I first heard of Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia) when our daughter Adia wrote to us from Lijiang in 1999. She had trekked to the gorge along with three travelling companions and emailed us a picture of her hugging a yellow cement tiger with the raging Yangtse in the background far below. Legend has it that a tiger was able to leap across the gorge at its narrowest point. I was always keen to visit this remote area myself, but was not willing to make the arduous climb or risk getting sick like she did during her time on the trail. I was delighted to learn that a new road has been built to give easier access to the gorge although purists would probably cringe at the thought of the hordes of large buses that converge there during the peak season. Luckily, once again we were happy that we chose to visit China in October and November when the weather is cooler and the national holidays are over.
We planned to drive the two-hours northwest of Lijiang through the mountains and pine forests and then down to where the Yangtse makes its first bend after leaving its source high on the Tibetan plateau. Once we descended to the river, we stayed on a small road on the east side of the river and passed through countless small Naxi villages and terraced fields before we reached the entrance gate to the national park. Here we paid our entrance fee and left our guide and minibus behind and walked along a paved trail cut into the rock face. The return journey takes over two hours so we made sure to use the WC and loaded up on bottled water. For those unable or unwilling to walk, rickshaw drivers waited to whisk the visitors to the gorge.
Shortly after we set off along the trail, we were diverted into a tunnel cut deep into the mountain. We were surprised to see how far into the rock the tunnel was cut, but when we emerged we saw a large boulder teetering on the walkway and realized that the tunnels were cut to prevent visitors from being crushed by falling rock. There were signs all along the trail warning us to walk as close to the rock face as possible. Now we understood why we were required to purchase insurance for 2 RMB along with the 30 RMB entrance fee. There were several such tunnels along the route to the gorge and while all were lit with modern lighting, we did notice that small niches were cut into the walls and candle wax showed that they had been used at some point.
The view of the river and the towering cliffs above us was stunning. Once again, our incredible luck gave us sunshine and blue skies when we could most appreciate it. Tiger Leaping Gorge is reputed to be the deepest gorge in the world, over 11,000 ft deep. Before long, the placid water began churning and falling over rapids and we could see the mist ahead where the river began its descent into the deepest parts of the gorge. At last we reached the area where we could climb down a series of staircases and get near to the raging water. The gorge becomes quite narrow at this point and we could look across at the highway on the other side and see the large tour buses parked at a viewpoint and rickety stairs leading down to the churning water below. At one point, a huge landslide had destroyed the stairs and the tangled metal was left to rust where it lay. The government must have felt it was best to abandon the access on the eastern side of the gorge and develop the access on the western side where we stood.
We enjoyed our visit and the walk along the river, but the gorge was a bit of a disappointment. The Yangtse only drops four hundred feet and it is difficult to get a sense of the depth of the gorge from the vantage point where we stood. It's hard to imagine that this is a deeper gorge that the ones we've seen in the past at the Grand Canyon in the US or the Rift Valley in Africa. We didn't stay long at the viewpoint, but turned and hurried back along the walkway, careful to stay close to the wall in case any loose stones or boulders decided to break loose above us.
On the ride back to Lijiang, we had the driver stop on several occasions so that I could take photos of the amazing terraced fields and Naxi buildings. We were all amazed at the lovely patterns that formed when the curving terraces met one another. With some fields lying fallow, while others were green with crops still growing and others were freshly planted, it looked like a crazy patchwork quilt spread below us along the river. The Naxi buildings built with sun-dried bricks and topped with black tiles were different from any others we had seen on our travels so far. Tall, narrow brick buildings stood amongst the houses, built as granaries to store the harvest. Eventually we left the Yangtse where it lay in the valley and climbed up over the mountains, into the pine forests once again and then back down to the high plain where Lijiang lay spread out in the evening light. It was a great day spent with Mu Chua and her brother, a most careful and cautious driver. We began to have thoughts of asking them to take us on a one-week tour of southern Yunnan province. We liked the descriptions of the area in the Lonely Planet and knew the only way to see the area properly was by road.