I'm not one of those people that uses the term hiking indiscriminately.
If it involves paved paths, city streets or even flat trails, the appropriate term is 'walking'. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with walking- it's my favorite travel activity and mode of transportation. Me encanta caminar!
But to refer to something as hiking should involve a bit more exertion and I feel qualified to differentiate between the two, having walked over 2000 miles during our travels across Europe as well as hiking Mount Vitosha in Sofia, Bulgaria, Vintgar Gorge near Lake Bled, Slovenia and Cadair Idris near Dolgellau, Wales. All were strenuous, involved elevation and were mostly off-road.
In comparing those experiences to Tiger Leaping Gorge, however, it seems inadequate to call it a hike. After spending 30 hours on the trail, it might qualify as borderline mountaineering!
Whatever you call it, preparation is key, but I assure you that if this mid-40's woman in average physical condition can do it, you can, too. Here is what you need to know.
We arrived in Lijiang three days before our hike to acclimate, as the city sits at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. I didn't know much about high altitude hiking before Tiger Leaping Gorge, but when I showed up to our guesthouse breathing heavily after a relatively benign two mile walk from the bus stop, I suspected a few rest days was a good decision.
In between walks around old town Lijiang, I read up on the geographical basics of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Located in Yunnan province, TLG is a canyon on the Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze that passes under the Jade Snow Mountain range. According to Wikipedia: At a maximum depth of approximately 3,790 meters (12,434 feet) from river to mountain peak, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world.....the scenic upper trail is 14 miles long.
Interestingly, I was swept away by the superlatives and sort of missed the whole elevation thing.
By reading several blogs, I gathered the following information:
- Most hikers spend two days/one night on the trail, sleeping at Halfway Guesthouse which is not actually half way, but only 2 hours from the end
- It takes about 9-10 hours to hike the entire upper trail from Qiaotou to Tina's/Walnut Garden, and another 4-5 hours to walk to the bottom of the gorge (and back) from Tina's
- The entrance fee is 65 yuan (approx. $9.50, collected by the tourist office) for the upper trail and an additional 10 yuan (approx. $1.50, collected by locals) to walk to the the bottom of the canyon
- The guesthouses with the best food are Naxi & Tibet, and the nicest rooms are at Tea Horse & Come Inn
- It is a strenuous hike, especially the notorious 28 Bends, a section of nearly vertical switchbacks that start at 6,500 feet and climb to 8,500 feet
Feeling adequately informed, I moved on to packing.
Knowing that I would regret lugging any extra weight, I left most of my toiletries and all of my makeup (and vanity) behind. In addition to the pants, tank, long sleeved wool top, puffer vest and sturdy Nike Zoom walking shoes I wore the morning we set off, I had the following tucked away in a packing cube inside my day pack.
- Dry shampoo
- Face wash
- Lip balm
- Wet wipes
- Toilet paper
- Pajama bottoms
- Cotton tank top
- Patagonia long-sleeved thermal
- Flip-flops (for the shower)
- Fleece (cheapie I picked up in Lijiang)
- Snacks (cookies, candy, fruit, nuts)
In terms of gear, my only regret is that I did not have sturdier hiking pants and gloves for the trek. It was a rugged trail and being March, a tad on the chilly side. The pants I did wear, my Lucy 'Get Going' were thrown out immediately after the hike (they were pilly and looked terrible after only two months on the road) and replaced with a pair of Arc'teryx Gamma hiking pants which would have been perfect for the TLG. I bought them with our Mongolia trek in mind, but surprisingly, have proven worthy as a city trouser!
We left our big packs (for free) at our guesthouse in Lijiang, the lovely Zen Garden Hotel, as we had one more night booked upon our return.
Planning completed, we were ready to hit the trail.
Day One: Morning
We had planned on taking the public bus to Qiaotou for 24 yuan each, but our guesthouse, Zen Garden Hotel recommended the shuttle departing nearby for 40 yuan each. The extra 32 yuan ($5) was worth not having to make a special trip to the bus station the day before to buy tickets.
