The purpose of the vacation was to hike the 40 kilometer Tiger Leaping Gorge trail over the course of 2 days (one night at a guesthouse halfway along the trail). We began our journey, leaving early from Guizhou and arriving in Kunming, Yunnan 12 hours later. Since it was already late we checked into our hotel and woke early the next day, ready for continued travel.
The bus to Lijiang was supposed to take 9 hours, but it sat in Kunming traffic for around 2 hours. The cars around us honked as we sat in the lingering fumes. All of the windows were open due to the heat. It was another late night arrival in Lijiang, and we didn't know where our hostel was located. We ended up stopping at a 5-star hotel to ask for directions. The price of their cheapest rooms hovered around the monthly salary of a Peace Corps China Volunteer. We knew they were high-class when we saw the sign that warned, "No disheveled people." We looked at one another with surprise before laughing and lining up for pictures with the funny sign, much to the dismay of the 5-star receptionists inside (who were talking to the least disheveled of our group). After getting directions came the long, dark alley walk. Doors passed us on either side with Chinese and English signs and I wondered how we would ever find our hostel. But we did. We found it, went to sleep, and spent the next day relaxing in Lijiang before our 3 hour bus ride to Qiaotou, the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail head.
The 3 hour bus ride was interrupted by an accident involving bus driver negligence. Our driver put the bus in neutral, stood up, and started walking over to talk to another passenger while we sat in traffic. Unfortunately the bus sat on a slight grade and the driver neglected to use the emergency brake. As we rolled and passengers yelled I looked up and saw a minivan disappear beneath our windshield. We had just hit the minivan. This accident wouldn't have been so bad if we could have exchanged information and moved on (the minivan damage was minimal). But the two parties became temporary claims agents, bargaining for a reasonable fee to pay for the damaged minivan! They bargained for half an hour and we arrived at Qiaotou after 4 hours of traffic and bargaining.
We spent the night at Jane's, a hostel established specifically for through hikers. While walking from the bus stop to the hostel I bought my trail pass (50 yuan or 25 yuan for students). The attendant took my Gonzaga University card and gave me the discount, even though I am not a student. Other volunteers who are students were not so lucky: they had no proof of their status and had to pay the full 50 yuan (except the volunteer who used my Gonzaga ID the next day!).
The hike itself was worth all the trouble. Hours on buses and trains were quickly forgotten as we stared across this amazing gorge at mountains that stretched into the sky and disappeared in the clouds. We walked and almost felt the mountains to our right, towering over us. There were moments along the trail when I felt completely free, walking along and listening to the sounds of the mountains and their inhabitants. At some of the higher points (2800 Meters) we could look down to the Yangtze River to see cars and buses lining the roadway. Most tourists opted for the easy option, but I was glad to be up there away from everyone and everything.
Our room in the guesthouse gave a clear view of the mountains across the gorge. It was perfect.
The next day we hiked out and stopped after only about 10 kilometers (30 total) to catch a bus and begin our two-part trip to Dali via Lijiang. In the return van we passed hordes of Chinese people snapping pictures of the river and mountains surrounding them. We stepped down from the mountain and back into China - crowds and traffic and waiting.