You know that one thing you’ve always wanted to do, the place that has been on your list of places to go ever since you first found out about it? And for some reason or another you’ve just never gotten there until it’s 10 or 20 years later and you still haven’t done it.
For me, that was Tiger Leaping Gorge.
From the time I first read about it back in 2005 I knew I needed to go. A 22km hike along a gorge where the mountains rise 3800m above the river sounds quite spectacular but for some reason, despite two month-long trips to China since then, I still didn’t get to Tiger Leaping Gorge. There was just so much else to see, so many other places to go.
But finally, finally, I found myself heading through the right area. This was my chance! I met a couple of lovely ladies to go with, we booked our transportation and packed our stuff carefully and headed off.
And it rained.
When you’ve anticipated a trip or an activity for so long you don’t expect it to rain. It just can’t. It’s not possible.
But it is possible. It does happen. It did rain on me in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
It started off dry, but the threatening clouds up above told us it wouldn’t last. It wasn’t too long before the drizzle started, and then grew heavier. We’d thought ahead and brought plastic ponchos with us, so we stopped at a stand on one of the path’s curves to put them on.
The woman running the stand didn’t like us. In fact, I don’t think she liked anyone, unless the person happened to be spending a pile of money on her overpriced Cokes and snacks. She certainly did not want me standing under her shelter to put my rain poncho on, and she let it be known.
Arguments ensued, leaving me cranky, not just because of her but because I don’t handle things well when it’s raining and I have to be out in it. I too often let the rain dictate my activities, and had my friends and I had an extra day to spare I probably would have suggested waiting out the rain in favour of going on a sunny day.
But there we were, on the side of a mountain overlooking a stunning vista of peaks stretching from a ribbon of river far below right up to the sky, the clouds winding their way between the rocky crags, and my camera buried safe and dry in my bag under layers of waterproofing.
There was no choice but to continue. This was my chance to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one I’d spent years waiting for, and despite the rain I wasn’t about to let it pass me by.
We encountered other hikers and locals, and a man offering his horse if we were too tired to walk on this, the steepest part of the path. People asked for money; for maintaining the path, for me to take a photo from a particular spot. Since when do I have to pay to take a picture of scenery?
We wound our way up the dreaded 28 bends, a series of switchbacks heading up the mountain that were known for being difficult. It was not that hard; no horse necessary.
We were entertained by the various public service announcement signs along the way, mostly warning us about the dangers of forest fires but often slightly mistranslated!
We trudged on through the rain, stopping at Halfway Guesthouse for the night, arriving just as it was getting dark and seeking dry clothes and warmth.
In the morning the clouds remained but the view from the guesthouse balcony was spectacular. We walked on and took pictures of each other on rocky outcrops, high above the river but still far below the mountain peaks.
The waterfall was stunning, visible from far down the path, cascading down the side of the mountain in a dozen small rivulets. Up closer, drops sparkled in the emerging sunshine. Where it crossed the path we stepped carefully, because wet rocks are slippery and it was a long drop off the side of the cliff.
Upon arrival at the end of the track we bought bus tickets at Tina’s, then descended to the river, gaping in awe at where we’d come from. The spot Tiger Leaping Gorge is named for is here; in a legend a tiger crossed the river to escape a hunter. He leapt to a giant rock that stands tall in the middle of the river, a rickety swing bridge connecting it to the bank for those of us without the speed and strength of a tiger.
The roar of the water rushed in our ears, drowning out every other sound. I held my breath as my friend went closer and closer to the rushing torrent for that perfect photo, my heart pounding in fear that she would slip on the slick rocks and disappear beneath the raging water.
There were two choices for going back up to the road: the ‘safe path’ or the ‘ladder’. While the right choice seems fairly obvious, please understand that the safe path meant retracing our steps and going a very long way out of our way just to get back to the restaurant that was essentially right above us.
Yep, we chose the ladder.
I was rather apprehensive about this, not being a fan of heights, but decided to give it a go anyway. Face your fears head on, right? Plus, my stomach was starting to growl!
The ladder is sometimes known as the ‘sky ladder’ or ‘ladder to heaven’ (in more ways than one?) and is actually a series of ladders bolted not to the cliff face, but actually attached to some random pieces of possibly rotting wood which may or may not be attached to the cliff face. The longest one is perhaps 20 metres. And they were near vertical.
The ladders are made of solid metal, but the rungs are so thin that your feet could easily slide off if it was wet. Or, if for instance you were so scared shitless that you’d broken out in a cold sweat and your hands were slick with it, well, that could be an issue too. Not that I know anything about that.
So I put my trust in Chinese engineering (Yikes!) and started up, really wanting to turn back but the decision was made. Once I’d begun there was only one way to go and I didn’t dare look down, for fear that I would freeze up and not be able to continue and be stuck hanging off the middle of that ladder high above the raging river for the rest of my life.
It was busy, and the backlog of people meant that we would stop when I was halfway up. I hung on, squeezing my eyes shut, frozen in place and just wanting to get to the top and have it done.
After climbing those stupid ladders for what seemed like forever, I finally did reach the top. As my friends congratulated me I collapsed on a bench until my legs stopped shaking.
From there it was a short walk back to Tina’s for a quick lunch and our bus back to Lijiang.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Tips:
- The hike can be accessed from either Shangri-La or Lijiang. Ask at your guesthouse about how to get there!
- Only carry what you have to. You can leave luggage at the start of the hike (Jane’s Guesthouse) or at your accommodation in Lijiang. Food is available at guesthouses along the way, so you only need water and snacks.
- Be prepared for any weather. Take rain gear as well as sunscreen and a hat.
- There’s a high trail and a low road. Take the high one.
- Don’t miss the sights at the Middle Gorge (where the Tiger Leaping Rock is) but I also read that there’s a nice boardwalk at the Upper Gorge too. It might be overrun with busloads of Chinese tourists though. No promises.
Have you hiked through Tiger Leaping Gorge? Did it rain on you? What was your experience like? Tell me in the comments below!
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