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.

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