Tiger Leaping Gorge
The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek (虎跳峡; Pinyin: Hu Tiao Xia), near Lijiang in Yunnan, is one of the finest treks through some of the most naturally beautiful and diverse landscapes China has to offer. The trail runs high on the northern side of the gorge passing through quiet villages, shady forest, blustery precipice and verdant terraced farmland. The snow covered peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山; YuLong XueShan; 5596m) and Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山; Haba Xueshan, 5396m) shadow either side of the gorge.
An open ended ticket to the trail is ¥65 (as of April 2012) (¥25 for students under 25) purchased from the ticket booths at either end of the trail. Some trekkers have avoided the entry fee by setting off early before the ticket booth opens or sneaking past when the guard is out.
Typically the hike is spread over two days (one and half - three day) but a slower pace will afford you to time contemplate the natural surrounds and unwind in the villages quietude.
The trail stretches between Qiaotou and Walnut Grove, the more adventuresome types can continue to Daju or Baishuitai. Maps showing distances and guesthouse locations are available from the ticket office.
A little used side-trail to a remote waterfall just outside Walnut Garden is not shown on most maps but is marked with yellow arrows. The path is a challenging but worthwhile detour, passing through shady stands of bamboo to the base of the waterfall where the crashing water flows into a series of tranquil water pools.
If you prefer to visit without any (strenuous) hiking, a road along the south side of the gorge enters from the west and goes for a couple kilometers before stopping at a parking lot. After that there is a fairly level paved trail to Upper Tiger Leaping stone. Tours can be arranged in Lijiang or you can try to hire a driver to take you as a day trip from Lijiang, though drivers from Lijiang are not allowed to cross the river as that's outside their allowed territory.
If you want to avoid any hassles of figuring out your own transportation and directions you can go with a guide and a group from Lijiang for about ¥500 (covers transport, one night lodging, and any fees; no food).
There are a few ATMs in Qiaotou; however, they are only likely to take Chinese bank cards. The best idea would be to take the money you require for your time at Tiger Leaping Gorge from an ATM in Lijiang, to be on the safe side. There are no ATMs at any point along the trail.
Keep in mind that there are 2 completely different options to visit the Gorge. One is the high trekking trail accurately described below starting in Qiaotou, running on the left side of the river (as coming from Lijiang). The other is 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 with 50. Most of the local 'guides' will lead you to it.
A misleading fake path before the school forks off at a brick wall painted with fading arrows. People may tell you it is the right way, but stay on the road to the school. (If the road to the school is under construction you may have to take this one. Don't worry, you'll get to the right place eventually.)
About 20km, and 7 hours, later at Tina's there is a trail down to the river. You can come back up to Tina's two ways - Tianti (the heavenly ladder), or Teacher Zhang's trail - or take a trail that goes a little way down the river before coming back up a little farther down the road.
From Tina's GH / Zhang GH, you can go down the middle gorge but the now (May 2013) charge 60¥ for it. Luckily there's an alternative, just walk over the bridge and at the next building after Bridge Cafe there's only a 10¥ charge. The descend is not easy and has several ladders. It's absolutely worth it, but if you are afraid of heights don't do it. You can come back up (no need to pay again) or continue to Walnut Grove by turning left at the last hut before the Tiger Leaping Rock. It's an impressive cut along the sheer cliff.
Bus from Lijiang or Shangrila should be about ¥35. They start from north gate Lijiang and drop you off at Qiaotou. You can rent the blue minivan for around RMB250 per van that can sit 7 people (excluding driver). Just make it clear to the driver that you are going to Qiaotou if you are doing the hike. Otherwise, they might bring you to the tourist viewing platform at upper Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Buses to Lijiang or Shangrila should be around ¥55. They depart from Tina's at 8AM, 1PM and 4PM. You will see signs along the hike advertising a ride from Sean's GH in Walnut Grove to Lijiang at 330PM. However, this bus does not run everyday and should not be relied upon if planning to hike from middle gorge to Walnut Grove.
Get down to previous intersection if you want to check town and local market Get up to next crossing and turn right to reach entrance of the park (and the counter)
Some locals in Lijiang will insist that this hike is dangerous, especially in rainy season. You probably will not want to go when it is pouring, or if there has been a huge amount of recent rain due to the threat of landslides, but if it hasn't been that wet lately, and you find a couple of dry days and are reasonably experienced at hiking, the worst that will happen is that you will get muddy and have to ford a couple of swollen cascades.
The instant you step off the bus in Qiaotou touts will insist you take their mini-van to the ‘start of the trail’ (for ¥120+ one way) but they should be politely ignored. The real start of the trail is a 2 minute walk over the bridge and down the first road on the right.
On the trail there are endless efforts of varying legitimacy to help you part with your cash. At regular intervals old women, young girls and sundry others will demand small fees for using optional parts of the path. Some, such as the descent to the river below Tina's guest house, are particularly annoying, as you'll be asked for money at what seems like every step of the way, with an elaborate story to explain the cost. There is a 10 Yuan fee to hike down to the Tiger Leaping Stone, and another 10 Yuan fee if you choose to take the ladder trail back up. Locals will attempt to charge you fees to use the rocks as photo ops, but ignore them and take the trail to the building downstream, visible from the stream. The views are much better from there.
Nearing the most difficult part of the trail (the twenty-eight steep switchbacks), local men with horses or donkeys who will offer to take you part way for a fee. They will charge anywhere from ¥150-300, regardless of where on the trail you decide you want to use their services. If you feel the need to have the accomplishment of doing the hike on your own two feet, they can help you by taking your bag for about ¥50.
