Flanked by several enormous mountains, Tiger Leaping Gorge is top contender for the deepest gorge in the world. The upper road of the gorge makes for some breath-taking hiking and winds slowly up the edge of the left side ridge, through villages, past the odd farm and eventually, after cresting the main climb, to solitary guest houses built in the cold limits.
Our plan looked so simple on paper. Specifically the flyer/map we had picked up at the hostel that first gave us the idea of walking the gorge. Leaving our baggage behind at a local guesthouse, and kitted out for an overnight stay, we set off on the path.
For the first hour it was a straight walk until the path curved left and through fields. Then the view opened out and we could see not only the amazingly beautiful lowlands, but also the size of task in front of us. Out of the gorge, flanked by roads running alongside, came the river that brought all the life to the area.
The Yangtze is one big river and its birth place is high in those mountains. It must be powerful and old indeed to have carved such a gorge over the countless ages of China’s history.
We walked on and at this point we were all having energetic fun.
The path led ever upwards and we were ready for our break at a useful cafe/inn for lunch.
Quite a few other tourists were there and we thought that the route after this must be more busy, but really we were not to see many tourists at all. As we left the area we caught a couple of locals joking together, clearly about us, and they pointed to a small pack of donkeys. The inference was that they thought we should ride up, rather than walk, and that we wouldn’t make it on our own. This raised the hackles of Cesca and Mary-lou and they strode off with as much Spanish and English indignation that they could manage.
An old man with a donkey followed us at a respectful pace.
I spied the man and pointed him out to the others. We all laughed and it became a joke between us that “he might catch us up” and “who was going to break first and end up on the donkey?”
It wasn’t funny when, a couple of miles later, Cesca collapsed. At first I thought she was just sitting down for a cheeky rest, but once I looked into her eyes I could tell that she was scared as hell. I knew immediately that she had mild AMS, which could strike anyone walking in the high mountains. Suddenly the man and his donkey was no longer seen as a inconvenience to be mocked, but a saviour to be cherished. I waved to him and he was with us in moments. Cesca was very red in the face and unable to stand easily. We had been high enough in the past few days for it to have crept up on her like this, but it came on very quickly indeed. One second she was fine, the next she was not. We placed her securely on the donkey and I gave the man some money. He nodded, saying nothing short of a grunt.
I considered him carefully. He was old and wry with a conical hat. I remember clearly feeling like we were fish and he a fisherman of sorts. He had spied us, hunted us and been very patiently waiting for someone to need his donkey. In another country this would have perhaps been seen as a generous and welcoming thing to do: the helping travellers up the mountainside. Perhaps a way of rounding out the pension or just a nobel deed for an old man walking home and more used to the challenging climb. It goes to show how foreigners feel in China that none of these things occurred to us then, only that we were being “targeted” by the locals for potential monetary gain. True we had all been through South East Asia and India where such feelings are not untoward, but I had hoped that China would be different. I forced myself to remember that this land is the same regardless, it is me who is different. I am the outsider here. It is that feeling of not being able to speak the language that brings on this traveller sense of being isolated and not among friends when with the locals. Such feelings are naturally exacerbated when we from the west are so much richer in terms of money, but weaker in terms of flesh. This old fellow had probably popped down the mountain for some milk and a paper and was eager to get back to the top to catch the cricket on the radio.
I determined to get him on his way and we set back off, with Cesca looking much healthier on the donkey – which picked its way up the path and around the rocks with practiced ease.
After another hour we came to the hard bit. The path here bent back on itself every hundred meters or so and snaked straight up the gorge face for about 800 meters.
It took us another few hours to make that climb and during it I too started to feel extreme exhaustion.
I really laboured to get to the top, as did Mary-Lou. Colin, on the other hand, fairly hopped up it with no problems at all. Mountains play strange tricks on you. Why Colin wasn’t affected by the problems plaguing the rest of us, I don’t know? In any case he was very kind in waiting for us all to clamber over the large rocks and catch him up.
After that climb, the path became significantly rougher and more like clambering over rockslides than walking. It was a few seconds later that I realised that in fact we were clambering over rockslides that had engulfed the path and never been cleared up. I started to check my footing with even more care. Then we came across a little hut that had been turned into a shop. There we bought snacks, drinks and avoided buying the large bags of weed on offer – despite the urges of the shop owner.
Shortly after we made it to the top and the donkey man signalled that Cesca’s ride was done. She got down and he waved goodbye as we walked away and followed the now horizontal path onwards.
After about half an hour we came to the guesthouse, dug into the cliffside, and checked in. It was a nice place, but cold and quiet. We sat out, ate, drank and made merry – happy that we had made it half way and with the worst of the climb behind us.
As the night came out we all took photos of the mountains and wondered at the immense beauty of the view.
Then Cesca and I said goodnight and crept under many blankets to huggle up together in the cold.
The morning was just as crisp and very welcome. The view continued to be staggering in its epic beauty and we gathered together and continued.
Walking this half was different than the first, not so much up and eventually significantly more down. However, the quality (and safety) of the path left much to be desired as it snaked along narrow cliff edges with mind melting drops down the gorge walls.
At some moments we had to cross waterfalls that had broken some bank above and now pummelled the path from on high, breaking the concrete and pushing large rocks into the path. Picking our way across these was one of those things that you know is dangerous to a point, but you have no way of telling “how dangerous” until it is too late. If we had been better prepared we would have use some commando string between us, or a thin rope, but instead we picked our way one at a time.
My day was mostly spent listening to the late great Alan Watts on my iPod. I have always been a big fan of this Zen Master and his view on life and the universe. After my experiences in India his calm and clipped voice helped me put a lot of things straight in my mind. It was quite magical to consider such high philosophy in such a place and with such a view. I remember that he was talking about the divinity of Jesus, Daoism, Buddhism and the awakened mind. Such cosmic thoughts are much easier to understand in peace and with such a panorama, such fresh air, and on such a day – where my daily cares of work, shelter and health were far far away.
I had a fantastic feeling (not for the first time) of being free.
If there is one thing I would like the reader to take from these chronicles it is that the sense of freedom, which comes from travelling outside the backpackers bubble, is so important that any opportunity to experience it should never be passed up. These moments are to be cherished as they are the memories that will stay with you and the parts that expand the mind,
This feeling of freedom was – for me – the point of it all. High in the Chinese mountains I walked, listened and breathed. Surely a more direct experience of Zen it is not possible to find.
It is not lost on me that Alan Watts’ final book is called “Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown” and is a meditation on his imaginings while walking the mountains near his home. It is sometimes personal (and discordantly so, placing him firmly in his time – whereas we are more used to him being “eternally wise”), sometimes polemic, but always challenging.
The mountains matched the grand design of his words and challenged me to think in their terms: big and nearly eternal. I found my mind rode up their peaks and slid off into space and beyond.