Far away from the smog and crowds of China’s east
coast cities is Yunnan Province. Though it has a few cities of its own, the
southwestern province is geographically diverse, with the Tibetan plateau
rising in the north and west, and subtropical lowlands steaming to the south.
Edging towards the northwest of the province is Three Parallel Rivers
National Park. Here, southern Asia, eastern Asia and the Tibetan Plateau
smash together in a dramatic riot of deep, near-sunless gorges, mighty rivers
and craggy snow-capped peaks. The spectacular terrain has historically meant
tough travel, and the subsequent isolation experienced by its inhabitants has preserved
its cultural diversity. The park is home to the Naxi people, as well as the Li,
Nisu and a handful of others.
The park encompasses the near-meeting points of three of
Asia’s – and the world’s — great rivers: the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu, which
eventually become the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween respectively. Although the
mouths and headwaters of these rivers are all quite distant, for a brief period
they gravitate towards each other and then run parallel for roughly 100 miles
before diverging into different seas. Their relatively short run alongside each
other happens to be in one of the most biologically diverse and geographically varied
temperate zones in the world, which earned it a Unesco World Heritage Site
status in 2003.
The most well-known area of the park is Tiger
Leaping Gorge, arguably the deepest gorge in the world and the site of one
of China’s most popular treks. The trail snakes along vertical cliffs and
through small villages, while the Jinsha rushes far below. Visitors usually
take two days to hike the upper path, stopping to sleep in one of the villages
along the way and using Lijiang or Shangri-la as a base.
When trekking through this region, you often feel as
though time is standing still. A group of small goats clang by, herded by a man
carrying a walking stick. Women carry woven baskets on their backs, peddling
food to travellers or carrying goods home. As the sun rises, the light filters
through the jagged teeth of the mountaintops, while pure streams rush down from
It is easy to organize your own trek through Tiger
Leaping Gorge, as it is a well-travelled trail. Tour operators in Lijiang and
Shangri-la can help organise more remote treks. Consider WildChina
for upscale, customized trips or Yunnan
Adventure for a more basic approach.
To visit Three Parallel Rivers National Park, start in
Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city. From there you can fly, take a train or bus to
Lijiang, another Unseco protected site. Buses and planes also run to
Shangri-la, further west. From these two
cities, buses and minivans depart regularly for Qiaotou, at one end of Tiger
The article 'Where three great Asian rivers meet' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.