Red dust whispers around my boots. The black Tarmac underfoot undisturbed by the presence of me or the intruding swirls. I watch as our bus rushes away, crunching gears, and stirring up more fiery dust.
I look up. A gentle incline, a mellow slope leads away from the road. This is the path we must take.
I take Joyce’s hand in mine, our gloved hands embracing, ‘Merry Christmas’.
It’s within striking distance of midday on Christmas Eve and we have found ourselves with one of the most iconic, and yet gruelling, treks in all of China ahead of us.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge. Some precipitous 23km or more up, up and up and then down, down and down. Yet, we were only on our first few steps.
As we scuffled through the dust the chill air whipped through the layers. The snow had unfortunately not yet fallen hard and so a truly white Christmas had eluded us.
We were not breaking new ground. Many foot, hoof, paw and hand prints (when people have had to resort to crawling up the vertical trails) were starkly visible in the thick dust. And even on this most festive of occasions people from all over the world were walking alongside us – from the American to the English; the French to the Irish; the Spanish to the Russian – it was an international convention and we were ’in it together’.
The trail gradually, at first utmost imperceptibly, grew steeper. Then the sweat came. The water ran. The layers came off. And we strode the paths carrying more than we were wearing.
An we left the valley far below ’our international convention’ thinned out. We took the lead… Almost! 😉
Once more we seemed to turn away from the gorge edges and meandered inwards, into towering pine tree forests, complete with rest spots and Local Naxi tribes women selling all the necessary requirements: water (good); snacks (useful); beads (don’t really want the extra weight); marijuana (err… Might not make the top of the gorge if I take that. But. Thanks.)
Onwards. Upwards. Sans marijuana.
The most agonising part of the trek was approaching. The aptly named 28 bends.
Thin trails enclosed between berry bushes and brittle branches snake skywards. First northwards. Turn. Now southwards. On and on. The dust spitting under our soles. Water gulped. Sweat falls. On and on. Losing count of the bends… Counting probably wasn’t a good idea anyway.
A rest. We watch as our fellow (foolish) trekkers toil and sweat below. How much more of this to go? Why did we decide to spend Christmas like this? Hey… Will Santa be able to make it up here? We decide… Probably not.
Another bend and the mountains above have disappeared. We’re there. The top of the gorge. The wind now roars as we peer perilously over the last ridge. We scramble to re-tog… Jumper. Jacket. Hat. And then, only then, can we admire the uninterrupted view across the gorge.
From here the trail flattens out and the following two and a half hours were devoid of clambering and clamouring. The path wound itself around the mountain, sometimes clinging to the mountainside, other times meandering serenely through fields and forest. The sun continue to shine. We were warm. We were happy. We were having a Merry Christmas.
At times the untouched wilderness stumbled upon civilisation and locals sat and chatted the same as any other day, oblivious to the wall of wonder that stood behind them. Calls of ’Ni Hao’ echoed off the canyon walls as we walked and further warmed our hearts.
The never ending mountain range across from us, whilst unchanged never ceased to grab our attention and have us run the risk of missing the trail, tripping, or forgetting that a long, long, long fall would snatch us off the mountain if we didn’t keep our eyes on the straight and narrow.
But we survived and as time seemed to stand still the sun began its inevitable fall. Shadows crept from their hiding places. But that was okay. Christmas was coming.
Step after step turned into sleepy step after sleepy step and finally into one weary walk. But we were almost there. The Halfway house, its terrace – and its beers – were waiting.
And so, Christmas Eve was spent wrapped up in all our clothes – but really we were oblivious to the cold – slurping noodles and downing beers, making new friends, smiling, laughing, and enjoying the most bizarre of Christmas Eve’s. And all the while we gazed out and silently said goodbye to the sun.
’Too many beers last night. Time. 3am. Crap. Need to pee. Toilets outside. Long way. No use have to go. Damn, its cold. Back into bed. Ahh…’
The alarm raises me from my slumber. I crawl out of bed and once more wrap as many layers as I have around me and scurry back to the terrace for sunrise.
Whilst Joyce sleeps I sit in the bitter cold of the pre-dawn morning and wait for the sun to peak over the peaks. But the clouds never leave.
The vista of just a few hours before is so very different, but in its own way just as beautiful. Clouds caress invisible mountain summits and dance down their elegant sides. Until, eventually, colour appears and I know back behind the clouds the sun is warming another day. Christmas Day.
After a satisfying breakfast of noodle soup and ginger tea – my Christmas Day stable… Obviously – we joined the trail once more.
No change from the day before: At times the crumbling trail came close to the edge and we strode inches from a long fall. Other times rolling hills kept us safe.
Yet, the rich blue skies of a day before were replaced with voluminous clouds. It felt so different.
And as the clouds circled and swam over the mountains we started a slow spiral along meandering paths back to the ground. And just as our knees longed for the flat we had long ago left, we found it. And the sun had found a way through.
But we had not yet finished. The waters of the gorge lay below and we were not going to leave before we saw that unending rush towards the ocean.
We found ourselves back on paths that ran one way then switched viciously back the other. Here the canyon was at its most vertical and our knees started their twitching and shaking as we neared the bottom. Almost a whole hour of unrelenting down down down. Wow. And we still have to get back up!
From the top of the ’long way down’ we could see the torrent.
From halfway down we could hear it.
When we reached the bottom… We couldn’t hear anything above it.
Water rushed through the valley. Unstoppable in its downward journey. It smashed against rocks. Its turbid waters a constant rage against any and all obstacles in its way.
And against the grandeur of the vista before us we could only stand, in jaw-open admiration.
Almost lost in the scene. We stood.
We had done it. We had achieved a Tiger Leaping Christmas.
… Oh. And yes, we managed – only just – to crawl back out of the gorge… But with too many profanities for any day, let alone Christmas, I won’t speak of it!
Merry Christmas everyone. And have a bloody fantastic New Year!