September 20th to 30th, 2015
By Jennifer & Steve
This week and a half was a blur of train rides, hiking, scenery and volleyball as we made an effort to fit in our final China adventures and get out of the country before October 1st, the start of the week long National Holiday vacation. Competing with 1.4 billion Chinese for train seats, taxis, views of scenery, etc. would cramp our style a wee bit!
We first arrived in Kunming just before sunrise on Sept 21st, exhausted and disoriented from 22 hours on a train. We had booked hard sleepers anticipating some decent sleep, but this time it didn’t pan out. Our bunk mates included an older country couple, a student, and a business guy. That’s 6 people in a approximately 2m x 2m x 3m space, just enough to be comfortable if everyone is quietly sleeping. But they weren’t. We were entertained by a night of loud cell phone conversations, exceptionally loud (sleep?) talking, creepy touching by the old couple as they reached for luggage in the dark, flashlights circling the room “night at the club” style, and snoring to top it off. Steve slept though most of this but Jenn found sleep impossible, and so spent the night binge-listening to a murder mystery podcast series and grumbling about the neighbors. So, we were quite relieved to finally arrive at the the splendid Cloudland Hostel via tuk-tuk taxi to find an impressively clean and convenient set up. If you’re ever in Kunming we highly recommend it!
We took a day in Kunming to rest and get organised before heading off to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Kunming is a great city dotted with lakes, with great street food, and full friendly people. We wish we had more time to explore it!
Tiger Leaping Gorge
The trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge was another 8 hours via sleeper train (with quality bunk mates this time around) and 2 more hours by shuttle bus to get to Quiatou, the town at the south end of the gorge. Unlike any tourist attraction we have been to in China, Tiger Leaping Gorge was almost completely void of vendors, paved trails, and best of all…other tourists! It was unexpected and a treat, and the first dirt hiking trail in weeks! We spent the first afternoon/evening hiking up Haba Snow Mountain and along the increasingly narrow gorge. It was a pretty tough hike of steep elevation gains and losses at altitude, carrying packs full of water and camping gear, but the views of the gorge and the Eastern Mountains were magnificent.
The hike passed through several Naxi villages. The Naxi are an ethnic minority group who have been living on the mountains surrounding the gorge for thousands of years. Their terraced corn and vegetable crops carved into the side of the mountain are beautiful!
The second day of hiking was much flatter as we followed a footpath used by locals along the side of the mountain. Again, there were may amazing views of the mountains, river, and villages, but the highlight of the day was the cascading waterfall that poured over the trail, and made a fantastic shower to boot. After 2 days of sweaty hiking, a shower waterfall could not have been more perfectly placed…such a treat!
After camping a second night on the mountain, we spent the third day hiking in the gorge itself. To get down to the river, there are three routes tolled by the locals who maintain them. We took the ‘sky ladder’ route, featurng a 40m ladder down the side of a rock face…tall and exposed enough to get your heart pounding.
The view of the gorge from high up on the mountain had been amazing, but you really do need to go down next to the river at Tiger Leaping Rock to appreciate the power of the water as it comes through the narrowest point in the gorge. Tiger Leaping Rock is where a legendary tiger jumped the 25m across the gorge to escape a hunter, and is where the gorge itself gets its name. The rock is the size of a small bungalow, and you can get to it via a suspension bridge put together by a local family using driftwood. Not up to Nova Scotia Department of Transportation specifications!
After surviving the bridge, the force of the river water through the gorge is truly driven home. On the rock you could feel it swaying with the force of the water. Knowing that the rock has been there for hundreds or maybe thousands of years without tipping over helped, but we were still pretty quick to take the bridge back to dry land.
There have been several attempts to dam the gorge for hydroelectric power, which may be the only reason it is yet to be developed for big time Chinese tourism. In infrastructure crazy China it is only a matter of time before one or the other happens, so go see it before it is too late!
After Tiger Leaping Gorge we made our way back to Kunming, and then off to Tonghai for our last three days in China. We were going there to volunteer with a local English teacher, named Albert, whom we had met hiking in Zangiajie a couple of weeks before. When he invited us to volunteer at his little school, we jumped at the chance. After Months of travel, we were looking for an opportunity such as this to get get behind the scenes in a community. Albert’s hospitality in Tonghai turned out to be just what we were looking for.
Our first night was spent in a brand spankin’ new multi-million dollar guesthouse, swanky! Management was very excited to have us as we were the first foreigners to stay there. Because of this our stay featured many tea drinking parties and countless photo sessions of us hanging around.
After checking in, we rushed over to Albert’s house to celebrate the Moon Cake Festival with his family. The Moon Cake Festival takes place on the first full moon after the summer’s harvest, and features a fall feast akin to our Canadian Thanksgiving back home. And a feast it was, with all kinds of meats, soups, vegetables, spices… so much food and it was all delicious!
After eating we all left to hike up the local mountain and see the full moon from the Buddhist temple, a Tonghai Moon Cake Festival tradition. We hiked up in the dark with hundreds of other locals. It was one of those experiences that you would never have without a local showing you around, it was really neat to be apart of it.
The following days in Tonghai were spent with Albert and his family, and chock full of:
- playing volleyball with local retirees, many workers retire as their forties due to work related health problems
- eating fantastic home cooked food, the first in a long while!
- walking in the parks, reading and drinking tea with a Buddhist Monk and rare Chinese Christian in a Buddhist temple.
- teaching English to Albert’s students, Steve even got to pull out some of his elementary music teaching repertoire.
Sadly, after three days, it was time to escape to Laos, the impending crowds of the Chinese National Holiday were on their way! We caught a sleeper Bus South to the border hoping to grab some sleep after two tiring days in Tonghai (those retired vollyball player were in fine shape!) We were the last ones to get on the bus, and so ended up at the back and on the top, sharing a five-person shared bunk with a larger than average Chinese man, a car bumper, and an old TV. Jenn got the spot next to the window (with about 1.5ft of vertical space), and gentleman Steve took the buffer zone spot, stacking shoulders with a grouchy Chinese dude who refused to move an inch. So, between sleeping partially on top of a stranger, having “sign language” arguments with said stranger about personal space (how do you say “dude, just move over a few inches into the space beside you, the car bumper won’t mind” in Chinese?), police passport checks in the middle of the night, and excessive bumpiness on account of being at the back of the bus, it was pretty rough night. But, we made it to the Laos border, and just a short trip away from Luang Namtha.
And that was it, six weeks of China! It was a real treat, an adventure, a challenge, and very much an eye-opening experience! An ancient civilization that has evolved into a confusing and challenging, yet elegantly beautiful and amazingly generous country like no other. China does things it’s own way, in it’s own Chinese bubble, and it is so very different from most other ways around the world. The enormous country continues to live through enormous changes, leaving a trail of history (and currently much pollution and concrete) in it’s wake. There is so much of it, we could probably travel China for 10 years and still find new places to explore and new things to learn. But 6 weeks will have to do for now. Zhaijan China!