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walking stories  |   asia   |  china  | tiger leaping gorge summary | tiger leaping gorge story day one | tiger leaping gorge story day two
Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, Yunnan, China - Day One

THE STORY

Tiger Leaping Gorge - where it is

Preparation for the walk

Getting there

Starting out - wrong route!

On the right track

Some real walking

A difficult decision

High society

Evening at the Naxi Family Guest House

PANORAMA 1

> tiger leaping gorge story day two

Tiger Leaping Gorge is as dramatic as its name, and a great hiking route. Reputedly the deepest gorge in the world, it lies between two mountains rising to over 5000m. One of these, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596m), becomes a kind of natural companion throughout the walk - its character changing as first you approach the snow-capped peaks in the distance, and then get ever closer to the dramatic crags. The River Yangtse (the world's 3rd longest river) rushes through the narrow gap below.  The other peak, Haba Snow Mountain (5396m) only occasionally comes into view.

The gorge is in the far south-west of China, about 50 km NW of the town of Lijiang and 350 km NW of the capital of Yunnan, Kunming. Its only abut 130 km east of the border with northern Myanmar (Burma), and the NE corner of the Indian state of Assam is barely 300 km (190 miles) to the west.  For someone who still thinks a trip from Scotland to Brussels is exciting, this trek is a genuinely exotic adventure.

A little further north is the town of Zhongdian, in an area now known as Shangri-la, and then the road heads into Tibet. It's the eastern end of the Himalayas, the world's greatest mountain range.  You could certainly come here for a longer walking holiday.

Preparation for the walk

Catriona had a strong wish to walk the gorge from the start of our planning for the holiday. She had spoken with friends in Chongqing who had walked it. I remembered that Michael Palin had started one of his "Himalaya" programmes on a rocky outcrop overlooking the gorge, but didn't recall anything about the route. Therefore, before heading out to China, I read up on this walk, and found several websites which covered it. The best story was on the Tales of Asia site.  However, it sounded rather daunting - with a climb of 24 bends at one point and scrambles over rockslides, along a route that was difficult to follow. I even e-mailed Gordon Sharpless, who runs that website, and he provided some helpful advice. Yes, it's pretty steep in places, but it's safe enough except in wet weather, he said.

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Getting there

We had reached the old town of Lijiang, after a flight from the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, and spent a day cycling (and in my case recovering from an upset stomach). There were supposed to be lots of places to advise on hiking in the area, but we couldn't get any more detailed information or maps on the gorge. We heard that a bus would leave for Qiaotou at 7.30 in the morning, and aimed to catch that. Our hotel in the old town would look after our packs whilst we were away. And apparently the forecast was dry.

It was a longer walk than we expected to the bus station - taking about half an hour, after getting up pretty early. Once there, we were dismayed to find the first bus didn't leave until 9.00 a.m. There was time for a bowl of noodles at a nearby street cafe, although it was Owen's turn to feel under the weather and he missed the meal. 

Finally we were on the bus - actually a minibus that was obviously designed for rather small people without rucksacks. We were crammed at the back with three English walkers, and not enough space to sit on the seats comfortably or get our knees behind the seat in front. We had an uncomfortable journey, along a winding road that crossed over to the next valley and then along to Qiaotou. Even though Jade Dragon Snow Mountain dominates the view in Lijiang itself, it's a long way to the gorge on the other side!

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Starting out - wrong route!

When we finally reached Qiaotou around 11.15, it was baking hot. A man came onto the bus telling us we had to pay the 30 yuan each for a ticket to go into the gorge, and a woman who sounded vaguely Australian called into the bus to say she had some important news to tell us. It turned out this was Margo who runs the Gorged Tiger Cafe in the town, and provides food, information and baggage storage for gorge walkers. She had moved the cafe to a new location a few days earlier and it was only half painted inside.

A group of Americans whom we had spoken to at Lijiang bus station were there too, as well as the English people from our bus. Margo offered drinks and food - we needed to stock up on water, and had some tea while we caught up on the news. Apparently there had been an attack on a lone female walker on the trail below Tina's Guest House, down towards Walnut Grove. There had also been reports of hikers getting upset stomachs after staying at one of the guest houses. It seemed there were more perils than just falling off the side of the gorge!

Margo also had a pile of sketch maps available showing the route, and we took one - it had been impossible to get one in Lijiang. We weren't quite sure how far we'd get on the first day, as we were starting so late, but hoped to reach the Tea Horse or even the Half Way Guest House.

