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[Outbound]: Tiger Leaping Gorge: China’s Enduring Top Trek

An experiential guide to traversing one of China’s most stunningly scenic hiking routes...
2023-07-23 19:00:00
Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) is one of the world's deepest canyons. It runs more than 15km between the towering Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) and Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山) in China's southwestern Yunnan province. Its scale is a testament to the immense forces that have shaped it.

The Jinsha River, which rushes through the gorge, is a main tributary of the Upper Yangtze River. At Tiger Leaping Gorge, it bottlenecks between Haba and Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, entering rapids at several points. For millennia, the powerful Jinsha has eroded the bases of the two mountains, creating a canyon nearly 4,000 meters deep.

(Tiger Leaping Gorge reaches as deep as 3,900m from the snowy peaks to the Jinsha River. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

Since 2011, I have visited Tiger Leaping Gorge on three occasions, and during this period I have witnessed both continuity and change. The biggest changes have been expanding tourism and major infrastructure projects, including two massive suspension bridges that cross the mouth of the gorge. Such developments are eye-opening, but the wild character of the gorge will not disappear overnight.

The Trek: Qiaotou to Middle Gorge

The essential Tiger Leaping Gorge hike runs northeast along the Upper Trail on Haba Snow Mountain, starting in Qiaotou (or Hutiaoxia虎跳峡) at the Upper Gorge and ending down river at the Middle Gorge (中虎跳峡) and Walnut Garden (核桃园). On the trail, you will encounter stunning panoramic views, diverse climates and minority cultures.

(Boulders weather the intense Jinsha rapids. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

A common itinery is to take the hike in two days, with a stop at either the Tea Horse Guesthouse or Halfway Guesthouse. More ambitious trekkers may prefer to go the full way from Qiaotou to the Middle Gorge in one day (around 10 hours), and others may wish to tag on a day or two from Walnut Garden to stay at the sleepy village of Daju (大具) across the Jinsha River.

Whichever route you choose, an early start is important. As of July 2023, the earliest bus from Lijiang (丽江) to Qiaotou leaves at 7:30am from the Lijiang Passenger Bus Terminal (丽江客运站). The trip takes up to two hours and brings you to the Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket office (65rmb per ticket).

It is better to begin the hike at the ticket office in Qiaotou rather than hopping back on the bus to the visitor center down on the paved Lower Trail. The advantages of this route are that it avoids the possibility of getting stuck in a traffic jam and offers better views of the Upper Gorge.

(View of the new suspension bridges and the Jinsha River as it bends into the canyon. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

The first leg of the Upper Trail starts on a gravel road that runs past the ticket office in Qiaotou. After several bends, the road takes you to the actual trail (on the left), which climbs swiftly up the side of Haba Mountain before it descends to Zhongnuoyu (中诺余) village and the Naxi Family Guesthouse.

If you wish to start your hike from the Lower Trail, make sure the bus driver knows you intend to do the Upper Trail hike. They will drop you off at a commemorative stone that lies past the suspension bridges. From here, a steep zig-zagging paved road ascends to Zhongnuoyu. This makes for a vigorous first stage of the hike, but it brings you directly to the Naxi Family Guesthouse.

(View of the Upper Gorge before the bridges were constructed. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

This charming wooden guesthouse in Naxi minority style is a practical first rest stop for trekkers looking to have a bite to eat and enjoy a spectacular view of the astonishing cliffs of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It is also a chance to take a breather before tackling the most strenuous part of the trail, the 28 Bends. It is a good idea to stock up on water at the guesthouse since it is the last concessions stop before the top of the 28 Bends.

From the Naxi Family Guesthouse, the trail rises steeply out of Zhongnuoyu. This formidable climb has rest spots along the way, and at the top of the 28 bends is a hut serving drinks and snacks. On my visits in 2022, a local woman named Zhilan sold water, Red Bull, walnuts, and other refreshments. Nearby is a high-flying viewpoint (10rmb) on a precipice tended by another local who is clearly comfortable with heights.

(Zhilan at her rest stop at the 28 Bends. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

This section of the hike involves the most climbing, after which the trail mellows, undulating between 2,000m and 2,500m in elevation. Coming down from the 28 Bends, the trail narrows in parts, and some earthen segments might be slightly eroded during the summer rainy season. On the approach to Tea Horse Guesthouse, the path becomes a scenic stroll through stands of pine and rododendron.

Tea Horse Guesthouse is a popular rest stop roughly equidistant from Qiaotou and the Middle Gorge. I have not stayed at Tea Horse since January 2011, when my companions and I chatted in awe under the gothic peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at twilight and then gazed at the brightest Milky Way I have seen in China.

(Starry night in the canyon. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

Eastward from Tea Horse Guesthouse the Upper Trail is paved for some time before it again becomes rugged. It then skirts steep slopes until reaching a hamlet where Halfway Guesthouse is located. This guesthouse is the oldest and one of the most popular lodgings on the trail. It is run by a former soldier named Mr. Feng and his son.

Depending on the time of day you arrive at Halfway and your energy level, you may choose to move on to the Middle Gorge, in which case you can rejoin the Upper Trail at the eastern edge of the hamlet. To avoid losing the trail, you will want to look out for one of the blue signs that periodically mark the Upper Trail route.

(Mr Feng, founder of Halfway Guesthouse. Most of his first guests in the 1980s were foreign travelers. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

The stretch from Halfway Guesthouse to the Middle Gorge passes a waterfall, and there is a final climb before a series of descending switchbacks brings you toward the Middle Gorge. On the way down, be careful not to confuse the actual trail with one of numerous goat paths that crisscross the slopes to Tina's Guesthouse.

