China’s answer to the Grand Canyon: Tiger Leaping Gorge, a canyon carved by the Yangzi river, in western Yunnan province. At its narrowest point, the distance from one bank to the opposite side is so small that according to legend, a tiger once leapt across to escape from a hunter, hence the name.
The best way to appreciate the beauty and size of the canyon is to take a multi-day hike (or one day, for the extremely energetic) along the cliffs above the gorge. It’s a popular trek, especially among backpackers. We used the new Lonely Planet China book to guide us, but I found their instructions to be misleading. The main trail that hikers use is the “high path” from Qiaotou to the Middle Gorge. At the Middle Gorge (which is agreed upon as the most scenic,) the high path rejoins the “low path” (a paved road.) From there, there are some side trails: one up to a waterfall, or two different paths down to the Tiger Leaping Stone, but not to the Lower Gorge, so to go there, hikers must follow the road. I thought the guidebook made it sound like most hikers walk all the way to the Lower Gorge, then to Daju, and then get a bus back to Lijiang. We prefer to hike on trails and not have to avoid cars, so we decided not to proceed past the Middle Gorge. As it turned out, most hikers we met were doing the same thing. From the Middle Gorge, the guesthouses run minibuses back to Lijiang, so there’s really no need to go all the way to Daju.
From Lijiang’s bus station, buses run reguarly to Qiaotou. Due to roadwork, the ride took longer than we expected- about three hours. The bus stops on the main street in Qiaotou; where there are a few restaurants and maybe a guy offering rides to Shangri-la. The gorge entrance is not well marked, but it’s just straight ahead. Where the road comes to a T, the gorge entrance is on the right. To the left are a few more restaurants, and a fairly gruesome toilet that costs 1 yuan per person.
Right under the archway is a small office, where you pay the gorge entrance fee, 50 yuan. After receiving your ticket, follow the road past Jane’s Guesthouse several hundred meters. We stopped at Jane’s to try to pick up a map, but I couldn’t find any staff- the whole place looked empty. They do have large maps posted on the wall, so I took photos of those for reference, which turned out to be a very good idea, as I used them quite a few times along the way. The entrance to the high path is just a little further along the same road. Walk past the school a few hundred meters and it’s on the left.
Once on the trail, it’s hard to get lost. I’ve read older blog posts that suggest that ten or twelve years ago, the trail was not well-marked, but nowadays it’s quite clearly defined. No problems there. We started late (about 1:30pm) so we decided just to walk as far as we felt like, and stop when we were tired. The first part is quite easy, and the surroundings are pretty and pastoral.
Beyond the rice terraces and rolling hills, snow-capped mountains give a clue as to the altitude. Yunnan borders Tibet, and these mountains, part of the Greater Himalayas, form the southeastern border of the Tibetan Plateau. There’s a concrete path at first, but it doesn’t go very far, and soon we were on the hiking trail. We had gotten such a late start that we only saw two other hikers. Human hikers, that is- there were also several mountain goats. This little one tried to follow Bob up the hill, then Mama Goat got mad and followed me.
There are a few guesthouses along the way and the first one we came to, after about an hour and a half of walking, was Naxi Family Guesthouse. We didn’t feel like stopping yet, so we continued to the next segment, known as the Twenty-Eight Bends. By far the most strenuous part of the trail, for both your lungs and knees, a series of switchbacks leads up to the highest point of the trek.
It took us about two hours to complete this section. The view of the gorge below makes it worth your trouble. For the tired or lazy, there are ponies available for rent. The owners are impossible to avoid (“Rent horse? Rent horse?”) and so are the horse apples.
The altitude reaches as high as 2670 meters (8755 feet) and Bob had some trouble breathing. Strangely, I was fine, though I’m the one who usually has breathing problems (due to asthma.)
There are a few kiosks along the way, selling Snickers bars, water, and fruit, at astronomical prices (but I suppose they did haul that stuff all the way up the hill.) We also ran into a few enterprising locals who attempted to charge us for taking photos. Personally, I felt that it was unfair to charge money for the scenery, especially when I’d already bought an entrance ticket, so I refused to pay. One woman tried to block our path but eventually gave up. I don’t know what the authorities think about this… they probably don’t care. On one hand, I sympathize, because the locals probably don’t get much revenue from all the tourist traffic, but on the other hand, I don’t agree with extortion.
After the Twenty-Eight Bends, there’s a descent for about an hour and a half, then you reach two guesthouses. We were both exhausted, Bob felt ill, plus it was starting to get dark: time to call it quits for the day. We stayed at Tea Horse Guesthouse; we were the last people to arrive for the night, and coincidentally we started chatting with a couple who had been the first to arrive. They had spent the night before at Jane’s Guesthouse so they could get a bright and early start. However, they said that the sun had been in their eyes most of the way, so us hiking in the afternoon was not such a bad idea after all.
Remember that all of China is on one time zone, which is Beijing time, so that in Yunnan and other western parts of the country, the clock may say 2:00pm but the sun will be directly overhead as if it were noon. Depending how far west you are, the sun may set very late. What this means for the hiker in Tiger Leaping Gorge: even if your watch says it’s late afternoon, don’t forget to put on sunscreen, because the sun is higher than you think. Also, you can probably hike later than you think. Even at 7:30 pm, the light was just barely beginning to fade. Of course, this varies depending on the time of year.
We had a celebratory bottle of Dali beer, which made me feel ill, so we both collapsed into bed before 10:00. Did we bite off more than we could chew? Day 2 awaits….