Following some handy advice from his fellows at Bamboo Compass, Miller decided to turn a vaguely formed idea for a Qingming trip to Dali or something into a seven-day trip to Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is how he got on hiking the gorge, sandaled and blistered.>>>
Waking up early was easier than I thought. I had forgotten to turn down the volume of my phone and the ensuing panic to turn off the loud noise emanating from beneath my pillow ensured I was so fully awake that there was no chance I'd mindlessly turn off my phone and go back to sleep. I gingerly exited the room with my belongings, trying not to wake the other people in the dorm, though the rumbling growls coming from the big guy on the bottom bunk was enough to drown out almost anything.
The walk from the Mama Naxi Guesthouse [Gǔchéng Xiānggéyùn Kèzhàn, 古城香格韵客栈; (86 888) 510 7713] No. 3 where I was staying to No. 1 where I could grab breakfast and the bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge was a short one. It was around 7am and Lijiang Old Town was serenely quiet and bathed in a white morning light. I ate breakfast with two other travelers, Dairmuid and Dennis, while the baby of one of the guesthouse staff toddled about from one toy or object of interest to another. As we left another traveler, bag on and ready to go, arrived for some breakfast before the next bus departed.
Just outside the old town, we joined another fifteen or twenty travelers on the bus as it rumbled through Lijiang New Town and into the mountains. Along the road, another raised highway was being built, which appeared to go up and over the mountain turns that we wound around. I zoned out listening to an enthusiastic conversation between Dairmuid and Dennis behind me about a pilgrimage trek through Spain. Villages, mountains and rivers rumbled by and the scenes they discussed and the ones I saw began to blend together. Eventually, I joined in the conversation with the two as it wound its way to topics I was more familiar with.
Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge: Start of the Trail
After stopping to buy tickets (RMB 50; RMB 25 for students under 24) and passing the First Bend of the Yangtze River, we arrived just past Jane's Guesthouse [Xiágǔ Xíng Kèzhàn, 峡谷行客栈; (86 887) 880 6570] where the high trail for the section known as the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge (Zhòng Hǔtiào Xiá, 中虎跳峡) starts. The group of eight we'd put together over the course of the bus ride dwindled down to myself, Diarmuid and Dennis after the others went ahead while we waited for Dennis to leave his things at Jane's Guesthouse.
He returned with a bag that looked no smaller but, he assured us, was much lighter having left everything he wouldn't need for the next two days. Getting started some 20-40 minutes later, we had the gently sloping trail to ourselves. The first part is paved and also serves as a road for locals farming on the side of the mountains. As the road went higher, we moved onto a dirt trail and the massive peaks of the Yulong Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) range rose up ahead and to our right across the gorge. Locals were no doubt used to hikers passing along the trail, but we made a somewhat odd-looking group: Dennis was outfitted with branded hiking gear, boots and a hat; I had the bag and pants right, but paired with sandals because of a blister on my heal and half worn socks to keep the sun off my feet; Diarmuid was barefoot and had a plastic bag with a few things slung over his back, using his sweater as a strap.
We stopped to rest at a school, one of the first spots marked on most maps of the trail given out by hostels and tour groups. It looked deserted. The simple building framed one side of a basketball court and several shattered beer bottles lay in the grassy yard. We slowly picked up the shards while enjoying the view and wishing we had a ball.
Two hours later we stopped at the first guesthouse on the trail, the Naxi Family Guesthouse [Nàxī Kèzhàn, 纳西客栈; (86 887) 880- 6928]. Sitting down in the courtyard of the traditional-style home, we were presented with English and Chinese menus and settled down to eat. It was late afternoon, around 3pm, and Dennis was tired and ready to stop at a guesthouse for the evening but I needed to get moving if I was to make it far enough to do the whole trek in two days and get back to Lijiang. Diarmuid wasn't quite decided. Our stalemate was broken when Karen, the girl who'd arrived for breakfast as we left, arrived with four more hikers.
The 30 Bends of Tiger Leaping Gorge
Leaving my previous companions behind, I joined the new group in the hopes of making it to the Halfway Guesthouse [Zhōngtú Kèzhàn, 中途客栈; (86 887) 139 8870 0522], which is famed for (among other things) having a fabulous bathroom view. The next section of the trail was a series of switchbacks known, depending on who you ask, as the 24 Bends, 28 Bends or 30 Bends (24-30 Dàoguǎi, 道拐). The steep switchbacks quickly take the trail up the side of the mountain and are considered by some to be one of the hardest parts of the trail.
