Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge: Day 3

From Sean’s Guesthouse, your goal is to descend to the river, where a boatman will ferry you across. It’s then a short walk to the village of Daju.

Getting to the boatman is a little tricky if you don’t speak Chinese. You’ll walk for a couple hours along the paved road that runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge – there isn’t much traffic, so it’s not too bad. Plus, the views both back into the gorge and forward into the widening valley are outstanding.

The road will have been basically flat the whole way – and then suddenly there is a short steep climb, at the top of which you will come to a place called Riverside Village (江边村).

You’ll walk for a few minutes until you reach the center of the village, with a small strip of shops and activity. Here’s the tricky bit – from here you veer off to the right, along the side of a corn field, down a rocky path, through a plot where a couple of houses are being built, etc. etc., until you find the path that leads down to the river. If you can’t speak Mandarin, you are probably out of luck. Granted, the people living in this village don’t really speak Mandarin either, but they understand enough such that when you ask them “渡口在哪里?Where is the ferry?” and make little oar-paddling movements, they know to point you in the right direction.

The views along the way are stunning, and make it seem totally improbably that you will ever, in a thousand years, run into a river with a boatman who will ferry you across.

But indeed, after about half an hour you’ll see little hand-painted 渡口 signs, and eventually you’ll head down to the sandy riverbank. The boatman will be on the other side, so you’ll need to jump up and down shouting HEY HEY HEY until you hear the motor start up, and see the ferry come towards you.

It cost us 20 RMB each for the one minute ride but even if it cost 100 RMB each you’d just have to pay it; you can’t ford the river and otherwise you have to walk a hell of a long way back to Qiaotou.

On the other side of the river there’s a steep path up to a small road. Puffing and panting, you’ll get up there and wonder exactly how much longer it is – don’t worry. You’re almost there. Basically you just follow the road to your right, and you’ll be in the village of Daju within 30 minutes. Marvel at the strange terrain around you. I’ve never been there, but in my mind this is what New Mexico looks like.

Once you’re in the village, look out for a little sign on the left advertising itself as a hotel, and saying that there’s a bus to Lijiang.

While you’re waiting for the bus, hang out in the little hotel, put up your feet and get a can of ice cold soda and a popsicle out of the hotel’s freezer. They will be the greatest refreshments you have ever consumed.

And that’s it! – almost. This part is very important!

The bus will come and whisk you away back to Lijiang (and they will attempt to charge you 50 RMB for passing through Jade Dragon Snow Mountain park – explain that you’re going straight to Lijiang and not getting off, and hopefully they’ll leave you along). BUT! You must not fall asleep on this bus ride. You will be tired from the walk, and may start to nod off, but DO NOT. This is one of the greatest bus rides in China. The road is STAGGERINGLY beautiful, winding through graceful mountains and…I can’t even describe it. It’s tremendous – do not miss it by falling asleep.

The little bus goes so fast that I couldn’t take any pictures, except this one from the very beginning of the ride:

So you’ll just have to trust me. It’s the greatest end to a hike in history.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge: Day 2

When we realized that waiting for it to clear up might take several days, we headed back out onto the trail in the fog. An hour later the clouds began to dissipate, and we enjoyed a few hours of relatively flat trail.

Eventually, you’ll encounter another bit of uphill. RP and I got ourself all prepped for another vertical shlep, but it turned out to be exceedingly short. We sat on a flat rock at the top of the brief climb and took out our lunch, looking out over the Gorge and feeling very pleased with ourselves. This was short-lived, as we suddenly heard a crowd of voices coming up the path. When the group appeared it was clear that they were not actually hiking the High Road, but had driven the Low Road that runs along the bottom of the gorge near the river. (There are a few short paths up from the road where tour groups can come up for the views.)

This particular group, as it turned out, was a Korean Christian youth group. We knew this because they were clearly being corralled by a man with a pastor-ly air, who, after speaking some soothing words to his young charges, lead them in what could only have been religious song followed by increasingly boisterous and feverish praise of the Almighty. This picture really does not do it justice.

Now, I don’t mind if you want to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge and pray – it’s a place that encourages you to be introspective and in awe; a natural place for prayer. But 15 people depositing themselves two feet away from a couple of peaceful picnickers and proceeding to fill the gorge with shouting is just rude. Rude!

After passive aggressively giving this youth group evil looks for a couple minutes, I decided we should just move on.

The trail descends steeply before softening to a gentle downward slope. Enjoy the views – try not to spend too much time staring at the path.

Eventually you’ll see a sign for Tina’s Guesthouse – you’ll be almost to the junction with main road at this point. Wipe a tear from your eye that the gorge is behind you!

