For your holiday pleasure, and my holiday break, come with me to China for a trek through one of the deepest gorges in the world. This is a 3-part journey. For parts 2 and 3, check in with me on Christmas Weekend and New Year’s Weekend, for a trip out of the house to the mountains near Tibet…
Our bus to Qiaotou lurched through the mountains for about an hour before the bus driver pulled over and we all heard the ominous hiss. Our small group of passengers piled out to stare at the flat tire. Of course there was no spare, even though the rocky road seemed to require such foresight. While we foreigners alternately joked about our dilemma and choked on giant clouds of dust thrown up by passing vehicles, the Naxi driver and a couple of local passengers decided what to do.
Their solution was to pull off one of the four rear tires and put it up front. This left the bus lopsided in back: two tires on one side, one on the other. “Not that it matters much,” said Martin. “The three remaining tires are bald. Not to mention there’s a bolt missing on that front tire.” The Dutchman’s dark, bushy brows added a knowing subtext to his slow, sardonic grin.
We reluctantly climbed back into the crippled bus. As we continued up the steep road, I looked down the serious drop-off to our right and wondered if we’d make it to Qiaotou alive. I wasn’t the only one. Sonja philosophized, “Well, we’re all friends now. So if we die, we’ll die among friends.” Sonja is Martin’s girlfriend, a young German woman with an unexpectedly soft accent, earthy hazel eyes, and an overgrown garden of curling brown hair.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’s 22-mile stretch of 13 peaks makes it look like a many-horned dragon. (photo by Lee Snider and Xu Lei)
Even as our two-and-a-half hour bus ride stretched into a four-and-a-half hour confrontation with mortality, that didn’t blind us to the beauty of the nearing Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The mountain received its name because its 22-mile stretch of 13 peaks makes it look like a many-horned dragon, cloaked in glaciers and snow. From some vantage points the snow appears to be glittering green; so far, the only explanation is that the color might be caused by crystallized algae. The tallest peak stands at 5600 meters (about 18,000 feet), an impossibly sheer precipice not yet conquered by any human. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain lies across from Haba Snow Mountain. It is between these two mountains that the Yangzi River has carved out Tiger Leaping Gorge, where our trek will take us.
As we rose higher into the mountains, a few tatty local men boarded the bus. A couple of them sat smoking and drinking beer. When one man finished his beer, he tossed the bottle out a window, sending it sailing down the drop-off and out of sight. I raised an eyebrow at Sonja. “I know,” she said, shrugging. “But this is normal in China.”
Since we were traveling into the far reaches of China, I could only guess that we would soon arrive at the far reaches of normal.
Late this afternoon we arrived in Qiaotou, a depressing town of dilapidated buildings. The mud and dust were unremitting as far as the eye could see, rocks and garbage piled randomly in the street. A small boy dressed in rags played in one tremendous dirt pile. The dogs and chickens, too, had a look of dusty, ill-fed poverty. The town struck me as all the more ugly in contrast with the beautiful green mountains surrounding it. I was tempted to pity the peasants walking up and down the street, but they were all smiles and my pity seemed gratuitous.
I was one of just four foreigners who stepped off the bus, and together we quickly found a dorm room at the Gorge Village Hotel. Our fourth is Kurt, a tall, artistically unkempt photographer from Holland. Kurt is covering a magazine story on the Yangzi River.
Our dorm room is a barren, dusty space with skinny cots and threadbare curtains that look ready to disintegrate at the slightest touch. But we were excited to spot a luxury that seemed completely out of place: electric blankets. We threw down our packs and exclaimed over these technological wonders.
Then Kurt went for a walk, while Martin, Sonja, and I went to a nearby café for lunch. Martin and Sonja also ordered a non-food item that was handwritten on the back of the menu in large black letters: GANGHA. The waitress brought a huge bag of marijuana right to the table, presenting it for approval like a cheap bottle of wine. Martin gave her just three yuan (or about 50 cents) in exchange for enough weed to roll about four joints. I quickly snapped my mouth shut when I realized it was agape.
Martin smiled his knowing smile. “You don’t approve, Cara?”
“It’s not that. I’m just surprised they’re so open about it.”
“It’s true, Gangha is illegal in China,” Sonja said. “If people are caught selling they can go to prison. If they sell a lot they can be executed. But that doesn’t happen in remote places like this. No one will catch her here.”
As she spoke, I realized that this town, a scant four hours from Tibet, exists apart from the world. Still, I imagined a pitiless arm throwing me into the cold, lightless cell of a communist prison. I would have bypassed the pot in any case. My pot smoking days are over. For me drugs are an escape, and my life is already an escape act—no need to enhance that.
Sticking to the inside of the menu, I ordered a Naxi sandwich: two thick pieces of Baba bread, scrambled egg, snow peas, tomatoes, and cheese. It was pretty tasty. I don’t know how Sonja’s and Martin’s side-order turned out; they didn’t go so far as to light up at the table.
There was little to do in the village, and we spent most of our afternoon and evening at the café. When darkness fell, the electricity promptly went dead, so we ate dinner by candlelight. Fireworks began flying into the night sky, set off by villagers near and far in anticipation of the upcoming Chinese New Year. As we watched out the window, we grew silent and separate. Even as Sonja leaned against Martin and the flickering candlelight painted their faces into a single portrait, their expressions told me they, too, were each alone.
Shortly after nightfall, we all went to bed. The electricity came back on and, giggling like children, we turned on our electric blankets. A few minutes later, I awoke to a burning sensation. I threw a leg out from under my searing blanket, but was instantly chilled. I wanted to turn it off, but everyone’s blanket was linked to the same circuit.
Sonja’s exasperated voice broke the silence. “I can’t take it anymore—it’s too hot!” She angrily threw off her blanket. “OK, now I’m too cold.”
“I’m having the same problem,” I said.
“Me too,” the guys chimed in.
Laughter filled the room as we realized we’d all been suffering the slow roasting of our flesh in polite silence. We voted to turn off the blankets and rely on our long underwear for warmth.
I imagine someday we might all be killed by a deadly combination of technology and good manners.
To be continued…