I have seen few landscapes in China as breathtaking as Tiger Leaping Gorge. Formed over millennia by the eroding power of gushing water, the canyon stretches 15 kilometers through China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. The name comes from a legendary tiger that is said to have jumped across the gorge long ago. On the day of our visit, we were greeted by vivid blue skies punctuated with wispy white clouds – a far cry from the often-polluted Shanghai skyline we are used to. The Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze, was as smooth and clear as green-tinted glass. Towering cliffs rise 3,900 meters on both sides at the gorge’s deepest point, and snow-capped mountains grace the not-too-distant horizon. It’s easy to see why this protected area is a part of the Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The gorge is divided into three areas for visitors – the upper, middle and lower sections. We went to the lower section which is the most easily accessible from Lijiang. A paved path has been carved out of the rocks so if you are keen on actual trekking, the lower section might not be for you. I’ve read that it takes several days to hike the entire length of the gorge and that guesthouses dot the path. We were content just to stroll along for the afternoon, taking in spectacular scenery. It took us just over an hour to walk to the viewing platform, the lower section’s turnaround point, with frequent photo stops along the way. The platform is perched over roaring rapids and is reached by a steep staircase. If you are unable (or uninterested) in walking there or back, extraordinarily strong men are on hand to pull you in a rickshaw. Tickets for the lower section cost 50 kuai per person (about 8 USD).
The First Bend of the Yangtze
A stop worth making on the way to the gorge is an overlook of the Yangtze River’s first bend. The river makes a 180 degree turn, changing direction dramatically from south to north. The 20 kuai entrance fee is a small price to pay for the sweeping views of the countryside replete with terraced fields and ancient villages. Bonus: there is a decent bathroom in the sad little museum on the grounds. Look for the bored guards sitting out front in folding chairs.
It is possible to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge in a day-trip from Lijiang. Although just 60 kilometers from the city, it took us about two and a half hours each way thanks to the poor condition of some of the roads. At least the rich scenery along the way was compensation as we bumped unceremoniously along, holding on tight to our seats which lacked safety belts. We rented a Lijiang blue minivan taxi for the day at a cost of 400 kuai (about 66 USD), and would probably spend the extra 200 kuai for an SUV if we had it to do again. Note that the blue minivans will only take visitors to the lower section of the gorge. We were told we could join a Chinese tour group for a hike along the gorge’s middle section for 200 kuai per person, but we opted for the freedom to go at our own pace.
Food options are very limited at the gorge. Our driver discouraged us from visiting the restaurant at the gorge itself and took us to an open air establishment en route. We entered through the kitchen and were instructed to choose our ingredients from a rack of bowls sitting on the floor which would be cooked to order. A whole fish was 200 kuai (about 33 USD) and the meat looked questionable at best, so we went vegetarian for this meal. Though serviceable, we were grateful to have brought along bags of strawberries and cookies for the ride. You might not want to eat much anyway because that will lead to a trip to the restroom. China’s toilets are notoriously “challenging” by Western standards, but the ones at the gorge were a stretch even for me. Luckily I managed to eke out a moment of privacy, with hubby standing guard outside. Privacy seems less valued in this society, but this gal would still like a door!
Is a Tiger Leaping Gorge hike on your bucket list?