19 March 2014

Hiking Mt. Tiejian in Anhui Province, China

I'd been dying to get out of the city, so when the Shanghai Hiking Lovers meetup group scheduled their first hike for 2014 in February, I immediately signed up. My friend Kate agreed to join, and my friend Jenny was already going. To pay about 100 USD for a bus, food, and accommodation organized by someone else so that I could go hiking seemed like quite a great deal.

I thought about investing in a ski coat, but I was able to trade my peacoat with a friend. I also thought about getting some hiking boots, but 1. I've never had issues hiking in normal running shoes (I've even hiked in flip flops at times), 2. I don't like that hiking shoes take up so much space only to be used occasionally, and 3. A few days didn't seem like enough time to break in some new shoes. I knew it was going to be cold, and I knew that the trip wasn't really going to be long enough or civilized enough for me to care much about showering, so I wore a lot of layers and left showering stuff at home. My Camelbak was full, I had several sandwiches and some fruit, and even with some sunscreen and my toothbrushing stuff and meds, I only needed my one backpack.

I hopped on a bus near People's Square with at least 30 other people, about 40% of whom were expats. I was able to sit next to a woman nice enough to speak some Chinese with me. As the hour got later, we all started dozing off, until we arrived around 1 or 2 AM in the village of Ningguo, in Anhui Province.

The hostel, or "local house" (that's what the hiking organizer, Silver, kept calling it, though I'm not sure why), was just a big building with random rooms that had "beds" consisting of flat boards on bed frames scattered throughout. Kate and I quickly chose a room with only two beds. None of the rooms had heating, but there were extra blankets, and I found out we could get some hot coals put in our room. I traded the hot coals for an electric heater that some of the guys had in their room, but it didn't seem to do much. After using the squat toilet (the toilet room didn't lock and there were two toilets, but we all went one at a time and watched the door for each other), I laid down flat on the board bed, with my backpack under my knees for support. Kate put her head straight under the blankets, and though I hate not having my nose and mouth free while I'm sleeping, the air was so cold that I ended up doing the same.

The next morning, there was the typical Chinese breakfast of congee, and then we all headed off on our grand adventure to Tiejian Mountain. Within seconds of leaving, a man ahead of us on the trail started smoking and it floated back to the rest of us. Weirdly, the man wasn't even Chinese—he was Irish! I hate smoking anyway, but to foul up everyone's air when we've just escaped the horrible air of the city is a horrible thing to do. So I quickly caught up with him and asked him to smoke in the back.

I realized that my Camelbak had leaked onto my backpack a bit, but I was pretty sure that it was just because I had left the cap off of the bite, which has been the cause before. It didn't take long for us to get up into a canyon. Then we all stopped and waited for the guide to catch up with us, because it seemed like we'd come up against a dead end with a steep rock surface. It turned out that the surface was actually the trail, so onwards and upwards we went. It only took maybe 30 minutes to an hour for me to take off the ski coat and my puffy coat.

Then the trail started crossing a river over and over, and not always with the best places to step. The rocks were wet and slippery, and having to land on snow on the other side made crossing hold up the line of hikers, especially when the crossings were right above waterfalls and people had to be especially careful. I didn't like crossing with everyone standing there watching me. I soon secured a tall forked stick to provide a little more balance on crossings, and joked that it was my Gandalf stick. It didn't take long for the guy in front of me to turn around and ask if I wanted him to break off the fork. Whoops.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo IMG_9186_zps1b48172d.jpg

Sometimes there were rebars sticking out of the rock to grab onto, and once we even climbed up a shaky rebar ladder that could have used at least one more section of supports.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo IMG_9101_zps17489c45.jpg
Someone got a shot of me just starting up the ladder (red jacket, blue backpack).

After a break after the toughest parts of the river, we moved on to snowier sections of the trail. My shoes were clearly not very good lousy for snow, so I ended up kicking my toe in for every step, a habit I knew would upset my messed-up toe joints, but I had to. One part stopped all of us dead, for at least half an hour. Immediately after crossing the river, the trail went straight up the snowy and muddy mountain. People were having quite a difficult time. The guide provided a tiny, waxed rope, but because it was tiny and waxed, holding onto it was not very helpful.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo IMG_9182_zps5bab9420.jpg
I'm not sure how someone even found a sturdy enough spot to take this picture.

