Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hǔtiào Xiá; 虎跳峽; Styled hereafter as TLG for sanity’s sake) is considered by many traveling through China as simply THE BEST trek in China, and for good reason: it’s an amazing place.
A Bit of Background
For millions of years, the Yangtze’s upper tributary (the Jinsha River) has been toiling away, cutting ever deeper into granite and marble for your viewing and trekking enjoyment! By some measurements the gorge is considered the deepest in all of Gorgedom, though measuring these things is a tricky business and the big dirty secret amongst those who measure gorges for a living is that they are impossible to compare and a definitive answer will never be found.
But who cares, really. The gorge is deep enough to be considered the deepest by some, and that alone should tell you a couple of things — among them, the sheer rock walls are neck-achingly high and not far apart from each other. Apart from that, you get the powerful beginnings of the Yangtze raging below. It’s hard to imagine one of the world’s great rivers threaded through such a narrow gap, and certainly the Jinsha appears none too pleased by this arrangement as it passes tightly between two very high peaks — the 18,360-foot (5,596m) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and 17,703-foot (5,396m) Haba Snow Mountain.
So you may wonder what’s with the name Tiger Leaping Gorge? You might have assumed (as I did) that the name is derived from a poetic Chinese description of this natural wonder — a metaphor, if you will, for the ferocious tiger of a river leaping its way from boulder to boulder through a twisting and turning gorge. Nope, actually the name is quite literal with origins in an old Yunnan folk tale involving a tiger literally leaping from a large rock in the middle of the river on the other side to avoid capture from a hunter. I should mention here that the sides of the gorge in the proximity of the Tiger Leaping Rock are quite close together, but not THAT close — though we all know that people and animals always seemed to be able to somehow accomplish seemingly impossible things in olden times…
In terms of the hike, most trekkers seem to complete it in 1-2 days. It can be done in one very strenuous day, but this involves staying over at Jane’s the night before and getting an early start. If done over two days, Tea Horse Guest House and Halfway Guesthouse seem to be the major stop-over points and most hikers end their second day of trekking at Tina’s GH in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge where you can descend down the gorge to the water and view the Tiger Leaping Stone close up. Others (like ourselves) can chose to continue on to Walnut Grove, and farther afield if they wish.
Elevation at the trailhead in Qiaotau is 5,550 ft. (1692m), with the highest point reaching 8,760 ft. (2670m) at the top of the 28 bends between Naxi Family GH and Tea Horse GH.
Getting to Tiger Leaping Gorge
As if the trek itself wasn’t enough of an adventure, getting here is no small feat. One of the difficulties we encountered in planning our trip from Lijiang was getting reliable information on hiking conditions. We had read online that just weeks before (late June) officials had closed the trail due to a couple of huge landslides. We also had read (and heard) that as of late July one of these landslides had completely taken out the main highway between Qiaotou and Walnut Garden. At the time, it was raining pretty heavily in Yunnan which affected trail conditions, but we could never get a good answer regarding weather in Lijiang (which by most accounts is supposed to be a major jumping off point for the trek).
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After having successfully completed the entire trek, here’s what we can tell you for certain. Unless the trail is closed by officials (which rarely happens), it is still quite possibly doable in rainy season, but be prepared for some slick and very muddy ascents and descents, scrambles over swollen waterfalls at precarious heights and road closures on the main highway. No one in Lijiang is going to be able to tell you whether the trail will be open or closed each morning because no one knows until it is actually closed — but you can usually bet on it being opened. We did the hike in the middle of the rainy season on a day with passing showers with some of the trail washed out by landslides, but it was still open.
In terms of transport, don’t worry much about it. Between Mama Naxi’s and N’s Kitchen in Lijiang, Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou and Tina’s Guesthouse at Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, (in addition to many other places), they’ve got you covered. There’s regular daily transport leaving Lijiang to Qiaotou, transport from Tina’s to Lijiang and Shangri-la, from various places in Walnut Garden to the other places mentioned and so on. It’s best to arrange transport to TLG from Lijiang with Mama Naxi or N’s if you are leaving from Lijiang, and Tina’s for the return trip if you are leaving from Middle TLG. All the big guest houses in Walnut Garden can also arrange transport (which ends up being a taxi transfer back to Tina’s to hop on a bus onward). Also, it’s worth noting that their are two routes on to Shangri-la, one back through Qiaotou and one on back roads northeast of Walnut Garden (via some magnificent limestone formations). It’s important to note this given that many trekkers like to drop their big packs at Jane’s in Qiaotou for safekeeping while trekking TLG — so you want to make sure that your return transport swings by Tina’s on the way back (most buses arranged through Tina’s make this stop).
