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Riding the buses » Adventure travel, China, Memorable moments, Travel itinerary » How not to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge

How not to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The Tiger Leaping Gorge in northern Yunnan is considered to be one of China’s best hikes. Foreigners have been trekking it since the 1980s although few Chinese do. I was travelling on my own and feeling a little weary so decided to forego the hike. But I did want to see the gorge and take a few photos. So when the owner of the B&B where I was staying in Lijiang told me he could make the arrangements, I agreed. However, I paid no attention to the logistics and that was a big mistake.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge, measuring 16km in length, is one of the deepest gorges in the world. It lies between the towns of Qiaotou (also called Tiger Leaping Gorge Town) and Daju. On one side of the gorge is the Haba Snow Mountain (5,396m) and on the other side the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596m). Between the peaks is the Yangtze River, the most important river in China and the third longest in the world. The Tiger Leaping Gorge got its name because a tiger was said to have escaped a hunter by leaping to safety across the gorge’s narrowest gap.

Most travellers planning to do the hike take a bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou. The trip takes two hours or so.  You purchase a permit at the ticket office in Qiaotou and start the trail there. At one time there were two trails, a high one and a lower one; today, the Lower Trail is a paved vehicular road.

The High Trail runs the length of the valley and usually takes two days to complete. The elevation along the trail is around 2,700m. Other than a section where there are 28 steep switchbacks, the path is not considered to be difficult if the hiker is in reasonable shape. There are guesthouses and places to eat along the way.

However, I was not there to hike so knew nothing about the trail when I left Lijiang in a van with six other Westerners: four Americans, a fellow Canadian and his Chinese-tour-guide girlfriend. Three of the Americans planned to hike in overnight; the fourth was about my age and we quickly agreed to spend our time there together. The van would return to Lijiang at 4:00pm.
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The van left later than planned and the road to Qiaotou was under construction so the going was slow and we did not arrive until after noon. Our driver was not allowed to cross the river and drive us to the ticket office for it was outside his area. Not to worry, for there were shuttle vans waiting and I was put in one with my fellow Canadian and the girlfriend. I never saw the Americans again.

The girlfriend was very personable and chatting in Chinese with the driver about the best place to go. She was also the only one with a cell phone. We stopped for our hiking permits but then the driver continued along the Lower Trail, following the river at the bottom of the canyon before dropping us off. I didn’t have a clue where we were.

My fellow Canadian wanted to lose me. It was obvious. So he grabbed the hand of the girlfriend and started climbing the upward trail. It was not the “walk” that I had expected but I assumed it would go to Tina’s guesthouse where we would all meet up. I quickly fell behind but did not worry for I assumed the Americans would soon join me.

I’m an optimist so kept visualizing a flat path up ahead. I didn’t rush and was particularly cautious in places where the path was narrow or rough. As I climbed higher and felt a little short of breath I would find a perch on a rock and turn up the volume on my i-pod until I was ready to move on.
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The trail was not well marked and I frequently had to guess which path to take. I didn’t panic because I could see the river below. If I became hopelessly lost I knew I could descend and get back on the road. I felt absolutely alone until I heard my fellow-travellers yell from above, saying they were having a hard time finding the path but would continue. I told them to pick me up on the road if I didn’t make it to the end point, but I had no faith that my fellow Canadian would ask the shuttle driver to do that.

In the end, I decided to climb just beyond the power lines and if the trail was still not obvious then I would start the climb down. And that is what I did and it was not especially easy. My muscles ached for flat ground. When a bunch of wild horses blocked my way, I had to take a detour off the path, sliding on my bum down a steep rocky section. But at last I reached the bottom.

I walked along the road until I got to a building called Teacher Zhang. I just sat outside on a simple bench until 4:00pm, totally exhausted. There was no sign of my van or any of the people from my hotel or even any other foreigners. There were a few Chinese tourists, however, and I approached one of the tour guides and asked him (begged him) to call my hotel on his cell phone, which he did. The hotel owner didn’t have a clue where everyone else was but at least he knew where I was so that was a relief. I said that if I didn’t see anyone by 4:30 then I would try to find a way out to Qiaotou and, if necessary, catch a bus back to Lijiang from there.

A truck pulled up with dead cattle in the back and two women emerged from the building, chopped off pieces of the animals and took them inside. Soon the number of Chinese tourists dramatically decreased. At 4:45 a shuttle-bus driver appeared looking for stragglers and I readily agreed to pay the full price of the shuttle if she would get me out of there. She also called my hotel for an update.

I was told that my fellow Canadian and the girlfriend had been contacted and that it would take them at least two more hours to get to the pick-up point. No one had seen or heard from the four Americans. I was dropped off at an open-air restaurant in Qiaotou, which became the new pick-up point.

An extended family ran the restaurant and everyone was so hospitable. The ‘wife’ escorted me to a badly needed toilet where one wall was actually the side of a cliff but the room itself was thankfully spotless.

I selected ingredients for the stir fry by pointing to the produce and had a local beer while I waited for the food to be cooked. I showed them a picture of my grandson and then their son posed for a photo for me. The meal cost very little and they would not accept a tip. When my drive finally arrived I was almost sorry to leave.

My fellow Canadian and the girlfriend got a ride from the High Trail, thanks to the generosity of another traveller. My fellow Canadian asked if I would split the cost to take this generous guy back to Lijiang with us. He also asked if I would pay half the cost of the girlfriend’s transportation. None of the Americans stayed in the gorge overnight; instead, they all were transported off the High Trail and returned by shuttle van late that evening.

As an independent traveller I should not have left all the logistics to others. The map  we were given was not to scale and I knew that few, if any, of the locals that I would meet along the way would be able to speak English. That said, I would go again just to do the High Trail properly. The scenery is simply spectacular and the locals I met were mighty special too.


By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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