Most of the mountains I had climbed since coming to China had carved, stone steps from bottom to top and back again. After 8 months, I was desperate to find a trek that would allow me to walk on real earth. Not something I had written on my list of ” Things I will Miss in China”. So I booked a trek in Yunnan province in mid-May, which started with the most famous hike of south-west China – Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The party consisted of our Chinese guide, a giant of an Aussie, two French women and myself. We met up in Lijiang old town and got lost on our first day trying to find our way out of the maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Not an auspicious start. However, by 11.30, we were on the trail and I gave thanks for the feel of stones, soil and earth under my feet. The trail was dusty and steep but we had views of the towering snow-capped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the East and far below us, Tiger Leaping Gorge itself.
This is one of the deepest gorges in the world and is 16 km long.
After lunch, we hiked for another few hours, ascending 900 metres through the “28 bends”, a series of steep switch back loops on the trail. The Teahorse Trade Guesthouse was a welcome sight and where we were to spend the night. The guest-house was aptly named as it was on the trail that followed the ancient mule caravan tea route to India, via Burma, to Tibet and Central China via Sichuan. Yunnan was one of the first tea producing areas over a 1,000 years ago and it was called the Teahorse Road because of the trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea. People as well as horses carried heavy loads, as shown in this picture of porters carrying tea bricks, often more than their own body weight in tea.
Men Laden With Tea, Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908, Ernest Henry Wilson
The next day was again blessedly cool and there were very few walkers on the trail. We hiked down steep slopes, passing several primitive-looking Tungsten mines on the way. Eventually, after negotiating steel ladders and almost vertical rocky paths, we reached Tiger Leaping Stone at Middle Rapids. Here the Yangtze was in full spate as the swirling, muddy waters were squeezed through the narrow confines of the gorge. It was worth the long trek down although my knees didn’t agree. Most people end the 2 day trek here and get a bus back to Lijiang. For us, it was just a warm up.
Up early the following morning for the 2 hour drive to Haba village, 2680m, where we met our local guide and horseman. Here the people were of Tibetan origin and the countryside was green and fertile with everyone busy with the harvest. The sound of Yak bells provided an accompaniment to our slow foot steps as we ascended through the pine forests where azaleas, rhododendrons and violets were in bloom. The 15km hike seemed endless and the altitude slowed our walking to a snail’s pace. Base camp, at 4100m, was a welcome sight as we emerged from the forest. Closer inspection however, revealed a dirty, unkempt site. It seemed sad but not surprising that the fees people pay to get into the area do not appear to be spent on preserving it’s beauty. We were fortunate to have wonderful weather which allowed us spectacular views of snow-capped peaks. At night it was cold, around freezing, and if there was no room around the mean little wood burning stove, the only place to keep warm was in bed.
After acclimatising for a day in the surrounding meadows, we prepared to climb to Camp 1 at 4,600m. We were told that it would make the summit day more manageable because of the altitude. When we arrived at the camp site – the guides began to clear and level the stony ground for the tents. We were told to rest. As the tents were unfurled and the guy ropes secured with boulders, it became obvious that these men had no clue about putting up tents. Only one tent had a matching rain cover and the rest looked completely unfit for purpose. They didn’t have the right poles or covers and would certainly not have been water proof. I could see them taking off in the strong winds.
“So Jonathan” I said to our guide, “in terms of safety at this height, what percentage would you give this camp?”
“80%”, he said smiling.
“But only one tent looks like it might just about do for 2 people. What about the other 4?”
“Oh, don’t worry about the guides,” he said, “they can sleep in the rocks. I think two of us can manage in one of the tents.”
It was already 4pm and we had no food or water. The two local guides were supposed to be going back to Base Camp to collect the food once they had erected the tents! It was beginning to look like a complete fiasco and so the 4 of us took matters into our own hands and decided to go back to Base Camp. Tempers flared and the Aussie had had enough. He demanded a refund and walked out of the camp in disgust. We never saw him again. The French women were scared, which left me, at 7pm, having to make a decision about going for the summit the next day on my own – that is, without anyone from our party. I dithered and tried to weigh things up. I was worried about altitude sickness and the level of competence of the guides but I knew I would not be back any time soon and age was not exactly on my side. Having lived in China for several months, I had grown used to the lack of “health and safety” regulations, so I decided to go for it.
At 4am the next morning, I set off with Jonathan and a local guide. My worries seemed to fade into insignificance when, after about 2 hours of climbing, I switched off my head torch and laid back on the rocks to look at the sky. I gasped at the closeness of the stars and the sight of the Milky Way weaving its star dust trail through the heavens. Climbing very slowly over icy rocks and snowy patches, we eventually reached the snow line. We put on ancient-looking crampons and prepared for the the long slopes ahead. I managed to walk 5 steps before resting and kept up this pace for the remainder of the ascent. At 9.30am we reached the summit of Haba Shan at 5,396m/17,703ft – the highest I had ever climbed. I was exhilarated. The clouds swirled in and out giving brief glimpses of the surrounding peaks. A few photos and a brief pause was all I was allowed before the guides were ready to leave.
The descent was rather quicker than the ascent and we arrived back at Base Camp at 12.30 – a total of 8 and a half hours. Then I followed the French women and the horses back down to Haba village so that we didn’t have to linger any longer at Base Camp. It took about 4 hours to descend through the pine forests and the yak meadows. I had walked for 12 and a half hours either vertically up or down all day!
I certainly had achieved my dream of walking on real earth again and was rather pleased that I had lived to tell the tale.