The mighty Yangtze River, properly called Chang Jiang (the Long River) begins its life in the Tibetan plateau, fed by mountain springs and snowmelt, and gathers momentum and strength as it heads south, through one of three parallel river valleys in Yunnan, beside the Mekong and the Salween rivers. At one point, north of Lijiang, the Yangtze cuts a narrow gash between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a line of jagged snow-covered teeth, on one side; and Mount Haba on the other, carving a water-hewn channel with almost sheer cliffs rising on both sides to peaks of nearly five and a half kilometres above sea level.
At twenty-three kilometres long, Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly, so narrow in points that it is almost possible for a tiger to leap across, perhaps alighting briefly on a stone slab rising up from the churning waters of the rapids. Years before, miners had hewn a donkey track into the side of Mount Haba, which has now become a walking track, the entire length of which exhilarates at every step, either because of the impressive might of the Jade Dragon blocking the sky before you, or the pale jade-coloured river flowing swiftly and dangerously 1500m below you, just a step from the edge of the path.
And yet it begins so gently, in the sleepy town of Qiaotou, a stop-off on the trail of hundreds of Chinese tour buses northbound to Shangri-la, where the river runs wide and slow around a gentle curve. This gives me a false hope that, despite all I've read about Tiger Leaping Gorge, it's not really something to be anxious about, even though the my instincts and sense tell me it's not too late to turn around and head back to Lijiang. When we arrive in Qiaotou it's market day, and all the local villagers have converged on the town to buy and sell - mandarins, vegetables, spices, roots, and strange medicinal leaves.
The women wear ethnic dress and carry baskets of fresh food on their backs, not for the sake of the tourists, but because this how they always dress for market day.
I expect the start of the trail itself to be more exciting, but as I follow the whitewashed village school wall to its end, as instructed, I come to a crudely painted sign. It turns out this will be the nature of the directions all the way along the trail, coloured arrows painted in haphazard fashion by the owners of the few guest houses along the path. Follow the red arrows for the Naxi Family Guest House, the yellow arrows for Sean's Guest House, and the green ones for the Ancient Path Guest House.
It's all uphill for the first hour, through fields of rapeseed and wheat, and groves of blossoming fruit trees. Not so bad, I think, although the gentle inclines (as they later prove to be, although at the time I think them to be steep) are making my heart pound and my breath come in rasping gasps. The altitude is higher again than Lijiang, where I had problems yesterday with just a few stairs, and I wish I had more time to acclimatise. Instead, I stop to take photos and catch my breath every ten minutes, while a jack hammer bangs away at my temples and wish that I knew much less than I do about high altitude illness (it always seemed more interesting to study wilderness medicine than hypertension). Realistically I'm not in any danger at this altitude unless I try and climb too high, too quickly, and my progress is so excruciatingly slow that seems impossible. But the headache won't budge and I feel very fuzzy.
Trying not to look like I'm struggling for breath, with Jade Dragon Snow Mounain rising behind me.
After two hours of sweating and heaving, the path flattens out briefly into a lovely meadow, with a traditional Naxi stone house in the middle of it. This is the Small Guest House, whose folks aren't shy of a lick of red paint or two advertising what they offer, they let us sit on their wisteria covered porch and bring us mint tea in a glass. It would be incredibly tempting to stop right here for the night, where the hospitality is so good, but I'm pushing on to the Naxi Family Guest House for the night, or there will be no hope of getting the walk done in three days. Having set off from Lijiang straight after breakfast, it's now well past three in the afternoon, and the one thing in our favour is China's single timezone, set to Beijing time, which means that here in Yunnan it doesn't get dark until well after 8pm. I think briefly of the poor buggers in far western China who are drinking their mid-morning tea in the pre-dawn darkness and going to bed while the sun still blazes.
I set off again for another two hours of gasping, stopping, plodding ahead, and gasping again, and I finally see the sign I've been waiting for - the Naxi Family and their guest house are just around the corner, right before the dreaded start of the '28 Bends', a series of switchbacks leading to the highest point of the trail. Those can wait until tomorrow.
I'm curious to know what a guest house perched on the side of a mountain will be like, at least two hours walk from the nearest road. Will I be sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and eating whatever meagre leftovers are on offer? Will there be any hope of a shower? I'm completely prepared for roughing it, with a pack full of mandarins and nuts, and extra layers of clothes for the cold mountain night ahead, and I'm expecting to stink pretty badly by the end of the trek.
But of course, what awaits me when I walk through the decorated doorway of their courtyard home, hung with rows of drying corn, are soft beds with crisp white sheets, hot showers, cold beers, Yunnan coffee, and fabulous home-style Naxi food. There's even, unbelievably, electric bankets and wireless internet, should I have lugged my laptop with me. China never ceases to astound me. If I could just get rid of this headache it would be perfect.
I fall into the sleep of the dead at about seven o'clock, well fed, showered, and with an incredible view of the mountains from my window. I don't know if I'll be able to move tomorrow, every part of me aches and today I've covered only 5.6 km of the total 23km at a blistering pace of 1.4 km an hour. But I'm not going to think about that until tomorrow, when I will wake up clear-headed, strong legged and completely and totally acclimatised. Fingers crossed.
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