The sequel to planes, trains, and automobiles took Stefje and I from the jungles of Zhangjiajie to the mountainous province of Yunnan on the Southeastern border of Tibet. A quick flight was followed by a night train and a four hour bus ride, meaning that by the time we arrived in the town of Shangri-La I was physically depleted and badly in need of a hot shower.
Luckily the city’s sleepy old town featured a plethora of accommodation options; soon we were settled in and feeling refreshed. Suddenly at an altitude of 3,200 meters (10,500 feet), we could quickly feel the effects of the oxygen-depleted air as we walked up the steps to a monastery which offered an excellent vantage point of the surrounding area.
With the exception of the domestic tourists still trying to stealthily take pictures of us, the atmosphere felt like we had been transported back to Nepal. Smells of incense wafted around the buddhist temple complex, impressive golden pagodas rose towards the sky, and an incomprehensible number of prayer flags encircled the walkway.
Facing the town was a prayer wheel to put all other prayer wheels to shame. Imposing at more than 20 feet high and resplendent in its gold incasing, it required at least 5 people to begin turning. Once moving, the wheel displayed carvings of Buddhist iconography, a replication of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, and a wide range of lofty mountain peaks.
On the other side of the wheel we got our first panorama of the town. Encompassed by rolling hills on every side and covered by grey clouds which mirrored the grey rooftops of the sprawling development, the view was worth savoring.
In the afternoon we meandered the thin back alleyways of the old town, getting lost amidst the repetitive nature of the shop’s offerings. The standard content was tea, plastic souvenirs, samurai swords and yak jerky, but we also uncovered a few boutique shops that appeal to China’s bourgeoning millennial hipster crowd.
The old town area was devastated by a fire in 2014, and thus many storefronts were still shuttered or in various stages of reconstruction. Yet every single one was still graced by detailed wooden carvings on the doors and windows in the traditional Tibetan style.
The fire caused the town’s tourism industry to almost entirely collapse. However, we were soon witnesses to the strength of the local community. In the evening we stumbled across a huge dance performance taking place in the main square. Men and women alike spread into a multi-ringed circle and performed a series of choreographed dance moves to the beat of local music.
Ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens and sporting both modern and traditional attire, the sight was a unique peek into the wide diversity of lifestyles in Shangri-La.
On the following morning, a bright sunny sky greeted us for the first time in more than a week. At 3,200 meters, the sunlight was bright and intense as we made our way to the Sumtseling Monastery outside of Shangri-La. While we took in the view from a nearby hillside, the warm rays of sunlight, light breeze, and chirping birds conspired to drive me into a deep state of contentment.
Peering inside the gates of the monastery, we could glimpse sparkling golden roofs, overhanging palisades, and a multitude of robed monks walking down the stairs in a wave of red. Before even entering, it was clear that we were visiting a place highly esteemed in the Tibetan community. Pilgrims prostrated in front of the outer wall, slowly circling the massive complex while rising and falling to the floor over and over again.
As we walked in the main entrance, it became apparent that we were entering more of a village than a monastery. Old women chatted on the benches, monks walked to and fro in their flowing robes, and construction workers worked on improvements of centuries-old buildings.
The buildings varied wildly in their construction. Ancient prayer rooms let almost no light in, but residencies had large glass roofs and windows with so much sunlight that trees and bushes could thrive indoors.
The first of a long series of prayer rooms introduced us to the incredible detail and artistry apparent in the complex. Every square inch was decorated, from the archway above the door to the pillars which supported a carved roof. Demons and goddesses were painted on the walls, with vibrant colors making their flaming outlines and skull necklaces really pop amidst the religious calm.
In front of each deity was a long line of offerings: oranges, apples, and yak cheese were normally piled high, but there were curiously also long lines of plastic water bottles and Coca Cola.
Peering our eyes upwards, we could glimpse long curtains of prayer cloths that spun down from the ceiling, which lit up in beauty with a single ray of light that penetrated the otherwise dark roof. All around the room, symbolic artwork and musical instruments were prominent.
