The Tiger Leaping Gorge in China‘s Yunnan Province is one of the world’s deepest gorges. Located on the Yangtze River between Lijiang and Shangrila on the Yunnan tourist trail, the gorge gets its name from the legend of a tiger that jumped across the gap at its narrowest point (about 25 meters across) to escape a hunter. The two to three day hike along the canyon walls is China’s most popular trek. As such, you will encounter numerous locals attempting to separate you from your money, but the spectacular views of snow capped peaks, waterfalls and the raging Yangtze more than make up for the minor hassles. The trek itself is not overly difficult, but it isn’t exactly a simple walk either.
Best Time to Go
The worst time to trek the gorge is the rainy season from June to September and many people will warn you against trekking at that time. I went in July and while it was pretty miserable at times trying to keep your footing in the slippery mud along the edges of a sharp drop off, it was not impossible. Nevertheless, you’d be better off at any other time of the year, with the best times being just before and just after the rainy season.
Getting to the Tiger Leaping Gorge
Most people seem to head to the gorge from Lijiang, but it is also possible to come from Shangrila. Wherever you are coming from, be sure to specify the town of Qiaotou as your destination if you are planning on doing the trek. If you say ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ there is a good chance they will sell you a more expensive ticket to the middle of the gorge. That’s fine if you only want to take a look (this is how most Chinese tourists visit the gorge), but if you want to trek, you’ll want to start in Qiaotou.
A ticket from Lijiang should cost around 30 Yuan and you can get on pretty much any bus heading north to Shangrila or Deqin; just let the driver know you want to get off in Qiaotou. Similarly, if you’re coming from the north (i.e. Shangrila), you can get on any bus heading south to Lijiang, Dali or Kunming.
Alternatively, if you’re in a group or are able to get a group together, you can hire a private minivan through most guesthouses in Lijiang or Shangrila. Even if you don’t have a group, you will usually be able to get a seat in a minivan.
Since this is a famous trek, you will likely be doing some walking. At the initial ascent, locals will follow you with horses and donkeys, hoping you get too tired to continue. If you do, expect to pay from 150 to 300 Yuan. You could also have them transport your bag for around 50 RMB.
Minivans run between Qiaotou on one end of the trek and Daju on the other, passing Walnut Grove on the way. They should cost around 80 RMB (for the entire van), but you will probably be asked to pay much more than that. Good luck with the bargaining.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
The trek begins in Qiaotou, a few minutes from the bus station. If you are approached by people offering a minivan to the beginning of the trek for 120 Yuan, get rid of them.
Many people’s first stop is Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse. No one generally spends the night here, but they will keep your bags safe for a small charge of 5 Yuan for an indefinite amount of time. If you do plan on spending the night, the owners were very friendly and it seemed like a nice enough place.
After paying 65 Yuan at the ticket office, head down the road until you reach a school gate on your left (you can get maps at Jane’s Guesthouse or the ticket office). Follow the school’s wall until you see painted arrows pointing up the embankment. This is the beginning of the trek and from here on, you can simply follow the well worn path and the red/yellow arrows. It is almost impossible to get lost once you’re on the path.
After an hour or two, you’ll pass the Naxi Family Guesthouse (08878806928/13988758424). Some people will spend the night before continuing on, as the most difficult part of the entire trek, the 28 switchbacks, is coming up. I ate lunch there and it seemed like a nice place; the food was excellent anyway.
After the 28 switchbacks, you’ll hit a succession of three guesthouses. This is where most people spend the night and all three are pleasant enough with reasonable prices and basic rooms. The Tea-Horse Trade Guesthouse (13988717292, 13988707922) is first, the Halfway Lodge (13988700522) is about an hour and a half further along the trail and the Five Fingers Mountain Guest House (13988776286) is another 20 minutes beyond that.
From there, you’ll have a bit of a descent before reaching Tina’s Youth Hostel (86 887 8202258). This is the most famous and also the most touristy of all the guesthouses. Many people end their trek here and get a ride back to Qiaotou or Lijiang through the guesthouse.
I know this place is a major stop on the trail for everyone, but I would advise avoiding it if at all possible. The food prices are far and away the highest in the area, the staff are very unfriendly and the charges for transportation are ridiculous. The Tibet Guest House (86 13988740050) is a better option and is located just a little further down the trail.
From Tina’s, you can head down into the gorge to the river via a trail or a pretty shady looking ladder. At least it looked shady when I was there, but that was likely due in large part to the pouring rain. Because of that, we didn’t go to the river, but I’ve heard it’s pretty impressive. If you head down, you’ll have to pay to use either way (10 Yuan, I believe).
The people at Tina’s might tell you it is not possible to continue to Walnut Grove once at the bottom of the gorge (meaning you have to return to Tina’s for a room or transport), but this is an outright lie. Just follow the river and you’ll soon reach the town and find the somewhat expensive Sean’s Spring Guesthouse (0887-8202222/13988745942) and the Chateau de Woody (13988745996) just beyond that.
If you want to continue on to Daju, you’ll have to take a ferry across the river. Ask at one of the guesthouses in town where you need to go, as new roads are constantly being constructed and it is hard to say where the ferry will be leaving from. To get back to Qiaotou, catch a minivan from Daju (or Walnut Grove) or simply hitch a ride. From Qiaotou, you’ll be able to get a ride on a bus to Shangrila or Lijiang, but you’ll be approached by minivan drivers as well and might be able to bargain a good deal. You can also catch buses to either Lijiang or Shangrila from Daju, but they don’t run nearly as often.