It’s a New Year, time for your next 365-day trip around the sun, and your new opportunity to resolve on the life of adventure you’ve always wanted. Let my trek through China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge inspire you, as you consider where you might want to go, or what you might want to read, in 2010. Come with me, as we conclude our journey to The Far Reaches of Normal.
This morning we started on the low road. From there, we worked our way down a narrow and treacherous path to the legendary Yangzi River, which runs through the basement of the gorge. The Yangzi is the third-longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon. It originates in Tibet, and flows 6500 kilometers (4000 miles) to Shanghai and the Yangzi Delta. Yangzi literally means “long river.”
In contrast, our short river-crossing seemed comically anti-climactic. We paid 10 yuan each (about a dollar and a quarter U.S.) to a young man who ferried us across the swift river in a rubber dingy. Pushing diagonally against the strong current while maintaining a course for the opposite shore required muscle, but Charon went about his task deftly.
At its narrowest point, the gorge is only 27 meters (90 feet) across. According to local legend, a tiger once leapt across the gap, over the swirling waters of the Yangzi. We crossed at a slightly slower pace than the tiger, yet I only had a few moments to cast my glance down the length of the river. The Yangzi slithered between the close walls like a large snake, its glistening body striped with blinding sunlight and dark shadows. From our position deep in the pocket of the gorge, we couldn’t make out the peaks above. If I wanted to hide from the eye of God, and couldn’t find a cave, this narrow crease in the world would be a good choice.
When we reached the other side, we spent about an hour and a half walking up a series of long switchbacks to the road above. At the top we splayed ourselves on the ground in an exhausted heap. We stared silently across the gap, watching a continuous landslide that was pouring rocks and dirt down the side of the gorge we’d just left behind. It sent a massive curtain of dust up the canyon wall. The slide started yesterday, completely blocking off the low road. Here was a noisy testament to the danger we’d avoided by taking the high road for most of our trek.
Even though we’d only walked four hours today, my muscles were twitching with fatigue, and everyone had had enough. So when a guy driving an odd tractor with a loud, sputtering motor offered us a ride, we accepted. The man asked if we wanted to go fast or slow. Kurt gave me a mischievous wink and said, “Fast.” We lurched along the rocky road so violently I thought I might get bounced right off the tractor. Martin and Sonja giggled at my goggle-eyed look.
“Relax, Cara!” Martin shouted. “You came safely through the gorge, surely you’re not going to fall and die now.”
“Maybe not, but my butt will be black and blue by tomorrow morning.”
We checked into the Sunflower Guesthouse, where we relaxed in the courtyard with some tea, while Martin and Sonja smoked a celebration joint. With expansive smiles that told me the gangha was good, the couple suggested we wander into the village.
Although Daju’s friendly people all seemed to be working, nobody seemed in a rush. (photo by Cara Lopez Lee)
Daju is much nicer than Qiaotou, clean and well kept. Its Naxi homes are made of grey and earthen bricks, with steeply sloping tile roofs, red-gated entries and central courtyards. We passed friendly people carrying heavy loads, unloading goods from a bus, and sifting grain in their courtyards. Most of the adults seemed to be working, but nobody seemed in a rush.
We sat outside a small café and watched a group of children play soccer on the dirt road. Sonja, Martin, and Kurt drank beer, while I drank tea. “Gan bei!” Sonja shouted, as we clinked glasses. She explained that this is the Chinese equivalent of “Bottoms up!” and that the Chinese consider it rude not to take a drink upon hearing this toast-cum-challenge, which often involves shots of strong liquor. She admitted that she’d been gan bei’d under the table many times. “The Chinese can really drink, let me tell you!” she said. I don’t know about the Chinese, but our Western-style victory party turned into quite a noisy bit of entertainment for the mild-mannered Naxi who passed.
Martin offered a Naxi man some of his higher-end brew, an exchange that tickled them both immensely. (photo by Cara Lopez Lee)
One old man walked by carrying a beer and smiled in our direction. Noticing that the old man’s beer was of a cheaper sort than his own, Martin jumped up and gave him a half-full bottle of higher-end brew. After he thanked Martin, the man walked a short distance away and dumped his cheap beer onto the dirt in favor of his new gift, wrinkling his nose at the inferior product. This tickled Martin immensely, prompting him to run over to the man and offer to pour more beer into the now-empty bottle. The old man accepted with alacrity, laughing so unreservedly that we all giggled with him. He and Martin chatted for a moment, even though each spoke his own language and neither knew what the other was saying. They were both grinning. “Isn’t he sweet?” Sonja said.
Through a combination of gestures and a few words of Mandarin, Sonja figured out that the man was trying to invite us all to his house. We were disappointed to have to say no, as we’d already said yes to a Naxi-style feast at the Sunflower Hotel.
For the feast, our group gathered with a dozen other Europeans and Americans around a low table in the courtyard. With chopsticks and rice bowls in hand, we informally sampled from an array of platters. Chopsticks and arms tangled randomly across the table, along with plenty of laughter and jokes.
The daughter of the woman who owned the hotel joined us. She was about a year old, with green slanting eyes and light brown hair. We heard that her father was European. The aggressive little beauty wandered up and down the long table demanding food and attention, and charming the entire party. To get my attention she hit me, and when I didn’t instantly respond, she hit me again – hard.
Sonja laughed uproariously at this breach of etiquette. “She doesn’t have very Eastern manners, does she?”
The party stayed up late, everyone reluctant to leave such a happy gathering.
When the crowd dwindled, I wandered to an outdoor sink to brush my teeth. I glanced up at the sky, then did a double take, toothpaste bubbles dripping from my open mouth: overhead was a profusion of stars more luminous and numerous than I remember ever seeing in my life. I smiled to myself. My feet were sore, my lungs dust-scoured, my body excessively weary – yet I felt a deep satisfaction and stillness of spirit.
Now, as I lie on my hard little bed in the dark, those feelings remain, but they mingle with darker thoughts. I think about the six months of traveling to come and feel a deep loneliness. All I know and love, even all I know and hate, is far away. It eases the heartache to think of the new friends I’ve made on this trek, and the friends I have yet to make on the journey ahead. But although these friendships are real, they are, of necessity, temporary. And once this journey is over, I don’t know to what I will be anchored.
This 3-part story was one of many stories from my trip around the world that didn’t make it into my memoir. If you’d like to read more about my adventures, They Only Eat Their Husbands will be released by Ghost Road Press in 2010.