Whirlwind in China – Detour to Tibet

One day in particular during my recent visit to China really warranted its own post, as it is both a hilarious anecdote and an excellent exercise in flexibility and going with the flow (an essential to success in the Peace Corps, I have been told).

Throughout our time in Kunming and Dali (see previous post for details), Alexis and I had met people who insisted that we change our plans to include the two day hike called Tiger Leaping Gorge, a scenic route overlooking the Jinsha River.  After three or four conversations with Westerners who had done the trek and plenty of advice on how to get there, where to stay, and what we shouldn’t miss seeing, we finally packed our backpacks with the essentials, left our suitcases at the Jade Emu, and boarded a bus headed to Lijiang, the town from which we could catch a second bus to the bottom of the canyon.

Somewhere between leaving the first bus in Lijiang and what ultimately became our final destination, we made a wrong turn.

After a little over an hour on the second bus, we crested over the top of a hill and were immediately gifted with lush green brush which dropped sharply to meet the turquoise river cutting its way through the mountain stone.  Our guides had not lied; Tiger Leaping Gorge is almost indescribably stunning, and remote enough to have remained relatively untainted by eager sightseers such as ourselves.  By this point, we were eager to offload from the stuffy bus and begin our trek.

Another two hours in (to what was supposed to be a one and a half hour ride), we finally decided that something was amiss.  We had been told that it would be obvious when we stopped at the entrance to the gorge.  ‘Obvious’, however, being the subjective term that it is, obviously hadn’t been obvious to us.  The bus was climbing up a steep switchback road, evidently intent on leaving the gorge behind, and neither Alexis nor I possessed the communication skills to figure out just where we were headed.

I settled back into my seat with my trusty Kindle while Alexis proceeded to poke around Google Maps in the hopes of getting some semblance of where we were and where our destination could possibly be.  She determined only that we were “really far from Lijiang”, and gave up.

For the next four hours we wove through the remote mountainous countryside.  The only signs of civilization were tiny villages, no more than 20-25 wooden and clay shacks each, with rice paddies spiraling upwards along the hillsides around them.  Finally, just as the sun was beginning to touch the tips of the mountain peaks to our left, a massive grey concrete structure appeared, along with the first road signs we had seen in hours.  The most shocking realization we came to in looking at the signs was the writing.  Where many Chinese signs have Latin lettering to accompany the Chinese characters, these were filled with an unfamiliar script-like writing.  I thought it bore a resemblance to the Tengwar script tattooed on my arm, but Alexis discarded that as a possibility.  A few more minutes of debate ensued before we finally settled on the only language that made any logical sense at all: Tibetan.

The looming civilization was all towering grey concrete.  To our right, an unfinished construction project with a sign proclaiming “greatest business center of China” sat apparently forgotten, the encompassing fences running along at least two miles of the highway we were on.  Compared to the color and vibrancy we had just left behind in Dali that morning, the unknown town seemed comparatively drab and dreary, the grey concrete reminding me of something out of the Eastern Bloc.  Apparently, this was our destination.

It transpired that we had somehow managed to board a bus bound for the Tibetan border, and had simply missed our change to disembark at our destination.  Whether we were in fact on the bus we had intended or whether we could have found our desired hiking path from the rest stop in the gorge, I’m not sure we will ever know.  However, I remember this day as a highlight of my trip to China for several reasons:

  • Now I can say I’ve been to Tibet. Sure, we only stayed at the border for a few hours before catching a cramped sleeper bus back to Dali (I argued that we should continue on to Everest), but I can say it nonetheless.
  • It was hilarious. Past a certain point, there was almost nothing left to do but laugh at the ridiculous situation in which we found ourselves. 
  • It was a great lesson in flexibility.  Was it sad to not make it to the hike (which Alexis has since been on and informed me it’s beautiful)?  Absolutely.  But life just simply doesn’t always go as planned.  As I prepare to leave for Rwanda, I have started to realize that events like this might happen to me at any time while I am there, and that the best solution is to remain calm and enjoy the ride.  We were on a large bus with at least 50 people; it was certainly a safe bet that we were going to a transportation center that could bring us back to Lijiang or Dali and not be dumped at the side of the road.  Realizing this, I was able to actually take the time to enjoy the ride and the sites that accompanied the day.

Writer’s Note: I’m still trying to get hold of pictures from this excursion. I hope to add them to this post soon!

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