We didn’t just come to China to teach, we came to hike and explore China’s beautiful and less smoggy side. A few months ago we decided to hike the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan. Yunnan was a province we had heard wonderful things about and we had actually been saving it for the end of our trip so we could have ample time there. After much researching we decided that there was actually only a few places we really wanted to explore, so in our last week of the Spring Festival holiday we booked a flight to Lijiang and got our adventure on.
Legend has it that a hunter was chasing a tiger through the gorge many years ago. When it reached the narrowest point the tiger leapt across the Jinsha River, escaping the furious hunter, and that’s how the gorge got its name.
There are many places of interest in Yunnan and most people will fly to Kunming as this is the gateway airport to all of these places. We flew to Lijiang instead as it was the nearest town to Tiger Leaping Gorge and is a beautiful ancient city in its own right, flights from Chengdu were around 1200 RMB (£150) each way.
We stayed in the Lijiang Senior Leader Hostel which was situated on the quieter side of the ancient town and they helped us book a seat on a van that would drive us to the start of the hike in Qiaotou, I’m pretty sure any hostel/hotel will do this for you. Everyone who comes to Lijiang will most definitely go to Tiger Leaping Gorge one way or another.
Note: There are two ways to visit the Gorge. One is the “Upper Trekking Trail” (which is what we did) starting in Qiaotou. The other is the more popular (Chinese) tourist option following a tarmac road that runs near the water, where buses and cars drive right past you. This second option only takes about two hours to see most of the gorge, but where’s the fun in that?!
The Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge trail passes through quiet hillside villages and runs high above the raging Jinsha River. Along the hike you’ll walk in the presence of some truly majestic mountains, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain 玉龙雪山 and Haba Snow Mountain 哈巴雪山. Most people tend to do the hike in two days and spend one night in a guesthouse, you can even do it in one day if you walk really, really fast. We had some time and decided to really enjoy being amongst the towering Himalayan mountains and opted to spend two nights. Below is everything you need to know about hiking this truly spectacular trail, and I couldn’t recommend spending two nights on the trail enough!
The bus from Lijiang cost us 40RMB (£6) each and it picked us up from outside a petrol station on the main street at around 7.30. There were lots of people waiting and tons of vans and coaches driving around and picking people up from this area. The drive to Quitou takes about two hours and we stopped for about 10 minutes for people to buy any snacks or breakfast if needed.
Just before we reached our final destination the bus stopped outside the ticket office and a man came on board to give us our tickets, the cost was 65 RMB (£7) each.
The majority of the people on our bus were Westerners and as the bus stopped to drop the hikers off, it was the Westerners who would be hiking the trail. It’s easy to spot the start of the trail, just look for the huge stone with a painted tiger on it. We set off hiking around 9.45 and the first 30 minutes is by road, with your first views of the river on your right. You’ll know when the real hiking trail begins when you see a small shop selling water and other snacks, and then it’s a long, hard slog to the top. There is no shade on this part of the trail and there must have been some rain a few days before as the trail was very muddy. This took us about two hours with lots of stops for photos and water.
Along the way you’ll encounter old ladies and men selling you all sorts of things, from marijuana to Gatorade. We continued along the trail, wondering when we would encounter the infamous 28 Bends section of the trail. Then we came across another women selling the same things as before. She warned us that this was our last opportunity to buy anything for three hours and luckily we took her word for it as this was actually the case. It also turned out to be the start of the 28 Bends, so our Gatorade purchase was a win!
I’m pretty sure there are way more than 28 Bends, but maths has never been my strong point. Anyway, this section of the trail was not that bad and it’s from this part of the trail that the views start to get really spectacular. We were also greeted by huge soaring Himalayan Condors flying overhead. Along this part of the trail there were local men trying to charge you to take photos, just ignore them, you can take much better pictures of the gorge later on.
You’ll come across a huge rock with writing on it (you’ll know the one when you see it) then all you need to know is that it’s downhill from there until you reach the next village. We stayed the night here at the Tea Horse Guesthouse – we had heard that this was a much quieter place to stay and had better food than the next guesthouse, with this information and the fact that we were starving (it was almost 3pm) we decided to stay here for lunch and for the night. The rooms here were perfect, we paid 150 RMB (£17) for a double room with a shower (there are cheaper options available). The view from our window was incredible! The food at the guesthouse is typical Chinese dishes with either rice or noodles. We ended our night with a cup of hot chocolate on the balcony and a pretty impressive view of the stars and the mountain peaks.
