The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a breathtaking (literally) trek in southwestern China. Around 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) in length, the gorge is located where the river passes between the 5,596m(18,360 ft) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the 5,396m (17,703 ft) Haba Snow Mountain in a series of rapids under steep cliffs. Its poetic name derives from a local legend about the tiger, that allegedly jumped the river at its narrowest point in order to escape from a hunter. I do not know if the bigger surprise is that the narrowest point is 25 meters wide, or that there were (and still are*) wild tigers in this area …
The journey started with peculiar series of unfortunate events (tropical diseases,kidnapping etc.), that I’ve tried to describe shortly, but somehow I produced a huge chunk of text instead. So if you are not interested in the pre-trip drama, go directly to the glorious ‘Hiking Day 1’ section (I’ll understand).
I. Pre-Trip Drama
This day was supposed to be intense but … quite uninteresting. The journey should take us about 24 hrs. Starting with a flight from Singapore (and the brand new Terminal 4! ?) to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, then few hours of downtime and lunch, next flight from Kuala Lumpur (or so-called ‘KL’) to Kunming in China, 3 hours to get from the airport to the railway station, night train from Kunming to Lijang, and finally a public bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou, where the trek starts. Phew!
The first on the list of unfortunate events was that Simon missed his flight… even though he showed up in the airport in time! How is that possible? Simon was the only person who booked v.early morning flight, about 2 hours before the rest of the gang. When Michal nobly drove him to the airport, they both make themselves comfortable at the Terminal 4, not realizing that Simon’s plane could take off from another terminal than ours … (in their defence- it was 6am). Fortunately, we had a long transfer time in KL so Simon got on the next plane and still arrived ahead of time for the next flight.
In the meantime, on our way to KL, the most prudent member of the whole group -Michao left his phone in the plane’s seat pocket , which had its consequences a little later that same day. Laughing at what a misfortune morning we had so far, we found Simon waiting at the gate to flight to China. It should go smoothly from here! Except that Simon did not look very good, claiming that he feels a bit sick. When we got off the plane in Kunming, he looked seriously ill and not just for us. The thermal imaging camera detected his fever and Simon was detained for a checkup …
After quite a long wait, several medical tests and negotiations with the officers, Simon was let go, but his face was deadly serious. Quick tests have detected an infection -possibly Malaria… What now? Should carry on and hope it is not as serious? Or should we assume the worst and fly Simon back..? The clock was ticking and after stormy discussions we decided to split into three groups: Eve&Alvaro will take Simon to a local hospital and find out if it really is malaria and if not then whether he can continue the trip. Me,Michao&Wen, and Sandeep, Gigi&Jeremy will go to the train station to pick up tickets and wait there for group 1. The problem was only that nobody in my group had roaming, internet data or Chinese applications (google, facebook and whatsapp do not work in China), except of Michal, but he lost it, remember? As we got into the taxi, we realized that there are several railway stations in Kunming, and in all this chaos we didn’t coordinated which one to go. And although in our taxi we had a Chinese-speaking Singaporean- Wen, it was quite difficult to communicate with our driver.
Not only were we not sure if we were going in the right direction, but suddenly our taxi drove off the highway and … stopped under the flyover. Not minding our slight shock, the taxi driver got out of the car without a word. After a while, another guy got in (also without a word). He looked very angry and unceremoniously moved off. Wen tried to talk to him in Chinese, but the only thing he snarled was that he knew where we were going …. After a few minutes of disbelief and suspicion that we’ve just been kidnapped … we decided to keep calm. In part because we were in a strange place and we did not know local customs, and partly because there was nothing we could do. . It turns out that all taxis in Kunming have robust metal bars installed to separate the driver form the passengers. Meanwhile, as usually in such moments – it started to get dark …
Over a dozen tense minutes later, we arrived at the train station, which turned out to be exactly the one we were looking for. We paid the correct amount of money. We found our friends right away, waiting for us at the entrance. Relieved and a bit ashamed, we went on to grab a quick dinner. Only after ordering at cheap local eatery, we noticed a poster with a sad face, indicating that this place got a C grade from local Food Administration… (on the scale from A to C, where A is safe and C is a health hazard).
Convinced that tomorrow will start with food poisoning, we returned to the station to pick up tickets. It would be quite difficult without our Chinese-speaking friend, because as you can see there were several windows for different purposes.
::: What a day! Traveling from the early morning, not knowing what is going on with our sick friend and with the night on the train ahead :::
When we got to the train, we could finally breathe a little. Until the last moment, we hoped that in a moment our friends from the hospital group would join us. Unfortunately, the train left on time, and Alvaro, Eve and Simon were not there. We convinced a nice Chinese lady to let us use Wechat (Chinese WhatsApp) to contact Eve. It turned out that 2 different hospitals could not help Simon, so he just returned to the airport, where he would catch the first available flight back to Singapore. Eve and Alvaro got on the next train so we would them meet only the next day.
II. Hiking – Day 1
When we arrived to Lijiang very early in the morning, it was still dark and freezing cold. We got 4hrs to kill before Eve and Alvaro would join us, so after dressing in all possible layers that we had with us, we sat back in the bistro at the station. It was just a little bit less cold than outside (there were no real door but rather a a curtain of plastic strips hanging from the doorframe). We would find out soon that for some strange reason heating it is quite uncommon in this area and the only way yo warm up is to wait till the morning sun rays.
