Into the Mountains of Yunnan: Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Baishuitai Water Terraces
Does anyone else have an image of the Yangtze River in their minds from oh, I don’t know, learning about it circa 4th grade? Well, in my mind, it’s up there with the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile. The little geologist in me was jumping in her britches when we first crossed over this mighty river on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, or in Chinese, Hutiaoxia. The YANGTZE! We’re driving adjacent to the YANGTZE! Am I the only one here because I’m fairly certain my husband didn’t share in my giddiness either?
As you approach Qiaotou (the gateway town into Tiger Leaping Gorge) from the south, you have the Yangtze on your right and a series of 16-18,000 foot snow-capped peaks looming in the distance. And this is just a small taste of what’s to come.
This was the portion of our journey that strangely, I was able to get the least information about despite its international acclaim. I needed to know whether or not we would be able to physically take a car through Tiger Leaping Gorge and north toward Shangri-la and could only seem to get answers on how one would go about hiking that distance. So we winged/wung it. On our way, we called a guest house at the other side of the gorge (upper TLG) to see if they could fetch us from Qiaotou and sure enough, YES! we could drive our lazy little asses through the gorge without ever having to step foot outside. With regret I say this because had our circumstances been different, we would have totally done the two day trek on our feet and not by car. Did I mention that I’m pregnant (it’s not really public knowledge yet but I felt the need to explain our inactivity)? At a mere 16 weeks, there was only a certain amount of body pushing I was willing to endure – as visions/visceral feelings about our Annapurna trek in Nepal surfaced, there was no way I was about to take on carrying a kid through this vast landscape. And so, with excitement, we drove through the gorge. And MY LORDY was it ever a gorge. One of the deepest in the world, Hutiaoxia, at its greatest depth, spans an elevation of 12,434 feet. And we drove right through it. Sheer rock walls on either side of us, there were points in the drive (driving into the gorge from Qiaotou, you’re cliffside) that my stomach dropped into my toes, or maybe my head, I can’t be sure. The larger Little Explorer, whom is nothing but a brave trooper usually, even announced that she’d “rather be walking over the mountain than driving on a cliff next to the mountain”. But it was spectacular. SPECTACULAR. Again, we didn’t have grand expectations and knowing it was such a well traveled area, we/I had poo-pooed it as tourist hype. Come on though, 12 thousand foot sheer cliff walls, how could that be anything less than spectacular?
Though that 30 minute drive was by all means fantastic, we were all happy to arrive safely at Sean’s Guest House, our home for the night. The kids have taken to calling hotels, Hotel-Home – perhaps a result of the myriad they have stayed at to date. We settled into our family room, thrilled to find out it even had a sweet built in stone bathtub, which meant clean kids and happy parents. Though our stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge was the most expensive of our trip, the view from the patio more than justified it.
We dined leisurely on the deck that evening and made preparations for our next day’s journey. We’d drive from our guest house, out of the gorge and into the mountains to the Baishuitai Water Terraces in Shangri-la county.
Again, we were totally unprepared for the incredible landscapes we’d come across on that drive. Surrounded by 14-18,000 foot peaks, we were driving through the mountains. There they were, just a stone’s throw away (okay, maybe a little further). It was a 2.5 hour drive each way and I spent every moment I wasn’t distracted by the kids, awe-inspired and gazing out the window.
The first dramatic scene unfolded as we crested a mountain pass and began descending into Haba Village. Flanked on one side by Haba Snow Mountain, a near 18,000 foot peak, the valley that prevails down its foothills is astounding. It looks like a lava flow made out of lush, green farmland.
The entire time, including that of our drive through the gorge, I kept envisioning what those rocky mountains would look like in the rainy season. You could see where the water naturally flowed and all I could imagine was a mountainscape full of waterfalls and rushing rivers. I, however, am not sure that I’d want to navigate those back country roads while all that water was flowing, so my daydreams put us hulled up in a little cabin for the season, watching the scene unfold from the safe confines of our abode.
Upon arrival to Bashuitai, we were all hungry little beasts and were ushered to a small restaurant by our driver and brought into the kitchen where there was a wall of prepped veggies. We proceeded to point and explain in our primitive Mandarin what we wanted, quite uncertain about the dishes we’d actually receive. Much to our delight (and despite the most grease-caked kitchen we’ve ever laid our eyes on), it was nearly the best meal of our entire trip. Our host cooked everything to perfection and even had our picky little eaters chowing down on her tofu and cauliflower dishes.
We haven’t come across many Americans in our Asia travels, but for some reason, we came across quite a few during our time in TLG. The first was while eating out of that greasy kitchen shown above – he was from Vermont and on holiday after a trade show in Hong Kong, whom we chatted with about Vermont’s heroine crisis and the future of our planet. Another at our guest house – a Duke business school professor and his student, touring around after a university trip to Shanghai and Beijing, with whom we had great conversations regarding energy and the environment. And also a couple from Washington DC, visiting their daughter who was studying Chinese in Kunming and whom provided equally stimulating conversation. Though we surely don’t relate to all Americans, there is something nice about running into someone who relates on a deeper cultural level while in a totally foreign land.
