Jul 16, 2012

Gone (a traveler's tale)

I knew the Israeli girl was gone, and I don’t mean gone for a walk or gone somewhere else but gone, gone. Her father who looked like the kind of guy who had seen a couple of things, realized, I think, that there was little likelihood. I’m a father, I have a little girl, I can’t imagine. Girl is probably the wrong thing to call someone who was, or used to be, an officer in the Israeli army. It was Asia, that’s what they call unmarried women.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Yunnan, China from Wiki

It had started the way many things do with the idea to go for a walk for a couple of days. I was living down in Dali and had been hearing “backpackers” talking of a “trek” through a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge. Trek is code amongst the banana pancake crowd for a leisurely walk. This was back in the mid 90s before mass tourism had much touched that obscure part of Yunnan pushed up against Tibet by who knows what sort of tectonic plate.

I’d already done a snowy mid winter walk along the ridge of Cangshan Range and spent too many days wandering on the cold glacier of Yulongxue Shan where I had no business being midwinter and alone. I was ready for a flat walk with banana pancakes.

On the mini bus out of Lijiang I met the three of them, a young guy, and a couple that were older, maybe in their mid 30s, they were headed back to the gorge to look for the companion of the young guy. I’ll call him YG for young guy as I’ve long forgotten any names if I ever knew them.

YG and the Israeli girl, his companion, had had an argument of some sort as people traveling together sometimes tend to do. They’d separated to walk along at their own pace without having to look at or discuss with each other whatever it was they were arguing about. When the YG got to Walnut Grove, the midway point, he waited and waited, Israeligirl never showed up. Thinking she’d perhaps turned around and gone back, the next day he retraced his steps to  Qiaotou. (Shaw-toe?) She hadn’t gone there either so he alerted the PSB and things took on a life of their own from there.

They all went back up the gorge, the YG and the police, and they looked. They looked from the last place he’d seen her and they looked further down the trail from there. They talked to everyone living in the vicinity and they kept looking on into the night. Then they went to Walnut grove and screamed at the guest house owner who hadn’t registered her in his books so to save the 30% “local tax”. Then the next day they went back to  Qiaotou where there was a phone and called Lijiang which is the biggest town around.

Technically she’d gone missing in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of which Zohngdian is the capital. Zohngdian has been renamed, it’s now  Shangrila and in my estimation not the better for it. The entire area is now a World Heritage Site. Roads, hotels, tour groups, airports, ATMs.

So the three Israelis and I slept at Qiaotou, then we too hiked most of the way to Walnut Grove and looked. We looked up and mostly down the hill from where the YG had last seen Israeligirl and to tell you the truth there seemed no place a person could disappear to. The hillside was open, treeless.  We walked on to the Guest House which was tended by the owner’s ten year old daughter and a teenage helper, no one else was there.

The guest house had a few very basic rooms without water, no electricity, we were after all at least 20km from the road.. In the morning when I got up the guest house daughter was scraping the wax from the table where the middle aged fellow had been playing with it and made a mess spreading the wax around with match sticks and what not. In the kitchen we huddled around the woodstove. There was little to eat, the owner was off buying supplies, but the guesthouse daughter offered yack butter tea. I had some moon cakes which I shared around. We smoked a bowl of pot, I was the only one to take up her offer of the tea. Refreshingly strong tea and filling at the same time.


Daughter of the Guest House owner at Walnut Grove. She managed the place very well in the absence of her parents, I think she was 10. Notice the churn against the wall for making yak butter tea. Slow slide film with natural light.

The next day we walked out to the far end of the gorge and took a ferry across the Yangtze to the lovely little town of Daju which was at the end of a road and it was possible to take a bus. The walk seemed long to Daju, maybe 30km.

Daju had a short landing strip for small aircraft and some old style timber frame houses being built. They actually had banana trees, something I hadn’t seen in China. Daju at the downriver end of the gorge is one of the lowest places around. It’s past the gorge, they get a full complement of sunlight. The next day after an eight hour bone rattling ride on a poor excuse for a road we were back in Lijiang. Eight hours to go fifty kilometers.

It was in Lijiang that I met the dad. He’d flown across the world as fast as he could but by now we were at day seven or eight or something. His daughter had been gone an awfully long time. He asked what I thought of the deal and I had no theories or impressions that would add to an understanding. Very few people live in the gorge, anything that happens everyone knows.

It wasn’t until a month later that I found out the end of story, and even then it was only by chance that I heard.

I should say before someone corrects me that the river up by the gorge isn’t called the Yankze, in Yunnan it’s called something else entirely. I should also mention that though the trek is basically a flat path that has been in use for centuries if not millennia, there are many side paths. People leave little trails, herding goats, collecting mushrooms, picking herbs. And, as in most places none of the side paths are marked, nor are any paths marked. Everyone knows where they are going.


