Wild Visions of Yunnan

Will Fleeson comes to terms with China's stupefying Tiger Leaping Gorge.

By / September 2012


The Tiger Leaping Gorge, in China’s Yunnan province, promised to be wild country. Eighteen-thousand-foot mountain peaks that disappeared into clouds, trails that defied hiking, rapids of exploding brown waters along the Jinsha River. The gorge, which is one of the world’s deepest river canyons, takes its name from a local legend. Trapped between the Jinsha and a hunter in pursuit, a wild tiger in the mythic past, its orange stripes flashing in the sunlight, leapt some 25 meters across this yawning landmark. Or so goes the legend.

The gorge was also said to offer a stupefying nine-mile tract of scenery. There was a high road and a low road, and my attitude was, why go low? After an unsatisfying stop in Guangzhou, a surprising train ride to Kunming, and a long road trip with a couple of perfect strangers to Lijiang, I was eager to hear the roiling rapids from some heady point, then pilgrim to the water where it flowed, even if getting there required a two-day trek and the occasional, unsolicited company of additional strangers.

The bus dropped us off in Qiao Tou, pronounced “Chow-Towh,” according to an Australian hippie chick sharing the ride. As soon as we disembarked, I wanted onto the trailhead. The town, I discovered when I brought it up later, had really creeped out the people in my group.

“Everyone was looking at us,” said David, a Swiss architecture student. “It felt to me like a scene from a horror film, before someone gets killed,” said his girlfriend Debbie. “And for them, foreigners are normal. Strange,” said Houda, a Chinese student, David’s classmate and friend.

I had fallen in with David, Debbie, and Houda while staying at a budget hotel en route to the gorge. They offered to let me crash in the guesthouse they had booked along the trail. We planned to spend the night there, then to hike downhill the rest of the way the next morning. As we mounted higher, the mountainside concrete sidewalk gave way to a muddy road wide enough for a hatchback. It narrowed eventually into a broad rut bumpy with roots and rocks that had crash-landed onto the path from above. Falling earth happened frequently here; I was glad I had arrived after the dust settled.

Below us drifted the Jinsha, its color some shade between caramel and coffee ice cream. Like the trail, the water constricted as we advanced. I pondered the lush, late-summer green mountains as the path’s incline lifted us nearer a charcoal sky. We could have been in the Alps.

The Swiss agreed. The only reminder that we were a hemisphere away was the odd Asian villager we passed here and there, each dressed in what seemed to be the uniform of the local mountain poor: oversized blazer, shapeless trousers, slippers blasted through. I felt tinges of sympathy for what looked to be Chinese hillbilly misery, though the faces of the villagers, fisted into tight smiles, told otherwise. Some occupied trailside stands that sold candy, bottled water, even marijuana, sealed loose in plastic sandwich bags.

“If you want, you can go ahead,” David conceded, a half-hour in. “We’ll meet you at the guesthouse.” I took the offer and worked briskly up the mountain. My energy surprised me; I had slept poorly the night before. I plugged on like this for more than an hour, feeling healthy and strong. But my pace slowed markedly at the Twenty-Four Bends.

A series of hairpin turns as noteworthy for its views as its muscle-melting gradient, the Twenty-Four Bends (which is really more like the Thirty Bends) serve as the mental halfway point of the trail. If you can make it through the bends, someone said on the bus, you can handle the rest. Occasionally a blazered local would appear, seated on the trail at the feet of a tethered mule. They would hector you with temptation: “Ride up mountain? Foh-ty yuan!”

When the bends ended, the incline leveled out some. I took a picture at a short, steep curve. Rocks studded through the path like broken rungs on a ladder. The high road looked as if it led out into thin air. Like a biblical sign, a puny tree with a few ill-leaved branches seemed to warn against the area’s latent dangerousness. The tree’s place there, in rocky soil, looked tenuous, its survival doubtful. But it had not yet withered away.

At the curve’s farthest point, the point at which the trail looked like a bridge out into the clouds, I peered over the side. Bushes clung to the 60-degree slope. A cowbell rang dully. The water produced a constant white-noise ambiance under the sibilance of bird’s cries and the crunch of my footfall. Then vertigo surged. I jerked backward a step. I inhaled deliberately and deeply. Pulling a swig from my water can, I got gone from there. I reached the guesthouse just after 4 pm. An adolescent girl wearing a greasy apron confronted me preemptively, using broken English. “No more rooms,” she said. “All booked opp.”

“I already have one,” I said, and gave her David’s Swiss-German last name.

The guesthouse only deepened my notion of the area’s weirdly Alpine qualities. There were carved-wood window boxes spilling with flowers, architecture built around a communal courtyard. Yet it was completely devoid of guests. I supposed they were all still hiking. Settling onto the open-air patio with a $1 beer, I contemplated the mountain, called the Haba, directly opposite. The mountain’s enormity beggared description. It was clear across the gorge, but I might have been able to reach out and touch it, so vast, so pressing, was the sheer rock slab.

David, Debbie and Houda eventually plodded in. Dinner was low-grade beef and greens we ordered through Houda. That night I slept like a child, carefree, happy enough with a fed belly and a whole day’s fresh air. Tomorrow promised sight of the rush of water I could hear even then, through the courtyard walls, singing a low, earnest lullaby, echoing up off the Haba.



“WE MAKE PICTURE?” A Chinese adolescent howled at me on the cliff-skirting trail the next morning. We were 200 feet above the rapids. The girl’s parents toggled camera controls while I panted, one white-knuckled hand around a sapling growing horizontally out from the rock face.

This had happened before, as I, a Western curiosity, became the half-consenting muse of Chinese shutterbugs. The girl and her parents moved on, each repeating tankyu-tankyu as they cleared the path. I descended the rest of the way, the rapids punishing my eardrums.

The viewing platform was in fact a school-bus-size rock in the water. It bore an un-reassuring single length of wire strung among screwed-in metal rods not four feet high. With a leg pressed against one of the bars, I scanned the brown liquid riot. My eyes landed on a vision that remains tattooed on the corner of the brain where memories go.

A ten-foot boulder with the misfortune of landing in this part of the Jinsha made a valiant resistance, while 800 miles of accelerating runoff fanned and crashed against it. The water bubbled, agitatedly, frothy-white, the plumes shooting 30 feet into the air. The river bounced, brown into brown, then simmered in little lumpy waves before exploding again. The water moved — sloshing, bounding, vaporizing — with an eerie intelligence. Sheets of water as tall as houses tumbled over the boulder. The rock didn’t stand a chance. Another century or so of this unceasing hydraulic bombardment and the boulder would be ground into sandy oblivion. That water is still blasting that rock, right now.

Two hours later, on the winding bus ride out of Qiao Tou, the driver slowed to a halt. I looked forward, annoyed, until I saw why. A landslide had knocked out the road, with scree and dirt running 1,500 feet down to the water below. What had been high-mountain soil now formed a new crescent of loose-earth riverbank.

A couple of bushes lay upside-down among the debris, their exposed roots stirring in the breeze. An almond-shaped rock the size of a doublewide, sheaved from off of the mountainside perhaps an hour before, teetered there on the road’s edge. The driver told us to get out and cross to the other side, where a second bus was waiting. One by one, we scrambled over the 30-foot hill of dirt.

That’s what I remember most about Yunnan, about the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Those two visions. The impossibly loud brown rapids, and the fresh almond rock above the water. I saw some pretty wild country.


Will Fleeson is a press officer at the French Embassy in Washington, DC.