In the last year I’ve visited around 20 cities, villages, national parks and mountains in China and until 3 weeks ago, Huangshan in the Anhui province was my favourite destination. However, I am delighted to announce that the Yellow Mountains have been usurped! Tiger Leaping Gorge or Hutiao Xia is in the Yunnan province, in Southwestern China, where it seems everything is beautiful and pleasant.
Tiger Leaping Gorge consists of soaring mountains parted by a roaring rush of water. I visited in August, the hottest and most dangerous time of year, due to the high chance of rain, which can cause landslides and rocks to fall. I was terrified about the prospect of poor weather, as some of the paths are very tight and slippery. But I got really lucky. It did rain once, but it was overnight during a thunderstorm and it all dried up by 11am the next morning. The path I took begins at Qiaotou (say this like ‘chi a toe’), a town which is 2 hours by bus from the city of Lijiang. I spent 2 and a half days and 2 nights at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and roughly 13 hours walking in total.
I am going to tell you exactly what I did, so you can learn from everything I did right and wrong. I will also give you beautiful pictures that hardly do TLG justice.
What you need:
- Sun cream - reapply often throughout the day
- Lip balm – I lost mine while travelling to Qiaotou and regretted not having it nearly every minute of the walk. Mountain air dries you out!
- Hat/raincoat/umbrella – something to provide an extra layer of protection between your skin and the sun
- GOOD walking shoes – you’d have to be stupid to attempt this walk in regular trainers, there are some really tight rocky paths and lots of slippery parts! Don’t fall off the mountain!
- Ear plugs for sleeping – accommodation is not noise-proof
DAY ONE: arriving in Qiaotou to begin the walk.
If possible, fly straight to Lijiang Sanyi airport. It cost me 1800 rmb to fly there from Fuzhou, one-way. I was appalled by this expensive ticket price but the alternative was to fly to Kunming then get a 4 hour train to Lijiang and that was too long. I landed at 1pm and collecting my baggage took a while.
In the airport I followed the signs to ‘airport shuttle bus’ and paid 25 rmb for a ticket to downtown Lijiang. Journey took about an hour.
I don’t really know where I was when the bus let everyone off, but from there I took a Didi to the Lijiang Passenger Transfer Terminal for 10 rmb. It was nearly 3pm by this time.
The terminal is a bus station. I went to the ticket office and showed the woman the Chinese characters for Qiaotou, the start of the hike (桥头). I think I had just missed a bus so I had to wait until 4:30 for the next one, which was annoying as I was very concerned about the few daylight hours left. Paid 70 rmb for that bus ticket.
When I got on the bus I told my driver I wanted to be dropped off at Qiaotou, as the bus’ final stop was Shangri-La and I think these drivers just stop wherever you tell them to. He didn’t understand my poor pronunciation so I showed him the Chinese characters and he understood. There was a tall friendly Dutchman on the bus heading to Shangri-La who made me feel more at ease about the setting sun.
The driver let me off at the right stop. I walked onwards for about 2 minutes then took a sharp right to find the Tiger Leaping Gorge entry ticket office. I paid 45 rmb and walked onwards for 5 minutes until I came to Jane’s Guesthouse, where you can store luggage for as long as you want for 5 rmb. I was greeted there by the largest, friendliest husky I’ve ever seen and Jane herself who easily took my stuff and my money and I was on my way.
Except by this point, it was around 7pm and I was CONCERNED about getting to my first accommodation stop, the Naxi Family Guesthouse before sunset. So I retraced my steps back to where the bus had dropped me off, looking for a taxi. I found some guys in trucks who looked like casual taxi drivers (lol trust your instincts please) and translated ‘Family Guesthouse’ on Google Translate so I could say “Nah-shee jia-ting bing-gwan”. One man said he understood and agreed to drive me for 150 rmb. In hindsight, this was a bump as the journey wasn’t that long, but whatever, I got where I needed to get to, the man volunteered to take photos of me on my camera along the route, chatted with me and drove up some crazy winding roads too. So I saved myself about 2 hours of walking (UP, STEEPLY) along some pretty mediocre paths and I think it was money well spent in the end.
Naxi Family Guesthouse was gorgeous. The women running it were so friendly and welcoming. I booked a room on my arrival and got the most expensive one for 120 rmb. The bed was hard and there were zero barriers to outside noise but considering it was just me and a German couple who seemed to be staying there that night, it wasn’t really an issue. Western toilet, hot water, fab. Had home-cooked kung pao chicken for dinner and vegetable fried noodles for breakfast – cost me around 50 rmb total. The couple I spoke to ended up popping up several times later in my walk and I wish I’d at least asked them their names! They were so lovely and spoke near perfect English so chatting to them about the world felt heavenly up there in the Chinese mountains. I watched the sun set over the mountains, plaited a Chinese woman’s hair and went to bed.
