Before I knew anything about Yunnan, I just knew I wanted to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge. In fact it was my main reason for coming down to the sunny south-west corner of China. My friend did it over the summer and came back telling me that I would hate myself if I left China and didn’t do it.
He was right. I’ve seen and done some amaing things in this country, but the gorge was mind-blowing. 15km long and the largest gorge in the world, its views varied significantly but never ceased to be awesome.
We travelled up to Lijiang to begin the trek and somehow ended up in a Chinese hostel with staff that spoke almost no English. We told them we wanted to do the trek and they gave us a ticket and told us to stand outside in the morning and we’d get picked up. So with that helpful info and we did just that and a bus full of sleepy backpackers got us at 7:30. 90 minutes later the driver kicked us out on a dusty road and we all just looked at each other cluelessly until a farmer walked by with a donkey and just yelled at us to go up the road. Finally we saw a sign and started.
The night before I had met a guy who told me the hike was the hardest thing he had done in his life. So I was basically terrified. The trek is famous for its 28 bends, a series of steep switchbacks that were indeed ridiculously steep. It was cool in the morning but since I knew it would get hot- I basically charged up the switchbacks to get them done before the heat set in. We would basically do two switchbacks, lay on the ground to catch our breath, and then do two more. Luckily the views were outstanding. We could see the bluest river below and the rice paddies filled with yellow flowers (its actually rape flowers but I hate the name). And while the steep part was indeed steep…. its was not THAT hard.
I think the most unexpected part was the number of people who were selling pot. Farmers kept coming out of the woods with it and telling us it would help us sleep. They also sold Maca and “pseudo-ginseng”.
Once we finally made it up the gorge it was actuall pretty easy walking. We got to the tea hourse guest house around 3pm and then to our stopping point, the halfway house at 4:30.
There are tons of guest house littered along the trail and I think we have them to thank for the trail being incredibly well marked. At one point I counted 16 different arrows at one bend in the trail.
I was fairly determined to go to the halfway house because everyone kept talking about their bathrooms. Lonely Planet called them “interesting but unnecessary” and everyone just kept laughing when talking about them.
well. they were squat toilets with two walls and a door, but the back was completely open to the mountains… so it was an incredibly scenic spot to do your business, although I would agree it was a bit unneccessy. The guesthouse was perfect and I immediately showered all the dust and sweat out of my hair and ordered a crap-ton of food. We were disturbed however when a massive tour group showed up decked head to toe in more outdoor gear then I knew existed. They photographed everything, including the foreigners. While the largeness of the group did not contribute to the peacefulness of the atmosphere- I’m really happy to see more and more Chinese people getting into outdoor pursuits- anything that gets people outside and moving is good.
The next morning I got up at 6:30 and wrapped myself up in blanket, huddling over a thermos of coffee, and watched the sun come up. Its not really an ideal location since it comes up at the base of the gorge but I could see a shaft of light appear and the mountains slowly becae visibale while the stars faded out. ITs very strange for me to go months at a time in nanchong without seeing stars at all.
From there it was 2 hours to Tina’s guesthouse and the unofficial end of the trek, except for the foolish souls who hike down to the river. Which of course, I wanted to do. Our group had shrunk to 4 and we skipped on down happily. It was beautiful and the roar of the water became louder and louder. We descended rapidly and my one friend aptly pointed out “Getting back up is going to be a suckfest”.
and it was.
However they have ladders to help with it. I’m not scared of heights but one ladder was SO long. We gathered around the bottom of it and joked about it, took pictues of it and were rather disturbed that locals were selling beer (don’t drink and climb ladders) but we were all a bit apprehensive.
Finally I just started climbing and just counted the rungs so that I wasn’t contemplating how much I would die if I slipped. By the time I reached the top I was shaking, either from nerves or from gripping so tightly. We all just sort of sat there and recovered from a bit. It got hot quickly and we took to swearing at the trail in Chinese, much to the locals amusement (sichuanese has some rough swears) and we reached the top in time to get lunch and recover before our bus ride back to Lijiang.
My mind has been so busy lately, planning out my travels and worrying about what I’ll do in 10 weeks when I go back to America.. Hiking is such an escape because the trail was challenging enough that I couldn’t waste my thoughts on worrying over the future. I had to just put one foot in front of the other. Its so peaceful when your thoughts focus on such a simple goal. Honestly I’m still blissed out from the experience.
Its entirely possible to do the trail in one day, if you skip going down to the river, but it was so beautiful I really wished we could have spread it out over 3 days. It was very quiet on the trail, and just stunning icy mountains, yellow rice terraces, and blue rivers. My heart was so full. It did completely trash my legs however. I’m back in Dali now and I’m keeping a tough schedule of getting massages, drinking mango lassis, and soaking up sunshine.