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The Longest Day

I was sleeping soundly under the massive weight of four heavy wool blankets in our small wooden hut at the base camp of Mt. Haba. The wind blew like mad outside, whipping through the cracks in the walls and whistling in a cacophony of dissonant rises and falls. It was strangely comforting muffled by the blankets. I drifted in and out of sleep, curled up around my hiking boots. I could barely hear the strains of the Sim City 2000 theme when it finally rang out at 3:30 am. I removed my boots and myself from under the covers and made a silent prayer that I would not freeze to death on the mountain.

We put on every layer of clothing we had. For me this was one XXL muddy orange tee-shirt that I had borrowed from Stew, which was followed by my father’s long sleeved button-down, gray wool sweater from the 1970s, our brand new fake fleece thermals, and finally my rain shell and pants. With all of it on, I felt surprisingly prepared for the elements. A quick look at Stew and Scott showed that they too were looking significantly more prepared than we had imagined we would be the night before.

As a final touch, I put a pair of socks over my own thin running gloves and headed out the door. Inside the small hut, a  fire was already blazing, and water was on its way to a boil. Our guide and the same friend we had seen the day before were there, scrubbing some bits of rust out of a large iron wok before throwing it on the fire. Due to our pre-Haba financial miscalculations, we would, of course, be unable join them in breakfast, so we settled ourselves down to enjoy some of the greasy egg pancakes that we had bought three days ago in Lijiang and wait for the water to boil. Meanwhile, our guide and his friend poured a good amount of oil into the wok, and began to break off frozen chunks of rice from a block nearby, tossing them sizzling into the now smoking dark pan. Once the rice was browning, they cracked a surprising number of eggs into the mix and began to stir the goo into a kind of hyper-ricey omelet.

We poured some recently boiled hot water into our canteens and a few plastic water bottles, strapped our crampons and ice axes to our bags, and with hiking poles in hand, headed out. I’ll be honest with you, dear reader: the first part of the hike was tough. We had definitely been feeling the lack of oxygen in the air already just ambling around the base camp, and even small tasks easily winded us. Now it was pitch dark, so windy that at times standing upright was difficult, and we were walking up a 45-degree incline on bare rock, ducking from time to time into slippery gravely ravines, and doing all this in what was by far the coldest weather we had yet encountered on this trip. We were panting like dogs, struggling to get enough oxygen to keep our brains and bodies operational. Overhead the stars began to fade out into the gray of predawn. We knew that the temperature would only grow more manageable with the appearance of the sun, so we slogged on, thanking Jah for each chance we had to pause and pant until we felt human again.  Meanwhile our Naxi guides were smoking cigarettes while they hiked. To me such behavior was nearly inconceivable.

The ascent was hitting Scott particularly hard. His legs were wobbly and imprecise. Sensing this, both Stewart and our second guide hung back with him, allowing Scott to set the pace, and coaching him on. As we reached the end of the first chunk of the climb, having completed the first section of steep scrambling over bare rock, I sat down with the guide behind a large jutting boulder. The sun was beginning to rise, revealing to us the vast expanse of mountains which surrounded Haba. Our guide lit up yet another cigarette, and I collapsed next to him to witness the sunrise and watch Stew, Scott, and our friend trudge up to join us. This was seriously difficult, and it was only going to get harder. We had only the impending sunshine and the increasingly breathtaking nature of the view to push us forward. I took a swig from my plastic canteen of very weak Nescafe instant coffee and noted that it was starting to freeze around the edges. Finally the entire team made its way to the shelter of the rock and collapsed. Our second guide lit himself a cigarette while our first guide indulged in a second.

Then we were off again, huffing and panting, putting one foot in front of the next, and hauling our bodies up the mountain. Soon we began to see the snowfields ahead of us. Then, after rounding a giant rock, the first open view of the peak itself, then masked by a large gray cloud, loomed impossibly high above us.

Perhaps an hour more of hiking, another five breaks to catch our breath, and at least a pack of cigarettes later (for our guides), we reached the beginning of the snowfields.

There we discarded our hiking poles, extra water, and anything else that seemed non-essential. With lightened packs, we clamped our crampons over our boots and headed out onto the snow.

