Drama in Tiger Leaping Gorge by Carl Welsby

In the mid 1990’s I was working for a tour leader for a well-known UK adventure holiday company, leading small groups into the nether regions of Asia and the Middle East. The company wanted to capitalise on the Channel 4 TV series “Beyond The Clouds”, the programme name referencing a mistranslated “Yunnan” (South of the Clouds), a province of southwest China. I would be the first person from the company to visit the area never mind lead a tour there, not in itself entirely unusual – someone has to be the first after all. Consequently there was no tour leader “manual” – the bible we all used to run each itinerary, save a very few 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 started in the provincial capital Kunming and took in the Stone Forest, Dali, Lijiang, a hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, more trekking to the ancient stone-built village of Baoshan and then some time exploring the area close to the Burmese border, staying in a mixture of small hotels, lodges and on the floor of villagers’ homes. I collected the group 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 the company’s promotional slide shows. Off we set.

Baoshan village sprawled out over a mountainside © Carl Welsby
Baoshan stone village sprawled out over a mountainside © Carl Welsby

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 on what were at times poor roads. Lijiang was a full-day bus journey further north and at that time had no airport, there was no “new town” as there is now and the old city was fully intact as this was pre-earthquake. Zhongdian another 2 days further north 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, except on TV. It was largely untouched by foreign tourism although quite well known to regional domestic tourists.

Elderly woman seamstress
Naxi seamstress

The party flew in: London to Bangkok then a flight Bangkok to Kunming. It 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: the aforementioned walk through the Tiger Leaping Gorge on a narrow and wildly spectacular trail through what is arguably the deepest gorge in the world, and an afternoon trek (mainly downhill) to Baoshan (a remote stone village reachable only on foot) at 1800m or so, overnight on local villagers’ floors followed by an arduous full-day trek on to Yangtselaoke which is at around 3200m.

A wry smile for the 'television people'
A wry smile for the ‘television people’ © Carl Welsby

The trip started well and I was dictating notes into a small tape 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 Kunming – 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.

A road has been blasted through it now, but at the time this trek was 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.

Baoshan girl
Baoshan girl © Carl Welsby

I should at this stage point out that we were accompanied by He Jin Chao – Edward – our local guide. A member of the Bao community of the Dali area, he was new to the travel industry but a keen walker and knew the area intimately 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. Almost always.

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). The next day’s walk 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 euphemistically-named “Daju Hotel”.

Daju restaurant © Carl Welsby
Daju restaurant/hotel


Daju village scene
Daju village scene © Carl Welsby

We set off in the morning for the next trek. The day comprised 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 (have a look – map link: https://goo.gl/maps/BEZ4eiVLU7wSbLFX8 ), 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.

As we finish up lunch and prepare for the walk 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 and it not improving 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.

Chinese soldiers strolling by lakeside
Public Security Bureau officers strolling by Erhai Lake, Dali

Our trek went well and we arrived back in Lijiang to be greeted by Edward and a disgruntled Ken who was seemingly fully recovered and complaining that he’d missed one of the most important parts 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 with 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 an ashen-faced Ken being carried in, slumped between two members of the group.

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 began to feel 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 at a later date if he was well enough.

I explained the situation to him and my decision – he was going home: we were headed next to an area where hospitals would not exist in the traditional western sense, we could not rely on anyone being 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 he’d have to take the by-now familiar sleeper bus journey, albeit it now being 18 hours rather than the 24 we had endured to get to Lijiang. He’d then have to fly to Chiang Mai in Thailand, connect on to Bangkok before a 12-hour flight to London Heathrow. The question was how to pay for it…

End of the Tiger Leaping Gorge
End of the Tiger Leaping Gorge © Carl Welsby

Ken, along with every other passenger, held comprehensive medical insurance. An air ambulance was a non-starter for a suspect dicky heart – not serious enough, but it would reimburse his flights, if he were able to provide 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, no easy task when it’s not direct dial from Dali to Aldershot and there’s an 8 hour time difference. I informed his insurance company what had happened, arranged accommodation in Kunming and Bangkok various connecting flights and of course the boneshaker bus Dali to Kunming. 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.

I intended sending 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 some good luck. Ultimately Edward found someone else, Jordan He, to accompany Ken.

A crisis unfolded when Ken arrived in Kunming after his overnight bus ride. We had arranged to change the travel dates on his original return ticket FROM Kunming to Bangkok TO Kunming / Chiang Mai as there were no other flights available; he’d then connect with newly booked and paid for Chiang Mai / Bangkok / London flights arranged by me with enormous difficulty from Dali. The change to Ken’s original ticket would need to be done by the Thai Airlines staff in the Kunming office however…

I discovered Ken’s original ticket in my paperwork and I’m now in a town 500km away: in the confusion I hadn’t handed it back to him. In a further development now the Thai Airlines staff wouldn’t change the travel dates of the booking without both the physical ticket nor – who knew! – without getting permission from London by fax and it was 4am in London. Oh and as it happens the flight Kunming / Chiang Mai flight was now full in economy and his seat for that day had been sold. Great.

Ken was by now frantic, almost in tears (I felt similarly disposed). He screamed he wanted me to arrange a flight out to Hong Kong or Singapore and redo all connections we’d pre-booked to get him home tomorrow. That idea was a non-starter. We found that there was a business class seat available that day Kunming / Chiang Mai at a cost of £200. That £200 in cash had to be spirited up from somewhere. I set about making calls or rather Jordan did. Money ended up being borrowed from Chinese friends of Edward and Jordan in Kunming I think, with them knowing it will be reimbursed to him/them. Frankly I don’t know where it came from. Time was ticking on and the Thai Airlines office had to close at 12:00 midday and it was approaching that now. After much pleading and cajoling by me (it’s more difficult to say no to a foreigner 😉) they agreed to stay open till 1pm which is when the computers MUST be switched off for automated backups or whatever to initialise. 

I’m doing all this whilst leading the tour making sure other passengers’ sightseeing goes as planned but the point came when I had to leave with the other passengers to go on with the tour. I’d find out what happened later that afternoon. 

As you see, 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 knew that he’d got on the flight to Chiang Mai through Jordan but I heard nothing more from Ken – no message left for me at the group hotel in Kunming from him whilst in Chiang Mai, Bangkok or from him when he got back home, no message brought with a passenger with the next group. The whole 6 months I was in China was message free. Finally 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 insisted on sending 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”.

Carl Welsby in his prime
Carl Welsby in an anxious moment © Carl Welsby











Link to Carl’s travel photography

Just a reminder that a tour leader is not just a pretty face

Catch yer later, Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant

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