I’m standing at the bottom of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province. Next to me, the JinSha river rushes its way down the enormous canyon it’s made for itself.
I should be filled with wonder. But I am exhausted. I just wanna go home.
And my way back is a ladder.
A rickety ladder nailed to a vertical cliff.
We had almost finished our 2-day hike. Me and my friend Katie. I was challenging myself to a summer of “outdoorsy” things. Katie was joining for her last China adventure before moving back to Canada.
We had heard about Tiger Leaping Gorge from our Chinese friends. Legend had it that a tiger, running away from hunters, had been chased as far as a rock in the river. Instead of admitting defeat, he cleared the 25 metre- gap in one leap.
We couldn’t find much about the actual hike online though. We knew was there was an upper route which would take 2 days. There was a hostel half way, called Half-Way Hostel. At the end there was an option to go down to the river to see the famous rock. All we got from reviews was, “You gotta go! It’s awesome!”
Having lived in China for 2 years by then, I was familiar with their notion of a “hike” – a concrete path with hand rails that my friends could do in high heels. But this turned out to be a real hike. Dirt path and everything. You know, for hard-core Lao Wai’s who don’t use umbrellas in the sun.
On the first day, as we started up the mountains, I rolled my eyes at the bus-loads of tourists on the lower route. Up and up we climbed, tough and tanned, and found a muddy tractor to pose with for the first selfie of the day.
I led the way, the whole way, determined to prove I was tougher than Katie, who was a lot more outdoorsy than me. When we came to the first challenge – a 28 bend zig zag path leading straight up the mountainside – I legged it. The trick to looking confident when in pain, is to shout, “This is amazing!” a lot. At the top, Katie stopped to take in the incredible view. After congratulating myself on making it up before her, I did the same.
Up here, the scenery was tinted blue. Grassy slopes had been replaced by silvery rocks and the white tips of the mountains peaks in the distance. At that moment, I felt as tall as a giant standing eye-level with the clouds.
We strolled into Half-Way Hostel in good time. I was so proud of myself. Katie had her camera out, spinning around taking panoramas, oblivious to my passive competitiveness.
We were now at the highest point of our hike and the peaks of the mountain were this close. Their jagged edges softened by the little wisps of cloud wrapping their way around them.
I have to say, the view from the squat toilet really was more breath-taking than the smell.
We fell fast asleep on our hard beds.
And woke to the sound of rain. It had been raining all night. Katie had caught a cold. I didn’t feel so confident anymore. We joined forces with 2 guys and a girl. They had underestimated the hike too. Janine was in flip-flops.
As we stepped out the door, and my heart dropped. The dirt path was now a mud slide, punctured by sharp rocks. It was scarily close to the cliff edge.
The others weren’t fazed at all. They started off in single file, jumping from rock to rock. Even flip flop Janine was doing better than me. I was hunched over, staring at the ground, my mind helpfully showing me all the ways I could die.
My backpack. There was a gaping hole for all my stuff to fall out. I swung it round to my front and used one hand to keep it closed. Can’t see my feet. One less hand to steady myself with.
“Wohoo” Katie shouted as we came to a waterfall, right over our path. No safety rails, course not. This was China. “So beautiful!” I yelled. Was I the only one aware of the danger? I put one foot in the water. The current swept it towards the edge. I’m so gonna die.
A little kid overtook me. And then another. A whole French family waltzed by, perfectly equipped with hiking poles and waterproofs. Damn. If a kid can do this, so can I.
And so somehow, we got through. We kept on trudging along in wet shoes until we reached the end of the hike. That was incredible, guys! It was incredible that we were all still alive.
Katie pipes up: “Let’s go down to the rock!”
That meant climbing down to the river, and back up again, in the rain. It would add an extra 3 hours to our day.
“Let’s go!” I said. It’s not like I could stay behind now, could I?
On the slippery path down to the river, I held my breath so many times my lungs were bursting by the time we got there. When I saw the rock, battling it out alone against the raging water, I shared a moment of self-pity with it.
Then Katie again, “Let’s get on the rock!”
You wanna risk that swing bridge – there are planks missing and the rope is frayed? Fine, let’s balance on a rock with nothing to stop us getting washed off by the rushing current.
And so we did.
To get back, we have two choices. The 2-hour slippery slide we came down, or this ladder going straight up the cliff.
I look back. The river is angrily splashing me, turning every rock into a death trap. One wrong footing and I would be gone forever.
Nowhere to go but up. I start hoisting myself up with one arm. The other still clutching my backpack.
Step by step.
What would happen if one of us fell. How fast can rescue services get here? Are there any rescue services here? How do you say “help” in Chinese?
Two more rungs, one more rung. We made it. Safe at last.
Another ladder. Longer this time.
Damn those tourists in their cosy buses. Damn these crazy laowais. Damn these bamboo ladders.
That’s it. Let’s do this. Bring it on.
That night as I posted pictures on Facebook – I was surprised how fearless I looked.
“Tiger Leaping Gorge: You gotta go!” I wrote, “It’s awesome.”