This was the general pattern as we made our way to the summit of the monastery; more temples, more steps, more beautiful artistry to observe as we made our way upwards.
With relief and short breath we reached the topmost room, which yielded stunning views of the city behind us and a wide, quiet courtyard in front of us. Here we could sit quietly for an extended period of time, merely letting the sun soak into our skin and observing a procession of monks headed to their afternoon prayer session.
Adorning the largest building was an excellent example of Buddhist iconography: a huge drape hung down with fishes, conch shells, an infinite knot and other auspicious symbols.
We did our best to participate in the culture by lighting incense sticks and walking clockwise around the holy rooms, hopefully honoring the numerous gold-plated statues and quietly taking in our surroundings. By the time we were finished exploring the monastery it was 2pm and our stomachs were grumbling loudly.
The only food of any kind within shouting distance was the restaurant of a fancy boutique hotel, so we shed out backpacker vibe and tucked into a delicious lunch of pumpkin soup and fried vegetables in the high-class establishment.
In the afternoon we made our way back to Shangri-La, basking in the sunlight and preparing for our excursion to Tiger Leaping Gorge. It took a local bus, a longer express bus, and a short walk laden with all our luggage, but by 11AM we had deposited our heavy bags at a storage facility and set off on a hiking trail which would test our mettle over the next 4 days.
We wound along a paved road for the first stretch as a river bisected the valley across from us, with each switchback turn offering progressively better views. Houses clumped around every stretch of flat ground, sloping hillsides were perfectly cultivated, and only electricity poles and trees graced the topmost slopes.
Just as the road gave way to gravel, a trail tore off and proceeded directly upwards. It was dry and dusty, with the sand kicking up from boots to our parched mouths. The sun peeked out from behind a layer of clouds, scorching our necks and causing sweat to bead on my forehead and flood my lower back.
It was just 15 minutes to reach the first resting point, where a woman was perched in the shade selling water bottles, snickers, and big bags of marijuana! I was astonished to see the weed after not encountering so much as a whiff during our entire time in China, but it grows wildly here and is entirely unregulated. At every pit stop for the rest of the walk it was proudly on display along with rolling papers and pipes.
The second uphill was even more strenuous, as we were now thoroughly overheated. The combination of the stagnant heat in the air, dry shrubbery and a few cacti made us feel like we were walking through a desert.
Now higher up, we had an excellent vantage point to scope out the gargantuan construction project taking place across the river. Trucks hauled away debris, machines bored deep tunnels, and cranes stretched skyward to lay the foundation of bridge, all with the end goal of engineering another section of China’s ever-expanding high speed railway.
Although the trail was unceasing in its incline, we found a brief respite in touches of shade provided by pine trees. Gradually we entered a forest, whose cool air and scent of fresh grass was deeply appreciated to calm down our internal heat.
5 minutes of flat walking was enough to rejuvenate us for the final uphill, which brought us to an excellent viewpoint to take in the range of mountains we had been progressing towards all morning.
Shrouded by a crown of clouds that obscured the peaks, the snowy slopes and sheer cliff faces were nevertheless imposing as they rose from sheer nothingness to the highest reaches of the sky.
With heavy legs, sunburnt faces and dehydrated bodies we began the forested downhill into the first village, where we gratefully fueled up with water and noodles before continuing on our way.
Despite the fact that we had already spent the better part of 2 hours ascending, the toughest stretch was yet to come. Soon we were immersed in the tortures of the 28 bends, a long and predictably windy trail which brought our minds and bodies back to the toughest climbs from our time in the Nepalese Himalaya.
The main difference here was the heat: we sweltered under the strong rays of sunlight and chugged water to replenish, but my face still lit up like a ripe tomato. With two intractable rock faces on either side, we progressed steeply yet steadily until blue sky finally appeared at the top. From the pass, we got a glimpse of what was in store for the next two days: the mountains we had admired dropped precipitously into a river which carved out the steep valley.
Directly below us was the lower gorge, which rumbled and roared in a bubbling torment of fury so violent that it could be heard even from hundreds of feet above.
Once across the mountaintop, the flora changed just as much as the views. Evergreens were replaced by a deciduous forest, complimented by thickets of bamboo and bright green ferns. As if to signal the differences, nature soon began howling with a ferocious wind and the skies above us turned black.
Predictably, the rain began soon after. Normally rain spells difficulties when hiking, but the pattering drops turned the dry heat of the day into a refreshing earthy smell. Buoyed by the pungent new smells and the prospect of finishing soon, we completed the last section of the trail with broad smiles across our faces.
Day 2 on the trail of tiger leaping gorge brought with at a lazy morning, as we were the last ones out of the guesthouse with a 9:40AM start time. The day’s walking began simply compared to the day before, as we curled along the side of a cliff without gaining or losing too much elevation.
Looking out across the gorge offered consistently tremendous views. To our right, the murky river coursed rapidly through the rocks, offering expansive views of the sloping hillsides we had crossed yesterday. To our left, the scenery became even more dramatic.
Straight vertical walls had been carved from the tops of a gigantic range straight down over our heads, leaving us awed by the power of the undefeated combination of water and time.
As blue skies opened up above us for the first time that day and we rounded natural bends which enabled us to see far in the distance, we had no choice but to walk slowly and bask in the constantly stupendous views.
Eventually the sound of the river below was supplanted by a roar that felt much closer; we turned the corner to glimpse a long waterfall protruding directly from the mountainside. Whereas most of the area consisted of scraggly cliffs too steep and rocky to support life, under the shower greenery thrived.
While we stopped to soak in the gorgeous scene, my eyes drifted across the mountain. Here a layer cake of natural colors unfurled itself: yellowing grasses gave way to dark grey cliffs, which were swallowed by a layer of bright white clouds rolling across the top.
We shared the trail with about 20 people of various nationalities who were all on similar itineraries, but my favorite companions were the wild goats. Unperturbed by the immense heights and thin footholds, they browsed for shrubbery both above and below us.
Twice we had to bend inwards to traverse streams which carved horseshoe-shaped bends out of the trail, awing us by the perfect vertical inclines both above and below.
Blue skies and pleasant warm weather ruled the day, ensuring we had plenty of gorgeous vistas to take in ourselves. Scary cliffside paths, bountiful mountains all around us, and increasingly beautiful views of the precipitous drop down to the river below made this the most enjoyable stretch of the journey thus far.
About three hours into our walk, we veered off the main path to Walnut Garden while everyone else eloped down the mountain, meaning we were suddenly alone during the most challenging part of the trek. We progressed up a thin track and entered into a steep canyon.
While water poured down our left hand side in a series of fierce waterfalls and calm pools, a series of impenetrable walls of rock soon surrounded us on all sides. The views were gorgeous, but we could feel a growing sense of dread about where this trail would lead.
Within minutes we were navigating sections where most of the trail had been decimated by rockslides, leaving us just one turned ankle from dropping dozens of feet. An increasingly thick bamboo forest became our savior; we used the roots as footholds and grabbed the trunks with our hands to provide leverage.
Yet the risks were not without their rewards. The water flowed through the rocks in hues of light blue and green, a sharp contrast to the murky rapids now behind us.
Up and up we progressed, with no end to the steep canyon walls in sight. The river responded in kind, with larger waterfalls and sharper turns which cut straight into the face and created beautiful rock formations.
Our progress was slow, hampered by not only the elements but also our mind set, as the map indicated that the trail should have leveled off long ago. Finally we were able to cross the river, traversing a wooden bridge wedged precariously over a relatively calm stretch with a waterfall flowing behind us.
Yet we weren’t finished just yet! The trail steadily gained elevation again, as we followed green arrows that gave us frequent reassurance that we would eventually find somewhere to sleep. But now the afternoon rains were upon us. Luckily we found a grove of trees that provided shelter as we wolfed down a Snickers bar, then continued with a kick in our step.
