Dragons and tigers

(Written June 23)

Our final blowout trip has been the micro version of the stages of the year:

1.  Plans adjusted at the last minute, aka “In China, all expectations explode.”  We intended Tibet, but in honor of the 60th Anniversary celebration of the “liberation” of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army, foreign travel permits were shut off, just about the time we asked.  Of course, our Tibet plans were never yes or no, but rather a “no problem” fading to maybe to maybe not.  So on last Thursday we put together a Plan B to begin on Saturday, with a flight to Chengdu and on to the southwest town of Lijiang.

2.  Excited arrival followed immediately by dense confusion.  From the sleek airport the ride to town is more a path for dirt bikes than a road — apparently in this part of the country to make a new highway you simply rip out the old and start building, leaving the workspace open for hapless drivers who need to get from A to B with or without road.  But the jarring ride ends in Lijiang, a charming maze of narrow streets among red lanterns and beautiful carved shutters and eaves.  Leading to…

3.  Advanced planning is usually insufficient.  I had the hotel address in English and Chinese.  The town is all pedestrian, which is great, but from the south gate on we were on our own.  And, as usual, the old town turns out to be much much larger than expected.  Everyone was wonderfully helpful of course, and the first four informants were consistent.  But after that folks were all stumped.  We had a street name and we thought we were on it, but the numbers restarted almost every block.  After an hour of wandering, we found # 83 in an alley between 79 and 86.  As it happens, this wasn’t even the actual hotel, but at that point someone could lead us the rest of the way.

4.  _______ is so beautiful!  In this case, Lijiang.  That town was the essential image of old China, with cobbled streets, bubbling clear canals, and a sky with real clouds.  Tourists, mainly Chinese, have noticed, making it very crowded — but we didn’t care.

5.  …and the landscape too!  One day we hired a car to take us to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where…

5a.  If you love it, put a cable car on it.  This one ascends to over 14,000 feet.  From there everyone climbs slowly to a platform among the glaciers and not too far from the glorious summit.  We ascended into dense cloud but over the next hour holes opened toward beautiful peaks and ice fields.

6.  Someone gets sick.  This time, Cheryl, but fortunately she recovered in time for …

7.  More, more!  The phase of great enthusiasm.  The other landmark in these parts is Tiger Leaping Gorge, so named because a fleeing tiger leapt its narrowest part. (7a. It takes a vivid imagination to get the names of things.  Neither tigers nor jade dragons appeared to us this time.)  The summit-to-gorge drop exceeds that of the Grand Canyon, but we found this out 14 miles later, after a 2 day trek.  If you hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, you need no other trek — just ask your feet.  On day 1 we climbed the 28 bends to the summit of the range on the NW side of the gorge, about seven hours of walking.  Happily there’s a guest house at the end of that chunk.  (5a1.  If you love it, build a hotel on it.)  The next morning we continued along the gorge edge on a spectacular trail, eventually snaking down to the edge of the lower gorge, a sheer cliff down to the churning Yangtze.  The trail down was a toe-jamming knee-destroying mix of chutes and giant stairs, at the end of which Cheryl declared that she would not climb out, ever.  At this point, the river surges like a muddy Niagara Falls.  After the trail down, we concluded that there had to be some other way up.  Unfortunately, they haven’t added a cable car yet, so without any foreknowledge we took the “skyladder” which needs no imagination to believe in its name.  Leading us to stage …

8.  _____ is exhausting.  But what a great time.  The retrospective view is splendid — we survived, endured, witnessed something astounding, and brought back pictures and stories.

Now we are in the 11th hour of sitting at the Chengdu airport, waiting for thunderstorms to clear up north.  Since the remaining task is to wait, we enter stage…

9.  _____ isn’t so hard after all!  We ran into a Tianjin neighbor, another Meiguoren (American) who pointed out that the walkway was pulled back from our idle airplane (a bad sign) but that its reconnection will be a very good clue that boarding is imminent.  I realized that we foreigners have to become adept at reading clues in every situation.  And that we may have actually gotten pretty good at it.

So, on this trip and throughout the year mistakes were made.  My assumptions have always been wrong.  But eventually it gets straightened out somehow.  China has been absolutely reliably unexpected from start to finish.

P.S.  After this was written, the crowd at the gate grew restive and finally we were all herded to buses and drove for about half an hour to a hotel in Chengdu. For the night, I assumed.  But about an hour after checking in, the phone rang and we were all herded back to the bus.  The flight left at around 3 AM and we collapsed into our apartment just after dawn.  Ready for the next adventure.

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About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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