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china: hiking tiger leaping gorge

tiger leaping gorge, yunnan

Frame it just right, and Tiger Leaping Gorge is the deepest river canyon in the world, but don’t go bragging to the Grand Canyon defenders back in the US – bar fights have broken out over less.

Home to the Naxi ethnic minority for centuries, this dramatic landscape inspires legends with its roiling Yangtze rapids and contrasting snowy peaks, separated by 3,000 meters of elevation. The trail, marked with red and yellow arrows, provides a back-to-the-basics escape between Lijiang and Shangri-La. There’s a limit to how many pagodas, Tibetan-style monasteries and restored cities I can explore in a row, and this mountain retreat is the perfect counterpoint.

To get here, park your bags with one of the hotels in Lijiang, take the bus to Shangri-La, but disembark at Qiaotou (2 hours, 30 minutes). Everyone will know why you’re here, and they’ll point you to the trailhead, which is near the bus station. To reach it, you’ll have to cross a school yard and face down a barrage of enthusiastic “hellos” from students in the football field. For them, it’s a daily ritual.

Plan your hike outside of the rainy season (June to September), and remember that landslides and washouts happen. Hikers pay a modest entrance fee in Qiaotou, but there’s no need to pay the supposed 'toll collectors' along the trail. These scammers know a hard-sell and will back off when they see one.

These are five major highlights of a hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge:

The map

Mine came from a fellow traveler in Shangri-La, at the opposite end of the gorge from Lijiang. He taught English in Kunming and had hiked the gorge a few months earlier. Pulling the map from a shoulder bag, he let me examine it by the light of the wood furnace in the bar of our mutual guesthouse. It was literally hand-drawn and photocopied – a rough sketch of triangular mountaintops on either side of the Yangtze. A hiking trail zigzags across the high ground, marked with a few waterfalls and guesthouses.

I saw a few different maps floating around Lijiang and Zhongdian, and all of them were hand-drawn like this one. No doubt the 'real' maps are on the way, courtesy of a brigade of deft hikers wielding GPS machines. It’ll be a loss, of sorts. 

The high road

Take it as a metaphor if you like. The high road is essentially a series of linked trails that Naxi farmers and goat-herders have used for generations. It’s lightly developed but still holds the moral high-ground over the low road, which was cracked open with dynamite so that Chinese tour buses could enter the gorge. If you don’t relish the hike, you can easily see Tiger Leaping Gorge on a daytrip. Just charter a taxi from any of the hotels in Lijiang.

A word of warning: backpackers and purists back in Lijiang make a sport out of belittling the ‘low-roaders’. After all, there’s no point in taking the high road if you can’t look down on those who didn’t. You’ve got that song in your head, don’t you? I refuse to apologize.

The brink

‘Brink of exhaustion’ is the first thing that comes to mind. On the whole, the hike is moderately challenging at most, but two hours in you hit a spool of 28 tightly-wound switchbacks (or hairpin turn). I hiked with my wife, a self-proclaimed ‘trekking enthusiast’, but after the tenth switch or so, she started muttering, “Why are we always doing stupid things like this?”

Her answer surprised us both. Rounding the 28th turn, we found ourselves on another brink – an observation platform with a high-flying view over the rapids. A Naxi man waiting there announced, "Tiger Leaping Gorge!" with practiced precision. It’s the kind of view that makes you wonder why you’ve spend the rest of your life doing whatever it is you do. Resist the clichés; take a picture if you must; but by all means, rest your legs and linger here. 

The break

The guesthouses in Tiger Leaping Gorge are the real charmers here. They crop up along the trail every two hours or so and charge 10-20 yuan (around USD 2) for a bed and hot shower. These humble, family-owned estates perch a full kilometer above the commotion of the low-road. On our last evening in the gorge, we found ourselves on a terrace sharing a plate of walnuts and honey with a French couple who’d set out a few hours before us. The snowy heights of Jade Dragon Mountain (5,596 meters) loomed across the gorge.

For information what to do when you’re not hiking through, check out the official Tiger Leaping Gorge website, operated by Sean of Sean’s Guesthouse. He started maintaining trails in the early 80s, long before tourists were coming. 

The descent

You’ll meet serious hikers along the way who are dead-set on completing the hike in a single day. That’s a completely reasonable feat, especially if you’re remotely fit. But with so many waterfalls, overlooks and linger-worthy stops along the way, it’s hard to make a case for an express tour. Some hikers choose a guesthouse around the halfway point and spend three or four nights in the gorge, getting to know their hosts and taking a day or two to explore or even hike down to Yangtze River.

In either event, you’ll start your descent shortly before Walnut Garden. At the bottom is a pair of guesthouses that operates a minivan service back to your hotel in Lijiang.

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