There are places in this world that never lose their new-penny sheen. You can stand there and drink them with your eyes, your brain flooded with beauty, but when you turn from them the experience washes away. When you look again, they’re new, and you’re no closer to understanding what you see.
Tiger-Leaping Gorge（虎跳峡） is one such place. (Note: As mentioned in a previous post, my camera disappeared from my bag last week. These pictures are Courtesy of Thomas Laurance of www.redbluepictures.com)
The bus spilled a troupe of well-outfitted foreigners out at the trailhead, meters away from where the Yangtze (金沙江) begins its descent into one of the deepest gorges in the world (3790 meters/12343feet from river to summit). Preferring an open trail, I took off on my own. After days of uncharacteristic rain, the mountains were still veiled in a thick mat of clouds.
I climbed the high trail the away from the river. The tropical air was thick with moisture, but the surge of the Himalayan foothills left me gasping for air.
I walked until early afternoon, stopping at the expansive Tea Horse Guest house for lunch. I sat and read, watching as the mountains shrugged off their shrouds. A snow-laced sunshower swept up from the valley below, and soon after, the others began to arrive.
Brushing away the tingling stranger danger that still nags me, I struck up a conversation and we became fast friends. Assembled were another young English teacher, a German sociology-business major recently through with a semester in Shanghai, a handsome and kind young Peruvian couple, an energetic (and equally handsome) German couple (The man, Simon, had cycled from Germany to India on a fundraising expedition similar to my own), a tall and adventurous Czech woman, and a British Filmmaker traveling overland to make a documentary in India (his photos are the ones you see before you; his website here). We enjoyed a night of talking and learning, then set off the next day as a group.
We split up that afternoon, one of those travel families that dissolves as readily as it formed. Most left the gorge that day, but Simon and I pushed on downriver to the village of Walnut Garden. Climbing for the last time away from the awesome cataract of the middle gorge, the meter-wide path wove along the cliff face to a village of terraced fields.
We waved good-bye at the entrance of Sean’s Spring Guesthouse, and I climbed the stairs with aching feet. I was met at the entrance by Sean, a local man of greying moustache and smile-wrinkled eyes.
After a shower that flashed between icy and scalding on regular 7-second intervals, I gladly accepted a toasty cup of local tea and a seat near the pot-bellied stove. Sean asked me the usual questions, sitting forward in his seat and pulling his blue fleece closer with his one good hand. I told him about my project, and asked him about his life and his role as a community leader in the gorge. His story came in jumps and starts, broken frequently by lengthy but natural fits of laughter that left him swaying in his seat.
Sean grew up in Walnut Garden, before the locals started planting the trees that give the village its name. He was born in 1964 to a family that had lived in the gorge going back 5 generations. When he was 2 years old, the red guard came looking for his father. Not finding him, they threw Sean into the firepit, and threw his sister over a nearby cliff. The entire left side of his body was burned, and he was permanently disabled.
Sean was allowed to attend grade school, but was forbidden from continuing his education because of his disability. Undeterred, Sean educated himself. He opened the first store in Tiger Leaping Gorge when the government started allowing people to establish small businesses in 1983. Soon after that, the gorge was opened for tourism. Sean decided to teach himself English, expanding his home to accommodate guests.
Sean’s efforts to promote the local economy have expanded dramatically since their beginnings 30 years ago. Today, he builds trails, leads climbing and boating trips, collects funds for the medical bills of local disabled people, and has plans for further expansion of his business–building a climbing wall into the slope below his building, for example.
One of Sean’s projects stands out as especially important to him, though. On that night a few weeks ago, he paused his story and became still in his chair for the first time all night. He held the white-and-brown package gently, reading the English words aloud:
‘We began growing Tiger Leaping Walnuts with one reason only–to grow the healthiest, best tasting walnuts in China. Our perfect elevation in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, combined with the most natural rain, sun, and temperate weather of the Yunnan Province, allows us to share our healthy walnuts with the world. Our walnuts have been grown under the most suitable conditions possible. Enjoy the taste of nature from our beautiful mountains.”
He looked up and beamed, eyes crinkling. Sean co-founded the Tiger Leaping Walnut Coop in the late 2000s, and since then local people have together planted more than 20,000 walnut trees covering 164 previously barren acres. The trees are now producing, and local leaders are working to market their products to the outside world.
Sean, like nearly every other Chinese person I’ve met, had a coherent general understanding of climate change. Like those others, though, he seemed to think little about its implications for his own life.
When I asked, he told me that the village’s walnut groves need year-round irrigation to survive–something they currently receive from glaciers on the mountains above. The glaciers serve as natural reservoirs that build up during the rainy season and melt during the drier months, providing a year-round supply of fresh water.
Without them, Sean and the rest of the Walnut Coop farmers will have to rely on expensive irrigation systems which draw water from the river at the upper end of the gorge. But even these systems may be unreliable. Glacial melt composes 50-60% of the summer flow of the Yangtze. Some projections indicate that 80% of the glaciers that feed it could be gone by 2035. If farmers like Sean are forced to switch to the Yangtze for irrigation, the water supply could be even further reduced.
Sean sees the growth of the Walnut Coop as a path leading his community toward sustainable development, stabilising the microclimate of the gorge, combating global warming and erosion, and lifting the Walnut Garden community out of poverty. But these efforts, as well as the local tourist economy, may be jeopardised with the melting of the glaciers.
He’s frustrated, though, he says. “I want to make a community effort, we should all work together to all prosper. But everyone just wants to make their own life better. They work with you until they do better, and then they don’t want to help anymore. It’s not a good culture.”
Want to change the culture? Want to stop the unsustainable destruction of the natural systems that support our civilisation? Start here. Refuse to profit from the exploitation of the fossil fuel industry by divesting on February 13th, International Divestment Day.
3 thoughts on “Tall mountains, fast friends, and my first climate story”
Wonderful, personalized story.
I had thought the Snake River Canyon between Oregon and Idaho, at about one mile deep, was about as impressive as gorges ever get. But no, you find Tiger Leaping Gorge at more than twice as deep and I’m awed again by China’s more spectacular scenery: bigger, higher, deeper, weirder, more photogenic.
Except for the Grand Canyon, of course . . . and maybe the Columbia Gorge for its history of incredible violence during the Spokane Floods . . . and, come to think of it ,the Snake River Canyon is respectably dramatic in that it’s cut right straight down into a high plateau with walls sheer to the sky . . . and crossing the Columbia Bar . . . . .
Incidentally, the translation that produces “Tiger Leaping” in English seem subtly different from a more typical English word order that would be rendered as “Leaping Tiger.” The L/T order seems merely descriptive; the T/L order seems more present, more fraught with immediate danger. Is this difference inherent in the Chinese name or is it some convention of translation to make the term sound exotic to foreign ears?
I believe it’s a direct translation issue that stuck over time. The Chinese name is 虎跳峡, literally the character for “Tiger” then “Leap/Dance” then “Gorge.” It’s meant to communicate that the Tiger supposedly leapt across the gorge at a certain narrow point in the river. “Leaping Tiger Gorge” doesn’t feel like it expresses that properly, although I don’t suppose it’s current name does either.