About 40 miles north of Lijiang was a destination we’ve had in mind for years, Leaping Tiger Gorge. With a distance of some 12,400 feet from river to the mountain peak it is one of the deepest gorges in the world, and the 18- or 20-mile hike up in the mountains and ultimately down to the river (and back out again!) is one of the great hikes we’ve ever done. We had delayed the hike while in Lijiang for two days to give the rainy weather that was forecast a chance to clear. Boy, did that work out for us: with temperatures in the 40s and 50s and nary a cloud in the sky, it was perfect for hiking.
The gorge is created by the Jinsha River, part of the upper Yangtze River. Legend has it that, to escape a hunter, a tiger leaped across the river at the narrowest point (and our ultimate destination). Given how steep the cliff face was on one side of the gorge it’s hard to imagine where a tiger would have gone to, but it still creates a pretty nice name.
For us, as for nearly all hikers on the route, Tiger Leaping Gorge is a two-day affair. The “upper trail” as the main route is known, runs along the western side of the Jinsha River, mostly high up in the mountains. The first thing that struck us was the majesty and beauty of the mountains across the river. We’d been expecting more views of the gorge but in fact overwhelmingly what you were looking at was beautiful Jade Snow Mountain. Here on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau we finally encountered the snow-covered mountainous terrain that we’d been expecting to see in Bhutan but never did.
And so we hiked. Up, up, and further up that first day. We hit the trail just about the same time as Frederick, a 20-something Danish law student studying for a semester in Beijing. As the route turned steep Mark and I took great pleasure when he told us to continue on, he needed a rest. And up and up it went, before starting down into one of the remote villages in the area. That going down part was particularly disconcerting as we knew we had not yet reached the high point of the trail; we would have to climb back up every step we went down. Once we started back up we went through a series of 28 “bends” or switchbacks before reaching the high point. Let there be no question: that was a workout.
We’d made a reservation at the delightfully named Come Inn in a village known as Halfway, only to discover on the trail that Halfway is about two-thirds of the way to the end of the official trail. After having stopped for a surprising lunch – we didn’t know we would pass through a village with a hiker-serving guesthouse – we made it into Halfway about 4:00 PM, making for a solid six-hour hike. The inn was basic, with one of the hardest beds I’ve ever slept on, but it had hot water, decent food, and stunning views of the mountain face. At $40 for a room with our own mountain-viewing balcony, we weren’t complaining.
The next morning we were up and on the trail by maybe 9:00 AM. It was a surprisingly short and relatively easy trip down to Tina’s, a guesthouse that marks the end of the official, government-sponsored trail. We’d read that from there you can hike down to the bottom of the gorge, even to the very rock where from which the legendary tiger had leapt. We had plenty of time before our 3:30 bus to Shangri La, so off we headed with some of the friends we’d made along the trail.
It was a little shocking just how far down the river actually was, knowing that after getting there we would have to climb back every step of the way. Still, being in the gorge, after hiking above it the day before, was spectacular and made for a great counterpoint to the previous day’s hike: one day up in high elevation with views of the mountains and one day down along the river with views of the gorge itself.
So we loved it. A couple days later and we’re still a bit sore, but it was totally worth it. And we had fun meeting some of the other hikers, all, of course, much younger than us. Frederick the Danish student. Frank and Andy, the former a Dutch student who’s just finishing a 15-month break from that life, and the latter a New Zealander who works when he needs to and hikes or bikes when he can. I was kind of upset to learn that he once biked from Alaska to Argentina, putting my little Alaska to Minnesota trip in 1982 to shame. Paula and Alfredo, a Spanish couple traveling in Southeast Asia for several months before returning to their home in Berlin. A professional photographer whose client – the Aman hotel chain – pays her to travel to fabulous places, stay in their fabulous hotels eating their fabulous food, and take pictures. A French woman traveling alone who made the same wrong turn we did (as did just about every other hiker we talked to; the one place the trail was poorly marked) and who took the great picture of us at the top of the blog.
The three-hour bus ride from Tina’s to Shangri La was hell, but that’s OK: the hike was worth the years we’ve waited to do it.