Watermarked photographs courtesy of Elizabeth at Wanderlust Photography (www.elizabethgottwald.com)
Since beginning my nomadic adventures, I have opened up my mind and shut down my primal fears to a lot of things. I hammered my fear of heights in New Zealand when I did a skydive from 15,000ft over Lake Taupo and threw myself into the third-highest bungee jump in the world in Queenstown. I dominated my fear of the dark when I went ‘off the tourist trail’ in a cave in Laos, venturing 45-minutes into unchartered territory, wearing just a head torch and a pair of flip-flops (well, and clothes obviously, the lack of safety equipment is the point I’m trying to make!) I conquered my fear of commitment when I went and got myself a real-life girlfriend…well, as real-life as my life gets!
Without overcoming these anxiety-inducing episodes, I don’t think I would have ever considered trekking the 3,900m high, 16km long Tiger Leaping Gorge – one of the world’s deepest gorges, located in northern Yunnan, China.
Admittedly, Tiger Leaping Gorge isn’t even close to being considered as one of the globe’s most dangerous treks but with only spray-painted arrows giving directions, paths obstructed with overgrown, clearly unkempt shrubbery and several sheer-drop waterfalls with only moss-covered rocks to step on as the powerful cascade smashes against your calves – you often find yourself morbidly predicting how many days your corpse would remain here before being found.
The Fake Yellow Arrow
With only a WikiTravel, user-contributed guide on how to get to the gorge, we left our bags in Lijiang and jumped on a public bus to the start of the trek. We were told before leaving by the locals to make sure we took plenty of water and sugary snacks, as we were about to encounter our first part of China that was off of the tourist trail, with little in the way of convenience stores.
As with our experiences of the rest of China, we had a little trouble with the buses and figuring out where to go but eventually, we began recognizing places that we were expecting to encounter. After a couple of hours of bumpy roads and an awkward broken conversation with a Chinese couple, we hopped off the bus and began making our way towards the beginning of the trek.
With only our WikiTravel guide to hand, we began looking for the first ‘painted yellow arrow’, which we had been told was the only reference of direction throughout the entire hike. After passing a long, concrete wall, we saw a massive yellow arrow painted on a wall in the distance – only issue was, it was up a steep grassy incline, covered in sharp shrubbery. Being told to expect a difficult hike, we presumed that this was to be the beginning and crawled our way up to our assumed start point.
After being covered from head-to-toe in sharp thorns from the overgrown bushes, we were quickly realizing that this may have been a premature entry onto the trail and after almost walking face-first into the one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen (see picture below), we decided to descend and re-trace our steps.
Attempting to brush off the prickles and the memory of the evil arachnid that I almost head-butted, we decided to follow a disheveled looking local on a donkey, who unknowingly led us to the start of the trail and the first genuine yellow arrow.
‘An Ascent Towards The Heavens, Feeling Like Total Hell!’
The first few hours of the trail were easy – a slow ascent through rural Chinese farmland on a vehicle-friendly dirt track – really nothing to go into detail about. Then, almost out of nowhere, we took a bend and were faced with our first view of the gorge.
It was after this point that the hike began to test our fitness a little more, as the altitude increased and the oxygen decreased, it became a little more difficult to continue climbing at our previous pace. This did, however, allow some quality photography time and the occasional Oreo break.
Then, it happened. We reached the most challenging and difficult part of the hike, the ‘Twenty-Eight Switchbacks’ – twenty-eight almost-vertical bends, snaking up the side of the gorge. The most accurate description I can give of this part is ‘an ascent towards the heavens, feeling like total hell!’ Thirty minutes of solid uphill struggle and you finally make it, then you read what you assume is going to be a congratulatory message detailing how you triumphed over the hardest part of the journey…only to read “Get Ready For The 28 Bends!”
A further 40-minutes, two legs that you swear are no longer there, several items of removed clothing, a litre of water and a Snickers Bar later and we had made it. Questioning our sanity and wondering if was all worth it, we scaled the final bend to be rewarded with a view that will remain etched in our memories forever.
How I Almost Died: Part One
Being 3,900 metres above the raging water of the gorge below was an indescribable feeling, it felt almost as if you could reach over and touch the summit of Jade Snow Mountain, a peak that we had only before encountered towering over us from ground level. It was a beautiful view and one that we could have filled an entire SD Card with in a lame attempt to encapsulate a moment that we felt we had worked so hard for.
