Tiger Leaping Gorge
China is a huge and diverse country with an intriguing history. Yunnan, which translates as “south of the clouds,” is China’s most diverse province, offering travellers extreme variation; the unsummited Meili Snow Mountain reigns near Tibet and the tropical lowlands bordering Laos and Burma curl at the bottom of the province. It’s home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, colourful ethnic custom and the deepest river canyon in the country, Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Karst moutains of Li River
Some of Yunnan’s many highlights include the karst mountains of Li River, experiencing the Yangshao rice terraces at sunrise, visiting ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang, hiking the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, cycling to the Vietnam border and performing koras around a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Shangri-La. Yunnan cuisine is also a highlight of any trip to China.
Is Yunnan too Touristy?
Long on the informal backpacker’s banana pancake trail, Yunnan is still a favourite with travellers today. There are several claims that Guilin, Dali and Liajiang have become ‘too touristy,’ but I still believe these are the best places to visit. Providing you avoid travel on weekends and Chinese bank holidays, you shouldn’t experience too many crowds.
Despite some of the restored buildings, ancient towns of Dali and Liajiang are both charming and have retained some of their history and traditions.
Marijuana grows wild in this part of Yunnan, and Dali has been nicknamed the “Amsterdam of China” for the ease with which the substance is sold. Having visited both of these destinations mysef, I certainly wouldn't describe Dali as Amsterdam. Although you can visit a number of bars, there are no nightclubs and the cafes sell coffee (not space cakes). In fact, Dali has a very quaint old town which you can spend several days wondering its narrow streets, souvenir shopping and indulging in the delicious local cuisine.
The fact that it caters to Western tourists makes it easier to find hostels with English speaking staff (you will appreciate this after travelling China for any length of period). It also offers varied dining options. You can hire a scooter and drive to several ‘off the beaten path’ towns not far from Dali itself.
If you do want to delve further away from the main tourist spots then you don’t need to go far. Lesser known ancient towns include, Shaxi, Weishan, Cizhong and Yunnayi which are a part of the old ‘Tea and Horse Trade Road’.
For the active traveller, here is my experience of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
What is Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a canyon on the Jinsha River, located 60 kilometres north of Lijiang City in Yunnan. It’s one of the deepest gorges in the world at 3900m high from the waters of the Jīnshā River and 16km long.
The name Tiger Leaping Gorge comes from an ancient legend about a tiger who leaped from Yulong Snow Mountain to Haba Mountain by jumping on a huge stone in the center of the gorge river.
Throughout this trek, you will be surrounded by snowcapped mountains reaching 5000m high. When the sun fades catch the colours reflecting from the water thousands of feet below you. Despite the odd donkey crossing your path and a tiny bit of danger here and there, the trek is stunning every step of the way.
What to Expect
Tiger Leaping Gorge is China’s most famous and exciting trek.
Despite its fame, the trek isn’t too crowded. More Western visitors complete the trek than Chinese people, but you will see native people using this route to graze their animals. These native people are The Naxis who are a Chinese minority group who wear royal blue and white outfits, even today.
You will find plenty of comfortable accommodation along the way, advanced booking is not necessary.
The Naxi guesthouse is a popular place to stay overnight for travellers hiking the Tiger leaping Gorge and rooms cost approximately 5 dollars.
Halfway House is also a great place to stop (either the first or second night depending on your pace) which sits above the clouds with a spectacular view. You can stay in the guest house or splurge out on a wooden bungalow with private bathroom with a view. There is also a great bar here to socialise with other trekkers.
How Challenging is the Trek?
The trek in itself isn’t too strenuous providing you take it at a comfortable pace. There are some parts of the trek which you need to tread carefully. The path does get narrow in some places and if the weather is bad it can also get muddy.
How Long Does it Take to Complete the Trek?
It can take anywhere between 1-5 days to complete the trek depending on the pace you are comfortable with. Some people race through it within a day but I wouldn’t recommend this. Firstly, because you will be exhausted. Secondly, because you won’t be able to appreciate the scenery to its fullest. I would recommend 2-3 days for people with good fitness. However, we met a couple who chose to take 5 days simply because they enjoyed it this way.
Do I Need to Book a Tour?
You do not need to book a tour but I recommend trekking with other people. Take a good map and take note of the location of several guesthouses.
Best Time to Visit
Winter (low season) – Dec – Feb. A good time to trek the gorge with dry clear days but cold nights.
Spring (shoulder season) March – May. An excellent time to trek with comfortable temperatures and cool nights.
Summer (High season) June – Sept. The is the wet season and should be avoided if possible. The wettest months are July and August. This is also the busiest season with the highest number of touts hassling you to buy souvenirs along the trek.
Autumn (shoulder season) Oct – Nov. Excellent months to trek. Usually dry and sunny with green landscape and blossoms.
How to Get There
Take a bus from Lijiang Bus Station which departs at 08:30 and 09:00 every morning. The journey takes approximately 2 and a half hours and the bus fare is around CNY 25.
The entrance fee for Tiger Leaping Gorge is CNY 65. The only additional costs are for the accommodation you choose to stay in and your food.
What to Pack
- Warm clothing and layers which can be worn during the evening and removed during the day
- T-shirts and vests
- Lightweight trousers
- Lightweight waterproof jacket
- Hiking Boots (comfortable and ‘worn in’)
- Hiking socks and underwear
- Minimal toiletries
- Travel Belt for easy access to money and valuables
- Small backpack to carry your belongings
Will you be adding Tiger Leaping Gorge to your China bucketlist?