I held back and chatted with a guy named Anqi and tried to ignore the upcoming challenge, but when it got to be my turn, I got stuck in the middle of the river while a woman in front of me fell flat on her face several times while trying to make it up the bank. I finally decided that I was definitely going to go for another part of the bank, but just because I didn't fall flat on my face didn't mean this part wasn't crazily difficult. There was just no grip anywhere. I couldn't see any rocks to step onto, and the trees were small, far enough apart, and growing at pretty much the same angle as the mountain, so they weren't helpful. I double-looped the rope around my hand, but since no one was pulling from the top, that didn't help much. I had no idea how I'd get up. Then the guide, with his super-spiky shoes and zillions of hours of experience on this trail, came down and grabbed my hand. He just pulled me straight up the mountain, and I had so little grip that I was basically just holding onto him and providing no help whatsoever. We got about halfway up and I begged for a pause to rest my arms. I plopped my legs on either side of a tree (so my legs were hanging down the mountain) and panted for ages.

When we got to where everyone was standing around eating lunch, I had to sit down. I sat on my friend's ski coat and scarfed down a sandwich, some fruit, and some chocolate milk. Then people started taking off while we were finishing up. I thought about how when I was on a hike in 2007, my friend pointed out that the slow, exhausted people at the end never get much of a break because the faster people wait up and then as soon as the slow people catch up, the fast people want to head off. Yep.

The next part of the trail was killer. At first I felt embarrassed at my slow speed, especially when everyone else went on and Anqi stayed back with me. I didn't think I was very out of shape and when Anqi mentioned that he'd grown up in the mountains and that the people in his village would just laugh at me, I felt dumb admitting that I'd grown up close to mountains as well. I was completely beat and panting and had to make a zillion stops, most of which involved me finding a tree and sitting on/around it. I finally got to the point where I was so tired that I wasn't even embarrassed anymore. I knew that the only way down the mountain was up the mountain, but I needed to go at an incredibly slow pace. I finally started realizing that the reason I was so exhausted was because I was hiking with my arms! My shoes provided so little grip that it was better for me to pull myself up with my sticks (by then I had my Gandalf stick and the guide's fancy metal hiking stick), and my muscles were constantly fully flexed because there wasn't really anything to stop me from falling straight down the mountain.

Anqi was a saint. He never got impatient. He was encouraging, and even after the fortieth time of him turning out to be wrong after saying, "We're almost to the top!" (it really looked like we were almost there many times) I felt grateful to him.

I wish I could explain just how difficult that part was. It felt like weeks. I even told Anqi a few times that I just needed to take a nap. We were both panting, and when he ran out of water, we both ended up using my Camelbak until I ran out of water, too. When we finally made it to the top, we were both so drained that when we crawled into sight where three people were waiting for us (including the leader of the hiking group, Silver), we couldn't even really enjoy the view.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo 2_zps54b600d7.jpg
We stopped for about five seconds to take this picture.

Silver gave me a water bottle, and then she immediately said we needed to move on to catch up with the others. I was so glad to be heading downhill for just a little that I didn't mind leaving again, but then she said that I had to give my backpack to this other guy, Karim. "No," I replied. "It's not even that heavy—it just has my coat in it. That's not what's slowing me down." I knew handing over the backpack was a bad idea, the same as I know that hiking alone is a bad idea. I said no at least three or four times, but it was no use. They took it and headed downhill.

Anqi went over some big rocks to get down, and I ended up following the guy with my backpack (Karim) over some mud. All I had to do was kind of crouch down so I was almost sitting and slide down. On the way, I found Karim's cell phone, which had fallen out of his pocket and into the mud.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo IMG_9211_zps26d48402.jpg
Left to right: Guy with my backpack, me in red, and Anqi. This must be mere minutes after the cell phone was dropped.

Nevertheless, Silver and the guy with my backpack lost us before we even made it to the lowest part of the ridge, where someone had built a snowman. We realized we weren't sure which direction to go in. It looked like someone had gone left through the bushes and straight down the mountain, but it also looked like a big group of people had gone further, along the ridge.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo 3_zps4107b603.jpg
I couldn't even stand up without my stick.

Since we could see a group of people on the ridge, we went that way, but once we got up the first hill and were looking at the next part, I told Anqi, "I can't make it up there." We paused for a while, and then the group from the top of the ridge started yelling to us. We didn't know what they said (or at least I didn't), but we ended up going back and heading down through the bushes.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo IMG_9225_zps4a7c110b.jpg
It didn't look like much of a trail, but there was an enticing village at the bottom.

