"It's that way." The man gestures upwards as he looks at me with what feels like pity. I’m standing on the side of a mountain after scrambling up a steep vertical incline. I think the worst is over. But then I see where he is pointing to – the top of the mountain, to be reached via an indiscernible path.
Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge on Jinsha River, flanked by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain, is a popular activity for travelers in Yunnan Province. But, there’s been a mix up and I have ended up hiking this breathtaking canyon back to front; heading out from the end instead of the starting point.
The shuttle van from Lijiang dropped a group of us at the start of the 16mi (26km) long upper trail. But, as I’m a lazy hiker, I only wanted to do a part of the two-day trip. So, I board another bus, filled with excitable hikers, heading to the midway section of the walk. Perfect.
The owner of the guesthouse I was staying in had given me a hand-drawn map and pointed out a spot on the main road where I could get off the bus to find the midway section of the trek. It was all a bit vague, but I was confident I would find my way once I got there. From that point to the trail end, would be a few hours’ walk. Just leisurely enough for me.
Except, instead of stopping at the midway point as expected, the bus kept going to Tina's Guesthouse – the well-known final stop of the hike, and everyone is getting off. They are heading to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, a site nearby where visitors can hike down to see the spot where (legend has it) a tiger leapt across the river at the narrowest point to escape a hunter. I'd read the descent was relatively easy, but getting back up via rocks and boulders with no proper railings sounded terrifying, so I passed.
Determined to make the most of it, I fill up on a big lunch at Tina’s, and set off back towards the start of the hike, heading for Halfway Guesthouse in Bendi Wan village. According to my hand-drawn map, it wil be a two-hour hike from Tina’s – and at the top I’m hoping to see waterfalls.
The afternoon sun beats down on me as I study the map, which indicates an easy incline that levels off to a straight path. Soon, I realize the small incline is actually a dizzyingly steep ascent on an incredibly narrow path of rocks – exactly what I was trying to avoid – that is one of the problems with a hand-drawn map.
I keep following the trail along the lowest slopes of Haba Snow Mountain. On the other side of the gorge I see spectacular Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – an 18,360ft (5,596m) peak that soars high into the sky. Its jagged limestone ridges getting lost in a haze of clouds.
I hear the thundering river below – which is a bright turquoise during the dry winter months. My only company on the trail are goats, bleating to each other while precariously balancing on rocky slopes, and the odd lizard darting around.
Other hikers pass me on their way down to the finish at Tina’s Guesthouse, many are equipped with walking poles, looking tired and relieved as they near the end of their journey. Each time I ask them, "How much further up?" The answers vary from "Not far!" to "Far, but you can do it!”
I am relieved to see two Chinese girls hiking behind me in the same direction. When they catch up, one of them asks me in English, "Are you alone? Come with us!" I’m glad I’m not the only person hiking in the opposite direction to everyone else. My new friends are students from Beijing who are hoping to do the whole hike in two days (most people do the hike in two to three days).
We keep walking, clambering over rocks until we reach what seems like the end of the ascent. From here, I see a small slope that levels off to a flat path. The bumpy track is treacherously narrow at the very edge of the mountain and with no barrier. I’m glad to be here in May, right before the rainy season (June to September), as rain can make the path slippery and even more dangerous. I’m spoilt with dry and sunny weather, around 86°F (30°C).
I look away from the edge and instead focus on what surrounds me. I see small villages, terraced farmland, and trees far below. The dusty green and brown palette of the valley contrasts with the steel-grey mountain range that stretches ahead of me. My nerves ease off, and I feel at peace.
Every now and again we pass strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, worn ragged by the wind. Many people in this region, one of the most ethnically diverse in China, are devout Buddhists.
Then, we come across a the top of a waterfall slap bang in our path – to continue hiking we will have to cross it, and have two choices – wade through water or carefully step on rocks at the edge of the waterfall. I choose dry feet, and manage to safely balance my way to the other side.
After three and a half hours of hiking, we finally reach Halfway Guesthouse. As the name suggests, this is the midway point on the trail – but for me, this is where I finish and catch a taxi back to Tina’s Guesthouse where I am staying the night.
Yes, hiking in the wrong direction meant that what should have taken two hours instead became three and a half and included an uphill slog. But, taking the hard route was a challenge I’ll never forget.
You can catch a bus to Qiaotou village in Tiger Leaping Gorge from Lijiang’s Transport Service Center Bus Station, which is a journey of 50mi (80km). But, the easiest way to get to Qiaotou from Lijiang is via a private shuttle.
Daily shuttles leave from Mama Naxi Guesthouse and will drop you off at certain points along the hike if you book in advance. Most people are dropped off at Qiaotou where the trail begins, and have their bags taken to Tina’s (or keep them at Mama Naxi if they’re returning to Lijiang).
If you start hiking at Qiaotou you can do the hike in two days, although it can be spread over three days or done in one if you’re a fast walker. At the beginning, you’ll have to tackle the steepest – and hardest – section, named the 28 Bends, a series of tight switchbacks that lead to the upper trail's highest point.
If it gets too much, you can opt to take a donkey up – the donkey’s owner will be there to help, too. Keep in mind the high altitude of the trek, which varies from 6,233ft to 8,694ft (1,900m to 2,650m), and affects people differently, so take it slow.
From there keep on going until you reach Tea Horse Guesthouse. You can stay there or carry on until you reach Halfway Guesthouse, which is where most people choose to sleep. The next day, it’s a two-hour hike to Tina’s, where you can take the afternoon bus back to Lijiang or head to Shangri-la.
If you don’t want to do any hiking, find a taxi at Qiaotou to take you to the viewing platform at Tiger Leaping Gorge. Walk down the steps to see the thundering water up close.
If you want to do a light trek, ask your driver to take you to Halfway Guesthouse where you can start walking to Tina’s. Or you can drive to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and do the trek downhill there.