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JUne 14, 2004 -> leaping tiger, panting buffalo

“So you must be one of those crazy guys,” said the hiker from Texas . He was just about to start climbing the '28 Bends' – the most difficult section of the trail that traverses the Tiger Leaping Gorge high above the Yangtze River – and did not seem to be looking forward to it. He had seen me running down the trail, and could not believe how much distance I had covered in a day. He meant crazy like ‘really fit,' but I felt crazy like ‘really stupid.' I was exhausted and soaked. My shoes were a write-off. There were very dangerous greenhouse gases circulating between my plastic poncho and my sweat-drenched T-shirt. It had rained hard for most of the last seven hours. The spectacular views that I had been hoping for had been mostly obscured by mist and rain. (When the mist did clear the views were awesome.) The trail had been much more challenging than I expected. I had not really given myself enough time to reach the end. Yet paradoxically, I had an absolutely great time trekking. Maybe I am one of those crazy guys.

Tiger Leaping Gorge has a name that sounds funny to the Western ear. The name comes from legend: a tiger supposedly jumped across the Yangtze near the middle rapids. No matter that the Yangtze is far too wide for any tiger to vault – anyone who has seen “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” knows that all Chinese (animals included) can fly when they need to. I was a bit frightened that the Tiger Leaping Gorge was going to be a classic Chinese tourist trap – underwhelming scenery, caged bears, amusement rides, crappy souvenir vendors, and quite possibly, purveyors of pulverized tiger penis, the famed aphrodisiac. On the south side of the Gorge, a large complex had been built for Chinese tourists. A long stone walkway stretched several kilometers from the complex into the Gorge, and every day thousands of Chinese merrily marched to the waterfalls at the end. Sure, there were several dozen rickshaw boys in period costumes ready to pull Chinese along the road overlooking the gorge – but it was mostly pretty tasteful stuff.

The Gorge is spectacular. Over thousands of years, the Yangtze River has cut straight through one of China 's highest mountain ranges. Snow-capped pinnacles drop sheer into the river, the jagged, tiered peaks resembling the rows of teeth in a great white shark's jaw. Plants and stunted trees cling to the lower slopes, but the upper reaches are bare. The drive into the gorge – along a gravel road recently blasted into the cliffs – was one of the most harrowing and amazing journeys we had ever taken. The mountains rose out of sight above us, but the churning yellow river was just a short plunge away. On every corner, I prayed that the steering would not fail. The driver thought I was hilarious. “Don't worry,” he said “I drive this road all the time!” Still, we were very relieved when we arrived at Tina's Guest House. I spent most of the afternoon staring across the gorge at the beautiful mountains.

The next morning, thick mist cloaked the gorge. Thanks to Nori's encouragement, I had decided to try to walk the High Trail back to Qiaotou – the grubby city at the western entrance to the Gorge. Unfortunately, the weather didn't look good. There was not much improvement after breakfast, but I decided to give it a try anyway, hoping the sun would burn off the mist as I trekked. I packed two two-liter water bottles, a rain poncho (very necessary) and some sunscreen (utterly useless) and started up the path above Tina's Guesthouse. I was lost within 100 meters. The guesthouses had painted arrows on the rocks, but they all pointed in different directions. One of Tina's family members got my attention with a shout and set me on the right course. Nori and I planned on meeting in Qiaotou at three o'clock ; she wasn't in the mood for what could be a very wet walk (good call) and would catch a ride from Tina's. That gave me seven hours to cover something like 18-20 kilometers; all the guidebooks say it takes between 7-9 hours to walk the trail. If I walked quickly uphill, and ran as much of the flats and downs as I could, I figured I could make it. But I had not counted on constant, driving rain.

The High Trail is like a microcosm of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal : great views, diverse hiking terrain, great (but basic) places to stay, and good opportunities for socializing. On a clear day, the hiker looks across the gorge at a wall of bristling peaks. There are several guesthouses spread along the trail serving hot food and drinks. The trail passes through pine forests, bamboo groves, and pretty villages of wooden homes. Several large waterfalls spill directly onto the trail; it takes bravery and agility to dance across the rocks to the other side. But unlike the Annapurna Circuit, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is still relatively unknown. I saw only 13 other foreigners on the trail: 3 Singaporeans, 3 Koreans, 3 Brits, 2 Aussies, 1 Swede and 1 American. This was supposed to be the high season for tourists!