5 December 2007
WE BROKE OUR visit in Lijiang with a three-day trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a two and a half hour bus ride north. The gorge is said to be one of the deepest in the world and the legend is that a tiger once leapt across it while being pursued. It is one of the highlights of any visit to China, and we made sure we didn’t miss it.
We arrived in Qiaotou, a small town at the beginning of the trek, at around noon. We were immediately approached by a local asking if we needed a ride into the gorge. We’d read in forums that a way to get around paying the 50 yuan ($6.50) per person entry fee is to hitch a ride with a local and drive past the ticket booth. We negotiated a price of 25 yuan per person for him to do just this, and soon found ourselves in the back of his van, ducking below the seats as he drove past the checkpoint. He dropped us off in front of Jane’s Guesthouse at the start of the trek, where we had a small lunch. Soon after we started eating our sandwiches, Yvonne realized she left our camera in the guy’s van.
“Not again” we thought, as our minds rewound to the times we left our money belt in a hotel and the camera on a couch. As luck would have it, just like those other times, we managed to recover the camera. Yvonne was racing back along the road when the van that drove us in met her. The driver discovered our camera in the back seat and had turned around to return it! We have been unbelievably lucky with recovering lost or forgotten items on this trip, but we really have to smarten up because it will catch up with us, to be sure.
The first part of our trek was fairly easy and unexpectedly hot. Since it was quite cold in Lijiang, we figured it would be just as or even colder as we moved higher and more north. But here it was, on December 3 at three in the afternoon, that we were hiking in about twenty degree t-shirt and shorts weather. The trail is cut into the side of the gorge, high above a road, and even higher above the Yangtze River at the bottom. It was a steady but gradual two hour hike to the Naxi Family Guesthouse, where we found a room with a view. The guesthouse is a real family home, complete with chickens and pigs in the backyard. The owner, an extremely friendly lady, cooked us some homemade dishes for dinner before we retired for an early night. The next part of the hike was a big one, so we wanted to make sure we were well rested.
We hit the trail just before 9:00 to tackle the infamous 28-bends. It is the steepest section of the trail with, you guessed it, twenty-eight switchbacks. It was the perfect time to hike this part since the sun was still behind the mountains. We quickly realized how out of shape we were! We hadn’t done much hiking since Europe a couple of months (and lots of oily Chinese food) prior, so the 28-bends took its toll on us. But, even in our condition, we still managed to reach the summit in only one hour fifteen minutes, when all the maps say it is about a two hour climb.
From here we descended again with sweeping views of the gorge ahead and the tall and rugged Jade Dragon Snow Mountains to our right across the river. We passed by bamboo growing in abundance, their tall leafy branches swaying in the wind. Four hours after we left the Naxi Family GH we arrived at the Halfway GH (guesthouses dot the trail and you are never more than an hour away from one). We stopped for lunch and a brief rest, and then it was upwards and onwards on the high trail. The downside to this trek is that you are always in sight of the paved road far below (used to cart in hoards of visitors on tour buses), and after the halfway point power lines and a pipe join the trail – constant reminders of human civilization.
For the entire hike though, you have scintillating views down the gorge and the snowy peaks looming above. But you’d better be watching the trail and not sight-seeing as you walk, otherwise you’ll get a closer look at the bottom than you like! A tall waterfall along the way provided a gorgeous backdrop as we passed through it, stepping over wet stones and being careful not to slip. About three hours after we left the Halfway Guesthouse we made it to our final destination for the day. Walnut Garden is a small settlement near the end of the gorge and this is where we got a room, in a cozy wooden place called Woody’s Chateau. It sits overlooking a field of terraced gardens, straight into the face of the sheer mountainside. After a big day of hiking we showered, kicked up our feet and whiled the evening away.
The way the gorge is situated, the sun rises above one set of mountains, then not long after disappears behind the mountains on the other side. There is about a three hour window when the sun warms up the bottom of the gorge. We began our hike along the lower part of the gorge around noon, when the first rays strike the river. From Walnut Garden the trail descends along terraced vegetable gardens, then through a jungle-y feeling forest of sorts, before encountering a path cut out of a cliff that drops straight down on one side to the raging Yangtze River below.
This part of the trail is not for the faint of heart, and I have to admit, my heart raced a little faster than usual as we quickly – but very cautiously – made our way along. We don’t exaggerate when we say it is the scariest hike we’ve ever done. But it was all worth it. The hiking near the bottom was by far the best part of our trek. This is where you are fully immersed in nature; no road to be seen, no visible power lines – just you, the river, mountains, trees and rocks. We did pass the odd local strolling along or herding some goats (and an ancient, one-toothed lady who sold us a bag of oranges), but other than that we were all alone.
We eventually came to the trail that led us to the bottom and to the famous rock where the tiger is said to have leapt across the gorge from. The gorge is at its narrowest here and the Yangtze rushes through like a stampede of horses. After sitting for a while in silent contemplation, we climbed the steep trail back up the side of the gorge, back onto the road, and made our way to a much deserved meal. The next morning our guesthouse owner drove us back to Qiaotou.
The paved road that we saw from above on our first two days of hiking turned out to be not-quite-so-paved as we thought! Large sections were dirt and pot-hole riddled. You could tell at some points where rocks from landslides were pushed aside, and the road’s edge dropped straight into the gorge. After the hair-raising ride we were glad to step out of the van to await our bus that would take us back to Lijiang.