Robert Stanelle


 hiking china's famous

     tiger leaping gorge

This might have been a day when my mental state could be in question, the day that China Bob proved once and for all he really is crazy, insane, mentally ill and incompetent to stand trial. But I am ahead of myself, so let me begin, where else, at the beginning.

I was scheduled to take a trip from Lijiang to the upper gorge of Tiger Leaping Gorge at 8:00 that morning. Dali, the office girl here, comes out at 7:30 to inform me that trip was not going today due to not enough people signed up, but the company agreed to take me on the trip to the upper and middle gorges, a more costly trip, for the same price. I agree, of course, and head off on the kilometer walk to the famous Lijiang water wheel area to meet the bus and others traveling by 8:15AM. By 8:45 we are on the bus and on our way for the near three hour ride. We fill the bus with our group of forty, all Chinese but me.

China’s Yunnan Province is incredibly beautiful and is up there with the Argentina/Chile Andes as the most beautiful places I have been. It is all mountains and rivers here with the people managing to make a living with a lot of terraced farming. I now believe corn can really grow almost anywhere it is planted! So the ride up was very scenic and enjoyable. The road is narrow two lane with no shoulder to speak of so traffic is often halted for one reason or another: car problem, people in road, livestock, etc. I was thinking how the U.S. has a crumbling infrastructure that needs updating and repair, whereas China has an infrastructure that badly needs updating. As traffic in China continues to increase and people travel more, it is clear that the current road system is far inadequate. But still, the trip up was beautiful but a little scary on the roads.

Finally we get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, formed through the mountains by the Jinsha Jiang River, actually the mighty Yangtze but the Chinese call it by a different name in this part of the country – the River of Golden Sand. In other areas the Yangtze is known as the Chang Jiang, the long river. We are told Tiger Leaping Gorge consists of three gorges: upper, middle and lower. We will not go to the lower as the first two are the most spectacular. The gorges are so named when the river, about 90 meters wide, is forced to flow through an area only 30 meters wide between very high (near ten thousand feet) rock mountains. After the first gorge the river widens out a bit and then is forced through the second gorge (middle) and so on.

Now the road gets very scary! It is very narrow, often without guardrails, and our driver is flying. The driver tells us not to worry as he has driven this road all his life and can do it with his eyes closed! I immediately think maybe I should get off the bus! I am in a window seat and often looking straight down into the gorge.

We stop at the upper gorge first for photos - and it is spectacular! The sheer power of the water is the strongest I have ever seen, stronger even than the great Iguassu Falls of South America. We then continue down this part blacktop, part dirt, scary road for another half hour or more with mostly sheer rock walls on our left and a drop to the river on our right before we stop at Tina's Youth Hostel! Yes, there just past the middle gorge and built on the mountain side above the river is a hostel!

We have lunch at the hostel. I eat with Han and Jeffrey, two Chinese recent high school grads who speak English and are my helpers for the day. They speak well and Han also speaks often! He was very talkative and asking my thoughts and opinions in a whole bunch of subjects. It was a good lunch of seven dishes, one soup and rice. It was a pleasant place with nice views. Interesting also was the side of the mountain toilet!

About 2:00 we are ordered back on the bus, which the driver has turned around. I figure, okay, that is it, and we are going back - wrong China Bob, the fun has just begun. Within ten minutes the bus stops again and everyone starts piling out. I ask where we are going and I am told our hike is now beginning! What! No one told me a hike was included with the middle gorge trip? It seems we are beginning a 7 kilometer hike above the middle gorge area, nearly four kilometers down the mountain and just over three back up. What have I gotten myself into? Everyone on the bus is under thirty but two men about 35, the guide about 32, and me an ancient 66! The guide, of course, does this regularly and has legs of iron.

The trip down was a winding trail of rock and dirt through thick brush. It was steep and difficult. Fortunately the weather was again beautiful as, I was told, wet weather would make the trail near impossible. I was also told that several people die every year trying to hike in wet weather and plunge into the river. That is certain death. The river is not swimmable and, in fact, is not even raft-able as the power of the water is beyond any capability of man.

As those of you who hike are aware, hiking downhill is a great test of the knees, ankles and thighs, having to constantly lean back to maintain your balance. With twenty minutes my thighs are on fire and I have slipped on my butt twice. That is okay though as that is the only direction one wants to slip going downhill. The guide is kind enough to take my backpack at this point and he stays ahead of me going down and behind me going up for the entire distance. Han took the opposite position to assist me as needed. I made it down though without further incident to where there was a little rest shelter about 200 feet above the river with great views and for wonderful photos. The trail was such that we could hear the river but really not see it until this point.

We continued on a rolling trail for about another kilometer and another rest shelter. Then we are told it is time to go back up about three kilometers! Are you crazy? Three kilometers that is primarily straight up and very steep? Yes, we are all crazy. The real challenge, which I knew nothing about, was it was even more difficult than it sounds - and it sounded real difficult.

