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.

Pen and Paper

Recently, the government has stepped up its efforts in internet censorship over here, and that’s why I haven’t been posting. It takes forever to get this page to open, when it works at all, and then things are all malfunctioning…don’t even get me started on trying to post photos.

I’ve started keeping a diary – a real live pen and paper affair. It’s mundane, but I think I’ve downplayed too much the importance of recording the mundane. March has passed, and it’s been freezing cold and grey. We crowd our feet around our little space heater and wear our long johns every day.

I’m going to try to keep posting here – change is afoot! I’m leaving for Lebanon on Saturday, for a work-related conference. I’m staring down the end of my time at this job, which will mark two years in China (where did that time go?). I’m barely keeping up, having not posted anything here about the staggeringly awesome trip that was our honeymoon. New Zealand is paradise – did you know that? 100% paradise. I can’t remember when I’ve been so happy.

It’s already taken me an hour to put this up, what with the internet crappiness, so here is a minor teaser photo, from the Port Hills of Christchurch, of a New Yorker in New Zealand:

Here’s hoping I hope I can post more soon.