DAY 2: walk from Naxi Family Guesthouse to Tibetan Guesthouse (didn’t go to plan)
I woke up at 8am, ate and started walking at 9am. The owner told me to follow the blue signs. Guess what I didn’t do. So here’s how the sign confused me – I had walked 10 minutes from the guesthouse and came to a split in the path. One path was paved and the other was dirt and grass. The blue sign was above the dirt and grass path but formatted so that at the top it stated ‘Upper Trekking Route’ and at the bottom it stated ‘Qiaotou – Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge’. I had read online that I should just follow the upper route, and the sign seemed to be indicating that the upper route meant the paved path that I could see went upwards, whereas the dirt path said middle gorge and seemed flat. So I took the paved route, not realising that it was actually a road for cars, for the people who live in houses around that area. I wasted an hour walking up this quite steep road, into an area where there were lots of houses. And with the houses came guard dogs – the kind that spot any form of movement and bark with all their teeth bared. I was shitting myself. I hadn’t read anything about this in other people’s blog posts and each dog I was forced to pass was straining to free itself from its leash. My heart was pounding but I kept walking until there was quiet – I just thought I needed to get further upwards to get away from people’s houses. I passed the third dog and my legs were jelly at this point, I was close to having an anxiety attack. This dog was incensed by my presence and I got past it but I could still hear it. Then my worst nightmare came true – the dog managed to free itself from its leash and ran after me. I could hear the barking getting closer to me and I was shaking. I turned around to see it running right up to me then backing off slightly – thank god it didn’t bite me.
It eventually turned back and I had to sit down at the next house I saw, which didn’t have a dog. Shaking, sweating and near tears, I asked the little girl who ran up to me if I could sit for a moment and she said yes. Her mother came and told me through spotty English and hand gestures that I had gone the wrong way and I should go back. It was 10am, I’d walked for an hour and I already felt like a failure. I also realised that I’d have to go back where that dog was and descended into further panic. I translated on Google Translate ‘I am afraid of the dog down there. It released itself from its leash and chased me. Please can you help me?’ The mother and her daughter said yes and I immediately started crying, feeling afraid, deeply embarrassed and overwhelmingly grateful. The daughter ran down to the dog and hugged, petted and distracted it so I could walk by with her mum in peace. I thanked her as meaningfully as I could, with tears streaming, and indicated that she could stop walking with me now. I half sprinted down the rest of the way, clenching my fists as I passed the other leashed dogs, and got back to where I started. In short, JUST FOLLOW THE BLUE SIGNS!!!!!!!! DESPITE THEIR SOMETIMES DODGY POSITIONING, IF IT’S PLACED ABOVE ONE PATH, FOLLOW THAT PATH, NOT ANY PATH NEAR IT!
So, after all that palaver, my body was near drained of energy and I’d wasted an hour and a half being lost and terrified. But I followed the dirt path, put some music on to keep me sane and covered my head to protect me from the 11am sun. The path did begin to turn upwards and this steep walk was the most exhausting part of the whole trek. Just incredibly steep walking for roughly an hour. I went very slowly and took loads of breaks. I saw no-one. The sun-emblazoned mountain to my right kept me company, and I enjoyed becoming eye-level with higher parts of it. Though the degree to which my body was sweating was beginning to alarm me. How could sun cream protect me if I’d sweated it all off?
After a while, I saw an abandoned shack, on which there was a hand-written sign saying ‘this is the start of the 28 bends’. I laughed out loud because I thought I had already been climbing the bends, only to realise that they hadn’t even started yet! The bends are meant to be the hardest part of the walk, but the bit just before it was much harder. The following 28 bends annoyed me, as it was just more climbing after everything I’d already done, but they were over within an hour. At the highest point of the trek, just after the bends, there is a tiny shack with a napping Chinese woman who can sell you refreshments if you want them.
The next two hours or so were far more manageable, as the walk become flat and shaded by trees. I listened to all of Burna Boy’s ‘African Giant’ and stopped for lots of pictures of the stunning mountain scenery. You also see the Upper Gorge (the place where tour buses stop to let day-trippers see the most dramatic rush of water through the valley) from above, which was cool. I became surrounded by tiny flies as I descended lower, which pissed me off so much. I was swatting constantly to keep them out of my eyes, but at least they didn’t bite. They just died all over my sweat-covered legs and I couldn’t understand why they were all suicidal.
