This was a must-do on our China list. The mountain air, the quaint mountain towns, the friendly locals and of course the jaw-dropping views who could say no? But rumours were circulating that the path was closed due to multiple landslides, including one that hit a bus badly injuring the bus driver as well as many predicted thunderstorms making the trekking path very dangerous.
Luck wasn’t on our side upon arriving at the bus station in Shangrila and once again Doug (a cool American guy I was traveling with) and I left things last minute did not work in our favour and all the seats on the bus to Qiaotou (the town where you start the trek) were all taken. Checking out the other available options such as mini buses and taxis, our only option both affordable and time-related was that bus. So we put on our sad, hopeless lost foreigner facade and tried our best. After pleading for almost 30 mins, and getting dangerously close to throwing in the fake tears, the bus driver agreed to help us out and let us travel on the floor of the bus. With the landslides in the back of my mind and the heavy fog obscuring my view out the window I was happy to arrive after three hours at the town all in one piece.
After dropping off our bags at the town the trek began, immediately regretting my warm wardrobe choice of jeans and a sweater, necessary for Shangrila, but rather uncomfortable for the strenuous trek ahead. Just like the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal, the locals know exactly what you want. After the first big climb of the trek sure enough a little old lady with a firey entrepreneurial attitude had the goods lined up. Cold water, bananas, sticks carved into trekking poles, snickers bars and of course weed. 5 yuan for 5 hits.
“You take puff puff and you go fly fly”
Was her selling point, along with a very dramatic demonstration of leaps and puffing and flying, that made me think that she had also enjoyed a puff or two. After climbing another stretch a lady had an “energizing station” getting you ready for the dreaded “28 bend” climb. For those who were too daunted by the 28 switch backs a man was ready with a horse to take you up the mountain, leaving you to relax not having to lift a finger. But not me! I climbed the whole way.
Another lady was charging you to take photos in a fenced off area she had set up overlooking the gorge. And when we refused to pay she threw rocks and spat at us. Charming. She was a very business driven woman indeed and had picked out the best view of the gorge.
Words and pictures cannot describe how beautiful the gorge is. Before coming to China I did not expect scenery like this. Every bend in the road or hill will set you back a few minutes as you stop in your tracks to soak in the constant incredible sights before you. The mountains seem to come out of nowhere and tower above you reminding you of just how small you are. Clouds are forming all around you teasing you with glimpses of mountain peaks and the valley beyond, only to sweep past within a few minutes and hide them from view. Etched into the rockface on the otherside of the valley little lines of waterfalls lead to the violent rapids below. The sounds of the waterfalls and the rapids echo off the mountain faces and bounce down the valley, only to be interrupted by sounds of goats, chickens or locals murmuring things to their donkeys.
The mountains are both welcoming and terrifying at the same time. The towering rockfaces, their sheer cliff drops and jagged rocks are then softened with the seemingly soft rolling curves of the mountain covered in green, with the silhouettes of the trees dotted on the top, co close to the clouds above.
Most people only spend two days on the trek, but we allowed for two days and two nights, leaving us enough time to relax, soak in the mountain air and nurse some sore blisters before getting back to busy China.
After a restful night sleep waking up to a beautiful gorge and mountain view in front of us we decided to wiggle our thumbs and hitch a ride to Qiaotou where we could then get transport to Lijiang, our next destination.
We were picked up as soon as we stuck out our thumbs and climbed into the friendly carload full of guys, who knew just as much English as we knew Mandarin (very little). After about 20 minutes drive, we saw that the initial rumours we heard were indeed true. A rock the size of the two lane road and bigger than five cars piled high was stopping traffic from passing. The landslide had happened a week earlier and no cars could pass the huge boulder. As we climbed over the rock onto the other side to continue our journey you saw just how dangerous the landslide was. The bitchumen road was torn up from where the rock hit it, so it was easy to imagine how it could have damaged the traffic below. After climbing the boulder we managed to hitch hike the rest of the way into town passing piles of rocks, the remains of other similar land slides.