When considering a vacation to Asia, mainland China is usually not on the priority list. Given its pollution and political environment, as well as how it can be portrayed in Western media, the term ‘vacation’ and ‘China’ aren’t usually found in the same sentence. While it’s true that the major Chinese cities are extremely dense, polluted and frustratingly crowded, the majority of China is anything but.
What many don’t know is that China is home to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, most of which have yet to be discovered by mainstream tourism. In particular, The Yunnan Province in Southwest China is arguably one of the least well known Chinese provinces in the Western world; however, it contains China’s most diverse and beautiful sites. The landscape varies from the Himalayas to rice terraces to deep valleys and massive gorges. It’s also home to nearly half of China’s birds and mammals, as well as 30,000 species of plants – the largest diversity of plant life in all of China.
At over nine miles in length and nearly 12,500 feet from river to mountain peak, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and largest gorges in the world. If it was accessible to reach, it would be the ‘Grand Canyon’ of the East, however, it’s anything but. To fully explore Tiger Leaping Gorge, it’s a steep five hour hike uphill followed by a three hour hike out of the gorge the next day.
That said, if you’re an avid hiker or an adventurous traveler, a trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge must be at the top of your travel list. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and scenic hikes in the world.
Getting to Tiger Leaping Gorge: There are two main ways to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Depending on where you are, you can either fly into Lijang or Shangri-La. At both places you’ll need to take a public bus or hire a private van to take you to Qiatou where you will begin the hike. Most people will spend a night in Qiatou before the trek; however, you can also stay in Lijang and wake up early to drive two hours to the gorge, which is what we did.
After arriving in Qiatou from Lijang, we ate lunch at a traditional Malaysian-Chinese restaurant in Qiatou, which ended up being a very memorable and unique experience. We learned that in most restaurants throughout Yunnan province, there isn’t a menu of dishes or a set meal. Instead, fresh vegetables will be placed in a transparent refrigerator, allowing customers to see and choose a few of the ingredients for their meal. The chefs, usually a local family or husband and wife, will then make a traditional wok-cooked meal based off the selection of ingredients that you’ve selected. While this type of meal is absolutely the freshest you’ll get in Yunnan, everything is cooked and washed in non-filtered water and coated in oil, so if you have a sensitive stomach like mine, be warned!
Hiking the gorge: The main way to see Tiger Leaping Gorge is by hiking the upper trail. You’ll begin with a five hour uphill hike on day one, stay in a halfway house overnight and then hike down three to four hours the next day. Another option is to hike the lower trail; however, this is only a two hour walk along the river, as opposed to a vast hike through the gorge and mountains. Most westerners will hire a guide for the trek, but if you speak Mandarin or are an overly adventurous traveler, it is possible to do the trek yourself. The path is paved and visible for most of the hike.
The beginning of the hike is the most challenging, as you immediately start on a steep climb up the gorge. Be prepared to climb over large rocks and steep terrain on the first phase of the trek; that said, if you’re in good shape, the hike is manageable. For the first hour, you’ll be surrounded by multi-colored green foliage, pine trees and rice terraces, as well as quaint villages below the trail that are built into the mountains. You’ll have nice views of the gorge from an aerial view, seeing it from the highest viewpoint possible at about 8,800 feet.
After an hour or two, depending on your pace, the terrain changes from trees, shrubs and rolling green mountains into a dense sprawl of snow-topped mountains – one of the most striking sights of the hike. The rigor of the trek also changes, becoming more leveled and easy as you go on.
Throughout the first day, you’ll see countless stunning sights, as the entire hike is alongside the gorge and through the mountains. You’ll also bypass a few small villages, seeing locals tending to their crops or sherpas walking along the trail. We even saw one farmer drag his goat by the ear after he caught him trying to run away. We had thought a child was screaming in the distance but to our surprise, it was the goat (photo below).
The second day of the hike is much easier, as it’s only about three to four hours with two of the hours walking downhill to reach the lower level of the gorge. What’s best about this hike is that the views on the second day are completely different than what you see on the first. Throughout most of the second day, you’ll walk alongside the gorge, seeing it up close as opposed to an aerial view.
The sight of the gorge from up close is beyond spectacular. The aerial views that you see on day one don’t come close to truly showing the gorge’s massive scale or the roughness of the water. Once you’re next to it, the width and vastness of the river is engulfing, making visitors look like ants next to the monstrous, roaring water. As we heard many times during our hike, a Chinese rafting team tried passing through the gorge in 1986, but after two men died, rafting on the gorge is no longer allowed.
Accommodations: It should come as no surprise that the guest houses in Tiger Leaping Gorge are very basic. They’re run by locals – most of which do not speak English – so for those who don’t speak Mandarin, it’s key to have a guide to book one of these for you. All the guesthouses are relatively similar and located in or around the same area. You’ll get a bed and a bathroom, if you’re lucky, and a very basic dinner and breakfast, so make sure to bring some snacks with you. There will be a few small local stops along the hike to grab water and candy bars, but other than that, the trail is bare.
Our guide recommended for us to stay in the Halfway Lodge, a popular choice for Westerners. However, the rooms have a very thin wall between them making the lodge extremely loud.
Next to the Halfway Lodge though is a beautiful new hotel that recently opened with a huge balcony overlooking the Himalayas. It’s run by a local family who don’t speak English, however, the place is very accommodating. As we were their first customers for dinner, we helped them to create signage and introduced them to sites like TripAdvisor and Agoda. With our guide as the translator, the son of the family who recently just learned to use the internet, took notes vigorously.
While it can be a bit of a trek to reach Tiger Leaping Gorge, there are countless places throughout Yunnan Province to visit and explore. If you have a week or two to visit the area, it’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting, unique and diverse places on the planet!