Off to Turkey for two weeks…be back with more
“If you want my honest opinion then no, this is probably not a good idea.” Our new friend Richard had just finished telling us all about the trip he had planned for us tomorrow. It would be the best trip and he would take us to all of the best sites and we would have our own van, be all by ourselves, and have our own English speaking guide because Richard himself would be coming with us. It sounded too good to be true, and therein lied the problem
Our idea was to head out of Lijiang and follow the Yangtze River to the point where it passed through a narrow gorge lined with towering peaks. From here we would begin hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, touted by many as one of the most beautiful hikes in all of China if not the world. Winding along the mountainside, this 20km trail passed through sleepy mountain villages, small hillside shrines, and crashing waterfalls with constant views of the thundering river below and the piercing mountains above. Richard had ever so slightly weaseled his way into our group at just the right moment when we were debating how we could get all 6 of us to the trailhead and back.
Richard was only Richard by day, by night he was Li or Zhang or Wei. He was also probably only Richard for a week or two before he switched to a different name, kept things fresh. In the modern age when people can share things easily and quickly online its important to keep things fresh because you dont want statements like, “Richard screwed us over” or “Richard dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and then tried to charge us double”, souring your name.
Richard was smart too, he had carefully concocted a business plan that made him appear to be everywhere at once. The next morning as we waited alongside Richards driver, munching on fresh fruits from a smiley vendor, Richard called to tell us he had fallen ill and wouldnt be able to come with us. ”That sounds awful Richard but your still coming with us or we arent going, you can just sit in the van, maybe a little fresh juice will make you feel better.” The friendliness from the day before had been drained from his face as he strode up the street and barked instructions to the driver.
We rode out of little Lijiang and bumped along the country roads in a bread van too tight for 8 people. From the front I could hear Richard muffle through cell phone calls in his “sick” voice as he explained to other groups how he couldnt be with them today either. In the back, I swayed back and forth along the bench seat as the little white van chugged up and over a mountain pass. We were in the South Eastern Himalayas where the mountains threw themselves towards the heavens and travel was slow going. Outside the window, small farm homes resided over rice terraces that appeared in kaleidoscopes of green and water buffaloes strode nonchalantly down the center of the road.
Eventually we reached the mighty Yangtze River, the lifeblood of China. Flowing from the massive Tibetan plateau in the West to the sea thousands of miles away in Shanghai, the Yangtze splits the country physically and culturally between North and South. The Chinese people have put this river through its paces, using it as a massive transportation lane, a garbage disposal, an outhouse, an artistic still life, and a site for the worlds largest hydro electric power station. This river deserved a break but on this day she wasnt taking one. Instead, she smashed into boulders and tried her best to jam her way between the 18,000 foot peaks looming over my shoulder.
Over the roar of the river, Richard was explaining how those cops up ahead said we cant go any further. “Yes I realize that Richard and thats why I want to be on the other side of the river where the trail is and where you had promised to take us.” According to Richard, that side was inaccessible but that didnt explain why there was a bridge over to that side a few kilometers back. Richard wanted the tour to end here, we had seen the river and we could see up ahead the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. How could we not be happy with a five minute stop to get out and look at the river run alongside this massive police roadblock, he wondered?
Back at the bridge Richard stopped the van and motioned for us to stay inside. Leaning against a low stone wall across the street were a group of bored twenty somethings, arranged as if posing for a country still life. They slowly rose from their sunny day dreams as Richard nervously approached them speaking frantically with his hands and mouth. Unimpressed by these farfetched antics, I corralled my food scraps and juice bottles and made preparations to remove myself from this entire mess.
“They said its 200 kuai if you want to cross the bridge”. I could smell the bullshit flickering off of his tongue as he sprayed the words through the window of the van. ”One of these guys, this guy here.” Richard pulled aside a short clean shaven guy wearing a respectable blue shirt from the group. “This guy is a cop and he said he is going to fine me and my driver and take away our licenses if we dont pay.” The drowsy farm boys mingled outside and continued to stare at the foreign argument going on within the van. Our group was split between just paying and getting this ordeal over with or walking across the bridge and leaving this mess behind. As we inched towards leaving this tourist scam behind, Richard stepped in front of the van door. ”No you cant walk across or they might hold us or fine us or they might attack you and its so far where are you going to walk to and we need to pay this toll.”
