Published: December 5th 2006November 23rd 2006
Tiger Leaping Gorge
The Track Leading Up The Mountainside, On Day 2
Hello from Viet Nam - safely in Nha Trang after sitting out Tropical Storm Durian with enough food and supplies (chocolate and beer) to last a lifetime. The last blog ended with me just about to begin the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, so fittingly, that's where this one begins!
I caught the bus with Janet - travelling from Zhongdian to the starting point of the gorge where we left our packs at a guesthouse and started the long trek that would last 2.5 days. The one thing that stuck in our minds was the "28 bends" - a series of hairpins that we'd tackle the following day - they wind their way up the mountainside and it takes a gruelling 2 hours to complete. So it took us a bit by surprise when we had to stop for rather a lot of "photo stops" - AKA taking a breather, as soon as we left the guesthouse. We were already climbing a series of steep hills as the scenery opened up to present a large gorge to our right and snowy mountains in the distance, ahead. The sun was very strong and the heat bounced off of the rough track
The View From The Infamous Toilet!
Also the View From My Room - Not Bad, eh?
and onto our faces as we climbed ever steeper. How was it that nobody had ever mentioned this bit as being hard work?! We finally arrived at our first stop for the night - the Naxi Guesthouse, perched on the side of a hill, overlooked by the snowy mountains and high above the gorge. The Naxi are the indigenous people who cultivate grain as well as provide accommodation and food to passing hikers and we met a few other people walking the trail here - some Israelies, a couple of Americans and a Dutch couple.
We all hit the sack early on into the evening as people were either exhausted from that day's walk and/or anxious about the upcoming 28 bends and we left at 7am the next day to avoid climbing in the heat. We quickly started climbing - but never really sure what constituted a "bend" - sounds strange but was this little turn a bend, or was it the larger one we just started - and if so, we'd got a long way to go! When we took another much needed breather we saw a number painted onto a rock - 22! Only a few more
The View From The Naxi Family Guesthouse
to go and we'd finished the climb, taking us ever higher and as we reached the top, we saw the sun peak over the mountains ahead. The sunlight sprayed down the hillside and into the gorge lighting the river below. We'd finished the so-called hardest bit a lot quicker than we were fearing and we made our way along the edge of the cliff side - providing a vertigo-testing view of the river hundreds of metres below to start descending, before arriving at the Halfway Guesthouse - which is actually a lot closer to the end than the name suggests. We met up with a few of the other walkers who we'd met the previous night and shared a beer or 2 as the sun went down. As we chatted we noticed a cutting from Michael Palin's "Himalaya" book that had been stuck to the noticeboard - the man himself had made it along Tiger Leaping Gorge and on Day 77 of his journey stayed at this guesthouse. He reminisces about the view from the toilet - saying it was one of the best he'd ever lingered in, enjoying the view out across the gorge! So, another surreal event to
View Of The Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge
add to the list - having now used the same squat toilet as Michael Palin!
We set off early the next morning to complete the short journey to the end - only 90 minutes or so. This walk took us through a small waterfall that dropped off the edge to hundreds of metres below and finally down the steep track that we followed to the road below. It felt good to have finally finished the walk - I guess it was a bit easier than I was expecting, having read a few horror stories about the 28 bends and the views (particularly from the Halfway Guesthouse) and the hospitality from the local people we met along the way, more than made up for any hard work.
Having caught a bus to Lijiang, a couple of hours south, we were expecting to be now in tourist-central - and we weren't wrong. How different this place was to the towns we'd visited in the previous few days. Like many places popular with Chinese tourists, Lijiang has a new-old town, built in the past few years to look old, complete with a large water-wheel and "cowboys" regaled in traditional dress (fur
Processing Corn On The Cob
The Naxi Family Guesthouse, Tiger Leaping Gorge
hat and coat complete with rifle) to have your picture taken alongside, or even for you to wear yourself and sit astride the horse to have that special moment. It seemed to be very popular with the Chinese and it was good fun to watch them take part in the traditional dance presentation, until we found a quiet tea house above the town to watch the world go by.
We left Lijiang early the next day - I guess we'd had some amazing experiences visiting the towns north of Lijiang and it felt strange now having to fight my way through hordes of Chinese tourists to see some of the sights, so in a way it felt good to jump on the 12 hour bus to Kunming and head onto something completely different - Laos.