I had no idea how to properly put on crampons, but our guide kindly assisted me, strapping them in an alarmingly complicated way to my boot, and cinching them so tightly that I would later find they had left thick creases in the rubber sole of my boot.

Now we were hiking up a 45-degree snowfield that spread ahead of us into the infinity of fog that was the summit. We were getting close, but there was still quite a way to go. I clutched my ice axe through the sock that covered my hand, switching hands from time to time in order to give the other hand a chance to spend time clenching and unclenching in an effort to warm up in my jacket pocket. As we moved up the mountain, we entered the midst of the clouds. Now there was no way to keep track of where we were, how far we had come, or how far we had left to go. There was only a plane of ice and snow that extended into the gray-white mist in every direction. My lungs burned with demand for more oxygen and my legs screamed for rest. Each step forward was a tiny battle. Occasionally, the cold and the lack of oxygen would  take hold, giving me a few moments of blessed numbness, but then the more logical part of my mind would kick in and I would stamp feeling back into my limbs, and with it the growing exhaustion and breathlessness of the climb. From time to time, the guide would stop, and I would collapse onto my ice axe, heaving giant gulps of all too thin air and slowly coming back to reality. Before I knew it, though, we would be moving once again. Frost was collecting all over us. I had taken my Cambodian krama and wrapped it around my face for protection from the wind. Now it was weighted down with snow and ice.

I will never know how long we walked up the God-forsaken incline. I had no perception of the passing of time, or of our progress up the mountain. I knew only the pain in my legs and the frustration of one who hikes up a 45-degree ice-covered mobius strip.

The ice, though, was interesting, quite interesting, in fact. The wind and mist had encouraged the strangest formations to grow out of the snowfield. Much like the bulbous dribbles of a melting candle, the ice grew upon itself, arcing out laterally into bizarre shapes that reminded me of Soviet spacecraft, perhaps viewed through the shimmering distortion that commonly occurs above steaming hot asphalt.

Then we were at the top.

We were still inside a dense bank of cloud, but the ground had leveled off somewhat. I stumbled forward a few steps, then collapsed into the snow, panting and reaching into my bag for a Snickers bar.

Stew and Scott headed forward until the guides yelled to them, indicating that the part of the mountain they were approaching was unstable.

We drank some partially frozen water and munched our Snickers bars. Our guides, propped themselves up on their ice axes and lit a few more cigarettes. The view was still completely obscured by cloud cover, but we had made it.

Then a sudden and fierce wind whipped up, causing my ice-encrusted krama to whip against my face. I looked down, struggling to secure the flimsy Cambodian scarf against the bluster.

When I looked up, (and I hope that you, dear reader, will recognize the gravity of such a statement), I forgot for quite a few moments to breathe.

When the clouds finally left, the world spread below us in jaw-dropping majesty. I gnawed on the frozen, crumbling, and painfully chewy caloric glory of my Snickers bar and grinned into the immensity.

We could see mountain range after mountain range, the bottoms of valleys where people farmed, and the craggy drama of the high country. It was amazing. The best. Hands down.

Stew, feeling extra energetic, shot up the mountain with the second guide as Scott and I continued to revel in the sights.

Then it was time to descend. The walk back down the steep ice slope was a thousand times easier and more enjoyable than the hike up had been. Now, as we walked, we were able to look out at the glorious view. And relieved of the endless veil of clouds, we could visually gauge our progress, tapping into that age old self-gratifying loop of self re-assurance. Our crampons dug into the ice and allowed us to move with startling confidence and speed. It seemed we were back at the end of the snowfields in no time, and in the final stretches, chose to sled down on our behinds.

There we stopped to snack a little more and remove our crampons.

By now the sun was higher in the sky, and it was becoming quite warm on the mountain. We removed a few layers and repacked our bags for the walk down.

The plastic bottle of weak Nescafe that I had left at the crampon-fitting stop was fully melted again and I sipped it as we scrambled our way down the rock face. All concerned were in very high spirits, and Stewart and our guides indulged in a little of the Tibetan tradition of whooping at the sky while hiking.

Weather this good, our guide explained, only happens on Haba ten or twelve times a year. We were lucky indeed.

When we finally reached the base camp, we were only mildly sunburned and in a great mood.

