It’s in Yunnan Province, close to the border with Tibet and near the famous Yangtze bend. The locals say it’s the highest gorge in the world, far exceeding the Grand Canyon. I went there with my wife and was disappointed. We joined a queue of tourists and made our way along pathways and tunnels until we reached the spot where the mythical tiger made its leap. The scenery was spectacular but scarcely record breaking.
A couple of years later I went back with a mountaineering party and changed my mind. We had a Tibetan friend with us and he was scathing of the tourist route. He said he’d show us the real thing.
I was, at the time, walking with the aid of a crutch, having injured my foot in a silly fall early in the expedition. That meant riding a pony. There were lots and their owners were keen to take people up the genuine route as opposed to the one my wife and I had been on.
It was the second time in my life that I had ridden a pony. The other was on a beach when I was small. The guys with the ponies took away my crutch and hoisted me onto one of the animals, while my friends took photographs and made jokes.
The track clung to the side of the gorge. There was no safety rail and whole sections had been ripped away by landslides. We made our way round them, struggling across scree slopes, trying not to dislodge stones.
We went higher and higher and the tourists got smaller and smaller. After a while they were no more than coloured blobs on distant pathways. The track rounded a bend and the scenery was suddenly amazing. The people below wouldn’t catch a glimpse of it. I realised why I had been so disappointed on my first visit.
The track had been gouged into the cliff face many centuries earlier. Suddenly it narrowed and there was barely room for a man, let alone a pony. I’d been concerned for my safety on the scree slopes. Now, I was seriously worried.
I’m used to looking after myself. I like to be in control when I’m on a rock face and that wasn’t happening. Just staying on the pony was difficult enough. My injured foot was throbbing and the stupid animal was lurching around. I looked for something to hang onto and there wasn’t anything.
At one point, I thought my end had come. The pony spied a tuft of grass and bent over to munch it. I slid forward and found myself clinging to its neck, staring down an indescribable drop that ended in a thread of white water far below. The cliff above went on forever. I was balanced between heaven and hell on the back of a three-year-old with scant respect for heights.
If you decide to take the exciting route along the Tiger Leaping Gorge, wear climbing boots and keep well clear of ponies.