The week of October 1 – October 7 was chaotic, exhausting, incredible. Six of my fellow foreign teachers and I had planned a backpacking adventure through Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province for our National Day holiday. National Day is October 1, celebrating the foundation of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao (a bittersweet holiday to those of us in the West), and by working on the weekends before and after, we were able to have an entire week of consecutive days off.
We made the 1.25 hour train trip from Shenzhen to Guangzhou without too much incident, though there was a laughably late-notice realization on my roommate, Jessica’s, and my part that we were going to miss our train if we didn’t rearrange our class schedules to get done earlier on the 30th. The teachers at our respective schools came through brilliantly and two of the teachers at Jess’s school were so kind as to drive us to a bus station we’d never been to before to make sure we got to the Luohu train station on time.
That mini crisis averted, we made it to Guangzhou with plenty of time to spare before getting on the train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. For some reason we all just got to talking and eating as we waited for boarding time, becoming accustomed to the early, slightly uncomfortable configuring of group dynamics, and realized at 9:02pm that our train left in eight minutes and we still weren’t 1) on it and 2) even sure of where to board. We madly dash from helpful-looking person to helpful-looking person (who were varying degrees of helpful: one of the man just shook his head at us) until one woman tells us that we need to be on the first floor. We’re on the second. We run down the escalators, backpacks bouncing, run through the train station, up a steep set of stairs, and onto the deserted boarding area, aware of how ridiculous the seven scrambling, panicked Meiguoren look, and push one after another onto the train through the nearest, miraculously open, car door. As we begin moving through the crowded cars to find our own, the train begins moving, too. Fifteen seconds to spare. We had 26 hours on the train from Guangzhou to Kunming to digest that fact.
We arrived in Kunming at midnight on the 2nd, had to buy seats instead of sleepers (more on that later; basically a seat is a seat and a sleeper is a bed) for the return train trip home, and then went to a hostel to shower and sleep for a few hours before we were out the door by 7am to figure out how to get to Lijiang, the city where we would begin hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.
We met a young woman wearing an ankle length denim skirt and a flowered hat on the shuttle bus to the big bus station in Kunming who spoke English and helped us by tickets for the sleeper bus. We couldn’t get an early bus, however, so we ended up with 11 hours to spend in Kunming, which was fantastic. We wandered around the city and visited a 1,000-year old Buddhist temple and checked out the market and rented a paddleboat for an hour. It’s an old city, very dilapidated in parts and beautiful in others. The streets were rolling hills that reminded me of home, and there was some very interesting architecture. My neighborhood in Longgang, at least, is flat. The weather was cooler, and the trees on the road to the 1,000-year old temple were even changing color and losing their leaves. It was my first glimpse of fall in China (Shenzhen’s fall is simply not comparable/nonexistent, though the weather has certainly cooled, which is a pleasure!) and I loved it.
The sleeper bus to Lijiang took nine hours, and it was a horrible trip. None of us got much sleep. There were five of us spread across the back row of tiny beds, including two guys well over six feet tall. The other two of our group had slightly more comfortable beds in the lower bunks, but it was not a pleasant trip as the bus careened up and down mountainsides in the pouring rain. We arrived safely in Lijiang, however, at 4:30am, and went to find a KFC because it’s the only establishment in China that is open 24hours. From KFC we took a taxi from a rude man who thought we were hilarious because we were foreigners, and he stuck his tongue out and panted like a dog and way, way overcharged us for the short ride to the bus station.
We then got street baozi for breakfast and took an incredibly cramped minibus for three hours to Qiao Tou, where we would finally begin hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge!
The two days we spent on the trail were challenging and exhausting, but the freedom of movement after two days spent traveling was priceless. The first day we stopped for lunch at a Naxi (the large minority group in Lijiang) hostel. The food and tea were out of this world—exaggerated, no doubt, by the feeling of really having earned our lunch! Then we hiked up the “28 bends” which was a painful but invigorating hike of thousands of feet in altitude in a quick succession of switchbacks. My heart was beating like a hummingbird’s in the thin air, though my legs felt strong. The challenge of the 28 bends was worth it though as we rounded the last switchback and came face to face with a staggering view of the Himalayas. I didn’t know the earth could look like that. It was so much bigger than anything I’d ever seen. It rose up and up. There is no picture that could do it justice.
