The Fellowship of the Gorge: Part Two

Culture | by Luis Landas
Posted: October 16th, 2012 | Updated: October 24th, 2012 | Comments
Make sure you check out Part I of Luis' story.... We awoke to a splendid Yunnan morning. Warm waves of light fell through the clouds into the valley below, their rays glistening on every dewy surface. Despite a lack of breeze, the air was cool. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, pancakes and tea at the Naxi Family Guesthouse [Nàxī Kèzhàn, Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. A trail map painted on a nearby wall indicated to us the distance to the Halfway Guesthouse [Zhōngtú Kèzhàn, 中途客栈; (86 887) 139 8870 0522], our goal for the day. We knew, however, that it wasn't going to be a simple saunter along a meandering red line. A key detail reminded us of the trials that lay ahead: squiggles. The 28 Bends were just up ahead, and so we embarked eastwards towards our destiny. More after the jump.... Not long after we left the guesthouse, the trail began to take on a taxing incline. The path was no longer just solid dirt, with large rocks and gravel becoming more prevalent. We approached a building on the side of the trail, and on the wall facing us a message was written in big letters, 'SAVE YOUR ENERGY FOR THE 28 BENDS.' I took note, and purchased another Snickers from the local woman who set up shop on the steps. Energy, right? We began our ascent. I actually didn't think to count every switchback on the path, because I was immediately too concerned with maintaining my balance, leaning forward and flailing my arms with each knee-high step. Snake, however, experienced in similar exploits, could distinguish the major turns on the path, and kept up a useful tally of completed bends. His counting was one of the only things keeping our spirits up, allowing us to know roughly our progress in this arduous incline. [pullquote]Simply put, the 28 Bends are next level s**t. [/pullquote]The trail mutated into a sharp, winding ascent, armed at every corner with steep boulders and slippery gravel. Foliage blocked our view to the very top, but we understood the altitude we needed to attain. Notwithstanding our general idea of how high up we needed to get, we had yet to figure out just how intense this legendary climb was going to be. Simply put, the 28 Bends are next level s**t. This is the part of the hike where travelers climb upwards to reach the elevation that unlocks the rest of the trail's panoramic beauty. But why must massive piles of mule litter be strewn all over the most grueling parts of the hike? Here in the Bends it got pretty bad. Looking for sturdy spots to plant your feet is difficult enough when there isn't a minefield of mule cakes thrown into the mix. While striking a precarious balance between the use of heavy heels and nimble joints to navigate this crap-tastic crag, my knees were frequently pointing in different directions. Every step ignited a blaze in my thighs, and with every breath I let out a grunt that reverberated from the muddy granite surrounding us. Ferg, with his 75 liter backpack (we called it the 'Command Center'), had it the worst. Snake shelved a fierce historical rivalry and offered to carry Ferg's pack. But Ferg, although thankful, denied the olive-branch and courageously bore the burden to the end of the Bends. A pair of European adventurers at one point descended down past us, offering us these uplifting words of encouragement, "Keep going guys, only ten more!" Twenty minutes later we emerged victorious. Ferg and I huffed and puffed our hearts out; our hands planted firmly on our knees. Looking down, we could barely see where we came from, but the fruits of our labor presented themselves before us. Snake scanned the area, "Let's chill there!" Just ahead, we found a small path that sloped off towards the river, where a magnificent view of the mountains across the valley awaited us. A local woman sold refreshments from a small thatched-roof store, but also demanded RMB 8 from each of us for the right to take photos from this glorious perch (ridiculous, no?). We sat and gulped down the contents of our water bottles while resting our exhausted bodies. We smiled, laughed and enjoyed a shared sense of accomplishment. The most difficult part of the hike was over with. It was smooth-sailing from here on out. After a hard-earned rest, we started on our path again. The subsequent hour of hiking was inexplicably serene. The most important things to understand are that from this point on the trail was mostly flat, and that our altitude revealed the most impressive sight I have ever seen. The ancient mountains across from us began all the way down in the valley below and continued  right up into the clouds; milky puffs twisted along the frosted ridges, where the rugged greenery that carpeted the scarred mountain face vanished into very thin air. I put on my magical music-muffs and jammed to a personal trekking soundtrack, happily realizing at times that I was just smiling quietly to myself. The expansive splendor flooded my vision from across the valley, and this didn't change until we left the Gorge. Through lush verdure we continued. Occasionally we'd pass over a rushing stream and across fragmented boulders, but the sky-high peaks offered us a peaceful constant. When we finally reached the Halfway Guesthouse we found that it was indeed fully-occupied. We simply moved on to the next guesthouse, the Five Fingers Guesthouse [Wǔzhǐ Shān Kèzhàn, 五指山客栈; (86 887) 139 8877 6286], named after the five adjacent peaks that capped the vast ridge across from us. During this period two other friends who started the hike a day after we did caught up to us (they had tiny backpacks), and we shared stories while rejoicing in our Tiger Leaping conquest. The following day we completed the trek, basking in a similarly tranquil groove. We spent our last night at Sean's Guesthouse [(86 887) 139 8874 5942], where we dined and played card games all night with friends we'd made there. The next morning, we bussed it to Shangri-La where we took a flight to the next leg of our Mid-Autumn Festival adventure. Before I go, here are some more tips:
  1. Our two trailblazing buddies' secret formula was leaving the bulk of their belongings in a hotel somewhere else, in another city even, and then only taking with them a minimal amount of supplies for the hike.
  2. Lycra-shorts! Or some other similarly stretchy undergarments. Life savers.
  3. Rain jacket and bag cover are also musts. It drizzled on us a few times.
  4. Don't take too many breaks... it's pleasant, of course, but it wastes daylight.
  5. The five of us agreed that hiking the OPPOSITE way be would much, much better. The 28 Bends would be a downward trip, infinitely easier. The hike would grow steadily in difficulty. And, Sean's Guesthouse, one of the 'last' guesthouses, actually provided the best and most detailed map!
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