In the mid 1990’s a company I was working for as a tour leader wanted to capitalise on the Channel 4 TV series “Beyond The Clouds”, the name referencing a mis-translation of “Yunnan” (South of the Clouds), a province of southwest China. I would be the first person from the office to visit the area and therefore there was no tour leader manual, save some pages photocopied from the Lonely Planet China guide for the region.
Indeed as was always the case, it was my job to write the manual for the next leader as I went along. I was able to claim some recce expenses and so, after some time in Thailand I flew Bangkok to Kunming with my then girlfriend for the recce. All went well.
In brief the itinerary included Kunming, the Stone Forest, Dali, Lijiang, a hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, more trekking to Baoshan and then some time exploring the area close to the Burmese border. I collected the passengers at Kunming airport noting that among them was a journalist who was doing a piece for a UK walking mag and a photographer who was covering the first trip so we had images for the next brochure and for promotional slide shows which the company held. Off we set.
I should point out that at this time, 1995, the Chinese government were only starting to invest in remote communities, and Yunnan, being populated by very many “minority nationalities” had yet to feel any benefits whatsoever of this new money; Dali was an 18 hour bus ride from Kunming (the provincial capital )on often poor roads. Lijiang was a full-day by bus further north and at that time had no airport, there was no “new town” and the old city was fully intact as this was pre-earthquake. Zhongdian was still called Zhongdian, not “Shangri La” as it is now called. We met people down in the south who called us the “television people” because they had never seen white people before. It was largely untouched by foreign tourism although quite well known to regional domestic tourists.
The party included several people of more mature years, most of who were very fit, and Ken G. (who, as events transpired, was not). There were two quite physical events on the trip: a walk through the Tiger Leaping Gorge on a narrow and wildly spectacular trail, and an afternoon trek (mainly downhill) to Baoshan (stone village) at 1800m or so (and reachable only on foot), overnight on local villagers’ floors followed by an arduous full-day trek on to Yangtselaoke which is at around 3200m.
The trip started well and I was dictating notes into a machine and making scribbles during the day then, when my duties were over at around 10 at night, I would write them up making the proto-tour leader manual. Kunming – check, Stone Forest – check, 24 hour bus ride to Lijiang – check. You get the picture. The group were gelling well and everyone was in high spirits at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.
This trek was at that time a two-day, two-night affair comprising of a drive from Lijiang to Qiaotou, now re-named Hutiaoxia (Tiger Leaping Gorge), a day’s walk to a village comprising of a couple of basic guest houses at the evocatively named Walnut Grove followed next day by a walk to Daju on the other side of the Yangtse River. The Tiger Leaping Gorge being the gorge formed between Haba and Yulong mountains and being some 3,790m from river to mountain peak, “one of the most spectacular river canyons in the world” according to Wikipedia. In terms of difficulty there were two paths – one lower, and a much longer and more difficult upper path (two paths were necessary in case one was closed by the all-too-common landslides). We were to take the easier lower path.
I should at this stage point out that we were accompanied by Edward He, our local guide. A member of the Bao community of the Dali area, he was a keen walker and knew the area well and was able to translate for me, my Mandarin being poor at that time and my Bao and Naxi (the ethnic minorities predominant in the area) non-existent. Edward was a smiley man around my age who was a great companion and with whom I’m still in occasional contact. If he had one flaw it was his inability to estimate times and distances: he always calculated as if he was walking alone, so an hour was always an hour and a half and so on, but wise to this I was almost always able to adapt his timings.
We arrived the first night in Walnut Grove after a 7 hour walk from Qiaotou. Accommodation was basic but clean at Sean’s place (it’s common for the Chinese dealing with tourists to adopt Western first-names). Next day was longer and saw us set off early and not arrive into Daju until late afternoon, though some time was spent waiting for the ferry to shuttle us across the Yangtse. We were all tired but happy – the gorge was as spectacular as anticipated and the area was suitably remote as to give a real sense of isolation. We were reunited with our baggage in Daju (though I had mine with me because it contained the medical kit, the proto-manual and spare clothing and food in case anyone needed it) and enjoyed a well-deserved meal in the Daju Hotel.
We set off in the morning for the next trek. The day comprised of an early start followed by a 4 or 5 hour drive on unmade roads to a village overlooking a deep and lush valley cut up into terraces and fields. Lunch was the usual instant noodles and a picnic of hot and cold snacks, light because we faced a 4 or 5 hour walk down to the ancient historic stone-village of Baoshan, overlooking the Yangtse. This time we had porters to carry our rucksacks for us, just as well as walking downhill with weight is hard on the knees.
