The dangers of courting danger…

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They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you find yourself in a scrape that could easily have a sticky end…   I can assure you this is not the case.  Instead the air explodes in  a firework of colourful expletives, closely followed by desperate appeals to a merciful God:  ‘Please, let me not break any bones!!’

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‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’, Yunnan Province, China

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With a little imagination you can see the tiger’s eye and nose, crouching, ready to pounce

We were on the last of our hikes, the one we had not been warned about.  ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ – a scenic canyon on a primary tributary of the Yangtze River –  indeed featured on our itinerary, but we were assured that after our initial two days of strenuous trekking, we could retire our walking boots and gear.  As it was towards the end of our week’s adventure in the most beautiful province of Yunnan, with its snow capped mountains and spectacular mirror lake, I had put on my last clean t-shirt.  Crisp and white, unworn and fresh from Wal-mart, on its first outing, not a stain or blemish in sight…  Too late to fish out my proper walking trousers or a more suitable t-shirt, I settled for the essentials: changing my footwear and leaving behind my hiking poles.  Better not to carry anything in your hands, as it would be a hindrance on the way up, the guide argued.  Anyway, what could go wrong during a one-hour descent into the gorge and a two hours ascent on a well-worn path?

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‘The First Bend of the Yangtze River’, near Lijiang.

Earlier in the week, in the Meli National Park, we had tackled punishing steep climbs, when the high altitude sucked out all our energy and everyone struggled to catch their breath on the sharp inclines.  Our efforts and hard work were rewarded by awe-inspiring scenery and the sheer excitement of a mission successfully completed.  Nothing could surpass the glow of the awakening sun settling on the snow-capped mountains… Unless maybe glimpsing the arch of the rainbow thrown across the mountain range by a scattering of early morning raindrops.

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Nestled between the high peaks of the  Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,600 m) and Haba Snow Mountain  (5,400m),  the Yangtze courses through the ‘Tiger Leaping’ gorge in a series of treacherous rapids, deemed too perilous to navigate, and flanked by almost vertical, sheer  2000 m cliffs.   It is by far the most dangerous stretch of the river, and only two teams of rafters and sailors are known to have survived the attempt to pass it. Exhilarating to be so close to this, we thought, as we edged nearer the turbulent waters.  We eyed the wobbly bridge spanning the gap across the river to a large body of black rock outcrops jutting out from the gush.  A perfect spot for a group photograph.

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Just a few hundred metres along, another suspension bridge hovered over the thundering river,  a temptation hard to resist.  A small group of us ventured into its direction, in pursuit of yet another envy-inspiring picture to post on WeChat or Facebook and to revel in the dare of watching the water crashing underneath.  I stopped briefly to take a few shots, but clearly lingered too long whilst all the others in the group disappeared around the bend and into the distance.  Not a soul in sight.  I stuffed my phone in my pocket and tried to catch up with them…

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To this day, I cannot fathom what happened.  I have traversed many rickety bridges and walked gingerly on narrow ledges, always checking carefully I have a sure footing.  Maybe I was in too much of a rush and threw caution to the wind, blasé about having tramped over too many shaky and ramshackle constructions.  Maybe I just thought there was a wider crossing over the crevice in the rocks.  Perhaps I slipped on the curved surface of the tree trunk spanning the gap.  Or maybe part of the wood gave way…  When I surveyed the area later on, there was certainly evidence a chunk of wood had recently broken off.  In the end it did not matter, because whatever the reason, I found myself tumbling down the rock face, down towards the rush of the Yangtze River eagerly waiting at the bottom.

To begin with, I dropped down feet first, then on my back, my fall softened by sturdy bushes and plants and cushioned by a backpack bulging with my fleece and waterproofs.  I watched the mocking leaden sky peeking through the foliage.  No time to panic, my only concern: no one had seen me fall… the path in front of me and behind had been empty.  OMG, I kept on thinking!! ‘Oh no, oh my God,’ as I kept on slipping further down.  How did this happen to me? ‘How the hell am I going to get out of here…  oh, shit…’  The welcome respite from some branches that held my weight was short-lived as they quickly and suddenly gave way..  And I continued downwards, where greenery was scarcer and bare rocks protruded menacingly.  I hit my head on a rock, more aware of the sound than any pain..  How far was I still from the river?  How high was the path above the river?  How many more rocks would I crash into??  What would happen if I broke my legs or an arm?? Please let me not break anything!!