Across from the end of the trail is a guesthouse advertising bus services back to Qiaotou, where you can catch another bus back to Lijiang. But don’t do it! Keep going! Perhaps another 20 minutes down the road is Sean’s Guesthouse, where you can stay the night before heading out again for Daju.

(Note: Sean’s Guesthouse seems to be engaged in a cutthroat battle for customers with Woody’s Guesthouse, played out in messages painted on rocks along the path – Sean’s Guesthouse This Way! — WOODY’S GUESTHOUSE ALSO THIS WAY BUT CLOSER THAN SEAN’S!!!1@#!, etc. I’m sure Woody’s is nice as well, but I recommend Sean’s for the tremendous stone deck from which you can admire the last of Tiger Leaping Gorge as the day comes to an end. And dry your socks.)

If you get lucky, as we did, the night will be clear. In most Chinese cities, including Kunming, almost no stars can be seen due to the atrocious haze and air pollution. But night in the Gorge is pristine – that night at Sean’s, it seemed as if the whole universe had descended to wrap us in its magnificence. I think that the power of a truly dark sky is that human beings spend almost all of their time focused on space that is no more than 50 feet above our heads – often much less. When the sky is truly dark and clear, the earth retreats into nothingness and you realize that essentially all known space and matter is not around you, but above you. It takes your breath away.

If you’re not already a member of the International Dark-Sky Association, you should be.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge: Day 1

There aren’t very many hikes in China that are both impressive and easily accessible, not because China doesn’t have beautiful hiking terrain, but because hiking isn’t a particularly popular pastime here.

The exception to this is Tiger Leaping Gorge, a hike along the ridge line of a stunningly beautiful, 2,000-meter deep gorge with views that include lush greenery, snow-capped mountains, and white water rapids so dangerous that you’re not actually allowed to raft them.

Plus, if you’re in decent shape it’s not even that hard – and you’ll likely find yourself encountering only a few other people as you follow along the trail.

If you’re anywhere near Yunnan, you should hike Tiger Leaping Gorge – I can’t believe it took me so long to get there, and I’m so grateful that I made it before leaving the province. Now that I’ve convinced you to do it, my additional advice is to allot three days for the whole trip; the Gorge can be hiked in a very leisurely two days, with one night spent at one of the couple of guest houses located along the the trail. This two days will get you from the trail head in Qiaotou to the trail junction with the main road at the end of the Gorge (near where Sean’s Guesthouse is located) – but you will miss the truly stunning scenery from there to Daju, which is utterly unlike the Gorge itself. It is 100% worth it to take an extra day for this.

I’m about to describe the route, but in case it’s helpful here is a photo of a little map that someone handed us along the trail. I know it’s crumpled and hand-drawn, but it can help you visualize what’s ahead of you on the trail.

Click map to view larger image.

A word on the weather: we hiked the Gorge in Yunnan’s rainy season with no problem. It hadn’t been pouring in the few days leading up to our trip, and we called ahead to check with Sean on the condition of the trail just to be sure (0887-8202223), but it was nothing to worry about.

Without further ado, here is an instructional guide for hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, from Qiaotou to Daju. I’ll post Days 2 and 3 of the hike in the next few days.

Start by getting yourself to Lijiang. There is a very nice overnight train from Kunming that gets you into Lijiang around 8am. I recommend not choosing the top bunks if you go with a hard sleeper, because it’s a little…cramped.

If you hustle, and get lucky, you can make it to the Lijiang Bus Station in time to catch the 8:30am bus to Qiaotou. I believe it’s the #18 public bus that goes from the Lijiang Train Station to a couple blocks away from the bus station, but we had to scramble to make it, and if you’ll probably want to get a cab just to be safe.

The bus to Qiaotou took us around 3 hours, but I believe this was because of construction that forced us to take a smaller, bumpier road. Either way, we arrived in Qiaotou with enough time to eat lunch before setting off on the trail. In Qiaotou you’ll need to pay the the fee for hiking the trail, which is 50 RMB (25 RMB for students with a Chinese university ID).

From the Qiaotou bus stop, you need to walk perhaps 10 minutes farther along the road to the trail head. You should see the following sign (“Tiger Leaping gorge hiking high way thus into”):

After following this sign you’ll pretty immediately run into a confusing mess of dirt paths – the one you want, all the way along the trail, is the so-called “High Road” (高路). There are periodic blue and yellow signs, along with seemingly Rasta-themed arrows painted on rocks in red, yellow and green, to show you the way along the trail.

The views start getting good straight away.

The first day is the toughest, because that’s where you gain almost all of the elevation. You gain it first to get up to the ridge line, and then at the notorious “28 Bends” – literally, a set of 28 little switchbacks to get you to the highest point of the trail. Apparently some people even start from the other end of the trail, ending at Qiaotou, just to avoid the 28 bends – but they’re seriously not that bad. Don’t be a wimp.

