With the Haba Mountains to the west, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the east, and the waters of the Yangtze River thundering over boulders almost 4000m below, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of China’s most spectacular treks and a unanimous must-do on any visit to Yunnan.
At around 15km in length and arguably the world’s deepest, the gorge has long been a staple of adventurous Yunnan travel. Its sheer slopes, striking peaks, waterfalls, forests, drowsy hamlets and local Naxi farmers with their donkeys or goat herds passing along the way, all combine to make a Tiger Leaping Gorge trek one which most visitors would be hard pushed to find better in the whole of China.
It is commonly noted that there are two paths available for hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, the high trail and the low trail, though in reality, only the high trail can be considered worth hiking since the low trail was widened and resurfaced for vehicles some time in the late 1990s. The high trail, however, is a path by which you can experience the true beauty and natural spectacle of the gorge and still feel suitably intrepid as you negotiate its climbs and descents, its roots and rock falls, along its vertiginous way.
Legend has it that the gorge was named after a tiger that used to cross the river using the giant stone that sits at its mouth as a stepping stone. Indeed, one of the highlights of any Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is descending from the road to the river in order to witness the sheer force and din of the Yangtze as it throws itself, white with spray, around this stranded rock.
However, the future of the gorge has recently been the subject of much doubt. The lower road has already been blasted into a tour bus-bearing calamity – the greater accessibility this brings naturally leading to greater numbers of tourists and greater problems in terms of the sustainability of the natural environment – though perhaps a greater threat to the gorge has been the oft floated plan to construct a hydroelectric project in or close to its site. The project was officially scrapped in 2007, but as China’s search for more efficient means by which to fuel its continued growth shows no signs of slowing, the gorge’s future, and the future of similar areas throughout China, looks set to remain one of nervous uncertainty for some time to come. Visit before the bulldozers beat you to it.
How to reach the gorge
The journey from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge should take less than three hours by bus. Buses can be taken from Lijiang long distance bus station and pass through Qiaotou on their way to Shangrila (Zhongdian). It is said that there are five buses daily going to Shangrila with the last bus leaving around 5pm, but as ever, it is best to verify this on the ground when you get there. Demand, rather than timetables, tend to rule the road in China. There will certainly be buses in the morning and in the early afternoon. There may also be a bus direct to Qiaotou around 8:30am. Check when you arrive in Lijiang.
More conveniently, transport can be arranged by many of the backpacker hostels in town. We arranged our transport with Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse, and along with the 18 or so other gorge-goers, assembled outside the hostel at 7:30 in order to travel the 60km north in our three mini buses. These buses then dropped us a short distance outside the village of Qiaotou at the start of the gorge from where we transferred to another bus for the ride across the bridge and through the village to the entrance. At the time of writing, entrance to the Gorge costs Y50.
How to tackle the gorge
The trek from Qiaotou to Walnut Grove at the end of the gorge can be done in two days. We were able to arrive at the gorge, leave our bags and have lunch at Jane’s Guesthouse just beyond the entrance, and not begin our hike until after midday. Yet we still made it to the Halfway Lodge before dark after a leisurely seven hour hike. There are plenty of signs along the way marking the walking times to the different hostels ahead (usually between one and three hours). We found these to be a pretty accurate gauge of whether to push on to the next hostel or stay put for the night. There is always somewhere close enough by to avoid getting stranded.
If you can make it to Halfway Lodge by the end of the first day, you will be rewarded with one of the best views on the gorge, as the hostel looks straight out over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain opposite. You can sit back and relax, watching the stars appear one by one, and recharge yourself ready for the walk to Walnut Grove in the morning. To continue on from half way on the same day close to sundown wouldn’t be wise, as the route gets rather more challenging, the footing more unsure, and it is over two hours to the next hostel.
At the start of the second day it will be no more than four hours to Sean’s Guesthouse at the end of the trek. You should reach Tina’s Youth Hostel in around two hours from where it is possible to take a detour down to the river to get a closer view of Tiger Leaping Stone. More detours to the bamboo forest and waterfalls are possible after reaching Walnut Grove. It is even possible to extend your Tiger Leaping Gorge trek by continuing on to Baishuitai or Daju if you are feeling especially vigorous.
How to get away
Returning to Qiaotou after finishing your Tiger Leaping Gorge trek at Walnut Garden is actually a little of an anticlimax. Most people return via the low road by minibus. These usually congregate around Tina’s Guesthouse and charge around $100/van for the 30 minute trip. We actually flagged a couple of cars down when walking back to Tina’s from Sean’s Guesthouse. The first was a van that offered to take us back for $150. No thanks. The second contained a Chinese couple who were touring Yunnan in their own car and who offered to take us back to Qiaotou with them for nothing. Xiexie.
From Qiaotou, you can return to Lijiang by bus or continue heading north to Shangrila and Northern Yunnan. If you don’t need to return to Qiaotou to pick up your bags, however, you can continue on to Daju on the opposite side of the river via ferry and get the bus back to Lijiang from there. You can even hire a minibus from Sean’s or Tina’s Guesthouse to take you on the 90 minute drive to Haba and then continue on to Shangrila.