As we drove from Lijiang the weather turned grey with intermittent drizzle which was a bit disappointing, our schedule was for a day of mountain walking and the prospect of doing so wrapped in waterproofs was a bit of a downer. Luckily the rain never made it to the gorge itself. The mountains on either side grew taller & closer, the normally dense tree cover thinned to bare rock, and the road narrowed & became twisty as we approached and entered the gorge itself, which was as spectacular as the brochure had promised. With peaks vanishing into the cloud cover and the pale green river far below we made our way towards the first of our guesthouse stops.
We were driving towards the guesthouse but not to it - the plan was to take a daypack to our first stop, overnight there, then walk along the gorge to our second guesthouse where we'd be reunited with our luggage. The minibus pulled over at a seemingly random point on the road where a small sign pointed to 'Teahorse GH', we then disembarked and began the hour-long walk along a twisting track heading up the mountainside towards the guesthouse. The sky remained grey but bright, the views were superb as our perspective slowly rose and it was probably a good thing not to be walking under unshielded sunlight. The group slowly spread out as our varying hillwalking capabilities were exposed but with only one destination (and the occasional handpainted sign for confirmation) we all eventually found ourselves at the Teahorse Guest House.
The guesthouse was definitely more spartan than the hotels we'd been staying at up to now but there was nothing to complain about. Well, maybe one thing. The rooms were spacious, the beds comfortable (if very firm, which I liked), and the en-suites clean & functional but it was clear that they were designed to stay cool in warm weather rather than retain the heat. On a grey March day everywhere was a bit colder than I'd like with the only heating being electric blankets, so I found myself eating, brushing my teeth and washing with my coat on and retiring to the warmth of my bed at the first opportunity.
Dinner in the communal dining room was excellent - great (& cheap) pan-fried beef & noodles with beer and a taste of baijiu, Chinese 'clear liquor'. This was a smooth tasting but ferociously powerful distilled drink, often around 50% alcohol, that reminded me of some of the firewaters I'd sampled in Vietnam. Considering we'd be hiking along mountain paths tomorrow I limited myself to a taste. A couple of American tourists were staying at the guesthouse, the first Westerners I'd seen outside of airports - we invited them to join us and spent a pleasant evening comparing stories & experiences.
Next morning it was still cold & grey but thankfully dry. A quick check of the weather app on my phone made me smile when it revealed that my location was Shangri-La, had I reached a lost horizon? Breakfast consisted of chocolate & banana pancakes (options were very limited) and coffee, after which we were introduced to our local guide for the hike and his wife, who'd be coming along too. Wearing brightly coloured trainers it was clear that she didn't consider this a demanding, cross-country challenge, which was quite reassuring to some in the group.
The first half of the walk was gentle and mostly on the level. The paths were clear, well maintained and easy to follow, there were a couple of 'intersections' where our guide needed to point out the correct route but otherwise we could make our own way along and take in the views - down into the gorge itself, across to the towering mountains on the far side, and up to the peaks rising above us. There were a few blasts of wind around headlands and a couple of very light drizzly showers but for most of the time it was perfect hillwalking weather, bright enough to enjoy the unwinding views, shaded enough to not worry about sunblock or water reserves.
We took a lunch break at the aptly named Half Way Guest House, washing down our fruit & energy bars with copious tea from a huge pot. Along the way I'd seen a hand painted sign on a rock promising that the guesthouse had 'scenic toilet view' and this turned out to be no hyperbole, a wide (open) window provided an excellent viewpoint on the gorge while nature took its course. However like some other toilets in China there were no cubicles, the genders had separate rooms but otherwise there were no concessions to privacy. Quite a cultural difference.
From here on the hike was more challenging as we made our way down towards Tina's Guest House, our final destination. Luckily the weather remained moderate and we were under no time pressure so we spread out and took the descent at our own pace, clumping together as required to offer steadying hands over trickier sections. At one point a group of vultures were spotted circling way overhead but with Tina's in sight this wasn't as ominous as it might have been earlier on. Eventually we reunited at the bottom of the last path, collected our waiting luggage from the familiar minibus and checked into our rooms for well-deserved showers and rest.
Next morning we set off for the Tiger Leaping Gorge Visitors Centre, a short drive from the guest house. Here there were wide, well maintained staircases leading down to river level where fast flowing rapids sped past an ornate (but seemingly unused) bridge on the far side. Despite being out of season there was a continual stream of tourist buses disgorging their travellers to take a few pictures of the gorge and an unending succession of selfies, sticks brandished like surrogate light sabres. I pride myself on a reasonable awareness of other photographers and try to get out of their line of sight where possible but now I found myself trying to avoid inadvertently drifting into front camera settings too. And taking a few snaps of people taking pictures of themselves, which are sometimes cute and/or hilarious.
Once back on the bus we set off for our next stop, Dali.