Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why I Travel and Why I Traveled in 2012: Tiger Leaping Gorge of Yunnan, China

The soft, gray soil was proving too difficult to walk on with my worn-out hiking shoes, the same ones I wore to walk the trails of the same mountain range more than 1,600 kilometers from where I was at that moment, four countries away, to be exact. Although the load on my back was lighter this time, the same difficulties were making themselves annoyingly present. Legs sting every single step I make on the rocky uphill trail. Heart beats unrelenting and heavy as I try to breathe in as much oxygen as I can in the thin atmosphere of this Himalayan altitude. Never mind the cold wind blasting my already cold and sweaty neck. I look around and then I realize why I do the things I do.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan, China
Majestic cliffs of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, viewed from the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Above me to my right, the jagged cliff faces of Southwest China's Tiger Leaping Gorge rise up a sheer 2,000 meters from the river below. The precipitous trail I walk on snakes its way high up on the other side of the gorge and has my feet stepping on ground just inches away from certain death. The emerald waters of the river below crash white among the rocks and the narrow canyon it flows on, its thunderous roars clear to my ears even at this altitude. The Yangtze River, which at this point is just a few meters wide, is beginning its journey thousands of kilometers in distance passing through the most important cradles of civilizations of the Middle Kingdom: Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai, before it empties out into the East China Sea.

Related post: Photos from the Best Trek in Southwest China: the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The oddest thing about it is that of all the great life-giving rivers of this region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site no doubt, the Yangtze is the only one that chose to be Chinese. The Mekong, the Salween, the Irrawaddy, and the Red River all flow from glaciers of Yunnan province and the Eastern Himalayas south towards Burma and Indochina. The Yangtze, however, makes a U-turn at a big rock not far from the Tiger Leaping Gorge to flow north and then east towards the prosperous basins of central China. Without that big rock and without that U-turn, the history of China, the history of Asia, or the history of the world for that matter would be entirely different. It is at this moment I realized that it's when geology and geography intersect with the history and culture of human civilizations that I am most amazed at the world.

Yangtze River, Yunnan, China
Upper reaches of the Yangtze River, thousands of kilometers away
from its destination, the East China Sea

To think, just a couple of years ago, Yunnan province to me was just a blank space on a map. There was this region located right above Southeast Asia, so close to where I lived, yet I knew nothing about it. All I saw was this region unbelievably crumpled from the Indian subcontinent pushing towards the north twisting and turning the lands around it, forming mountains, rivers, gorges, lakes, and valleys. Such seemingly unnavigable terrain, to my amazement, became the home of nearly 50 percent of the population of China's ethnic minorities. The blank space on the map was suddenly splashed with the bright and vivid colors of the costumes of the Bai women, the elaborate headdresses of the Yi, the hieroglyphic script of the Naxi, and the windswept prayer flags of the Tibetans.

Naxi Women, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Naxi women in the Old Town of Lijiang
Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China
Bai snacks vendor in Dali

Thanks to Michael Palin and his BBC crew, a curiosity was ignited. The curiosity would eventually grow and prove more than what my wanderlust could bear. So off I go, uncertain of where I would find myself after, and just fresh from a three-month trip around South Asia, which involved seeing the Dalai Lama, getting scammed and scared to my wits in the most sacred city of India, bungy jumping off a bridge only a couple of hours from the only international Tibetan border crossing, and trekking for 10 straight days to a Himalayan sanctuary. I made sure that when the time comes that Mr. Palin and I would meet, I would be able to share my stories from Yunnan province and from the Tiger Leaping Gorge, particularly and most importantly, that of the No. 1 Toilet in Heaven and Earth, a toilet found in a mountain lodge halfway into the trek, which despite its basic, some would say dismal facilities, has you staring up at the glorious west face of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as you deposit your unmentionables to the gorge below.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Mordor-esque view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from the No. 1 Toilet in Heaven and Earth

So today, on the day of my birth, a day before the year ends, a year so full of travels I began to have trouble calling home home, I ask myself: What is the highlight of my 2012? It will not take me two seconds to give a definite answer. I never understood how some travelers are not able to choose, how they say each place has its own charm that each one fell to their liking. We like, and sometimes love, the places we travel to not just because they are beautiful, picturesque, or scenic. It's not even because of the wonderful people we encounter along the way, nor the exotic foods we tickle our tongues with in those places, although happy-go-lucky companions and cold Yunnan noodles do help tremendously. More than anything, we love the places we travel to because of who we are, what we know, and what we believe in at the moment we step out of the plane, the train, the bus, or the boat. Upon my arrival, Yunnan showed me lands and cultures never in a million years I would ever imagine existed. It provided me a sense of wonder and discovery we only get to feel very few times in our lives, if we are lucky. I reckon it will be hard to top it. I will certainly keep on trying in 2013. Cheers!

Related post: Guide to Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

What is the highlight of your travels in 2012?

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