Monday, November 12, 2012

In Pursuit of Leaping Tigers.

I rarely if ever going roughing it, more for lack of equipment and über-sporty friends than anything else. That said, a combination of poor planning and inadequate language skills can rapidly deteriorate into a day in the rain, a night in the cold – or both. The expectation that smiles and figurative gestures will find you shelter in a pinch can ultimately collapse with great ease.

I took my annual leave from work this past summer to travel Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwestern China. I had friends and vague acquaintances in each provincial capital but would have to navigate a circuitous 1000-mile connection through Tibetan territory to get there with no Mandarin, no guidebook and no reservations: jokes, as a north Londoner might say.

Things were going as smoothly as could be ‘til Tiger Leaping Gorge, a hallmark gaggle of gut-wrenching canyons on every hiker’s agenda. A responsible boy, I was up at 6am and on the 7am bus to arrive at 9am. By 4pm I would be massaging my off-the-beaten-path-trodden feet, reading back issues of the New Yorker and slurping banana pancakes at Sloppy Joe’s Bed and Buddha Breakfast, or wherever the Dutchman at Shangri-La had recommended. Rather, I spent the evening half-naked and thrice-soaked at an abandoned housing site in the rain.

Halfway through the twisting mountaintop bus journey to the gorge, I realized I’d forgotten my computer cord back in town. Five grueling minutes of retrospection later, I decided to change tack and retrieve it (to think of the Uighur feasts I could finance by saving $200 USD). I got off the bus, crossed the road and stuck my thumb in the air. To my great delight, I was in the front seat of a crumbling hatchback ten minutes later, chain-smoking and stuffing my face with Chinese chapatti. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad day after all.

Hence I arrived back at the Gorge a cool four hours late. No sweat, I was an intrepid walker and would surely make up for lost time on the two-day journey through the country’s most dauntingly beautiful canyon. Signs to the gorge were sparing, though two men on donkeys offered to take me up the hills for a handsome fee. I kindly declined, but confirmed the direction I was to go. A toothless smile later, I was marching up the tea-lined hills with all my gear in stow: couldn’t trust the abodes at bottom to safeguard thirty pounds of computer, library books and camera (where were you then, kindle?).

An hour up the mountain and I’d yet to see a soul: it was a marvelous turn of events. Forgetting my cord would give me the entire trail to myself. Of course, I’d only packed a bag of litchi and a liter of water, but I could always pick something up at the first inn, reputedly two hours into the trail. One hour quickly turned to two, and three to four. I would eat a litchi every 500 hundred paces – ‘twas the only thing to quell the enveloping doubt that something was amiss.

My limbs began to ache from the ascent: had I taken a wrong turn? There had only ever been one route: surely the men atop the donkeys knew best. Onward did we march with unrelenting determination – only two hours now before the sun would set. 

Around 5pm I chanced upon a couple hill-women, aesthetically autonomous from anything I’d seen in town. They looked at me in utter bemusement – and motioned that I go back down the mountain without further ado. No fool to their hidden agenda, I ambled on ahead.

Two misty hillside villages later, I knew the game was up. It had begun to drizzle and the road soon turned to rubble. Mules were put in stowage, the odd bike back in its chamber: this path wouldn’t see a visitor for some time to come. A few communicative rumblings with an elderly woman convinced me the Gorge was nowhere in sight, not here, not now, not any time soon.

The temperature had dropped precipitously – we must have been at five or six thousand feet. I took one final gaze into the endless mist and smoky mountaintop dwellings before beginning my descent. Worst-case scenario, I could always ask a villager for lodging – it had been a dream since boyhood to travel roughshod-and-knapsack into the Great Unknown, seeking occasional alms along the way.

The way back down did not go well. Always steeper down than up, I struggled to maintain any grip on the dissolving mud path. By struggle, I mean I only fell once. I was drenched and covered in mud for the better part of the four-hour descent, half of which was in the dark. What remained of my torn poncho was hastily wrapped around my two shoulder bags, which together contained everything of value I owned, not to mention the library’s ransom.

The sky was pitch-black, but I could finally make out the lights of houses in the villages below. Bereft of flashlight, food or foresight, I lit the torch on my Nokia and tried to navigate a series of now paved paths descending into town. If the battery gave I would literally be reduced to a state-of-nature-like impotence.  

Where public path molded into private I could scarcely tell; most become individual driveways, one-family cul-de-sacs barring one entrance upon arrival. That said, my clothes were drenched and the rain would not let up; if I stayed in the elements much longer, I would surely lose my computer and municipal liabilities alike.  

