Turning a serious hike into a casual stroll: Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Legend has it that a Tiger once took a giant jump and crossed the raging Yangtze river in southwest China to escape some other tigers that were hunting it. Modern tourist folklore says the gorge is the biggest in the world. It has snow-capped 5000m-plus peaks at its highest point and then it dips down into a ferocious murky-brown waterway that snakes its way through the dramatic mountains.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is famous in China and for good reason. The scenery left me uncharacteristically speechless at times and I found the mountains uncrowded, peaceful.
It’s a trekkers nirvana.
According to the charismatic middle-aged Italian man at our hostel in Lijiang, about three-hours from the trekking start point, you can do the trek in one day, “if you’re strong enough.”
I barely consider myself strong enough to carry my backpack through an airport, so it was obvious that Tiger Leaping Gorge was going to be slightly more recreational for me.
Plus, I had the Swedes to consider. Their Viking heritage definitely makes them strong enough to turn the lengthy walk into a short, exuberant jog. But, their penchant for baijiu, a local white, rice spirit, bought them back into line with my less-than-vigorous walking intentions.
Our preparations for the trek were as serious as a goldfish planning its next loop around the bowl. Two Snickers bars, a small bottle of baijiu, some toilet paper and a dodgy local map were all we’d need to carry with us, plus, of course, our backpacks.
Most of the other serious trekkers thought ahead and stored their large packs at a guesthouse at the start of the trek for 10 cents or some ridiculously nominal amount of Yuan. I’d been harbouring some porter-guilt since I’d loaded up Manbahdur in Nepal on the way to Everest. Carrying 16 kgs on my back seemed a good way to alleviate that, plus it’d be better than an uncoordinated gym class.
The final preparation for the hike was to find a few spanking-looking Chinese speakers to accompany us. We cleverly enlisted Yong, a fluent-Mandarin-speaking Thai man with a contagious laugh. He then sought out Yan Yan, Summer and Tem, three young Chinese girls to make up the team.
We spent an unreasonable portion of time thinking up an opriginal name for our crew. After deliberations which rivalled the enthusiasm an alcoholic shows at a brewery tour, we decided we’d be uniquely called ‘The Best Group’. In the interests of flexibility, which is essential on a casual stroll, we interchanged this with ‘The Best Team’, but only on special occasions.
Everyone was committed to taking the trek very slowly and basking in the scenery.
We set of in a flurry of goofy-grin-and-peace-sign photographs like typical Chinese tourists and began out ascent into the mountains that ridge the gorge. There were innumerable photo sessions over the course of the stroll.
A raft of rice paddies and other crops stretched along the banks at the beginning of the trek, but our vista soon changed to rugged mountains which dramatically dropped into the river. I was blown away by the sceney and especially how it has changed as I’ve traversed some of the mighty China.
Our first stop, the Naxi guesthouse, showed us the innate brilliance of our planning. The Chinese girls ordered for us. Sure, that may seem like I’m boasting about finding a snack size packet of chips while starving, but it was a welcome change after the animal-noise-based charades we’d been playing with many Chinese menus.
We were also invited to see the chicken being killed before it was boiled to make our delicious soup.
It’s a morbid sensation, to look your food in the eye before you eat, but I was more disturbed that the lady cut the chicken’s neck and let it bleed into the stream in the exact spot where I’d washed my face just moments before. The incident reminded me that recently, I said to one of the Swedes as I balanced on a train toilet with just one thong, “I did not come to China to be clean.”
That attitude toward cleanliness definitely applies to the bulk of this stroll.The food, of course, was delightful and we tried a few things I probably would have skipped over ordinarily. They do amazing things with potatoes and spices over here.
As for the chicken, the local and international preferences were perfectly complementary. The Swedes and I enjoyed the thighs, breasts and wings, while the girls devoured the heart, liver, kidneys, feet and even the chicken’s head with an enthusiasm I usually reserve for Mexican food.
We continued up the hill with very contented stomachs.
Then, we met the 28 Bends. I’d seen this squiggle on the dodgy map and wondered what it meant. After the 17th corner I realised it was the gruelling track to the peak of the hike at 2670 metres.
Yong and Summer cleverly hired horses so they could prevent breaking out in a sweat, the ultimate sin on a short stroll.
I, however, was in strolling hell with 16 kilos pulling me backwards like a dessert bar drags my plate away from my best intentions when I’m full.
The view at the top made the huffing and puffing worthwhile. I loved seeing rice paddies in one direction and mountains all around, some beautifully laced in reflective snow.
We arrived at the Tea Horse, our first stop, elated with our efforts, especially the feeling of honest physical exhaustion. The Swedes, of course, tucked into some well-deserved Baijiu and we slept a happy night in a stunning place. Clotrhed in the mountainous silence, it is one the few times I have felt truly peaceful in China.
