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ASIA & CHINA - THE "KEEP ON SMILING" TOUR

Tiger Leaping Gorge Postcard

TIGER LEAPING GORGE

"LOST IN THE FOREST"

I was dropped off, by the bus driver, in the centre of some small, nondescript, one street town. The street’s defining feature was a three storied, lightly pink coloured concrete prefabricated building, leaning precariously, about to slide off the side of the road, 50 metres into the river below.

A passing stranger, sensing my befuddlement, a type of empty space within my mind, asked if I wanted a ride to a guesthouse.

I shook my head and refused.

Twenty minutes later, back where I had started, a passing stranger, sensing my befuddlement, a type of empty space within my mind, asked if I wanted a ride to a guesthouse.

I shook my head and refused.

But it was tempting.

Oh so tempting…until I emerged from the bush and the scrub and the forest and the trees and eventually found what I was looking for…a guesthouse just outside a one street town.

******

Tiger Leaping Gorge river

“It is closed! It is dangerous! You are stupid if you do!” She screamed in a hysterical voice.

Then she took off.

Ready, steady, go!

I had only asked if she was going to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge. But, I admit, it was hardly the first time a woman had taken off hysterically after the asking by me of a simple, innocent question.

Additionally there had been recent rain and plenty of it.

Tiger Leaping Gorge river

Slips and apparently someone nearly getting killed; the resultant rock fall from the rain had caused the closure of the walking trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge - one of the deepest gorges in the world, hence the name.

But I had not come all this way, on the throw of the dice, on a chance of some luck, despite warning and protestations, to be turned back. It would have meant I would have wasted the day, searching for this particular isolated, weather ravaged hostel, two stories high but still hidden in the bushes. Wasted my day and received nothing in return, not even a comfortable night’s sleep.

So early the next morning I crept out, with darkness breaking into day. I had to avoid the possibility of any shrill screams on my departure and get through the gates of hell before the apocalypse. The gates of hell, those that guarded the entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge, would either be telling me the park was closed or I must pay an entrance fee to proceed.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Chinese with donkeys trailing wood

The gates were unmanned, with only a sign warning me of my impending doom – ‘Walk closed due to dangerous conditions. Government takes no responsibility for actions of tourists.’

It was confirmed; the communists had seen me coming and had implemented a government decree protecting their interests.

I ploughed on.

Slightly damp and slippery underfoot, the rain had cleared the cloud and replaced it with a temperate warmth and clarity.

A stroll through an empty school, taking a left turn to follow red markers plastered on the thin forest trees. A 15 minute walk along a straight narrow trail, expanding into what appeared a tractor trail, heading forever upwards, then onto a donkey trail, heading down and around until … all the trails had disappeared.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Chinese farmer guide

I hate to admit it but…I sat down to get my bearings, still surrounded by the thin forest trees that to a trained eye all looked the same.

Perhaps if I head forever upwards … perhaps if … then, like magic, as if appearing from nowhere, two donkeys attached to two people appeared and approached.

I knew I was right to stick to the donkey trail.

All four of them were smiling.

It had been a trap, a communist trap designed to ensnarl unsuspecting tourists.

I was clearly out-numbered and out-smarted, four-to-one.

I pointed to my map, symbolically asking the father of the other human if he could help me find a shortcut to a guesthouse where I had originally planned to have breakfast. Well past the time for breakfast or brunch, I symbolically told the father I had taken a detour to admire all the singularly stunning trees and I was now running late, hence the need for his advice on a short-cut.

He took an interest in my story and held up five fingers in response.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Chinese woman with bull

Five fingers.

I looked at him quizzically. What could five fingers mean?

Am I the fifth person to fall for your communist trap in the last five days, especially impressive given that the park has been closed for the last five days?

He expanded by writing the symbol 50 in the drying forest soil beneath our feet.

I spluttered, swaying, losing my balance.

Surely not! Not 50 yuan! I am not even lost, but merely of want of a shortcut so I do not disappoint my Chinese hosts at the next guesthouse.

Tiger Leaping Gorge from tourist road

I climbed back to my feet and began following the old man, his son and his two donkeys, after we had run out of space on the forest floor to write and had eventually settled on a price of 30 yuan.

Down we climbed from the crest of the mountain, the donkeys trailing freshly felled or tumbled trees in their wake. I lagged even further behind, weary of further communist tourist traps. Until 30 minutes had passed and the father pointed to the guesthouse, smoke billowing from its chimney, hopefully creating freshly brewed coffee, just in time for lunch.

At the guesthouse I was greeted by three English backpackers, who incidentally, had paid 100 yuan for the services of a guide for the two day walk to the other side of the gorge. I had to return, back to whence I had come, and as such was in a quandary.

I asked the guide of the English backpackers for advice on the best way back to the original guesthouse.

Tiger Leaping Gorge from tourist road

“Perhaps I can just keep walking down until I find a road?”

“Follow the route that you walked to get here” he helpfully replied.

Ah, my friend, you may speak wise words but so little do you know.

I waited until everyone had left and the dishes had been cleared before I headed outside the secure procrastinated bounds of my current predicament, and down the windy road that headed downwards.

Downward, the gravel path offering security, until I stumbled upon a series of bulls parked in the middle of the path, purposely blocking my progress. Coming to a sudden halt, I stood motionless, wishing I was still sitting in the guesthouse above, peacefully procrastinating.

We waited for one of us to make a move.

Waiting, still waiting, until I heard a voice from the bank above; it was an older woman, attached by a rope to another bull, motioning in wide arc circles of her arms, for me to walk around.

I motioned back, perhaps more dramatically, something to the effect, ‘Are you f..cking kidding?’

More wide, calming, arc gestures from the older woman; mesmerising. Until I finally took heed of her advice and slipped my way down and around, quietly, peacefully, steam rising from the inflamed nostrils of the stationary beasts.

And then I was off.

Ready, steady, go!