Back to Bashuitai. From the road, it’s only a 20 or so minute stroll up to the water terraces, but because we were unsure how long and how steep the path would actually be, we rented a horse from a sweet, horse toting hawker, to schlep the kiddos up the hill. Who am I kidding – we rented a horse because our Little Explorers BEG to ride them at every chance they get. And because I’m pregnant and lazy and the reality of carrying one of the them up the hill was clearly too much for me to handle. BIG problems people, big problems.
As it turned out, the little bugger couldn’t even get them all the way up to the terraces and the path was so uneven that the woman guiding the horse was a nervous wreck the entire time and both the Mister and myself spotted the wiggling kiddies as they were shuffled up the path. Basically, carrying them up the hill if needed, may have been the easier of the two options.
As we neared the terraces, a fresh stream of water flowed down the hill and with the sun blazing, it was all I could do not to strip down and submerge myself then and there. Clean, fresh mountain water – how divine! We compromised with a head splashing and moved on toward the main attraction. The bottom side of the terraces are a series of rolling limestone pillows that glisten with the trickle of water flowing over. It reminded me of a chocolate fountain – you know the kind you find in overpriced hotel buffet brunches, meant for strawberry and marshmallow dipping? Or at fancy weddings.
We hadn’t taken into account the fact that we were arriving at the terraces on the backside of the dry season, so the water was probably quite a bit more stagnant than normal, which did and did not effect our experience. The first set of water terraces was exactly what I imagined them to be – a totally unnatural creamy aquamarine color that screamed to be jumped in (which is very much not allowed). I should explain. The water terraces are natural limestone rock formations that have an eons worth (200-300 thousand years!) of calcium carbonate from the surrounding mountain spring water built up within them, giving them the unnatural, but totally natural pigment.
As we walked beyond the first set, the rest of the tableland, as it is also known, was a bit of a let down. I’m assuming that it’s due to the season we were seeing them in, but the primary part of the terraces (the area photographed time and time again) was a series of algae infused pond water. It was green. And mossy looking. Not the white pools with pristine aquamarine water we’d expected. Algal blooms are generally a result of nutrient loading (mostly human introduced) and I’m really hoping that these pools weren’t just polluted but that because of reduced water flow, they naturally lacked both the refresh and calcium carbonate that the spring waters normally provide. The rock formations were none the less a pretty marvelous geologic phenomenon to witness (the terraces at Bashuitai are among the largest crop in all of China).
Despite this minor let down, the kids then proceeded to catch and release tadpoles with our driver for the next hour – which honestly capped the excursion off just perfectly.
Because we had opted to spend almost an entire day adventuring to Bashuitai, we decided to stay another night in the gorge, so that we could head out on foot and REALLY see the gorge the next day. What we were told would be a 3 hour hike turned into an almost 6 hour grueling trek that nearly made us miss our bus back to Lijiang the next afternoon.
The descent into the gorge, which we figured was about a 2500 foot drop, was peaceful and lovely. The Little Explorers hoofed it most of the way, the sun was at a comfortable level of saturation in the sky, and we were experiencing the mightiness of the river flowing through the gorge for the first time.
However, this was all tempered with the small piece of knowledge that we’d then have to climb back out all 2500 feet, when the sun wouldn’t be at such a hiker-friendly place in the sky. Deep breath.
The views/river/gorge was fantastic though.
After rewarding ourselves with popsicles and arming ourselves with multiple frozen snickers bars and what turned out to be not enough water, we began our ascent. Foolishly, we opted to take the more steep route up, hoping that at least it’d shave some time/distance off our journey. BAD choice. At this point, it’s HOT, like hot HOT and there is little to no shade on the trail. Up, up, and up we climb, with no end in sight. The Mister begins carrying one kid at a time, while the other kid holds my hand and somehow shuffles their little weary feet up that monstrous mountain. Remember, I’m carrying an apple inside my womb and have been rendered pretty useless – seriously, there was a point that even I wanted to cry – it was that bad. As we carry on, neither of the Little Explorers has any oomph left in their step and our arsenal of Snickers is empty, which means only one thing: that the Mister will have to carry not one child, but two children up the mountain (one in the ergo on his back, one in his arms). Someone really needs to give him a Father of the Year award for this one. It seriously must have sucked for him. By the time we reached the top, the smallest explorer was shoeless because it was so hot that his feet had overheated and were it not for the random broken sprinkler spraying dirt upon our arrival, we may have all keeled over.
But there was s broken sprinkler and there was a stream of water flowing next to the road we had reached and there was a ride back to our guest house. And two large bottles of water once we returned. And no missed bus. We made it! It was grueling, but spectacular.
Thoroughly exhausted but entirely fulfilled, we boarded our bus back to where our journey began – Shuhe Ancient Town in Lijiang – where we would find China’s greatest boutique hotel, eat bomb grilled tofu, and let teensy tiny fish nibble on our feet (yes, all 8 of them).