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Forget ‘Three Gorges’


For the adventure traveler in China, there’s really only one gorge to see. Forget the three gorges. The boats have rats, the river’s a filthy soup floating with plastic and fecal debris, and the passage through the hills, even if you can see them for the clouds and air pollution, is way over rated. The strangely named Tiger Leaping Gorge is so crowded that you might just as well be strolling down Jeifang Lu somewhere. There’s no doubt that the beer’s cold and the spaghetti ain’t too bad, but is that really what you came to China for? If you want to compare notes on college life, stick to the beaten path and the common tourist travel-ers. If you want adventure, walk the gorge between Zhongdian and Lugu Lake in China’s southwest Yunnan Province.

The bus from Yunnan’s Tibetan town of Zhongdian gets me into the end of the line village of Luoji late in the afternoon. I think I know where I want to go, to Yongning, near Lugu Lake, but I have no idea how to get there. So in my 10 volt Chinese, I ask the woman who’s running the tiny restaurant near where the bus wheezed to a stop.

After a shrug and a moment’s huddle with the guy rinsing the rice, she hesitatingly points with her chin at a menacing hulk of a man sitting at a little table. He’s one of those block people, square head, broad thick shoulders, legs like logs, a long pony tail and an ominous face, weathered dark and lined.

“Ask him,” she tells me in a low voice. Against my better judgment and in my two cylinder Chinese, I tell the guy that I want a guide and a mule to take me over the mountain and across the river by way of Sanjiangkou. I want to get as close as I can to Lugu Lake.

He grunts, glowers, and gestures for me to follow him.

I leave my bags with the woman at the restaurant, we’re out of the tiny village in a moment, and I’m let-ting some tough guy lead me down a steep, scree path to…where? I’m feeling more and more uneasy about him.

Until we reach the elementary school’s outdoor basketball court and all the children gather around him, my fixer for the moment. He’s Teacher Li and they hug him and reach out for his hands. His gym class is clearly popular with the kids. He beams when he sees them. After a cup of tea and a sweet, juicy pear, a radiant Teacher Li shows me the paintings he’s done. Most of them are geometric and Tibetan looking in keeping with his cultural background, but there’s a glowing copy he’s made of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. He pulls out a huge sheet of paper to draw me a map.

“It’s really easy,” he tells me. “Teacher Wang and I did it not long ago. From here to Baguan vil-lage is about nine hours walk the first day. You’ll start seeing the gorge half way there.”

The what?

I’m pretty sure I keep saying, “I want a guide, shangdao, and a mule, luozi, to get me to Yongning near the lake,” but my Chinese is pretty low octane, so who knows.

“Really. It’s easy,” Li says. “Just stay on the path. Here, here’s a map.”

An artist’s map. Cloud shrouded mountains, zigzag paths, lovely streams disappearing in mist and woods, and a deep canyon, a gorge, a gorge. Not the sort of cartogra-phy I want to get me safely over a route that I’ve never seen.

“A mule, I want a luozi, and a shangdao. Can you get me a guide?” Reluctantly, Teacher Li trudges with my chicken shit ass back up to the restaurant. We ask in the tiny general store. Nope. The post of-fice. Nope. Duck our heads into a couple of houses, no one. Finally at the upper limit of the village, near a welder’s shop, Li’s standing around smoking and kicking dust on lungers, when a rusty, roofless 4 by 4 rolls up with eight young men laughing that young man laugh as they’re drinking beer from those big green liter bottles. The driver has an intense and brooding look, mad at something maybe, just sits there. The six guys in the back push and shove each other out of the back with that boy bravado and noise, and with the grace of a clown show.

Teacher Li barely looks up. “Wanna take this foreigner through the gorge to Labo? He wants a mule.” The gorge again and Labo’s where I can get the bus to Yongning and on to Lugu Lake. The guy sitting where the front seat should be looks like a pirate. He has curly hair, a silver earring, and keeps peeling skin off his thumb with a big knife from the scabbard strapped to his left side.