Our Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
With all of that said, this is OUR experience:
While staying at Mama Naxi’s in Lijiang (37mi/60km south of TLG), we arranged “private” transport from Mama Naxi’s to Tina’s (35 RMB / US$4.50) each. This did NOT end up being a private hire as described, as we took on some passengers en route and even made a detour from the main road through a hill market via a poorly maintained road in a downpour. To make matters worse, the driver drove recklessly at high speeds through this entire portion to try to make up for the time lost. The road up to this point was pretty bad (washed out mud and gravel) due to construction of a new super-highway and the rainy season in full effect. The other foreigners in the car thought it was a grand adventure we were having, but I’ve had enough “adventures” with reckless drivers on bad roads in my life and would’ve preferred the driver stuck to the main highway instead of putting us all in unnecessary danger all to make a few RMB on the side when this was obviously not part of the deal.
When we finally made it to Qiaotou (a nearly 4 hour journey — to go a measly 37 miles, mind you — instead of the 2-3 Mama Naxi had advertised) for whatever reason he had to let us off at the bridge where we were ushered into a more legit looking minibus and shuttled to Jane’s GH right outside of Qiatou (via the Tourist Office, of course, where you pay the mandatory 65 RMB TLG entrance fee that nobody ever checks on the trail). It’s my understanding after doing a bit of investigation that this last part with the switching of the vehicles and the paying of the fee is legit, but it pays to be cautious when dealing with anyone in the foreign tourist industry in China. Folks are generally trustworthy, but there are always a few unsavory apples. You can always justify it in your head by saying that it’s only redistribution of wealth, but let me tell you scamming tourists in China and many other countries is BIG BUSINESS and often at the cost of YOUR safety and security. There are a few main scam pimps who get very rich and they often ain’t the peons you’re paying. But I digress…
We arrived at Tina’s Guest House in Qiatou at around 11am, where we had lunch and stored our bags (5 RMB per bag). The storage room isn’t the most secure place, so we advise locking up your bag and chaining it to something. We didn’t do this and had no problems, but it’s easy to do here and takes a lot of the worry out. We also don’t leave any valuable in our large packs, ever.
After lunch, we headed up to the trail with a small group of trekkers. It was one of the rare times we got to hang out with foreign tourists (read: non-Asian) in China so it was quite a treat. There was some confusion regarding finding the trailhead, so let me try and clarify things once and for all. You access the trail walking from Jane’s GH on the main highway. As with many things in China, things are always changing and there is only ONE real trail, which is referred to as the high trail. What was once the “low trail” is now — as of July 2010 — the busy main highway — so know that if you choose the “low trail” you’ll be walking along a paved highway all the way to Tina’s guest house. Some older maps you will encounter denote this as a dotted-line lower trail, but this is no longer the case. If you want a proper hike sans exhaust fumes, the high trail is the only way to go.
So how to find the high trail? It’s actually quite simple, but made difficult by poor instructions in trekking literature. All you do is walk out of Jane’s and get onto the main highway headed northeast (into the gorge). Walk along the highway about 500m until you reach a gravel road on your left heading uphill and away from the main highway. It is marked by a (on the RIGHT) — NOT a sign on the left near a particular non-existant mile-marker as per the “official” instructions. If you reach a restaurant on your left with multicolored flag streamers, you’ve gone too far.
The first part of the trail from Tina’s to Naxi Family GH winds up through green hillside and a few small villages. You’ll encounter women selling a variety of things from walking sticks to water to (always mumbled under their breath): ganja/marijuana/joint/etc. often from the oldest, sweetest-looking of women, which definitely threw us for a loop (Did she say what I think she said or am I just dehydrated?).
