Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world. It’s over 4000m from the summits of Yulong Shan and Haba Shan that flank the gorge down to the river below. And while some other gorges may eclipse it in overall height, few can rival the size of the walls that actually enclose the Yangtze in Tiger Leaping Gorge, with cliffs of over 2000m appearing at several points along its length.
We took a Zhongdian bound bus from Lijiang. The road was in bad shape for most of the journey until it miraculously improved, just after we made a stop to buy some fresh mountain strawberries (I’m sure this wasn’t ACTUALLY the point of the stop, but many of us on the bus used the chance to purchase some from the vendors nearby [NZ$1.80/kg, and they were ripe, fresh berries.]) And shortly after that, we got our first glimpse of the gorge, coming round a bend in a wide valley (carved by a tributary of the Yangtze) we were suddenly confronted with the mighty river itself, as well as with the towering grey stone ramparts of 5596m Yulong Shan rising above it.
Our first view of the entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge
We disembarked at the village of Qiaotou, near the western (upstream) entrance to the gorge and walked up out of the rather uninspiring town towards it. We were greeted by a man in a blue suit outside the gorge visitor centre (ticket sales office really… it didn’t really have too much more to offer) who bade us come in and pay our admission fee. At NZ$10, it was certainly one of the better value entrance tickets we’d yet found in China (especially as it was going up by 30% 3 days later.)
Though it was only about 15:00 and we had plenty of daylight to walk in, the sky was cloudy and we were determined to catch the gorge at its best, so we spent the night in Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse near the entrance. A high proportion of foreign hikers in the gorge stop for advice or to store bags there, but it appeared that we were the only ones in the place. This meant that we couldn’t pump returning walkers for information, but also that we got invited to dinner with the family that ran the place. As we’d seen in the past, as good as restaurant food can be in China, home cooking wins hands down. The only small downside was the fatty pork which was a bit much for Sarah to eat more than one piece of. And perhaps also the Baiju (Chinese rice spirit) which, when we agreed to have a small glass got us a wine glass almost brimming full. It tasted okay, and we had several toasts with the father of the family, but it was still more alcohol than we’d really planned on the day before going trekking at high altitude. I just realized I wrote two big sentences complaining about the lovely dinner we were given. So I’ll finish by reiterating that the food, especially the fiddleheads and potato, was very tasty.
The next morning it was still rather cloudy, but we decided that nice as the people at Jane’s were we might as well walk into the gorge a bit and spend our time waiting for nice weather there instead of in (as noted before, rather uninspiring) Qiaotou.
The climb up and out of Qiaotou and to the Naxi Family Guesthouse (amongst hikers at least no one really pays attention to the names of the villages, but rather to the names of the guesthouses located in each one) took about two hours. Even here at the very beginning of the gorge views were stunning. Both back out of the gorge to the confluence of the rivers and its terraced farm fields, and ahead to the towering bulk of Yulong Shan across the gorge.
Looking back out of the gorge
Me on the trail. This photo was actually taken at a scenic overlook constructed by local villagers. No one was manning it when we arrived, but generally they charged a small fee for taking photos there and offered a variety of snacks and drinks for sale
We stopped at Naxi family guesthouse and were greeted with cups of mint tea and smiles. The concrete courtyard in the middle of the guesthouse was bordered by a wall of dried corn on one side and huge blooming rosebushes on the other. It rather reminded me of some of the fancier guesthouses on the Annapurna Circuit, albeit with a bit more concrete and glass, as these could be brought in by truck rather than by mule (as used to be the case in Annapurna before the roads up the valleys were completed.)
Soon after our arrival every one of the five or so tables in the place filled with hikers stopping for lunch. We’d had breakfast late and so didn’t really need lunch, but sat and chatted with those who were eating, including a lovely American family made up of a couple who lived in Sichuan province and their parents (in law) who were on their way home from Kenya.
The “side door” to the Naxi Family Guesthouse. We really can’t say enough good things about this place. It had a nice location and good food. Both rooms and food were very inexpensive. And most importantly the people who ran it were wonderfully friendly.
The village where Naxi Family was located, with the far wall of the gorge towering above it off in the distance
By the time most people had finished their lunches, the sky had cleared up some to merely partly cloudy, but we’d made our plan and decided to stick with it. In the afternoon I took a walk down the twisting, winding concrete road to the gorge some 600m below. The road at the gorge bottom doubtless improved life for those in the villages above it. And though it allowed large numbers of tour buses to rumble through the gorge as well, when you were up on the high trail you scarcely noticed them.
Meanwhile, Sarah sat and read and was kept company by Mr. R.M. Wuffington, possibly the cutest, but grubbiest puppy I’d ever seen. We didn’t really get the full story, but it seemed he’d been left behind by someone passing through the guesthouse. For a while he had to make do with slurping water out of a dark grey mud puddle and eating whatever he could find. But by dinner time the owners of the guesthouse had started to feed him a bit.
Back down at the river, I walked along the road above the rapids for a km or two, then headed back up towards the village. I was following behind two locals. I walked past them, headed up the road, only to find them ahead of me againa couple of minutes later. This was repeated several times before I finally just walked behind them and was beckoned up a steep dirt footpath leading off from the roadway. It was quicker, but especially at 2700m or so above sea level it quickly took the breath out of me.
Looking up the new gorge road down near the river below the village
Some of the smaller (i.e. not snow covered) peaks of Yulong Shan
Sarah and R.M. Wuffington, both looking mischievous. The R.M. stands for Rubbishy Mouth, since he spent so much time drinking and eating filthy stuff off the ground
The courtyard in the centre of the Naxi Family Guesthouse. The family kept chickens which weren’t supposed to be in the courtyard. But given that the doors to the courtyard were always open it was impossible to keep them out. Occasionally one would sneak in, like a ninja chicken, and prepare the way for a raid in force by the rest of the lot. Then they’d have to be shooed back outside again. Sarah became particularly adept at this. Impressive, because these dark coloured chickens had long sharp claws (talons even!) and pointy beaks. Yet more similarities to ninjas!
Back at the Naxi Family, I met Sarah and RM and spent the afternoon admiring the views of the green and prosperous looking village and the mountains, whose tops occasionally managed to be entirely clear of cloud for us.
That evening we had dinner with the lone other guest, a Korean buddhist monk. We chatted about our time in Korea, where we’d been, what we’d done and how fondly we remembered Korean food. And we enjoyed a meal (vegetarian, of course) that, while simple, was wonderfully fresh and un-oily compared to much of the food we’d had throughout China.
The next morning the three of us shared a breakfast of Naxi bread (a leavened flatbread cooked on a flat pan) and noodles, then headed out onto the trail. We climbed out of the village and almost immediately hit the 28 bends, a series of steeply climbing switchbacks that formed the hardest part of the trail. At the top you could see kilometres of the gorge in either direction. The very best views were to be had from a large rock jutting out into the valley. In front of this rock was a small shelter where a woman sold fruit, water, chocolate bars and “ganja! Very good!” that, while technically illegal, grew wild in the area, was picked by the locals and sold to foreigners only. She also guarded the entrance to the rock but said “very beautiful, free to look,” so I went down to enjoy the view. Unfortunately for our Korean friend he hadn’t spotted the sign that said taking photos from the rock cost 8RMB. As soon as we’d gone down the lady was watching us like a hawk and when we climbed back up from the trail immediately demanded the money. She wasn’t to be bargained down to a lower sum, and when he tried to ignore her, she stood in front of him and blocked the path. He eventually paid and we carried on to meet Sarah who had gone on ahead before all of this began.
Me dangling my feet out over the gorge near the trail’s high point
Wonderfully scented and wonderfully shaded pine forest on the trail
Many photos are going to lack captions. I suppose I could just label them all “A view of the awesome Tiger Leaping Gorge.” But to save myself typing, I’ll just ask you readers to imagine that that’s what’s written below any uncaptioned picture
One unhappy bit of this fabulous walk was the amount of graffiti along the trail trying to sway walkers to visit this or that guesthouse. As if the efforts of the places in the gorge weren’t enough on their own, others got into the act too. Three of the four scrawls in this photo are advertising places that aren’t even in the gorge. And one of them is for a place in Chengdu, over 1000km away!
We spent the rest of the day hopping from village to village along the dry, dusty trail, spectacular views keeping us company all the way. In mid afternoon we stopped at the Halfway guesthouse, planning to spend the night there if the cloud that had obscured the view didn’t disappear by 16:00. At 15:45 the sky cleared and so we continued our walk, eventually making it down to the road just across from the towering 2000m cliffs that are the gorge’s spectacular grand finale. We met the American family from the day before, stopping in with them to drop off the keys to our hostel in Lijiang that we’d accidentally kept upon departing. We carried on another couple of km up the road and under the cliffs to the village of Walnut Garden where we spent the night.
The trough-toilet at the Halfway Guesthouse wasn’t that impressive. But the view from it was pretty good
There wasn’t much going on in the gorge besides agriculture and tourism, but these guys were separating the fine clay from the water flowing down out of the mountains. I’m not entirely sure what it was to be USED for, but good for them anyhow
That evening I’d kind of got the feeling that we’d rushed a bit and hadn’t got everything we could have out of the gorge. That being the case we agreed that Sarah would take a bus back down the low road to below the Naxi guesthouse, then walk up to it. I meanwhile, would walk the high trail again, this time in reverse.
My day started with a trip down into the tight confines of the lower gorge. Down here was a section often no more than 20m or so wide but with near vertical 50m cliffs on either side. The trails down to it were constructed by locals who charged admission fees to them. I often balk at such things, but these were impressively constructed trails in an even more impressive setting. Add to this the fact that the guy who asked me to pay was actually working on the trail when we asked and I was happy to pay.
The inner (lower) section of Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge
The sky ladder. It actually had a wire cage around it, which occasionally bumped against my backpack, making it a bit of an inconvenience/hazard rather than a safety feature
Looking down on the inner gorge. The huge (small apartment block sized) rock at the centre-left of the picture is the stone that a Tiger supposedly leapt across the gorge from, thus giving the place its name
I took the “sky ladder” back up to the wider floor of the main gorge, then started back along the trail. With a the exception of a short trip up a slot canyon off to the side of the gorge, it was essentially the same trip as the day before. The weather was much less pleasant, raining fairly hard at a couple of points. And there were lots more people going in the other direction (122 instead of 2 the day before.) And I managed to count the bends on the way down the difficult switchback section (by my count there were 24, not 28.)
A side valley that was pretty impressive in its own right
The food at Naxi Family guesthouse was good, but this spicy-salty-oniony cold cucumber dish with fresh baked Naxi bread that I had at Halfway guesthouse for lunch on my way back was the culinary highlight of the trip for me. While there I met a school group who were walking the gorge as a class trip. I told the students how lucky I thought they were to have a class trip like this. By the looks on their faces I don’t think they were convinced.
Ominous clouds above the gorge
An, um, cactusy (though not actually a cactus I’m sure) thing
Looks like rain
We came across this wanted poster in one of the tiny little villages in the gorge. This guy was wanted for a robbery murder in January in Nanjing, over 2700km away. To draw a comparison to Canada, this is as though someone committed a similar crime in Toronto, only to have a wanted poster on a telephone pole in (amongst many, many other places) Vegreville, Alberta four months later.
Just before finishing I crossed paths with a large group of Koreans (I heard them speaking before we met) and entertained them all by greeting each of the 20 or so of them in Korean as we passed.
With the grey skies above looking still more threatening I was happy to arrive back at Naxi Family and find Sarah there waiting for me. Mr. Wuffington wasn’t with her, but we accepted it as an article of faith that he’d found a happy home, either with the person who’d originally brought him in or with some other hiker (indeed, we’d already met a couple who had seen him and considered adopting him.)
Our final morning on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail was gloriously clear and sunny. We left Naxi Family early, saying a final goodbye to the supremely friendly family who owned it, and arrived back at Jane’s to pick up our bags some 90 minutes later.
The fringes of Qiaotou (much more pleasant than the actual village) on our way back from the gorge
Sarah and I on the gorge trail. There were a few spots where it was a little narrow, and others where there were big dropoffs beside the track. But really none but the seriously acrophobic had any real worry
Tags: China, Llew Bardecki, Naxi Family Guesthouse, Qiaotou, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Travel, Yunnan