Its the morning of my Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek.
I wake up and have my (now routine) banana and chocolate pancake and coffee pre- trek breakfast and say goodbye to the Poles. I'm worried about getting lost as i'm doing it by myself.
"That's impossible" say the Poles – Pah they have no idea!
After only two wrong turns, an aborted detour around a pumpkin patch and a farmer with a scythe actually shouting NO!!! at me and pointing in the opposite direction – I settle on the correct path for the trek.
The beginning of the trek is the most strenuous as its about 2 hours of uphill climbing with something called the 28 bends that looks like a wriggling snake on the map and I anticipate will make the calve muscles burn like Hades.
I get going only pausing long enough to purchase my other trek essential – a snickers bar – half way up and although its tiring I soon make the uphill bit and the 28 bends in good time. Its only after when I' speaking to others that have done it and complained about how tiring it is that I realise I must be in pretty good shape after Nazi Ninja bootcamp. I guess training with 18 -21 year olds I was always going to be the slowest and the weakest but hey it turns out i'm pretty fit comparatively...hooray!
And the scenery is beautiful – heart stoppingly so sometimes. I have no idea what the Poles are on about. The path is a little bit daunting – sometimes its only just bigger than hip width – and winds around the outside of the mountain at about 2000m high with a sheer drop on one side and no safety barriers - we are in China! The hills are flanked with swaying pines and the soft fronds of baby bamboos – ahead the looming peaks of the mountain overlap – sharp granite and snowy white at the descending into the dark green, scalloped edges of the paddy fields that flow down in undulating waves. At the bottom where the feet of the mountain meet flows the coffee coloured river lit up in the early morning sunshine. The fields are dotted with baby pink harebells, marigolds and occasionally a bright scarlet crysanthemum. I am the ony one on the path and the only sound is the soft rush from the water below, the gentle clanging of cowbells in the distance. Its absolutely gorgeous and i have no idea what the Poles have been on about. Honestly...boys...thank goodness i didn't take their advice and "save myself the trouble and get a cab!!!!"
"Yep that would be another terrible view!" I say as I curl around another corner of the mountainside and watch it fall away into the ravine - in homage to the Poles.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is so called after a tiger that supposedly made a leap to a stone in the middle of the gorge to avoid a hunter. After my initial confusion the route is fairly easy to find as all of the guest houses along the way have painted different coloured arrows and their names to promote themselves.
It takes around 8 hours to get to Tina's Guest House – which is where most people stop, and then another 2 to 3 hours to trek down into the gorge itself to see the stone. Its possibe to get to Tina's in a day (hell the Pole's did it in 5 hours) but I am not a boy !! - this isn't about how quickly I can do it – it's about enjoying the experience. So I stop after 2 hours for a green tea to take in the view at Tea Horse Guest House – then I stop again after another 2 hours and take an hour for lunch. I'm not going in peak season so there are not that many locals on the path, but I stop for a very sweet and toothless old crone that offers me some prickly cucumber for 1 yuan and then peels me some fresh walnuts with blackened hands.
I stop again and pay a whopping 50p for a large chinese pear -but the woman peels it for me and then takes some photos of me on a rather dicey precipice.
As nerve wracking as the narrow mountain path is – (there doesn't seem to be any such thing as health and safety in China therefore no barriers to stop one from stumbling and plummeting to a sticky end) it gets even more spine tingling when it momentarily crumbles away in a couple of places – leaving you to clamber over some broken rocks. I decide to crouch anduse my hand as well (although stupidly I still hold a water bottle with my other hand...) and think “hmmm not a big fan of this bit.”
As I round the bend I see a Chinese girl in her early twenties and a Chinese man in full trekking gear and bright red walking stick in his forties. They wave and say hello – I think our paths have crossed earlier but I overtook them.
“Aren't you frightened!!” says the Chinese girl Jean – gasping. The man - whom I only ever know as Mr Yang – laughs patiently.
“Oh not really!"
“Aiiieee this road is so terrible aren't you scared???"
