While everyone else is napping, watching TV, or washing dishes this holiday weekend, let’s you and I sneak away, and continue Part 2 of our trek through China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge…
Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
At the first dim light of dawn, I woke to the sounds of inhuman screaming. The screams jolted me through the mental free-fall I experience each morning, as I try to remember where I am. Sonja was already awake.
“What’s that?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think…” She paused to listen as the shrieks intensified.
“It’s pigs,” said Kurt. “They’re slaughtering pigs.”
When we left town in the early morning light, we passed a Naxi man with a wheelbarrow full of headless, bloody swine. “Ni Hou!” we called out, and he smiled cheerfully in reply.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a dizzying 3900 meters (nearly 13,000 feet) deep. (photo by Lee Snider & Xu Lei)
We left the dusty village behind for the dusty trail ahead, and quickly found ourselves in the deep pocket of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Staggeringly tall mountains soared above, the sharp-toothed jaws of a shark slicing a ravenous bite from the dusty blue sky. The Yangzi River swept along far below us, a remote strand of jade, sparkling with streaks of white water. Natural waterfalls gushed down the precipitous rock faces in great swathes of wild lace, rushing toward their destiny with gravity. The gorge is a dizzying 3900 meters (nearly 13,000 feet) deep, and the drop-off from our narrow trail was adrenalizing. It was best not to dwell on the height, or how far down the sheer cliffs I would fall before hitting anything, if I should take one misstep.
Kurt complained we were too far from the river. Considering he’s a photojournalist covering a story about the river, his complaint was understandable. The river remained a distant tease throughout the day.
We passed through several tiny villages, where terraced crops of rice and sugarcane surfed the mountainsides. The leaves of the rice plants were a brilliant green, translucent in the sunshine. An improbable irrigation system zigzagged through the many mountain paths – hollowed out logs, concrete canals, metal pipes – miles and miles of routed and re-routed water. Intermittently, we heard the sound of bells heralding the approach of goats, mules, cows, and the villagers who led them. Some villagers smiled and greeted us. Others simply stared.
At lunch, we stopped at a small, family-run guesthouse and drank sodas in their courtyard, surrounded by buildings of rough-hewn wood and stone. A woman of about 30 served us, while her husband hung back and considered us over his cigarette. A girl of about 10 helped her mother, while a younger boy played nearby. Sonja said something to the mother in Mandarin, and the woman replied. Sonja’s face registered questioning surprise as she held up three fingers and said something that included the word “san.” When they stopped speaking, we looked questioningly at Sonja.
“It’s very hard to understand her. Her Chinese is not so good,” Sonja said. “But I asked her how many children she had, and she said three. Of course, this is illegal, so I was surprised. I told her that her children were beautiful. Then I asked if she ever worried about the government catching her. She said no, the government never comes here.”
As rural ethnic minorities, Naxi people are allowed two children per family, while most Han Chinese are allowed only one. Yet Sonja’s surprise struck me as odd; hadn’t she told me the woman who sold gangha in the Qiaotou café wouldn’t be caught because we were too far from civilization? Maybe Sonja couldn’t understand why poor people would take a risk with no promise of profit. Maybe she reasoned that a few ounces of pot were easier to hide than a few pounds of baby. Maybe she thought coerced abortion and sterilization an easier alternative than paying a fine for an illegal extra child, a fine that would only make these people more impoverished than they already were.
Later, Sonja shared her observations about the Chinese policy of one child per family, which is more strictly observed in big cities like Shanghai, where she lives: “The children are spoiled, especially the boys. Each one is an only child, so their parents indulge them, because all the family hopes are in this one child. In wealthy families many children are fat, because the parents feed them too many sweets. They throw tantrums in public and their parents do nothing to stop them. You can see why they have the one-child rule, because this country is so crowded. But in a way it’s terrible, you know? This is becoming a nation of only-children. They’re not used to sharing, and they’re used to getting what they want. And they are the future of China.”
Sonja exudes the intensity of youth, a combination of sweetness, strength, and wisdom that intimidates me. Although she has a relaxed joie de vivre, she’s not one to engage in small talk. I always feel as if I might be discovered a phony at any moment, although I can think of nothing I’m hiding.
As we walked on, we got lost in the maze of paths. Sonja asked a local man for directions, while we waited in silence, listening with admiration to her rapid Chinese. We breathed relief as she nodded and smiled at his friendly responses. When he left, we turned expectantly to Sonja. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know what language he was speaking, but it wasn’t Chinese. I have no idea what he said.” Our next encounter with a villager was the same, and we gave up asking for help. Whenever the path forked, we guessed. If we hit a dead end, we turned around. Luckily most of the paths seemed to lead more or less in the same direction.
We walked for more than eleven hours (not counting breaks), covered at least 10 miles (many of them uphill), and breathed great choking clouds of dust the entire way. By afternoon, each breath I took rubbed sandpaper across my lungs and throat. My cough grew worse, and I began to sneeze. I repeatedly blew clots of muddy snot into my tissues.
It was nightfall when we reached Woody’s Guesthouse in Walnut Grove, and my legs felt weak and rubbery. At dinner, Sonja joined me in coughing up the day’s dust. Neither this, nor the arrival of our food, stopped Kurt from lighting up a cigarette. His smoke enveloped us, and Sonja rolled her eyes at me as we both suffered another coughing fit.
Usually when I hike with companions, at the end of the day we discuss the hike, sharing our impressions of what we’ve seen. But tonight none of us seemed to feel the need. Instead we talked about the world outside this place, which we’ve left behind, at least for the moment.
Kurt told us his editor informed him yesterday that Amsterdam commuters were caught in a 1000-kilometer traffic jam, the largest in the Netherlands’ history. He said it might well go on for days. The grid was truly locked. Considered from our point of view, far off the grid, the story sounded like science fiction.
The entire life I’ve known is beginning to seem like fiction, and each step I take into the unknown is becoming my new reality, as I trek deeper into this land of legend.
To Be Continued…