We spent the next few days travelling south through southern Yunnan and towards the border with Laos. The journey took us on to the town of Jinghong and onto Mengla by a variety of buses complete with reclining chairs and Superman DVD, to the trials of a night bus that actually turned out to be a lot better than the horror stories that
Ahhh, You Can't Beat Chinglish
Ok, ok, it's better than my Chinese - but still makes me smile
we'd been told as we reclined in our bus "beds" in relative luxury and slept through until we arrived in Jinghong early the next day.
From Jinghong we hired a driver and car to take us to the Thursday market in Xiding, a town about 2 hours drive into the surrounding hills. As we drove along the pot-holed dirt track we passed people on motorbikes carrying chickens, pig and vegetables to and from the market. Once we arrived, we quickly joined the melee of people from the surrounding villages dressed in a variety of different head-dresses - from simple but colourful cloths to heavy metal beading incorporated into tight braiding, similar to what I'd seen in Tibet and northern Yunnan. As we made our way through the market we were jostled by people buying everything from machetes and knives for working on the fields, to shoes and clothes, as well as so many different types of foods - fruit, vegetables, meat and fish - pigs were being butchered next to where we walked as dogs sniffed the remnants, keen for a free snack. In a quiet corner, a man stood in a white coat and next to his reclining
A Chinese Tourist
Tempting as it was, I decided to leave my fur hat and gun at home that day
chair a number of sharp tools lay on a table. The dentist was in town - complete with vials of Procaine and syringes, he set to work on a woman who looked in pain, he waved the syringe above her face as he chatted to a stall-holder, and she tried to relax as her friend held her hand. Let the extraction commence... .
We left Jinghong after exploring by bike - watching a 2m snake slide through the grass as we made our way through some nearby villages for the day. Afterwards, it was time to head south again and make our way to the border, via Mengla and a bus trip into China complete with driver who played a variety of Wham and Jennifer Rush on his tape player.
I was sorry to say goodbye to China - I'd had an amazing time with so many different experiences there that I'll definitely miss the country and the people. I guess it was because it was so diverse that I enjoyed it so much - from seeing the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square to the pandas and the Tibetan villages in Sichuan and Tibet itself - whatever China
threw up never failed to surprise and open my eyes and as I experienced each new place, I wondered what new adventure lay around the corner. However, it was time to leave and head onto new places and I'd woken up one too many mornings singing Chinese pop songs to hang around any longer.
Once we arrived in Laos, we headed straight to Muang Sing from Luang Nam Tha. This involved jumping into a swangthae - a type of large pickup truck with bench seats down either side. We joined a few locals for the 2 hour ride from the dusty bus station and headed off, picking up an array of people along the way - from local women carrying supplies back home, to 2 hunters with rifles and bags and later a man who emerged out of the bushes to get dropped at his house, complete with his AK-47 slung over his shoulder. I can only guess at what he was hunting in the bushes!
Janet had heard how good the trekking was from Muang Sing so we quickly signed up to a trek with a few other travellers and headed off the next day, from the
Ah, A Bike At Last
Cycling In Jinghong
small, one street town surrounded by jungle only 10 kms from the Chinese border and not much further to the border with Myanmar.
We were dropped on a track in the middle of the jungle and walked for about 6 hours, with our 2 guides - one of whom spoke Lao and the other who spoke Lao and the local Akha dialect (as well as both speaking English). They both carried machetes which was just as well because in places the track was so overgrown that a new way needed to be hacked through - the jungle growing so fast it covers the way very quickly. At one point we waded across a river that was almost waist height - we all just about managed to stay upright, but I found a few leeches on my feet after we got out - a theme for the trek! As we trekked further into the jungle, we realised we had got lost - the track was so overgrown that the guides had lost their way. For a while we ended up wading through shallow rivers (more leeches!) and following the guides through freshly hacked tracks which added to the sense of
adventure as we clambered over damp tree roots and under low-hanging branches, never keen to look up to see exactly what lurked in the foliage above.
After a while the guides conceded defeat and told us they couldn't find the village we were due to stay at that night so we back-tracked to find another, closer place. This turned out to be a lucky turn of fate - this village hadn't seen tourists for 6 months and we were greeted with a combination of "hellos", stares and above all lots of smiles. We all stayed in a small bamboo house, raised on stilts above the ground for the pigs to sleep underneath and that evening we were treated to the local men congregating in our house to chat and to recount stories. They played a recording of their folks songs - the only way their history is passed down as they don't use any written methods and as they did so, the candle burned in the centre of the room and Chinese rice wine was passed around for us to drink.
