The extent to which I underestimated Tiger Leaping Gorge can be measured in pounds: 2.7 pounds, to be precise. That’s the weight of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page tome Team of Rivals, which I mistakenly thought would be a good hiking accessory. As we left our big packs at the beginning of the trail, I eliminated plenty of unnecessary weight: a hairbrush, extra pants, my trusty Lonely Planet. But what if we found a sunny spot to rest and read? Obviously, Team of Rivals had to come along.
Really, I blame Lonely Planet for this. On previous hikes, like the one through the Dazhai and Ping’an Rice Terraces, I’d found that the guidebook writers had drastically underestimated both the difficulty and time required for the “treks.” So when they wrote that, “The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout,” I took it with a grain of salt. It was supposed to take six hours to the halfway point? Surely we could do it in four or five.
That optimism was, to put it lightly, misplaced. The first two hours of the trek were difficult, but they had nothing on what was coming after lunch: The 28 Bends. I was regretting every pound in my pack (did I really need a clean shirt for day two?) as I clambered haltingly up the side of the gorge. As Chinese tourists pranced past us on horseback, the persistent offers to “qi ma” — ride a horse — up to the top of the trail grew increasingly tempting. As we slogged to the top, our slogan became “我们很厉害” (women hen lihai) — we are very terrible, in the sense that terrible can also mean strong and awesome. But I felt neither strong nor awesome as I stopped every few yards to catch my breath.
Once the 28 Bends were behind us, the trail leveled out a bit. But it was still rocky and uneven. If it had been wet, it would have been perilous. And at this point, we were in a hurry. It had taken us about two hours to get up the bends, and we wanted to make it to the Halfway Guesthouse by dark. Thanks to our late start, it was already about 4 p.m. But the next stretch of trail was much easier, and we were at the gate of the guesthouse by six. We’d been hiking for six hours — exactly as long as Lonely Planet estimates. This time, the guidebook cried “wolf,” and really meant it.
This is the first of two posts on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. Come back Wednesday for the harrowing (truly!) end to this adventure.