Within moments, it was clear that while going uphill had been extraordinarily, unexplainably, excruciatingly difficult for me, going downhill was that way for Anqi. It was my turn to be patient and encouraging. What a team. 

After a couple hundred yards of slipping and of Anqi feeling unable to keep going, I said, "Do you know what? We're just going to have to slide," and I showed him how it was done. At first we felt kind of dumb sliding down on our behinds, especially when a couple of intensely-supplied backpackers passed us, but soon the patterns in the snow made it pretty clear that other people had done the same. Sometimes there were sharp turns that could have thrown us down cliffs, so it was good to dig in our feet and use our sticks to stop ourselves. I went first and would groan at big bumps or yell "rocks" as necessary, though how much this helped Anqi, I'm not sure. Sliding was much easier and much more fun than slipping every step.

Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo 5_zps19cce492.jpg
Can sliding down a mountain still be considered hiking? Or is this just amateur luging?

By the time we got to a section of the trail where we couldn't really slide anymore, both of us had drawn ourselves inward and all we could do was trudge on, slowly. We had to focus intensely on the "trail," which was sometimes only one foot's width wide, on a steep incline, in the mud or very wet snow. We were both hungry and thirsty, and with a very wet bottom and the sun going down, I was getting colder and colder. Even while feeling very dull, there was anger growing in me. What idiot takes someone else's hiking supplies and abandons them? And what idiot allows someone to take their stuff? I didn't have food, water, my cell phone, and most especially, I was missing my coats.

I can't even explain how tired I was. I tried to think of anything I'd done that was more physically exhausting, and I couldn't think of one. Havasupai? Long-ish and hard on my knees, but I wasn't cold, and I had companions who knew where they were going, water, food, and a clear trail. Crohn's attacks? Painful, challenging, and exhausting, yes, but somehow even they didn't seem comparable, and I wondered if that was because I was in the moment and the Crohn's issues were so long ago that I'd forgotten. I guess the difference here was that if I could just summon up enough energy, I could get myself out of this, whereas with Crohn's, energy wouldn't really change anything.

Maybe we were getting a bit delirious, or at least I was. I started thinking things like, "I can't keep going," "I don't care if I get back to Shanghai," and "I think I'd just like to lay down here and let it all go." This is going to sound so overly dramatic, but it wasn't until I thought of Michael—of being back with warm, snuggly, optimistic, good-smelling Michael—that I was able to put more purpose into my steps, and every time I wanted to give up again, thinking of him helped me continue.

When we finally, finally could see Silver and Karim sitting further downhill, waiting for us, I stopped dead and yelled, "You took my STUFF! I'm FREEZING! Bring me my BACKPACK NOW!" I think my tone must have been pretty clear, because there was no protesting. Karim headed back up to where I was and gave me my backpack. He said, "We tried to call you guys, but your phone was in your backpack." What a thing to say. I was so seething mad that I was shivering. Or maybe I was just cold. Either way, even while warming up a bit, the trail didn't get easier, and we were like zombies. I got to one part where I wanted to cry just looking at it. I needed to have the strength to pull myself across some rocks without falling down a rocky waterfall cliff, and I just didn't have it. I paused to gather strength, and Silver said, "Michelle, you have to come over here. We have to go down the mountain because the sun is setting." I snapped at her. In Chinese. "我知道!" ("Wo zhi dao!"/"I KNOW!")

Silver's cheerfulness after abandoning us and while we were feeling like we couldn't stumble on anymore was obviously grating on us, so eventually she walked ahead of us again. Right before the last major descent, where the snow had cleared up and we had a firm path again, we caught up with the guide, and he took this picture before going ahead with Silver:

Anqi and I at Tiejian Mountain, Ningguo, Anhui, China photo 6_zps0541fdf9.jpg
I have no idea how we mustered looking this good.

The promise of nearly being done and the path being so much easier by then helped us have a bit of conversation again after hours of suffering silence.

We were the last ones back, and because Silver had again disappeared on us, I wasn't sure where to go once we were in the village (because I'd only seen that side of the hostel in the dark at 2 AM), but thankfully Anqi got it. We stumbled into the hostel, where people were soaking their feet in hot water, shoes were drying on some kind of smoking basket thing, and others were in the middle of eating dinner.