We had climbed a 17,400 ft. peak, but the day was far from over. We needed to get to Kunming, preferably that night. We had been scheming for some time as to how we would do this. Many hypothetical plans had been proposed. The most popular of these plans was one that we had affectionately begun to call by the name of “Sigma 12.” This plan had us making our way back down to Haba City that day, and then catching some form of transit back to Lijiang in time to catch the night train to Kunming. We did not technically need to be in Kunming the next day, for our train was not until the day after, but we had become somewhat attached to the Kunming lifestyle of feasting on Chinese food and arguing about trivia late into the night.

In order to execute Sigma 12, though, we needed to head down to Haba Village. And while we were just raring to go, our guides were already deep into taking a load off and feasting on a lunch we could not afford. We began to ponder our options, and finally decided that we needed to go into the lunch room and gain more information about possible modes of transit, as much as looking at gentlemen feasting might pain our starving bellies.

In the lunch room all were in high spirits, though perhaps somewhat confused by the fact that we continued to refuse to eat with them. We would, of course, have loved to, but our previously discussed financial miscalculations had rendered us unable to execute any even mildly non-essential expenditures. So we ate nuts and the last of our candy, while we discussed our plans with a crowd of weathered, noodle-eating, cigarette-smoking, Chinese mountain men.

After much discussion and deliberation, we finally settled on the following plan: we would wait for our guides to finish their lunch in the base camp kitchen, then allow them to lead us back down the tangled path to Haba City. Once in Haba City, we would arrange for a car or meinbaoche (“bread truck” — which is what the Chinese call the small vans that are used round the world to transport people), or we would pay our guide to drive us to somewhere from which we might reach the Lijiang train station. It’s true: we were still quite some way from the station, sitting in the bright sun, at well over 10,000 feet at the base of a gigantic snowy mountain. But it seemed achievable. We had just slogged our way through a nearly oxygen-free environment up to the top of a mountain that is higher than any in the lower 48 states. We should be able to navigate our way back through rural China – no problem. And our good spirits were only bolstered when our guides emerged from their lunch earlier than expected.

From there, we headed down the trail, bounding along happily, enjoying ourselves and the ever thickening and greening foliage around us. Soon we were jumping over mud puddles and drinking the luxuriously oxygen-rich air deep into our lungs. Our guide’s friend played bad Chinese pop tunes interspersed with classic American rock on the tiny, but surprisingly loud, speaker of his cell phone as we hiked. Sure enough The Eagle’s Hotel California came on, and we all paused to sing a little a capella rendition of that song.

Hotel California… this piece of music follows AsiaWheeling like a ragged mutt to which we once threw our leftover dinner scraps. So many times during our trip, we have noticed this Eagles tune entering our lives, almost always as a harbinger of good times to come. So its presence here as we hiked down the mountain was a most welcome one.

When we reached Haba City, we found that all the mienbaoche had stopped running, so we asked our guide if he would be willing to drive us in his busted microvan. He agreed to drive us at least to the jumping-off-town of Qiaotou, and perhaps all the way to the train station, depending on whatever price we would agree on. Trusting the man, we decided to do the price haggling part while we traveled, in order to maximize our productivity.

We allowed our guides to indulge in another couple cigarettes and some cups of tea before we climbed in the van and headed out. Our second guide jumped in as well, letting us know that he wanted to come to Lijiang as well. Fine by us. However, all of us climbing in the van was a bit of a premature move for the gravelly track that lead back to the main road through Tiger Leaping Gorge was a bit too steep for our guide’s little van. So we all loaded out once again, and hiked our way to the main road, where we met our man, all grins and grinding of gears.

We paused to buy more cigarettes, and a few of a certain kind of spam-like Chinese processed neon pink sausage sticks. The sticks were nearly inedible, but they were also nearly too cheap for that to matter, so they are a huge hit with many. We declined, but did our best to be supportive as we headed back into the beautiful madness of the heavily-under-construction road through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

We drove on through the beauty, as the sun sank lower and lower, working our way across huge potholes, waiting for giant machines to move out of the way and eventually making it all the way back to the section of the road that contained the Frogger-like stretch of falling boulders. We paused there. Our guide peered up. Indeed the occasional rock was still falling, but the men were not actively at work, and it seemed like it might be safe to traverse on foot.

