Thursday, July 05, 2007

Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lijiang is about as close to the western border of China as we will probably ever venture. Flying in, we were treated to a scene of bright green mountain chains with small villages hidden among the canyons. Lijiang sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. The area is inhabited by 22 minority groups, of which about 60% represent the Naxi clan, a traditionally matrilineal society. We arrive on a beautiful day with blue skies and white puffy clouds. Given the expectation that this is monsoon season, we decide to see as many sites as we can in the afternoon. The hotel arranges a driver for us, who is prepared to take us to Jade Snow Mountain, the top of which reaches 13,000 feet. We make a stop for snacks and another for canisters of oxygen, which he advises us to take. Remembering how we felt in Lhasa, we don’t argue. He will drive us to the park where we will ride a cable car up to the peak and then walk the remainder of the way. The drive up is beautiful and we pass small villages and green fields. As in all places of China, there are crowds of people, and after purchasing tickets, we wait for our bus number to be called. The bus takes us to the cable car, where another long line awaits, not unlike the queues at Disneyland. We wind our way around and around, watching the tv sets showing a music video of Prince. A video of the tourist site would have been more appropriate, we thought. The cable cars which seat 6 takes you up the mountain through a beautiful valley. At the top, a walkway consisting of wooden paths and stairs leads up to the peak. This is where the oxygen comes in handy. It begins to rain, hail then pour. It is around 20 degrees and downright miserable. We are shrouded in clouds and I begin to wonder if this climb is worth it, and twice almost turn back. We can see dirty glaciers along the side but not much else. After about 30 min. we reach the top. Lo and behold, the skies clear and the clouds drift by. The view of the valleys and mountains below is spectacular. We are standing at an elevation higher than we have ever been before and what a feeling that is!

Tiger Leaping Gorge
The following day, we venture out to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a river gorge that sits between the back of Jade Snow Mountain and Habba Mountain. It is a 2 hour drive on a winding narrow road. I try to convince the driver that perhaps we could go to the section of the gorge that backpackers frequent; the area that is a “rite of passage” for packers, but he is not convinced. He tells me the road to that section is closed due to an avalanche 40 days ago. I have read of a different section accessible by ferry and he proceeds to tell me that people die each year attempting to hike the gorge. He says he is responsible for our safety and we shouldn’t think about it. I tell him we are strong and hearty hikers, and he thinks I am nuts. So we end up walking the tourist trail out to the gorge. Workers are stationed along the path with megaphones, and they yell to you if you don’t stay close to the edge of the cliff. If you don’t mind their commands, their megaphones begin to play Jingle Bells!

It is an hour walk and the weather is quite warm. We reach the viewing platforms and look at the roaring brown waves below, which look like foaming cappuccino. It is not quite the scene that I had pictured, but is quite incredible all the same. I still wonder about the trail we did not take and wish we could have at least explored it up close to see what it was like. Though given the canyon was not as wooded as I had imagined it would be, I am sure it would have been a dusty and hot hike.

This trip has been much harder to navigate as the rural character of the area and the lack of ready transportation aside from a leased car, has made it challenging to be independent. Lijiang has no train or subway system. I would have liked to have hiked the green hillsides or walked along the farmlands, but to do so could have been unsafe and quite cumbersome. We made a last tour stop at a protected wildlife refuge along a lake. The lake is low this time of year and becomes a vast grassland. In the distant water, we can see hundreds of fishing nets in the process of being repaired. This lake fills up between Dec. and April, and migrating wildlife flock to the area. Our local guide, a young Naxi girl tells us about the area, and shows us the minority homes that have been constructed on the property to illustrate the differing cultures. Their water comes from the snow melt of Jade Snow Mountain and she tells us that recent winters have seen the water level rise approximtely 2-3 meters over the past 5 years. It occurs to us that we were seeing the effects of global warming in action. They were in the process of rebuilding in order to raise the height of all of their buildings. We tell her about global warming which she finds quite fascinating, and thanks us for educating her. After arriving home, we search the internet and indeed find articles discussing the issue of melting glaciers on Jade Snow Mountain.

Our last day in Lijiang was spent in the old town. Black Dragon Pool, where all spectacular photos of Jade Snow Mountain are taken, is currently a dry pond due to the drought. The drought has kept the weather good for us, but has left rivers and lakes dry and brown.

The old town area is a restored village built on many levels with canals running along the streets. It is charming, especially at night when the music from the bars flow out and the costumed waiters and waitresses dance to their local folk music. Like all “restored” ancient Chinese towns, it is lined with souvenir shops. We contribute our share to the local economy and then find a restaurant for a Yunnan dinner. In the evening, we attend a Naxi orchestral concert performed by local artists, the majority of whom are in their 70’s and 80’s. The ancient instruments are fascinating to see and hear. During the cultural revolution, the musicians buried their instruments to keep them safe. Being part of this show made me feel a part of the local culture and fortunate to be able to experience this as a local Chinese tourist would. This was the perfect ending to a very educational trip in the west.


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