We had been given directions to where the trail started, but when we reached a dip in the road 50 metres from the cafe, a guy outside a hut told us that was the trail up to the left. There were some boulders in the bed of a dried up stream, then we saw a well-made path heading up on the far side. There was no sign indicating the trail, but this was clearly a good path. We followed it up steeply through trees, but we had been told we would go through a school football field, and there was no sign of one. We reached a large building, but it seemed to be a house - certainly not a school. A man was standing with his horse, and we asked him - he said the route went over the hill and would join the upper gorge trail further along.

We weren't keen to go off the route so soon (although the Talesofasia story indicated we were likely to do so more than once). Reluctantly we walked back down the slope we had climbed.

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On the right track

Back at the road, the guy who had sent us the wrong way was nowhere to be seen. Going on a bit further, we passed a few shops and then saw the gates to what was unmistakably a large school right beside the road. A sign indicated that it was NOT a through route for walkers. However, one of the young men hanging around at the shops told us it was OK to go that way, so we did. The kids in the schoolyard didn't seem to mind, and we reached one playing field, then walked down to a larger football field. At the far end it looked like we had to scramble up a bank, but then we saw a path a little to the right, and soon we were skirting the side of a ploughed field.  It was just after 12 noon.

This went on for some time, on the level, and I was getting a bit anxious that we might have missed a route up to the left - I was sure we ought to be climbing fairly steeply. But we were going the right way, along a wide track, gradually approaching the corner into the next valley.

I had this idea that we would be out in some wild wilderness, but there were still plenty of signs of civilisation. We were surprised to reach another school, and just afterwards we had our first glimpse of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the distance across a field of maize.

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Some real walking

Eventually the trail did start to bend to the left up the hill, and we looked down on farm terraces to the right. There were a couple of sharp bends, and we passed a large bull - I risked a confrontation when I tripped on its tether, but it let me pass.

We were really feeling the heat, and having to drink plenty of the water we'd brought. A newly-built wooden refreshment stop appeared ahead of us, and we were tempted to stop, but realised we had to get some distance behind us. I thought the track up to the left, heading up the hill, looked the most likely, but the woman at the tea house told us the lower trail, straight ahead, was the right one. A man ahead of us on the trail with a pony said he'd show us. It was a bit difficult to say no, although we quickly realised he was hoping to be rewarded for services as a guide. The trail actually sloped downwards, and towards a steep-sided rock face bending round to the left. I looked questioningly at the man but he gestured us onwards.

Following him around the bend, we were on a good path about 1-1.5 metres (3-5 feet) wide, but with an increasingly steep drop immediately on the right hand side, down to the road and river several hundred feet below. Across the valley, a village clung to the side of the mountain with terraces rising up towards it. We had to concentrate on where we put our feet, and as this clearly was the route to take, we told the man not to wait for us. We stopped for a bite to eat when we found a hollow in the rock face giving a bit of shelter from the sun and space to rest a couple of feet clear of the edge. The view was dramatic but it didn't do my nerves any good.

We had heard that there could be landslides after heavy rain, and that this would make the path dangerous. Although we didn't have any difficulty, it was easy to see how a pile of loose stones across the path would create problems. This photo gives some idea of the steepness of the slope (also see the panorama below).

We pushed on, climbing gradually higher now. Owen and I were both finding it hard going, with little energy after our bouts of illness, but Catriona was getting on fine. The path really wasn't too bad, and provided we kept our eyes on where we had to put our feet next, we were fine. It was probably barely a mile along the steepest section, but seemed further. Then we turned left, round a couple of bends away from the edge, and over a rise to where we could see a village below us. This was Nuoyu Village, with a collection of dwellings among the terraced fields.

We walked down to the left, around the back of the village, following various signs for the route and for the different guest houses - clearly the rival businesses competed with their painted messages on the rocks. The Naxi Family Guest House and Lu Ye Guest House were both close by, demanding our attention.  It was about 2.30 p.m., and we were ready for a break and some tea.  We followed the sign to the Naxi Family GH, and walked through a gate into the courtyard.

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A difficult decision

We went over to the benches and tables in the shade where a couple of other walkers were sitting. Immediately a cheerful woman approached us with a pot of green tea, and we gratefully took cups of it to drink. There was still plenty of the day left, but the other walkers, who were from Vermont in the US, were heading in the other direction and told us about the forbidding climb we had ahead of us. It's known as the 24 Bends, and they said there was no shelter from the fearsome heat of the sun. We had some serious thinking to do. Owen really wasn't up to a long climb in the heat, and I didn't feel great either. Catriona could have carried on, but realised that wasn't possible. We decided the best option was to take a good rest at the guest house, stay overnight, and hope that we'd have regained our strength by the morning. We could start out early in the hope of climbing the 24 Bends while it was still cool.

