Tiger Leaping Gorge - 虎跳峡

by - June 01, 2014

The Yangtze River at the Bottom of Tiger Leaping Gorge
The start of the trail
As the only sight in Yunnan that I had actually heard of before I started planning the trip, Tiger Leaping Gorge was to be one of the highlights of my time in Asia.  One of the deepest gorges in the world and one of the continent’s more challenging hikes, it is THE must-have experience for any visitor to the province.  Getting there could not have been any easier, with our hostel in Lijang arranging a ticket for us on one of the morning minibuses to the trailhead at the southern end of the gorge.  Just before this point we were made to pay the ‘entrance ticket’ to the gorge of 25 Yuan (though this was the student rate).  This was compounded a few minutes into the hike itself where a ridiculous old Chinese lady refused to let anybody pass her unless they paid her 3 Yuan.  We had started the hike as a group of about twenty five westerners, drawn from all of the hostels of Lijang, and we were all in two minds about paying.  I was very much not up for doing it and tried to run past her – though this caused her to spit after me and threaten to throw a rock at me, which suggested that paying was perhaps the best option.  A pretty terrible welcome to the gorge it must be said.

The mules that hover behind ailing hikers
From there things were a lot more pleasant as we began our climb to the high point of the western side of the gorge.  Over the course of a 7 hour hike we were set to experience a rise in altitude of around 1000 metres and considering our starting point was pretty high anyway, it is not uncommon for people to struggle with the shortness of breath associated with high altitudes.  Luckily this was not much of a problem for myself, Eleanor and Sergei and we were able to complete a good chunk of the trail before stopping for lunch at a little cabin which sold everything from instant noodles to cannabis. As the trial got tougher, we were joined by locals with donkeys which could be hired at a moment’s notice for flagging hikers - you knew how well you were hiking by how close behind they were hovering.

Close to the highest section of the hike
The trail, while obviously physically challenging, was a dream to navigate – well signposted throughout and with a good indication of how many hours it would take to reach certain key points.  There are a string of guesthouses along the trail and most hikers get as far as they can on the first day, spend a night at the nearest accommodation and then finish off the hike the next morning.  The group that joined us on the bus from Lijang were walking at roughly the same pace, so we kept bumping into the same people at the rest houses along the length of the gorge.  Once we passed the most challenging section of the hike, the so-called ’28 bends’, the trail flattened out and we were able to fully appreciate the glorious location.  O

ne of the most dramatic natural locations that I had ever visited, the gorge plummeted below us out of sight - though the sound of rushing water was never that far away.

The Halfway Guesthouse
To complete the hike in a day is possible, but would be rushed and would also miss out on one of the highlights - staying at one of the mountain lodges.  These hostels, scattered along the length of the hike, are run by local families and the majority are traditional wooden buildings.  The majority are about halfway along the hike, around the area that the average hiker starts to want to pack down for the night.  Appropriately, our hostel was called the Halfway Guesthouse and had been chosen by many of the other hikers that we had met throughout the day, making it one of the best places of accommodation that I have ever come across.  It was a clear night and as we were along way from any cities the stars were astonishingly bright - so bright that the mountains appeared as silhouettes against the night sky.  A large group of about twenty of us from places as diverse as Argentina, Russia, Korea and all over Europe spent the evening sitting on an open terrace eating the home cooked food and drinking beers.

The 30 metre ladder down to the river’s edge
The next morning we were able to get up at a reasonably leisurely pace and carried on to the end of the hike which is normally marked at a guesthouse called “Tina’s” from where people can get buses either on to Shangri-La or back to Lijiang.  Halfway to Tina’s is only about a two hour hike, but there is an optional three hour hike from there, which is a round trip further down the gorge right down to the banks of the Yangtze river itself.  This is definitely the most challenging part of the hike, with metal stairs and ladders nailed precariously into the side of cliffs.  For the physically fit,  the journey is certainly worth doing - having heard the roar of the mighty river for the duration of the entire hike on the first day, we were able to witness the shear force of water that had been making all of the noise.  Even outside of the rainy season, the river was perhaps the most powerful force of nature that I had ever witnessed.  With aching legs we clambered back up to Tina’s and waited in the restaurant there for the buses back to Lijiang.  Tiger Leaping Gorge’s reputation certainly precedes it, but it did not disappoint and is definitely the best hike I have ever completed.

The Yangtze River at the bottom of Tiger Leaping Gorge

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