Unfortunately, with this view, came an unleashing of a curse that has plagued me since attempting to climb Mt Doom in New Zealand – vertigo. I didn’t really feel all too bad until we stopped for one of our many photography breaks. After taking a photo of the breathtaking aesthetics that surrounded me, I knelt down gingerly to pick up the remainder of our belongings. On the return to my standing position, I became light-headed and dizzy. I stumbled backwards and unwillingly transferred my bodyweight into a reclining postion, completely throwing my body in the direction of the sheer drop behind me. After realising that I had only my feet’s length standing between my lumbering carcass and the cliff edge, my brain shot forth an emergency request to eliminate my backwards lean and immediately throw my upper torso forward. What resulted was my knees being slammed to the ground and my hands reaching for grip on the dusty trail, narrowly becoming yet another undiscovered addition to the gorge’s toll of demise.
After several minutes of pushing a major panic attack aside, positioned like I was in the midst of a beginners yoga pose, we decided to carry on before the sun set and the darkness became yet another device of the hike’s homicide plot.
We made it to the Tea Horse Guesthouse just before dark, relished in the freshly-prepared food and swapped stories of the day’s encounters with other daring travelers.
…And on Day Two, He Created Life!
We skipped breakfast and decided to head out on the trail early, knowing that by midday the sun would be unbearable, especially at our newly navigated altitude. The first yellow arrow was just a stone’s throw away from our lodgings and with that, we began our second and final day of hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.
About a mile into the trek, we became distracted by the bleating of an oncoming goat. Goats, generally, are very vocal animals and after laughing at the first few cries that you hear, they quickly become irritating. The call of this particular goat was different, like it was in turmoil or in pain. It’s difficult to describe the sounds of a goat in pain but anybody who could have heard it, would also make the same association that we did. As we approached, it appeared to have a large black growth on the back of its body – or in medical terms, its butt. Bewildered and slightly intrigued by the presumed tumour, we stepped closer. No sooner than we began to put our amateur veterinary skills to the test, a tiny goat plopped onto the ground, coated in a thick layer of slime and blood. Our initial shock turned to adoration when the goat began her motherly duties by cleaning the newborn and despite the grossness of the whole experience, we knew that it was going to be the start of a beautiful day.
How I Almost Died: Part Two and How WE Almost Died
The first few hours of that day were spent posing on rocks, taking pictures of the gorge’s slowly unveiling beauty and shouting “Hello” to the Asian group who were insistent on following us, admittedly at a much slower pace. With every rock we mounted in an attempt to bag a hot new profile pic (sad, I know), the views just kept getting better and better.
That’s when we saw the ultimate spot, one that we spied from a distance and instantly knew that we needed to get there before the Asians did. What we didn’t realize was that in order to get to this photographic viewpoint, we were going to have to cross a raging waterfall. I’ll be the first to admit that I am literally one of the clumsiest people on the planet, I regularly fall over my own feet and am always the first to fall on fresh ice – this was going to be the end of me. To get a better sense of scale of the waterfall, see the picture below (look out for the tiny little specks on the light path, they are people!)
We put all electronic equipment in our backpacks, tied our shoelaces extra tight, rolled up our trousers, took a deep breath and set foot onto the first moss-covered rock. With fast-flowing water pounding our calves, we slowly and delicately stepped, inspecting every coming step with only beginners precision. As predicted, I made a wrong step on a rock that had no intention of allowing my shoe to grip, I slipped and used my supporting foot to anchor into the sinking pebbles. As the cascading water slammed against my legs, I had to not only reposition my faltered step but also pull my anchored foot from its sunken trap. I attempted not to look to my right as I knew in doing this, I would trigger the previous day’s vertigo and make my rapidly elevating situation a whole lot worse. I focused on the viewpoint ahead, the goal was in sight and it would just take a small amount of maneuvering to get me back on track. With the determination of obtaining a bad-ass new profile pic, I managed to find my footing again, reach the other side and extend a hand to help my fellow adventurer over the final step.
The last few hours were an ongoing spectacle of natural beauty, seeing the gorge from a multitude of angles really did deliver all that we had been promised by taking the sketchy hike trail as opposed to the lower, tour-bus route favored by Japanese holiday makers. It was a hike I will never forget and the hundreds of photos we took will only serve as a bookmark to the mental images we collected by the million.
Oh and I almost died a third time on the way down…