At 7:00 am, we were escorted to the shuttle stop by Zen Garden Hotel's friendly owner, who offered Perry a cigarette (he graciously declined) while complimenting his Mandarin with 'You are Chinese Number One!' The bus departed at 7:30 am, and after a pleasant two hour ride (with a stop at the 1.5 hour mark for a bathroom break and chance to buy water/snacks), we arrived in Qiaotou. An attendant from the tourist office came aboard the bus to sell tickets, and there were several options:
- Take the bus to the bottom of the gorge and then back up to Tina's Guesthouse for the 3:30 pm return to Lijiang (I was eavesdropping on the older couple in front of us, so not 100% sure)
- Take the bus to Tina's Guesthouse, at the end of the high trail, hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up to Tina's for the 3:30 pm return to Lijiang. Our next door neighbor from the hotel, Joe, did this.
- Get off the bus in Qiaotou and begin hiking the upper trail, which is what we did. Cost: 65 yuan each (and as is the case for most of China's tourist attractions), cash only
Ticket in hand, the bus continued a short distance before stopping at the trail head. Despite being nearly full, we were one of only three couples that got off the bus.
Knowing my location and how long things might take was extremely helpful in maintaining a positive mindset while struggling through the tough parts. I recommend taking a photo of the trailhead map which contains rough distances between landmarks, as we referred to it often.
The first two hours on the trail there was a steady rise in elevation. After a chilly start, it had turned into a warm, sunny day and we quickly removed layers as we moved through the scrubby hills. Between the various levels of altitude, exertion and weather, the removing and replacing of layers was a regular activity over the next day and a half.
While the views behind us were lovely, we were surprised to be sharing our experience with an enormous (and noisy) mining operation just across the Jinsha River.
While we started at the same time as Laurens and Aimee, a young Dutch couple, they quickly overtook my pace. It was comforting to see them up ahead, as there were times we questioned if we were on the right track. Luckily, signs are everywhere on the upper trail, so I promise you won't get lost. If all else fails, follow the discarded candy wrappers and water bottles. Yes, there is plenty of garbage on the trail and while it can be upsetting, keep going, because the higher you climb, the less there is.
After an hour and a half, we experienced our first major visual reward. Over the hill, just past the mining site was a small village in a gorgeous valley and a better view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range- an indication of the amazing scenery that was to come. We joked that we had found Hidden Valley Ranch.
It took 30 minutes to make our way into the village (turn left at the T in road, FYI), and the super friendly Naxi Guesthouse for lunch. Laurens and Aimee were just finishing their meal, but stuck around to visit as we ordered two bowls of fried rice, two plates of stir fried veggies and a hot butter yak tea (for Perry), all for 70 yuan ($10). Even though we were starving and the food was delicious, the portions were huge and we couldn't finish it.
Note! As is the case in most of China, bring wet wipes and your own toilet paper for a bathroom break and washing up. There was no soap, sink or loo roll in the squatty potties.
Sufficiently rested, we were ready to tackle the most difficult section of the trail. While the first two hours involved moderately strenuous effort, the next three would test my physical fitness limits.
It was time for the 28 Bends.
Day One: Afternoon
Immediately after lunch, the trail difficulty was similar to the first couple of hours, moderately hilly with a few flat breaks. Then, we took one last look behind us as and said goodbye to Hidden Valley Ranch and pleasant hiking. In front of us was a lady with a donkey, who asked if we wanted a ride up the 28 Bends.
We said no, as it's scary enough being on the edge of a cliff on my own feet, much less clinging for dear life on top of some poor, overworked creature.
For the next section, I will give you the advice I wish I had had. Don't be too hard on yourself. Take it slow and stop a lot. Stop as often as you like. This isn't a race and no one is clocking your time. I spent a lot of energy frustrated in my inability to take a full breath and berating myself for having to stop after each bend (and sometimes halfway between them, too).
Afterwards, I read more about high altitude hiking and discovered that it probably had something to do with how badly it sucked. I was short on breath much of the time because at that elevation, you only take in 3/4 the oxygen that you would at sea level.
At nearly 9,000 feet, this is why the 28 Bends seem to go on forever. The one good thing I can say about them is that the sound of mining disappeared and I savored the silence. Fine, silence punctuated by the sound of my heavy breathing. Whatever.
Eventually, after about an hour, they do stop and your reward for the effort is a view that will make you forget the last hour of cursing.
This was my favorite part of the hike. For the next two hours, there was very little climbing and it was easy to relax and enjoy the scenery. We had fun looking down at the crowds and tour busses below, while up high, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.
Three hours after we left Naxi and right 'on time' according to the map, we arrived at Tea Horse Guesthouse at 4 pm for a well-deserved coffee break. To our surprise, Laurens and Aimee appeared with beer and chips and we sat together while rehashing the afternoon climb. They had booked a room for the night and in the middle of such fun conversation, we debated if we should do the same.
Most people do the hike on a two day/one night timetable. In retrospect, I wish we had spent two nights on the trail, stopping at Tea Horse and then again at the end of the high trail at Tina's or Tibet Guesthouse in Walnut Garden before attempting to hike to the bottom of Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.
As we wanted to start the day closer to Tina's so we had more time for the canyon hike, we decided against staying at Tea Horse and were on the trail again at 5 pm.
In sharp contrast to our warm and sunny start, the last two hours of the day were windy, misty and cold. The scenery matched the atmosphere- rocky and rugged with very little foliage.
Two hours later, just after 7 pm, we arrived at Come Inn and for 150 yuan ($22.50) happily removed our packs for the night. Outside our window, was this view.
Quickly washing up, we made our way to the dining room, which is just a hotel room with one long table and two benches. Sitting there were two young Chinese women on vacation, friends from their university days, who had not hiked the trail, but were driven there via a long-winding rural road by shuttle van. We were the only four guests that night and so we dined together, asking each other questions in English (me) and Chinese (Perry). They helped him with a couple of new words (shower, interestingly something we desperately needed) and encouraged us to check out the beauty of southwestern Hunan province, home of the rock formations made famous in the movie 'Avatar'.
After dinner and a luxurious hot shower (not guaranteed in these parts) we hunkered down for the night. As was the case for every place we stayed in Yunnan (apartments, guesthouses and hotels), our room had no heat. The temperature had already plummeted to 32F/0C, so I cranked the dial on the electric mattress pad and was just getting cozy when we discovered that despite being the only guests (with ten available rooms), the ladies were directly above us and having a loud and boisterous catch up. I was too exhausted to be irritated and fell asleep to the sound of giggles.
Day Two: Morning
I awoke to a room that was so cold I half expected to find snow on the covers. We dressed hurriedly and set off at 8 am without breakfast, as I was paranoid about having enough time to hike to the bottom of the gorge before the bus left for Lijiang at 3:30 pm. With few snacks remaining, we each ate a Snickers, not the most nutritious choice, but I imagined it was practically the same thing as a granola bar.
I felt tired without my morning coffee, but the crisp air and cloud covered scenery slapped me to life. We followed a goat herder and his flock (check out this short video) around sharp bends and an unbelievable waterfall in the middle of the trail.
The sweeping views continued as we made our way down the mountain towards Tina's.
Two hours after we started, we arrived.
Tickets for the bus were purchased (55 yuan/$8 each) and after quickly scarfing down coffee and a veggie omelette, we set off for the bottom of the gorge at 10:30 am.
We crossed a bridge and started down the street towards Woody's (near the trail head), but after five minutes were distracted by signs advertising trails to Middle Leaping Gorge. We paid the young lady 10 yuan each and started down the path only to realize it wasn't on the map or referenced by any of the blogs I had read. After much debate, we doubled-back and continued towards the village of Walnut Garden. Passing Tibet and Sean's Guesthouses (about 45 minutes), we finally reached Woody's and turned right onto a street that goes down and in the direction of the gorge.
I will be completely honest. This section of trail seemed strange as it was less defined than the upper trail and I'm not 100% convinced we took the path described in the blogs we had read. Maybe the trail closer to Tina's was the best way to go?! Anyway, if you go, just follow the yellow signs for Sean's Guesthouse (pointing in the direction you just came from), and you will get there.
