Tiger Leaping Gorge Part I: Qiaotou to Halfway House

Written by Oct 26, 2007 21:55
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It isn't looking good...

(Introduction: In the summer of 2005 a good friend (S) and I decided to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge as part of a month long journey around China. I was only planning to spend a year teaching and believed this would be my only chance to travel. This is a trip we had planned for months. This is a two-part story based on the diary I wrote and my memories of one of the most spectacular places I have ever had the privilege to set foot.)

It isn’t looking good. It’s the middle of summer, the rainy season. Our previous four days in Yunnan have been full of rain and today is no exception. With nothing more than our backpacks and a foolish hope, we catch the last bus out from Lijiang to Qiaotou.

Qiaotou barely rates placing on the map, it’s so small: nothing more than a handful of houses clustered together in defence against the mighty gorge that looms in on them from every side. In the early gloom-soaked evening, Qiaotou feels as forlorn a place as I’ve ever been and I have to work hard to remind myself that this is the jumping off point for one of the most spectacular hikes in China.

It begins to look worse when we get to the small road leading to where the awkwardly scribbled signpost tells me “Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse” is. The road is blocked... by a river. The river, which is presumably a stream in dryer times, is deep and fast flowing over the tarmac and we have to climb and hop across some well-placed boulders to get across.

Jane's Tibetan Guesthouse is not the hub...

Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse is not the hub of excited hikers and travellers I expected. In fact, S and I are the only guests and the owner gives us a thoughtful smile of welcome.

“It’s the weather,” she explains. “No-one’s been walking the track for 10 days or so. It’s dangerous and unpleasant and not worth trying in the rain.... and it’s been raining for the last 10 days.”

It’s not promising news.

Over our dinner of fried vegetable and yak meat noodles (followed by fruit salad), we muse over our unfortunate timing and try to remain positive. The wooden veranda where we are eating offers plentiful views of dense mists and belts of white cloud and we know that somewhere beyond this curtain are the mountains, the Yangtze River and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Strings of limp, faded prayer flags hang and drip. I know how they feel.

The owner gives us a hand-drawn map of the route, adding positively that we “might need it for tomorrow”. We watch the CCTV 9 English competition cup waiting for the weather report. The Canadian weather host grins and spreads his hands over Yunnan, the rain that’s been hanging around should start to clear, and for the first time I feel a glimmer of hope.

“Don’t believe what he says.” The owner warns us knowingly. “This place is special. The weather is special. It does what it pleases – nobody knows for sure.”

Thinking positively, S and I decide to sleep early, in preparation for leaving in the morning.

“If it’s raining tomorrow you can’t go.” The owner cautions us again, needlessly. She labours over the points: landslides, mudslides, rockslides and various travellers who’ve met their deaths over the years.

Suitably morose, we say our goodnights.


It’s 3am. I am woken by the sound of S scrabbling around on the floor. He is looking for a frog ?!?! It turns out he is dreaming.

It’s still raining.

4 hours later the alarm startles me awake...

4 hours later the alarm startles me awake. I blink in the fuzzy light and listen. There’s silence. I fumble my way over to the window and look outside. Overcast: yes. Rain: no.

We breakfast large on banana pancakes, yoghurt and museli. The owner is as bustling and happy as though she herself has been waiting to start the hike. She points us with a vapid swish of her hand along the road, tells us the quick route to the “High Path” and reminds us, with her typical serious air, that we must be careful.

It’s 8am. The sky is miserable, auguring further rain and we spend the first few hundred metres in silence. Our first view of the Yangtze is a great sweeping curve of muddy brown water whose surface bristles with surging currents. Behind it the sky is bright grey and hills rise from the river into the dense fluff of clouds that the sun is trying to get through.

It is a sight that makes my blood flow quicker: such a raw and menacing meeting of some of nature’s greatest creations in China. There’s some 5500 metres of mountains between this valley and the sky (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain being the highest) and thrashing it’s way through the middle is part of the 6300 kilometres of the world’s third longest river – the Yangtze.

With only 2 days set aside...

With only 2 days set aside to walk Tiger Leaping Gorge, we plan to spend the first night at a hostel called “Halfway House”. Our version of this hike is a modest 24 kilometres in total, walking from Qiaotou to Daju, via the “High Path” route.

It seems we have chosen well as our path climbs steadily upwards through an array of small hillside farms. Crops of sunflowers, sweet corn and many other vegetables flank our walk with their various leaves. The farmer’s dwellings of weathered orange brick nestle against an epic background of dark mountains and wandering white cloud.

The path at times is narrow and nothing more than a blade or two of grass separates us from a steep downward plunge to the river. Nevertheless it shows little sign of being affected by the recent rainfall and I never feel that I am in danger. But looking down into the valley we can spot the swollen Yangtze running perilously close to a road, a testament to just how much rain has fallen.

A group of 5 or 6 Chinese locals pass us later, their horses strapped with goods, but aside from them we meet no other people. As the clouds lift, the mountains and hillsides are revealed growing ever taller and we pass beneath a village whose miniature homes hug the steep slopes. Their crops arranged in terraces of stripes in myriad shades of green.

We arrive at what is rumoured to be...

We arrive at what is rumoured to be the most difficult section of the gorge known as “24 Bends”. There is a Chinese lady here, alone, in a newly-built wooden shell of a building. Over a perfect cup of green tea and a Snickers, she tells us that this will be a guest house – the increasing popularity of such hikes demanding an increasing amount of accommodation. We wish her well and take her already-prepared business card with us.