Locals crossing a foot bridge Tiger Leaping Gorge

One evening I fast walked and jogged the 23km of path from Walnut Grove back to Qiaotou in a little over 3 hours with a broken headlamp and moon behind clouds. It might not be a super highway but it’s close to it. Towards the Qiaotou end of things the path cut through the center of a small prison, it was without walls. I guess the place is for model prisoners and in any case the walls of the gorge are as good a barrier as any. They cut large pieces of marble. At the time I was there that was the furthest extent of the road, now I think the road goes all the way to Walnut Grove maybe further. The night I walked they were still working by the light of bright bulbs long after dark. No one said anything as I walked on through. Silent prisoners, feeding a saw, cutting rock.

The gorge itself is deep. It’s deeper than the grand canyon, the walls though not as sheer are larger than El Cap in Yosemite. At the time I was there no one knew the size of the gorge, or if they did they didn’t advertise it. Sitting at Walnut Grove one has a very intimate view of the wall on the opposite side. I knew at the time that surely this gorge was as big as any wall I’d ever seen. I was puzzled as to why the gorge wasn’t famous, now it is.

The sun shines on Walnut Grove very late and leaves early, maybe five hours of direct sun, that’s how steep the walls are. The hillside was intensely terraced. At the edge of the town I once found the ruins of an abandoned house with a house sized boulder in the middle of it. The house had been built in a place too susceptible to rockfall.

It was at Qiaotou in the backpacker cafe that I found the end of the story. Like many places on the banana pancake circuit the cafe had a log book for people to jot down their impressions or messages.


Backpackers Cafe Qioatou - It could sometimes be days between customers.

Israelidad had hired some kind of professional searcher and they had found his daughter. Probably they’d also hired locals,  and they’d done a grid search marking where they’d been. The stream crossings had been tricky and she’d wandered far downhill at one place looking for a better crossing. There are different crossings for pack horses and other places better in the wet season, and so on, many little trails headed nowhere. The young woman had fallen down between large rocks at one such crossing and been very badly injured. She had lived a few days unable to move but well enough to jot down some thoughts. She had pen and paper from her backpack.

I read about all this in the logbook at the cafe.

A sad and terrible thing for sure.

If anyone ever reads this who was there at the time my apologies for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations. Sean if you read this it looks like your guest house has been very successful, I’ll be back someday. Lastly to Israeligirl whom I never met, I hope you rest easy.



Below are some more photos from the two walks I did into the gorge in 95 and also the walks on the Canshang Range and Yuahlung Shan from just before the Tiger Leaping Walk. I post them here so as not to detract from the story.


Above-From the second day out on my hike of the Cangshan Ridge. Barely visible is the distant peak of Yuahlung Shan, the gorge is just left of it. This hike was my first test of my sleeping system which was comprised of an old summer weight synthetic bag, the fleece pants and jacket I was wearing and a hat, on top of a Thermarest and inside a bivi sack covered with a space blanket. Worked fine.


Self snap shot on the East side of Yuahlong Shan. A long ways from anyone I knew in a place of no trails or maps, in other words heaven on earth. I bought salted beef, packaged noodle soup, moon-pies and green tea at the market, great backpacking food. It was this cold midwinter wander that convinced me I needed to go for a flat walk such as tiger leaping gorge where I could sleep in guesthouses.


Qiaotou-The road to Zhongdian and Lasa Tibet which was closed to outsiders at the time, it has since opened. Not much traffic.


Yualong Shan from the West. It's this mountain that forms the steep east side of the gorge, probably the deepest river gorge in the world.


Except for the first, all photos are mine, taken at the time of the story and a month later when I did the walk again. I was using a manual Pentax with a decent 28mm lense and a not so good 80-210 zoom. Velvia 50 or 100 and always natural light. I've come to appreciate digital photography a heck of a lot.


I've purposefully skipped all sorts of second guessing. Nothing about walking alone or abilities to follow a trail or our lack of searching in the right place. Things happen.

3 comments:

CK said...

Oh man, that was a sad one. Thank you for posting it. I've seen that photo of you before. I thought it was taken in the Winds. Warmest Regards, Charles

Anonymous said...

Thanks CK, it might well have been the winds except tree line is 3000 feet higher. Perfect snow conditions, very hard but not ice. But I had no axe or crampons. Trying to drop weight and get legs for a mid fall backpack hunt at altitude. The years tick by like the sweep hand of the clock.

CK said...

It's also great writing.

I heard that about time. I'm headed back to the Winds in August, but don't know when as everything depends on house repairs.