Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

It’s been very quiet around here recently. With almost two months off work (thank you university job!) I’ve been on, not one, but two holidays sans laptop, therefore forgetting all about this corner of the Internet for a while! Most recently, I had 3 glorious weeks in the UK where I filled every gap between visiting family and catching up with friends, stuffing myself with carbs and chocolate.  Having been back in China for just under a week, with a day of kindergarten teaching already under my belt, it really feels like I have never been away!

Prior to my trip home I enjoyed an amazing 2-week adventure around China’s Yunnan Province. In the planning pipeline for months, it was an incredible trip which more than lived up to expectations and provided plenty of fodder for this here blog…should I ever actually get round to writing about any of it.

One part of the trip which absolutely must be written about however, is Tiger Leaping Gorge. Literally the first picture I saw when I cracked open my China Lonely Planet many, many months a go, Tiger Leaping Gorge and all it’s snowy peak and dramatic cliff glory has been at the top of my must-see list ever since.

Like almost every other traveller who, like us, opts to hike the gorge over 2 days rather than take the easy and exceedingly crowded option of being bussed through, our trip began in the small and rather grotty town of Qiaotou. Grey and industrial, its place as a gateway to the gorge is literally the only reason to ever go there. Having journeyed from Shaxi, about 2 hours south of the town, we arrived ridiculously early in the day due to our own lack of clarity about how easy it was to make that particular journey. Not setting off on our hike until the next day, we spent several long hours huddled by a fire at Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse. Having expected basic accommodation, Jane’s managed to surprise even our low-expectations by being considerably dirtier and more depressing than we had anticipated. They did however have electric blankets and a hilariously angry pug so not all bad! Despite our rather dismal surroundings, that night honestly felt like Christmas Eve, my levels of excitement had become so ridiculous.

The next morning, armed with backpacks mainly comprised of Snickers bars and Oreos we set off. After 2.5km walking along the paved road, we came to a dusty track leading off to the gorge’s high trail. This track was steep and only led onto even steeper things. Having surprised myself with my levels of endurance during our Gongga Shan trek I had rather optimistically hoped that my fitness levels would be just-about-OK for this particular walk. It didn’t take long for me, my lungs and my legs to realise that actually, I was still hideously unfit and that it was going to be a bloody hard slog. Scrambling up over rocks, high quantities of sugary snacks were consumed regularly as I struggled to not lie down every few meters. Thankfully the views as we gained ground were more than enough motivation to keep going as the promise of the gorge opening out in front of us loomed closer.

A couple of hours in we hit the infamous 28 bends. Described in the Lonely Planey as being a gruelling series of switchbacks that even seasoned hikers find exhausting I had been slightly dreading it. Particularly after spending 2 hours gasping up trails, the whole time thinking ‘Oh my God, the 28 bends are only going to be worse, I really might die!’ In actual fact, whilst very steep and slightly demoralising at times to zig-zag back on yourself it wasn’t much harder than some of the earlier sections we had covered. And although I admittedly had to stop at around bend 17 because I thought I might actually black out, we made good progress and got through them in under an hour!

Reaching the top, looking out over the gorge we were treated to some of the most beautifully dramatic, and vertigo inducing, scenery I have ever seen.  Standing there, looking at landscape so wonderful I was reminded just how privileged I am to have had this ‘China chapter’ for the last year and a bit – something that had been a little too easy to forget towards the end of 2015 as the work-study-sleep monotony set in.

Thousands of pictures taken, we headed on following the now, mercifully, much flatter trail as it wound along the side of the gorge. Our destination was the inaccurately named Halfway Guesthouse, actually over two-thirds of the way through the gorge and we arrived, more than ready for a cold beer, in the late afternoon. Having read less than flattering reviews of the place online and expecting another Jane’s experience, we could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Basic but clean and with the most spectacular views imaginable, I could not recommend it highly enough. We ate dinner that night with a group of fellow hikers, enjoying a couple more well-deserved beers before retiring to bed with pretty sore legs!

The next morning we knew we had a much shorter walk ahead of us so enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before donning our backpacks and setting off. With my legs suffering from the day before, there was thankfully only a little bit of climbing. Instead the majority of that day’s walking was spent negotiating the steep descent back down to the road – this time it was my knees rather than thighs that were screaming for mercy! Ever a glutton for punishment, when we reached Tina’s Guesthouse – the final destination for lots of hikers – we opted to push on to Walnut Garden, rightfully billed as a far more picturesque alternative to the concrete blocky, rather bleak Tina’s. We made this last part of the journey via Middle Gorge, descending yet further down towards the river where we could see the infamous stone from which the tiger is said to have leapt across the gorge, giving the place its name.

With my puny little legs already having endured quite the hike, the last push back up out of the gorge to our home for the night, Sean’s Guesthouse, absolutely finished them off. Within about 2 minutes of sitting down with our obligatory post-check-in beer, they seized up and sentenced me to a solid 2 days of hobbling around like an eighty year old. However, it’s safe to say that limited mobility was entirely worth it. The whole experience of walking the gorge was incredible and having been slightly worried that I had perhaps hyped it up too much it surpassed my expectations! In short, I should always trust in the Lonely Planet – there’s a reason the gorge is featured on one of its first pages!

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