream of single Chinese people would pop into my view and pose with their fingers making the 'victory' sign. After looking at my watch I still had plenty of time however I left and made my way to the bridge; as I was about to cross I spotted a Chinese couple with three Chinese blokes behind. The girl raced across the bridge and stood to my right whereas the guy stopped on the bridge blocking it. Her English wasn't that good and I couldn't tell if she wanted a photo with, or without me. She got one with me whether she wanted one or not and then her boyfriend asked me to move so that she could be on her own. I explained to him that I would move if he wasn't blocking my route; I continued to say that if he came across to the rock, and let the queues pass, he could take back his post within a few minutes. He seemed reluctant to move however I wasn't going budge; eventually he came across allowing the traffic to ease. Once across I hit my head on a material sign, which gave a little entertainment to the refreshment ladies but didn't stop me from continuing to start my ascent. The time was 1:10am.

The amount of Chinese people, coming the other way, made me glad I'd descended earlier. My ascent got interrupted many times as, it would appear, that Chinese people are unable to form a single line. As I turned a corner I would be approached by a horde of red cap wearing tourists, all eager to be next to the tour leader, blocking the path for anyone wanting to climb in the other direction. It was becoming infuriating and even though some smiled and asked 'How are you?' they still lacked any common sense resulting in me having to force a path for myself. As I continued to climb the sun's heat became more fierce and the sound of water became fainter; I saw the refreshment sheds I'd passed on my way down however, though now short of water, I decided to wait until I was back at the guest house until any further refreshment would be purchased. Overall the walk hadn't been that interesting; the view at the top, and at the bottom, were both staggering - due to the enormity of the site - but the path between the two points was covered in trees preventing good views.

I eventually made through the last tour group before reaching the old woman who, once again, showed me her two teeth. It had only taken forty-five minutes to reach the top but I'd pushed hard to make that time; my legs felt wobbly and my lips were dry. I took the road path back as it was more of a gradual ascent than the walking path. I made it back to Tina's around 2pm where I stumbled into the reception to purchase another coke; while there I chatted to a rather 'proper' English chap. As we walked to the benches outside, over looking the gorge, he told me that his 'mother' and 'father' had come to see him as he's studying Mandarin within China for a year. I told him that he was the second guy I'd met in the process of showing their parents around. We took seats next to Sim and Laura where I collapsed; the conversation went well but the new chap left, to join his parents, not long before the conversation had started. Sim and Laura told me about their two day hike around the gorge which sounded great; looking at the gorge certainly made me feel as though I may have missed out not doing the hike however, if I was to do it, I wouldn't want to do it alone. We continued to chat, mainly focusing on what we didn't like about China, until 4pm when the coach came.

We surrendered the view for the back seat where we could talk. It would appear that both Sim and Laura want to volunteer teaching English and so the conversation focused on that – ending with me promising to give them a copy of my notes – before moving onto the joys of Japan. Sim and Laura's first stop had been Japan and them seemed to have loved it and much as I; for the next hour we past comments about the wonderful Asian country forgetting that we were sat on a Chinese coach full of Chinese people. Once we'd ran out of things to say, on either topic, Laura mentioned that the journey seemed to be a little slow; looking around I noticed that this was the same coach I was on this morning and so I told her about our little problem. Still we arrived within Lijiang on schedule; we went to the local supermarket before they took me to their favourite restaurant within Lijiang. I have to say that the food was lovely and I promised myself that I would be back tomorrow.

We ate quickly and left bound for our hostels. Sim said that they were going to pack – as they were catching a train later - and would meet me, at my hostel, in fifteen minutes for those teaching notes. I rushed into my dorm and turned my PC on; my notes were on one of my memory sticks but, for the life of me, I couldn't remember which one. They'd just come through my hostels front door when I found my notes; within a flash Sim had a copy of them on his laptop. We chatted for a little while longer before they left to catch their train. Laura wasn't feeling well so it’s possible that I could meet them tomorrow within Kumming.

I went for a shower and prepared for tomorrow; as I'll be travelling for the next three nights you may not hear from me for a while. Tomorrow I'll visit the 'Black Dragon Pools' – which Sim gave me a 'free' entrance ticket too – which I failed to visit on my first day here. After that I'll pick up a few snacks before chilling in the hostel and departing, at 8pm, for my 22:30 train (buses to the train station finish at 9pm). So below is the plan for the next few days:

Sunday – depart Lijiang on the 22:30 train bound for Kumming

Monday – arrive within Kumming at 7am. Hopefully store my bags at my old hostel before heading into town for more 'pineapple pie goodness' and topping up on snacks. I'll wait in the restaurant of the hostel until 4pm where I'll go back to the train station for my 6:25pm train to X'ian.

Tuesday – on the train.

Wednesday – Arrive within X'ian at 5am and purchase a train ticket for the 8:25am train to Loyang arriving, totally shattered, at 1:30pm.

Let’s hope it all goes to plan!

Toodle Pip!

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