The Towering Ladder of Death, Tiger Leaping Gorge (Day 2)

December 29, 2009 at 3:58 am 1 comment

Afraid to approach Medusa to ask for breakfast, we left the Halfway House with empty bellies. While we were pretty impressed by all the scenery the day before – the green mountains, bleating goats and nearing snow-capped peaks – it turned out that our scenic walk had not yet begun.

Rounding one of the first bends of the morning we saw a waterfall diving from the top of a mountain over the dirt path and down to the bottom of the gorge. From the distance we could see a herd of what looked like cows but eventually turned out to be goats, picking their way gingerly through the spray. Crossing the waterfall meant choosing one of two paths – you could stick close to the wall and be pounded by sheets of water or you could keep your distance, shuffling precariously along the edge of the drop. The goats chose the latter so we followed suit, hopping from one slippery stone to another as Gary recorded a video post for the blog on my (now lost) camera.

Having successfuly negotiated the first hurdle of the day we ploughed headlong into the second – the steep decline down a rocky dirtpath to Tina’s guesthouse. Tina’s by the way, was not the colossal 600m tall monster that our doodle map had made it out to be. The restaurant did do a mean stir-fried potatoe dish though and the waitress provided very ambiguous onward directions. As is a re-occuring theme on the gorge, directions to every guesthouse were clearly signposted on every rock, tree or animal that would stand still long enough to be painted. Once we got passed the guesthouse though, we were more or less on our own.

After we left Tina’s we decided to head for the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone without fully knowing what a Middle Tiger Leaping Stone was supposed to be. Was it just a pebble? Or a rock with a plaque on it? Did it have a statue of Chairman Mao? Devoid of any useful map or directions, we decided to follow the small dog who had tagged along from Tina’s. He looked like he knew where he was going – like an ugly Chinese Lassie.

As it turns out Chinese Lassie did know where he was going and the rock pretty much did what it said on the tin. It was a massive hunk of stone sitting in the middle of the ferocious river which you could get onto by crossing a questionable rope bridge. “You could be killed…” The words of the guard we met yesterday kept floating through my head. Eventually though, they were drowned out by the deafening roar of the great Yangzi. Never really one for rivers, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed lying stretched out on the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone with Chinese Lassie as Gary clicked and whirred at the towering gorge from every angle.

There was of course, a catch. Having descended around 30 flights of stairs (some so steep that we had climbed down backwards on our hands and knees, bellies flat against the rough stone), we had to go back up. Que the Towering Ladder of Death. “Let’s take the ladder back up so we don’t have to retrace our steps – those stairs were a killer.” I remember saying to Gary who unfortunately agreed. So we climbed up to the base of the ladder where there was a sign pointing in one direction to the “Safe Route” and in another direction to the ladder. Hardy and well-endowed as we are, we decided to take a gamble on the ladder which looked like a relatively short iron structure bolted into the rockface. Wrapped in ivy and sheilded from the halfway point by a round metal cage it appealed to my romantic notions of what a real ladder should look like – an adventurer’s ladder. And what the hell, we were in China, doing a 3 day hike in the most scenic gorge I had ever seen. We could handle it.


On about the third rung of the ladder I realised that, far from being bolted into the mountain, the iron ladder was loosely tied to a rotting wooden structure underneath it. Any attempt to look upwards therefore resulted in the ladder swinging violently away from the rockface and out over the crashing river, now at least 100m below us. “Two people have already died on this Gorge,” warned a sign down below, “be careful, we don’t want to make it more.” Four or five rungs later, as the ground started to spin below me I remembered that I have a crippling fear of heights – oh well, it can’t be much further, I thought.

Wrong again.

