It took us almost a day to reach the northwest of Yunnan Province from Yuanyang. With the terraced paddy fields still in our minds, we continued the trip. To get to our next stop, we needed several means of transportation. A shared car, a local bus and more than 11 hours on a train later, we were finally in Dali. I had traveled on an overnight train in China before. However, while I found it uncomfortable and tiring those first times, the more time I spend on the slow train, the more I enjoy the whole experience. It is a very rare contrast, peaceful and stressful at the same time: going through a chaotic line, feeling the excitement of people around you carrying tons of articles of all kinds, children running up and down the carriage, the unique smell of instant noodles that flies around the aisle, the sound of snoring, a hard bed and five roommates, jokes, laughs, and extraordinary conversation in an impossible foreign language for us. And, all the while, China passes by the windows¡ªnonstop. Trains are amazing.
It was really early when we got to the main entrance of the city, from where we could see a long, busy street with two-story buildings. Small shops, cafeterias, youth hostels, historical sites, locals and visitors were starting their days. In the background, a stunning mountain embraced Dali. The thing I remember most vividly when I look back is the way the clouds fell down from the top of the mountain range. After trying in vain to capture the landscape with our cameras, we started looking for the hostel we had booked to spend the night in. The place was incredibly beautiful. It was made of wood and full of colorful ornaments and, as usually happens in small hostels in China, everyone was willing to help. Since we had just one day to go around the place, the girl on the reception recommended that we wander around, rent a motorbike and go to some of the adjoining villages. That is how we discovered why some people consider Dali Old Town and its surroundings to be the most vibrant place in the entire province. We had Yunnan food, sweets made of roses and coffee. We saw farmers coming to work and visiting the Three Pagodas and the Chongsheng Temple, as well as Xizhou. About 20 kilometers away from Dali, this tiny town has a totally different environment, which is less touristic and very authentic. Following the sunset, we shared some drinks back in Dali, saying goodbye to the city. The next day we left for the Tiger Leaping Gorge, arriving late in the afternoon at the gate of the scenic area. We spent one night there before the hike. People had told us amazing things about that place; we were really looking forward to it.
If we had listened to the suggestions of the guesthouse owner before starting our hike, we would never have gone to the mountains. While we were having our breakfast next to a German family-two children and their parents-the guesthouse owner came to our table. “Is it good?” she asked about our food. Then we started a conversation. It’s always that easy in this country, no need for formalities: you can approach anyone and talk about life. She told us that the next day, she was expecting her daughter back from university, thousands of kilometers away. To her, it was the most important moment of the year. “I have been thinking of tomorrow for weeks,” she said, before going on to look at the grey sky. “It’s dangerous to climb out there today. Maybe you should wait until tomorrow.” It was the rainy season, and for the last few days, the rain had not stopped. In those weather conditions, landslides are frequent and rock piles are commonly found across paths. If a strong storm catches you on the hiking trail, things can turn difficult. So we discussed whether we should go on and take the risk, or just skip the Tiger Leaping Gorge and continue our trip to Shangri-La. Our time was limited; we could only spend a couple of days there, and postponing the hike was the same as giving up on it. That kind of “now or never” situation is something that nobody likes. None of us wanted to make the decision, so we asked the Germans. They were crossing the gorge, children included. So we went too.
About an hour later it stopped raining-we couldn’t believe our luck. Carrying some of our luggage and some provisions for the hike, we entered the mountainous area on a very cloudy day. There were colorful prayer flags hanging everywhere along the road. The trail was muddy, slippery and narrow in some parts, but it was possible to make it through. After a few kilometers, we arrived at Naxi Guest House, located in a small mountain town where villagers were working here and there, carrying vegetables and harvesting Sichuan peppers. It was the first time I had seen them growing on a tree. Back home, my father is a cook, and I have grown up hearing about them and trying food flavored with Sichuan pepper. Now I was there-so far, so close. I sent him a picture to let him know. “I love you. Enjoy,” was his reply. And so I did.
Feeling the cheerfulness of the place, we sat and rested for a while and had some flavorful Chinese food. The next section of the hike was the hardest one, and we needed to reach the crest before sunset. Leaving the German family behind, we kept walking. The Tiger Leaping Gorge has a length of around 18 kilometers and a height of almost 3,800 meters. The water in the river below roared wildly, deafening and violent, but as we climbed the hills, the sound disappeared and everything became quiet. There were towering mountains on either side, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain. Standing there, they made the place colossal, isolated from the outside world. We were frazzled, and had started counting the sharp bends¡ª28 in total, said the map¡ªthat it would take us to get to the upper part of the hike, when the mist covering the summits dissipated for the first time. I remember pointing behind my friend, wide-eyed, speechless. The beauty of the landscape was immeasurable and impossible to compare or describe. Of all the pictures we attempted to take, there was not even one that showed the true magnificence of what we saw.
We had thought that this was the highlight of the whole hike. We were wrong. I could define the experience of going through the canyon as exhausting, tough or difficult, but that would be unfair. Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge exceeds all expectations. Just before night fell, with pain in our feet and backs, dreaming of a tasty dinner, we arrived at the Halfway Guesthouse. And there, as a backdrop to a terrace full of travelers of all different nationalities, was the most amazing view of the whole trip. Grandiose, rugged and imposing, the summit emerged in front of us. It is so big that you would think it was possible to touch it, to jump across the gorge to get to it. A legend tells of a tiger leaping from the eastern bank of the river, clearing a huge rock in the middle to land on the west bank. Who knows? Maybe that tiger felt the same as I did.