Not having to rush meant that we enjoyed a lie in until 9am and after a not so great breakfast of pancakes we set off at around 10.30. From the guesthouse you need to walk through the village for around 15 minutes until you see a dirt track where the trail continues. We walked along this track for another two hours, until we arrived at the Halfway Guesthouse, this is where most people stay the night. We even learnt that the legend, Michael Palin stayed here on his Himalayan journey. We ordered some lunch and sat enjoyed the epic mountain views for two hours in the glorious sunshine. When you arrive at this guesthouse make sure you use the toilet, with a name like ‘Number One Toilet in Heaven and Earth’ it would be rude not to!
I have seen a lot of mountain views in my time, but there was something truly special about the views along this trail with the mountains soaring high above you. Usually I am trying to summit the peak with my head down focusing on making my way to the top, with the occasional break to take in the views. On this trail you wander along with the mountains by your side, they become your companion not the challenge.
“I have never experienced such vertiginous feelings as I have when sandwiched between the 13,000-foot-high (3960m) walls of the gorge. Soaring verticals seem to create some magnetic force which makes me think I might be able to fly. Fight to resist the urge.” – Michael Palin
After a lengthy rest we hike for the next two hours on what is probably one of my favourite parts of the entire trail. We encounter more incredible views of the river flowing below and the mountain peaks glistening in the sunlight. The trail becomes a lot narrower and the sheer drop into the gorge a little more real. The trail was mostly flat with the occasional scramble over some rocks, but just because it was flat does not mean that it was easy. The blistering sun was beating down on us and the wind that accompanied it meant we were constantly shielding our eyes from dust, whilst remembering how close we were to the edge.
Once you start descending you know you are coming to the end of the hike and it’s not long before you reach the road and see Tina’s Guesthouse. You can stay here and/or book your bus ticket back to Lijiang. We opted to stay in the Tibet Guesthouse as we had heard great things about it, but you’ll need to have at least 30 minutes left of hiking in you to get there, but it’s definitely worth it. We paid 100 RMB (£12) for a double ensuite and the food and the views from the restaurant were incredible. We spent the night in complete darkness except for a roaring fire, thanks to a power cut. Cue more stargazing.
Again we enjoyed a little bit of lie in, our legs were definitely feeling it a little today, that’s for sure. As we sat waiting for our freshly steamed pork buns for breakfast, we watched as the first rays of sunshine worked there way into the valley. Today was going to be another good day.
Over the last few days we’d spent our time looking down on the raging river from above, today we would get up close and personal. We followed a dusty path and scrambled over lose rocks as worked our way further into Tiger Leaping Gorge. All of the trails in this part of the gorge require a small fee because they are maintained by the locals rather than the government. This was a fee we were happy to pay as it meant that the government hadn’t commercialised it with paved paths and cable cars.
As we approached ‘The Ray of Sunshine Trail’ we encountered our first fee, 10 RMB (£2). ‘The Ray of Sunshine Trail’ offered great views of the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and is basically a path carved into the side of the mountain. At the end of the trail we reach another check point, here you have two options, pay 5 RMB to walk down to the rocks by the river and then walk back along the way you have just come, or pay 15 RMB to climb the Sky Ladder back out of the gorge, we chose the latter.
Walking down to the river over rickety wooden planks and around huge wobbling boulders we found ourselves in the depths of the gorge with the river running beside us. The river was low at this time of year, so I can only imagine what it was like in full flow. As we continued walking along, fascinated by the mind-blowing scenery, we didn’t realise we were walking away from the Sky Ladder and making our way out of the gorge another way. The Sky Ladder has around 168 steps, some of which are vertical, and after speaking to two Dutch boys about their experience on the ladder I was glad we ended up hiking out of the gorge instead, as we could enjoy the stunning views one last time.
We finally finished up back at Tina’s where we devoured a plate of noodles and sleepily waited for our bus back to Lijiang. In some ways the trip was relaxing as we took our time and enjoyed plenty of rests along the way, but like any hike it was also tiring and our aching legs and feet were definitely ready for a few chilled days in Lijiang before heading home. No visit to Yunnan Province should be without a hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge, it was truly epic and one of my favourite adventures we’ve had here in China.
- One thing we missed is the upper section of the Tiger Leaping Gorge located about 4km from town along the river road, the Upper Gorge has a series of boardwalks that lead you right down to the mighty Jinsha River. Your ticket includes entrance to this area, so you may as well use it. If you book a bus back from Tibet Guesthouse instead of Tina’s they actually stop there for an hour, something we found out after we had already booked our ticket from Tina’s, darn it.
- You can store luggage that you don’t want to carry in Jane’s Guesthouse at the start of the trail. Once you’ve finished the trail and you’re heading back, the bus driver will stop at Jane’s for people to pick their bags back up.
- If you get hungry quickly when hiking, I would suggest taking some snacks with you. There are people selling chocolate bars and other weird Chinese snacks, but sometimes we didn’t see anyone for hours. The same goes for water, always stock up when you come across someone selling it.