We all woke early the next day to the sound of the village - there's no electricity
and only 1 tap to supply running water to the village and as a result everyone gets up at dawn and quickly heads to the fields to work. I went for an early morning walk and children followed me, anxious to show off their game of pushing a plastic bottle filled with mud, with a bendy piece of bamboo. As I took some pictures they crowded around to see the result, all jostling to get a look, their parents subtley trying to peer at the camera too. As I walked alone, a woman with a small child approached me and and indicated that she wanted eye-drops - her eyes and those of her baby were very puffy. We'd seen a whole village earlier in the trek of children with the same puffy eyes but sadly we didn't have any medicine to give any local doctor.
Our guide then took us to the local school - a large hut on the outskirts of the village where a group of about 20 children aged about 8-10 years sat listening to their teacher teach them the Laos alphabet. They are brought up to speak the local dialect of Akha and the teacher
grapples with only being able to speak Laos.
I felt very priviliged to be able to visit this village seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It didn't feel tainted by the outside world in any way and people just got on with life as they would have done had we been there or not. We were treated so warmly by all the villagers we met, with the local men anxious to tell us about their lives and their beliefs and even popping half an hour across the border into China to get some rice wine and beers to help our sticky rice go down. We were lucky to be played their folks songs and this will definitely go down as an experience that will stay with me for a long time to come.
As we left, we passed the spirit gate. This gate marks the boundary between our world and the evil world and keeps the spirits outside of the village, a very strongly-held belief in all of the villages we passed through.
This marked the end of our trek, where we had passed through some amazing and beautiful places in villages I hadn't expected to be
Thursday Market, Xiding
able to visit. The next day we caught a bus back to Luang Nam Tha where we hired a couple of bikes to explore the countryside. The area now has a major, sealed road thanks to the Chinese who are keen to invest in a country so rich in natural resources - not least the hundreds of hectares of sugar cane that grows so abundantly, taking it across into China in large lorries to be processed. It was on this road that we then headed south - Janet to explore the countryside south of Nam Tha and me to continue on towards Saigon where I'd eventually meet Danielle :-)
I now had to rush south - taking the overnight bus to arrive in Vientiane 23 hours later, involving at one point pushing the bus after it grounded in some dirt ruts in the road! I spent the day in the capital before taking another night bus to get to Pakse arriving early the next day. After having the luxury of an overnight here, I caught a sangthaew to take me to the Cambodian border, over some of the dustiest roads I've ever seen. We somehow squeezed 26 people into
this small bus - on one leg I had a baby resting and on my other an old lady leaned.
The border post was in the middle of the jungle and the Laos border guards were all sat around eating rice in the shade from the midday sun. The guard stamped my passport out of Laos and then told me that as it was Sunday, I needed to pay his overtime - and held his hand out asking for $1! I laughed saying he was very expensive to which he just gave me a huge grin and was duely paid his $1! I then found a car to take me to the Cambodian side which was only 100m along a dirt track, to interrupt the Cambodian police from reading the Spanish "Hola!" magazine and to again be asked to pay $1 to get stamped into Cambodia! The 2 Chinese men in my shared taxi were then asked to pay $10 for the same privilege so I guess I got away lightly.
The shared taxi took us 90 minutes along some very rough roads to the Mekong where we crossed and I stayed the night in Stung Treng -
Welcome To Laos!
Ahh - The Legendary Beerlao
a typical, low-key border town and shared my room with a 12 inch long lizard that crept under my door and who I could hear running about at night. The next day it was then a 8 hour bus trip to Phnomh Penh where I got my Vietnamese visa and also managed to sprain my ankle - but had the luxury of 2 days of doing nothing whilst I waited for the visa - so I could just sit and watch DVDs and catch up on my diary whilst my ankle looked more like an ankle than an elephant's foot! I also knew that I'd be re-visiting Laos and Cambodia with Danielle so it was good to have time to just sit and not feel guilty.
It was then onto Saigon by bus to meet Danielle. It was so good to finally see her after 3 months and needless to say we've had a great time in Viet Nam - which I'll cover in a later blog. We're currently in Nha Trang, having just sat out the tail end of Tropical Storm Durian after it made it's way here after ravaging the Philippines.
Well that's it for this
blog - I hope you've enjoyed reading about what I've been up to in the past few weeks. The time has gone so quickly and it seems strange that Christmas is just around the corner - despite the number of Christmas trees in the shops and cafes here! Thanks for your emails and sorry if I haven't replied yet - I definitely will do very soon! Have a great Christmas and a happy New Year and keep in touch.
There are more photos below