We just returned from one of our longest and most diverse trips both of us have ever taken. In the 26 days we were away, we found ourselves hiking gorges, inside ancient temples, sleeping in sleepy mountain valley villages, and even circumambulating around a snow-capped mountain. In some places the weather was hot enough to wear a T-shirt and in others, the weather dipped to below freezing. This was all Yunnan Province during early spring.
Yunnan’s growing international tourism market makes it a huge hit for students abroad coming to China to learn the language and see a bit of the country. However, I wouldn’t say Yunnan is the embodiment of China. I would say Yunnan is the China I romanticized about before coming to live in this country. The Province embraces its cultures and appreciates its natural wonders. There are minorities which still live in villages to what you would expect village life to be like 100 years ago. Tibetan, Bai, and Naxi cultures all reside here and all are as different from each other as their names sound.
Including the amazing smorgasbord of culture which exists in Yunnan, there also lies some of the best adventurous hiking experiences that one could ever hope for. You don’t need a compass and wilderness experience to enjoy it either. What you do need is a conscious brain and preparedness for any emergency situation (Iulia and I found ourselves in two during our time in Yunnan). All the hiking we did was relatively easy trail but demanding, I wouldn’t recommend going in sneakers but real hiking boots. I would also highly recommend to keep in mind that most places great for hiking are in remote locations meaning if there’s an emergency situation, there’s no bailing out fast. Once on any trail your only choice is to finish it or go back the way you came. My best advice I can give is hope for the best but expect the worst.
HIKING IN YUNNAN – THE TIGER LEAPING GORGE
So if you think you’re ready to hit the trailhead I’ve written below a breakdown of one of the most challenging and monumental hikes we have ever taken-The Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a trail which takes up to two days of walking to complete. The trail follows its namesake gorge high up along the young but powerful Yangtze River. The gorge is between the cities of Lijiang and Shangri-La. If you plan on going from Lijiang to T.L.G. to Shangri-La it can be done, however, most hikers went back to Lijiang after completing the hike, probably so they didn’t have to bring all their possessions along with them. The trail begins in Qiaotou village and ends at Tina’s Guesthouse. There are a few guesthouses along the way which serve as trail markers. I do not recommend booking anything in advance. All guesthouses have plenty of room and it is hard to say where you’ll be on the trail by the time it gets dark.
Bring plenty of water (2 litres per person) and a few snacks as vendors on the trail are pricey. There is a convenience store located in Qiaotou but if you arrive in the village early it may not be open. I suggest being ready before you arrive in Qiaotou.
To get to Qiaotou there are plenty of buses coming from Lijiang. The hostel we stayed in had an organized bus pick us up from the front of the hostel. It did not cost any extra money for this service and saved us time as we didn’t have to find a taxi to take us to the bus station. If you’re coming from Shangri-La I’m sure there will be just as many buses in volume going to Qiaotou.
Below I have divided the trail as a walkthrough into four parts; (spoiler alert!)
PART 1: QIAOTOU TO NAXI FAMILY GUESTHOUSE
I can’t say this is my favorite part of the hike. For obvious reasons, you’re still quite close to civilization. But mostly I found it hard to find the right trail when leaving Qiaotou. Luckily, there were lots of locals around to help point us in the right direction. My advice when finding the trail is stick to the high road.
After leaving Qiaotou and getting off the dirt road you hit the walking trail. It begins by going straight up a hill. It’s not too difficult and the top of the hill makes for a view, but it’s not the best as you can see and hear some construction below and lots of power lines. The trail proceeds past some old ruins before going back uphill again through a shady forest. There are some vendors at the top of the hill.
When you finally break from the forest you’ll see one of my favorite views during the entire hike; a picturesque mountain village with green terraces nestled comfortably and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as the backdrop. You’ll have to go through the village to continue on the trail but before pushing ahead, take time to rest at Naxi Family Guesthouse. They have a fairly priced menu in English and they make some excellent food. Walking from Qiaotou to Naxi Family Guesthouse took us about 3 hours.
