A Night on Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡 – Hŭtiàoxiá) is one of the deepest canyons in the world. Its winding trails and vast cliffs lie only 60 kilometers outside of Lijiang. Apparently foreigners started hiking the gorge in the 1980s. Since then a well maintained trail complimented by numerous guesthouses have made Tiger Leaping Gorge a safe and fantastic place to hike.

We started the hike from the Qiáotóu (桥头) side of the gorge (scroll to the bottom for a map of the hike). At the trail entrance it’s very likely a guy with a mule or donkey will be standing there. Even if you tell him you can carry your own bags, he’ll still follow you in hopes that you change your mind. Just be patient and polite, and he’ll eventually leave you alone.

Tip: Drop your extra luggage off at Jane’s Guesthouse at the trail head. Just ask your driver about it and he’ll let you off at the right place. Once you’re done with the hike just make sure the transportation you take goes towards Qiaotou so you can stop and get your bags. Hiking without all the added weight makes for a much better time.

The hardest part of the hike is definitely on the first day of ascending the mountain. You’ll eventually come to a point called the 28 Bends (you’ll see a sign). More donkeys will be eagerly awaiting you here. This is the steepest part of the hike, so be strong. Forge on. For experienced hikers this won’t be a problem at all. It’s not really that steep for very long, but you’ll definitely lose your breath. Drink lots of water and power through and it’ll be over before you know it. The great part about this hike is that you’re never really waiting/hiking to the next beautiful view. Because it’s a gorge, you’ve got an amazing view basically the whole time. So when you’re tired just stop and enjoy. It even looks good covered in clouds.

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Note that on your way up you’ll pass some little old ladies. They will try to charge you for going out on their viewing decks (i.e. bends in the trail) to take pictures. Either pay them and take a picture or just move on. They are just trying to make a living, so don’t get all flustered by the fact that someone is charging you money to take a picture from a slightly different angle.

After about six hours of hiking (we took our time; stopped to take pictures; chatted with people on the way), we arrived at the Tea Horse Guesthouse (Tripadvisor review) (phone: 13988717292, 13988707922). I can’t speak to any of the other guesthouses, but the Tea Horse is great. The rooms are totally fine (we used our sleeping bags) and the environment and food were beyond our expectations.

Much like after a long day of skiing, at the end of a solid hike food tastes exceptionally good. So I’m not sure whether it was just because we worked up an appetite, but our meals here were amazingly good. It was all super simple food that was just salty enough to be delicious.

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Besides the food, just chilling out at the guesthouse was great. The views from the courtyard and upper balcony were fantastic, and the perfect place to witness night overtake the mountain tops.

Our experience was made all the better by a really cool couple we ran into on the trail and again at the guesthouse. One was an American guy and the other was a Chinese girl, but they spoke Japanese to each other as their common language. We had fun getting to know them while trading English and Chinese. I wish we could make all our friends playing cards huddled around a candle in the middle of a magnificent gorge.

The next morning the beauty of the landscape outside our door had changed yet again, as the sun tried to break through the clouds.

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_DSC0259aWe stuffed ourselves with eggs and bread and were on our way. The second day was much easier as the trail was mostly flat. Along the way we ran into several locals. Some lived on the mountain, while others were just running donkeys up and down hoping some weary travelers would hire them. These two little guys seemed quite accustom to tourists, and were more than happy to accept a Snickers bar. We felt a bit guilty when the older one smiled revealing his black teeth.

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Comment: Something we didn’t expect to see during this trip was pollution. However, the gorge is extremely polluted. On the first day we thought the water was brownish-grey due to some sediment in the rock cliffs or dirt. But on the second day we saw something far more disturbing. There is a waterfall you’ll cross with a bridge over it. The water you see coming out will be a thick chalking brownish grey. At the time, we again thought this must be due to some sediment from the rocks.

Later we found out from numerous locals that there are a number of mines on the other side of the gorge. The mines are extracting minerals from the water and rocks. Downstream there are also locals who are re-filtering the waste water, trying to extract the last little bit of minerals out of the water. We encountered several makeshift filters along the trail.

It’s easy to criticize China for not doing something about this. And you definitely should. Destroying this exceptionally beautiful place is most certainly not worth the profits being extracted from its mountains. However, like many of China’s growing pains, this is not a problem easily solved. We’d love to do a documentary (or see someone else do one) about the pollution at Tiger Leaping Gorge to both raise awareness among Chinese people and put pressure on local officials to stop the mining. That, of course, is about a million times easier said than done.

With the sobering reality of Tiger Leaping Gorge’s muddied waters in our rear view, we soldiered on finding one amazing view after the next. Each view made us more and more saddened by the fact that this landscape was literally being torn apart from the inside.

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Now not all the water you see at Tiger Leaping Gorge is polluted. There are indeed numerous beautiful waterfalls with crystal clear water flowing out from the body of the mountain. Note, however, that the pipes running down the mountain are waste lines from the mines that go directly into the Yangtze below.

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Ultimately we descended the mountain to Tina’s Guesthouse. There we had a great meal and bought a bus ticket to Shangrila.

Tip: If you want to catch the bus to Shangrila from Tina’s, make sure you make it to Tina’s by 3pm. The bus picks you up right at Tina’s so it’s super convenient.
Tip: Also note that you can hike past Tina’s and go down to the river. Apparently seeing the raging current tower over your head is quite spectacular. The descent down to the water said to be quite steep, so it’s also a good challenge for day two. We were a bit late getting to Tina’s so we didn’t have time to go down and check it out.

Lastly, the ride out of the gorge and back to Jane’s is quite heart stopping. The road is littered with fallen rocks, so vans traveling in two directions are weaving in and out of opposing lanes. Between the top heavy vans and F1 style drivers, the ride is like playing a video game. Eventually you’ll make it to a massive rock fall where the road is obliterated. You’ll walk across to the other side where another van will pick you up. Don’t worry (too much), the road collapsed ages ago so it should be fairly safe to cross (until someone dies of course).

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Itinerary

  • Took an early bus from Lijiang and arrived at the trail by around 10am
  • Hiked to Tea Horse Guesthouse, spent the night
  • Day two, hiked to Tina’s Guesthouse
  • Took a 3pm bus to Shangrila
  • Arrived at Shangrila in the early evening

 

Hiking Map of Tiger Leaping Gorge

 

Finding Tiger Leaping Gorge on a Map

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