::: 6 am at Lijiang Train Station :::
::: Only in China – beef noodle soup for breakfast :::
:::: Finally! Reunion with Eve and Alvaro after airport drama ::::
::: Due to wait for AlvEve we missed the bus, so we rent a van to get to the small town from which the trail begins :::
::: Even thought the driver was local, he had some difficulties finding the right way. Luckily he was did not mind asking the people around, such as this nice lady: :::
::: The symbolic leaping tiger in front of the ticket office in a small city of Qiaotou :::
::: Michal can’t wait to start the hike already:::
Of course, in a large group, nothing goes too smooth, so before we started the trek, a few people remembered that they do not have Chinese money so we returned to the nearby town to find an ATM
After a successful attempt to find an ATM, it was time for lunch, so we stopped in a colorful hostel along the way.
::: In the meantime, it got a bit warmer, so we did not miss the opportunity for a cold beer;) :::
::: After a short a night on the train, supercold winter morning and a van ride – ready for adventure! :::
Happy that we could exploit our van to the fullest we drove to the end of a dusty road, where public buses do not venture any more (and I suggest you do the same if you have a chance). The road was narrow, steep and without road shoulders or any interesting views. It would take us more than an hour of strenuous climb risking being ran over by the trucks coming up and down.
Using our van to the max, we have reached the end of a dusty road, (and if you have the opportunity to do the same).
::: The upper trekking route start! (29 hours after the departure from Singapore)? :::
::: For the next two days we were moving on our own legs, sleeping in hostels along the way :::
::: My first climbing trip where I did not have a comfy base to store my backpack and I had to carry it all the way 🙂 :::
:::: Landscapes from the very beginning were so epic that we stopped every 5 minutes to tak a pic! ::::
::: Surprise on the route – and one of my favorite moments of the whole
trip – tiny furry donkeys! <3 :::
:::: Stopping every 5 min to take a picture :::
::: The girl with the …mountain tattoo 😉 :::
After about 4 hours of hiking, we stopped at the beautiful Naxi Family Guesthouse for a quick rest (and another epic photo and video session of course …) :::
::: Alvaro aka my video director :::
::: Yes, this is a shopping bag (with snacks inside but still). Classic Alvaro who looked like he was going to a shopping mall, not a hiking trip in China ? :::
We spend way more time than we planned waiting for AlvEve, missing the bus, enjoying the lunch and some team members started to be anxious if we can make it to the first hostel before dusk. Michal even found a map on one of the guesthouse walls showing clearly that we didnt make even 1/3rd of the way. See the yellow arrow that the shadow point at? That’s the Naxi House where we were then. See the other one? That’s the Tea-Horse Guesthouse that we supposed to get to before the dusk. The problem was that not only we did not make it far, but that it was quite late and the most difficult part -the 28 bends, or that snake you see on the map – was still ahead…
Waiting for AlvEve, enjoying the beers and landscapes made us arriving at Naxi Family Guesthause quite late (~3.30PM) and some team members beginning to worry whether we would be able to reach our hostel before dusk. Michal found a map on one of the walls of the Guesthaus, clearly showing that we did not make even one third of the way. For illustration: the first yellow arrow, which Michao’s shadow points to, is the Naxi Guesthause. The second yellow arrow is Tea-Horse Guesthouse, which we should get to before 6:30PM. The problem was that not only did we not get too far, but the most difficult part – the 28 Bends (ie. this steep, winding snake on the map below), were still ahead of us …
With a of little scare we went ahead (WE will not succeed..??! So far everything went great;)!) When we were really tired and we were hoping for at least the majority of the 28 corners behind us, to my horror, we encountered a sign that 28 corners were just beginning …
Climbing a steep, snaky path, I was wondering if the route took its name from the number of corners, or was it an allusion to having to stop every few steps and bend over from exhaustion, trying to catch a breath of thin air..?
::: When you are somewhere deep in China, on the steep high mountain slope, with your head’s down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding and you can’t manage to suck in enough oxygen, thinking why are you doing this to yourself … :::
::: … but then your brain is flooded with endorphines and you feel the kind of happiness that only comes from utter physical exhaustion :::
If you are wondering if you are fit enough for this climb – I have good (?) news. Locals along the route are offering to rent their horses that will take you up the most difficult part of the route for you. Personally, I believe that the deadly 28 Bends can be done on your own you only have a enough time and perseverance (!).
:::The picture does look cool though:::
Looking through the pictures, I realized that I was too focused on taking the next step, that during the 2hrs hike up the killer 28 bends, I did not take ANY. I do not even recall any views other than my feet. So… let it stay a mystery and a motivation for you to see it by yourself ;)!
:::5.42PM, my effort was rewarded with great satisfaction and an amazing view <3 :::
::: A great test of fear of heights and a bird’s eye view of the Jinsha River, the upper stretch of the longest river in Asia – Yangtze River! :::
Sun was setting slowly, and yet another cheerful photoshoot we started to go ahead – down to our destination for a night. For the first time feeling quite optimistic that we will make it.
::: With the sun setting it started to be cold again :::
We reached the Tea-Horse Guesthouse triumphantly only 10 minutes after dusk. Only Michao started to suffer from something that seemed to be an altitude sickness *. The canyon at the maximum depth is about 3,790m from the river to the top of the mountain. This makes the Tiger Leaping Gorge one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world, but fast climbing in a short time without proper acclimatization can be dangerous if not you’re unlucky **.
* we were not sure if this was not the symptoms of regular flu. Besides we were consoled by the fact that the most important thing with such disease is descending from a dangerous height. In the case of this route, the top of 28 Bends is the highest point – then it only goes down almost all the way to the river.
** everybody reacts differently and even the most prominent climbers are not immune to altitude sickness.
In the next episode: the unbelievable view that we woke up to the next day AND the second day of hiking – did we manage to get to the legendary place that the tiger was supposed to leap from…?;)
PS. If you are wondering what happened to Simon – after returning to Singapore in a large hospital near the airport, a proper examination was finally done and it turned out that luckily it was not malaria but a milder and not life-threatening viral infection, so Simon quickly recovered.