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Expat's Eye
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UPDATED: June 8, 2013 NO. 24 JUNE 13, 2013
Tiger Leaping Gorge
By Thomas Sampson

SPECTACLE: Tiger Leaping Gorge in the rainy season (XINHUA)

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of China's best kept secrets. Boasting breath-taking views and epic hiking trails galore, it is a must see for anyone passing through or living elsewhere in the province.

The gorge begins where the raging rapids of the Jinshajiang River (a major tributary of the Yangtze) pass between the imposing twosome of Jade Dragon Snow and Haba Snow mountains. Both of these permanently snow-capped peaks are approximately 5,500 meters above sea level. Even a relatively laid-back hike along one of the well-paved trails can prove very demanding at that altitude, but it all feels worthwhile.

Whether you are exhausted because of the 10-hour bus journey or because of the mere prospect of what your hiking-crazy buddies have planned for your time in the gorge, you'll probably want to throw your bags down, grab a bite to eat and bask for a while in your new surroundings. Unless you plan to thrust yourself immediately into a several-hour hike to the nearest hostel, the best bet is to drive into the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge where you can touch base at Tina's Guesthouse. This part of the area is regarded by many to be the most splendid, though there are a large number of people who would point to the 28 Bends as the way to go to get the most out of your trip.

Perched 400 meters above the water below, tackling the 28 bends of Haba Snow Mountain is no walk in the park. It takes around three hours to complete the hike, which is 7 km in length. The trail is narrow at times, and hazardously slippery in wet weather. While you don't have to be super-fit or a daredevil to enjoy the 28 Bends—concentration and a reasonable level of endurance are required.

The spectacular views of the gorge below are truly mesmerizing, none more so than what can be seen from the window of the bathroom at the Halfway Guesthouse. You'd be hard pressed to find a more picturesque spot to do your business anywhere in the world. Sitting amongst and above the clouds, you can even see the rock 400 meters below, from where the mythical tiger leapt across the gorge.

It was hard to resist checking out the 28 Bends, but for this trip we decided to trek the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.

On the way down, we saw a sign that stated we should turn right for the safe path or left for the ladder. We looked at each other for a few seconds then looked back at the sign. We were definitely going to take the safe path. We came across the bottom of the ladder on our ascent back up the trail, and here there was no sign. We were already flailing in the heat, and one of us decided that he would rather climb the ladder to save some energy. We took one look up the ladder, which was around 15 meters in length, and appeared to be stuck into the rock with a combination of damp sticks and rusty screws. Ten minutes later, when the rest of us had huffed and puffed our way to the top of the ladder, we expected our fellow hiker to have already arrived. We peered down the ladder from above, and saw our man frozen to the spot, halfway up. Slowly and not so surely, our friend arrived at the top of the ladder and climbed up to where we stood. He looked as if he had seen a ghost and was visibly shaken. He was obviously surprised at how vulnerable he felt once he couldn't turn back, so keep that in mind when you reach this point. Our advice: If there is a "safe" option—take it.

The trail leads all the way down to the furious water below, where the true scale of the gorge and the ferocity of the river really become obvious. It's impossible not to feel tiny and insignificant in the presence of these surroundings and most people, us included, were speechless—the landscape is truly stunning.

Moving around in Tiger Leaping Gorge is not something that even the locals take lightly. As two friends and I gazed out of the window as we drove from the entrance, we spotted a car at the bottom of a terrifying cliff-side, smashed and beyond repair. The driver noticed as our jaws dropped.

"Some stupid driver from outside Yunnan Province was too complacent. Even though I know these roads inside out—if it's raining at night I don't even consider driving in or out. Rockslides are very normal and if you are not completely alert you can be swept down into the gorge in an instant. That's what happened to that guy…but you know what? He escaped without serious injury!"

To look at the distance the car had fallen was to find what we had just been told unbelievable. Sufficiently shocked, our conversation stopped abruptly and the next few minutes in the car were passed awkwardly. Before long, though, the irresistible allure of the sheer beauty we found ourselves immersed in had us hypnotized, and I struggled to think of anywhere else I'd rather be at that moment.

The author is a Briton living in China

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