We quickly forgot about right and wrong because we were too busy taking in views like this:
With stunning scenery and downhill walking, this part passed far too quickly. Down, down, down we went, until we reached the post where a local asks for a 10 yuan payment (for trail maintenance) to continue to the bottom. We paid, and while the next section of the trail seemed a bit treacherous to be considered 'maintained', we pressed on to the mythical spot where the tiger leaped.
Revel in this moment because now comes the ugly truth. You must climb straight up to get out.
Day Two: Afternoon
Just when you thought the 28 Bends were steep, hiking out of this canyon proved to be the real killer. The bridge in the photo below is near Tina's Guesthouse, which we crossed on our way to Walnut Garden.
That was our destination.
It took nearly two and a half hours to get to that bridge, but only because I was hurrying so I could have lunch before catching the bus. The difficulty was something I was unprepared for, as none of the blogs I read referenced it, just vague mentions of an hour down and a couple hours back. Again, maybe we didn't choose the best/easiest path, but after being down there, I don't see how it could be any other way?!
We had heard about a ladder that you could take straight up the canyon wall to Tina's, and we did see the signs advertising it, but decided it sounded way too dangerous. So we climbed switchback after switchback for two hours until finally, we stepped onto a parking lot. Relief and joy flooded over me. Though grit, determination and sheer will, I had made it.
Wait. This isn't Tina's?
We surveyed the area and determined that we were on the main road, but quite a ways downhill from our end destination.
I could feel tears of disappointment welling, but shook them off and began trudging up the highway. After dodging several logging trucks, we spotted what appeared to be a trail on the hill that was steep, but more direct. As we scaled it, I slipped on some loose gravel and fell, scraping my hands while trying to steady myself. That was it, there was no holding it back.
The culmination of frustration and physical exhaustion, I began to cry. Not stoic tears, but a quick burst of ugly sobbing followed by twenty minutes of snuffling, until Tina's finally came into view.
In the bathroom, I hastily splashed water on my face, embarrassed by this emotional episode. Over lunch (stir fried noodles and veggies), we shared the experience with Laurens and Aimee, who expressed relief that they had enjoyed a leisurely morning on the trail and didn't try to attempt the gorge hike.
On the bus ride back, I thought I might sleep, but adventure decided it wasn't done with me yet, and I spent much of the trip cringing in horror while the bus hugged curves on the edges of cliffs with no barriers and straight drops. Parts of the road have been washed away by floods and rockslides, forcing the two way traffic of tourist busses and logging trucks to engage in a horrifying game of chicken.
Despite the difficulties, hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge ranks near the top of most memorable things I've ever done. Even though many tourists (and their trash) have passed through here before you, it still feels incredibly special and very off-the-beaten-path. The views are beyond the superlatives in my vocabulary, but suffice it to say they deserve every last accolade.
However, while it's not Everest, you do need to be prepared mentally and physically.
- The terrain is rugged and without a lot of the safety measures (guard rails, etc.) that we are accustomed to in the West
- The weather is unpredictable and you need to wear appropriate clothing
- You don't need to be a super athlete, but the trail is strenuous and you should have a decent level of physical fitness
- The elevation is not insignificant and its effect on people varies
Tiger Leaping Gorge is absolutely worth your time and effort. It exceeded my expectations for natural beauty and wild adventure and now that you know what you are in for, I'm certain you won't be disappointed!
Our Timetable: 2 Days/1 Night
7.30: Depart Lijiang
9.30: Arrive Qiaotou
9.50: Start Trail
12.15: Arrive Naxi Guesthouse (lunch)
13.00: Depart Naxi Guesthouse
16.00: Arrive Tea Horse Guesthouse (coffee)
17.00: Depart Tea Horse Guesthouse
19.00: Arrive Come Inn (dinner and overnight)
8.00: Depart Come Inn
10.00: Arrive Tina's Guesthouse (breakfast/purchase tickets for 15.30 bus to Lijiang)
10.30: Depart Tina's Guesthouse (walk through village of Walnut Garden to trailhead)
11.15: Enter trailhead near Woody's Guesthouse
12.45: Arrive bottom of canyon/Middle Leaping Gorge/Begin climb back up
14.30: Arrive at Tina's Guesthouse (lunch)
15.30: Bus to Lijiang
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: Off the Beaten Path: Yunnan