"I am just a poor girl - so very frightened." she says dramatically. I laugh.
" I 'm glad you find pleasure with me" she whimpers..." You - you are a warrior!"
We continue walking for a bit – there are a couple of waterfalls we have to cross. Again there are no barriers and a sheer drop the other side of the slippery stepping stones. Its a little daunting but not too terrible. Jean clings to my hand for dear life.
"I feel better now I have you both with me" she announces.
"Yes I say -we are like auntie and uncle."
Mr Yang is the happiest Chinese man i've ever met – in fairness they are all fairly happy and easy going. He doesn't smile or speak any English but points and grins enthusiastically at things. We get towards the halfway point – at Halfway house and go up to the balcony (named Inspiraton point) to take photos against the amazing mountainous backdrop. Then head on again – through the little village – past locals with babies papoosed to their backs, smoking old men and rabid dogs. I've read about a guesthouse called Five Fingers- which is up a mountain slope – and is apparenty much nicer than Tina's which has become touristy and expensive. I say my goodbyes to Jean and Mr Yang and make my way towrards it – they want to continue their trek and get to Tinas before sun down. I could trek for another 2 hours – or I could sit and enjoy the view with a beer. Not suprisingly the latter is my preferred option.
The gueshouse is run by a Tibetan husband and wife. They have beautiful views of the countryside, a courtyard lined with bright red gladioli, and two donkeys tethered in the middle of it. The room is small and basic but they are obviously going all out with the bathroom. There is a squatter toilet yes – but a great big shower that pumps out hot water. I take a much longed for properly hot shower and change and come downstairs – when who should I find but Jean and Mr Yang. Their friends are behind them and they want to wait for them and complete it tomorrow. I'm pleased I have company all alone in the mountain tops and Mr Yang seems delighted i'm ready to drink beer. We sit outside with a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao and enjoy some Tibetan home cooking – Kung Pao chicken with peanuts and red chilli, fried eggs and tomatoes, green beans grown in their backgarden and beef and potatoes. At some point I am pitied by Mr Yang and brought a spoon to eat with! My chopstick skills never really seem to improve!
"You are both so lucky' - sighs Jean – who has a peculiarly old fashioned turn of phrase like she learned English at finishing school in the fifties...
"Take this illustrious gentleman here ..."– she says indicating Mr Yang –
"He is in his forties, unmarried and just travels."
Well similar to me!
I never want to get married she says – and then goes on to explain about Chinese culture – how once you marry you marry not just your fiance but his family as well and from that point on you are never alone. We take our individualism for granted in the West. You can see the benefits of the Chinese culture - the sociability, the support that families get that the elderly get -but I would also miss my freedom a great deal. She talks about the Chinese flowers and about the Tang Dynasty –it was one of her favourite periods in Chiense history – famous for having a woman ruler – Wu Xehitan – who had a successful career – and even invented words and letters to be named after her although like many a matriarchal leader she was terrifyingly ruthless in order to secure her position.
"Do you learn any Chinese historyin school?"
"Oh no I say..." – thinking we barely learn the basics of our own Britihs history – there seems to be a huge gap in my knowledge between Elizabeth and James 1 and the start of the first world war- only a small yet crucial 300 years involving the building of governement and civil war!
“Why not ?!" She exclaims "...we learn about Charlie!"
In the morning Mr Yang and I eat fried baba (traditional Tibetan unleavened bread) pasted with honey and crumbled walnuts. Yum. Jean has eggs, tomatoes, noodles and ginger – and we are off. Today its no longer sunny – a misty rain has set in and Jean is whingeing –" This was a mistake we should have carried on yesterday. Why did you want to stay in the mountains?"
I can't help feel she is blaming me – even though I set off to the guesthouse by myself and didn't ask them to come back and join me!
I feel very lucky i've had a beautiful day of sunshine and don't regret taking my time and spending the evening in the mountains – the trek down into the gorge is fairly steep and strenuous in the rain – and takes around 1 hour – but it is also beautiful to see another side of the mountains. Shady, cool, misty and hung with shimmering rain they are just as beautiful – but i'm glad i don't have to do the whole 23k in the drizzle.
