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Mama And The Gorge

Early. The sleeper train from Kunming to Lijiang arrived early. 6am early. The train was a double decker which reminded Carl of all those chocolate bars he’d left behind; for a moment his eyes glazed over and he bit his lip to stop the tears from flowing. All was forgotten when we arrived sleepily in sunny Lijiang and boarded a mini van for Mama’s Naxi Guesthouse and Carl’s thoughts turned to a more appropriate breakfast.

It was 7ish when we arrived through the calm stone cobbled streets of Lijiangs Old Town and into Mama’s world of chaos. We were met by Mama herself, a lovingly psychotic, short old woman, who was continually shouting huskily  in Chinese / English, always in third person. “Mama Hello. Mama have rooms. You sleep with Mama”. Our faces must have said it all as other guests told us with a smile, “that’s just Mama”, something that we’d say in the days to come to reassure other frightened souls that arrived unknowingly at the guesthouse.

Like the rest of Lijaings Old Town, Mama’s was done up in the Old Naxi style. Built with thick dark wood and an open welcoming courtyard and dining area. Outside in the courtyard the sun was strong, the sky an unusual bright blue, and the few clouds a refreshing crisp white. The atmosphere Mama had created was a laid back, none judgemental one; somewhere you could sit all day and talk with different guests, joke with the friendly (if a little strange) staff, share travel stories and drink big bottles of either warm or frozen beer for Y5. They just don’t understand the concept of cold beer in China. In the evenings the guests would huddle round small tables for Mama’s Naxi cooking, a selection of meats and vegetables, with heaps of rice for just Y15 each, before splitting off into groups to watch the world cup football and drink the warm or frozen beer. Everyone there ended up staying longer than intended, including us. Two nights soon turned into six. But after a lot of bad football and late nights we finally bit the bullet, went to bed pre-watershed and donned our trekking gear for the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

After the initial confusion of Mama shouting random destinations in China at us over breakfast, we were piled into a minivan and off we went to the gorge. We were accompanied by friends we’d met at Mama’s; a French couple, a Dutch guy, and an Israeli with a walking stick that made Carl jealous. The last few days in Lijiang had been beautiful, but as soon as we reached the entrance to the gorge it started to rain. This didn’t deter us. Carl donned his giant red condom and off we went. We were followed for the first few hours by a man on a mule; but he soon fled when we encountered flesh-eating caterpillars that swung unexpectedly from the trees and appeared from the ground in their thousands. Luckily our Israeli friend had a stick and cut them down before us and swept them aside. Once we had defeated the caterpillars we started to climb the steep 28 bends up the gorge. Carl described the ascent as “not much fun really”, but despite that, he did have fun. When we reached the top the views were spectacular. Clouds obscured the protruding mountains above but the sun had started to shine on us below. Small ancient faced Chinese women with deep heavy wrinkles shouted at us from behind tiny temporary stalls “water, water, ganja, ganja”.

We arrived at the Tea Horse guesthouse tired, smelly, wet, and hungry. After a quick splash of water we took our seats on top of the hostel toilets; theunfortunate spot that offered the best views of the gorge. We soon shimmied inside to the restaurant area when a fellow trekker left quite a stench drifting our way. We were joined by three others that we’d met at Mama’s the previous day and we all settled down for a greasy noodle dinner followed by a pleasant game of Jungle Speed. Little did I know that a game involving grabbing at a phallic object and performing inappropriate celebrations (Carl) would be a highlight of our trip. The views were nice too of course.

After a morning of gorge walking and avoiding the pesky mountain goat we would leave the gorge for Lijaing. What I failed to mention was that the gorge is officially closed for construction and the Chinese government have put up loving signs that state ‘any death or injury, not our fault’. What construction? We wondered smugly as we boarded a mini van that would take us down the lower path to the start of the gorge, where we’d board another mini van for Lijaing. The lower path was a thin, broken stone road with a menacing drop on one side, and unstable rocks on the other. As we bounced down the path we saw in front of us big tractors and smiling workmen, perched on the edge of certain death. As we approached a sharp bend and the remains of a landslide that we’d have to navigate round I heard the unmistakable sound of a Chinese ringtone. He won’t answer the phone I thought. “Ni Hao” said the driver as he speed past another car, the back wheels almost sliding off the edge. We all looked at each other with horror and I remembered the story of a traveller we’d met in Kunming. He’d been walking down the lower path when a man  had jumped out from behind a rock and started waving frantically at him. Once he’d stopped and started over to the man the road blew up in front of him. “He didn’t even have a sign” said the Westerner. From then on my attention turned from the steep drop to looking out for men hiding behind rocks.

Somehow we survived and arrived back at Mama’s where she welcomed us with open arms and a good Naxi meal. After Carl’s dodgy massage, one last game of Jungle Speed and some Chinese medicine / alcohol we decided to leave Mama’s. Leaving the friends we’d made was a strange experience; we’d known each other only for a week or so but became like family, and now we didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again. Mama arranged for a mini van to take us and two others to Lugu Lake at 5:30am. We joked with Mama asking if she’d wake us up but she said no, get up yourselves, so it was a shock to us all to walk into the dinning / reception area and for Mama to spring from a coffin like bed in the side boards shouting “Lugu Hu, 5:30, 5:30”. There was no wake up period, or any signs that she’d slept at all. She sprang to life hugged us all and gave us little good luck charms for our journey’s whilst repeating “Mama goodbye, Mama goodbye”. She then proceeded to walk us down the dark Lijiang streets to get our bus. She’d probably go back to the hostel, make food, clean, arrange travel and sleeping for other guests, stay up until midnight serving warm or frozen beer, then do it all again the next day.

Photos to come when we have a better connection.

  1. Chars
    July 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    And as for you Haze, sentimental prat that I am, I loved this entry and it made tears come to eyes at the end. What a wonderful blog. Miss you loads xxx

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