After the four-and-a-half hours of strolling on day one, day two needed to be reined in. We all indulged in a mountain-air-induced sleep-in before we strolled through the valley for almost two hours to the Half Way House. (Ok, it was more like 90 minutes, but watches were frowned upon on our stroll.) The view here was in-your-face; it forced you to enjoy the nature and feel far from home, far from civilisation.
The Swedes, clever Vikings that they are, packed a sub-woofer and some speakers in their pack, so The Best Group moonlighted as The Party Machine.
On night two we got to know each other on a beer-fuelled level. After one drink the Chinese girls were speaking better English than the average Australia. Their earlier shyness and mouth-covered giggles were replaced with calls of “you’re so handsome” to the Swedes and “you such a beautiful girl,” to me. I was touched to get to know them and their quirks so well.
It was a raging night, definitely more suited to a stroller than a serious trekker. Mostly, I loved that we’d all lost our inhibitions enough to sing songs to each other from our native country. The Swedes blew us away with a ballad about a frog, in true Thai-stlye Yong sang about an elephant, I mimicked a kangaroo and sang ‘it’s because I love you’ by the Master’s Apprentices and the Chinese ladies gave us a selection of folk, pop and, of course, their national anthem.
To me, that’s the beauty of a long, relaxed stroll; I learned so much about a bunch of strangers I would have ordinarily passed in the street like I’d dismiss a shoe-shiner when I’m wearing thongs.
In the morning we made our own fun. I clumsily led the crew through a series of yoga poses which felt great against the mountain backdrop. We made a little band with a few beer bottles banging against each other, I meditated a little, but, generally, we just talked and laughed. I felt very contented as the mountains over-awed me with their stature.
It felt damn fine to be back in the Himalayas.
And then, it got better.
After another glorious sleep-in and two laxadasical hours of strolling through pine forests, past a secluded temple and alongside a selection of water falls, we arrived at Tina’s Guest House, a charmless establishment just above some of the Yangtze’s major rapids.
We indulged in another Chinese-ordered feast and set about our night-time task of getting to know everyone just that little bit more intimately.
Yan Yan, our 22-year-old lightly-built Chinese companion, scoffed the Baijiu as if it was an electrolyte drink in a cholera outbreak. “I love this stuff,” she’d say after knocking back a shot of the 52% liquor.
I cleverly chose to chase my baijiu with green tea. “That’ll stop any pesky hangovers,” I thought, rather optimistically.
But, indeed, after a night of dancing and singing and sharing sneaky stories, I was feeling like I’d been hit by a pelaton.
A quick bowl of fried rice had me back on the trail and we descended to the spot where the mythical tiger leapt across the rocks. By this time I was feeling incredibly relaxed about the entire trek and decided a summer dress and thongs would be appropriate. I was wrong.
The stroll down to the river bank included a few expeptionally steep ladders and some impressive precipices. At the bottom, however, I could rock-hop easily towards the raging water.
The rapid was mesmerising. The strength of the water coursing through the narrow gorge (it was about 20 metres across here) was evident as it splashed up the rocks. I chilled out even more gaxing at the water as it remained suspended briefly above the tumultuous pool. The Best Group sat there for a good hour and watched the water move through at a pace far more speedy than our own. We were impressed, I reckon, with the sight of the river and knowing that we’d walked for days, soaking in the atmosphere, to get to that spot.
The satisfaction was palpable.
In total, we had taken four days and three nights to walk about two thirds of the trek. Yes, we did not even get to the end point. A local laughed at me when I proudly boasted of the achievement.
My patience levels are at an all-time high, I reckon.
I can hear the old Italian guy calling me lazy in my daydreams. I prefer to say I’m laid-back, obviously.
On reflection, I reckon the pleasure I found in Tiger Leaping Gorge is not about doing it so slowly, but it rests solidly with having companions to sing along with on the trail.
Sure, it’s a nice place, but without nice people to stroll with, they’re just mountains.

6 thoughts on “Turning a serious hike into a casual stroll: Tiger Leaping Gorge.

  1. What a great write-up. I knew you would start having fun when you made some friends. you know, we’ve all been suffering from Blog-deprivation.

  2. Wow wee pen your descriptive writing had me imagining just what it was like on the trek, so easy to picture the snow capped mountains and raging rivers, what a great bunch “the best group” looks like I’m sure the entertainment value is priceless, gee I wish I could tag along and enjoy the ride. Keep on making the most of your adventure’s, toast a shot of Ricie goodness with a tea chaser for me, and of course keep on trekking “down- upp dowwn-upp”. Love u sis
    All good down under Callee and I r great were rockin the coast and thoroughly enjoy reading your thrilling cheeky adventure. XoXo

  3. Great story Pen,pleased to see you back and know the boots were the right choice, Are they waterproof against the raging torrents though?

  4. I’m so glad you took those hiking boots now Pen, a pair of doubles pluggers wouldn’t have done you any justice trekking those mountains! Keep those adventures coming, I love keeping up to date with your antics! love Cal x

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