The Tiger Leaping Gorge: China's Grand Canyon
by Mark Painter
"Tai xi!" exclaimed the first guide I'd interviewed in Lijiang, when I explained what I wanted to do.
My Chinese is marginal, but I had no trouble understanding him: "Too dangerous."
I persisted. Every summer, hundreds of foreigners flock to China from all over the world to hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, where the mighty Yangzi, the longest river in Asia, funnels into a narrow gorge between mountains that soar more than two miles above.
The guide was adamant. "Sorry," he concluded, in English. He waved his hand dismissively and walked away.
The second guide I interviewed looked about 15 years old. He didn't speak much English either, but was willing to accompany me. He claimed to have made the trip many times before, but when I asked him how long the hike was, he couldn't tell me the correct answer.
I met the third guide at the China International Travel Service in Lijiang. His name was Huang Chan, he was definitely a grown-up, and he didn't turn pale when I told him what I wanted to do. He seemed confident and steady.
"I can get you through," he said in Chinese. "If you're strong. Are you strong?"
I assured him I was. (How do you say machismo in Chinese?)
"Then let's do it."
The Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail follows the Yangzi River for about 25 miles through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. Nestled in the northwest corner of Yunnan province, the gorge lies less than 100 miles from the Tibetan border, meaning these mountains are foothills to the Himalayas, the highest mountain range on Earth.
The trail connects the towns of Daju and Qiaotou. Qiaotou has the advantage of being easier to get to or from, but that's about all that can be said for it. Daju, on the other hand, is a remote, rustic village full of charm. The bus trip between Lijiang and Daju involves an arduous five-hour journey over a 14,000-foot mountain on a dizzying, single-lane dirt road, so travelers would do well to rest overnight at Daju before heading out.
Mr. Huang and I didn't do that. We made the mistake of setting out along the trail immediately after the ride from Lijiang. Daju is on the opposite side of the gorge from the trail, so our first task was to wind our way down the hillside about 500 feet to the southern bank of the Yangzi, where we hired a ferry to take us across.
Once we'd been left on the opposite bank, the next challenge was to climb one of the steepest trails I'd ever seen, switching back and forth across the hillside as it led us up the full 1,500 feet. Mr. Huang picked his way up the hill with the grace of a mountain goat, but I had quite a struggle, and rued our decision to begin the trek that same day.
At the top, opposite Daju, lay a little plateau that supports a few small farms. To get through the farms and onto the trail, we picked our way past farmhouses, fields, and tiny water wheels, built to take advantage of the streams rushing down from the mountains. A couple of the farm-houses have hand-painted signs advertising themselves as "restaurants" and "hotels," an obvious attempt to grab a piece of the backpacker trade.
I kept expecting every farmer we met to chase us off the land. But this is socialist China, where hikers have the same right to the land as the farmers themselves. For an American hiker, that's a totally new experience. (Common courtesy still applies, of course. Hikers do not have the right to pick food for their own use or otherwise damage the plants.)
Past the plateau, the trail proper begins. It's essentially a cut in the mountainside, about 1,500 feet above the river, extending some 20 miles to Qiaotou. There are numerous rockslides which have buried the original trail, requiring trekkers to pick their way over or around the rubble, a reminder that a new slide is always possible.
Once, I called out to Mr. Huang. He cringed and gestured at the rocky slope above our heads, suggesting eloquently that my big American mouth was about to bury both of us. I shut up.
The view of the river is spectacular throughout the hike, especially at the points where the gorge narrows, funneling the water through a roaring, churning set of rapids. Across the river, the mountains soar breathtakingly high, sometimes in sheer cliffs that tower over 10,000 feet above the river.
Halfway along the trail, we spent the night in Walnut Grove. A small village, it nestles on the mountainside at the one spot in the gorge where the slope between the trail and the river flattens out enough to allow terrace farming. These farms, and the grove of walnut trees that gives the village its name, were the town's livelihood until backpackers discovered the trail. Now, two guesthouses, Woody's and the Spring Guesthouse, bring in additional income for the community.
The sign outside Woody's reads, "Eat. Drink. Live." Who can resist an invitation like that? A double room cost us the equivalent of $3.60 for one night. The accommodations are primitive, but an experienced camper can cope. Woody's is clean, you get a great view, and you can relax to the sound of the roaring Yangzi.
Walnut Grove is so serene in its isolation that it is almost otherworldly. "Is this Shangri-La?" wondered one of the guests as we drank beer and watched the daylight fade behind the mountains.
Although the trail was more level and easier to follow on the second day, we had to cross a series of waterfalls in the first miles past Walnut Grove. Only the first of these cascades is bridged. To cross the others, we had to choose between picking our way over wet, uneven stones at the lip of the precipice, or giving in and sloshing through the water at a safe distance from the edge.
In my opinion, wet feet are a small price to pay for living long enough to collect on my Social Security contributions. I sloshed. The falls sprayed us with cold water as we passed, but in the August sun, I appreciated it.
After the falls, we passed the minuscule village of Jantajou, where there is a guesthouse called "Gorgeous." Past that, I began to feel another spray of water. The feeling lasted half a mile before I could see what was causing it: below, the Yangzi was churning through the roughest and narrowest rapids of the entire gorge, kicking up enough spray to be felt 1,500 feet above and a half-mile downwind.
Beyond, there lies an incredible series of rockslides composed of gleaming white marble, dazzling in the midday sun. I found myself squinting against the glare as I clambered over marble boulders the size of pickup trucks, while mountain goats regarded me with curiosity.
Finally, we came to the actual Tiger Leaping Gorge, a particular narrows at the upstream end of the trek that gives the trail its name. The gorge is the setting of a well-known Chinese folk tale involving a legendary tiger who is implausibly said to have leaped across the gorge from one mountain to the other. A stone statue commemorates the tale.
The site was packed with Chinese tourists when we arrived. They regarded the sight of a sweaty, half-naked "big nose" stumbling out of the mountains with bemusement.
When I stopped for a rest and took off my pack, the crowd roared with laughter. "Bai da!" several of them shouted. "White stripes!" They pointed at the strips of untanned skin my pack straps had left on my shoulders. I pulled my hat down over my face in mock embarrassment.
But when Mr. Huang explained to them that we had just hiked through the gorge all the way from Daju, they smiled and murmured approvingly. Several of them gave us the "thumbs up" gesture, which means the same thing in China as in America.
The Chinese are not easy people to impress, but I'd managed it that day. I wasn't too tired to stand a little taller and grin at them.
July to August is the tourist season in Yunnan province, and the temperatures in the mountains are comfortably mild--80s in the daytime and 60s at night. Unfortunately, it is also the rainy season, so expect frequent showers (but not monsoon-like downpours).
Daily flights are available from Hong Kong to Kunming, the provincial capital, and buses or planes are available from Kunming to Lijiang. Public buses travel between Lijiang and Qiaotou every day from the bus station, and private minibuses cover the more difficult Lijiang-Daju route. These leave from the Ali Baba Cafe.
Guides can be hired from China International Travel Service in Lijiang, for about US$50.
To get the latest lowdown on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail, or to join in with a group of other hikers, knowledgeable travelers visit one of Lijiang's Western restaurants on Mao Square, such as "Peter's" or "Ma Ma Hu Hu's," and strike up a conversation with the other patrons.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "China."