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Day 76: Shigu to the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Yunnan, China 
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Limbering up on the terrace at The Halfway House, proud home of the 'Number One Toilet In Heaven And Earth'.
Michael Palin - HimalayaLunch is easily walked off on a thigh-stretchingly steep climb known as the 28 Bends. Trudging upwards in a tight zigzag, I count off each one carefully and still find another 20 left at the end. The reward is a long, level pathway following an old trade route along which horses from Tibet were exchanged for tea from Yunnan. It leads through warm slopes of camphor, bamboo and pine, across a stream, then downhill through a grove of walnut trees. By now the valley has become a gorge, and I have to concentrate carefully on the increasingly narrow and precipitous trail. It's narrow and the drop precipitous. Far below are the angry, white-whipped waters of the Yangtze, dropping 700 feet (213 m) in a dozen miles. A lethal series of 21 rapids took many lives before two Chinese made the first passage of the river in 1986, entirely encased in a sealed rubber capsule. Sometimes the water is so far away and so hemmed in by mountainside that we can only guess at its ferocity from the distant roar.

As the evening light slants across the gorge a terrific panorama unfolds. On the other side of the gorge the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, easternmost bastions of the Himalaya, rise in a series of smooth columns, sinuous ravines and needle-sharp pinnacles, their dark grey sides streaked with waterfalls. What makes this place different from Annapurna, Everest, even the Karakoram, is that the tremendous height is so close. When I stop on a narrow ledge to look around me, I find myself having to plant my feet very securely, for it feels as if the soaring vertical walls across the gorge are exerting some magnetic force, determined to tear me from my flimsy ledge.

No-one speaks now, and as we plod onwards round the mountainside, silenced by the sheer scale of the place, there is only the reassuring sound of the horse bells, and the distant hiss of the river unthinkably far below.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 76: Shigu to the Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Quiaotou
  • Book page no: 179

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