“Richard, these guys were just sitting on the wall five minutes ago they dont care what we do.” I hopped from the bench, shouldered my backpack and walked across the bridge as the rest of our group followed in tow. The farm boys sensed this scene was played out and returned to their wall while Richard leaned against the van and pondered where to go next. He hadnt been paid a dime and his tour group had just sprung from the van and walked across the Yangtze in the middle of nowhere China…..more to come…..
February 2009, Donsol, Philippines
Like my mood, the sky was graying over and our trip was beginning to feel more like an endless boat cruise rather than the exciting search for Butanding it had started as. Our captain seemed unfazed, plying circles around the Bay of Donsol, as he lit a continuous stream of cigarettes from the fading butt of the one before. In his John Cena wrestling swim trunks he deflected the pestering questions of the desperate travelers with a nod or a thrust of his chin toward a different part of the bay. We had another hour or so before we had to turn towards the shore and call off the search.
“This is the worst trip I have been on, yesterday we saw about five sharks and the day before about six or seven.” The one guy on the boat who had loved his experience so much he had returned four days in a row really knew how to make everyone else feel better. Everyone acknowledged him with a grunt and turned their frowning faces back towards the water. The sky had been slowly closing in and the visibility had shrunk as the sun disappeared behind heavyset clouds. It seemed as if our chances were dwindling and you could see the hope fade from the faces on the boat.
Suddenly the call went out, one of the lookouts from another boat stood atop his mast and pointed towards a spot on the navy blue surface. Like hunters fixed on their prey all of the boats charged toward the mark. This wasnt the first time we had all lined up like penguins and waddled off into the sea but it might be the last so hopes were high that the day wouldn’t be a bust. Not one to be in a hurry, I took my spot last off the boat and fumbled with my goggles as I flopped into the sea.
Bobbing in the water I looked around for a cue but all I could see were frantic flippers going in every which direction turning the entire surface into a wash of foam. Not wanting to waste the opportunity I ducked my head under and scanned the depths. With the low clouds overhead hiding the sun, I could barely make out my own feet in the dark blue below. Pulling my head back again for a look at the surface I could see the chaos continuing as snorkels trolled back and forth like lost children all hopelessly searching for their parents.
I dipped down below again and like an owl, pivoted in my complete search of the abyss. Suddenly, through the cloudy darkness directly below I spotted what looked like little stars emerging from the night sky. I squinted as the stars grew larger and filled my entire frame of view. I quickly threw my head back and saw I was all alone, the closest snorkels were twenty feet away moving carefree about the water. Within half a second my head was back under and I froze as the body of stars floated up towards me. I wanted to swim away as fast as possible and get help before I got eaten and disappeared without anyone even realizing.
After the few necessary moments of panic that accompany the thought of a 35 foot long shark swallowing me whole had passed, I turned and followed in the wake of the giant beast. Its body seemed to glide effortlessly with its entire mouth agape as it sucked in plankton from the bay. Still in shock, I let the entire length of this bus of the sea drift past for what seemed like an eternity as I played the Jaws soundtrack in my head. Underneath its massive belly, a small school of fish was catching a free ride from their massive bodyguard. Finally his flapping tail fin came into view as it pushed enormous sheets of water back and forth, propelling it along. Like a giant door that kept opening and closing his tail fin was taller than me and could have thrown me aside with the weight of water it was moving.
Slowly, each and every boat in the water caught up with the whale shark and dumped their human cargo in its path. One girl, clearly a bit nervous as evidenced by the erratic flapping of appendages, was plopped directly in front of the 4 foot wide gaping mouth. With her head above water she must have received some sort of warning because at the last second she peered under to find herself only feet in front of a wide open door that was vacuum cleaning plankton from the sea. Even with goggles and a snorkel blocking her face, I could see the terror in her eyes as she churned like a cat thrown into a pool to get out of the sharks way. Without a care in the world, the shark altered his path and continued his lazy lunchtime stroll.
Eventually, it was time to head in and one by one the human cargo retired to their boats and shared stories about nearly being swallowed whole or facing death head on. Back on board, the mood had changed and people were talking to each other again. The guy that was on his fourth trip in a row spoke up. ”That was probably the biggest shark I have seen all week and it stayed near the surface for a long time. That could have been the best swim I have had.” Our John Cena captain flashed a smile between a change of cigarettes and the man on lookout relaxed. Now that his job of scanning the water was over, he threw his arms behind his head, leaned back against the post, and stared out over the sea.