The six in the chorus laugh that “are you kidding” laugh, but the driver shrugs and looks at the pi-rate. They both grin a grin I don’t like and say, “Sure.” I don’t actu-ally see any chops being licked, but I’m certain I sense it. Yikes! Do I really want to do this?

Teacher Li and I walk back to the restaurant for my bags. There we sort out the details. A guide and a mule, actually the driver, his name’s Huo Zhr Ping, and the pi-rate from the front seat will both go, but I only pay Huo. It’s gonna be 150 RMB a day. “Why so much?”

“Well, he’s gotta walk back too, you know. You pay him for both ways.”

I’m rich. Less than US$20 a day. The traveler ethic says I ought to bargain, but the price is fair. We agree.

“He lives in Muxinto, up on the mountains. He’ll drive you up. That’ll save you some time and you’ll leave from there tomorrow morning. You’ll be fine,” Teacher Li reassures me. Why did he have to say that?

I squeeze in between the swillers in the back seat. Somebody throws an empty beer bottle out even before we leave the village. I should have said goodbye to Li. I should have said goodbye to someone. I wonder where they put my bags.

As we bump the ten kilometers up the rutted mountain track, one by one, the rowdies jump out even though Huo doesn’t alter the 4 by 4’s slow, steady pace. When we reach Muxinto, only Driver Huo and the pirate are left.

It’s a typical Naxi village with a dozen or so dark wood dwellings, pigs and chickens and draft animals at ground level under each, with a veranda, common room, and two side rooms above. The pirate heads off in one direction while Huo and I walk through a muddy lane to a house at the top of the village. We climb the stairs and there’s the smoky room with grandpa, mother, young wife and baby. This dour driver brightens up, lifts the little one, and straps it on his back, all the time cooing and beaming. He’s not going to do me in on a remote mountain track.

This November time of year, the sun goes down by seven and it’s full dark in a half an hour. Nine hours, leave at 7:30 the next morn-ing, that’ll get us to Baguan village in plenty of time. “Let’s leave at 7:30, qi dian ban.”

“Ba dian ban, hao ma? How about 8:30?” Huo says.

That still’s good enough. OK. Af-ter a delicious evening meal of fat back, onions and sweet peppers, fried potatoes, rice and soup, I tuck into a clean bed on the veranda and sleep soundly ’til dawn.

8:30, 9:30 the pirate shows up, 10 the pirate leaves and Huo straps two bags of maize on a gray pony, 10:15 the pirate shows up again with a big brown mule, Huo packs on my bags and some bedding, 10:30 we start trudging up out of the village. 10:30 plus nine hours, that’s 7:30. Full dark. Cutting it pretty close.

It’s my kind of pony. It sets a pace that’s slow and pretty steady. An up hill walk, heel first most of the way, out of breath but not gulping even at this 3000 meter elevation. After an hour or so, we stop and Huo takes off at a fork in the path with the pony. I’m sitting there with the pirate and his big knife. And I feel uneasy especially when he starts whacking at stout stick. I don’t turn my back on him. After 20 minutes or so, he yodels, a high, eerie call and I know I’m a goner. But there’s another yodel down the lane, and another. It’s the Huo coming back without the pony. We’re off again.

Because my language skills are so limited, often for me traveling in China is like watching television with the sound off. I get the gist, but the details are lost to me. I un-derstand just some of what’s just happened and what’s happening now, but I never know what’s go-ing to happen next.

Sometimes I feel like a dog must feel. My guides say, “Shuxi la. Take a rest.” and I sit. They say, “Zho ba! Let’s go!” and I jump up and trot off after them. In between, they’re speaking a local dialect of Chinese, or they’re talking in their native Naxi. I know there’s mean-ing, but I have no idea what it is. Woof, woof.

A stop for lunch at a lovely spring in a wild valley, back to the narrow paths with hundreds of meters of drop below us, then deep forests with partridge and calling birds, waterfalls, climbing, climbing.