Some guesthouses may try to mislead you about your hiking options. Tina's guesthouse has been known to insist that while you may descend to the river below, you must hike back up, and may not continue along the river to Walnut Grove - one of the most spectacular sections of the trail. While this part of the gorge has its charm, some feel it is not an essential part of the trek and could be skipped, though some emphatically disagree.
However if you go out of season (Late March for example) many of the money collecting posts will be unattended and you'll be free to take advantage of the vistas without being harassed.
Sleep and Eat
Numerous family run guesthouses are conveniently dotted along the trail. Prices rise during the peak periods but outside of these times guesthouses are cheap and blissfully quiet. Qiaotou has a handful of comfortable hotels but there is little reason to stay. Starting the walk at midday leaves ample time to reach Naxi Guesthouse or push on to 5-Fingers Guesthouse.
Qiaotou town has also some hotel but with very limited english speaking staff, no trek informations and not so competitive price against guesthouses on the trek.
In (average) time and distance order from Qiaotou along the high trail.
Before leaving Lijiang/Qiaotou/Daju, be sure you have enough water for the first part of the hike. On the way, there are no shops, but on the trek there are occasional vendors selling fruits, water and beer. Prices vary, but fruit will be ¥2-3 per piece. Guesthouses charge ¥5 per 1.5-litre bottle of water. Between Naxi's GH and highest peak is a shop (artistic use of Red Bull cans) where you can buy a variety of things. Don't count on open shops and present vendors in low season, make sure you bring sufficient supplies from Qiaotou or Nuòyú.
Get in, Get out
From Lijiang: Morning buses to Qiaotou (桥头), ¥35, 2hrs, leave from the bus station, stopping to pick up passengers at the new Southern Bus station down the road. Get to Bus station from city centre by bus no.13. Make sure you only pay for going to Qiaotou if you plan to hike the upper gorge. They might sell you a more expensive ticket to "Tiger Leaping Gorge" but that would take you past the start of the trail.
To/from Qiaotou/Walnut Garden: Minivans do the 45min trip between either end of the trek. The cost should be ¥120 for the entire van. Drivers will ask for more. In Walnut Garden, Tibet Guest House provides transport at RMB350/van (fit 7 people) directly to Lijiang. Sean's also offer transport to Lijiang/Shangri-la. So there's really no reason why you need to travel to Qiaotou just to catch a separate bus/van to go to Lijiang/Shangri-la, if you plan to hike the middle TLG.
From Shangrila: You can pick any bus to Kunming, Lijiang and Dali, there is a bus at least every hour. About 30y.
If you are heading north to Zhongdian (Shangrila) or coming from there, there is an alternative road via Haba. It is a longer but quieter with fantastic mountain landscapes. The tarmac is very good for bikes. You can think about doing some camping along this road:
Walnut Garden to Daju If you are in Guesthouse as Sean's, that means you are in the middle of the trek. Walk down the low road 3 hours past a small town (三坝乡; Sanba village) near the Yangtze river. Near the river you will see paths across the Yangtze river leading down to the river itself, with a shed and real staircase heading down to the river. Roads are constantly changing here and being constructed, there is currently a gentle car dirt trail down to the river, opt for this option rather then the goat trail. Better is to ask locals, even if you don't know chinese, just ask for "Daju" and point opposite bank of the river. They will show you how get down to ferry pier.
First ferry departure at 10AM, than every few minutes. The price depends on how many people is on the board and if you know some chinese. The most locals is on the first ferry - cheaper!!! (5Y per person), later could be 20Y!
Daju to Lijiang If you are coming from Qiaotou over whole gorge or from Sean's of Walnut garden, you got to the river bank with ferry. After you cross the ferry, there might be two buses a day departuring to Lijiang, first at 1PM, 30Y(?) per person. If you arrive soon, you can walk a bit to forward Daju because bus will stop by every guesthouse or shop on the way through village. The village is really long! (not sure where it starts and finish. there is just a lot of houses by the road) When you get on the bus, it will stop a lot and soon will be full of locals going just a few kilometers with goods, vegetable or whatever from place to place.
Along with a bus there should be a private minivan bus hustler. From here they take you on a road back to Lijiang, about 3 hours.
Lijiang to Daju For some reason there is no regular bus departuring from Lijiang bus station to Daju. You can find minivan who will take you there and you can do trek from opposite side and finish in Qiaotou.
Daju is a sleepy concrete town which you can use as one end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge walk. It seems like Daju is slowly becoming a ghost town as tourists numbers are declining, but despite the fact Daju isn't picturesque, it is a peaceful place to relax and the people are very friendly (the Tiger Leaping Gorge Inn, at one end of the concrete road and overlooking the town square, is run by a very helpful and friendly woman who speaks enough English to get by - her food is simple but delicious).
From a Qiaotou start, just keep walking down the road from Walnut Garden and past the ticket office. There are two options for crossing the river to the Daju side. Either keep walking down to the permanent ferry, or not too far out of Walnut Garden you'll see a coloured sign on a pole to the winter ferry. It will tell you the ferry doesn't operate in July, August, and September because the water is too high (hence you continue to the permanent ferry). At this sign (there is also a faded red arrow painted on the road) you turn directly right off the road and start descending down a dirt trail to the river. This trail is quite steep. As you're descending you'll see the ferry and a hut on the far side of the river.
It's a steep but short climb to the carpark at the top of the cliff and if you've nodded when the ferryman said something about "Daju" and "minivan" he'll be right behind you and will drive you to Daju for ¥20 per person. Alternatively you can walk the about 8km into town.