Monday, February 29, 2016

Tiger Leaping Gorge: Falling inside the tiger's throat


In planning our travel itinerary in China, the Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡; Hǔtiào Xia) emerged as one of the must-do activities in the Yunnan Province. Frequently described as one of the best and most beautiful treks in the country, the 15 miles path, almost entirely above 10,000 ft., passes through pine forests, small villages, terrace farmlands, all with a spectacular view of the Haba Mountains and its famous snowy peaks.

Who would have thought? Those who knew us before our backpacking trip would never believe that Maxi and I could be so excited about the idea of ​​a trekking. I guess Nepal has changed us forever. Being in close touch with nature, breathing fresh air and having the chance to visit places that most tourists don’t (because it is impossible to reach by car) is something unparalleled, and even a little addictive. If an addiction is inevitable, at least let it be one that will make us healthier and fit!

For a change, finding out information (either online or offline) on how to get there, where to go and to how to get back, was an arduous task as with most travel in China. Without a question, we wanted to do the trek on our own and not through an agency. Luckily, the hostel where we stayed in Lijiang organized a minibus to the Gorge, for only 40 yuan (6.50 USD) per person, round trip. So we left our big backpacks in Lijiang, and set off only with the necessary for a two day trek, aware that we could run into cold and rainy weather.

The minibus left early, before dawn. After a rough 2 hour ride, we arrived at the box office in Qiatou. The entrance to the protected area was 65 CNY (11 USD) per person. With tickets in hand, we zigzagged uphill through a relatively busy dirt road until we found the start of the trail, not without the help of the locals.

There are two ways to visit the Tiger Leaping Gorge: the upper route, which can only be accessed on foot, and the lower route, which is basically a paved flat road. Here you’ll find dozens of buses caring hundreds of Chinese tourists obsessed in taking the perfect selfie with the famous rock where, legend has it, a tiger used as a stepping stone to jump across the river in order to escape from a hunter. We chose the higher path, where we must have seen no more than 20 tourists in total, all of which were foreigners.

I have to confess that my biggest worry in going solo was getting lost in the middle of nowhere IN CHINA! After all, if in the city they already don’t understand a word we speak, just imagine out in the boondocks ... However, all my concerns faded away as soon as we saw the first post signs and the red color painted arrows indicating the path that, overall, was well marked and maintained all the way.

We began the ascent at 10 am. According to my previous homework, I knew the climb would be a tough one, but especially the part known as the "28 Bends", which literally are 28 curves on the mountain leading to the upper path. According to fellow travel bloggers, with the exception of this portion of the trek, the trail is relatively easy. Well, they were wrong.

So we climbed….. and climbed… and we climb up a little more. Hard to describe our joy in finding a refuge that sold hot coffee and cookies to recharge our batteries. Similarly how sad it was to find out that we had not yet even begun the 28 Bends!

It was already 1 pm and we were not even halfway through. We needed to pick up the pace if we were going to make it to our guesthouse before complete darkness. So, Maxi and I engaged into our first gear and cruised up through the 28 Bends. Perhaps we were expecting the worst given the bad reputation, but it was not nearly as traumatic as described on the blogs, at least not worse than what we’ve just done beforehand. But climbing does have its rewards. From the top, we’re presented with breathtaking views. A stunning mountain range with whipped cream peaks and the view down below of the river flowing strong through the deep gorge, splitting the canyon into two.

After passing through quiet villages, terraces, plantations, a few cows and chickens, at 3 pm we stopped for lunch in a guesthouse we found on the way. I was so tired that I could sleep right there. But following the recommendations, we continued up to BendiWan village where we would find more options for accommodation, including the famous "Halfway Lodge", where basically all backpackers make their overnight stop.

Halfway Lodge

For those who hiked in Nepal, "Halfway Lodge" could be considered a five-star hotel. A double room with private bathroom, hot shower and electric mattress (the best invention of recent times!) was 150 CNY (24 USD). There is also a dormitory option which, if I remember correctly, was priced 100 CNY for two people (8 USD per bed), but honestly, after nine hours of trekking, we certainly deserved a little luxury.

The best part of this Guesthouse (in addition to the electric mattress!) was meeting with other backpackers, exchanging experiences and getting a chance to talk to someone other than your travel partner. As funny as it sounds, traveling in China makes you miss speaking English. It’s quite rare to find people from different nationalities other than Chinese, and who are not part of a tour group.

We started walking at 9 am and it was not long until the first waterfalls became visible. At times, the water would flow through the trail, making a raincoat an essential backpack item. Unlike the day before, the decline was much faster and, one and a half hours later, we arrived at Tina's Guesthouse, the departure point of the bus back to Lijiang.

And that's when the nightmare began. It was still early and we really wanted to go down to the famous Tiger Leaping Stone. After consulting an employee of Tina's GH, he promptly offered us a car lift that would take us to the “official descending point”. According to him, it was located 4km away from the hotel. The whole situation seemed very fishy, and really soon, our suspicions were well justified. The driver dropped us off at the entrance to a staircase where a local resident was charging 15 yuan per person to descend to the stone. The reason he said, “Was for the construction and maintenance of the steps”, which was performed by the local people without any help from the government. Even though we were skeptical we paid the fee, as there was “no” other way in and the driver had long gone.

To our surprise, half an hour and 1000 steps later we came across another “ticket booth”, only this time charging an additional 10 yuan to continue to the stone. At that moment we were both possessed by anger. We tried to argue, but the woman was adamant about the fee. As we knew what she was doing was illegal we tried to pass it anyways, and that's when the situation turned violent. After insults and rock throwing threats, we decided to turn back without seeing the so called Tiger Stone up-close. Despite all the beautiful things we experienced, this ending left a bitter taste in our mouths that will be hard to forget.

Of course Tina's GH is getting a commission! Later on we would find out from other better informed travelers that they have used another entrance (Sandy Guesthouse, located just 1 km across the bridge to the left) and paid only 10 yuan. From there they saw a waterfall and reached to the stone. Be aware of Tina GH little scheme, and don’t let it spoil your trip.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek can be easily covered in two days. However, based on our experience the first day was unnecessarily demanding and the second day, very short. Therefore we recommend to overnight in YaCha village (where we had lunch on day 1), which is located around two hours before the Halfway Lodge. This will allow you enough time to get to Sandy GH around noon, go down to the Tiger Leaping Stone (possibly avoiding the fee, since residents are there only at the time when tourists descend, between 10 - 11 am), have lunch, and take the bus that leaves only at 3 pm.

The lower path along the paved road, although easier, was not less exciting by any means. Rock slides are very common in this region, and it was not long until we came across a big one, blocking the road completely. After climbing a few giant boulders, we finally got into the minibus that was waiting on the other side, apprehensive that at any moment it could be our last!

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Tiger Leaping Gorge


  1. All the pictures look breathtakingly beautiful. Never knew there was such a beautiful treck in china. I would love to go there the next time I go to china.

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