Sunday, 13 January 2013

Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

(Since we plan on being in Ton Sai for a fair length of time we splashed out on a mobile internet dongle  <USB connection>.  Hopefully this will help us catch up on the blog a bit before Julian heads off the Ice Road newt week but truth be told, there are much better things to do than sit on the computer around here.  The climbing is great, the people are wonderful and quite frankly, sitting on the computer is the last thing any of us want to do here.  Thanks to all who have regularly checked for new postings. Really nice to see we generally have about 40 people who do so.  Hopefully we get a few up over the next week before things on here go on hold for about 15 weeks until Julian gets back the the tropics). 

Jagged teeth of snow covered granite loomed in the distance as our bus neared Qiaotou Village at the mouth of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Legend has it that a tiger jumped across the gorge at its narrowest point using a large boulder (about the size of a house) known as Tiger Leaping Stone in order to escape a hunter.  From the snow capped peaks of Haba Shan (5,396 metres or 17,703 ft) to the gushing rapids of the Jinsha River is a sheer drop of 3900 meters, making it one of the deepest gorges in the world and as avid hikers, a much anticipated part of our exploration of Yunnan.  Leaving the majority of our belongings at Janes Guesthouse we paid the 65RMB fee to the national park and hit the trail late in the afternoon. Climbing up to Twenty-Four Bends Path, we chose the higher trail over the one alongside the river.  Passing through someones front garden to access the trail (for which we were taxed for the privilege) we found ourselves on a narrow path with a chinese couple from Beijing and soon after we were joined by a horsemen, hopeful that one of us might grow tired of the steep climb and opt for the services of his four legged accomplice.  The residents of the gorge are the indigenous Naxi we had met in Lijiang, who live in a handful of small villages throughout the gorge and have been utilizing this 22km long trail for centuries. Along the route they farm grain, tend livestock, mine natural crystals and now extract a few foreign dollars from the millions of tourists who pass this way each year. 

The bells around the horses neck jingled as we hiked upwards towards the jagged peaks; the river, terraced paddies and courtyard homes on the lower banks growing further and further away.  The vegetation varied dramatically; from palm trees and ferns up to pine trees, cacti, a species of thick, hardy lavender and colourful alpine flowers.  The scent of marijuana often graces the nose which grows in clusters up to 8ft high along the path, which we shared with herds of goats.  The chinese women we found ourselves hiking with, whose name I was never able to pronounce, was gasping for short, sharp breaths; the elevation here clearly affecting her city lungs in particular of us all.  

My yoga practice has me very aware of my breath which I feel made a big difference but it was the intense beating of my heart, common at high altitude, that forced me to pause.  As we approached the most strenuous part of the trail, a set of 24 switchbacks up to the highest point of the trail, a Naxi women bustled around her teahouse customers like a mother hen, serving us a delicious 'raw honey and ganja tea' and refreshing slices of the largest cucumber I had ever seen. 

Revitalized and ready to tackle the 24 bends, Julian motored on ahead (just longer legs - ed) whilst I set steady pace, followed by our friends from Beijing, stoping regularly to catch our breath.  We almost levelled with the rocky snow covered peaks opposite, the dramatic grass covered ridge lines now below us sweeping into the gushing rapids below which have only been successfully navigated once, claiming the lives of all others who attempt it.  As we neared the summit a granite outcrop offered spectacular views of the gorge, as intense as any mountain landscape I have ever hiked through as I giddily stood on the edge.  Julian had managed to find himself a secluded outcrop just off the trail above a sheer drop of several hundred metres to admire the view in solitude for a few minutes as he waited for our arrival. 

Dusk was upon us and the setting sun cast long shadows down the east / west lying gorge; the granite peaks above us changing shades of pink and grey, as our path descended towards Tea Horse guest house, our intended stop of the night.  The descent reeked havoc on my knees slowing us considerably and we found ourselves hiking in the darkness of the night.  Preceded by a brilliant glow, the full moon rose above the Himalayan peaks stopping us in our tracks. Illuminating the trail brightly, the snow covered peaks and occasional fluffy white cloud glowed radiantly under the light.  Dogs throughout the valley howled to welcome the night as we checked into our twin room, throwing open the windows to the moon lit gorge below. 

Our evening meal was decidedly void of flavour but seemed to satisfy our bodies until I was later woken with waves of nausea.  On the other side of the room I heard Julian moaning and asked him if his stomach was upset.  He told me no, still deep in sleep with no memory of the conversation, and the nausea subsided allow me to drift back to sleep.  I woke later as the pain swelled again and moments later Julian sprang from his bed, swung open the windows and heaved the contents of his stomach into the valley below.  The pain in my stomach woke me numerous times but refused to release and it wasn't until early morning that I induced vomiting in attempt to relieve my system.  Clearly last nights meal had poisoned us both and despite discussing hiking two hours to the next guesthouse neither of us could summon the energy to rise and we ended up sleeping until late in the afternoon, waking only to vomit occasionally.  I can think of worse places to be ill though; the cool mountain air and quiet valley allowed us to be sick in peace, and I have never puked out of a prettier window.  It was a painful, disgusting bug that drained us of every once of energy.  Despite having no appetite we knew would have to fuel our systems that evening and eating out of that kitchen again not an option, so we packed our bags and hit the trail to the next guesthouse.  Thankful for the homemade fruit and oat bars Louanne had sent us away with we had a small bite to eat out of necessity for the energy we were about to about to expend.  It was a slow and painful start but mercifully the path gained no elevation and the going was relatively easy, and stunningly beautiful.  The thrillingly narrow path followed deep gullies weaving in and out of the hillside, passing two distinctly different waterfalls; one being crystal clear glacier run off, the other thick and grey, murky with clay and sediment.  A man tended a motorized shifter and we thought that perhaps he was collecting the clay for pottery however having read about the area afterwards, I realize he may have been sluicing for minerals or crystals. 

