I had no intentions of going to Tiger Leaping Gorge.
My original plan was to go to Lijiang and spend a few lazy days eating yak cheese and exploring the nearby villages.
But thanks to a chance meeting on a train and the certain swagger that comes with youth, I instead jumped on a bus and hiked 16 plus incredibly strenuous miles over mountains and around bends with someone I’d just met.
It wasn’t the first spontaneous decision of the weekend. After deciding at the last possible moment that I had no interest in spending the long holiday weekend in Guilin, I threw some clothes and my camera in a bag, went to the train station with a scrap of paper listing three far-flung destinations around China, and said I wanted to go to whichever one had the next train out.
But before I found my bed, I ran into another ESL teacher from Shanghai named Jon. Standing in the vestibule with the chain-smokers, we swapped stories of our various travels, our teaching experiences and what our plans for the next few days were.
“You should think about coming to Tiger Leaping Gorge with me,” he said as I shouldered by bag. “It’s supposed to be beautiful and I could use a travel buddy.”
Flash forward 24 hours and the two of us, plus a Swedish man we’d met on the bus, were watching the sunlight ebb away as we sat slurping soup and medicating our sore legs with the local beer after six or seven hours of hiking.
We ended up making the route in two quick days. Those days of hiking were characterized by the generosity of strangers, stunning views and the grueling, knee-destroyed nature of the trek.
Here’s are some of the highlights (and a ton of pictures):
The story goes: a tiger was running from a hunter, but just as the predator was closing in, the tiger leaped over the gorge and was able to escape (hence the name). The tiger supposedly jumped the gorge at its narrowest point, which is still an impressive 82 feet from edge to edge. To put that into perspective, the current record for Olympic long jump is just over 29 feet.
The trek can take anywhere from two to five days, depending on how fast you can go. The mountains that stand sentry on either side of the Jinsha River reach over 5,000 meters at their highest point. The national park sits on the border of Lijiang and Shangri-La counties and acts as a protected area for a dozen or so rural villages. Starting on the High Road the trail most trekkers follow takes them up steep inclines (noteably the infamous “28 bends”), through farms and rice fields, past waterfalls and deep into the woods until finally meeting with the Low Road. From there you can snag a bus to Lijiang or Shangri-La (and eat some amazing yak cheese dumplings while you wait).
We were armed with Jon’s torn out map pages from Lonely Planet China, though we didn’t particularly need them. The trail was well worn by the footfalls of years of trekkers and red arrows painted on boulders helped guide the way. Plus, the locals were happy to lead you through their village.
Along the way we’d see pop-up stands of gorge dwellers hawking cucumbers, water and Snickers bars and we’d ask them for their stories. Most talked about the self-reliance required for the mountainous village life. The way they described it made it sound more like a religion than a lifestyle – what the Gorge may give the Gorge may also take away.
In the second village we met our lunch host. As we walked through the field she was harvesting in, Jon asked her if she knew of somewhere we could get a bite to eat. Leaving her scythe amongst the plants, she led us directly to her little home.
We sat on the floor while she tossed rice, peas and oil in her wok. Between stirring cycles, she’d hand us Chinese-style biscuit cookies, tea and homemade taffy that threatened to separate molars from gums, and would urge us to eat more by saying “Chi, chi, chi.” (Eat, eat, eat).
Our host, her husband and us three recently acquainted trekkers made an odd group, but there’s something to be said about sharing a meal to bring people together. Soon we were laughing, miming and sharing pictures in the haze of the cooking fire.
That same night we’d settle in a guest host in another village. Our host plied us with hot soup and much needed beer while he shared stories of past trekkers and life in the village.
What was most refreshing about the Gorge was the fact that nobody tried to aggressively sell us anything. Coming from a city where fair skin equals cartoony eyefuls of dollar signs and “cha-ching” noises, it was really nice to never feel pressured to purchase anything.
None of the photos we took did justice to the scenes before us. Compared to the real deal they looked like a picture of a picture of a Polaroid that had been left out in the sun.
Whether it was atop a mountain, rounding a bend or descending down into the bowels of the Gorge, there was no shortage of spectacular views.
From waking to the sun peeking over the opposite mountain (soon followed by the Gorge shrugging off its blanket of morning mist, the silhouette of the mountain coming into focus and sunlight streaming in, enveloping the land in warmth) or sitting cross-legged on a boulder down by the rapids, soaking in the sun and feeling the power of the rushing water, there was no shortage of amazing moments.