The alarm is quite unwelcome this morning. It’s 6am. Nearly falling down the solid wooden staircase of the dorm bunk I reluctantly make my way to the shower. It’s cold and wet. It looks as though its rained all night. There is one other making this journey with me. A Norwegian who is even less impressed by the weather than the Welsh girl. We meet again at breakfast at 6:30am. The usual eggs and toast doesn’t feel hearty enough for day ahead. 6:50am we’re shuffled out the door. The bus is waiting for us at the end of the winding alley. Already my footwear feels inappropriate for the path I shall soon be on. This is the most unprepared I’ve been for a hike. I’ve gotten used to China’s version of hiking; stairs leading to a view point up a hill. But today, it’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Settling in on the bus I remove the already wet layers that need to last the day. Nothing is waterproof. My hiking gear is all comfortably stored in my brothers attic back in the UK. I didn’t see myself really hiking while living in China. The only semi appropriate kit I’m wearing are a pair of merrell hiking sandals. They have the grip but it is raining and they are sandals. I also have little faith that this temperature will increase as the day goes on. The Norwegian is assessing my attire. I can’t blame him. I’m slightly judging myself. He points out we’re on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and begins to laugh. I try to convince him, and myself, that the weather will change.
Two hours into the bus journey and the rain hasn’t lifted. We’re nearing the Norwegian’s destination. He is on the full two day hike starting at a village called Qiaotao. I’m further down the road for the day hike; starting at a place called Tina’s Guesthouse. As I’m volunteering in Lijiang I can only give the day to this much anticipated trek, but with my kit and the weather I’m thinking this is the best course for me to take. I will explore the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge then hike to BenDi Wan village which is the half way point of the hike. From here I can follow the numerous bends to bring me down to the main road for the bus to collect me.
Arriving at Tina’s slightly later than planned I ignore my hunger and start my descent to the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I have 5 hours total for exploring the middle of the gorge and hiking to the halfway point and dropping down to the road. Going by the hand drawn map available at Tina’s my schedule is tight. In fact going by the map I need exactly 5 hours. I’ve been assured the bus won’t wait. I have to be there when it passes for it to stop. I’m feeling exhilarated already. I’ve excepted that if I miss the bus I will hike back to the halfway point and stay at a guesthouse. The less exciting part will be the remaining hike the following day in wet clothes and the apology to my Workaway host for not making it back to Lijiang.
Staying positive I pay the 10 yuan entrance fee to an old woman dressed in the traditional Naxi style to access the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Aware of my time restriction I use the descent to break into a gentle jog. At times I lose my footing as my eyes absorb the scenery surrounding me. For the first time in a while I forget my destination. The setting is reminiscent of the weekends I would spend hiking in Cumbria. The deep browns, rustic oranges and barren trees create such a nostalgia.
The gorge’s roar is echoing off the mountain walls. The route is a mixture of dirt track, scrambling on rocks and climbing up and down iron ladders wedged between rocks. There is no one else around. In the current weather conditions it would only take one misjudged step and the result could be catastrophic. Getting closer to the water the views are stunning. There are little huts with fruit sellers where you can take rest. There are also various access routes to get closer to the water that have been built by the local families of the area. For a small fee of 10 yuan you can walk across a wooden bridge that shakes and bounces simultaneously. I also get a ticket for 15 yuan to climb the iron sky ladder near the end of the route.
Reaching the closest point to the water I sit in silence and observe natures power. The water rolls like white horses galloping out of the sea. The Gorge runs for about 15km in length and at its highest point has a maximum depth of 3790m. The river running wildly through the gorge is called Jinsha River. The story goes a hunter chased a tiger through the gorge and at its narrowest point the tiger leaped to the other side and escaped the hunter. Hence the name ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’. Feeling the pressure of the chase of time I get up and begin the search for the sky ladder. There are a few locals in the huts boiling tea and after my best impression of climbing a ladder in thin air I was directed to my intended destination.
The sky ladder is a vertical climb. My own weight is pulling away from the ladder with a wire tunnel surrounding me as my only support. with a heavy breath I reach the top and crawl back on to the dirt track. The route from here is a steady incline back to Tina’s. I’ve made it in good time, spending an 1 1/2 at the middle of the gorge. The jog bought me an extra 30 mins to my anticipated time to dedicate to the high trail. Reaching Tina’s and still ignoring my hunger I cross the road to begin the second part of the expedition.
Initially taking the wrong route I find myself in farm land face to face with a caged monkey. There is a moment of silence from us both until I remove my phone for a picture. The monkey begins screaming and shaking against the cage and I realize this is a version of a guard dog. Turning back I look for the now obvious route and for the first time meet people on the path. They are returning from the two day adventure and so finishing at Tina’s where I started. There are painted arrows and colored cloth hanging from trees to aid in the navigation of the high trail.
Various routes present themselves throughout this hike due to locals trekking with horses in the area. During peak season and in the earlier trail at Qiaotao the horses are available to ride to the top. This isn’t something I would recommend as I feel if you’re here you are here to hike and work for the stunning views from the top. As I get into my route there is no sign of horses or any more hikers coming to the end of the trail. I spend the rest of the hike alone. This is the perfect environment for me, alone and isolated in nature.
As the weather continues to decline I ascend into the clouds and feel the cold numb my skin. By this point my clothes are damp and the sandals provide no comfort. My fingers are becoming numb and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of this condition. The result of this thought process is a quick picture to my brother of my location and a break into a steady jog. At times the path narrows and I need to walk hugging into the cliff face. I continue my run until I warm up while desperately trying to keep my footing and take in every spectacular view that each bend offers. This journey could be just as difficult in Yunnan’s summer heat. I recommend everyone to come far more prepared than I.
As the heat begins to comfort my body I reduce my pace to a brisk walk and enter the village of BenDi Wan. Its the afternoon and I feel my presence is unexpected. I don’t notice any life other than the sounds of nature and so don’t stop for a meal. I’m also concerned on my time frame and so walk on with a banana and find the bends to descend to the main road. Slipping at regular intervals but catching my balance I make my way down the path that seems to never end. When I finally reach the road I am 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Taking the time to eat the food that I at least did prepare, it is not long before I start cooling down.
The bus arrives as I’m circling the road in an attempt to keep warm. I meet a gentleman from Nepal who was also on the bus when I arrived. We talk about hiking trails the world over and future destinations are logged in my memory to research for new adventures. This is my last trip in China for sometime and I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect location. The culture of the minorities in China have always appealed more to me for their traditions and history. The Naxi people of Yunnan are incredibly welcoming and humble. Leaving Lijiang is a start of a new adventure but a very sad farewell to this country I have had the privilege to call home for the last nine months.