Sitting along the northern edge of Yunnan province, just south of Tibet and on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, Tiger Leaping Gorge is particularly popular with backpacking types from all over the world. A Canadian friend who recommended it to me said that his experience along the gorge changed his life forever. That’s a rave review if I’ve ever heard one.
This little slice of heaven got its name, because legend has it that a tiger actually crossed the rapids of the Jinsha River by leaping from one side of the gorge to another. Today, a little old Chinese woman waits along the river to charge a small fee to tourists who want to run across the rapids on a rickety bridge to access the alleged Tiger Leaping Stone. In my personal opinion, it was worth every penny.
The grueling hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge begins at Qiaotou Village and can be spread over many hours and many days. There are multiple ways to slice and dice it, so I’ll just tell you how I did it.
DAY 1: You’ll begin at Qiaotou Village, leaving your baggage at Jane’s Guesthouse, with the exception of a small hiking backpacking and your necessities for the next few days. You can either hire a van directly to Naxi Family Guesthouse (arguably the most hospitable guesthouse experience along the gorge), or you can do the 3-hour hike. Many people say that this first section rivals the 28 bends in difficulty.
DAY 2: We woke up fairly early for a classic Naxi breakfast of “pancake” which was basically whole-wheat flatbread with apple slices and honey on top. We departed around 9am – it’s too cold and dangerous to begin before the sun is up. Shortly into the hike, you’ll get into what Lonely Planet refers to as “the 28 agonising bends that lead to the highest point of the gorge.” It’s quite an uphill workout on very uneven terrain – make sure you have good footwear and prepare with a little at-home stairmaster or Buns of Steel.
We encountered an old Chinese woman who was selling Snickers, oranges and marijuana in a tiny shack along the trail. In her broken Chinese, she’ll try to charge you to go down a pathway to what she calls the best views in China, but don’t fall for it. Just keep on keepin’ on. Pay attention, too, because the trail signs aren’t always as visible as they should be.
We walked and climbed and walked and climbed some more, until we finally made it to Tea Horse Guesthouse for a refueling lunch before continuing on. When we finally made it to Halfway Guesthouse around 6pm, we were dead tired and starving. It was a solid 8 hours of hiking that day, not including the 1-hour lunch break.
Word of warning: If a man approaches you to ask you to ride his horse or donkey, don’t take his advice on directions. These guys will purposely lead you astray and find you later in the day when you’re worn out, running out of daylight and have no choice but to pay him for a ride.
DAY 3: After setting off around 8am, we decided to hike to Tina’s Guesthouse and catch the 3pm bus back to Lijiang. The hike to Tina’s only took about four hours, but the winding, downhill trek along rocks and slippery pebbles is no joke.
After a quick lunch at Tina’s, we made the ambitious decision to hike toward the Tiger Leaping Stone and make it back for the afternoon bus. The hike is a steep downhill path, which means the uphill return is a bit treacherous and my hiking buddy called it quits about halfway in. With the Jinsha River in distant sight, I decided to continue on without her.
Soon, I came upon the infamous ladder, which is special because it goes STRAIGHT DOWN at a 90 degree angle with the mountain. It’s not set on a diagonal like a normal ladder. At this point in the trail, you have the option to take the ladder or proceed along the “safe path.” I made it about 3 unsteady steps down the rusty ladder before I imagined how angry my mother would be if I took a spill with no one around to find me. I’ve seen the inside of a Chinese hospital once already and have no intention of returning – I took the safe path instead.
By the time I made it to the Tiger Leaping Stone and took in the rushing rapids, it was 2:05pm. I only had 55 minutes to high tail it back up the mountain to catch the bus or I’d be stranded. Special thanks to the crazy Cuban ballet teachers of my youth for teaching me how to push myself physically, because the accelerated uphill hike back to civilization was the most strenuous of all. On shaking legs, I made it back to Tina’s with just 5 minutes to spare.
Tiger Leaping Gorge had some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen in my life (can’t even imagine what it looks like when the flowers are blooming), but that’s just one part of the experience. The food, the people you meet along the way and the authentic glimpse into Chinese farm village life is what makes up the rest. It makes me sad to think that 99% of the people I know back home will never experience anything like it. My people, please travel if you can.
Note for travelers: The gorge hike doesn’t have to end at Tina’s Guesthouse. You can add another day by hiking to Walnut Garden, or even further to the village of Daju. Consult a Lonely Planet guidebook for more information.