Hiking Leaping Tiger Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge is an incredible hiking trail on the head waters of the Yangtze River north west of Lijiang in Yunnan province. I first learnt of Leaping Tiger Gorge earlier this year from a fellow traveller in China and every thing I heard about it was incredible. The Yangtze River is the largest river in Asia, an integral part of China’s economy, history and culture and has some of the best hiking and natural scenery in China.
Summer is not good time to hike the gorge because summer is the rainy season and the trails are dangerous to hike and mountains are covered in cloud. October and November are the best times to visit the gorge after the rainy season is over and before the area becomes too cold and uncomfortable in winter. So for the last half year I’ve been waiting for the October national holidays to arrive so I can visit one of China’s finest hiking trails.
The Leaping Tiger Gorge is near Lijiang City in Yunnan province which is the most south western province in China. The options for travelling from Beijing to Lijing were by a direct flight, two trains or a plane and a train. Flights from Beijing to Lijiang cost 2,400rmb, double the price of flights from Beijing to Kunming that cost 1,100rmb so a direct flight was too expensive.
There are no direct trains from Beijing to Lijiang so travel to Lijing by train would require catching a train from Beijing to Kunming then catch another train from Kunming to Lijiang. The train from Beijing to Kunming cost around 560rmb and takes 38 to 44 hours. The train from Kunming to Lijiang cost 160rmb and takes 9-10 hours. Prices are reasonable but too slow.
So the plan was to catch a plane from Beijing to Kuming, stay over night in Kunming, enjoy one day in Kunming then catch an overnight train and arrive in Lijiang the next morning. Enjoy a day in Lijinag then take a two hour bus to the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge the following morning.
The night before & new friends
The night before the hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge I was talking staff in the hostel about the gorge and met Chen and his girlfriend Yan from Shanghai. They were also interested in hiking the gorge so we agreed to hike the gorge together then head of for Shangrila.
Getting there – Some hostels in Lijiang arrange buses to Qiao Tou which is the start of the hike up Tiger Leaping Gorge. Our hostel did not have a bus so we met at 7am and caught a taxi to the Lijiang bus station where we were told here were buses to Qiao Tou. There were no buses for at least two hours so we hired a minivan that was just out side the entrance of the bus station. You’ll see these minivans all over Lijiang and they congregate outside bus stations and the entrances to the Old Town. The fare was 240rmb which was a bit pricy but reasonable.
The drive to Qiao Tou took around 90 minutes and had great views of rural China and the mountains surrounding the gorge. We changed over to a taxi for the last 10 minutes (no idea why) and were dropped off at the Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket office where the hike begins.
In the past, you’d start the hike on a dirt track that ran up past a school. There has been a fair bit of development of the gorge recently and the hike now starts on a paved road. The starting point is clearly marked by a blue sign that points up the paved road. After buying tickets which are 50rmb a piece, we shouldered our bags and set off for the hike of a life time.
Luggage – I had a small back pack and packed the absolute minimum to make the hike easier and more enjoyable. A couple sets of underwear, basic toiletries, a laptop & power supply (have to work while travelling), an ebook & batteries and a liter of water. Everything else was left at the hostel where I would pick it up in a few days. Yan was carrying a day pack with their food and water that weighed the same as my pack. Chen was carrying a massive back pack full of books, multiple changes of clothes and god knows what else.
I was mentally placing bets on how far he’d make it up the gorge before he passed out. Chen is a great guy with an excellent attitude so I took pity on him and carried his water for him.
Horses & Guides – At the ticket office are groups of locals guides who ferry tourists and their luggage up to the top of the gorge for a price. They’ll offer their services to you as soon as buy your ticket. If you refuse their services, they’ll tag along as your shadow until you give in. They are a pretty good at assessing tourists and choosing the ones who are out of shape, overloaded or both and will not make it up by themselves.
They will then attach themselves to you and walk a few meters behind you until you give up. They know exactly where the trail starts to wear you down and are just biding their time till you reach those points. The going rate from the beginning of the trail to the top was 200rmb.
The trail – The first few hours on the trail are easy with great views and not very demanding. At this stage you are lulled into a false sense of complacency and tell your guide that you really don’t need their help. The trail is not difficult until you reach the 28 bends where it is very tough and at this stage you really have to push yourself. The 28 bends is a killer and you can see scores of tourist collapsed all along the side of the trail there.
Yan was having trouble an hour into the hike so Chen went to carry her pack. I could not let my new friend kill himself so I grabbed her pack of him and carried it for them. Even with two packs, I was still carrying a lot less than Chen. Poor fool.
Our guide hit pay dirt at the beginning of the 28 bends when Yan could not go any further on foot and had to take the horse. 100rmb to the top of the bends and that included Chen’s pack on the back of the horse.
The altitude at the beginning of the hike is around 1850 meters and the altitude at the top of the 28 bend which is the highest point on the trail is around 2650 meters. The views of the gorge and the Yangtze River far below are breathtaking at this point.
Photo Fees – There is a great natural look out on the edge of a cliff over looking the gorge at the highest part of the trail at the end of the 28 bends. A little old lady has this area roped off and charges people 8rmb to take photos. This area is government land, there are no facilities built on it and it is a part of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. I had a disagreement which this lady who clung onto the straps of my pack and refused to let go until I paid her so I grudgingly paid and left.
In hindsight I should have just quietly paid and not made a fuss because we are guests in an area where we are unfamiliar with local customs and values but accepting what I perceived as exploitation was not easy.
The last part of the hike – The rest of the trail from the 8rmb photo area to the Half Way guest house where we stayed the night was mainly flat and took around two hours to hike.
Trail markers – There are a number of places where the trail splits and has intersections. These points in the trail are marked so hikers know which direction to take. The two types of trail marks are the official blue signs which can be confusing and point in the wrong way and the painted arrows which are clear and stopped us from going the wrong way a number of times.
A night on the Gorge – The Halfway Guest House is incredible and you can read the review of it here Half Way Guest House Review. After a well earned rest and a shower, Yan, Chen and I shared a delicious dinner with a very friendly New Zealander then headed of for bed.
The trail down – After the first day of difficult hiking, the trail from Halfway Guest house to Tina’s Guest House near the bottom of the gorge was easy. This part of the trail has a number of charming creeks and waterfalls and was very relaxing and enjoyable to hike.
At the river – We arrived at Tina’s at around 1pm and booked seats on a 4pm bus to Shangrila. This gave us just enough time to hike the lower part of the trail that goes from the road near Tina’s all the way down to the river itself. This part of the trail only takes an hour to cover but is very gruelling and a little dangerous in some parts.
We followed the trail down to the river where there is an enormous boulder on the edge of the river. This is the boulder that gives the gorge its name because in ancient times a tiger escaped hunters by hopping on that boulder and leaping across the river.
After taking a few photos on the boulder and symbolic wash in the head waters of the Yangtze River, we headed back up to Tina’s for a quick rest then caught the bus to Shangrila.
Tips and recommendations
Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge is an incredible experience and if you are in Lijiang with two days spare, do it. It will be one of the best parts of your time in China.
If possible stay in the gorge for two at least days. Apart from the main trail, there are a number of side trails on the gorge that are great to hike. The Halfway Guest House and surrounding trails are also a great place to enjoy yourself and relax for a day while admiring breath taking views.
Pack the minimum, wear suitable hiking clothes, be in reasonable shape physically and take it easy on the trail. There is plenty of time to go from the start of the trail at Qiantou to the Halfway Guest House with out rushing madly up the trail.
The Halfway Guest House is the only place to stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge and no other hostel compares to it. It is often booked out so reserve a bed or room at least a day in advance.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Links