You’ll know you’re getting to the 28 Bends because the view gets more dramatic…

…and weed starts to grow by the side of the trail! Local people will tell you very earnestly that they smoke it because it helps them sleep.

Anyway. The Bends.

You’ve gained all the elevation now, and you may notice the weather change. For us, it got chillier and we walked right into a drifting rainstorm. Take pictures even if this happens to you, because the view is still awesome, even with rain.

We were hoping the rain would let up so we hid out in a little cove in the side of the mountain waiting for it to clear – but it never did. Given that the rain was making the trail a little slippery, and that it was getting to be dinner time since we hadn’t started the trail until noon, we decided to call it quits and stay in the Tea Horse Guesthouse (茶马客栈). If you get an earlier start, it’s completely possible to make it to the Halfway Inn (中途客栈), which is 60-90 minutes farther along the trail.

The Tea Horse Guesthouse was a very decent place to stay the night – and it goes without saying that it was well situated…

One word of advice while you’re hiking the Gorge: if the weather is clear, even for an hour, take lots of pictures. When we checked into our room, the view from our window looked like this:

And when we woke up the next morning, it looked like this:

Total white-out.

This Day, Again

For the past few years I’ve been seeing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming, wondering what it would be like when it arrived. Now here it is – and doesn’t it feel terrible?

Anything that happened less than 10 years ago can seem recent, but when you hit a decade you have to admit that, somewhere in there, a new era has dawned. In the past, I’ve referred to 9/11 as the most significant single event to happen in my lifetime, and I still believe that. But it has been eclipsed by all of the terrible events that have come since, in its name, with it as an excuse. The declaration of an ideological war that has created more enemies in the Muslim world that the West ever had previously, the massive and ongoing loss of lives. The implosion of the American financial system, the Great Recession.

It does feel as though we’ve been hiding out over here in China as the West eviscerates itself – there has been a certain blissful distance in this, and some guilt as well. I never know how to mark the more ordinary anniversaries of 9/11, let alone the passage of 10 years. RP and I talked about that day again; where we were; what it has meant for New York and New Yorkers; what has happened since for New Yorkers, the country, each of us personally. I don’t feel a decade older.

How do you mark the day?


Despite all of this, you will be glad to hear that the bad spirit following us around seems to have departed. Thanks to all of you for your excellent suggestions on how to get rid of it! Now that it has gone, what’s left is the sense of being done with Kunming – so done. Beyond done. Let’s-get-on-a-plane-tomorrow done.

As an illustration: if you follow the Chinese human interest news, you may have read that China is becoming more culturally liberal, with such hallmarks of alternative youth culture as multi-day music festivals springing up around the country. RP and I have always been curious about what these music festivals might be like, wondering if these were the places where real Chinese youth culture and coolness could be seen – and, as luck would have it, the first such giant music festival in Kunming was held over the past couple days. Today we went to the last of it, all prepared to have a good time, and particularly prepared to see Cui Jian, the headlining act and most famous rock musician in Chinese history.

Well…Cui Jian was pretty good. The rest of it was sort of disastrous.

It was actually a great venue, a beautiful night, and a hilarious crowd for people-watching (old ladies bopping around – check. Wannabe Kunming hipsters – check. A healthy sampling of goofy Kunming foreigners attempting to dance with the cops – double check.)

But China just doesn’t know how to do this kind of thing. The music was mostly terrible (because no self-respecting Chinese band stays in Kunming for very long). The whole festival venue was submerged in corporate advertising of a kind I have never seen before: giant screens showing ads on a loop for Mercedes-Benz and Budweiser while the bands played in front of them, occasionally cutting off the bands’ sounds systems so that the ads could play with sound for a few minutes. The crowds stood there, mesmerized, watching the screens.

When Cui Jian finally came on at people cheered and hollered – he’s a big deal. It’s kind of like seeing Bruce Springsteen play, if America hadn’t produced another rock star since.

But the overwhelming feeling that came over me was that it’s time to go. Kunming and I are done with each other. I’m like that random guy still hanging out on the college campus a couple years after graduation – not cool.

Fortunately, my ticket is purchased – I’m on a plane to Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, to begin almost two weeks of a very happy tour guiding opportunity: my mom is coming to visit! She’s playing ambassador for my family, an emissary from Manhattan, here to check up on China and what on earth I’ve been up to for the past couple years. I’m totally thrilled.

And after that – the open road, as it were. Taiwan, Xinjiang. The great beyond.

Don’t you worry (weren’t you worried?!) – I’ll be keeping you all regularly updated with tales and photos. First up (tomorrow) pictures from our awesome trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shaxi. Stay tuned.