At 2pm, I reached the Tea-Horse Guesthouse and finally saw other trekkers. They were all European! French and Bulgarian and most were men. I enjoyed trying to figure out where everyone was from. I used the toilet (outdoors in a little shack, you squat over a long rectangular shaped hole and “flush” with a jug full of water) and ate pork noodle soup which was cheap and yummy. The view while I was eating was phenomenal and I enjoyed my one hour of rest before I headed off again at 3pm.
I walked until 5pm, when I reached the Halfway House, which is not actually halfway to Tina’s Guesthouse, where most people end their trek, but to Shangri-La. I enjoyed the walk there, except for goats and cows who, after the dogs earlier, put the fear of god into me. They didn’t do anything except look at me though. There had some been quite narrow paths where you were looking at rising mountain on your left and slopes towards the water on your right, but there were nets up in quite a few places and I felt fine as long as I was careful on the rockier parts of the trail. At the Halfway House, I bought my ticket for a bus scheduled for the next day, from Tina’s to Lijiang at 3:30pm. It cost around 50 rmb. I used the toilet with the world’s greatest view and asked my ticket seller how long it would take to walk to the Tibetan Guesthouse, my accommodation for the night (most people sleep at the Halfway House but I’d heard great things about this other place and had booked in advance, not realising I would need to walk hours further than the HH to get there). She said 2 and a half hours. I checked the sunset time (8pm) and said fuck it, I’m walking.
I walked. Quickly. Still alone and now realising that everyone else was stopping at the HH, I began to panic slightly but kept going. The path became stupidly narrow and rocky as I approached a waterfall. Yeah, that’s right! I walked THROUGH a waterfall. Granted, it wasn’t particularly large but when you’ve got mountain above and below you and know that if you slip in this water, you’ll fall, I was freaking out. This is why you need good walking shoes. I walked very slowly, testing out the least slippery rocks and trying to ignore the sound of the water rushing over my head. It took me about 5 minutes but I made it through and thought ‘nothing can faze me now!’ Ha!
Walked some more, euphoric from my waterfall victory, put on ‘Suge’ by DaBaby at top volume, stopped to take some more pictures of the STUNNING mountains as the sun sank lower, turned to keep going and oh there’s a horse. I turned off my music and looked at it. I got the sense that it had been watching me for a little while. It was kicking its front left leg into the ground, as if it was gearing up to approach me. I looked back at where I’d come from and thought there’s no way I’m dying on a goddamn mountain from being kicked by a horse. If it had an owner, I couldn’t see it – all I could see was my path to a comfortable bed being blocked by a seemingly agitated horse. I said NOPE no more animals TODAY and I turned around and walked back to the terrifying waterfall, groaned as I tried to get to the other side alive, and walked an hour back to the HH. I was pissed but felt sure I’d made the right decision. How can I go up against a huge horse alone on a mountain in southwest China on the second day of my holiday? No sir.
Back at the HH around 7pm, I asked if someone could drive me to the Tibetan Guesthouse and a man tried to convince me to stay where I was for the night and just walk there the next day but eventually agreed to my request. I knew I was spending more money by getting the taxi (150 rmb) than if I just booked a night at the HH and walked the next morning, but I evaluated and thought 1) I don’t want to waste my non-refundable room at this very nice guesthouse, 2) I don’t want to walk through that waterfall AGAIN and 3) what if I see a horse again tomorrow while I’m still alone and too paralysed by fear to face it? My money was well spent. The car had no seatbelt (CHRIST) and those mountain roads were maddddd. My driver was very skilled though. I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
Tibetan Guesthouse was GREAT! Squat toilet, alas, but it was very clean and my shower was hot. The owners are, you guessed it, Tibetan and make delicious food. Two of the women also speak incredible English. One lady decided to make me an aubergine dish with locally grown ingredients in a soy-based sauce. It rocked my world. I don’t even like aubergine. I also had rice and a fried potato pancake (like a latke) and enjoyed it all immensely. The old hobbling 4 foot tall grandma smiled at me a lot and I felt very much at home there. I met a solo Dutchwoman who had travelled much of the world and had a fascinating conversation with her. I went to my room and the power cut out as a thunderstorm began, so I just slept and charged my phone in the morning when it returned.
