Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day #2 in the Yellow Mountains

The next morning we arose at about 5:00, hoping to catch the sunrise.  We got outside and saw it was too foggy to see squat, so we went back in and slept awhile longer.  We ventured out a couple hours later to find the fog still lying very heavy on the mountain, and a thick coat of frost blanketing the landscape.  We elected to hike to the Western Sea, which should have taken us around five hours.  We didn't start out at our best, as we hadn't eaten enough the night before and had very little for breakfast, and our legs were weary and sore from the previous day's hike.  However, we decided not to bring food with us, figuring it was early enough that we could soldier through our hike in time to catch lunch at the cafeteria.  The first hour or so was a bit scary.  We couldn't see far through the fog, and the path was slick with frost.  The wind gusts were strong enough at times that we had to huddle against large rocks until they passed.  Gradually, however, the fog begin to lift, and as we descended, the frost disappeared and the wind died down.  Soon we could catch glimpses of peaks, and as we begin to appreciate our surroundings and felt more sure-footed, we started to enjoy the hike.  Not the least because we were blessedly free of the ubiquitous Chinese tour groups, with their crowding and spitting and shouting.
The trail as it transverses the Xihai Grand Canyon.  This is one of the few stretches with handrails.

 The Fairy Bridge

A few hours into it, however, it became clear that we'd taken a wrong turn.  We should have been looping back to the hotel, but we were still heading down the mountain.  We decided to keep going rather than turn around, because the map showed a food stand near the bottom.  After about four hours we were at the foot of the mountain, the food stand was nowhere to be found (we eventually came across it - it was marked incorrectly on the map, and was closed anyway), we were hungry and tired, and knowing the only way back up was to walk.   We'd come about seven miles down the steps, and our legs ached and were extremely fatigued.  Not having food was a real problem, because we  felt like we were out of glycogen.  Looking up that mountain and knowing how tough the descent was, it seemed impossible to walk back UP it in our condition.  We also knew that running out of daylight on the trail would be dangerous, between the bitter cold and the drop offs. We poked around a little, hoping for a stroke of luck, and we found it.   A sign pointed to a construction area and warned us not to enter, but we could see a little mud house beyond the sign.  We approached it, Drew called out, and the next thing we knew, the couple who lived there ushered us in and made us noodle soup.  The husband was employed by the park as a carpenter, and he worked on wooden rails in the same room we ate in, as tasty-looking chickens wandered about.  I know it sounds clichéd, but that soup tasted as good as anything I'd ever eaten.  We couldn't stay long, so we paid them handsomely for the food - not that they asked for it or expected it, they were just good people. 

That bit of nourishment and rest was enough.  We headed back up by a different route that was longer but less steep and better maintained than the way we came down.  We stopped as little as possible because we were still seeing very few other people and didn't want to be stuck on the trail in the dark.   I got through it by counting 100 steps and then starting over, and over, and over.  We managed to reach our hotel in another four hours or so, about half an hour before sunset.  All in all it was about fifteen miles in eight hours.  Climbing up the stairs to our hotel room was almost more than I could do.   We showered, put our clothes back on for warmth, and lay in bed eating crackers, drinking beer and watching BBC.  That was the most brutal hike I've even done, partly because of our own mistakes, but also the most beautiful.  .