Now going up is a great test of the calves but especially of the heart and lungs. The trail is two feet wide at the good spots and 18" of less at the really bad spots, with a sheer drop and not enough really thick vegetation to stop you - and I've already told you what happens then! There is at different spots along the trail a thin wire rail (no help at all), a rough wooden log rail (very little help) and a steel cable imbedded in the rock (my personal favorite). The trail is very steep and I am hanging and pulling on that steel cable at every opportunity. I needed my arms to help take some of the load off my legs where possible.

It is impossible for me to describe how really difficult this trail is. Words fail me here. I will say I have hiked all of my life in many places around the world. I have done ten mile hikes above tree line in the Rockies and once in a hailstorm. But I was younger then and no trail was near as difficult as this was. Only occasionally, on a flatter part of the trail, could one stop for a photo or to look at the river. You concentration was on your feet and trail, knowing full well you could not dare stumble. There are rest shelters every couple of hundred yards going up and there are people in these rest shelters selling water, drinks and fruit! They march down there every day with a basket on their back full of things to sell and march back up at the end of each day. This is how they make their living! And most of them were not youngsters!

We get about half way up and I am told that now comes the scary part! What!? I have already been holding off a heart attack for at least thirty minutes. What could be scarier that what we have already done? We have navigated small wooden bridges built over air and attached to the side of the mountain. We have bent over to navigate trail cut out of rock overhang. We have pulled ourselves up steep 18" wide dirt trails gripping wire cable all the way. I cannot imagine being more frightened?

And then I was! I turn the corner and discover there is no trail. It has ended under our feet. The trail is now an iron ladder anchored into the rock and going straight up a sheer rock wall! What? This is insane. As I have always heard said - don't look down! I figure no one is going to come get me by helicopter, so what can I do? I am talking to myself all the way up, one rail at a time. I am not a religious man, but I was sure looking for a sign! The guide is behind me but that doesn't seem much help. If I go, I'm taking him with me!

I am counting each slow step to another rail, guessing it was maybe 25 from looking at it from below. Bad guess. I get to thirty and I am still not done and have still not looked down. My eyes are on the ladder and the rock wall in my face. I finally reach the top at forty and grip the steel cable to help pull me over the last edge. Unbelievable! What is an old man doing on this mountain?

We continue on with more of the same with my legs hanging in there but my heart and lungs struggling for air every step of the way now. I hear Han, in front of me, say, "Oh, there is another ladder!" I don't know if I can do that again? I have very little left in my tank. But I look and see it is a short ladder this time so on up I go again and in eleven rungs complete this one. We get to about a third of a mile from the top and at a rest stop again - and there are men there offering to carry you up while you sit in a chair and two of them, front and back, carry you up the mountain! These did not look like young men either. I am not decadent enough to let someone do that for me, plus I personally thought I was safer on my own than going up thus steep trail seated in a chair. That was definitely more than I could mentally handle.

We get a quarter mile from the top and now there are men with horses offering to lead you up the remaining distance on horseback. Two overweight young Chinese women paid 200 RMB each to take a horse up. I thought about it but it was now a matter of personal pride that I could do this. So with Han sometimes pulling from the front and our guide sometimes pushing from the back, I make it the final distance up the mountain. Jeffrey takes a photo of an exhausted old man as we all sit and rest. I actually beat several young people who were dragging worse than me. They, of course, were smokers who had to immediately light up at the top.

After ten minutes rest, we are told to get back on the waiting bus. I am a little slow at this point so I am the last person to get on the bus. When I get on though, everyone applauds and gives me the thumbs up sign! It is 5:00. A three hour grueling hike has been completed and the response from my fellow travelers was a very nice end to this crazy ordeal.

Driving out of the gorge we were shocked to see a huge boulder covering one of the lanes that was not there when we drove in! That was also a little frightening. The rest of the three hour drive back to Lijiang though was beautiful and, thankfully, uneventful. We were dropped back at our water wheel pickup point by the Old Town Plaza area to be greeted by music and more minority group dancing in one of their circle songs and dances. Many of the spectators joined in and it was a real good time event. I took a bunch of photos again but my legs were not up to joining the dancing at this point.

I walked back the kilometer to my guest house, stopping for a noodle dinner on the way. I discovered my knees were really weak and my right one actually collapsed on me as I gingerly walked up the stairs to my second floor room. I stripped my dirty clothes off, took a hot shower to get myself clean and then on the computer to write while this incredible day was fresh in my mind.

Every day you wake up is a good day. Today though was among the greatest of days and will live in my memory forever. I have hiked the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge at the age of 66! It was an unbelievable experience and certainly one of the greatest experiences of my life. Today I have truly lived and I may be crazy, but I am still alive – really alive!