A couple of the village homes down the path to the gorge have decided to set up an extra toll to extract money from tourists as well as the park entrance fee – so we are husteld for another 1 y down, some money to go out onto the bridge and stand on the Tiger's stone in the midst of the angry rushing water and 15 y to go back up again. Its resented by everyone I speak to but if I lived there i'd try the same thing – I can't blame them for their entrepreneurism! And it is endorsed with official signs. The villagers for the route up have created a better path -cutting stone steps into the mountain side and attaching at thin wire to use as a rail. Again if you don't have a head for heights this is not advisable!
The way down is arduous and I think will be bad to go up the same route (if you do you don't have to pay) the stone steps path is more direct and the middle part of it also contains something called a Sky Ladder which sounds even more direct. Jean tries to tell me that there are too many tourists and it will take too long, and then that its shut – i'm not sure if she is telling the truth – something makes me persist – and it is open and available as a route. The sky ladder turns out to be a rusty metal ladder precariously attached almost vertically to the cliff. There is no safety cable or harness available here – no net if you fall. I take a few steps up it and come down – if you don't feel up to it there is the “safe path” which are more steep stone steps carved into the hillside with a wire for a rail (only safe if you are careful!)
“Did you give up?” asks Jean.
“No” I say trying to style it out "I just don't think I can do it by myself..."
Some more people gather at the platform – ever the gentleman - Mr Yang asks if they will accompany Jean up the safe path so that he can accompany me up the sky ladder. Oh great.
I set going again and a few steps up think – this would NOT be allowed anywhere else in the world without a safety harness and a safety net. A few more steps up and I think – if I can't do this mentally and my hands start shaking or my legs give way – then that's it – either Mr Yang has to come to my rescue and help me come down one step at a time – or more likely i'll just fall backwards off the cliff top and die. I'm climbing a vertical ladder against a cliff face 2000 m in the air – in the rain!!! I look up and look down and feel sick. I vow never to take a chance like this again.
“Come on..." I say – "you are mentally strong you can do this (and er you have to do this...)”
I look straight ahead and just concentrate on putting one hand above the other and then one foot a step at a time. In some parts the rungs are uneven – behind the rusty metal version is an even more dodgy wood and metal version. Half way up some joker has carved into it – Come on you can do it!
How did they manage that!
Luckily the thing is very short – it takes around 10 minutes to get to the top. At the top all there is is the top of the ladder and a thin and slippery wire to hold onto. I manage to haul myself to safety and sit at the top on a rock my legs and hands are shaking. Mr Yang joins me smiling -and I get him to go back to the top and take a photo of it!
I normally say that I take calculated risks – but this was sheer stupidity – I don't recommend it to anyone!!!
We get to the top – finally joined by Jean who drags behind - Jiao Jiao – (come on come on) Mr Yang and I shout - a phrase I learnt in Kung Fu. Then Jean decides to stay with her friends at Tina's for the night. She wants me to stay too so we an all head to Shangrila in the moring – but I don't like Tina's and do't have a change of clothes with me – and would rather head back to my stuff which has been eft at Jane's Guestouse.
Mr Yang and I share the same bus back – he is heading on to Lijiang and I am getting out at Qiatou – the start of the trek. But the adventure isn't over yet. As the rainy season comes to an end many of the newly built roads around the gorge have been disrupted by landslides from the mountains. Now the huge boulders from one have blocked our path. All of the bus have to get out and then first climb over the rocks and then climb aruond a scarily narrow grey and gravelly slippery path cut into the hillside with another sheer drop on one side. I'm one of the first to go onto it but towrds the end my nerve begins to go. Luckly Mr Yang has got to the other side and offers out his red walking stick for me to hang on to and he helps me to safety. Thank goodness for Mr Yang – apparently I later discover that the landslide has been like that for 2 weeks. On the other side there are other buses ready to take us onwards and I arrive back at Jane's guesthose and have some beef noodles before its time for bed.