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Walking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

We caught the 3-hour-long afternoon bus ride from Lijiang to Qiaotou. We were on our way to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, said to be the deepest river gorge in the world, and one of China’s most pristine natural areas.

The town of Qiaotou is located about 60 km north of Lijiang, in Yunnan province (southwestern China), at the eastern reaches of the Himalayas. Here the Yangtze, known locally as the Golden Sands River, making a drastic elbow turn and flows north through Tiger Leaping Gorge. It barrels through 21 rapids in the course of about 15 km, between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596m) and the Haba Xueshan Mountain (5,396 m).

Legend says that to escape a hunter, a tiger jumped across the narrowest point of the gorge, about 25 meters wide. Two roads allow the current residents and visitors to traverse the gorge today. The high road is approximately 22 km long and was once a trade route where Tibetan horses were exchanged for tea from Yunnan. It can be hiked in as little as 2 days, and is still actively used by local villagers. The lower road was once a mule track, but has recently been widened and paved; bringing scores of Chinese tourists to see the furthest reaches of the gorge.

Qiaotou is a quaint little river town straddling the Yangtze. The bus dropped us off near the central market, where a group of Yi women sat packed in the back of a truck. They wore ornate gowns, large silver earrings, and giant black mortarboards perched on their heads, looking as though they’d just graduated from high school.

We got up before sunrise the next morning, crossed the bridge over the Yangtze, and walked through the schoolyard. The toll collector hadn’t gotten up yet, so entrance to the trail was free.  Wild geraniums, iris and rhododendron lined much of the trail and scented the air. The Yangtze churned below, always to our right. Beyond it, Snow Dragon Jade Mountain, rose from the river majestically. The base of its black towers formed the epicenter of an earthquake that nearly flattened the city of Lijiang in 1996.

We passed camphor trees, pine, and stands of bamboo, eventually coming to a small Naxi village hidden in a hanging valley. The outer walls of the homes were stone or mud brick, and the inner courtyards were wooden. Enormous red stacks of chaff stood by old barns overlooking terraced rice patties and fields of corn and wheat.

Naxi, Yi, and Tibetans are not the only inhabitants of the gorge. The endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti) also makes its home in the gorge, although rarely seen. Golden monkeys have a ghostly appearance, with a pale face, vacant black eyes and slits for nostrils. They live higher than any other monkey species in the world and primarily eat lichens on the fir and spruce trees growing on the mountainside. Once thought extinct, there are as few as 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Extensive logging has reduced their habitat to the most isolated spots in the country.

Soon we came to a stretch of the trail known as 28 Bends. This was the most physically difficult portion of the hike for me. It’s a switchback winding up the mountain at steep angles, well beyond the said number of bends. It was dark when we reached the Tea Horse Trading Guest House, and I was ready to collapse. We quickly ate a hot dinner underneath an overhang in the courtyard, and then went off to bed.

For the full storiy go to: fisheggtree blog

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