By then the trio of English walkers had arrived. Apart from the trip on the minibus, we'd met one of them (Mike) a couple of days earlier in Lijiang and talked about the Tiger Leaping Gorge walk. He'd met up with an English couple and started the walk with them. However, he was having stomach trouble too, and they had done some serious extra hiking after taking the left-hand track at the tea house where we had been uncertain of the route. It had taken them over some pretty rugged country before they finally found their way to the Naxi Family GH. Mike was in need of a rest, and was happy to accept the invitation to join us for the walk the next day.

This meant we wouldn't get as far along the Gorge as we had hoped, but it seemed there were various options to cut the route short and go down to the new road beside the river, and get a lift back to Qiaotou. We wouldn't do the whole gorge, but we should get a pretty good experience of it.

Having made that decision, we all had a beer and began to relax and enjoy the delightful setting of the courtyard with its colourful flowers, traditional timber structure and corns hanging out to dry, overlooked by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We were shown our rooms in the converted barn, and Owen went for a snooze.

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High society

As the afternoon wore on, Catriona and I decided to go for a wander round the village, and Mike joined us. As we left the guest house, we passed a couple of young women, speaking with strong French accents, on their way in. We walked around the edge of the village with superb views across the valley towards the mountain, and down across the farm houses.  Walking through the village a woman called up to us - it was the Lu Ye Guest House. We called back that we had somewhere to stay, but she came up after us. She was followed by three other people - a guy and gal from the US, and a girl from Canada. They had been sent by the woman to try to persuade us to stay with her!

We stood and chatted - about hiking, where we were from, why we were there, how wonderful it was, different types of international cuisine, relative costs of living in different countries, and more besides. It was a faintly bizarre gathering, but one of those priceless moments.

Eventually we broke it up (there was no tea or beer to sustain us) and said we might meet up the next day ...as it turned out.

Evening at the Naxi Family Guest House

Back at the Naxi Family GH, the French-speaking women had decided to stay as well. We had a bit of a chat with them, and then another couple of French speakers turned up (whom they were expecting) and it became rather Anglophone / Francophone. The Naxi Family woman brought a pack of family photos for us to look at, and smiled proudly as we asked about her two sons and daughter. It was the second time in two days we had a conversation like this, after meeting "Robin Hood" in Beishan the previous day.

Later half a dozen Americans arrived too, and decided to stay - there seemed to be plenty of rooms. We ordered something to eat, and carried on chatting and writing diaries and reading books. There was a bit of a competition as to who would get up and start out first, to get the best of the cool early morning. One of the French speakers (who looked like she could have been Korean) trumped us all by declaring she would leave at first light and might see us all on the other side of the hill ...as it turned out.

She spoke about some of the incidents there had been along the trail - one American walker had disappeared, an his distraught parents had been out more than once to try to find trace of him in the mountains.  There were periodic reports of hikers being attacked and robbed. I was quietly grateful that there would be 4 of us on the trail the next day. Then it was time for an early night.

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CONTINUED ON DAY TWO

Contributed by: Andrew Llanwarne

Photos by Andrew, Owen and Catriona Llanwarne

 

Getting advice from Margo in the Gorged Tiger Cafe

Getting advice from Margo in the Gorged Tiger Cafe

We found the trail at the second attempt!

We found the trail at the second attempt!

First view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Looking upriver

Looking upriver (we first thought it was down!)

Meeting a bull

Meeting a bull

Following the man and his horse, along the steep slope

Following the man and his horse, along the steep slope at the start of of the gorge

Farming terraces below the footpath

Farming terraces below the footpath near Nuoyu Village

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from Nuoyu Village

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from Nuoyu Village

The Guest House courtyard overlooked by the mountain

The Guest House courtyard overlooked by the mountain

On our walk around the village

On our walk around the village

Terraces and Snow Dragon Jade Mountain

Terraces and the mountain

Meeting other hikers in the village

Meeting other hikers in the village

Village barn

Village barn

One of the gates into the guest house

One of the gates into the guest house

Relaxing at the Naxi Family Guest House

Carved screen at Naxi Family Guest House

Carved screen at Naxi Family Guest House

Sunset on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from the guest house

Sunset on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from the guest house

 

Panorama 1

Catriona's panorama of the trail leading high above the Yangtse

Catriona's panorama of the trail leading high above the Yangtse