By the time we got to the Halfway House guesthouse we were both feeling considerably refreshed despite a hollow pain in the stomach and exceptionally low energy level.  Our room was nestled in the far reaches of the guesthouse, offering views just as splendid as the previous evening.  After a hot shower we had a look at the menu, the local Chinese food having no appeal what so ever.  The only thing remotely appealing was a banana pancake which took ages to get through, though the ginger tea was exactly what I wanted.  Two couples we had shared the previous guesthouse with were in lively mood as they enjoyed a locally brewed barley spirit, though Julian and I were in no fit state to socialize and we were both in bed by 2000, and slept a solid 12 hours. 

The sick had dwindled throughout the night and we both woke feeling much better, though still lacking appetite and energy levels still low.  After forcing down a small breakfast we were back on the trail and able to enjoy ourselves and our surroundings much more fully.  The dramatic snow covered peaks were now behind us, the gorge opening up in the distance to a valley below dotted with small hamlets.  We have been blessed with ideal weather every day since our arrival in China. Clear blue skies, cool autumn breeze and deceptively strong sunlight; the elevation magnifying the suns rays but the cool breeze masking its effect.  The trail began to descent softly and we arrived at Tinas Guesthouse, an optional end to the trek, far earlier than we had anticipated.  Instead of spending an additional night on the trail as we initially thought, we opted to take the next bus north to Shangri-La, giving us three hours to spare before the bus headed out.  

The local people have built and maintained a steep trail descending into the narrowest point of the gorge offering hikers of the high trail the opportunity to get close to the river (should legs and knees be up to it) for 10RMB each.   A two hour round trip down steep switchbacks and rebar ladders spiked into the rock took us the last few hundred feet down to the waters edge, passing locals eager to sell bottled beverages to the unprepared, jade jewellery, and bags of saffron and marijuana.  The path itself was an impressive feat and I almost felt 10RMB was to inexpensive for their efforts, though Julian pointed out that with the sheer numbers of tourists which hike through here, particularly in the high season, the locals must be doing quite well for themselves.  As Tiger Leaping Gorge gained popularity the lives of these peasant farmers must have taken quite a positive turn.  Standing next to the rapids of the Jinsha and looking up at the steep granite walls of the gorge offered a fantastic, different perspective of the place.  The hike back up was an exceptionally strenuous affair in our state of health and decreased food intake combined with the effects of altitude.  Our American friend in her late 50s easily kept up with us. 

After the intense couple of hours down to the Jinsha River and back up to Tinas Guesthouse we should have been famished but our stomachs desired no food.  We knew however that sustenance was necessary and ordered a naxi flatbread sandwich before boarding our afternoon bus out of the gorge.  This road alongside the river once a simple mule track, has only recently been paved, and our bus followed the snaking trail avoiding local pedestrians and oncoming traffic.  A recent rock fall forced us to stop and our driver got out to clear the larger boulders out of the way.  This world heritage site is considered the most dangerous gorge in the world, especially during the rainy season where regular rock slides have claimed many lives, wiping car loads of people driving the lower road into the rapids of the Jinsha and it was comforting to see our driver stop well before the litter in the road, constantly mindful of the slopes above.  In 2004 the Chinese (Han) government proposed damming Tiger Leaping Gorge for hydroelectric power as part of the nations insatiable appetite, increasing the local governments tax income by some 50% at the bottom line. The proposal would have destroyed beyond recognition one of the most scenic areas in China and displaced 100,000 Naxi people to higher Tibetan land further north.  Fortunately, for a change, common sense prevailed over immediate financial gains and this idea was scrapped in 2007; tourism still remains a major source of income for the local people.  

We are fortunate to have been able to explore the countryside (mountainous or otherwise) in many parts of the world, and perhaps it has something to do with the romanticism of roaming the largest mountain range on the planet, but we both agree that Tiger Leaping Gorge is among the most wondrous and dramatic of landscapes we have ventured through. 


  1. Shannon Kingston13 January 2013 at 18:23

    Amazing you guys. Stunning photos as well.

  2. Well done ! You are so brave and adventurous! These are great pictures of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Which reminds me... I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of trekking the Great Wall, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers.

    1. We really appreciate the time you took to read this entry and to leave this comment.
      Trekking the Great Wall is something I would love to do one day, I will be checking out that blog you suggested for sure.
      Thanks for the feedback!! Happy Travels!