There are a couple of lovely viewpoints where you’ll find small shops, walking sticks, and even a toilet. They’re also great photo ops, but beware, the kindly old woman smiling at you will angrily demand 5-10 RMB for photos from “her” viewpoint. Often, you’ll get package deals (say, water, toilet and photo for 10 RMB). If you really want the photo, pay the money. These women and their families haul all of the stuff you see up the hill. If you really don’t want to pay the money, walk 20m down the path and take a pic. I highly advise buying the first walking stick you see sold, especially if you’re trekking in June/July. The mud makes for some interesting ascents and descents and the stick can be a lifesaver. Buy from the first seller you see cuz prices double as you head uphill. From Tina’s to Naxi Family it took us 1.5 hours. Most hikers make it in 1-2.
Hiking conditions in late July were less than perfect but completely workable. If it’s rained recently, you will mess your shoes quite a bit on the first day — but no worries! The muck will all wash off when you’re forced to wade through swollen waterfalls and springs on the second day! Don’t forget to bring some newspaper to wad up to dry out your hiking shoes/boots.
Muck Muck Muck!
Yes, there’s a lot of muck in the rainy season, but don’t forget to look up from time to time. The views make all the sloshing more than worthwhile.
Naxi Family guest house looks like a great place to lay your head for the night, but unfortunately comes way too early in the hike for those starting their trek from Qiatou. If you’re looking to extend the trek over a week, or get a late start out of Jane’s, this might be an excellent sleeping option. Otherwise, it’s a great place to take a break, have some tea and gear up for the “28 Bends.” Try the Yak Tea. I can’t exactly say its yummy, but hey, how often do you get to drink yak tea?
As mentioned, next come the “28 Bends.” Now, I’m not sure who’s doing the counting and what exactly constitutes a “bend,” but there are at least 40 switchbacks by my count. This part of the trail heads up-up-up. It’s pretty exhausting, but better than the slippery, slimy path elsewhere and hikers are rewarded with great views at the top (or, like us, are rewarded with fog!).
A couple of the shadier bends had muck on them, but most were fine…exhausting, but dry.
Standing at the highest point on the trail at 8,760 ft. (2670m) — a 3,200 elevation gain from Qiaotou — before heading back down into the fog on the other side.
The fog on the other side…
It’s about 2-3 hours of hard hiking from Naxi Family to Tea Horse Guest House where we stopped for the night — about 4.5 hours on the trail total for us. Not a lot, but hard work and very enjoyable with a relaxing evening of chatting with fellow trekkers and taking in the incredible scenery all around (while sipping a Dali beer or tea from Tea Horse’s large patio area). If you’re ambitious or pressed for time, you could continue on to Halfway Guesthouse, but be forewarned — it took us more than the 45 minutes everyone says (one of the maps says 2 hours!) and the folks there were not nearly as friendly as the folks at Tea Horse — no one so much as acknowledged our existence or returned our “hellos” and “nihaos” while passing through. I’ve also read some pretty rough reviews for the place. That, coupled with the fact that our trekking team also stopped at Tea Horse, was enough to convince us to hit the hay at T.H.
Worth noting about Tea Horse — first of all, great place, friendly staff, good food and prices (especially when you consider you’re half-way up a mountain). We were told by a number of people before hand not to bother with making a reservation (and I’m not sure they even take them) because TH “always has plenty of rooms.” Well, this is true, but what they don’t tell you is that the nice ones fill up fast. By the time we got there (mind you it was only around 4p and there weren’t many hikers on the trail), all but the most basic shared-toilet rooms were available.
Tea Horse Guest House main courtyard (there’s more seating in the covered area off the right side of the photo)
The guest house complex is beautiful, but these rooms were a bit rough around the edges — the linens seemed like they hadn’t been washed in a while, the floor was quite sandy and the shared washroom was a complex outside of the compound (a good minute’s walk across the compound and down a gravel driveway). The walls are very thin (the thickness of a pine board) with large holes where wood knots had fallen out where one could most certainly peep on you if they wanted to (we promptly plugged up the three in our room given privacy and the fact that the Chinese dude next to us was a literal chain smoker, smoking and watching movies into the wee hours). These rooms will set you back about 70 RMB (US$11) and I believe the nicer ones with ensuite washroom are twice that, so for the price, not bad, but just some things to be aware of. All in all, the vibe is what mattered most to us and the vibe at TH is awesome.