I had a strange reason for wanting to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge ( Hǔtiào Xiá 虎跳峡). A part of my desire was simply to understand the disconnect between its popularity among foreigners and it’s almost unknown status among Chinese. When talking about my winter plans to my colleagues, none of them had heard of this supposedly incredibly hike. They knew every other major spot in Yunnan, but no one had heard of a hiking trail through the largest gorge in the world. May of them hadn’t even heard of the gorge. They all pulled out their cellphones and searched for it, trying to understand where I wanted to go.
Even young Chinese travelers that I met in Yunnan hadn’t heard of it. Yet, back in the US before I moved to China I had read articles and blogs calling this a top China bucket list item. Lonely Planet calls it, “the unmissable trek of Southwest China”. So, why wasn’t this popular with Chinese?
Yunnan in the Winter
Yunnan province, in southwestern China is known as the land of eternal spring. Locals will tell you that the sun shines year round and the weather is ideal in the winter. It’s the perfect time for a high intensity, multi-day hike.
The previous year, some of my Peace Corps friends set out to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. Seeing that it was winter, they packed long hiking pants and layers. They did the arduous hike in two days, overnighting at a hostel along the way. The elevation, with the direct sunlight, was intense and they finished the hike with a sunburn as their only souvenir. When I asked for their advice for the hike the only thing they stressed was to bring a hat, lots of sunscreen and shorts.
Fast forward a year, and here I was staying in Lìjiāng 丽江, the major city closest to the start of the hike. I was a bit nervous for my first overnight solo hike in China, so I had meticulously prepared my hiking bag with everything I would need. I packed hydration salts, sunscreen for my body, face and lips, a hat, SPF45 hiking shirt and shorts. A fresh pair of socks and underwear for day two. I had Cliff bars sent in my Christmas care package from the US. I was ready.
I woke up early on the first day of the hike in order to catch a shared van to the base of the hike two hours away. Looking out the window of my guest house I saw this:
A rare snow storm had hit Lìjiāng overnight and didn’t show signs of stopping.
As much as I was looking forward to hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, I knew that hiking in a snowstorm wasn’t a great idea and it was even worse considering I was alone and unprepared for snow. I put on the one sweater that I had, pulled on my winter jacked (which I almost didn’t bring on the plane with me to Xīshuāngbǎnnà, but was now so grateful for) and promised myself I would go buy more clothing soon.
Luckily for me, I was still able to experience Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Taking the Low Road
At this time in my not-so-solo journey around Yunnan, I was traveling with three young Chinese friends. They, of course, had no plan to hike tiger leaping gorge and didn’t actually even know that there was an overnight hike through the area. Instead, we waited until the weather and the roads cleared up considerably and we drove to the base of the gorge.
Guide books will tell you that there’s two options: you can take the northern trail that runs through small villages, winds its way uphill through the infamous ’28 bends’ and requires you to spend at least one night along the way. The second option is a low road through the base of the gorge. It’s unflattering description everywhere from Lonely Planet to Wiki Travel (referenced below) probably turns off most foreign visitors:
“a flat tour-tourism artificial walking street that runs near the water on the right side of the river. It is slightly boring but it has the advantage of catching all the Gorge in 2 hours…”
Taking this route was my only option. I wasn’t going to risk a shared van ride with a (potentially) dangerous driver to take me to a starting point where I might or might not be stuck in the snow. I didn’t want to get injured hiking along on an ice covered path. I also didn’t want to risk trying to wait it out since the weather forecast wasn’t looking great for the next few days. So, the four of us piled into our car and cautiously set out.
With the snow still falling in wet clumps that soaked our clothes and chilled us to the core, we began the 2 hour walk. I wouldn’t describe the scene as ideal, but I sure didn’t regret my decision not to hike the high road. The paved surface was covered in a sheer layer of ice and we constantly risked falling- I couldn’t image how slick the trail must have been.
The nice thing about taking the low road on this particular day was that the thick storm clouds covered the tops of the mountains around us making for a dramatic view. It must have been one of the few days in which the view from in the bottom was better than the view from above. Also, the storm had scared off most visitors and the path was joyfully empty.
By not actually completing the hike, I felt like I wan’t able to really delve into the mystery of why this place doesn’t hold the same cache for domestic tourists as it does international. But, I particularly enjoyed getting to see what young Chinese travelers do when they visit Tiger Leaping Gorge- without worrying about the hike and all of the preparation the talk focused on what it usually does in China- where to eat dinner.
Note: several of my friends traveled to Yunnan about 3 weeks after my experience. They reported sunshine and high temperatures and were shocked to hear about the fluke snowstorm. Lesson of the story: if you go in the winter, be prepared for anything.
What do you think, why isn’t the TLG hike as popular with Chinese tourists as it is with foreigners?