By Pieter Crow in Travel

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡). Three simple words, one awesome attraction.

Inaccessible peaks poke the sky, soaring three-thousand meters above the foaming river deep down within. Trekkers converge from around the globe to experience the scenic wonder. Many walk through in one or two days. That is a splendid way to experience the gorge, with the added benefit of hot showers and convenient dining at guesthouses along the way.

Yet some reach journey's end yearning for more. For them, I present several challenging hikes that reach beyond the standard, well-beaten footpath.

Below, in the first article of a series, I explain how to traverse the Bamboo Forest Path (竹林小路) through a scenic canyon with waterfalls. In future articles, I'll take you to Haba Village (哈巴村) at the base of Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山), and then back to Tiger Leaping Gorge by a different route. Finally, journey with me into a secluded valley unknown to the outside world, nestled within a ring of towering peaks.

For wildness and difficulty, the treks outlined in this series surpass the standard Tiger Leaping Gorge route. Apart from Bamboo Forest Path, each one climbs to a high point between 3,000 and 4,300 meters. A guide is essential or recommended for these trails, which are often primitive or obscure.

Many will find the standard trek completely satisfying. But for those who would venture further, ascend higher, who thirst for more of nature's serene beauty, new adventures await in the hidden pockets and adjacent realms of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Trekking the Gorge

The classic trek through the gorge begins at Qiaotou Town (桥头镇) and continues northeast for 20-plus kilometres, to the terminus at Tina's Guest House (中峡国际青年旅舍).

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Strong hikers may complete the trek in one day, but most enjoy a slower pace, spending the night in a guest house along the way. Reaching Tina's on the second day, many end their journey and hop on the afternoon bus to Lijiang (丽江) or Shangri-La (香格里拉). For complete details, read Dan Siekman's excellent guide.

Bamboo Forest Path

The Bamboo Forest Path offers a short extension of the classic trek. From a trail junction a short distance above Tina's, pass through whispering bamboo and clamber up Dashengou Canyon (大深沟) past cascades and waterfalls. A stairway bridges the ravine half way up.

Here you face a choice: climb back down the canyon to Tina's, or continue higher to Luke's Hostel. If you turn around at the ravine bridge, expect a couple of hours for the roundtrip journey. If you continue higher to the hostel, plan on 2.5 hours from Tina's with an elevation gain of 400 meters.

Some years ago, when I hiked Bamboo Forest Path for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. Almost immediately I met a hiker coming down who summed up the trail in one word: "weixian" (dangerous). As I climbed higher, I had to agree. Writing later, I described the path as "a ribbon hung on a precipice". Weighed down by a heavy pack that threw me off balance, I tried to phone my wife for prayer, but there was no signal.

Happy to say, the path is safer now. Zhao Yin (赵银), the designer and builder of the path since 2010, has made substantial improvements in recent years. He widened the narrow sections and installed cables to assist passage over the tricky parts. Metal steps replaced the aging wooden ladder that bridges the ravine.

To help guide the way, Mr Zhao installed signs and green arrows pointing the way. Above the metal steps, for example, he marked a side path on the left which leads to a series of cascades higher up, where the canyon walls narrow down into a slot.

Despite the improvements, inexperienced hikers may feel safer hiring a guide in these wild surroundings. For a Chinese-speaking guide, enquire at Luke's Hostel (see below). For an English-speaking guide contact Sean's Spring Guest House (山泉客栈) located within the gorge at Walnut Garden Village.

If you are hiking the gorge from Qiaotou, you don't have to descend all the way down to Tina's, the normal terminus for most trekkers. About a twenty-minute walk above Tina's, the Bamboo Forest Path branches left (when approaching from Qiaotou). The spot is marked by prominent signs. If you are starting from Tina's, simply walk up the regular trekking path until you reach the fork in the trail.

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Luke's Hostel

The full name is Ancient Luke Youth Hostel (古道栌克青年旅舍), which I abbreviate as "Luke" or "Luke's Hostel". The aforementioned path-builder, Zhao Yin, owns the place. In fact, he grew up in the building, becoming intimately familiar with all the scenic treasures of the gorge.

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The place used to be called Walnut Garden Youth Hostel, but the name "Walnut Garden" was registered to someone else, forcing Mr Zhao to change the name. On signs here and there around the gorge, it still goes by the old name.

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Mr Zhao tells how he and his father ranged throughout the gorge when tigers still roamed and hunted their preferred prey of yak. The danger was real — tigers occasionally attacked and killed people. They no longer pose a threat since their extirpation in the 1990s.

Luke's Hostel, at 2,360 meters, provides the highest lodging and dining in the Walnut Garden Village area of Tiger Leaping Gorge. As such the views are superb. Moreover, the hostel provides a convenient starting point for the path onward to Haba Village.

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Lodging options, whether dormitory or ensuite, compare favourably in price and style with other guesthouses inside the gorge. That is, basic and inexpensive, at least by Western standards. Phone 135-0887-9892 (Chinese only).

Practical information

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For general information on Tiger Leaping Gorge, such as transportation in and out, see Dan Siekman's informative article.