Before going to China, we heard Tiger Leaping Gorge described as: beautiful, amazing, breathtaking, physically challenging, trip of a lifetime, etc. So we thought, since we are going to Yunnan Province, we have to go! Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a lot of information to use for planning the trek in advance. Even after reading a few travel blog articles, we were still unsure about what exactly we were getting into. It seemed like there were many options available for how to structure the trek, and we wanted to make sure we optimized the trip for the time we had available. After spending 3-days, 2-nights trekking in the gorge, we learned that it is actually a very straightforward trip, and well worth the effort!
One of the first issues we ran into was that there aren’t very good maps available online for the trek. The best ones we could find are hand drawn maps put out by the guesthouses along the trail.
Guides and maps refer to a “low trail” and a “high trail”, or “upper trekking route”. This is confusing and a bit misleading, because the “low trail” is actually a road for cars. For some stretches, you may need to walk along the road, but it isn’t really part of the hiking route. If you are coming to the gorge to trek, you will want to stay on the high trail as much as possible.
The high trail is marked sporadically with blue signs, though not nearly often enough! We downloaded a useful app called maps.me that has good offline maps including hiking trails. We used our phone GPS to occasionally confirm that we hadn’t gone astray. Maps.me seemed to have pretty up-to-date information on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trails.
Most people hike from Qiaotou to Tina’s Guesthouse along the “high trail” (~21 km). Once you start the trek, you have many options along the way for where to stop for the night, depending on far you want to go. Worth noting however, is that we went in February, during the low-season, and only the most popular guesthouses (Naxi Family, Tea-Horse, and Tina’s) seemed to be operating. Most people finish the Trek at Tina’s Guest House, which is a hub for gorge tourists, they also organize a 3:30 pm bus that returns to Lijiang daily. If you have more time, you can continue past Tina’s to Walnut Grove, which is where we spent our second night. Some people continue further, but we heard that the trail becomes less scenic beyond Walnut Grove.
There are also three paths down to the Jinsha River from the main road at the upper, middle, and lower sections of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Some people just come in for the day from Lijiang to walk down to the river and take pictures. It is roughly a two-hour hike round trip from Tina’s to get down to the “middle gorge” section of the river.
Trekking Day 1
Getting to the Trailhead
We spent the night before our trek in Lijiang at Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse. They team up with several other guesthouses and organize a private bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge that leaves around 7:30 am. There are also many public buses that go from Lijiang to Qiaotou.
The bus ride took about 2 hours, including a stop for a bathroom break and snacks. We got off briefly at the entrance gate to buy our tickets before continuing on approximately 2 km to the trailhead.
The bus dropped half of us off at the trailhead, and the other half continued on (along the “low road”) to Tina’s Guesthouse, because they were just doing a day trip. The bus driver had instructions to take our big luggage to Tina’s and drop it off with them, where we could collect it at the end of our trek. We hiked with our small packs, carrying just what was needed for the day.
We began trekking around 10 am. The start of the hike follows a paved road for about 3 km, before turning into a dirt track. The first section of the hike was a strenuous climb, but we were soon treated to beautiful views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range, a gorgeous series of snow-capped peaks measuring over 18,000 ft in elevation, which you can see throughout the entire trek. For reference, the maximum elevation on the hiking trail is around 8,000 ft. You can also see a lot of construction going on across the river, where a new tunnel, highway, and suspension bridge are being constructed.
We hiked for about 2 hours before stopping for lunch at Naxi Family Gueshouse, which had tasty, filling, food at a reasonable price, as well as excellent views of the mountains.
After lunch, we tackled the “28-bends”, which are a challenging series of switchbacks that climb steeply to a high point on the trail. Along the way, there were many mule drivers offering to take our luggage to the top for a fee, but we politely waved them on. There was a lot of build-up for the 28-bends, but we thought it was similar in difficulty to the initial climb out of Qiaotou, which no one got us pumped up for.
From the top of the 28-bends was our first view down into the gorge. We rested there briefly before continuing on.
The rest of the hike was relatively easy, and we arrived at our lodging for the night, Tea-Horse Guesthouse, around 3 pm. The accommodations were delightful! The room had hot showers, an electric bed, and a view of the mountains from the window. The on-site restaurant was very good and they even offered an assortment of Korean food, including homemade kimchi! Apparently, quite a few Korean tourists like to go hiking in the gorge.
The restaurant had a rooftop bar with spectacular mountain views, where we spent happy hour watching the sun set behind the mountains.
Trekking Day 2
We slept in a bit on Day 2 and had a leisurely breakfast before starting on our hike. The day ahead of us looked pretty easy, about 10 km, mostly flat or downhill, until we reached Tina’s Guesthouse. We actually booked Tibet Guesthouse for the 2nd night, which is a few kilometers down the road from Tina’s, but we wanted to stop by and check that our bags were still there before continuing on.