I really just wanted to go to bed, but after putting on dry sweatpants, dry socks, and dry slippers, I managed to eat some rice and some roasted walnuts that were really tasty (surprising to someone who doesn't really like nuts). I found out that one woman in our group had fallen quite a ways, stopped herself by grabbing onto something, and then fallen farther. Luckily, she was unhurt, and the guide was able to rope down to get her. There were only a few Gore-tex-owning people without wet feet, but everyone else was talking about how much more difficult the trail was than they had anticipated rather than about their cold, wet feet. Many of us said we weren't sure we wanted to go on the upcoming hiking trips. What could I have done differently? There's no way I could have known that I needed to work out my arms so that I could hike. I could have had waterproof shoes and waterproof pants and more water, but I think that really the only thing that would have made the whole thing better is grippy shoes. The constant slipping is what made every muscle in my body tired. I think I'd like to go on that same trail again, when it's not snowy and muddy, just to conquer it and prove that it was the slipperiness that was the problem.

Even though I only ate for a few minutes, I was disappointed to see that the foot soaks were done when I got back out. I think I managed to brush my teeth, and then while people started playing music I wished they'd turn down and sitting around a fire to drink beer, I went to bed.

In the middle of the night, I woke up feeling warm, but in need of the toilet. As I was about to get back into bed, I thought, "If I don't put my long johns back on now, I'm going to hate putting them on wet in the morning," so I hopped around in the cold for a few minutes to put them on and then fell back asleep with them steaming away under my sweatpants.

The next morning, with my long johns dry and though it felt so good to know that we had survived, Kate and I decided not to go on the scheduled hike. I figured that since we'd be stopping at a cave on the way back, I'd at least get to see that. We both fell back asleep, and when we awoke around noon, she said, "Oh, I didn't mean to sleep that late." I replied, "I did."

I was happy to see that the sun was out—I was able to get my jeans, gloves, socks, and shoes to dry. I was also happy to see that there were about ten people altogether who didn't go on the second hike because of exhaustion from the day before. We all sat around and laughed at the cute little boy whose family ran the hostel, and then were amazed to find that the young girl there was his mom and the guide was his dad. Someone had the guts to ask the mother's age, and found out that the "girl" was 29, or so she said. None of us could believe it. (See her in the picture below, on the left, in a bright yellow coat.)

After we had an amazing lunch consisting of concocted rice, tofu (some people had meat but I refrained), and vegetables, a few of us did some shaky yoga, and then we took this group picture:

"Local house" or hostel photo DSCI1807_zps6710f050.jpg
You have to admit that the bright colors that are in right now sure make things look cheerful, don't they?

Then the owner of the hostel (the guy in the very center) asked for a picture with just the foreigners. I felt so awkward/isolated/conspicuous even though there were at least 12 of us.

I nearly forgot my Gandalf stick, but I remembered it right as we were going to the bus. People thought I was weird to take a stick back with me, but I didn't care. I was disappointed to find out that we weren't going to the cave after all. The way home seemed soooo long even though I had a bit of a Dramamine doze, especially because I'd barely had any service to text Michael and I just couldn't wait to get back to him. We shared produce (I finally tried sugar cane), talked, and stopped for dinner/ice cream.

As we got closer to Shanghai, Kate and I joked that I looked homeless, and that I could wander around the subway with my stick, asking for money. We ended up taking a taxi out of exhaustion and eagerness to get back.

Michael was headed towards the elevator right as we got off. I was so happy to see him and wasn't going to say anything about how difficult the hike was until we were alone, but we ended up talking with our neighbors (Kate, Ben, Simoné, and Giorgia) for a few minutes, and Kate and I had to give some details of our crazy experience.

Michael had a meeting to go to (as always), so I started unpacking alone. The stick went into the corner to remind me that I did something super difficult and survived.

Post-clothes hike photo 2014-02-23223047_zps5dcac2db.jpg
This picture does not portray well enough how stiff with mud my pants and gloves were.

Upon getting back to Shanghai photo 2014-02-23222336_zps8b03e7e5.jpg
My hair actually looked better (or at least more voluminous), than usual.

The next day, I already couldn't believe what an adventure I'd had, but my shaky, satisfyingly-sore muscles (especially my arms and hamstrings!) wouldn't let me forget.


  1. Great recount of the hike Michelle! We made it to tell the story! :p

    1. Thanks, Jenny, and yes, we did, miraculously! :D

      I see that you haven't blogged for nearly four years . . . I think it's about time to change that. ;)

  2. I'm just now reading this, and wow! You can use this accomplishment to get you through anything.