Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

Which one is the legendary stone? (©Coen Wubbels).

There isn’t just one stone – there are two. Which one did the tiger jump on when crossing this gorge? With some 600,000 visitors per year, tourism is booming in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which makes me wonder why there isn’t a panel pointing out which stone is linked to the legend of the leaping tiger.

The Legend of the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Who wouldn’t want to spend the night here? (©Coen Wubbels)

The legend is simple: There is a rock at the narrowest point of the river (some 100 feet) and once upon a time a tiger used this rock to leap across from one side of the canyon to the other side when trying to get away from a hunter.

Maybe once those stones were one? Or maybe the water level was higher and there was only one stone when the tiger jumped? Who knows? Right now there’s nobody to ask. The famous stone lies 1600 feet vertically down from Tina’s Guesthouse, which is one of the many stopping places along the trail that meanders some 15 miles along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The trail has existed for ages, connecting villages.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a fantastic hike and a highlight of a visit to Yunnan.
  • You like to feel Mother Nature’s presence.
  • Good for anyone who loves nature, enjoys hiking and is in reasonable condition.

Hiking to the Legendary Stone in the Yangtze River

Relaxed hiking along farmlands (©Coen Wubbels)

The bus from Lijang had dropped my partner and me off at the entrance of the gorge two days earlier. A two-hour, pleasant walk through quiet villages and terraced farm fields brought us to Naxi Guesthouse. We could have walked on for another couple of miles to the next guesthouse but decided to stop here and take in the views of the snow-capped Five Finger Mountains, the highest of which reaches some 19,000 feet.

“The view never tires,” the owner commented as he joined all the hikers in a daily ritual: standing in awe while watching the mountain range transform by a kaleidoscope of pastel tinges as the sun went down.

Friendly company on the trail (©Coen Wubbels)

From Naxi Guesthouse we followed an easy-going trail through more farm country, which was good to warm up our muscles for the subsequent steep and strenuous climb with its 28 bends, which brought us to the top of the trail at 8,500 feet. The views compensated for the hardship. We looked down the gorge, where the river forced its way between the vertical walls with rapids and whirlpools.

Birds, crickets, butterflies and lizards all accompanied us with their concerts. We walked down below shady trees and other vegetation until we reached Halfway Guesthouse, which indeed lies halfway the trail. Detail: the guesthouse is famous for the fantastic view from its bathroom.

It’s impossible to get lost here; just follow the signs (©Coen Wubbels)

From the main trail are various side trails leading down to the depth of the canyon. We followed a slippery, muddy path until we could touch the water of the Yangtze River. From here it would be just an easy-going, pleasant walk along the river and a short climb up through meadows and villages to reach the end of the trail at Sean’s Guesthouse.

Threats of the Yangtze Dam Project

Looking down from the trail.  I had expected a frothing and spewing river. But at the bottom, I found water flowing peacefully around the granite outcrops. Nevertheless, Mother Nature showed her power in the roughness of the canyon, its vertical walls stripped of all vegetation. The canyon reaches some 13,000 feet deep, making it one of the deepest canyons in the world.

Can you imagine this would all have been flooded had the dam been constructed? (©Coen Wubbels)

There are no tigers around anymore to jump the river, and the granite outcrop lies undisturbed in the water. It hadn’t been aware of the danger that it almost got submerged for eternity. Before 2007 this gorge was part of China’s gigantic Yangtze hydropower project, which would have flooded the whole gorge.

The Chinese did build the highest hydroelectric dam in the world, flooding a huge region and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their ancestral homes and farms but, fortunately, this particular part was eliminated from the project after intensive protests.

I look up those vertical walls and shudder at the thought of how tiny and insignificant we are as human beings when it comes to physical size, yet how destructive our minds and actions are as a species. What price are we willing to pay for having electricity? The thought is mind-boggling.

Practical Information

  • You can pay the entrance fee at either entrance of the trail (65 yuan). Maps are available. You’ll encounter additional ‘maintenance fees’ from locals as you hike the trail. These are illegal, but are enforced by the locals nevertheless.
  • We stayed in the gorge for three days. Most visitors walk the hike in days days and the really fit walk it in one day with just a daypack.
  • You probably don’t want to carry all your luggage over that trail. In Qiáotóu (the west entrance of the gorge) you can store your luggage at Jane’s Guesthouse for a reasonable fee.

Photos by: Coen Wubbels

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