Looking up I saw that Gary was still climbing, 15 minutes after getting onto the ladder which, from the bottom, hadn’t looked like it was more than 20 or 30 rungs high. By now he looked to be at least half way to the sun. “Why didn’t we take the safe route?” I thought as my hands became sweaty and my legs started to take on the muscle density of jelly. Then, just as I thought it couldn’t get worse, the wind picked up, buffeting violently against the rock and forcing the ladder to sail further away from the safety of the mountain. Too afraid to move a muscle I flattened myself against the ladder and contemplated going back down and taking the safe route. A quick glance below me convinced me that that wouldn’t be such a great idea – going down would be harder than going up. So, taking a few deep breaths I ploughed on, taking at least 5 years off my life in 15 long, sweaty, mentally disturbing minutes.

Finally I reached the top, panting, soaked through and terrified. Throwing myself up the last few feet and clinging to the dusty path I heard Gary’s muffled voice penetrating my relief. “I think that’s the first of the three ladders. And from what I can see this path doesn’t rejoin the safe route.” Oh crabapples.

Thankfully he was wrong, the Towering Ladder of Death was the second ladder, the third was a short 10 rung number which presented no risk of falling to a watery death. After that it was a steep but – in light of my ordeal on the ladder – pretty easy going 40 minute climb up a winding path, the top of which left us a merciful half hour away from Sean’s guesthouse, our rest stop for the second night.

Sean’s turned out to be a highlight of the trip for us. Located in Walnut Garden, the guesthouse has a majestic view over rice paddies, farmhouses and a full quartet of goats, chickens dogs and screaming children. Settling into seats on the flagstone patio we were thrilled to discover three things:

1. The rest of the travellers were now following the same schedule as us so we had company for the night in the form of an architecht, a civil servant, a forest ranger, an archaeologist, a Parisien, a Texan and a South American

2. The hostess had lit a massive fire for us to sit around

3. It being only 5pm we would get full enjoyment out of happy hour which stretched until 9pm and promised bottles of Tsing Tao for a bargain 4RMB (40c).

And enjoy it we did. Sitting around the fire with our generous host family comparing scars and listening to stories about Dan and Ashley (who we were to spend the next week following) almost being chased over the edge of a cliff in the Bamboo Forest by a runaway bull, The Towering Ladder of Death was soon forgotten. As the night went on and her shyness was replaced by curiosity, we also made another addition to our merry little band of misfits – a beautiful little Chinese girl. What started out as a friendly game of ball with Gary soon developed into an entire procession of her favourite foods and for me, a lesson on how to eat sunflower seeds properly, spitting out the shells with appropriate Chinese gusto.

The plan for the next day had been to hike the last few kilometers up to the ferry which would take us across the river to meet the early bus back to Lijiang. Our hostess kindly informed us however, that the Chinese authorities had caused a blockage in the river while they were playing with their dynamite during the day so the ferry was no longer running. We decided to order a fleet of minibuses to drive us back instead only to wake up the following morning, hungover and with swollen feet, to hear that another explosion during the night had blocked off the only road out of the gorge. Never fear however, our minibus drivers were willing to go anyway.

The minibus ride back to the town was what you would call an experience. Taking some small comfort in the knowledge that our diver was born and raised in the gorge, we spent a nerve wracking 2 hours peering over the edge of steep cliff drops as he trudged along, one wheel skimming over the drop. When we did meet the rockfall we had to wait an hour while two diggers lifted boulders out of our paths and threw them carelessly down the mountain.

Thank God that was the end of our journey rather than the beginning. After spending two days watching puffs of smoke and dust rise over the sites of explosions that were too close for comfort, we weren’t exactly clambouring to go back. Had we the gift of foresight when we decided to brave the hike, chances are we would have decided that we valued our fully intact limbs too much to risk it. But the gorge was more than worth the risk – one of those fantastic, adrenalin filled once in a lifetime experiences – totally surreal at the time and, once it was finished, seeming more like a strange shared dream rather than something we had actually done together, oohing, ahhing, singing, bickering and laughing ourselves silly.

It was Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous!

More pictures from Tiger Leaping Gorge are available on the gallery


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Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous, Yunnan, China (Day 1) You never know a man until you walk a mile in Yangshuo, China

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Andy  |  July 3, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Well done ! You are so brave and adventurous! These are great pictures of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Which reminds me… I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of trekking the Great Wall, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers.


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