This was it. This was the big one. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world, was one of my main motivations for visiting Yunnan province. It had been on my radar ever since a friend mentioned it to me over a year ago and now finally, on Christmas Day, I was heading there. Not a bad Christmas present!
There’s one early morning bus (7.30ish) which takes people from the various hostels and guesthouse in Lijiang to the village of Qiaotao where the hike begins. I bought my ticket (¥40) from my hostel the day before. The bus didn’t pass by Mama Naxi’s hostel so instead one of the staff there walked me and another guest to the old town where he flagged down the bus. Along with about a dozen others I was on my way to the hike.
The bus journey took about 2 hours. We stopped at a building where a woman boarded the bus and we all bought our entrance ticket (¥65). The bus then went a little further and the driver told all those doing the 2 day hike to alight here, basically on a construction site.
Right next to where the bus had stopped was a small uphill path and a blue sign which announced the start of the trail. The group split pretty quickly which was good for me since I’m an unsociable miser and like to hike alone. However hiking alone also presented its difficulties, namely that I’m absolutely hopeless and really shouldn’t be allowed to do anything by myself.
Within about half an hour, I’d already gotten lost. For the first section, you just have to follow a dusty road through loads of building work. However after a short while, there is a house and some steps which take you up onto the proper trail. There’s a small blue sign but small is the operative word and I completely missed it, instead continuing deeper into the construction site which, confusingly, was also winding upwards towards the gorge. It was only after about 20 minutes of going the wrong way that some builders drove past in their car and shouted, “No! No!” at me. They very kindly gave me a lift back to the turning point and I was back on track.
This first off-road part was, for me, the most difficult part of the trail. It was all uphill on narrow, quite slippery, dusty paths so, being as clumsy-footed as I am, I had to watch where I was putting my feet. I was quite breathless for a lot of the first part too as I guess my body was adjusting to the altitude. However, after about half an hour or so of climbing up, the path flattened through a forested area and then went downhill again, rendering that first uphill struggle a bit pointless. As the trail snaked its way downhill towards the first village, the views started to get really special. The village itself was interesting too. To me, it’s unfathomable that people live so remotely, the world turning pretty much without them noticing.
It takes about 2 hours to reach the first village where Naxi Guesthouse is situated. Some people opt to eat lunch here but I decided to press on. The trail continues on a flat, paved road as you leave the village and you even pass some “proper” toilets. It just after this point that, yet again, I got lost.
The blue signs littered across the trail are invaluable at pointing you in the right direction but sometimes they are put in the most confusing places. Leaving the village, a sign was positioned in the middle of the paved road and a dirt trail. This being a hiking trail, I figured it must be the dirt trail I should take. 15 minutes later I was stuck up a steep hill with no path and was 90% sure I’d taken the wrong path. I basically had to slide down the steep hill and finally rejoined the path where another blue sign told me that, sure enough, this was the right way. I think basically the path that the sign is directly next to (or behind) is the one to take. So if it is in between two paths, you take the one that’s in front of it. Maybe that’s obvious to most people!
Having unnecessarily climbed a steep hill, I’d worn myself out before what is notorious for being the most difficult section of the hike – the 28 bends, a windy, rocky, uphill path to the peak of the gorge. However, after reading so much about how difficult this section was, I was surprised that it wasn’t too bad at all. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard work but it’s pretty much on a par with any moderate uphill climb I’ve done and easier than some hikes in Hong Kong. As I say, I thought the first section of the hike was more difficult and if you’ve had even just a little bit of uphill hiking experience, the 28 bends shouldn’t be a problem.
After the peak (which I almost missed!), the path winds back down and from here on in is mostly flat or downhill. I passed through another village from which it would be another 2 hours until I would reach my guesthouse for the evening. I was surprised how much and how quickly the terrain changed – from rocky to leafy to gravelly to smooth paved roads coming in and out of the villages.
I still had to watch my footing (and keep an eye out for rogue goats and bulls blocking the path) but the relative ease of this final section allowed me to appreciate the jaw-dropping views of the gorge. I’ve not really mentioned the stunning views because it’s almost a given but yes, they are every bit as spectacular as you would imagine. What’s more, they never relent. You’ve pretty much got non-stop incredible vistas for the whole hike.
Finally, I made it to the third village which is where most hikers spend the night. It took me about 6 hours 15 mins to reach here which included getting lost twice and stopping to take about a billion photos along the way. What a way to spend Christmas!