“I want to go home. I want to be in my bed. If I hadn’t come I would be in bed right now. I shouldn’t have come, why did I come? I hate this. My feet are soaked. I just fell on my ass in front of everyone. I want to cry. WHY DID I AGREE TO GO ON THIS HIKE?! “
These thoughts created a continual soundtrack in my head as we waded through icy mountain streams. After slipping off mossy rocks and stepping through innocent-looking grass fields that actually masked wetlands, I had given up on staying dry. Still we plodded on, attempting to avoid brambles and thorns before inevitable nightfall as we descended from Huadianba. Luckily, our brains have a way of erasing the memory of physical misery, allowing us to go back to the mountains next time.
Our hiking squad
The hike in question began innocuously enough with a drive up to Laping where we, a group of 9 with ages ranging from 7 to 70, were dropped off at the trailhead. The sun was still shining, the proverbial birds were still chirping, and everyone was humming with that energy that marks the beginning of an adventure. Despite the burn of the continual uphill climb, we reached the first plateau pretty quickly and sat down for a protein-packed lunch before seeing the first curious sheep peer over the ridge. Another uphill climb later we reached our goal – Huadianba a spectacular alpine field that you wouldn’t expect to find nestled within these mountains. It was the treacherous hike down that I was wholly unprepared and unequipped for. If “Fear Factor” decides to start filming again, they could start with a close up my face as I slid my way down the mountain in the dark, breathing heavily and grasping at any branch to avoid going over the edge of a concealed cliff. But at the end of it all, was I proud to have done it? Yes. Did I learn things about hiking? Yes. Would I do it again? To be determined/Ask again later (like an 8 ball!)
Huadianba alpine field
Groundbreaking statement: I consider myself an amateur hiker. In fact, my hiking career prior to 2017 is almost nonexistent. When I returned home in between my PiA fellowship years, I asked my mom: “Why didn’t you ever take me hiking as a kid?” Her response was: “You know us, you know what kind of people we are.” Both of my parents are English professors, and while by no means lazy, they are long-term/incurable? Manhattanites and would much prefer visiting an art museum or taking in a foreign film at Lincoln Plaza.
Scenes from the Jade Belt Path
My real hiking experience began with Cangshan, a mountain range of 18 peaks whose highest summit, Malong, reaches 4,122 meters (13,524 ft); the mountains are impossible to ignore if you live in Dali. My co-fellow Veronica once described living in Xizhou as feeling like the filling of a dumpling with mountain ranges hugging you from all sides.
Attempting to play “jianzi” at the convenience stop & cable car fears
The first time I “hiked” along the Jade Belt Path, a stone path that spans 11km of the mountain range, was as part of a scouting trip for the Middlebury School of the Environment. I use quotation marks because like many famous Chinese tourist sites, the Jade Belt Path feels less like a hike and more like a leisurely stroll a few thousand meters above sea level, complete with a hot-dog-serving convenience store located halfway through. That’s not to say you don’t still experience Cangshan’s biodiversity and Dali’s beauty, it just wasn’t exactly an immersive encounter with the elements.
Scenes from Tiger Leaping Gorge
But fear not, I had plenty of time to commune with nature during our Huadianba hike, our Tiger Leaping Gorge hike during the 2017 Linden Centre winter staff retreat, our Jizushan hike with a group from the University of Minnesota, and this past month in Baoshan. Each of these adventures showed me the dramatic landscapes that Yunnan has to offer. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge involved taking on the 28 bends from hell, but the views of the steep valleys and the raging river below made it more than worth it.
For most of the hike I ended up in the middle of the pack with Ms. Zhang and Ms. Yang, members of our cleaning staff who were singing old Chinese songs and stopping intermittently to pick medicinal herbs, which they graciously shared with me. The spot where the fabled tiger supposedly leapt over the river was equally remarkable but required an ungodly number of staircases. When I think back on that hike however, the pain of the climb is gone; the moments of camaraderie with my coworkers and the trippy mountain views are what I remember.
The Linden Centre hiking team
My favorite hike in Yunnan to date was in Baoshan for our Winter Nature Camp; the Jizushan hike on the holy mountain with temples and monkeys was a close second. “The Waterfall Hike” starts out on an unremarkable dirt road, which eventually transforms into mossy stone steps descending into what feels like an Indiana Jones world.
Plenty of vines to swing on
The massive 芭蕉(bajiao-Japanese banana) trees loom above, creating a subtropical feeling despite the temperature, and before long you reach the first waterfall, a modest trickle compared to what’s to come.
The “Little” Waterfall
The hike also takes you past a natural hot spring, ideal for an afternoon foot soak or a swim, if you come prepared.
Beyond the hot spring is when the path gets a little tricky: this is the point where we had our students walk single file as there are couple steep drop-offs into nothingness. A few hundred steps later and you’re at the top – the big waterfall, where we sat for a while and sketched in our field notebooks.
The big one
On the long trek out, we found that the path had been interrupted by a landslide, so we had to sprawl out along the dirt to get across. This hike was a foray into a new world that was physically demanding and remarkably beautiful, yet it re-introduced me to one of my old hobbies: drawing. I’m excited to go back at the end of this month for session two; maybe I’ll get to add some cool specimens and sketches to my field notebook!
Sketching the hot spring
On New Year’s Eve we had a campfire in the Baoshan woods under the stars, a far cry from my usual TV-side couch seat to watch the ball drop in Times Square. We went around the group and shared our new years’ resolutions; part of mine was to hike in some of America’s gorgeous national parks. I hope to see some of you out there in the western wilderness of Meiguo.