From Tina's, trekkers can descend the steep face of the gorge to the fabled tiger leaping stones at the Jinsha River. The gorge has a number of these leaping stones, any of which could be the legendary spot where a desperate tiger jumped the Jinsha to flee hunters. If you descend the gorge at Teacher Zhang's Guesthouse, you will likely be charged a small fee (around 15rmb). Another trail network lies slightly down river, and visitors there are charged up to 40rmb to use the various ladders, bridges and paths.

(Visitors pose for photos amid a raging Jinsha River. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

Both trail networks are worth the fees and offer similar attractions, some of which are as harrowing as awe-inspiring. At each, you will be able to climb or cross bridges onto the tiger leaping stones that give the full experience of the Jinsha's immense power. While sitting on one of these tiger stones last summer, I thought I was experiencing a slight tremor, but the shaking was simply due to the tons of water crashing against the stone every second.

Among the most remarkable features of the tiger stone hikes are the "Sky Ladders". Each are dozens of rungs tall and give an unforgettable ascent of the steep slope.

(Summer Xia of Summer's G.H. Inn, Walnut Garden. Daily she hikes the cliffs to tend scenic sites at the Jinsha River. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

If you have time at the end of your trek, the Bamboo Forest Path above Tina's Guesthouse takes you higher up the side of Haba Snow Mountain to a secluded waterfall at around 2,500m. Until recently, the waterfall could be crossed by two bridges, but the last of these was washed away in 2021 by a flood, according to its builder Zhao Yin (Luke), a Walnut Garden local and owner of Ancient Luke Hostel.

Luke said he has spent years building and maintaining the hiking paths above the village and in the direction of Haba Village. In summer 2022 we discussed his trail-building over tea at his hostel, the highest in elevation on the Upper Trail. He showed me photos and news clippings featuring his past guests and earlier versions of his bridges. He said he had not been maintaining the trails recently, mainly because of a lack of financial support. He said that when he gets help, he will go back to fortifying the trails, which are often subject to wear and landslides.

(View of the Middle Gorge from above Walnut Garden. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

Before my visit with Luke, I had been hiking one of his trails along a deep chasm to the waterfall but decided not to go all the way to the former bridge site. This was advised by hiking guide Mr Liu and his wife Zhuoma of the Tibet Guesthouse. More qualified trekkers may want to check the status of these trails with Luke, Sean (of Sean's Spring Guesthouse), Mr Liu or other informed locals.

Another option for visitors wishing to press onwards is Daju, an agricultural valley lying under the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The Daju Inn (大具客栈) offers views of Haba and Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. Daju can be accessed via the road exiting the gorge from Walnut Garden. A recently opened bridge crosses a relatively quiet Jinsha River to equally quiet Daju.

(The ferry crossing the Jinsha River from Daju. The bridge in the background has been completed according to Daju local Mr He, who runs Zhengfu Manor, a guesthouse. Photo: Jonas Kelsch)

(The "Five Finger" peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Yereth Jansen)

Best Time for Hiking and Additional Information

I have hiked the gorge in summer and winter, and each offer unique benefits. A summer hike gives more opportunities to meet trekkers from all over China and the world. The Jinsha is also most dramatic and golden at this time. Others may prefer winter, when the trail is quieter, the weather cooler and drier, and the Jinsha aquamarine and less ferocious. Although winter nights in the gorge can be quite cold, mild daytime temperatures make for a fresh hike.

If you plan to arrive at the Middle Gorge/Walnut Garden in one day from Qiaotou, be mindful of the time. Night arrives quickly in the mountains, so if it is twilight when you reach Halfway Guesthouse, it is best to sleep there. This allows you to wake up refreshed the next day for the two-hour trek to the Middle Gorge. There you can enjoy the thrilling scenery at the base of the gorge, have lunch at Tina's Guesthouse and take an afternoon shuttle to Lijiang or Shangri-la (香格里拉).

(Green rapids of the Jinsha. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

Environmental Challenges

"Mountains are gold", said Sean.

His Spring Guesthouse is one of the oldest lodgings in the gorge. He said human activities have impacted the gorge for decades, and that with increased tourism, waste management has become a major environmental issue. On the Upper Trail, l noticed at least two canisters for burning rubbish, and at the Jinsha I saw plastic bottles swirling in the rapids. Visitors keen to minimize their ecological footprint may want to bring reusable water containers and be conscious of the amount of single-use plastic products they purchase in the gorge.

(The Tiger Leaping Gorge trails bring visitors through an abundance of landscapes. Photo: Yereth Jansen)

Where to Stay

There is plenty of lodging along the trail. Below are just a few options. It is best to book ahead of time, especially during weekends or holidays:

• Naxi Family Guesthouse (On the first 1/3 of the trail)
• Tea Horse Guesthouse (About halfway)
• Halfway Guesthouse (2/3 along the trail)
• Tina's Guesthouse (Middle Gorge).
• Zhuoma (Tibet) Guesthouse (卓玛客栈) (Walnut Garden)
• Sean's Spring Guesthouse (Walnut Garden)
• Summer's G.H. Inn (雨雪居民) (Walnut Garden)
• Fengfu Manor (振福庄园) (Daju)
• Daju Inn (大具客栈) (Daju)

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) runs between Jade Dragon (玉龙雪山) and Haba (哈巴雪山) Snow Mountains in northwest Yunnan Province. The closest city is Lijiang (丽江) and the closest town is Qiaotou (or Hutiaoxia 虎跳峡镇). It is part of the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas.