“Just dont look at him”. We had crossed the bridge and left Richard behind but we knew he wouldnt give up that easy. From the shoulder of the road we marched onwards looking straight ahead at the hill that climbed slowly in front of us as Richard crept up behind us in his van. To our right, the road fell away and opened to the broad Yangtze that swelled with fresh rains and devoured its banks, engulfing trees and turning itself into a rush of creamy brown. To our left crept a dusty white van with Richard hanging out of the sliding door beckoning towards us like a creepy old man tempting little kids with candy.
“You cant walk to the trail from here, it will take you five hours” It was impossible to believe anything he said and at the same time impossible to judge for ourselves. Before, when we were on the other side of the river looking across at the trail that cut across the mountainside we had noticed the trail started at a Y in the river. We could see that the Yangtze broke away into a tributary before it entered the gorge, a tributary that we would have to cross. The problem was we had no idea how far up this tributary we would have to walk before we found a bridge. Any distance we walked would be double since we would have to walk all the way back down to the Yangtze again to start the trail.
“We can probably see it around the next turn”, I said. Its easy to let time and distance slip away when your lazing in the back of a van slowly trolling alongside a picturesque river with a spindly backdrop of granite fortresses. Its a different story when your lugging a backpack down a slim country road as trucks and tractors floor past just out of arms reach. We had not even made it back to where the tributary cut away and morale was already running low. ”You cannot walk to the trail, you are crazy people. Get in the van you only pay little bit and I take you to trail.” Richard was trying to capitalize on the mounting frustration within the group but resolve stood strong and no one spoke or looked in his direction.
An hour and a half down the road and finally the fork in the river lay ahead of us at the bottom of a long slow hill. Richard had kept tabs on us throughout, alternating between creeping alongside us in his van, walking with us as his driver waited ahead, and driving back and forth next to us as though he were bringing messages from the front and relaying how much further we had to go. All the while, no one spoke a word to him and he slowly stopped speaking himself except for the occasional reminder that we still had to pay him. Finally, we reached the split in the river and Richard had driven off ahead to the small town we could see in the distance, leaving us alone to stare across at where we wanted to be. So close yet so far, we could see the cut of the trail climb behind houses on the other bank and turn the corner to follow the Yangtze through the tight gorge, but looking down the road we couldnt see any bridge.
Morale and energy had been falling away for the last two hours as we slugged up and over hills on the barren country road and now there was little left in the tank. We still had to walk all the way to a bridge that we couldnt even see and werent even sure existed. Our last hope lay in a restaurant a few hundred meters down the road, tucked all alone into the hillside, a pit stop for groups on their way to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We stumbled into the restaurant just as they were clearing away the last of the lunch guests. It was nearly 4pm already and the sun was already saying its goodbyes, dipping behind the towering mountain peaks. Tired, we ordered some simple rice and vegetable plates and started talking to our waiter. Since there was noone left at the restaurant we knew the van in the corner of the lot must belong to him. Through a lengthy game of charades he began to understand our plight and offered to help us out, for a price. In China, there was always a price. Willing to pay whatever at this point as long as it wasnt to Richard, we squeezed into his van and bumped out of the lot and down the road.
Making small talk with the driver we clambered up the road and into the small village in high spirits once again. It had been awhile since we had seen Richard and now that we had this new ride we had stopped thinking about possibly having to crawl back to him for help. Finally, at the far end of the town where the tributary narrowed, an arching stone bridge threw itself over the river and brought the road to the other bank. Staring out the window at the dusty little rows of shops nestled in the green valley my mind began to wander, we would still have enough time to hike for a few hours and find a nice guesthouse in the hills I thought. From the back someone yelled “down, down, down”. From the passenger seat, I looked back into the van to see everyone drop their heads. Peaking past our driver who ignored the road and stared at us perplexed, I could see Richard, arms crossed, leaning against his van, surveying the scene. From the look on his face, Richard knew he had been beat, he had lost 6 straggling white people in a town of 300 and would have to throw in the towel and make the long drive back to town with no cash to show for the day.
As we climbed out of the van and stepped onto the trail, the scenery had changed. Speeding trucks and dusty roads were replaced with women carrying vegetables in wicker baskets and men herding goats along the precipitous trek. To our right the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain loomed like a Chinese water color and to our left small buddhist shrines pocketed the rock face. Waterfalls fell across the trail like ribbons draped from the clouds and small rice farms spilled down the slopes in cascades of green. Up ahead a woman sat at a pass in the trail. Dressed in her traditional clothes of colorful blues and pinks she stood as we approached and pointed to a sign. ’Guide for hire’ and ‘You must pay to use this trail’. Shrugging my shoulders, I looked back at the others and thought, here we go again.