South of Eden

We decide to reach Yangtze River via Baishuitai, Haba and Tiger Leaping Gorge, but first we head to the Shangri-la market. Such mountain passes and dizzying switchbacks require a serious caloric load. The typical Tibetan breakfast can definitely accomplish either that, or give me a heart attack. Jon favours a bawl of yak soup and bread.

The Yak Butter Tea is fairly easy to mimic at home. Add a big chunk of butter to 35% cream and an optional splash of tea and heat everything on the stove. If it still doesn’t look like it’s too fatty to be drunk, add more butter. This is exactly what we are encouraged to do by our morning chef. After all, the giant butter churn is right on the table! Do not imagine that tsompa is supposed to decrease the fat content of the breakfast. No. More Yak Butter Tea is required to prepare it, though sherpas and nomads cam sometime use water or even beer. Some barley flour is scooped into the bawl and gently stirred to a sticky paste. Then I use my hand to knead, while twisting the bowl. I end up with a mildly sweet and sour dumplinglike object, which must be washed down with another cup of tea. Oh, well. Who care about some clogged arteries? At least I know I’d die happy.

The market is lovely: piles of greens, spices and live poultry. Our experience of Chinese cuisine continues to be dominated by fresh produce. I have no idea why the West has embraced predominately the greasy Cantonese or the overly sweet Shanghainese.

Now this would not be China without some duck. The birds are rubbed with five spice and honey, slowly baked and chopped, skin and bone included. We pack some of this beauty for the road.

No long into the climb out of town we meet again our Belgian compadres who have rented some scooters for the day.

The area is stunning and quiet. Many wealthy Chinese are buying land here for country homes built in Tibetan fashion.

Perhaps it’s my fatty breakfast to blame, as the grade seems somewhat steeper than usual.

– Are you positive this is the route?
Jon’s fuming. He hates to have his judgement questioned. But as soon as we vent our frustrations with each other in a late-morning strategy meeting doubled by a snack of duck, the road miraculously improves.

I am left scratching my head, but happy to enjoy the best part of the climb, with ever-expanding views towards the Haba Snow Mountain (Haba Xueshan) and the much anticipated summit.

Close to the top we make a quick stop to fool around…

and to film a video for our TEDx Bucharest friends who are organising a new edition under the headline: Make It Happen. It’s been a good year since our own speech at TEDx and we are grateful for being part or this wonderful community.

Then we continue to zig-zag beyond the Pudacuo National Park and Baishuitai limestone terraces (where we eat the most watery and dissapointing noodle soup in the whole of China). Finally a bit of dirt – Jon’s missing the smell of gasoline, tires scratching on gravel and the thrill of an accidental drift on motorbike.

By dusk we spot a worksite and Jon points to the vacant patch behind some piles of aggregate. Tent goes up in no time. It’s not the most scenic bivouac, I guess.

The next day we’re in Sanba, at roughly 106 kilometres south of Shangri-La Old Town. Unable to persuade the locals to let us camp, we end up staying in a friendly guesthouse specialized in guiding trekkers to the high Haba Snow Mountain.

The talented Romanian photographer who has since started building an Atlas of Beauty around the world would later stay in the same guesthouse and stumble upon our trace:

Not long after breakfast, the summit appears – it is thankfully a short pass.The gentle descent towards one of the deepest gorges in the world is a welcomed transition to another season. With every kilometre the air becomes richer and warmer, and the foliage thicker. Terraces began to appear. The rain-soaked hillside is carpeted in rice fields and surprisingly tropical plants.

With only a few switchbacks left to the bottom, we can already see the Yangtze River – locally called the Golden Sands River or Jingsha (金沙江). We are exactly 30 kilometres from where China’s Mother River stops flowing placidly and turns northwards around the First Bend.

This is also where legends say that a tiger managed to jump across the river, in order to escape from a hunter. The uppermost section of Tiger Leaping Gorge is also its narrowest, at only 30 meters wide. I can hardly believe that a few days ago we were scrambling to escape the onset of Tibetan winter. Down in the canyon the heat is intense. The air is heavy with the mist that rises from the rapids frothing 200 meters below.

We agree to spend a night in Walnut Grove village at Sean’s guesthouse, both to enjoy the view from the terrace and to meet the man who pioneered the now world-famouse hike spanning the entire length of the gorge and who created its first map.

In the oblique light of dawn, the gorge turns out to be far more beautiful that what I remember from yesterday. An improbable rock, bare-sliced under the violence of the fast flowing river. On our side rises the 5,596 metre Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山; Yùlóng Shān) and opposite the 5,396 metre Haba Xue Shan. Jon points to the rosy granite towering high above a flock of lesser peaks. An eagle. The bird shoots up, then turn sharply in mid-air and dives into the abyss.

We spend the entire day procrastinating into the canyon, and stopping ever often to take in the views.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is only 15 km long. If only I could freeze this perfect moment and linger.

The massive ‘Scenic Area’ ticketing office rises in loud contrast to the purity of the mountain. Tourists arriving from from Lijiang are unloaded into rickshaws, then pulled to the exact spot where one is supposed to take the only photo of the Tiger Leaping Gorge that counts. We content ourselves with photographing a clandestine visitor, who looks like he’s passed away right into heaven.

As we exit the gorge to Qiaotou village we take one last look behind just in time to see the scaly back of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rising from the water.

Yunnan is home to many minority groups, including Naxi, Yi, Bai, Hui and Lisu. Their colorful presence pervades the towns, with women usually outfitted in bold, hand-woven patterns and elaborate head pieces. Babies are slung onto their mothers’ back. When old enough to walk, they are replaced with large wicker baskets stuffed with fresh produce. In China, much like in Africa, a woman’s work is never done.

A Yi woman and her family waiting for the bus.

Another hearty breakfast in Liangjiacun, another random encounter with the beauty of rural China. This little family joint is not the cleanest, but the food is outstanding in both complexity and flavour and we are completely charmed by the decor.

The scenery keeps getting better. I love the picturesque way of working the land and the gorgeous Naxi homes where even a prosaic thing like corn can become a piece of art.

Bored with asphalt, we take a turn into the rocky trails that promise a more interesting day, stopping mid-morning in a village where people are chuffed to see us stuffing our faces with two large bawls of flat noodles.

Such is the hunger and ability to burn calories of the cyclists, that we are soon ready for another feast. Rolling into Jianchuan I remember that the local cuisine is famous for the use of porcini mushrooms and white azaleas flowers and for the stinky tofu. Jon immediately orders all of the above for lunch.

We cycle past many persimmon orchards and I climb to pick up a few – whenever I see a new fruit or vegetable I must try it – but they are rock hard and inedible even a couple of days later. I abandon them in the cemetery where we later camp.

The following night finds us cycling blindly on a newly built stretch of highway that does not appear on any map, not even on the GPS. The road grows steeper and steeper. Our frontal headlights keeps unghosting huge bulldozers and piles of cement. There’s absolutely not an inch here where we could stop. Just when we think that our luck has run out and we’ll have to cycle all night, we see a faint light in the distance. With the last drop of will, we push inside the busy truckers’ joint that sits at the junction with the old road. We’re spent. It takes a second to register that the places stinks. There’s no toilet and the only thing separating our faces from whatever creature must be roaming the attic is covered in age-old spider webs. Another half a second later we’re both asleep.