During our morning walk, the weather was threatening to turn worse, becoming increasingly windy and wet. Fortunately, the rain never exceeded a light sprinkle. Our trend of seeing almost nobody on the trail continued into Day 2. We hiked for a few hours before stopping for lunch at Half Way Guesthouse. In actuality, we just ate our snacks in their courtyard, because we couldn’t find anybody to serve us. Most places along the trail appeared to be closed-down for the low season.
After lunch, the trail became quite narrow, with steep slopes above and below the trail. We passed a waterfall and several areas of the trail that looked recently washed out. However, this didn’t seem to bother the goats that were happily scattered about.
The trail began to descend towards the low road, where Tina’s Guesthouse could be seen in the distance. We arrived at Tina’s around 3 pm, and, had we wanted to, we could have returned to Lijiang on the 3:30 pm bus, making for a relatively unhurried 2-day, 1-night trip. Instead, we decided to be super-unhurried and stick with our original plan of staying a second night. We ate some noodles at Tina’s, confirmed that our bags were safe, and told the front desk that we would be back to collect them the following morning.
We walked along the low road from Tina’s to Tibet Guesthouse, our lodging for the night. From the road, we got some good views down into the gorge. Several paths lead down to the bottom of the gorge, where there is a giant boulder in the river that people take photos on top of. Travel guides warn of various touts, who stop you from going down to the river until you pay the local “maintenance fee”, but they appeared to be taking a vacation during the low season. We didn’t have time to go all the way to the bottom before it got dark, but we did wander down some trail to take pictures of the gorge before heading back to the road.
We arrived at Tibet Guesthouse around sunset. The ambiance was quite charming, but, like many places we saw, it seemed to be barely operating. The Guesthouse doubles as a home for the family that owns it, and they carried on with their business, largely ignoring our presence, unless we specifically asked for something. We still managed to get a good meal, once we determined which items on the menu they actually had in stock. Sadly, no yak milk for us!
“Trekking” Day 3
This was not really a trekking day, but more of a transit day. On the third day, we had the ambitious goal of getting from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shaxi on public transportation, despite there being no direct transit connections. We got up relatively early in the morning, and eventually got our guesthouse owner to point us in the right direction for Shaxi.
Getting from Tibet G.H. to Shaxi
First, we had to get back to Qiaotou. Our guesthouse owner flagged down some ladies driving a minivan going into town for groceries. They offered to take us to the bus stop in Qiaotou for a small fee. Everything was going fine, despite the bumpy road, until the cardboard box in the seat behind us made a noise and started moving around! Chiara nearly jumped into the front seat it was so startling. We later found out there was a chicken in there! Eventually, the chicken quieted down, and we made it to the bus stop.
Then came the challenging part. We were trying to get from Qiaotou to Jianchuan, another transit hub, before transferring again to Shaxi. The “bus stop” in Qiaotou is really just an area on the side of the road outside a dumpling restaurant. Buses were coming through town pretty frequently in our direction, but they only listed their destination in Chinese characters. Fortunately, Chiara had been studying the characters for all the towns on our route, so we felt like we had a good grasp of the situation. Regardless, we flagged down every bus that passed and asked the driver in broken Chinese, “Bus to Jianchuan??”. We weren’t sure of the timetables, so it could have been who-knows-how-long before the right bus came along. In the meantime, we ate at the dumpling restaurant several times. After about an hour and 20 dumplings, we managed board a bus that was going to Jianchuan.
Jianchuan Bus Terminal is a hub for buses going all over the province. Unfortunately, the hub wasn’t actually on our bus’s route, and the driver dropped us off on the side of the highway in Jianchuan before continuing on to Dali. This must be a common occurrence, because in less than a minute another bus swooped in to collect us, identifying us immediately as confused tourists. The new driver indicated in the direction of the bus terminal, so we agreed to go with him. After a 10-minute ride, and a few more Yuan, we arrived at the bustling bus terminal in Jianchuan. The driver pointed us towards a green minibus and said “Shaxi”, and, because we had given up all control of the situation, we just hopped right on without asking questions. It turned out to be the right call, because the bus was definitely going to Shaxi. The driver was waiting for the last few empty seats to fill up before departing, and within 20 minutes we were, at last, on our way. The road between Jianchaun and Shaxi was steep and windy and took about an hour.
Again, we were inexplicably dropped off on the side of the road, almost, but not quite, at our destination. We ended up having to walk about 2 km into downtown Shaxi and our hotel. Whew, what a day!
Video of the Trek
We put together a short video of the trek here!