Our first guide elbowed his friend who was snoozing amidst a sea of cigarette butts and red plastic sausage wrappers to his right. The fellow perked up instantly and grabbed the wheel. Meanwhile, our guide climbed out and headed over to the section of the road that stood in the midst of the flow of rocks. He grunted as he hoisted a few of the larger ones out of the way. Then he signaled to our second guide to gun it across the gap. Scott, Stew, and I were in still in the van. I felt my stomach clench in a terrible knot as we climbed off the road on the packed-down section of boulders. The sliding door of the van was still open next to me and I looked off to my left. We were less than half a foot from the edge of a cliff that plummeted hundreds of feet down into the raging brown water.

Then we were across, alive and well. Yet another obstacle vanquished in our mission to climb Haba and get back in time for a brass monkey and a bit of trivia. We drove on, now positively bubbling with good energy. The haggling process had gone well. We did not actually have enough money to pay them, but these men were going to drive us all the way to Lijiang, where we would visit an ATM and pay them.

Then we came around a corner to see a giant plume of dust and watched while hundreds of tons of rock fell from the side of the wall of the gorge, landing in the middle of the road. When the dust cleared, it became obvious to us that we would not be driving through to Lijiang in this van.

Now we were in a pickle. We did not have enough money to pay the guides, but we needed to climb over the rock slide and get another cab if we were ever to entertain the hope of fully executing Sigma 12. Stew switched once again into Chinese crisis management mode. He began to lean into intense negotiations with our guides. It was understandably emotional, for we were not just in monetary debt to these men, we had just risked our lives on the side of a mountain on three hours of sleep with them and we were now placed in a situation where we might need to stiff them and split across a recently active landslide. We finally struck a deal, though.

Our guide was to call his friends. We would pay him what we could before splitting, leaving us with just a few spare yuan in case of emergency. We would then scramble over the rocks, and in the meantime, our guide’s friends would drive to the opposite side of the blocked road, and meet us there. We would drive with them to the city where we would access an ATM, and pay not only their fee, but the remainder of our guides’ fee as well, to be transferred to him at a later date. So with that we grabbed our things, climbed out of the van, and bid our guides a fond farewell.

We had no idea if the landslide was about to restart, so we scrambled over it with all haste. On the other side, we began hiking, keeping our eyes peeled for our guide’s friend and doing our best to ignore our already painfully sore legs.

We met our new driver surprisingly soon. He walked us back through a partially built tunnel and another somewhat active bit of landslide to a man waiting with another mienbaoche, ready to take us into town. The fellow was earnest, soft-spoken, and obviously not a professional driver. Our attempts at bargaining seemed to send him into a stressful lather. Lather or no lather, we needed to get to Lijiang with all haste, so we bashed our way through the process and climbed into the van. Somewhat to our surprise, the man who had walked us to the van got in as well. As we drove out of the Gorge, the sun set, and Stewart and Scott chatted with the driver and the other man, who turned out to be a kind of professional concierge for people traveling in the region. We began to explain our predicament to him, and he quickly snapped into action, working with us to brainstorm ways to get back to Kunming.

Unfortunately, he also bore the bad news that to the best of his knowledge, we would not only be missing the bus to Kunming but also the last bus from Lijiang as well. Despite Motta’s memory to the contrary, we had to take this data into account. The possibility that he was right grew only stronger as repeated calls to the bus station corroborated his news.

We seemed to be up against a wall here. Sigma 12 was crumbling around us, and there seemed  to be nothing we could do about it. It was then that our nervous and bargaining-averse driver spoke up. There are sleeper buses headed south to Kunming from Shangri La, he explained. They stop in a certain tiny city on the way, and if they have space they will often take on passengers at that stop.

This then, would be our goal. If we could get to that city in the next hour, we would catch one of these buses. Both of our drivers seemed confident that there would be space left.

So off we raced. It was about an hour away, which meant that we could make it, but first we needed to access an ATM. We executed a bungled and circuitous ATM transaction, which involved Scott’s, Motta’s and my ATM cards, some white lies to a number of parties, and a mad dash to purchase a carton of cigarettes as a thank you gift for our guides. Finally, all these missions were completed, and we took off toward the middle of the night bathroom-stop city. We whipped through the night, crossing our fingers.