PART 2: NAXI FAMILY GUESTHOUSE TO TEA HORSE GUESTHOUSE (YACHA VILLAGE)
If you weren’t panting and puffing all through the first segment of the hike you’ll definitely be doing some especially if you’re carrying alot of gear (like we were). This is irrefutably the most difficult part of the hike. Soon after leaving the village behind you start by going uphill in a smooth fashion; to the top of another hill where there is a log cabin and some bathrooms you have to pay to use. There is also another vendor here.
After passing the cabin you’ll be going on a zig-zag trail going straight up the mountain that you’ve only been skirting around the side of so far. I believe the number of bends to go uphill sums up to 28. It’s hard but after pushing through the bends you’ll be at the highest point of the journey with the best view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It will be breathtaking and nothing short of. There will also be a guy who will charge you 25 RMB to take photos from a certain place but nevermind him and just walk a little past him for a great view.
From this point, it’s downhill. It will feel like a blessing from the mountain god but it is VERY easy to twist an ankle from a combination of exhaustion and the steepness of the decent. At the bottom of the decent lies Tea Horse Guesthouse. This is the true halfway mark of the trail. The hardest part has been accomplished and I would recommend this to be a good place to stop for the night. From Naxi Family Guesthouse to Tea Horse Guesthouse it took us about 4 or 5 hours.
PART 3: TEA HORSE GUESTHOUSE TO HALFWAY GUESTHOUSE
Between the two rest stops it is just a straight and comfortable walk. It is an easy trail which makes it the best time to imbibe where you really are- somewhere in the mountains of China with the Yangtze river rushing far below. You’ll even be able to hear the rapids from your height. I really liked this part of the walk as it was the most solitary and this is where I felt out in the wild. As getting to Halfway Guesthouse was easy it took us about 2 and ½ hours.
PART 4: HALFWAY GUESTHOUSE TO TINA’S GUESTHOUSE
When we walked the trail we chose to stay at Halfway Guesthouse. The rooms were cheap and we needed an early start to catch our bus the next morning from Tina’s Guesthouse. There was nothing wrong with the rooms, it had a heated bed and a glorious view of the mountain from across the way. Made for a wonderful sunrise. It’s all basic but you have a nice bed, hot shower, and good food to eat, so what else do you need? The bathrooms were…..a surprise, I would say unique. If there’s ever been an interesting place to do your business this is it. I’ll leave it up to the hiker to discover more on that.
We left the Guesthouse right after eating breakfast. Even with the two cups of coffee we both had we were still exhausted and sore from putting in 10 hours of walking the day before. This was not the time for that as unknowingly we were to face the most dangerous part of the hike ahead.
So far, the trail had been well worn but the walk after Halfway Guesthouse was for the first part a rocky cliff with plenty of places to trip that lined around a steep ravine which in one place induced a bit of vertigo in me. All the while the wind was blowing from off the cliff and pushing us into the ravine. In our lethargic mood and heavy backpacks we had to take this part in caution. There was even a point where we had to cross a slippery waterfall coming off the cliff. Adrenaline pumped but luckily, that was all that came of this section.
Afterwards, it’s just downhill to the bottom of the gorge and to Tina’s. Looking behind at this section made for a great view of seeing all that was accomplished that morning and the day before. Although it was a challenging trail, it was sad to see it had come to an end. From Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s it took 3 hours. We had plenty of time to catch the mid afternoon bus onwards to Baishuitai that we paid for at Tina’s. All the busses leave from the front of Tina’s and there are plenty of busses going back to Lijiang and Qiaotou but only one heading toward Baishuitai and Shangri-La.
A SMALL ADD-ON TO THE HIKE:
About 1 kilometer on the main road past Tina’s guesthouse is a small hike down to the Yangtze River where you can see the legendary rock of the gorge. Overall, It was a steep, downhill and then back-up-the-way-you-came hike to the location and the rock itself wasn’t anything special plus you had to pay 15 RMB to go down this trail. However, after doing such a wonderful hike I wanted to see the place where supposedly a tiger jumped off and over the river.
There are other addendums to the main hike such as going to Walnut grove and Haba peak but our time schedule limited us to not take these hikes. Unfortunately I don’t have any information on these routes.
Please, if you have any questions you would like answered about the hike post them in the comments section. If you have anything else to add about the hike that you felt wasn’t shared here please also feel free to leave a comment.