The pirate has carved me a walking stick with his deadly weapon, hands it to me with the big end down. Ah, China. The other side of the world.

We reach the pass, and there a cou-ple thousand meters below us is the ravishing Sanjiankou gorge and the Jinsha river, the headwaters of the Chiang Jiang, the same water that flows through that boring tiger leaping gorge and the famous three gorges, except I’m at the top here, leaning into a wind that smells like mountains. The same river through flowing filthy through Chongching, Wuhan, and near Shanghai.

At the six hour mark, we start down. Zigzags, switchbacks, boul-der fields, more sheer cliffs, and narrow ridges. As we descend, the horizon where we saw almost end-less ranks of peaks comes closer. Soon all that’s there, just a couple of kilometers away, is the other wall of this vast chasm. Relent-lessly down. Like riding a bicycle with the seat too low, down strains my thighs and the calves, jams my knees, generally is more slippery and risky. Down, down, and by nine hours the sun’s going down too.

I get a taste of what it must be like to be a frail old man. Though I’m in fairly good shape, my knees and hips are aching. I’m bushed, almost exhausted, teetering. The horizon disappears. This dark of the moon, overcast night’s the definition of black. The dim penlight I have is our only way to see. It’s hardly even working until Huo stuffs in foil from a cigarette pack to bridge some contact. Then we have a bushel basket sized field of vision. He gently takes my arm at the el-bow. He helps me along when I almost think I can’t go any farther. “Kwai dao le,” he assures me. “Kwai dao le, we’re almost there,” Huo keeps repeating for two hours of slippery, down hill, baby steps so I don’t fall. Like a frail old man.

In the dark, in the distance, I hear dogs and a mule, maybe ours, the pirate went ahead, there’s a paraffin lamp, even laughing voices, water tumbling over rocks, a baby crying, a village, Baguan, a Pumi house, packed earth floor, destitute, two timeless, bare footed women smok-ing brass pipes, our destination, fatback, rice, vegetables picked and washed in the dark. I slump on a little stool against the wall, fall asleep a couple of times before the food’s ready, eat, drop onto the mule blankets on the veranda, un-der the warm covers my guides brought. Dreams of lush, bright corn fields and home.

The village’s roosters are up long before I am, of course. After a breakfast of steamed buns and spicy pickled turnip, we set off without the mule and the bedding. The river is there below us in this verdant gorge. We see it every once in a while at a turn or a pass on our four hour way down, down.

And there we are. At the bottom of the soaring defile is Sanjianko, three river port, a geographic box where three streams come together, one the great Jinsha. And no bridge, no boat, no way to cross on our way to Labo.

But wait. What’s that on the other side? A black rock, someone standing on a black rock where all the others are green or gray? Not a rock, a rubber raft. It’s Boatman Luo Zhr Quan fighting the current, rowing way upstream so he can cross and get over to our side.

He pulls the raft up on the scree, and smokes the cigarettes with my two guides, the cigarettes that are the incense of any Chinese men’s conversation or negotiation. We work out a deal. For another 150RMB, we’ll stay at his family’s house high on the gorge cliffs, eat, sleep, and then tomorrow, the third day of the trip, he’ll float us down river to the beginning of the climb out of the gorge, the climb to Labo. The float will save us three or four hours of walking. We agree.

For dinner that night, Luo kills a chicken. As guest of honor, I face the door and get the head and feet.

The next day begins with steamed buns and the careful descent back down to the river. The four of us, Huo, the pirate, Boatman Lou, and I, just float with the current. The raft bobs and turns like a leaf on the stream. It’s swift, but nobody seems to care. Lou doesn’t pull on the oars after we get out into it. But what’s that up ahead? Some-thing’s echoing off the soaring 500 meter sides of the gorge. A roar and mist. It really sounds and looks like the upstream approach to that waterfall in the nightmare, the one in the adventure movie.