At this point the retired Ken G says to me he has indigestion and an ache in his left arm which he put down to rushing his lunch. As a trained first-aider I knew all too well the signs of a bad heart and after a while knew Ken might well be having some heart problems or worse . . . I had to make a decision – send Ken back to Lijiang with Edward 7 or 8 hours away on the tour minibus, or let him walk down to Baoshan and then face the arduous full-day walk from 1800m up to 3200m next day. I sent him back to Lijiang with Edward with instructions for him to visit the hospital on his arrival. His protestations were loud, but I stuck to my position. Off he went.
Our trek went well and we arrived back in Lijiang to be greeted by Edward and Ken who was fully recovered and complaining that he’d missed the most important part of his trip. We left next day for Dali and on arrival the group set out for a bike ride through the villages that line the shores of Erhai Lake. It was a chance for me to catch up writing the manual whilst they were out – it had been a hard few days of walking and few creature comforts and I made myself some tea using the flask of hot water always found in Chinese hotel rooms. Shortly after a shout brought me to the courtyard and I found Ken being carried in, slumped between two of the group, ashen-faced.
It was clear that he had heart problems. I whisked him to the local hospital, quite a basic affair, more a clinic, but they did have a machine to trace his heart rate. All was not well, but he was feeling better with the rest. The diagnosis as far as I could tell was either angina or a heart attack – neither the Harrops nor Berlitz phrase books I had seemed to cover the situation… I had a decision to make – let him continue and risk him dying, or try and get him home to the UK; he could always come back if he was well.
I explained the situation to him and my decision: we were headed next to an area where hospitals would not exist in the traditional western sense, we could not rely on anyone able to question him to get to the root of the problem, any evacuation from that area would be even more difficult than it already was etc. etc. He was adamant he was not going home, but I asked him to think on it. A few minutes later the change was profound. Ken wanted to go home and he wanted to go home; not tomorrow, not next week, NOW!!!
I explained that there were no airports in the area and that the journey to Kunming meant the by now familiar sleeper bus journey, albeit now 18 hours rather than the 24 we had endured to get to Lijiang. He’d then have to fly to Chiang Mai in Thailand, then connect on to Bangkok before a 12 hour flight to Heathrow. The question was how to pay for it…
Ken, along with every other passenger, held comprehensive medical insurance. An air ambulance was a non-starter for a suspect dicky heart, but it would reimburse his flights, if we were able through a detailed paper trail of reports and receipts, once he got home, but that still left us with a problem – paying for buses, accommodation and flights now, and Ken was old-skool, “I don’t believe in credit cards” – he’d come with his spending money of a couple of hundred quid or so in cash and that was all. That wouldn’t touch what turned out to be a £600 one-way ticket Bangkok to London.
What followed were several days without much sleep. I had to advise the office in Aldershot what was happening which I did by phone – no easy task when it’s not direct dial from Dali to Aldershot. I sent Ken on the sleeper bus to Kunming with Edward, deciding I was able to run the rest of the tour with my pidgin Mandarin and good luck. I informed his insurance company, arranged a hotel in Kunming, and reserved a flight to Chiang Mai and on to Bangkok, accommodation in Bangkok and finally the flight home. No mobile phones – only faxes and the local telephone system. All these arrangements had to be paid for, so I persuaded Edward to pay for them, for Aldershot to pay Edward and had the insurance company agree to pay my company. I should have been a diplomat.
All this took days of work, whilst all the time running the tour, leading the sightseeing and continuing to create the bloody tour leader manual. I lost the best part of 8 pounds in weight with the stress, worry and not eating, but finally Ken got home. Or at least I thought he had. I heard nothing more from Ken – no call to the group hotel in Kunming from him in Bangkok, no message brought with a passenger with the next group. The whole 6 months I was in China was message free and thankfully uneventful. I returned home.
We always headed back to the office for a post-series debrief, an important opportunity to fine tune and change the tour within the bounds of the advertised itinerary. Contrary to belief tour operators go to extreme lengths to make sure that their holidays are as accurately described as possible. We get paid and pick up mail that has been sent to the office for us by clients we’ve had on tour. Waiting for me was a letter from Sheffield, Ken’s home town.
He wrote he’d got back home tired but happy to be back and immediately went to see his doctor, who sent him straight to hospital. He was immediately admitted and tests revealed he’d had several heart attacks in China. He underwent some sort of treatment as an in-patient and was eventually discharged having been told that if I had not sent him home as I did he would in all likelihood have died. The last line of the letter was, “Thank you for saving my life”.
Just a reminder that a tour leader is not just a pretty face
Catch yer later, Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant