Despite its fame inside China, to the outside world Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) remains one of the country's best kept secrets. Boasting majestic views and epic hiking trails, it is considered a must see for many tourists passing through the province.
The gorge has been carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha River (金沙江) — the main headwater of the Yangtze River. The Jinsha is flanked by the imposing massifs Jade Dragon (玉龙雪山) and Haba (哈巴雪山) snow mountains. Both of these often snow-capped ranges soar to more than 5,000 meters above sea level and provide the stunning vistas that make the gorge such a popular destination.
Beyond their striking profiles, both mountain ranges are home to diverse bamboo and rhododendron forests. Wooded slopes are broken up by sheer rocky cliffs knifing into the sky and higher up glaciers still cling to wind-shattered peaks.
The entrance on the Haba Mountain side is well sign-posted in Qiaotou (桥头) and has access to both the high trail and the road. It is the most common way to gain access to the gorge. Upon arrival visitors should expect to pay a 65 yuan entry fee to park officials, for which they will receive a ticket. This is more than just a keepsake and should be kept until leaving the gorge so as to avoid paying the fee a second time.
There is also an entrance on the Jade Dragon side of the gorge — which has somewhat confusingly been dubbed the Lijiang side. The entry fee there is 50 yuan. At this entry point visitors are only allowed to hike in to the point where legend has it a tiger leapt across the gorge to evade pursuers. If visitors do not have the time or inclination to hike the entire gorge, this is the recommended entry point.
If not planning to hike the high trail, we recommend contacting one of the guesthouses in the gorge and arranging a driver from Qiaotou to the middle of the canyon. Once there, lodging is relatively easy to find and the view across the gap to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain's cliffs is spectacular. Arranging pick-up service through any of the guesthouses should cost 20 yuan per person.
There are generally three ways to go about exploring the Haba Snow Mountain side of the gorge. Guesthouse staff are usually happy to recommend trails based on different people's fitness levels and expectations.
The simplest trek is a relaxing stroll in the sun along the gorge's 20-kilometer main road — referred to as the low trail. Motorized traffic on this route is of course to be expected, but is relatively light. Besides vehicles, travelers can expect to encounter random cows and herds of noisy goats tended by local Naxi shepherds. The major drawback to walking along the road is the seemingly never-ending construction due to frequent rockslides and ongoing road-widening efforts.
If a paved road is not appealing, there is a particularly beautiful trail down to the river that begins not far from Tina's Guesthouse. This hike is most usually recommended for tourists who do not want too much exertion but would still like to feel they have pushed themselves.
It takes about an hour to get down to the river and the way is relatively safe. Getting to the water we were happily reminded that plans to dam the gorge were officially scrapped in 2008. We were there at the end of winter when conditions were quite dry. In the rainy season this path, and hiking in the gorge generally, becomes much more slippery and can be dangerous. However easy the trail down may be, we do not recommend doing it alone or in the dark.
The trail leads right to the river, where the true scale of the gorge and the ferocity of the Jinsha River both become readily apparent. It is nearly impossible not to feel tiny and insignificant in the presence of such surroundings and many first-time visitors are left speechless. The landscape is truly stunning and in spring and summer is dotted with wildflowers. Walking back up to the main road is taxing but those in even half-decent shape should not have serious problems.
The most intense way to explore the gorge, and during tourist season also the most popular, is the high path. This trail snakes 20 kilometers from near the ticketing office in Qiaotou through the length of the gorge and contains perhaps the most challenging portion of any Tiger Leaping Gorge journey — the 28 bends. The series of switchbacks occurs at the trail's highpoint and, depending on conditions, can be tiring.
Guesthouses are conveniently located at the trailhead, middle section and end of the path as most people traverse the gorge in two days. Overnight stays also provide opportunities for gorgeous views of the night sky — at least when the weather is clear. To make the high path a stiffer challenge, more sadistic travelers can try trailrunning this section.
Those not wanting to descend to the road at the high path's typical end can continue along a rather steep and slippery path. It leads toward Walnut Grove and a ferry across the river to the town of Daju. The trail leads through lush stands of bamboo forest, past tombs and across a couple of rickety bridges over a waterfall.
The river's wildly foaming water in the shadow of ominous massif walls is a spectacular site. So too are the views from the main gorge road. For our money however, the scenery at the top of the 28 bends is unbeatable and made more rewarding by the exertion it takes to get there.
Remember that even a fairly laid-back hike along one of the paved trails can prove demanding for those not accustomed to the altitude. Whatever struggles one may encounter, they are worth it when arriving at one of the awe-inspiring spots that are so commonplace in this place of brilliant natural beauty.
Traveling around the rugged landscape of Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly. Even locals are wary of their surroundings — especially during the rainy season. As we gazed out of the car window on our way to a guesthouse we spotted a vehicle, smashed and beyond repair, at the bottom of a terrifying cliff. Our driver noticed our surprise.
"Some cocky guy from outside Yunnan who was too complacent," he told us. "Eventhough I know these roads inside out, if it's raining at night I don't even consider driving. Rockslides are pretty common. That's what happened to that guy. But you know what? He escaped without serious injury!"
Getting to Tiger Leaping Gorge is relatively straight-forward if you are already in Lijiang. Buses from Lijiang to Qiaotou take between two and three hours and cost 35 yuan. They leave from Lijiang's long distance bus station.
Traveling from Kunming to Lijiang can be accomplished via bus, train and plane. Buses leave from Kunming's West Bus Station. Driving time for the 550 kilometer drive is about nine hours and tickets cost 150 yuan. Day and night trains journey are of roughly the same duration and cost between 90 and 220 yuan depending on seat or bed preferences. Direct flights from Kunming to Lijiang take one hour. Prices vary depending on availability and time of year.
Lijiang can be bypassed entirely by taking a 12-hour overnight bus from Kunming's West Bus Station to Shangri-la. Tickets cost 250 yuan and you should tell the driver beforehand that you want to get off at Qiaotou. Those heading in the opposite direction can pay 35 yuan for a bus from Shangri-la to Qiaotou.
Budget accommodations and guesthouses willing to store luggage are easy to find in Qiaotou as well as just past the gorge ticket office. They are of the no-frill variety but serve their purpose. Lodging options inside the gorge are also numerous and rooms, regardless of season, can be found for under 100 yuan per night.
Images: Yereth Jansen