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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Amazing Race: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Scenes on the bus ride to the gorge

The PSB (tourist police) couldn't give us an extension to our Tibet group visa, so we have to leave China by the 29th. On the way back from the PSB yesterday evening we managed to book a cut price air ticket from Dali to Jinghong near the Laos border. We then planned to leave for Dali to have a day and a half in each place, but we suddenly realized we just had time to take a bus up to Tiger Leaping Gorge, as long as we made it back next day. Tiger Leaping Gorge is the highest canyon in the world and up to twice as high and deep as Grand Canyon, from peak to river 3000 ft at the Yangtze to 18,187 feet high Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

A small market village en-route

The gorge is in sight just before Qiaotio

We caught a bus at noon and arrived in Qiaotao, the town at the turn off into the gorge at 2.30, almost out of money, and the mini bus driver wanted to charge us 100 Yuan which we couldn't afford. The bank wouldn't change US dollars there, so we took a huge risk, since we HAD to walk out next day and had no spare cash except US dollars, and paid our last 50 Yuan to get the mini bus along the low vehicle track to drop us at the foot of the track up to Half Way House, the enchanting guest house high on the upper trail renowned by Michael Palin.

Scenes on the minibus ride along the vehicle track through the gorge

It was boiling hot when he dropped us off and the path proved to be a winding dirt road. Christine rapidly began to pant and the climb looked absolutely impossible. I noticed a couple of vehicles had gone up and at our most desperate moment, along came a big Diesel truck carrying a load of water in a tank which gave us a lift up one of the most terrifying switchback roads I have ever seen. It had to make blind three point reversals at every one of the ten or so hairpin bends backing over the precipice at every turn, showered with water from its large cooling tanks on its roof.

The hair-raising ride up the track to the high path at Half-way House

Three-point turn reversals over the slippery slope at every hairpin!

After the hairpins, the road runs across a sheer precipice

Video of the hair raising ride

We made it up to Half Way House intact and had an absolutely charming evening eating good food and walking on the high trail with horses and bells and stunning views of the river a mile or so below and the peaks a mile or so above. Wonder of wonders, although no one else would change our US$, the proprietress happily changed it at a good rate, so the most remote spot proved the most cosmopolitan!

Half-way House

Half-way House panorama

In the evening we took a stroll further along the gorge on the horse track which leads out to the way you can return from the foot of the gorge to Lijiang.

Scenes on the high horse trail heading on to the end of the gorge

Horse trail south and five fingers

We literally HAD to make it back out of the gorge on foot along the high trail if we were going to make our flight to Dali next day and make it out of China without severe penalties for overstaying, so this morning we got up at dawn and made off along the 14k precipitous trail back to Qiaotao, only to become lost and exhausted before we began, climbing paths that led nowhere, until finally we saw the contour track far below and an hour later finally got under way.

Sunrise at Half-way House

The trouble is that even on a contour track, the scale is deceptively enormous, so it took two hours and a bit to get to the first tea house.

Finally made it to the tea house

There the travelers said the mountain we next had to climb through the forest only went up 100 metres or so so we walked on. The day got hotter and the climb steeper and all we had left was raisins and water. Christine began to get heat exhaustion and could only take one small step at a time. The path became absolutely precipitous and narrow and slippery with sheer drops a mile or so down to the river below and wound ever up in switchbacks from hill to hill. I think it must have been 1000 metres or 100o feet at least!

Looking back at the village with the Tea House

The path climbs ever more steeply

The flora of Tiger Leaping Gorge

The path became a razor thin slippery slope with sheer drops to the river below

Sheer drops over 1000 feet to the river

Wild goats blocking the path

Finally we reached the summit and managed to get down the 28 bend switchback to the relative safety of "The Friendly Naxi Guest House" where we had a slap up lunch of pork stir fry (which later gave Christine the runs all the way to Laos).

Horse riders at the 28 hairpin summit

Car park on the other side of the river for the rickshaw rides along the river's edge

Christine just about exhausted

The Friendly Naxi Guest House

Friendly Naxi Guest House panorama

Just as we were leaving, one of the travelers blurted out that we couln't enter Laos after all from China by getting a visa on arrival, which has put us in real doubt what on earth we are going to do (Actually we DID get into Laos with a visa on arrival, but only by the skin of our teeth when the Laotians didn't recognize our Tibet group visa as valid entry to China). We have booked the flight to Jinghong and I'm currently trying to sort out the severe ambiguities on the internet about the visa situation for Laos.

Another two and a bit hours later at 3.15 we finally walked back into town and I raced ahead and managed to get a cramped little minibus which bounded around insanely and filled up to the gunnels with Chinamen who proceeded to vomit into the sides of the vehicle beside us. Nevertheless we are back in our little guest house in Lijiang with almost no money and will try to sort all these thing out tomorrow.