Rob and I arrived in Lijiang just fine but missed the only bus to the trail head of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek so we found a place to stay for the night. The old city part of Lijiang looks exactly like what I would expect stereotypical China to look like. It's a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys lined with ornate shops marked with wooden signs encouraging people to be civilized and topped with bent shingle roofs. We tried the local specialties which included "chicken bean jelly" which is made out of beans that resemble chicken eyes. We also had our first taste of yak milk yogurt which I expected to dislike but which I pleasantly enjoyed.
We left for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail head the next morning and thanks to our one day delay and modern technology we were able to meet up with our Malaysian friend Xien shortly after we got there. An English guy named Jason that we met at the trail head joined us for the two-day trek. We stopped for a break at the highest point of the trail to put on warm cloths and of course, toss a disc. We made it to a guest house called "The Halfway House" in the late afternoon. For dinner Jason, Xien, Rob and I split a "whole chicken hot pot" which came as a metal bowl full of the undesirable parts of the chicken. After a large beer and some light banter we all turned in for the night. The next morning we woke up early and barring a small delay when some cows blocked the path, made good time to the end of the trail.
From that point we all did an optional and almost entirely vertical hike down the mountain to the point in the gorge where they say a tiger leapt over the river. Rob and I went ahead of the others and practically ran up and down since we had to catch an earlier bus to our next destination. The trek down the gorge was impeded by locals claiming that they own a section of the trail and demanding that you pay them in order to pass. Initially Rob and I tried to walk past them but things quickly turned sour and instantly recalled my experience on Fanxipan mountain so eventually we paid the price and went down. Unfortunately the bottom was a bit of a let-down and knowing that we probably wouldn't have gone.
Shortly after returning to the end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail, Rob and I took a bus to Haba village where we instantly began looking for a guide. After a very short search we found a guy who was willing to take us up the mountain. He didn't speak any English but between the Mandarin we knew and Google Translate we were able to ask him if we could hike up the mountain that night. It was around at the time and the man counted on his fingers and then shook his head yes. We rented the necessary supplies which included crampons, ice picks, supplemental oxygen, and for me, a warm coat, hat and gloves.
We set off through Haba village where we stopped to buy some noodles. Haba village had very much the feel of an old mountain town, untouched by the hands of time. An hour or two up the mountain we came upon a clearing which was being used for pasture. We stopped for a break and took in the beautiful scenery. Unlike Tiger Leaping Gorge there were no signs of other travelers on this mountain. Just above the clearing we noticed beautiful lavender colored tree flowers climbing up the mountain. The flowers were visible for a good portion of the remaining daylight and before they disappeared they overlapped with the same type of wispy green moss that the nomadic tribe that took me over Mt. Rinjani in Indonesia had been collecting.
Haba village relaxes at around 2,600m and unbeknownst to me, base camp sits freezing at around 4,200m. The guide was clearly interested in making time and often cut straight up the innumerous switchbacks. For both Haba and Tiger Leaping Gorge, Rob and I had brought my pack full of stuff and Rob's small day pack, switching off periodically. The waning crescent moon provided little light so after it was too dark to walk we stopped to put on headlamps. I'm not sure what altitude we were at when we did that, but that was around the time I started feeling nauseous. For the remainder of the night my symptoms of altitude sickness worsened and eventually Rob had to take full time duty on carrying the big pack. During the whole hike our guide was chain smoking and signing songs which evoked thoughts of the North American natives. After I began drunk-stumbling up the mountain and needing breaks more frequently I asked him if he could walk behind us so his cigarette smoke wouldn't blow in my face. Rather than stay behind he opted to only smoke during breaks, during which he conscientiously walked a little bit away from us.
Around the trail got nasty. Real nasty. We must have been above the snow line but below the frost line because melting snow on unfrozen ground created inches of slippery mud which turned to watery slush and eventually thick snow. We arrived at base camp sometime after and quickly entered the rugged stone structure. Initially the building appeared empty but around a corner at the far end of the hut we found a group of guides playing a game like mah jong with over-sized tiles. Our guide soon joined them and after losing a decent sum of money, quickly departed from the game. Dinner that night was bland noodles which I was originally too sick to eat. Breakfast was a flavorless traditional Tibetan dough ball and broth known as zanba. The food in China has been spectacular aside from everything we ate during our 4 days of hiking. Sometime after we all turned in for the night.
We knew we had two options for the next morning: 1) Wake up at and attempt the 8hr hike to the summit, followed by 14hrs back down to the village. 2) Wake up around and leisurely walk back to Haba village. Given my altitude sickness, our exhaustion from the previous days of hiking and our late bed time, we decided to go with option 2. It would have been nice to attempt the summit but we simply weren't prepared for it. We should have had more gear—like snow pants and snow boots—and spent a day resting in both Haba village and at base camp. It turns out most people that attempt the summit do it in three to five days though it has been done in just two.
The hike back to Haba village felt like a breeze and required far fewer breaks. We spent a long while relaxing in the grassy meadow we had passed on the way up. The pasture was a little more alive that day and Rob tried to get close to a yak and later fed some goats which were otherwise occupied by sneaking up on our guide who was on his phone for every second we had reception. While waiting for our transport from Haba village back to Lijiang we tried to use Google Translate to thank our guide for the experience and let him know that we had a good time. After showing him the message we decided to translate it back into English just to see what it said. Our first sentence originally read: "We enjoyed the hike" and was translated to "We are entitled to raise interest rates". When we finally made it back to Lijiang we set off to buy tickets to our next destination and were surprised when our Malaysian friend Xien appeared and announced that he had thought he heard our voices. We all went out for some delicious dinner and then we said good bye to Xien once again.
So far China has been very different than Southeast Asia. Less people speak English, the food is way more flavorful and things are a bit more expensive. I love being in nature, I really enjoy hiking and I can't help but feel good when I'm in the presence of mountains even when I'd otherwise be feeling awful. Haba definitely bested me but I still had a great time hiking it. I think if I was a bit more prepared and had more time we certainly could have reached the summit. Tiger Leaping Gorge wasn't the toughest trek but it was beautiful and we had good company. The Tiger Leaping Middle trek was a let down but luckily that was only a small portion of the several days worth of hiking. I still feel rushed to see the country and am constantly frustrated by the Internet but I'm very much looking forward to the rest of my time in China.Soundtrack: Young Americans (David Bowie)