Campfire under the stars
At first I didn’t take advantage of the hiking opportunities in Yunnan. Due to my urban upbringing, I’d never had any experience in the countryside. Also, I think I was scared of failing, falling in front of people, and showing a real weakness. This fear turned into avoidance of any attempt to spend time in nature. But now I’m starting to get it, the physical challenge, the incredible landscapes, and even the moments of struggle are all worth it. So if you’re not exactly the greatest outdoorsman, I’d recommend taking on a hike on your next trip to Yunnan. If 11-year-old Bryce can do it, and if I can do it, so can you. To get you started, here are some of my hiking recommendations:
May’s Guide to Yunnan Hikes:
- 中和寺Zhonghesi/感通寺Gantongsi/洗马潭Ximatan (The Cable Cars)
- Time: ~2 hours
- Difficulty: Easy-Medium
- Where to begin: If going up near Zhonghesi you can either take a horse trail up or the paved stone step path, the horse trail is a bit more pleasant and feels more like nature; if going up near Gantongsi the path is paved but follows a lovely mountain stream
- These hikes take you up to the Jade Belt Path, a paved stone path that covers 11 km of Cangshan
- Where to come down: where you started; a horse trail in the middle of the path; or at the Gantong/Zhonghesi cable car paths (walking). Alternatively, you can take any of the cable cars back down. For Ximatan (the midway cable car) you’ll have to hike up stairs from the Jade Belt path to get there.
- 宾川(Binchuan): 鸡足山(Jizushan – Chicken Foot Mountain) Hike
- Difficulty: Easy-Medium
- Time: 10 minutes (cable car) 2 hours (if you take the stairs) 2-3 days (if you hike over a ridge and up the back of the mountain)
- Where to begin: You have to pay an entrance fee and the bus/car should drop you at a place where you can either take a cart to the cable car or walk up. You can choose to walk up the steps or take the cable car up.
- If you decide to do the multi-day hike you can start from Xiaguan or Wase (it’s probably best to go with a guide who can also arrange where to stay)
- Notes: This mountain is considered holy for Buddhists and there are many amazing temples to visit. It’s a little bit out of the way, but it’s worth checking out the Huashou Gate to get good views of the mountain and temple.
- The mountain is also home to monkeys, feed at your own risk
- Time: 8-11 hours
- Difficulty: Hard
- Where to begin: Laping, Zhoucheng
- Notes: This hike involves two different alpine fields: 小花甸坝(Xiaohuadinba – “little,” higher), 大花甸坝(Dahuadianba – “big,” lower)
- It’s best to go with a guide who knows the road
- Things to see on the hike: alpine fields, sheep, yaks
- 电视台The T.V. Station
- Time: 8 hours-1 full day
- Difficulty: Hard
- Where to begin: If you go up behind the mountain behind the three pagodas, you’ll end up on a path that takes you high up the mountain.
- Notes: It’s probably best to go with a guide and be prepared for possible snow near the top
- 保山(Baoshan): 旧街(Jiu Jie) Old Growth Forest Hike
- Difficulty: Easy-Medium
- Where to begin: Get a driver to drop you off at the trail head (be prepared for a bumpy ride). Ask them to take you to “Jiu Jie Zi”. This hike takes you all the way to Tengchong if you do the whole path, roughly 11 hours. This is not a loop, it is just an out-and-back.
- Notes: don’t mind the bird photographers, who can be a bit grumpy. The path is a bit slippery, especially coming down on the rocks, so be careful.
- 保山(Baoshan): Waterfall Hike
- Difficulty: Medium
- Where to begin: The path near the 农家乐(Nong Jia Le) local inn
- Notes: this hike is gorgeous! Bring a suit if you want to take a swim in the hot spring; there’s a place to change!
- 香格里拉(Shangri-La): 虎跳峡 (Hu Tiao Xia)Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike
- Difficulty: Medium-Hard
- Where to begin: we started near the guesthouse, but some people spend multiple days on the trail and stay at guesthouses.
- Notes: Beware of the bends!
Beginners Tips, A.K.A. Things I learned on Hikes:
- Wear hiking shoes, or shoes with some modicum of traction
- When you come to a downhill area where you might slip, it’s best to do a slight chicken foot run down, with light spread out steps, rather than trying to go super slowly and slipping anyway
- Bring layers
- Peeing in the forest isn’t all that bad; it certainly beats peeing in the public port-a-potties on the Jade Belt Path
- If you walk quietly with a few people, you’re more likely to see cool critters
- Never tell someone you’re almost at the end if you’re sure you’re not. False hope = greater disappointment and more complaining
- Bring snacks!! Especially if you have a group of hungry children
- Bring a battery pack, especially if it’s cold, so that you can contact people if you split up and/or contact drivers once you get down to call for help
- Headlamps are useful
- Bring a trash bag for yourself, and other trash you may find
This article is part of our new column: Two PiA’s in a Pod:
Hi! We are Veronica and May, two recent graduates working at the Linden Centre as Princeton in Asia (PiA) fellows. May has been living and working in Xizhou as of September 2017, and Veronica arrived the following year. It’s very special that we get the opportunity to live in the Chinese countryside and integrate in the local community. Our daily interactions and routines are completely different from what we’re used to and it’s important to take the time to reflect deeply on our experiences and the lives of those who surround us. This column is an opportunity to do just that. We hope you enjoy!