When we finally reached the city, our driver insisted on taking a ridiculous route through a partially built residential development project. Eventually, the road we were driving on petered out into a large pile of cement blocks. Stewart, who had been counseling them against this strategy from the beginning, began to melt down into a frothing torrent of Chinese rage. With the clock proudly displaying the time that we had been told the buses would arrive from Shangri La, we backed out of the construction site and went back onto the road.

The bus station was looming ahead of us. Stewart cried out in excitement, “I can see the bus; there it is!”

Just then, our driver took a left into yet another darkened construction site, explaining that he would need to access the parking zone somehow by way of this darkened path. Stewart began to reach new levels of irateness, oscillating between screaming at the men in Chinese, and turning to Scott and me explaining in all too flowery language the things which he would like to do to these men in the event that we did not arrive at the station before the departure of the Kunming bound bus.

Finally, we ran into yet another blockage. This one appeared to be made of buckets… perhaps of paint? Our driver and our concierge began to get out of the car, explaining that they were heading into a nearby shop in search of directions. This was it. Motta unleashed a new, never before witnessed level of vehemency. All anger faded from his voice and he began to plead, as a man before the gallows. Eventually, our two guides capitulated and brought us to the station.

Eureka! The bus was still there! Motta ran over to the counter and began to haggle for tickets, while we congratulated ourselves on our fine choice in AsiaWheeling Bureau staff. It was too soon to celebrate, though, for Motta came back to us with a pale frowning face. They were all booked. Even the next bus from Shangri La was booked as well. What was this curse? Why was this mission to Haba so plagued by logistical (or physical) roadblocks?

We climbed back into the car, and explained our situation to the driver and our concierge. We needed to come up with yet another plan. We decided to drive back to Lijiang and figure it out on the way.

First things first. It had been a long, long day, and we needed a beer. We stopped at a gas station on the way and grabbed their last three cold bottles of Dali beer and a bottle of orange juice. We mixed up three brass monkeys and climbed back in the van.

As we sipped our Dali brass monkeys, we contemplated our options. It was late now, nearing midnight. All the buses would almost certainly have already left. This left cab and meinbaoche. The beers were named after a city called Dali, which is a city in between Lijiang and Kunming.

As we drove, our man got on the phone with all his friends and began pricing cab trips to Kunming. Even split three ways, they were startlingly expensive. We must have somehow, through temporal means perhaps, communicated to them our desperate state. After we had exhausted our concierge’s entire phone book of cab drivers, we began to look into more drastic options.

Sigma 12 had to be thrown out the window. We would not be getting to Kunming that night, or even the next morning… But we might be able to get an early bus or train from the Dali of beer brewing fame. The cab would be much cheaper, since it did not cross the checkpoint entering Kunming. It seemed that most drivers in China did not actually bring their licenses with them, unless they were planning to cross a checkpoint. We were becoming exhausted and starving hungry. We had burned quite a few calories that day and eaten little in the way of real food. The stress of the logistical debate was beginning to get to us. We needed a solution. So we authorized our concierge to call one of his friends to drive us to Dali. We set the time of departure at 1:30 am. This would give us about an hour after we got to Lijiang to find a bite to eat.

We rolled into Lijiang a little after midnight, and our drivers were clearly not familiar with the bright lights and big city. We drove around for about 15 minutes, as they attempted to get their bearings, but soon our hunger and frustration levels got high enough that we just called a stop and got out of the car. We were on the outer edge of the famous Lijiang old city. It was a place we remembered fondly from the pilot study and our time there with the ravishing Goa Jie, but it now seemed manufactured and unimaginably touristy. It was also mostly shuttered up for the night. We wandered in search of food, but found little more than roadside grilled meat offerings. Finally we struck out in the opposite direction, walking away from the old city, and finally located a popular looking restaurant on a street a few over.

They served many of the standard Yunnan dishes, so Motta was completely prepared to dive into the ordering process. Unfortunately, outside the place they were also selling grilled meat skewers to nighttime pedestrians. The grill emitted a thick fatty smoke which, due to some strange wind tunnel effect, was siphoned directly into the restaurant, stinging the eyes of the patrons, and inducing coughing fits in the staff. You can’t win them all, we thought, and taking a look at our watches, sat down.