I did what an old Albanian friend had done in rural Chile: begin to knock on doors. Surely I would be met with sympathetic smiles, a bowl of steaming ramen – perhaps even a cup of tea. Happy to sleep in the shed I was – though surely they’d have a spare bedroom with lamp and lumpy blanket: I might even finish that chapter on the Cultural Revolution before dozing off into a mountain reverie.

I knocked on a door already slightly ajar and crept into the courtyard. The lights in the main house were on – a sliding door was open. A massive poster of Mao adorned the living room wall: this would be an encounter to remember. I chirped in the least threatening and un-dirty-laowai-like voice I could muster. An elderly woman, stupefied, came to the door and grimaced. "Is there anywhere," I made a gesture for sleeping, "in the vicinity," a circular motion of the hand denoting geographical proximity, "to take shelter from the rain?" She was not taken aback. "Sorry, I shrugged my shoulders, "I am cold and lost." She warped her faced into a chiseled pout before the fight commenced. "Beat it!" I inferred, "before I call my husband! Before I call the police! Before I call the Red Guards!" I tiptoed backward, bowed an apology and took my leave. Not tonight. 

My confidence all but destroyed, I continued down the hill in the rain. Surely I could find a garage of sorts - a bus stop along the main road. The wind was deafening, the passing incoming headlights even less forgiving. I meandered toward a potential hideout, a shed behind the first house I chanced upon. An unseen beast growled with displeasure. I continued along the road in the rain, a desperation nearly betrothed. 

500m later, redemption reared its feeble head. An abandoned housing site emerged with a big, dry front porch - the perfect sanctuary, all things considered. I climbed the ladder to my perch (they'd yet to build the stairs). Dust and discarded tools were everywhere, in addition to an old rusted bunk bed in the corner. I opted for the wood-planked floor. 

I hung my shirt and pants to dry, put on everything in my possession and laid down casket-style, shivering but immensely relieved. It was damned nippy out, but I'd live to eat another almond croissant. I lit a cigarette and let my thoughts drift to Paris: oddly, it wasn't hard to conjure. Suddenly, a light went on - revealing a hitherto nonexistent bathroom. Barely five feet to my right, the silhouette of a shirtless worker began to relieve himself with candor. He coughed before flushing and opened the door onto the porch. 

I stubbed out my cigarette, closed my eyes and played dead. Would he kick me? Scream? Run inside to fetch a lumbersome object? I shuddered in anticipation. Ten seconds later with no remark, he went back inside. I heaved a heavy sigh. We'll see the Northern Lights after all! Or so I'd assumed. Two minutes later another character came to the door, this time a woman. She switched on a flashlight and directed it upon my face. For lack of better idea, I continued to play dead. When that failed to satisfy her (completely justified) fascination, I yawned and looked up. "Ni hao!" I sleepily chortled before saluting them and closing my eyes again. After a few seconds, the light went off, my captors capitulated and retreated into the house.  

I awoke at the crack of dawn and began to gather my affairs. I was brushing my teeth when the two laborers who'd spotted me the night before emerged from the skeleton of the house (a glimpse inside revealed conditions hardly better inside than out). They looked at me - damp, cold and covered in caked mud - and smiled. He chuckled and pointed to the bunk bed, as if to say I should've made myself more at home. I bowed to them in gratitude and pointed down the road. Fret not, kindred spirit, I shall soon be on my way. 

That evening I checked into the warmest, most welcoming abode of the entire journey. After a seamless two-hour bus ride from sylvan mountaintop to verdant plain, I was taking a warm bath at a French-run artists' residency outside the Old Town of Lijiang, a hallmark destination for Chinese tourists pining after pleasures of Silk Road splendor. 

Dirt-less and dry for the first time in days, I went downstairs to sip tea with Mikael, the philosopher-sculptor from southwest France who ran the residence with his loving wife and Mandarin-chatting (blond) children. With ruffled black hair and radiant blue eyes, he spoke with clarity and unpretentious candor on art, history and China - a man of sweet condition and subtle, rusticated charm. His wife Ode, a kind and soft-spoken woman, soon joined us. Perched away with tea and tobacco, we kept the sliding door ajar, watching the swollen raindrops dance upon the courtyard, beholden to their unremitting charm.  


  1. This is a true pleasure to read, and it evokes vivid memories! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hermoso desde el principio hasta el fin. Saludos

  3. Best entry yet -- love reading of your adventures.