“24 Bends” is a trial and I am glad we have reached it so early in our hike. Whilst neither very steep, nor very dangerous, it is the kind of draining uphill climb that seems it might never end. There’s no obvious place to stop as we weave our way backwards and forwards up this rocky hillside and the bends are dizzying, doubling back on themselves and making me feel like we are walking the same path over and over again.

Reaching the top, we realise we have made a great leap ourselves and we seem to be in another level of the gorge now. The Yangtze River is much smaller and the clouds much closer. Ranks of lanky black Pine trees now straddle the slopes and all glimpses of civilisation are gone. It is just us and the gorge now, it’s imperious ever-sharpening outlines becoming less and less forgiving.

And it starts to rain.

The steady drizzle will accompany us...

The steady drizzle will accompany us for the rest of the day’s walk – another hour or so yet. We hear a pathetic bleat and look upwards to watch as a herd of wild mountain goats clip-clop their way up into a rockslide that has created a useful overhang under which they can shelter.

The path becomes a little more tricky to negotiate, with some sections hiking-boot deep in silvery mud. At one point, on the opposite side of the gorge, a narrow waterfall tumbles down the mountainside and into the Yangtze. It reminds me of a length of rope thrown to save a drowning figure. Where it reaches the river, there’s a great churning and boiling of brown waters and we stop to listen to the distant growl that echoes upwards. Might it be the indignant roar of that eponymous creature ?

I begin to understand how people can die here as the “Tiger” in this gorge begins to assert itself. The craggy cliffs and vertical drops are extreme and there would be no way back from a careless slip. The remnants of random landslides linger as reminders of how devastating earth itself can be; these recently left boulders and gouges in the mountainside gushing with brand new waterfalls.

It’s 4pm. We’ve been on the un-peopled path...

It’s 4pm. We’ve been on the un-peopled path for 8 hours. The last couple of hours have left us damp and returned the low mist and clouds to their accustomed place amongst the mountains. We reach at last a welcome rock, upon which someone has painted in red letters:

“Half Way 300m”

And it stops raining.

The mountains come out to play, not just in their half-sizes as we’ve seen them before, but fully-grown. In hundreds of points, up thousands of metres, the rock faces appear and slice right through the clouds; tearing up white shreds; revealing flashes of blue.

It feels as though I am walking in a kingdom in the clouds. The hostel appears like an oasis, its cobbled courtyard blooming with flowers and the black mountains towering behind it.

We’re not too tired. Our 8 hours of walking has been punctuated by many stops for photographs and admiring the views. Small cafes and guesthouses dot the route making for welcome breaks and providing a variety of freshly cooked food to satisfy the hungriest of travellers.

It is hard to imagine a better place...

It is hard to imagine a better place to spend the night in Tiger Leaping Gorge. We relax on a balcony that hangs out over the gorge giving panoramic views. The friendly owners cook up a welcome selection of steaming dishes with meat and vegetables from their own plot and we dine under the watchful eyes of the mountains.

As evening falls and the rain sets in once more, we sip green tea and watch the clouds’ inexorable descent. There’s a faint halo as the sun sets. The fey evening light makes the gorge seem like a mirage, a figment of grandiose imagination.

We talk over the legend of the tiger that leapt across this, one of the world’s deepest canyons, in order to escape from hunters. Haven’t we have seen that tiger today, in the roar and tumble of the Yangtze and in the way the mountains sharpen and flare like claws against the heavens?

The rain writes itself in waves across the wooden roof and into my memory. On the almost black mountains opposite, tiny white ribbons are beginning to unfold, one after another, twisting and shimmering earthward. I think I would be happy to stay here forever, in the deepness of the evening, watching waterfalls being born.

A Quick Guide to Places in English & Chinese

Tiger Leaping Gorge [hǔtiàoxiá | 虎跳峡]
An awe-inspiring gorge filled with mountains and the Yangtze River and found in Yunnan Province.

Yunnan Province [yúnnán sheng | 云南省]
Located in the South West of China. Home to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lijiang [lìjiāng | 丽江]
Small, ancient, canal-crossed town in Yunnan Province. The entire town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Qiaotou [qiáotóu | 桥头]
Village often used as the starting point or finishing point for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Roughly 2 hours by bus from Lijiang.

Daju [dàjǔ | 大举]
Village often used as the finishing point for the TLG trek. Roughly 24kms from Qiaotou on foot (including a ferry crossing over the Yangtze)

 More Yunnan Travel Reviews
1. Cultural Embrace: China's Future WINDENERGY from CN Jun 15, 2007 08:06
2. <A> The Gorge Guardian KYLE from CA Apr 9, 2007 03:04
3. <C> XiShuangBanna on Two Wheels STOCKTOV from CN Oct 12, 2006 21:10
Comments (3)


Oct 10, 2012 15:10 Reply

Mrs.HONSON from USA said:

Loved your description of the Gorge--poetically descriptive, yet appreciative of how dangerous this hike can be. I hiked this Gorge several years ago, and I think you have written the best description of the experience that I have yet read. Well done!


Nov 19, 2007 05:08 Reply


Apologies Lemoncactus- did I say Jabarootoo- I meant you!


Nov 19, 2007 05:05 Reply


A beautiful and breath takng description Jabarootoo! Yes, i think i could stay ther forever as well!

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