Passing locals tempted us with horse, donkey and mule rides, offers that until then wouldn't have seemed tempting, but the thought of swaying up the steep, narrow paths on the back of a large animal now seemed more attractive. We never counted the bends, not wanting to hear how far we hadn't made it yet. Conflicting numbers were spray painted on rocks advertising guesthouses down the trail. Somewhere not terribly near the top a passerby with a mule told us we had twenty more to go. Not a bad sales pitch.
While wearing thong sandals with half-worn socks hadn't stopped me from taking the bends, it did get tricky on the way down, so I ditched my dust-covered socks, considering it was late enough and I was unlikely to get too sunburned. The trail then shifted from a slow, downward incline to switchbacks as steep as the 20-30 Bends. It eventually evened out around the Yacha Village (Yachā, 呀叉) and around an hour after the Bends, we arrived at the Tea Horse Guesthouse [Chámǎ Kèzhàn, 茶马客栈; (86 887) 139 8871 7292]. It was well after 7pm and we decided to stay—a wise decision considering how quickly it got dark afterwards.
After soaking my dust-covered feet in a foot bath of tea which was free and didn't in any way undermine my masculinity, I joined my fellow travelers for a delicious meal. Having enjoyed the beautiful view of the sun going down opposite the Yulong Xue Shan peaks, Dominic, who along with me was taking the bulk of photos in our group, asked one of the girls working at the hostel what time the sun came up. "八点半," she replied. "8:30? Really?" "By the time the sun breaks over the peaks, it's 8:30," she explained. Any earlier and the sun would be on the other side of the mountains.
The Best Bathroom View Ever: Halfway Guesthouse
After a good night's sleep, we woke up for our late sunrise and ate breakfast before setting off. Day two of the trek proved to be significantly easier than day one. The trail stayed relatively level between the Tea Horse Guesthouse and the Halfway Guesthouse where we ate lunch and a light on-and-off mist of rain cooled us down. Though it had never been hot and was even a bit chilly when we stopped, we all got a little over-heated hiking. At the front of our group was Jisa who kept us at a quick pace, while I helped keep up the rear with my frequent picture taking.
Around each bend was yet another stunning view of the sheer rock faces across the gorge. Somehow between Jisa driving us on and me slowing us down, we made it to the Halfway Guesthouse before lunch. The view at the Tea Horse Guesthouse had been amazing, but the view from the Halfway Guesthouse was something else. And we all made a point to see if what they say about the bathrooms was true. Despite it being a squatter trough you flush with a cup of water from a bucket, it really lived up to the hype.
The trail from there on continued to be easy, even as it climbed. Here, the peaks on the opposite side were even more dramatic and the landscape more beautiful. Before the trail descended to Tina's Guesthouse, where most people take a van or bus back to Lijiang, we crossed a beautiful waterfall that broke over the trail and continued down the mountainside. We lost Dominic and Jisa at Tina's (they were ready to head back), and the remaining three (Karen, Hugh and Sam) and I decided to take the short trek down to Middle Tiger Leaping Rock (Zhōng Hǔtiào Shí, 中虎跳石), from where the eponymous tiger is said to have leapt.
After paying an RMB 10 fee that we may or may not have needed to pay, we took the trail down for an hour or so, or as far as Karen and Hugh were willing to go. While the drop from the mountain trail into the gorge had been higher, the drop here was steeper and more noticeable, so Sam and I continued on without our companions another 20 minutes until we reached the Sky Ladder (Tiān Tī, 天梯), which dropped 50 m (164 ft) or so opposite a steep trail that used tight switchbacks to descend. Getting down the trail, over to the rock and back up the ladder would take another 20-30 minutes and leave the others waiting, so we decided to head back. When we got back up to Tina's Guesthouse it was time to part ways: Karen went on to Shangri-La and I headed back with Hugh and Sam to Lijiang where we enjoyed a few beers at the pub Stone the Crows a bit too late into the night (considering I had an early bus to Kunming the next morning).