DAY 3: Middle Gorge and going back to Lijiang
I woke up to a mist-covered mountain just outside my room window and ate breakfast while it cleared (chocolate and banana pancake – it was good but I wanted at least 5x more chocolate). Took photos with the owner (she insisted) and accepted her husband’s offer to drive me to Sandy’s Guesthouse, where I could store heavy stuff from my two bags and climb down to the Middle Gorge before catching my bus to Lijiang later that afternoon. He didn’t charge me for this car ride (it was only 5 minutes) and I really appreciated his goodwill. I had technically finished the walk the previous day, but how could I come to Tiger Leaping Gorge and not see where the tiger leapt the gorge?! It’s a myth but I really wanted to see the water up close.
Started my downhill walk around 10am with a lighter backpack (important for the ladder-climbing later!) and admired the changing scenery with the mist moving quickly above my head. Walked down, down, down and heard the roar of the water becoming louder. You’ll come across a few shacks where delightful old ladies try to sell you things and let you rest. I had a good old chat with one woman when I stopped to let my jelly legs re-solidify. She sold me gloves for 10 rmb that would help me grip the metal poles nailed to the mountainside, to ease the pressure on my knees. Would recommend purchasing! For an hour, I zig-zagged down to the gorge and paid 15 rmb to access the makeshift bridge which connects the mountainside to a huge rock in the middle of the gorge, where the tiger allegedly leapt to. The woman I paid also volunteered to take pictures of me on my camera, god bless her. I walked across the rocking bridge, made of wood and rope, and thought about Donkey screaming “I’M LOOKING DOWN! AHHHHHHH!” in Shrek. But honestly, it wasn’t too scary if you moved slowly and surely. I made it to the big rock and sat down to take photos and feel somewhat grounded. I was alarmed to feel the rock moving with the force of the water but just chose not to think about it any more.
Crossed back and went further down to another big rock you could walk onto (precariously) to take more photos and listen to the deafening noise. I was so happy I’d made it down here to see the water. It was majestic and terrifying and awesome. By now, it was 12pm and I realised I had a bus to catch in about 3 hours and didn’t want to rush, so I climbed back up to the my conversation partner in the shack and waited my turn to climb up the Sky Ladder, an almost vertical metal ladder attached to the mountainside. It was no easy feat! I was climbing for over 5 minutes, continually looking down to make sure my stupid mid-length skirt wasn’t catching on my shoes, and singing the remix of Homemade Dynamite by Lorde to keep me focused. It was scary, I won’t lie. But after the dogs and the horse and the waterfall, I almost preferred this. From the top of that ladder, you just have to keep walking up the mountain for another 45 minutes or so until you reach Sandy’s again. I sat there for a long time, watching a cute baby play (Tibetan babies are infinitely cuter than all other babies on the planet, no cap) then picked up the extra bag I’d left and walked left towards Tina’s Guesthouse, where my bus would pick me up.
Actually, I made one last pit stop for lunch on the to Tina's. TripAdvisor told me that the food at Tina’s didn’t bang so I stopped to eat at the Bridge Café along the way. I had the Naxi pizza, which was a flatbread topped with tomatoes, sweet onions and yak cheese. It was so good! There was also a cute dog there. Chilled for a long time and at 3pm, I walked 5 minutes to Tina’s where I hopped on the bus and enjoyed the beautiful views (and lack of seatbelt) on the winding mountain roads. I had read online that the bus driver would definitely stop at Jane’s Guesthouse for people to pick up their stored luggage but my guy DIDN’T. He stopped a little further down at the TLG ticket office for some random woman, and I seized the chance to run up to the front of bus and tell him ‘Jane’s’, to which he sighed loudly and rudely and opened the doors for me. I ran to Jane’s, cursing the stupid driver, saw my favourite husky again, got my suitcase, ran back to the bus and got myself and my stuff on it. 2 hours later, I was back in Lijiang and got to enjoy another nightmare of walking around lost for 2 hours trying to find my elusive hotel, then being told it had been double-booked for the night and I couldn’t stay there and bursting into tears in front of several bewildered Chinese people. But that’s another story.
Tiger Leaping Gorge was beautiful beyond words. It was challenging too but so worth it! If possible, don’t go alone. I would probably have been calmer throughout if I’d had someone there to talk things out with. Still, it can be done alone, and you don’t have to be particularly fit to do it. The first 2-3 hours of walking are the worst and after that, your biggest challenges are not freaking out about how narrow or rocky the path can be. Also be aware of wild animals. But seeing China untouched, and not swamped by millions of people, is priceless. I cannot recommend Tiger Leaping Gorge enough – it’s worth every penny!