Carved with elegant patience by the furious currents of the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge – dramatic and audacious in its grandeur, teeming with terrace-toiling Naxi’s, and seemingly burdened with a Chinglish-y name – is a gobstopper of gobsmackery, providing travelers with an endless cavalcade of unique vistas and opportunities for reflection upon nature, time, and our peculiar place betwixt the two.
There is also a generous happy hour at one of its guesthouse bars. We’ll let you figure out which one affected us the most.
If there was anything we gleaned from our time in the semi-abyss, it was that we, in our roles as wanderers in foreign lands, were really doing a hell of a job. If you’ve made it thus far in our whiny, cynical, self-important verbal ditherings, your skeptical scoffs are not without merit, but give us the benefit of the doubt this time, as we compare our own experiences with the rules laid out by the eminent, slightly off-putting gaze-holding Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Travelers (currently out of print).
1. Don’t Exoticize The Locals – They’re people too.
After exiting our early morning bus in Qiautao and locating a trail after much confusion, we traipsed through small farms and up calf-plundering hills to the entrance of the gorge. The first person we encountered was a squat, leathery-skinned little local lass, pottering around her small hillside hut in bright folk garb. She saw us, smiled broadly, and started chirruping greetings in an obscure tongue, beckoning us over to her quaint abode.
Now, it would’ve been easy to objectify her as some mysterious Other, given that she was Naxi, a member of an imperiled ethnic group whose culture is being increasingly commodified and irrevocably altered by spread of development and industry by the Han Chinese. We could have taken her esoteric ways, minority status, and traditional lifestyle in this rugged environment and turned her into a misinterpreted symbol of all the spiritual and cultural depth that our post-industrial lives lack. But we didn’t. We chose to honor her humanity and treat her as an equal, valid, ordinary person. In this instance, she felt compelled to have us treat her as an equal, valid, ordinary person trying to sell us pot, and we obliged by laughing in her face and walking off.
2. Travel For the Right Reasons – Sometimes it’s not JUST a vacation.
To challenge oneself mentally and physically, and gain a more nuanced understanding of life and self from new and demanding experiences – is this not the goal of every sage, well-traveled or not? Don’t ask me, I just made that up.
As the hills grew steeper and more malicious, the sun brighter, and our emaciated legs more rebellious, we questioned whether we should continue with our plan to cover a majority of the gorge in one day. Were our well-being and tight schedule worth jeopardizing by adhering to a foolhardy plan, just to prove to ourselves that we could; or would we benefit from the challenge by knowing we had taken full advantage of our situation and squeezed every drop of adventure from our time there? As is the case with many an epiphany, the answer to our queries came from nature.
More specifically, some graffiti on nature, declaring that “Happy Time” would take place that night between 4 and 8, and, well, here you go.
We tied our shoes tight and set off for the end of the gorge.
3. Broaden Your Horizons – It’s a big world, it takes a bigger mind to grasp it.
As the sun passed its zenith and we stumbled on somewhere between Qiaotou and Sean’s Guesthouse, we stopped at a ledge that projected us unto an unbridled view of painstakingly maintained fields, the tremendous cliffs of the gorge, and the quiet, deadly river far below.
Now, a new age nut like Deepak Chopra might advise us to use this quiet moment of awe to naval gaze and reflect upon our lives, ambitions, and dreams. But Steven Covey, in his Latter Day sagacity, deals very un-Latter Day-ly in the here and now, advancing a more goal-oriented traveling mindset: Open yourself to all possibilities to the point that your horizons collapse in on themselves and you become extremely shallow.
His influence over us was apparent when we disclosed to each other, leaving this cliff edge, without one shred of disappointment in ourselves, that all we’d been thinking about during that break was drinking a sort-of-nice, cold-ish Chinese beer (Devon), and who we could hit up for job references when we got home (Steve). Secure in the fact that we were definitely getting the most out of this hike, we pressed on.
