Published Dec. 4, 2005
Copyright The Financial Times
Tiger Leaping gorge sounds just as alluring in Chinese: hutiao xia. Pronouncing the words makes the mouth mirror the required footsteps through the world’s deepest canyon, the falling and rising tones echoing the path taken by your spirit on the 30-mile hike.
The gorge’s name is what first drew me in nearly a decade ago. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a mobbed, muddy town where the sun seldom shone. I am a sucker for place names, so Tiger Leaping gorge and its locale – Jade Dragon Snow mountain, Golden Sand river, South of the Clouds province – proved too much to resist. So I set off even though getting there involved sitting on a bench during a 24-hour train ride, then bouncing for another day inside a bus that struggled over the peaks to a truck stop by the headwaters of the Yangtze.
The journey turned out to be worthwhile in spite of the sleeplessness, the breakdowns and the brawl begun when one passenger vomited on another rider’s chicken. This breach of etiquette aside, Tiger Leaping gorge lodged in my mind as one of the best destinations in China. Here was that rare place with nothing man-made to tour and free from the signs of human chronology – no temples, no walls, no steel, just nature. The gorge is 12,000ft deep and 100ft across at its narrowest point. It has an 18,000ft peak at one side with a jade green river tumbling below and a mule path making a dusty ribbon across terraces of wheat fields. Two basic guesthouses in Walnut Garden, serving simple staples and river-chilled beer by candlelight, allowed visitors to shelter for the night.
As the years passed and China’sdisposable income soared, I’d hear the odd report from Tiger Leaping gorge. I’d been told that a road now ranalongside the river, that tour buses rumbled in, that guesthouses were mushrooming along the trail and that power lines rimmed the path – bringing refrigeration, floodlights and the internet. Two hikers had been robbed. It sounded bleak yet believable. Nearby Lijiang, once the magnificent wood-and-cobblestone seat of the Naxi kingdom, had turned twee. Now its 20,000-resident old town hosted 500,000 tourists each year, most of them Han Chinese on package tours to a region of their country that tourism officials had seriously identified as Shangri-La. I downgraded Tiger Leaping gorge to another lost horizon.
It’s usually a mistake to revisit a beloved locale – it has changed and so have you. But after a bleak Beijing winter, curiosity got the better of me. I left China’s capital at breakfast and by dinner stood at the gorge’s entrance – a journey made possible by an expansion in airline flights and improved roads.
On a clear spring morning, I had a pre-hike breakfast at the Gorged Tiger cafe run by Englishwoman Margo Carter. She first visited Tiger Leaping gorge in 1997 and was so taken by it she decided to stay. But now, she said, paraphrasing a disappointed customer: “Ecotourism in China is walking all day to a remote waterfall, then finding someone pissing in it.” I asked how this hike had changed. Carter’s tone signalled caution: “See for yourself.”
But once I paid the Yn30 entrance fee, turned off the paved road, walked through the grounds of the middle school (where bored kids still hollered hellos) to the gorge’s high path, little seemed different. In fact, the trail looked better. Formerly it wound through the gorge, past rocks spray-painted with yellow and red adverts for Walnut Garden’s competing guesthouses. Signs for the new hotels – the Half-Way, Tina’s and the Naxi Family – look politely muted in comparison. “We are a home in the mountains having silence with beautiful scenery, but not nothing commercial,” reads a rock enticing hikers to the Old Horse Inn.
I arrived on the high trail at the same time as another man. I’d travelled all this way to be alone with memories. Now there was no way around the fact that I’d have a walking partner.
If Coen Weddepohl was as disappointed by the idea of company, he was polite enough not to show it. The28-year-old was on a long Asian vacation from his job in the City of London. Dressed in a FDNY T-shirt and hiking pants, he stopped to ask me to snap a picture of him against a backdrop of the Golden Sand river. The lime green river runs under black cliffs striped with orange lichen and alkaline tears – part of the legend of the river-crossing tiger that gave the gorge its name. After passing a farmer’s home, he asked me to photograph him beside a wheat field. I framed the lens, fearing I was in for a long day. Three times in the next hour, my backpack spilled open, littering laundry along the trail. I saw Weddepohl’s face register the same worry.
We made small talk for the two hours leading into the high trail’s24 Bends, a gruelling series of switchbacks that took us to 8,800ft. Weddepohl mentioned needing to get into shape. It looked impossible for him to get any more sculpted. As I panted up the dusty path under the unclouded sun, I remembered that a younger me could make this climb without pain. Not any more, mocked the crows from shady pine bough perches. A middle-aged farmer descended, leading a donkey. “You’re not even close to the top” he laughed.
Three hours into the walk, Weddepohl and I parted – he to eat lunch and be alone with his thoughts, me to collapse beside a waterfall. An hour later, he caught up. We continued single-file down a perfect path – cushioned by pine needles, shaded by bamboo, crossing frequent creeks brimming with melted snow. The hike felt exactly as I remembered it – gruelling, isolated, uplifting.
As the day wound down and the sun arced behind us, we threaded our way along a cliff-face towards a waterfall. Over his shoulder, Weddepohl mentioned that he’d been diagnosed with a condition. A moment passed. On the road, solitude with a stranger can be liberating – a safe zone to talk without consequences. And Weddepohl is the kind of guy with whom you want to talk, preferably over pints. He told me all about hedge funds, about growing up in the Netherlands, about being held in a Congo jail, about his girlfriend. He’d made me roar with laughter by confessing to once substituting Chinese currency for absent toilet paper: “And all I had were tens and twenties!” So I decided not to let it go. I asked about his condition.
While watching a goat teeter on a tree limb, he said he had leukaemia. This trip was in part to strengthen his body for the bone marrow transplant awaiting him in England. He described the operation and recovery details with the same confident optimism he brought to calculating how long our hike would take. We made it in eight hours just as he predicted.
We said goodnight in Walnut Garden. The next day’s leg required another four hours under the hot sun, descending to the river, then up again to a waiting bus that would rattle all afternoon into town. Weddepohl’s chemotherapy pill made him too fatigued to go on. He had a long journey ahead – on to Bangkok, north to Pyongyang, south again to Hanoi. They were places he always wanted to see, he said, but had never previously had the time. The guesthouse called for a cab. The taxi’s shape dimmed as it returned Weddepohl to the gorge.
I continued down the old trail, past the explosions of the dam survey crew’s work. At the river crossing, the ferry sat anchored but unattended. Spray-painted instructions on the landing stone said to phone for a lift. The ferryman used to stay next to his boat but the new road is making his once-profitable job obsolete. Now he only leaves his farm work and descends the steep switchbacks when hikers call. After a dozen rings, the answering voice asked how many passengerswere waiting at river’s edge. I didn’t know that Weddepohl would go on to survive his transplant and so my voice broke when I said that only one of us would be crossing to the gorge’s far shore.
Mike Meyer lives in Beijing. His first book ‘Echo Wall: The Last Days of Old Beijing’ will be published by Walker Books in 2007