Now it was just a matter of following an aqueduct to the guesthouse, but the easy path was complicated by inclement weather. Rain fell steadily for the remainder of the hike and every time we turned a corner out into the unprotected cliff face, an angry wind gusted in our faces.
With the elements raging on us, it was with immense relief that we arrived at Walnut Garden Guesthouse, having not seen another soul for more than two hours in nature.
With a common room overlooking fertile fields, the enormous mountains across the valley, and a tiny snippet of the river visible below, we were more than happy to post up with a cup of tea and some hot food to take in the deep feeling of peace and solitude which this destination provided.
By the time we wanted to use electricity the power was out, ensuring that we felt as far removed from society as we physically were. Our third day of hiking started slowly, as a low layer of clouds and a few light rain showers convinced us to stay inside and read all morning.
Eventually the weather held off long enough to induce our departure, so we began the descent towards the gorge. We were lost within a minute, but eventually found a “trail” which crossed through backyards and gardens or cut through muddy jungle terrain. The abundant diversity of vegetation was consistently spectacular. Walnut trees sprouted up and bore nuts encased in green packages, wild tomato plants were visible on the side of the path, and otherworldly purple flowers made our jaws drop in wonder.
In cultivated areas, corn, cabbage, strawberries, peaches, and eggplants each spoke to the fertility of he soil in this region. In wild stretches, flowers with hues of red, yellow, and pink abounded. It seemed as though the hill was alive, absolutely bursting with life!
Gradually we lost the way, but we knew that by just heading straight downwards we would eventually cross a road. While navigating steep sections of loose dirt and mud, our path was graced by dogs, horses, pigs, and a whole lot of chickens. An hour of this wild walking brought us straight to the backdoor of Tibet Guesthouse, our intended destination, so we happily indulged in an early lunch.
Sufficiently fueled up, our feet led us once again closer to the sheer vertical cliffs which dominated our views. As the river came closer we could hear its violent rapids come into earshot, then the trail gave us our best view yet of the steep embankments which funnel so much water into such a tight gap.
Before glimpsing any more of the river we first had to follow the paved road through a small village. Tiny houses were each decorated with pastoral images of nature drawn in the traditional Chinese style.
The buildings gave way to wide views of booming agriculture: groves of walnut trees were planted alongside fields of corn and rice. Soon the wilderness was back in full force, with ferns up to waist high and greenery budding out of every possible inch of soil.
The steady descent continued until we were directly alongside the river, cutting a path on a cliff which looked down over the rapids. We peered upwards and downwards with wonder, taking in the endless flow of water and the enormous rocks which stretched high above our heads.
Within a few minutes we were down on the viewing platform which comes perilously close to the river, and for the first time in 3 days I grasped why this is such a popular tourist destination. The water was positively violent: it foamed and frothed with such force that we felt instantly humbled by its powers.
Picking up speed from a set of rapids further to our right, the river cruised down a smooth plateau and then tumbled over a small cliff which caused everything to explode into a chaotic symphony of beauty. Suddenly huge walls of water bursted forth to swallow everything in their path, mist sprayed upwards like fireworks rising into the canyon, and wave after wave of the mess slowly eroded the rocks which have stood the test of time.
It was frightening to event sit in such proximity to this stretch, so even though my jaw hung agape for a while, I was secretly pleased when Stefje suggested we retreat to safer ground. From a little higher up we found an excellent vantage point to fly our drone over the endless battle of nature taking place directly below, providing us with an added sense of wonder as we glimpsed the chaos from directly above.
The last section of walking for the day was by far the most arduous. Having spent our entire day descending, we now had to tackle a steep cliff which offered no respite. Back and forth we climbed, immensely sore and tired after three days of walking but finally with the end in sight.
Looking upwards was a debilitating exercise, there was nothing to see except insurmountable rocks and eventually a questionable metal ladder which induced vertigo in both of us. With grumbling stomachs, dehydrated bodies, and worn out mental states, we were both beyond relieved to reach the topmost point and return to our guesthouse for an afternoon of physical recuperation and craft beer drinking, as we were finally finished with the challenges of Tiger Leaping Gorge.