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Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 2: Exercising Caution While Maintaining Momentum

Naxi Family way down in the valley below
Dawn breaks quite late over the tiny valley where the Naxi Family Guest House lies, the sun climbing high in the sky to reach over the impossibly vertical ridges of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. my head has stopped pounding and my heart has stopped palpitating from the altitude, at least while sitting still, but today will be a major challenge. The path will rise to its highest point, 2600m, through a series of exhausting and formidable switchbacks known as the ’28 Bends’. If you survive that climb, it’s only another agonising 8 hours’ walk along narrow paths cut into cliffsides, a mere hairs’ breadth from a fatal plunge to the river below, to tonight’s guest house, beyond the lower rapids of the gorge.
After an hour of climbing up, up, up through a softly soughing pine forest, it becomes clear that I’m either extremely unfit, or extremely susceptible to altitude. I’m sweating, I can’t speak, and I feel like I’ve just swum fifty metres underwater on a single breath. Ahead I can see a stone Naxi dwelling, perched all alone.

The house is empty, with an abandoned feel to it, and I’m not quite sure how to ‘gain energy for the 28 Bends’ if it’s going to be even more difficult than what I’ve already climbed. I push on. In fact, the 28 Bends are probably no more difficult than the preceding climb, and some scallywag has painted a countdown on the rocks on the way up (Four down! Only twenty-four to go!). Still, it’s a relief to get to the top.

The top is a tiny rocky windswept outcrop jutting terrifyingly out over a sheer drop of 1500m down to the river’s swirling pale green waters. Without the protection of the pine forest the wind howls past with full force, and unexpected gusts menacingly threatens my balance as I edge out for a better view.The small red sign painted on the rock in the lower right corner says ‘Be Careful’. 

Photo courtesy of Dad
I plant all my weight on my right foot, and with my left, edge it gingerly close to the edge. This is about as wide as the path gets at this point. 
Below, the gorge’s Upper Rapids are just visible. It’s only after I look at the photo I’ve taken in more detail that I realise the tiny black dots on the bridge are people. The rock in the centre is the size of a five story apartment block, toppled on its side. Around it, the dangerous waters roar and boil with an incredible ferocity. I try and imagine whether, after accidentally falling over the edge from sheer carelessness, something I am all too prone to, it would be better to be dashed to daeth on the rocks on the way down, or drown with no hope in the raging water. Both seem very unpleasant. I vow to pay full attention and be very, very careful.

We later pass a traditional Naxi house perched precariously in a small depression in an otherwise vertical landscape. The central south-facing courtyard, protected from the elements, is flanked by a house, a barn, and two storerooms. The farmer is tending to his herd of black goats on the nearby mountain, while a lost kid bleats sorrowfully for the rest of the herd.

As close as I dare bring my foot to the edge….

I round a corner in the trail to find a waterfall ahead, which I will have to traverse – there is no other way around it. The scale is difficult to imagine, but the path is running horizontally across the middle of the photo. It’s a pretty big waterfall, but thankfully there has been little rain, so it’s just a matter of hopping from rock to rock and trying not to look sideways beyond the edge of the path, rather than worrying about being washed off the mountain by the force of the water. That obstacle passed, the next corner reveals a very, very narrow path literally cut into an overhang. It looks menacing.
On closer inspection, it is menacing.

Nothing for it but to keep moving forward and try not to think about it too much. Hug the left side too close, and risk being obliterated by falling rock, like the piles of smashed rock lying to the side of the path, their white marble innards exposed. Hug the right side too much, and face anhilation by cliff fall. It keeps the senses terrifically sharp. This goes on for hour after hour, until gradually, certainly, I am heading downhill. The downhill path holds tiny unexpected treasures, like a rocky temple inhabited by goats, and a grove of wild pale pink azaleas.
Nine hours after setting off, the end is almost in sight – below me I can see the road, still some 500 metres above the river, but almost the end of today’s trek. I’m too exhuasted to speak and my knees have completely given up.

Looking downstream, I can see the Lower Rapids, as the green waters turn white over huge rocks of marble in mid stream. Ahead of me, the terraced lower slopes of Mount Haba are planted with wheat, corn, and walnut trees. – just revealing their first spring shoots. I am headed for Walnut Garden, the tiny settlement where I will spend the night before  the final day of the trek. 
The owner of the guest house, Sean, a Tibetan and lover of mountain country, has drawn and published the only decent map to be found of the gorge walk, so it seems only fair to return the favour and stay in his guest house, even though it’s a little further along the road than the competitively placed Tina’s, a three story concrete block sited right where the track finally, after some twenty-three kilometres, ends. As I walk on the flat for the first time since leaving Qiaotou, I drink in the wild and rugged mountains and the green, green water. God, I’m so looking forward to taking my shoes off, drinking an ice cold beer, then falling into a very heavy sleep.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures