My brother Ben suggested years ago that I should come and fly in China. One of the largest countries with an ancient culture and a wealth of natural resources, including its fair share of big mountains. Like the petty bureaucracy in India, I suspected that it would only be a matter of time until I got hassled by the authorities, and coupled with the difficulties of exploring a new area, finding suitable take offs, etc, I imagined that I’d probably only have a few flights here and there – but the potential rewards were still easily enough to justify bringing along my wing.
Ben met me in Guangzhou in the southeast, I’d brought his folding bike and we had some loose plans to explore Yunnan province in the southwest – but first we went to Yangshuo, where I kept an eye open for flying opportunities but was quite happy to admit that hiring a bike was the best way to get around. One of the most touristy places in China, it was still very rare to spot a foreigner – travelling here can be quite difficult with the language barrier and not having a local ID card (Ben spent several hours just trying to purchase a domestic plane ticket!).
An evening flight to Kunming, then a train to Dali, the first taste of the eastern Himalayas. Ben met up with an old friend there and I needed the help of a local contact, Canadian expat Mike, to find the local launch. The mountains were mostly covered in trees and I was grateful to find a small clearing at 10000′, where I took off and thermalled up to high altitude for a quick tour over the range. Possibly partly due to the altitude I had a bit of a headache though so didn’t last too long before landing in town. The conditions were also quite hazy, although in a few days time we had some rain which cleared the air.
The next day I intended to go to the same place and explore further down the range. Before hiking up I spent some hours searching the local markets for some scooter hand overmitts to help deal with the cold, but I only managed to find one rather heavy and cumbersome pair. Unfortunately this time though I was denied access to the hill, and there was no way to sneak around, they had firemen scattered through the bushes. It was in fact a genuine fear of forest fire – at the national park entrance they were confiscating cigarette lighters and taking hikers’ details.
Ben started his biking part of the trip, heading north, and I was to meet him in Lijiang. Showers, low cloud, and rain made it a good day for travelling by bus. The upper winds were still a little brisk with a moist airflow for a few days so Ben found a bike to hire so I could join him in cycling Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was a bit of a reconnaissance mission for me, as we were navigating around the lower slopes of Jade Dragon snow mountain, a five thousand metre peak. Back in Lijiang the clouds cleared and I saw it for the first time.
Initially I’d wanted to find a take off facing the morning sun but ultimately I decided that going to the launch Mike had already scouted would be more efficient. Even then it didn’t suffice, on a good looking day I found only sink on the shallow slopes. After landing a convective snow shower pushed down a gust front, and I decided that I would slowly walk up through the high altitude forest to better position myself for the next day.
After a windy night I contoured around the southern slopes of Jade Dragon at close to 4000m altitude. Reaching a somewhat sheltered spur, I avoided the impossible prickly ground cover by taking off around the corner from the breeze beside some snow slopes. The flying was great, the air was cold, and I remember that despite ascending to 20000′ I was still very worried about crossing the mouth of Tiger leaping gorge until the winds and sink eased a little at the halfway point. After that I soared in front of Haba (another 5000 metre peak) with the vultures which was a highlight of the China experience.
That night I’d texted Ben on WeChat and decided that I would try and meet with him the next day in Benzilan. There was some good flying early on, climbing out under shady skies, sometimes holding my breath with no top landings available on forested slopes. I didn’t manage the valley crossing south of Shangri-La so I had to hitchhike up to the pass and continue from there. The guys who picked me up gave me a little Chinese flag as a souvenir. In town I discovered there were no convenient buses so Ben helped arrange a taxi – an exasperatingly complicated conversation ensued from a three word question, but when it got sorted and I was able to get ten minutes out of town I didn’t wait long until a local teacher gave me a lift. As we drove along I looked for flying opportunities, deciding to get out just before she took the turn off to her village. Against the odds I managed to get off the hill and enjoyed some time at 17000′ – such a contrast.
I’ll let the video tell the story.
Discouraged by this experience with the police, I went back into tourist mode, joining Ben to cross a 4000+m pass to a high squalid Tibetan town where we sampled the not so appetising yak milk. There were some big mountains nearby which I considered hiking to but the weather had deteriorated so we decided to retreat. At the next town up from Benzilan, we parted ways – Ben on his way back to Dali, and myself taking several long bus journeys to cross the Tibetan plateau. The flying looked good but it would have been very committing – high and dry terrain with big air, narrow sparsely populated valleys, and a need to be entirely self sufficient.
I reached Kangding in poor weather (one wonders how viable the nearby airport is, one of the highest in the world). The next morning the steep hillsides towering around my hostel were draped in fresh snow. I made my way up the valley, quietly passing an army barracks or similar before locals invited me in for lunch. Later that day I had a difficult time of flying, as cloud slowly began to clear in the valley. Finally managing to get off the steep launch with loose rocks and spiky plants, I had an unconsolable thorn through my lines which required a slope landing to fix. Following the aquaduct for the local hydro scheme upstream, I made my way up to a camp.
The next day brought blue skies, and healthy cumulus. Flying was good but it was tricky to get anywhere with the westerly flow. I had some optimistic ambitions of flying near to or around the 7000+ metre Gongga, despite this not being achievable I certainly had a great day out. The next day I had to leave camp though as I was off to Beijing for the last week of the trip. I ruled out trying to fly there (excessive politics), but as I said this trip was not so much about airtime as adventure – and it met my expectations.