“Yeah, we get one or two cars falling in every month. Most are taken by the current and disappear… you’re lucky I know this road,” a former PLA soldier says coolly as he rounds another hairpin turn on a cliff cut by the Jinsha River. The lack of guardrails is terrifyingly apparent, and we heave ourselves away from the ledge before every turn as if our weight will compensate for a sudden wrong move from our driver.
Just 20 minutes earlier, we’d flagged down his green truck outside of Tina’s guesthouse and asked for a lift to Qiaotou – the town where our trek commenced a day earlier – so that we could catch a ride in one of the vans that haul smelly hikers back to Lijiang and Shangri-La every evening.
Prior to embarking on what Lonely Planet calls the “unmissable trek of southwest China,” the blogging world told us to fear the rapid elevation gain that is Tiger Leaping Gorge’s ‘28 bends,’ but anyone who’s hiked the canyon recently knows the steep switchbacks are no longer the most trying part of the trek.
No, the first three hours of the hike, as we so grudgingly discovered, are by far the most challenging mentally, thanks to newly paved roads that leave backpackers completely exposed to the sun, monstrous trucks spewing exhaust as they pass and locals on mules who will seemingly follow you to your death – or until you wave the white flag and hand over RMB300 for a ride up the mountain.
The scene at the trailhead is a marked departure from the serene dirt path that existed there before construction began in 2014, which brought visitors to the first lodge, Naxi Family guesthouse, in one and a half hours (not three) and avoided a steep detour that now guides hikers straight up the base of the mountain on a narrow footpath better fit for mules. Needless to say, give yourself plenty of time to get to Naxi and don't trust the outdated paper maps available at the Tiger Leaping Gorge Scenic Area Ticket Office.
On the day of our hike, it’s almost 5pm before we approach the regal steps of Naxi Family guesthouse. Despite it being a holiday week, we’re set up in a private room – complete with a washroom, hot water, a TV and queen bed – for just RMB120. Reservations are not typically needed, but at some guesthouses like Half Way, new roads have given access to hordes of lazy tourists, so booking a room ahead online is advised during peak travel months.
As the sun dips low enough to send ripples of pigment across the sky, we make our way to the upper lookout deck and eagerly await our first meal on the mountain. My friend has called in so many orders to the kitchen that the staff politely inquires if we’re expecting additional guests.
The food on this trail – like the views – has a knack for etching itself in your memory. Kitchens at the guesthouses use locally grown produce and everything from Naxi sandwiches to Western apple pie has that distinct homemade goodness that lifts the mood and sparks hearty conversation.
No one’s a stranger on the mountain, and though parties of hikers may sit at different tables during dinner, banter often spills across the room as people from Korea or France or Brazil chime in to general topics of travel and life abroad. Here on a distant peak in Yunnan lies a hidden microcosm of the world, made possible by the warmth of the Naxi people who exude an infectious sense of home.
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We rise the next morning at 7.30am and fuel up on chocolate banana pancakes and Yunnan coffee before setting foot on the trail. A solo hiker from Hangzhou has asked to tag along, and the three of us embark towards the menacing 28 bends together, moving swiftly in order to cover the remaining 18 kilometers by dusk.
At a maximum depth of 3,790 meters from river to mountain peak, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most stunning canyons in the world. Legend posits a tiger once jumped across the gorge at its narrowest point to escape a hunter, giving way to its name, which is a literal translation of the Mandarin hǔ tiào xiá (虎跳峡). Most Chinese tourists don’t bother hiking the upper sections of the trail, and instead ride buses to the lower road that overlooks a stone the tiger supposedly landed on when taking its legendary leap.
From ground level, it’s hard to see beyond the immense canyon walls that bind the Jinsha River on its course. Only after ascending 2,670 meters (and climbing the 28 bends) can hikers bask in a panoramic view of the valley, with the majestic Haba Snow Mountain to the north and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the south.
The hike is a breeze from there on out, as relatively flat terrain leads one through a series of micro ecosystems, from forests of evergreens to dusty lanes lined with prickly pear cacti. Two mountain villages – Ya Cha and Bendi Wan – are also positioned along the trail, lending Alpine-esque views of green hillsides speckled with clusters of rooftops.
As we near Half Way guesthouse, the trail narrows to less than a meter wide, with a sheer drop-off on the right. When locals tell you not to hike the gorge during Yunnan’s rainy season, they’re referring to this section. Even on a sunny day, it’s best to focus on your footing and save the selfies for later.
By the time Tina’s white exterior materializes on the horizon, our legs are trembling from overexertion. The sun has only an hour or two left in the sky, and we’ve missed the 3pm bus that carts hikers back to Lijiang.
On any other day, we’d have a quick rest at the guesthouse and spend an extra hour hiking down to the river, where a rickety wooden bridge hangs suspended over the middle rapids. The trek, known to some as ‘Teacher Zhang’s Trail,’ packs one final adrenaline rush in the form of a 170-step vertical ‘Sky Ladder’ fastened to the canyon wall. No matter what the lovely woman who’s been selling water at the base of the wall for decades tells you, the climb is not “easy” nor suitable for those even remotely afraid of heights. She’ll do her best to egg you on, but keep in mind that there’s an alternate (and much less nerve-wracking) route if you so choose.
Riding back towards Qiaotou, we can just make out the trail we’ve been following for two days as a mere squiggle on the mountainside above. Construction vehicles barrel past on the highway, where man’s mark on nature is all too apparent. It’s disconcerting to think how much has changed since our last visit to the gorge three years ago, but then again, few places in China have escaped the grasp of urbanization.
If anything, our latest hike has reaffirmed what we’d hoped would be true: that in places, the trail is still quiet enough to hear mountain goats shuffling in the grass and at night, the enveloping darkness still lights up the stars.
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