My friend, Leslie Miller, and I traveled to LiJiang and then Tiger Leaping Gorge in the southern province of Yunnan. In a country that has over one billion people, it was nice to escape the crowds and see few people other than other hikers and the local Chinese families who live and depend on the mountains.
The scenery was absolutely breath-taking; parts of the trail that were difficult to hike were also breath-taking. The first day of the hike especially is known as being the most intense. It's a little deceptive because the trail starts out as a paved road that just gradually starts winding into the mountain. At about the same time your lungs start to notice the altitude difference, the trail also kicks it up a notch and gets steeper. Luckily, the local Chinese men have donkeys that you can pay to ride. I think they look for the "weaker links" walking toward the trail and follow them until the weary and winded traveler agrees to pay the man to ride the donkey. Would you believe that my friend and I were pegged as just this kind of said traveler. At first, only my friend caved in to ride the donkey. But after awhile, they convinced me that I should also ride a donkey in order to keep up with my friend. They were very persuasive I might add. Plus, I was happy to have the experience of riding a donkey especially since I had heard that a part of the trail that we were quickly approaching, the 28 Bends, is incredibly steep and difficult to hike. There's no sense playing tough girl when you're in the mountains with nothing to show for it. Plus, I was happy to help out the local Chinese people.
During the hike, we enjoyed talking to the men who owned and led the donkeys. They shared many interesting things about the trail, their job, and their families. I realized that this was their main source of income...depending on tourists to need to ride donkeys to climb the mountain.They both shared that they were poor and had to pay to send their children to school. During this ride, I really started to see the difficulty of their lives. While my friend and I were leisurely enjoying the scenery, the men had to hike the most difficult part of the trail. When we arrived at the guesthouse at about 4:00 in the afternoon, the men still had to ride their donkeys home before the dark set in. Yes, their life did not sound easy even though they live on a beautiful mountain, they have to work hard for what they get. Talking to these two men who so carefully led their donkeys to carry us safely to the top of the mountain was an enriching and enlightening experience.