Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Guide to Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge


There are many reasons for which the Tiger Leaping Gorge is considered the best walk you can do in Southwest China. Dominated by the jagged north face of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on one side and the towering cliffs of Haba Snow Mountain on the other, this narrow canyon of rock, soil and snow is a vertical geological marvel and a powerful sight that commands attention. From the Tiger Leaping Gorge, too, you will see more than a thousand meters below you the frothing waters of what is to be one of China's greatest rivers—the Yangtze—thousands of kilometers away from where it empties out, the East China Sea.

Related post: Photos from the Best Trek in Southwest China: the Tiger Leaping Gorge

I think I have written fondly about the Tiger Leaping Gorge a number of times. It certainly is the highlight of my trip to Yunnan, China. At this point, I think it's best that I provide others practical information on how to go trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is a travel experience I truly recommend for those traveling through Yunnan province or anywhere in Southwest China for that matter. Here is a guide to trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Clouds set in through the Tiger Leaping Gorge covering the peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.


Duration of the Trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Many trekkers who go to the Tiger Leaping Gorge do a two-day trek. The trek begins in a small town called Qiaotou located at the southwest end of the gorge. The first day of trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge is about a five to six-hour walk on a normal pace. This covers the distance from Qiaotou to Halfway House, a guesthouse which oddly enough is not actually located halfway, but more like three-fourths of the way.

The second day of trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge begins from Halfway House ending in Tina's Guesthouse located down the gorge right along the highway. The trek from Halfway to Tina's takes about three hours. From Tina's, there is an option to go further down the gorge to see the raging waters of the Yangtze upclose. This effort might take around three hours and you will need to go back up to Tina's as there is no other way through that canyon but up again. Tina's is where you end your two-day trek to the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Foldable and rollable menu at Tina's Guesthouse.
Most unique menu ever!

There is an option to trek slower, maybe do a three-day, four-day trek, to take in the many villages in the Tiger Leaping Gorge or to continue on to a town called Baishuitai towards Shangri-la (Zhongdian) further up north in the Himalayas. You can certainly do that. Be advised, however, that towns and settlements are few and far between around these parts so plan ahead.


Best Time to Trek the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The best time to visit Yunnan province and do the trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge is, in my opinion, late winter. There is no need to worry about snow in most parts of Yunnan. The chill is still there, which I love, but you won't have to bring heavy winter layers to battle the cold. Lonely Planet advises a trek in late spring, which is around late May to early June, when plant and flower life is in full bloom. Yunnan province is after all a region known for its diverse flora. July and August is off-limits as this is the rainy season. Swollen waterfalls and crumbly cliff faces are not uncommon during this time of the year.


Things to Bring for Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The basic things you need for doing a teahouse trek in the Himalayas are what you will need for trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. You need good, reliable hiking shoes. You also need clothing for two days as well as ample layers for those trekking in the colder months. Again, it's best to trek in late winter, spring, or early winter so that you would only need a few pieces of layers and there would be no need for rainy weather gear, too. Bring plenty of water as well because you lose so much liquid when walking these altitudes and these distances. Lip balm and sunscreen are also recommended. Finally, get a map of the area. Here are a couple of maps: first map and second map. These are widely and freely distributed in the hostels of Lijiang Old Town. Right-click to download.

Things to Bring, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Bring a map, too, and some reading.

Do not bring too much of anything though as your trek will last just two days. Unnecessary things in your backpack will only make things harder for you. That is one of the things that trekking the Himalayas has taught me. Sort of a metaphor for life, isn't it? Carry with you only what is absolutely essential. Otherwise, your bag will literally weigh you down. For more information on the things to bring for a trek in the Himalayas, please see: Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Things to Bring. Scale it down to a two-day trek and there you go.


How to Get to the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is in Northwest Yunnan province in Southwest China. The nearest major city is Lijiang located about 60 kilometers to the south. The gorge stretches about 15 kilometers southwest to northeast. You can begin on either end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge but it is most likely, as with the many other people that come here, you will begin from the southwest in Qiaotou.

Qiaotou is the starting point of the two roads that snakes through the Tiger Leaping Gorge: the high trail and the low trail. The low trail is of little importance to you as a trekker, unless you revel in walking along a highway with tourist buses passing you by. The high trail is the trekking trail and climbs up from Qiaotou to the high slopes of Haba Snow Mountain. Throughout the walk, and I mean throughout the entire walk, you will have astounding views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the other side of the gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Did I say astounding views or did I say astounding views?

Option 01: There are public buses from Lijiang to Qiaotou and buses from Lijiang to Shangri-la (Zhongdian) passing by Qiaotou on the Tibet-Yunnan Highway. To catch those buses, you need to head out early to Lijiang's long-distance bus station or to Lijiang's express bus station located well away from the comforts of your hostel in Lijiang Old Town.

Option 02: The easier option is to stay one night at Panba International Hostel located at the eastern fringes of Lijiang Old Town. The hostel has a shuttle service leaving for Qiaotou early in the morning specifically for people intending to go trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. If you are a guest in another hotel, hostel, or guesthouse, I'm sure you can still sign up for the shuttle, if you want to. The one-way ride takes around two hours and costs 35 RMB (6 USD).


Ticket for Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

There is only one ticket or permit you need to go trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, whatever the locals along the trail may tell you. You can buy this ticket upon arrival in Qiaotou's ticket office right at the entrance of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The ticket costs 50 RMB (8 USD) when I bought it. Some sources say it might cost 65 RMB (11 USD) in the high season. Just to be safe, bring extra money. Bring all the money you need for the trek, for that matter. There are no banks or ATMs in the villages in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.


Accommodations and Food in the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Many of the villages located along the high trail will have a couple of guesthouses serving as a rest stop or a stop for the night for those trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is teahouse trekking after all. In Qiaotou, there is Jane's Guesthouse. A couple of hours walk and you'll find Naxi Family Guesthouse. Then, there's Halfway House and Tina's Guesthouse further down the trail. Accommodations here are pretty basic. Toilets and showers are usually communal. WiFi? Forget about it. Why would you distract yourself anyway when there are gorgeous vistas out here?

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Who needs WiFi when you have this spectacular view?

The one night I spent trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I stayed in Halfway House. Its courtyard, balcony area, and dining area all have amazing vistas of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The best views, however, can be had from the communal toilet while you are sat doing your business. Hey, they don't call it the Number 1 Toilet in Heaven and Earth for nothing. Dinner (inevitably, rice with some meats or vegetables) is well-prepared and reasonably priced, too, and gives you the chance to share tables with other trekkers from all over the world. I stayed in a 10-bed dormitory room and paid 35 RMB for a bed (6 USD). No need for sleeping bags. It was basic but sufficient.


Related post: Photos from the Best Trek in Southwest China: the Tiger Leaping Gorge


What Is Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge Like

So the big question. What is the trek like? How difficult is it? The answer: It is a relatively easy walk. I'm not saying it is a piece of cake, but it is easy. Granted, you need to have a certain amount of fitness to be able to walk these altitudes and these distances. Also, the trek can be challenging and strenuous in some sections, most notably what locals refer to as the 28 Bends, located about an hour's walk from Qiaotou. Here, the trail climbs a steep section of the gorge making switchback after switchback until it reaches proper high trail, a trail used by the ancient traders to transport horses and tea between Tibet and the rest of Asia.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Trail follows a mostly flat path after the 28 Bends.
Easy trek with spectacular views throughout.

I did not count the bends but I remember thinking that while it was more than 28, it was not as difficult as maps and brochures say it is. With a steady pace and regular breathing, it was definitely manageable. At any rate, after the 28 Bends, which comes early in the trek, all you have is either a flat or a descending trail. What effort you put enduring the 28 Bends is worth ten-fold when you get to the proper high trail. No more climbing yet the views of the mountains, the canyon, and the river become even more spectacular as you walk further.


Some Altitude Considerations

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a part of the Himalayas and when you are trekking in the Himalayas, altitude or elevation is always something to be considered. If you are heading up anywhere above 2,700 meters above sea level, proper acclimatization will be necessary. You need to give your body time to adjust to the thin air in those kinds of altitudes. Else, you risk contracting Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), which can progress to fatal conditions.