The food was good, but the flavors seemed somehow distant. It may have been my exhaustion or the stinging of the smoke, or perhaps the brass monkey, which had delivered a rather intense and unexpected delirium, likely due in large part to my exhausted and nutritionally depleted state. The restaurant also attempted to serve us a dish that consisted of a great many raw tomatoes, sliced and arranged, then positively mounded with sugar. They were so sweet as to be disgusting, and in a rare reversal, AsiaWheeling sent them back to the kitchen.

Then suddenly the meal was over, and we were climbing into yet another Mienbaoche. It was the middle of the night, the car was driven by two fellows. They were both men from a village near the opening of the gorge, and they did not know the area well. We were obviously the means to easy cash, and neither of them particularly were particularly interested in or experienced with professional driving. As a direct result of this, they drove fast. Very very fast. So fast it was terrifying. We tried to sleep in the car, but the swerving and sudden braking continuously woke us up. The two fellows chatted and chain smoked, working to keep each other awake. From time to time, Stew would shudder to life and yell at them in Chinese to slow down, but it seemed to do little. What was going to be a five hour ride that would have allowed us a little time to sleep was done in just over three hours. It had been a terribly uncomfortable half-sleep, punctuated by painful knocks on the head against the window as we would take a speed bump at 80 km/hour, and by the waking nightmare of our cigarette-fueled, mad drivers, speeding through the Chinese night with reckless abandon.

We climbed out of the car grumpy and stoned, at 4:00 in the morning in Dali. Our drivers dropped us off at a small obscure bus station from which no buses left for anywhere relevant. Still struggling to gain lucidity, we paid the men, and they drove off. It was not until they were long gone that we realized they had not even taken us to the right part of town. We chatted with a cabby for a while and found out where the right station was. The road to Kunming was under construction, he explained, so the four-hour drive might take as many as 12 to complete. At this point, though, we were so used to obstructions that we easily shrugged it off, laughing even. Regardless of the time it would take to get to Kunming, no buses would be leaving for some time anyway. In fact, the city was mostly asleep, so asleep, that we could not even find an open noodle shop.

We headed to the bus station like zombies, pausing only to call the drivers and give them a brief piece of our minds concerning their reckless endangerment of our lives.

When we got to the bus station we found that the first bus was at 7:00 am. So we had some time to kill. We first tried to sleep in one of the idling buses. The driver seemed okay with it, but when it began to fill with passengers, we were forced to climb off lest we end up in some unintended random Chinese city. Eventually, we just decided to sleep the last couple hours on the street. We found a nice clean stretch of low broad wall, put our bags under our heads like bulky pillows, and passed out.

The SIM city 2000 theme woke us up with just enough time to rush down the street to an open noodle shop and eat a few large spicy bowls of wonton soup before we climbed on the bus and slept the last five hours to Kunming. If there was construction on the road, we didn’t even notice it.


Comments

  1. laura | July 27th, 2010 | 1:49 pm

    WOW! truly amazing! spectacular pics and videos!

  2. Kelsey | July 27th, 2010 | 5:40 pm

    EPIC post. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time. A looooong day indeed!

  3. Nate | July 27th, 2010 | 11:41 pm

    That was some intense adventure! Love the storytelling. Bravo.

  4. Claudia | July 30th, 2010 | 10:21 am

    Wow- Your story of the climb was absolutely inspiring to read! And the journey to Kunming, exasperating! AsiaWheeling: What a tug on my heart strings. Thanks guys!

  5. Val | July 31st, 2010 | 8:06 am

    Absolutely mind-boggling amazing adventure. I’m glad you survived!!!!
    Only with a Motta!!

  6. Mark/Dad | August 1st, 2010 | 9:28 pm

    And I thought the mountain climb was going to be the most harrowing part!

  7. Megan | August 7th, 2010 | 1:24 pm

    WOOOooooo EPIC post indeed. UNREAL! That picture of the three of you with that big blue sky is absolutely beautiful. Makes my heart ache real bad for a good mountain hike of my own.

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