Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China was an accidental trail that we discovered on our visit to Yunnan province. In a place where the Chinese will build roads to make it swiftly accessible to the locals, we found this trail to be quite the opposite; strangely quiet, clean and one that was mostly visited by foreigners.
It is surprising that little is known about this trek and instead details of the world’s largest gorge, measuring 16km long is featured more prominently on the pamphlets, which you’ll only catch a glimpse towards the end of your trek.
What’s interesting about the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is that it takes you to the high-altitude border town of Shangri-La, which was once famously called the Lost Horizon, in James Hilton 1993 novel. The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek gives you a stunning open view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and provides a scenic view of the Jinsha river canyon located between Lijiang and Shangri-La.
It is probably one of the better sights and hiking trails in China that is offbeat and untouched by the domestic Chinese tourists resulting in cheap tickets at about 65 yuan, quiet tracks with little to almost no crowds at all.
Hiking The Tiger Leaping Gorge: A Fairly Unknown Trail in China
Far from the wealthy and metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Yunnan province is unlike any other parts of China. You’ll see a different side of China, one that has China’s ethnic minorities consisting of the Bai, Naxi and Dai people in this mountainous region.
We had little to no idea what views we’ll expect during our trek but from the information we gathered from other trekkers and blogs, we found that the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike takes you to a guest house with one of the best bathroom views of these snow-capped peaks.
We did our trek in May, but found that a reddit user had stunningly captured the best views of the Tiger Leaping Gorge from his dorm room. This picture was taken in Winter during the month of February and January, but we trekked the gorge in May where it was just the end of Spring with wildflowers blooming displaying their hundreds of hues and the summer heat slowly melting the mountain ice away.
The Itinerary: Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike
We stayed in Lijiang, China’s biggest tourist trap for one night at the Mama Naxi Guesthouse as it was a 11-minute walk to the bus station, and logistics-wise it was easier for us to get to the bus station. We even had someone from the guest house helped us with our luggage and arranging the tickets for the bus ride. It costs us about 30 Yuan (USD 5.00) to reach the bus station which departs at 7.30am.
This was a one-way trip to the Qiaotou entrance in the morning and for 30 Yuan it was well worth it. As we planned to head to Shangri-La after the trek, we packed a small backpack for the two-day trek and we got the driver to send our remaining luggage to Tina’s Guest House for an additional 5 Yuan (USD 0.80) on the second day.
Day 1 (6 to 8 hours)
Lijiang to Qiaotou;
Hike from Qiaotou to Halfway Guesthouse; stay overnight
Day 2 (2.5 hours)
Hike from Halfway House to Tina’s Guesthouse
Tina’s, 3.30pm bus to Shangri-La Bus Station
Once we arrived at Qiaotou, we started hiking to the upper gorge hiking trail and the entrance fee costs us 65 Yuan (USD 9.50). An attendant from the tourist office came aboard the bus to sell tickets and there were several options for you to choose from where you decide to do a one-day hike from the middle gorge or to hike to the bottom gorge, and the last one from Qiaotou. We chose to leave from Qiatou and do the complete trek.
Day 1: And The Trek Begins
It was a rainy morning along a 1.5km dirt track with muddy trails which looked like a dilapidated construction site. We were already regretting our decision upon beginning this hike, and re-looked at our ticket again to check if we have got the location right but couldn’t find any clues. We befriended two Germans who we met on the bus and they ended up being our trek companions throughout the entire journey which was really nice since there was nobody on the trail, while starting out at least.
The heavy downpour did nothing to our moods but we had to keep trudging along as there was no way we could head back. We struggled to be positive but the new friendships made it easier to focus on the conversations, rather than the uneven dirt track.
After a heady start, the gloominess washed away and out came the blue skies and a stunning view of the Jinsha river. The area was peaceful and farm like, a few goats grazing on some tall grass as we walked along the perilous path.
The First Views of The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains
Heading towards the upper ridge, it was odd to look ahead and see a solid wall of soaring mountains rising abruptly far ahead. Here we were in a sunny, dazzling world facing these stunning mountain ranges which we had no idea that it would be our views throughout the duration of the trek.
The picture on the ticket and the internet only showed the ferocious Tiger Leaping Gorge and the views from the guesthouse boasting sounds of the gorge powerful roar. It was an intoxicating morning - the sun dazzling on the mountains and the sky half-veiled by wispy clouds.
We passed through ganja sellers sold by an elderly man with a toothless grin alongside with apples, Snicker bars and other candy.
After a while, we stopped for some much-needed break and rest at a lunch cabin at the Naxi Guesthouse. I was famished and a heavy meal was not something that I wanted so I settled for something hearty and soupy. We were warned of the notorious 28 bends and therefore decided to take it slow, and not overdo ourselves.
The Infamous 28 Bends
We resumed our hiking amidst fallen clouds hidden behind the imposing Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. There were cooler, shaded areas with stunning views of the village. It was natural for us to stop and take it all in. The wildflowers, the clear sky and the extravagant mountains was a far cry from what we had imagined. Having no crowds on the trail in China seemed hard to believe,
After couple of hours, we reached the start of the 28 bends. Before the bends begin, there’s a pit stop selling drinks, snacks and a toilet break. The 28 sharp bends are known to be the toughest part of the trail, that is blatantly being exaggerated by the Chinese as a way for you to refuel before you start hiking these “hard trails”.
