Tiger Leaping Gorge is a popular trek in Yunnan Province. The rugged terrain is striking, it is easily reached, well supported and a straightforward walk. The "High Trail" can be completed in two days, but I think it deserves at least three or more. The Naxi culture predominates in this region and the people are known for their hospitality. Several guesthouses along the trail provide clean and friendly accommodation.
The trail starts in the village of Qiaotou (Chow-toe), a short bus rise from Lijiang. Gorged Tiger Café is a good place to get food and water, trail information or store extra luggage before setting out. The trailhead lies at approximately 1800m above sea level. Here, local horsemen gently ply their services, carrying people and luggage. Try walking as they are rarely far away and easily located by the ringing bells hanging from the necks of the horses.
As the trail turns into the gorge, misty views of the Yangtze River unveil themselves upstream through the morning fog. Around the first corner, spectacular clouded peaks tower above while steep faces plunge to the river below. Haba Snow Mountain to the north rises 5500m and Yulong Snow Mountain across the river rises to 5596m. Between these imposing peaks the Yangtze River charges inland toward central China. In just over 20km the water descends over 200m.
The trail meanders uphill through terraced fields that cover the hillside. The people are friendly, waving at passersby, always smiling. Appropriately, the first night is well spent at Naxi Family Guesthouse, situated in the midst of fields of corn and other crops. It is built in the traditional style with four structures surrounding a small courtyard. Most rooms overlook the flowered courtyard but a few face eastward toward Yellow Mountain where the afternoon sun turns the barren peaks bright yellow. The family atmosphere is friendly and accommodating and the food delicious. The kitchen, warmed by a wood stove, is the central area. Here, water is boiled for tea, meals are cooked and stories are traded. The walkers you meet here are those you bump into over the next days.
Next morning the trail winds up the infamous "28 Bends" peaking around 2670m. The steep 400m climb is rewarded with great views. The terrain has become sharper and more rugged. The homes, trees and even the fields appear to be clinging to the steep hillside. Pine trees tower above while the river gathers intensity below. The pungent aromas of harvest waft through the air.
Tea Horse Guesthouse, a half hour distant, has a comfortable veranda to sit and rest and enjoy a complimentary pot of tea. It is common for a pot of tea to be placed on the table when you arrive and be continually filled until you depart.
After a break, the walk to Halfway House Guesthouse is punctuated with incredible views in every direction. Halfway House is a well established and a friendly overnight stop with most rooms overlooking the gorge below and the Yulong Snow Mountains beyond.
The restaurant feels as though it is hanging over the valley. On this day, the view appears fluid. Scudding clouds pass, allowing shafting rays of sun to create a shifting panorama. Sunlight dances from peak to peak highlighting rock faces and brilliant green sections before the clouds close and leave intensely dark shadows. As the sun sets, the sky retains its blue brilliance while the light simply fades from bottom upward until all that remains is endless blue. A rest day wandering the terraced fields around Halfway House is a great way to learn about Naxi culture.
The final day starts by winding past several waterfalls, including the large Quanyin Fall. From there, it is largely downhill with some remarkable views of the river raging through the final section of the gorge. Secondary tracks intersect the main trail quite often and, as my walking companion learned, a wrong turn can lead to the ‘low road’ – now a modern paved road ferrying busloads of Chinese tourists on their half hour tour through the Gorge – well before the end of the high trail. The trail descends through meadows covered in wildflowers, terminating at Tina’s Guesthouse where it meets the road. I had a good laugh when my speedy walking companion turned up behind me as I crossed the bridge above Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The river is very close and the water is chaotic. Great haystacks of whitewater stand as though guarding a passage. Descending into the Gorge, the trail is less obvious and often passes through small clusters of homes. I was invited to tea wherever I saw someone. Further on, I chanced upon an old Naxi man on the narrow trail bringing his goat herd home for the night. He smiled at me and we both greeted each other: "ni hao" - hello. Communicating through gestures and sounds, he pointed me along the trail to view the middle Tiger Leaping Stone. The trail becomes very rugged and the cliff moves closer with each step.
Climbing out of the gorge to the road, several guesthouses offer accommodation. The road and the occasional passing vehicle bring a sense of civilization, contrasting sharply with the freedom of life on the high trail. Nonetheless, the sense of completion is invigorating. A final evening with friends met along the trail is a fitting conclusion to an impressive trek.