For sheer dramatic
natural beauty, Tiger
Leaping Gorge in China’s Yunnan province takes some beating. Situated
around 60km west of the historic city of Lijiang, the 15km-long gorge carves
its way through steep-sided and snow-capped Himalayan peaks that line up like a
rugged roll-call of nature’s tough guys.
Most people walk part
or all of the one-day Low Way, a 21km flat and paved path through the bottom of
the gorge. However, the 22km High Path – a more physically demanding two-day trek
through remote Naxi hill farming terraces – is the ultimate way to discover the
The High Path is widely
considered to be one of the finest treks in China due to its unbeatable
mountain and gorge views. It is also one of the most accessible treks in the
world. While most great mountain treks require multi-day supported and guided
backup, this well-marked route does not require a guide or any technical
mountaineering skills. In addition, you’re far from the tourists hordes below.
Starting from the
small town of Qiaotou, the gateway to the gorge, trekkers simply need to pay
the entry fee, pick up a free trail map from the visitor centre and start
walking. For the first two hours, the trek follows a narrow road through
agricultural land where you can see local working Naxi, an ethnic minority
group who inhabit the hills and farm arable terraced lands. After a stop at the
Naxi guesthouse to refuel with tea and a Naxi sandwich (flatbread with minced
meat and vegetables), the vegetation thins out and the trail starts to traverse
the valley side, surrounded by wildflowers and cacti.
innocuous beginnings lies the arduous 28 Bends, by far the hardest section of
the trail. The path becomes narrow and rocky, climbing and twisting steeply. In
all it takes around an hour to make your way up 2.5km of steep hillside – and
with 453m of altitude gain, it’s wise to take your time. The effort is worth it
though. Upon reaching the top, you emerge from the trees onto a small rocky
clearing looking directly onto a long dragons-back-like range of grey snow-capped
peaks: the imposing 5,600m-high Jade Dragon.
When you’ve had
your fill of the views, a short descent gently traverses the valley, passing
through wooded sections, crossing small streams and traversing open
agricultural land. For most of the way you have alternating views of the Jade
Dragon’s many jagged peaks and its glacier. It takes around seven hours to
Halfway Lodge, where the viewing deck is a highlight of the trek. The
glaciated peaks stand opposite, slowly turning orange as the sun sets, while in
the morning the sun rises sharply from behind their jagged ridges. Don’t make
the mistake of trying to leave before sunrise: its worth the later start to see
the sun rise over the gorge.
The second day of
trekking, with three quarters of the distance behind you, is much easier. Following
a steep sided rocky gorge and passing the huge Guanyin Waterfall, it takes around
two hours to reach Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, where a mythical tiger, being
chased by a hunter, was said to have made a near impossible leap across the stream
leading into the main gorge. Here you’ll find Tina’s
Guesthouse, the most popular ending to the trek and the main exit point for
busses to Lijiang.
There are options
to trek on to the base of the gorge or to continue to Walnut Garden, a terraced agricultural area and village at
the far end of the gorge (both around three hours and strenuous), and even to
continue on for several days to Haba Snow Mountain, a seriously challenging 5,396m-high
multi day climb (which requires a guide and camping) – but for most trekkers,
this makes for a fitting end to a great adventure.
This is a high altitude trek, so be sure to spend a couple of days between
Lijiang and Kunming getting acclimatised first.
It’s not a good
idea to take on this trek between July and late September, during the rainy
season; it can be slippery and you’re unlikely to see much.
booking is only needed during Golden Week (1 to 7 October 2014) and Chinese New
Year (19 February 2015). There are plenty of good options in the gorge and
along the trail.