The crew just light more cigarettes and keep chatting as the raft drifts on. My bags aren’t waterproof, so moving them from the front to the middle before we plunge over the brink won’t do much good, but I move them anyway. The water’s getting rougher and the roar’s get-ting louder, so, quite sensibly, Boatman Luo takes a couple pulls on the oars and we beach the raft for the portage around white water that turns out to be a lot less rough than I’d imagined.

The climb out of Sanjiangkou gorge and up to Labo is a steady breath taker, but only three hours, and we meet all sorts of people coming and going on our way. Just before we’re about to enter the vil-lage, a man steps onto the path with us. Huo offers him a cigarette as he has every other man we’ve met on the trails, but the walker de-clines.

He’s possibly the cleanest person I’ve ever seen in China. His black suit is spotless, no dust, no mud on the pant legs. His black shoes gleam in the mid day sun. His long black hair glistens down past his collar. His black Tibetan fedora is smartly shaped and looks as if he’s carefully brushed it. His immacu-late white shirt is buttoned at the collar, and unblemished cuffs peek out of his black coat sleeves. He carries what’s almost a black brief-case.

But it’s his face, clear and pale and bland as an alien’s, emotionless, unresponsive, without expression but strangely resembling a darker, more weathered Teacher Li.

I turn my attention to the path again, climbing, watching my step, and the next moment the man is gone. Vanished. He seemed so otherworldly, he must have been an arhat, a lohan, a ghost, a fox spirit.

There’s frost the next morning in Labo when the guides and I part with Chinese formality, shaking our own hands and then nodding those waving goodbyes. Huo and the pirate start their walk back to Muxinto.

In the brilliant cold, when the Labo – Yongning bus arrives, it leaves immediately before any of us ten other passengers can get on, only to stop with a squeal of pain twenty meters on. The driver gets out, walks around to the front with a huge wrench and hammer and lies down under where a bumper should be.

Just as he finishes tightening a re-luctant something on the inside of the right front wheel, the bus ever so slowly begins to roll backwards, away from the prone driver. Be-fore it picks up much speed, one of the waiting passengers leaps aboard and jams on the brakes. The driver screams at him and makes him get off, demands the Yongning fare.

When I step on, I notice that there are two 50 liter plastic jerry cans of gasoline lying on their sides behind the back row of seats. When I point to them (I don’t know the words for incredibly dangerous), the driver says, “Don’t worry. There’re no windows in the back.”

He revs it up, pops the clutch and it stays revved. The accelerator sticks. He races up the one lane road as if no one’s coming the other way – no herd of goats, no mule trains, no overloaded two ton. There’s a red light under the dash that keeps flashing rapidly but ran-domly.

The freezing mud is hub deep as the bus climbs out of the gorge, but somehow we avoid the precipice and make it to the pass. It’s the down hill that gets even scarier, mist, snow, and so close to the edge that the driver has to skid to a stop and back away from the abyss. I write China Daily headlines in my mind: “Foreigner only survivor of bus plunge;” “Lying in coma re-peating what sounds like cornfield.”

It’s then that I notice that there are bones on the floor. They look like chicken bones or someone’s fin-gers. And it’s then that I notice the clean man, sitting behind me, smil-ing like a guardian angel, looking a lot like Teacher Li.

Getting to Yongning and Lugu is assured. Even with the bones.

The facts: Take the 3 pm bus from the Zhongdian central bus station to Luoji by way of Jiu-long. In the restaurant near where the bus stops, ask for Teacher Li at the elementary school. Tell him you want to go to Labo with Huo Zhr Ping who lives in Muxinto village. Mention me, Du Wei Si. The facts: Take the 3 pm bus from the Zhongdian central bus station to Luoji by way of Jiu-long. In the restaurant near where the bus stops, ask for Teacher Li at the elementary school. Tell him you want to go to Labo with Huo Zhr Ping who lives in Muxinto village. Mention me, Du Wei Si.

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