They say that China is shaped like a chicken, with its head bordering the Korean peninsula, its back next to Russia, and its rump encompassing Tibet. When describing where different cities are in the country you say it’s in the Chicken’s Head, or Stomach. When I flew from Shanghai I landed on the Chicken’s Butt. It was a cheap, quick flight on one of the small national airlines like Kunming Air, Capitol, or Lucky Air, but not very timely. I spent a few days there writing the guide to Thailand while sitting in cafes in Kunming, a small and pleasant city compared to the skyscrapers in Shanghai and the polluted skies of Beijing.
Next stop was Lijiang, another cheap flight that arrived late. I stopped by a grocery store and stocked up on food before finding my hostel. I was heading to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a two-day hike that came highly recommended. I told my dorm mates about my hiking plans and they asked if they could join. The more the merrier, and my solo trek became an expedition of four.
Early the next morning we rushed through town to catch a taxi to get a bus that would drive us to the trailhead two hours away. At the bus station we had a few minutes for breakfast so we found a stall with a few options: meat soup, no thanks, and plain porridge, which I ordered. A woman handed me a steaming bowl of loose wheat and a pair of chopsticks to eat it with. There was no way I could eat the soup with chopsticks and it was too hot to drink. But all was not lost, I whipped out my emergency spork (yes, a spoon-fork) and ate the oatmeal that would have slipped off my chopsticks.
The bus ride was cold, so cold that I lost feeling in my fingers. We arrived and began to warm up as we hiked. Our expedition had grown to a pack of five as a guy from the bus was hiking the same trail, along with a group of local men and their donkeys. The men hoped that we would get tired and pay them to let us ride the donkeys. We told them we were strong and wouldn’t need a donkey ride but they kept following us for hours, their bells tinkling and driving me a little crazy.
After an hour of walking uphill one of the girls from the dorm decided that it was not what she had signed up for and turned back, riding down on a donkey. The rest of the pack, human and mule, continued up and up, the views improving as the sun came out. We came to a section called The 28 Bends, when the trail turns into a series of switch backs up the mountain. Finally the donkeys left the four of us to face the switchbacks. It was slow going but we pushed through, chatting when we could and panting when we couldn’t. As self-appointed hike leader I made sure everyone was fed and watered, glad I had the extra food to share around.
Five hours had passed since we started hiking when we arrived at a small village with accomodation. After some debate we decided to press on to the next village, another two hours down the trail, so we wouldn’t have to hike so far the next day. The sun was starting to set and I worried we would run out of daylight. But the path was wide and we were one of a few groups going to the same guesthouse so it was unlikely we would be stuck in the wilderness on our own. We picked up the pace and in less than two hours we made it to the guesthouse, just before dark.
The guesthouse was in a village seemingly cut into one mountain and perched facing Snow Mountain, high above the gorge. The guesthouse boasts the best bathroom views and while the scenery was beautiful, the squatty potties were not. A hole in the floor had become a pretty standard toilet in China but these left a bit to be desired. But the food was hot and there was plenty of tea. We were high on endorphins from the hiking and the thrill of chasing sunlight across the mountain. For one of the girls in the group it was her first time hiking, and she was proud she didn’t end up on the back of a donkey.
There was only one bus back to Lijiang every day so we hit the trail early. To my surprise we made it down to the bus stop in just three hours so we continued all the day down to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. There were a few scams along the way, forcing us to pay at random points. Luckily we hiked in the off season or we would have met many more people out to make a buck or two from hikers.
We took the bus back to Lijiang and another bus up to the Old Town (one of three old towns in Lijing). I got dinner with two of my hiking mates and we sat in the restaurant with our jackets, hats and gloves on, shivering. In a policy dating from the 1950s buildings north of the Yangzhee River get central heat provided by the government where as the south does not. We were in the south, not far from Tibet. Here businesses and residences don’t even try to heat buildings themseves. The door to the restaurant was wide open, and in the hostel we had electric blankets but there was no heat in the bedroom or the bathroom.
In the morning there was no electricity (wifi), hot water, food, and it was snowing. I needed wifi to buy a ticket for the night train and I was stressed it would sell out. I had been growing frustrated the last few days and the bitter cold plus grime from hiking and exhaustion meant I finally hit my breaking point. I irritable, I couldn’t be flexible or easy going, I couldn’t handle travel anymore. I had a few moments of Ihatethis Ihateeverything WhatthehellamIevendoinghere. There may have been some growling.
Finally the lights came back and I booked my train ticket, so I breathed a little easier. Next I met up with a couchsurfer who had hitchhiked there from Poland over two months. We chatted, joked, and after a few hours I was feeling better, it was like talking with a friend. Gradualy I relaxed, I was less tense and annoyed at everything. I could do this.
On the train that night I was the only foreigner but most people ignored me, just ate dinner and crawled into bed. The second class carriage was like a large dormitory on wheels. The beds were stacked three high with two sets facing each other then a wall, repeated 25 times down the carriage. But considering the number of people it wasn’t too crowded. I couldn’t quite sit up but still slept well enough despite a few bumps here and there.
We pulled into Kunming in the morning and I killed a few hours before my flight to Guilin. From there I took a bus down to Yangshuo, where I took a motorcycle taxi to the hostel, after having traveled for the better part of 36 hours. I re-encountered an Aussie girl named Izzy that I first met in Kunming. We spent the next few days exploring the town, biking to Moon Hill and playing Cards Against Humanity. It was pretty rainy but the scenery was beautiful, the limestone karsts sticking out of the ground made erratic hills all around. Strange but very cool scenery.
I had only a few days in Yangshuo before I took the train to Guangzhou, right next to Hong Kong. My sister’s best friend from college lives there, and he graciously invited me to stay. I spent two days exploring the city and eating BBQ foods before heading on to Hong Kong, to meet my friend Laura.