You know the feeling when you’re 3,500 meters above sea level and you’re stuck on the side of a mountain: your head’s down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding, ears are burning red and you can’t manage to suck in enough oxygen to survive? Â That, my friends, is the bends. The 28 bends of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is the preeminent hike in Yunnan, maybe all of China. It’s known for the stunning views of snow-capped grey mountains and narrow walking paths where you can peer all the way down to the rushing water that’s continually carving away at the rock. Â It’s also known for old ladies selling ganga on the side of a cliff. Â In other words, not to be missed.
There’s not actually a bus from Shangri La to Tiger Leaping Gorge, you just communicate with the bus driver that you want to go to the gorge and he drops you off in the middle of a road. If you’re smart you have the hotel write down the destination in Chinese, but we’re not smart and as the bus drove away we had the sinking suspicion that we were in the wrong place. Then we saw the big sign telling us the park was closed – no entry permitted! Now don’t get discouraged, we were warned about this sign; it’s always posted in the winter. Â You’re meant to ignore the official notice and walk on – the gorge is never really closed. Silly Chinese government!
For the first few hours the path meandered around hill-side villages, between houses and fences and into people’s front yards. There were offers for horse rides to the top, and lovely signs welcoming hikers to their neighborhood. We grabbed a bite at a local guesthouse and soaked in our surroundings. Then with our belly’s full we embarked on the second half of the trek – the reportedly steep, taxing, breath-stealing 28 bends.
As we hiked the bends, we become progressively cocky about the supposed difficultly of the hike. After Hua Shan we were fairly confident that we could handle any climb China had to offer, particularly a hike with restaurants and roadside marijuana. At 12 bends we were laughing at the stories of tears and meltdowns. Â At 15 bends we were passed by a women in high heels who pointed up and said, “Mary-wanna? Ganga?” The guesthouse she was pointing to didn’t appear so far away, we continued on, laughing a bit at the humiliation. About 17 bends into the hike I couldn’t breathe. We were both gasping for breath, lurching up the hill towards the next water stop.
Upon reaching the ganga pitstop we saw a big sign that said, “Get your energy for the 28 bends!”
We hadn’t even begun.
Most of what I saw during the climb to the top of the mountain was seen upsidedown with my head below my knees, heaving. I think this part of the hike is called the bends not due to the twisting, turning trail but because you feel as if nitrogen bubbles have formed in your lungs and you’re about to die.
And this was just the first day of a three day hike. I haven’t even mentioned the goat herding, the search for trail markers, or trail-obscuring waterfalls.