That said, the highest part of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, i.e., the top of the 28 Bends, is only around 2,650 meters above sea level. Thus, it is unlikely that altitude will be pose a health problem. However, and this is a big however, if you are coming straight from sea level (maybe you flew to Lijiang directly), you might want to take it easy. Going from 0 to 2,650 meters above sea level in a span of a day is too high, too fast, especially if you are not used to breathing in altitude. The last thing you want is fail to enjoy the magnificent views of the trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge because your body is having a hard time adjusting to the altitude. Listen to your body. Take it slow, if necessary.


How to Get out of the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Once you get to Tina's Guesthouse on the second day of the trek, again, you have the option of trekking further down the gorge to view the Yangtze River upclose. However, you need to head back up again as it is in Tina's where you catch the bus back to Lijiang. The bus passes through Qiaotou along the way. In Qiaotou, you can get off and catch a bus to Shangri-la (Zhongdian), just in case you are heading there next.

Upon arrival at Tina's, reserve a seat on the bus. The ride to Lijiang costs 50 RMB (8 USD). The bus picks passengers up in the afternoon, however, so if you started trekking from Halfway House early, you will get to Tina's pretty early and you will wait a long time for the bus. You might as well get down to the river and when you come back up, bus is here! Of course, easier said than done on my part. That's right. I am lazy tourist.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Restless or just plain lazy. You decide.


Budget for a Two-Day Trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Here is the budget I followed for when I did a two-day trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Prices are quite cheap, if you think about it, so if you have the time (and energy), it may be worth extending the trek to three or four days. For two days, however, here's a suggested cost breakdown:

Item Cost in RMB Cost in USD
Bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou 35 RMB 6 USD
Ticket for the Tiger Leaping Gorge 50 RMB 8 USD
Dorm bed for one night at Halfway House 35 RMB 6 USD
Bus from Tina's Guesthouse to Lijiang 50 RMB 8 USD
Food (lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch) with drinks 80 RMB 13 USD
TOTAL 250 RMB 41 USD


*How to Get to the Tiger Leaping Gorge from Southeast Asia

As an additional note, I am including this here for those planning to get to the Tiger Leaping Gorge from Southeast Asia. The easiest thing you can do is to fly from anywhere in the planet to Lijiang's domestic airport: Lijiang Sanyi Airport. However, flights in China can be expensive (unnecessarily so, I think) so let me make a couple of suggestions as to how you can do this the cheap way.

Option 01 (Hanoi - Lao Cai/Hekou - Kunming - Lijiang): When time is not an issue, get yourself to Hanoi, Vietnam. From Hanoi, you can take a sleeper train to Lao Cai, Vietnam's frontier town, literally a stone's throw away from China. The train ride is about eight to nine hours and costs 600,000 VND (30 USD) for a soft sleeper bed. Upon arrival in Lao Cai in the morning, get your Chinese tourist visa ready and cross the border to Hekou, China. Here, you take a bus to Kunming. The bus ride is around eight hours and costs 150 RMB (23 USD). Take a breather once you get to Kunming, enjoy its eternally spring-like weather. You will need the rest because you will be taking another bus to Lijiang. The bus ride takes about 10 hours and costs 180 RMB (29 USD). Hey, I did say time was not an issue.

Option 02 (Kuala Lumpur - Kunming - Lijiang): When time can be an issue, the easiest thing to do is to get yourself to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. AirAsia now flies to Kunming direct from Kuala Lumpur. The regular fare is about 400 MYR (130 USD) one-way. Book way ahead so you can take advantage of even cheaper fares. From Kunming, take the 10-hour bus to Lijiang for 180 RMB (29 USD). You can take it from there.


Thus concludes this guide to trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. I cannot stress this enough. In return for a little amount of money and effort, you get to behold one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet. Do not even think about it. Just do it. Go trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. You will not regret it.


Related post: Photos from the Best Trek in Southwest China: the Tiger Leaping Gorge


Did I miss anything in this guide to trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge? Anything else you want to know about doing the best trek in Southwest China?


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