4. Respect the Local Laws – They’re there for a reason.
“Is that…?” “What’s that smell?” Uh oh.
For the first time since our WWOOF days in India, we found ourselves in the midst of some sticky-icky, bodaciously blaze-tastic flora. Thinking of our Spanish lady hosts back in Kunming, their appetite for mind-expansion, and our impending rent-free return to dwelling in their apartment, we found a spare plastic bag and crammed it to the brim with samples of this renegade Naxi specimen, for their dainty lungs to partake in. Knowing full well that by transporting said herb we risked spending an awful amount of time in an even awfuller prison should we be happened upon by a local sheriff (spelled Xeriff in China), we decided instead to honor what we figured was probably some ancient Chinese custom – that of repaying hospitality with illicit gifts. Giggling and saying “dank” a lot, we entered the final stretch of the hike, jumping on the back of a passing truck to get to the bar faster.
5. Go With the Flow – Don’t get mad, don’t get even, just get with it.
Upon reaching the guesthouses at the end of the gorge, our legs moments from buckling, we entered the front yard of Sean’s Guesthouse with high spirits, expecting a Happy Time full of pleasant moments. We inquired at Sean’s the price of their rooms, and perused the almost entirely empty property, deciding ultimately that we’d be paying too dearly to stay in cramped, cold quarters that were currently being renovated. We informed the caretakers that we had decided instead to patronize Sean’s with beer money – was Happy Time still on?
Not, as it turned out, for cheap-o’s who weren’t going to be staying there. Or anyone. The deal was over, no more Happy Time discounts.
At this distressing news, instead of lapsing into ethnocentrism or bemoaning the local duplicity, we chose to Go With the Flow, and accept the whimsies of the booze-less hoteliers. Before leaving, Devon generously shared his profound finance qualification with the caretakers by stringently advising that this wasn’t “honest business” but “false advertising”, and that any rocks displaying drink deals should be summarily cleaned. Denied access to such logical Constitutionally-supported capitalist principles, they were no doubt pleased by his impromptu pro bono lesson. Steve followed the Flow until it disappeared inside of him, and indulged his bizarre dietary habits by going up the road to buy a bag of tasteless dried soybeans to eat.
6. Build Bridges – Be a true representative of your culture.
The next morning, after letting a few eggs and grey coffee-like sludge slither into our bellies, we tightened our packs tight and resigned ourselves to a long slog of a day that would hopefully end in Lijiang. Opting for the more paved route of the two along the gorge, we anticipated finding a friendly (or whatever the Chinese equivalent might be) van driver with enough space for two smelly foreigners and enough gas to get us back to town. After a mile or so we negotiated a willing driver into a $4 ride to Qiautao, crammed into his minivan, and began a stunted, gesture-based conversation with his friend in the backseat.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on there being a massive (or, for the Chinese, a normal) amount of construction and a mountain of debris three miles down the road. Of course, this meant that three miles down the road, there was a lot of angry cross-cultural shouting in our minivan. While we may have ached over our pride and severely dented wallets, we could at least cherish the thought that our dishonest driver now had to wait up to several days before getting to town, probably to obtain food, gas, and water for his family. What a dope!
Eight miles of gravel, terrifying local dogs, and disparaging glimpses of the PRC’s dynamite-oriented remodeling of the gorge for transit purposes later, we came across yet another construction site at the gorge’s mouth. The People’s Republic in Its Infinite Socialized Wisdom was currently stalled in producing what appeared to be a parking lot-themed Casino, in an architectural style known commonly as “atrocious.”
Across the street were hundreds of multicolored empty oil barrels surrounding a tourist information booth in disrepair. Sensing an opportunity to honestly, openly engage in a cross-cultural exchange on environmental issues, a sensation made more urgent by sudden, severe bowel churnings, we promptly ducked behind some barrels and delivered our aesthetic approvals of the public work unto the nice new road.
7. Don’t Take Too Many Landscape Photos
Well, 6/7 ain’t bad.