The bells around the horses neck jingled as we hiked upwards towards the jagged peaks; the river, terraced paddies and courtyard homes on the lower banks growing further and further away. The vegetation varied dramatically; from palm trees and ferns up to pine trees, cacti, a species of thick, hardy lavender and colourful alpine flowers. The scent of marijuana often graces the nose which grows in clusters up to 8ft high along the path, which we shared with herds of goats. The chinese women we found ourselves hiking with, whose name I was never able to pronounce, was gasping for short, sharp breaths; the elevation here clearly affecting her city lungs in particular of us all.
My yoga practice has me very aware of my breath which I feel made a big difference but it was the intense beating of my heart, common at high altitude, that forced me to pause. As we approached the most strenuous part of the trail, a set of 24 switchbacks up to the highest point of the trail, a Naxi women bustled around her teahouse customers like a mother hen, serving us a delicious 'raw honey and ganja tea' and refreshing slices of the largest cucumber I had ever seen.
Dusk was upon us and the setting sun cast long shadows down the east / west lying gorge; the granite peaks above us changing shades of pink and grey, as our path descended towards Tea Horse guest house, our intended stop of the night. The descent reeked havoc on my knees slowing us considerably and we found ourselves hiking in the darkness of the night. Preceded by a brilliant glow, the full moon rose above the Himalayan peaks stopping us in our tracks. Illuminating the trail brightly, the snow covered peaks and occasional fluffy white cloud glowed radiantly under the light. Dogs throughout the valley howled to welcome the night as we checked into our twin room, throwing open the windows to the moon lit gorge below.
The local people have built and maintained a steep trail descending into the narrowest point of the gorge offering hikers of the high trail the opportunity to get close to the river (should legs and knees be up to it) for 10RMB each. A two hour round trip down steep switchbacks and rebar ladders spiked into the rock took us the last few hundred feet down to the waters edge, passing locals eager to sell bottled beverages to the unprepared, jade jewellery, and bags of saffron and marijuana. The path itself was an impressive feat and I almost felt 10RMB was to inexpensive for their efforts, though Julian pointed out that with the sheer numbers of tourists which hike through here, particularly in the high season, the locals must be doing quite well for themselves. As Tiger Leaping Gorge gained popularity the lives of these peasant farmers must have taken quite a positive turn. Standing next to the rapids of the Jinsha and looking up at the steep granite walls of the gorge offered a fantastic, different perspective of the place. The hike back up was an exceptionally strenuous affair in our state of health and decreased food intake combined with the effects of altitude. Our American friend in her late 50s easily kept up with us.
After the intense couple of hours down to the Jinsha River and back up to Tinas Guesthouse we should have been famished but our stomachs desired no food. We knew however that sustenance was necessary and ordered a naxi flatbread sandwich before boarding our afternoon bus out of the gorge. This road alongside the river once a simple mule track, has only recently been paved, and our bus followed the snaking trail avoiding local pedestrians and oncoming traffic. A recent rock fall forced us to stop and our driver got out to clear the larger boulders out of the way. This world heritage site is considered the most dangerous gorge in the world, especially during the rainy season where regular rock slides have claimed many lives, wiping car loads of people driving the lower road into the rapids of the Jinsha and it was comforting to see our driver stop well before the litter in the road, constantly mindful of the slopes above. In 2004 the Chinese (Han) government proposed damming Tiger Leaping Gorge for hydroelectric power as part of the nations insatiable appetite, increasing the local governments tax income by some 50% at the bottom line. The proposal would have destroyed beyond recognition one of the most scenic areas in China and displaced 100,000 Naxi people to higher Tibetan land further north. Fortunately, for a change, common sense prevailed over immediate financial gains and this idea was scrapped in 2007; tourism still remains a major source of income for the local people.