We then hiked to and stayed at an amazing hostel that night called the Halfway Hostel, where we could get a hot shower and the bathrooms were open to the air and had a beautiful view of the mountains. It was such a relief to put down our packs. Dinner was delicious. We didn’t talk much as we ate, and later we had a couple beers and went to bed fairly early, grateful for a chance to actually sleep. The beds were soft and the blankets were warm. I had a nighttime companion of a hideous spider the size of my hand, but luckily for me I wasn’t aware of his presence until the next morning after I had already climbed out of bed. For breakfast that morning we tried the homemade Naxi bread, which was unbelievable. It was similar to naan, but softer and chewier.
We hiked just a couple hours to our next hostel, Sean’s. After we ate lunch, we left our packs in our rooms and hiked down to the Tiger Leaping Rock, where, legend has it, a tiger being pursued by a farmer who wanted to kill him leapt from the rock in the middle of the Yangtze River to the top of the gorge on the other side and escaped. The hike was treacherous. It was raining, the rocks were slippery, the path was narrow, and none of us had hiking boots, only tennis shoes. We climbed right onto the rock in the middle of the roaring Yangtze. It’s a big rock, and it looks sturdy, but it was nothing compared to the might of the river. While we sat on the slick wall of rock, the river pounded against it and the rock shook and shivered. We got a little lost on the hike back, but finally emerged triumphant back at the hostel, where we met up once again with our new friend, Wayne, a South African who we had first met on the minibus to Qiao Tou, and who we repeatedly ran into on the trail and then at our hostel. He was meeting his friends Barry (from Ireland) and Sonya (from Scotland), and so we spent the evening showering (our last shower of the trip—this was the 4th of October, mind you) eating dinner and drinking with them.
We took off early the next morning, for the three-hour ride back to Qiao Tou. Halfway through we had to get out and walk over a landslide that had covered the mountain road to another van that took us the rest of the way. A landslide! Nothing’s boring (or safe) in China. Then a third van to the Old Town of Lijiang where we spent the day shopping in this old city where all the houses have been converted into tourist shops. Ancient buildings crammed in a maze of ancient cobblestone streets. Beautiful and sad. Rivers in between some of the streets—Old Town Lijiang is sometimes called the Venice of China.
After we exhausted ourselves with souvenir hunting, we found a rooftop bar that seemed like the perfect place to end our journey. We were fully and pleasantly surprised when we climbed up to it and found Wayne, Barry, and Sonya sipping Guiness. Good beer is hard to find in China, so I enjoyed my own Guiness thoroughly as we caught up on our lives since leaving one another at Sean’s, and played with the owner’s tiny, adorable puppy. We left by 5:30pm to catch our nine-hour sleeper bus back to Kunming. This time we had secured better bunks on an all-around better bus, so though I still did not sleep much, I was far more comfortable than on the first sleeper bus trip.
We arrived in Kunming again around 4am, and set off in search of another KFC. Just outside the bus station, who should we run into but Barry and Sonya, with whom we proceeded to spend the day. After KFC we stayed at this great Western place with an absolutely fantastic menu (for example, I had a chicken pesto sandwich for lunch) and then we said our final goodbye to them as we headed off to the train station.
Then came 24 hours of pure misery. A 24-hour train ride can be boring but pleasant enough with the right people when you have a bunk to sleep on and can while away the hours in relative comfort. Having to sit upright for 24 hours on bench seats is another matter entirely. Those were the only tickets available, however, and so that’s what we did. It was hell. It was a cesspool of human unhappiness. They had sold out the aisle space as well, so there were many Chinese people crowded into the aisles without seats at all. Some of them slept under our seats, some of them slept crammed next to the trash cans or by the bathrooms, and everywhere you looked people were spitting on the floor, holding their peeing or defecating babies over garbage cans, with misery on everyone’s faces as we all steeled ourselves for a full day without sleep or air conditioning or the chance to be comfortable. It was real China—and these were people who had money enough to travel. Absolute and true poverty is almost beyond our comprehension. The poor in America are not the same as the poor in a developing country.
But we survived, of course, and we arrived back in Guangzhou fatigued and filthy, but happy to have successfully completed the second to last leg of our journey. One more (comparatively luxurious!) short train ride back to Shenzhen, and our Yunnan adventure was over. There are pictures on my facebook; I couldn’t get any to load on here!
And now I’ve seen one of the prettiest places in the world. I want to keep doing that. I want to live my life going around collecting memories of new and wonderful things, the good and the bad, again and again and again. I want the same for all of us.
All my love to those at home. I am always thinking of you.