Monday, April 25, 2005

The Gorge - Part 1

Traveling the world by yourself is always an interesting experience, full of mostly good and, unavoidably, some bad times. But it is always a learning experience, and I've learned a lot about traveling, myself and others along the way. I've also sharpened my common sense, and ideas that I once would have dwelled on before still possibly choosing poorly, I now see with quick clarity -- such as embarking on a three-day trek high above one of the world's deepest gorges, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, is best done in the company of others. After all, if I were to fall and break something I would rather have unbroken, the only creatures likely to hear me would be goats, which would do nothing but stare quizzingly at my predicament before deciding that is just what humans do and that it is certainly not as interesting as chewing grass or standing calmly at impossible angles on the rock wall, or the random Naxi goatherder, who would likely think that this is just what Westerners do and that it's certainly not as interesting as watching his goats eat grass or stand calmly at impossible angles on the rock wall.

So I wandered into a nearby hostel and met a couple other solo travelers who, though likely not as worried about goats or goatherders, also decided that it would just be more fun to trek in a group. So the three of us hopped on a bus to the start of the trek in the two-street town of Qiaotou. Our trio consisted of Lee, a 30yo Brit currently living in Melbourne, and Cynthia, a 34yo Chinese-Canadian from Edmonton currently living in London, and me, a Canadian-American Jew from Washington, currently wondering where I had left my very expensive camera. It turns out I had left it at the table of the hostel cafe where we had met up that morning. They both had seen it on the table but apparently decided that it was either not mine or that leaving very expensive cameras on cafe tables and skipping town is just something that Americans do. Thankfully, the owner had seen it and would hold it for me until I returned. I, meanwhile, was both frustrated at not having my camera with me on what would likely be the most scenic part of my month-long sojourn, but also slightly relieved of the burden that it often is. Cynthia allowed me to use hers for when I felt the strong urge to make the 'ch-ch' sound that I love hearing every time I press the shutter button. [Note: I am now home and slightly ticked because Cynthia's pictures are all date/time stamped, which is only important if I ever forget at what exact time I took that shot of the kids mobbing me. Next time I'll remember my camera!]

We finally found the trailhead which soon passed an elementary school, empty of kids who evidently decided it would be more fun to play basketball outside and stare at the big, funny white people who came by everyday to see what it would feel like to be act like a goat for three days. Having gotten a late start and seeing that we were only hiking a couple hours the first day, we took an early break and played basketball among the kids who much preferred to mob whichever one of us was holding a camera. I'll leave out the details of the basketball shootaround except to say that I was still feeling the effects of the cold.

Leaving the slumping yet smiling teachers to handle the suddently frenzied group of children behind, we headed uphill along the dry and dusty path. While our throats and lungs were quite unhappy, our eyes and ears were ecstatic at the awesome mountain scenery into which we had entered and the sounds of....of no yellow hats. When you find yourself somewhere in China and cannot hear the collective jumbling that yellow hats make, you know you're somewhere special. As happy as I was, I was still bothered by the fact that my head and ears were not improving, and I knew I was only going to go higher and higher, to around 8000ft before the trek was over.

There are about ten guesthouses scattered along the TLG trail so that you can try to plan how much to hike each day and where you are going to heal your feet through rest and beer each night. The first night we ended up at the Naxi Guesthouse, run by an elder Naxi couple that, while not speaking a word of English, were nonetheless incredibly warm and hospitable. Chatting with a few other travelers, both heading our way and coming from the village of Daju at the opposite end of the trek, we were warned about the '28 Bends' that would greet us the next morning, an uphill series of switchbacks that would surely suck the air from our dry and already-aching lungs. Cheered at the thought, I drifted off to sleep.

And woke up a few hours later with a pounding headache.

I think I may have made a mistake in coming.


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