Waiting for the Big One, Part Two

Waiting for the Big One, Part Two

When we left Alison last week, she and her friend Deborah were huddled under a cliff overhang for safety while rocks streamed down from above them into the river hundreds of feet below. Alison’s friend Anna and her father Dan, their travel companions, were nowhere in sight. The overnight hiking trip through a remote gorge in Yunnan, China had turned into a nightmare. thewheelhousereview.com

“This can’t just be a landslide!” I gasped, choking through the thick dust.

“Maybe it’s a volcano,” Deborah suggested. Even at 14, I was a natural pedant, and scanned through my knowledge of regional geography to dismiss that thought. Yes, there were areas of volcanic activity in Yunnan, but they were hours away and had been dormant for thousands of years. No, this was something else.

The occasional pebble was still falling around us. What should we do? Were Anna and Dan somewhere in the darkness behind us? Had they been knocked off the path and into the gorge below? The warmth of the afternoon sun was long gone, and we were cold, thirsty and shaking. We were afraid to leave our little corner of safety to look for them. What if another landslide happened? I imagined myself falling after them over the edge. But we couldn’t keep staying there, huddled against the rock. Deborah and I decided to head out for Walnut Grove, the hamlet where we’d planned to stay the night, to ask for help.

As we prepared ourselves to leave, we heard voices out in the darkness on the path: it was Dan and Anna! I had never felt such relief. Dan’s face was drawn and covered in dust, but Anna Anna’s face was covered in blood. “She was hit in the head by a rock, but she can walk,” he said, as they climbed under the cliff overhang with us and he began wrapping his neck kerchief around her head. Aside from the blood, though, Anna seemed okay. “Where are we? What happened?” she asked. “We were hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge, and you were hit by a rock,” Dan replied, checking her pupils for dilation with a small flashlight. “Oh, okay,” she said, and was quiet for a moment before asking again: “Where are we? What happened?”

Dan had had emergency medical training in the past and was able to patiently answer her three, four, five times as he checked her for signs of concussion (yes) and additional wounds (one, a knocked-out front tooth). He was able to stanch the bleeding from her head wound but it was clear that we needed to get moving and find some help. Between the four of us we had two small flashlights, insufficient against the total darkness outside.

We stumbled along the path, which felt rougher and seemed like it was sloping downward more than it had before. There were rocks everywhere, but we didn’t fall as we half walked, half jogged our way along. Anna and Dan were still behind, him supporting her as she kept eerily asking where we were and what we were doing. The more times she asked, the more terrified I felt.

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After twenty or thirty minutes of walking, we saw a light in the distance. Walnut Grove! It was only a couple of guesthouses catering to foreign backpackers, but it was a beacon of hope in the darkness. As we got closer we saw a group of people sitting on the guesthouse porch. “Oh my God there’s someone out there,” a woman’s voice said, in English.

“We were hiking and my friend was hit by a rock and she’s hurt,” I yelled out, and several people jumped off the porch and ran down the path behind us toward Anna and Dan. As we clambered onto the the guesthouse steps, the first aftershock hit.

It was the first of many on that long night, as the gorge shook and rattled again and again. When it wasn’t shaking from an actual aftershock, we could hear the rumbles of rocks falling on the other side of the gorge, further up the mountain on our side, or (in my fitful nightmares) all around us. Walnut Grove was situated in a flatter area of the gorge, and although the rock face of the opposite cliff was in stunning juxtaposition, the slope on our side of the gorge was much gentler and further off. There was no danger of more landslides.

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As I tossed and turned in my guesthouse bed, half awake, half in terrible earthquake dreams, Dan and several of the 20-odd foreign backpackers in Walnut Creek took turns sitting up with Anna. No one was sure how bad her concussion was, but the consensus was not to let her fall asleep until she seemed okay. At some point in the night, she started beating everyone at cards, and they determined she was well enough to rest.

Finally, morning came, after an endless and terrible night. All of the other foreigners had already arrived in Walnut Grove by the time the initial earthquake had hit; we were the only ones on the trail at that point. We sat down to eat breakfast fried rice, our first meal in almost 24 hours and tried to figure out what had happened. Walnut Grove was really just two guesthouses and some outbuildings, not even a village at all. There was no phone service or television and limited electricity. There was no road in or out, just the path we walked in on that ran the length of the gorge to the town on the opposite end. One of the guesthouse staff had gone out early in the morning to investigate the path ahead, and discovered it was impassable, with sections completely covered by huge landslides. There was no way we’d make it out that day, even if Anna was feeling better.

I began worrying about how my family must be worried about me. In the larger town of Lijiang, surely they would have heard the news already about an earthquake and landslides in Tiger Leaping Gorge. I tried to hold down my fears and focus on Anna, who was doing remarkably well. During the narrow window of time when the sun shone directly into the narrow gorge, we sat her down in the sun and washed the blood and dust out of her hair, the water running pink.

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As the afternoon shade hit the gorge, one of the backpackers was able to pick up a BBC World News signal on his radio and catch a brief snippet of news. Our local earthquake was not so local in fact, thousands of people were injured or dead in Lijiang, the town possibly even destroyed. The epicenter itself was estimated to be in Tiger Leaping Gorge. The news began to sink in as dusk fell on the first day. We were essentially trapped, with no way to communicate with the outside world. We wrote down our names and passport numbers on a piece of paper and gave it to one of the guesthouse staff, who headed back out on another, higher path essentially a goat trail to try to get news out that we were safe and alive.

That night, we moved to the second guesthouse, which we felt was constructed more sturdily than the one from the first night. I was sharing a room with Deborah and selfishly (I felt) picked the bed closest to the door, in case an aftershock hit in the night. I even positioned my shoes by the bed so they’d be easier to jump into so I could run out during an earthquake. And when another aftershock did hit around 3am, the biggest one yet by far, I was out the door in seconds.

The second day was more of the same waiting, hoping for news, worrying. The only thing left to eat was fried rice, and I was barely able to choke it down. All I could picture was the stupid white baseball cap my sister had been wearing the whole vacation in Lijiang, crushed and destroyed by falling buildings. I thought of my mom, maybe suffering in a hospital bed. I couldn’t even begin to think of my dad, injured.

We tried to kill time, not sure what would happen. Deborah and Dan went out to take pictures, Dan finding the spot back on the path where Anna had been hit by the rock, their two baseball caps still resting on the ground. I was too afraid to leave the safety of Walnut Grove.

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As the sun began to set on the second day, the guesthouse staff brought news. “The army is coming,” they told us, and the soldiers began arriving by ones and twos. “They’re going to walk you out. You’ll leave first thing in the morning.” Of course I couldn’t stay in the gorge forever, but the thought of walking along the narrow cliff edge again filled me with panic.

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After two nights of aftershocks, we’d given up on sleeping indoors, and Anna and I huddled under thick cotton-stuffed comforters outside while the soldiers chatted around the fire. All I could think about was my family: how I’d find them, if I’d ever see them again, if any of them were still alive.

Check in next week for part three.

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