After an eternity of seconds, I came to a rest on a ledge extending from the vertiginous rocks, still conscious and able to check my vital signs: my phone was still in my pocket and working! But I watched, shaking,  as my water bottle escaped from my backpack and rattled further down, sneering with every bounce.   No time to wonder about the dull pain in my left ankle and having yet again hurt my left knee; no point in worrying about the bump on my head.  I needed to get out of there, quickly and on my own… Not once did I cast a backward glance to see how close I got to the river or how wide the little ledge was.  I scanned the wall looming in front of me, peering through the shrubbery to see how high I needed to climb…

At lunchtime, the Spanish pilot in our group of travellers related a story about a man who spent two days crawling out of a ravine after he crashed his car and broke both his legs.  We talked about the extraordinary willpower it must have taken and how he would have dealt with unimaginable agony.  Where does the strength come from?   Of course, with both my arms and legs sufficiently intact,  I was not in any such predicament, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies a stressful situation blots out the pain and turns jellified joints and muscles into incredibly strong steel rods.   I did not try to use my phone or even check whether there was any reception.  I felt the might of Hercules speeding through my veins and used all my resolve to haul myself up, hoping the plants that protected me from the worst on the way down,  were anchored deeply and would support me out of the crevice and back onto those wonky pieces of wood.  I probably only tumbled down 5 or six metres,  not enough to call the air rescue team…

Finally reaching the ‘safety’ of the path, I felt the sticky mess on the back of my head.  Hands covered in blood, red and green stains on my new t-shirt, I must have looked a sight.  Luckily, the cut was only superficial as my walking hat had shielded me from more deeper wounds… and I only saw the rainbow of bruises on my body when I got back home two days later.  It could have been so much worse.. but I never made it to the second bridge over the Yangtze River, feeling definitely a little too shaky after the experience.

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And as if I had not had enough adventure for one day… instead of meandering along the winding slope to the top of the gorge, we made our way up via an assembly  of ladders fixed against the  sheer  90˚ rock face.  Definitely the quicker way up, but safer????  We ‘only’ had  a few hundred rungs to go, so  I grit my teeth and got on with it…

In the future, I shall look at wobbly, decaying bridges and dicey river crossings with the respect they deserve and just maybe not be so flippant about them…  Courting danger can be dangerous indeed and good endings are not guaranteed!!

6 thoughts on “The dangers of courting danger…

  1. andy pickersgill

    ooops. Glad the phone is ok as well though…..looks a lot like Nepal. Good to see you are getting out and about still. Take it easy

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    1. lievelee Post author

      I can assure you I had my priorities right!! I knew I was still breathing and more or less in one piece: that phone was my lifeline to the world above in case I could not climb to the top…

      Yunnan is in the south west of China and is very close to Tibet so the scenery is indeed reminiscent of Nepal and the Himalayas… A very beautiful area in China and a very worthwhile trip.

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  2. Alison and Don

    OMG! Terrifying. And your account of it absolutely riveting. Glad you got out safe and sound. China’s on our list, possibly for next summer. Would love to do something like this if we can get ourselves fit enough. What company did you tour with?
    Alison

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    1. lievelee Post author

      Most of my trips within China have been with an organisation called: Travellers Society, a Shanghai based company particularly catering for ex-pats and also Chinese people. Most of their trips are just weekend trips from Friday evening until Sunday evening to fit in with the working life of most people. Longer trips usually coincide with the Chinese National holidays or around Christmas and New Year when some Western ex-pats may have holidays. The trips cover a variety of interesting places, usually with an emphasis on adventure and being active. Other organisations offering similar trips are WannaTravel and M2; Most of these organisations use WeChat to advertise their trips and it is often easier to get the information that way rather than via their websites…. But it will be good to have a look at the trips they all offer to give you an idea of the best places to visit in China. There are so many…

      I also have a contact of a smaller organisation that might be able to help you put together your own itinerary.

      Feel free to get in touch if you want help or information about travel in China.

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      1. Alison and Don

        Thank you so much for this. It will probably not be until spring/summer 2018 as summer ’17 we plan on going to various places in Europe. We had always thought we’d do tour in China mainly because of language difficulties, but maybe we could get enough info to put something together ourselves, or do a combination. Anyway I’m so glad I found you!
        Alison

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