Trekking in China, where dragons stand guard

Get a different perspective on Tiger Leaping Gorge by walking the 22km High Path, a two-day trek through remote Naxi hill farming terraces that is far removed from the tourist hordes.

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 region’s beauty.

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.

After these 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 reach the 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.

Advance room 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.