We zig-zagged through the 28 bends and in no way did we feel this was hard. The start of the hike felt harder than these 28 bends. And we gradually made our way up but felt a tinge of misery as it started pouring again. We heaved, swore and struggled until we reached the Tea Horse Guest House for a quick tea break.
It felt like we had come a long way and realised many people who didn’t want to trek all the way to Halfway Guesthouse would stop here. My friend suffered an injured knee and we were not sure if we should stay here, for fear that we’re losing daylight and we might not have a place to stay in the Halfway Inn.
The Halfway Guest House
It would be a shame not to have those “best bathroom views” since the views at Tea Horse Trail was fine but it was not eye-level and vast like the one that I had pictured in my mind.
We continued our trek to the Halfway Guest House hoping to reach just before darkness falls. The track ran through a thin ledge between the dark chaos of mountains on the right and the gorge below us. With just several kilometers to go, we picked up the pace and avoided the slippery rocks.
At every turn, we thought we’ll be inching closer to our guest house but there were no signs or clues. Finally, during the last bit. we saw a chalk-written sign on the rocks stating we are 1km away from the guest house.
Under the evening sky, we came face to face with the Jade Dragon Snow mountain at the open courtyard of the Halfway Guesthouse. It was stunningly beautiful. Having climbed strenuously, we paused on the swings to rest.
We were able to get a dorm room for about 80 Yuan (USD 11). The room was simple and showers were good, and we had some spotty WiFi, enough to transfer some pictures.
The rest of the evening involved us making new friends with a Brazilian, a Shanghai Group and the two Germans. We relished in good company and savoured some of the local Chinese charcoal stir-fry dishes with some apple strudels, and drinks to celebrate our hike.
Speaking to the owner, I sensed deep sadness in his voice. The struggle to survive in these merciless valleys and the absence of the usual bulk of tourists has stunted their growth. The owner asked me “What can I do to get more people to come stay here?” He mentioned that many years ago, Halfway Guest House was full but now most people do not intend to stay because it is hard to reach and can only make it so far until the Tea Horse Guest House.
Combined this with the massive fire that destroyed the ancient Tibetan Village in Shangri-La in 2014 most people have stopped coming to this part of China and it is only popular with Chinese tourists who are more likely to be seen on roads than trails, making Halfway Guest House a forgotten stop and the Tiger Leaping Gorge an unlikely trek or hike.
Despite Halfway Guest House featured in a must-stop place in the Lonely Planet guide, it is not enough to draw people over here. Here’s hoping more sensible trekkers will visit his place.
Day 2: Ending The Day With The Gorge
We woke up bright and early the next day at 8.00am excited to see the mountain views, and started the day at a leisurely pace knowing that we had a lot of time with us since it would take us about 2 hours to reach Tina’s Guesthouse.
I was reluctant to leave the Halfway Guest House and sat at multiple spots in the courtyard, while pottering around to take as many shots as I could. The morning golden sun, and the strong aftertaste of ginger tea glowed around my lips and fooled me into thinking how great it would be to drink to views like that on a daily basis, if I was surrounded by such peaks everyday. I finished my last mouthful and mustered the courage to finally leave at around 11.00am.
The remainder of the hike was a lot shorter with little streams and large boulders. We spotted a Buddhist monastery, and prayer flags flapping in the midday sun, signs of us getting closer to the Tibetan region of China, Shangri-La.
An hour later we reached Tina’s Guesthouse, and we walked across the bridge to have a look at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. We reached the guesthouse at about 1.30pm, and thought a hike would not be complete without visiting the gorge and understand why it is called “Tiger Leaping” after all. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 metres (82 ft) wide), hence the name.
However to do that, it would require an additional 2.5 hours and we didn’t have that much time with us. You would need to depart Tina's Guesthouse, walk through the village of Walnut Garden to the trailhead and enter the trailhead near Woody's Guesthouse to arrive at the bottom of the canyon or Middle Leaping Gorge.
When Is The Best Time to Hike The Tiger Leaping Gorge?
The best time to trek or hike the Tiger Leap Gorge in China is during winter, spring and autumn. Summer (June to September) is probably not the safest time for this is the rainy season, and the terrain gets too slippery due to heavy rains. I did this trek in May and it was closer to the summer, monsoon season making it slightly rainy at times.
The path isn't dangerous either, except when it rains, when there are gale like winds, or where there are rockslides. Rain makes the rocks slippery and the path muddy. Walking over a fresh rockslide might be tricky.
The whole distance covered on the first day is about 17 kilometers, and you'll hike for about six hours in total if you’re fast, and if you’re slow and need plenty of stops to take in the view, it’ll probably take you eight hours.
Why Trek or Hike The Tiger Leaping Gorge?
The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a long hike, and starts off steep but slowly tapers off into something doable that anyone with average fitness can easily hike these stretches. There are very few hikes in the world that lets you come close to such massifs without having to worry about altitude sickness.
The gorge has diverse terrains and interesting sights that has not been developed into a mainstream tourist attraction like other places in China. If you have more time, it is worth it to just lounge at the Tibetan Guest House at the edge of this valley and to even learn more about the Baishuitai terraces, and if you got some energy in your tank, do hike the Haba Snow Mountain.
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