The north entrance of the gorge, with a surprisingly flat plateau.

China Trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge and on to Shangri-La

On the train from Dali to Lijiang, I met David, a French backpacker on the road since January. We were both heading to Lijiang for the same reason: trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the main attraction in Yunnan. None of us had fixed plans, and we were on the same page as to playing by ear. We decided we would do the trek together.

Lijiang was a horrible place. A museum city because the old town was entirely redone in the traditional style, but with so many shops and restaurant, it now resembles nothing but a vast theme park. And on the Golden Week, THE biggest national holiday also known as the mid-autumn festival, the place was overcrowded with national holiday makers, and prices has doubled if not tripled. My only impression was: “RUN AWAY” (See the Image post about Lijiang).

On the following day, David and I set off to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We took a bus to the start of the trek, two hours out of Lijiang. We got on board a busy with 20 other foreign tourists. The Chinese love the shopping in Lijiang, but they’re not big on trekking!

The trek is not a lost trail in a remote mountain. It links some hamlets and villages along the gorge were food and accommodation can be found no further than two hours apart. There are also vendors all along the way offering drinks, fruits, snacks and “ganja” (dried marijuana indeed, but not the good stuff, just random leaves!). Some bastard also sits at an interesting viewpoint and rackets tourist a 8 Yuan fee to take pictures. You can never can lost on this trail. Not only thanks to the paint adverts for hostels and restaurants all over the rocks, but also because the trail is lined with phone and power wires…
Despite this the scenery is interesting, sometimes really impressive; but it’s not as impressive as I expected. It’s also not very hard, except a small bit called the 28 bends which is a bit steep, but nothing very challenging. It’s not competing in any way with the trek I did in Kyrgyzstan (read my earlier entry).

The most exciting thing about this trail is the variety of vegetation it goes through. It starts with maze fields, then you walk through thick bushes, then light woods, then it goes up to a pine forest, passes the ridge and plunges into a bamboo forest, opening to more terraced fields nearby a small village. A more intimidating part is carved into a cliff falling straight down to the rapids… Again, this is more entertaining than really compelling. Or maybe I’m just a little blasé after all I’ve seen…

We overnight at the Tea and Horse guesthouse, this first hostel approximately half way through the trail. There was a good bunch of travellers there, and we all grouped up to share dinner in a very festive atmosphere.
On the following day, David and I were joined by two Belgians we sympathised with during the night. We walked the 5 to 6 hours to the end of the trail together, and slept at Sean’s guesthouse. In the night we played an exciting general knowledge quiz game I just made up for the occasion mixing nationalities in two teams. We had good fun and a good meal, but the tiredness of a day’s walk and the cold night dragged us all to bed early. Each in once’s own bed I mean…

On the following day, we said goodbye to our fellow Belgian trekkers returning to Lijiang, and David and I walked the road heading North out of the Gorge into the valleys leading to Shangri-La, the first Tibetan city in Yunnan. Tha road was an easy walk, and quiet enough thank to the almost non existent traffic. After a two hour walk, we decided to hitch hike, and quickly got on board a pick-up truck going to Haba, the next ‘big’ village were we would overnight. In China nothing is free. So we negotiated the ride for a reasonable 10 Yuan each (1.2 euro). That included an unexpected break with tea and biscuits at a driver’s friend’s house.

We drove a long road winding uphill through terraced fields, lush landscapes, and small villages with large communist flags… Clouds were low and an almost constant drizzle sometimes gave way to light but cold showers. At some point as we were getting cold and wet at the back of the pick-up, and the driver stopped and invited us in the cabin, implying that there would have an extra fee, but we refused to pay more.

We spent one night in Haba in a dodgy hostel, but with a very friendly and energetic owner. The 40 year old woman in very good shape, who could speak good English, explained she was a mountaineer, and indeed her placed was covered with posters and flags of many sporting events taking place there or anywhere in Yunnan or around the world. She told us she had two daughters in their twenties. We met one of them during the evening. She was very good looking, and indeed in very good shape too…!

In the next morning we took a bus to Shangri-La. It was again mostly cloudy and wet. We passed a few very cute villages with wooden and brick houses clad in lush valleys. This mountainous landscape was really beautiful. When suddenly, in a bend, I heard hissing tyres, our bus broke, and there was a violent shock. That stopped us. We had hit a small van coming the opposite direction. On the bus a woman had fallen of her seat, but no one was injured. The van’s driver, who didn’t have his belt on, hit the windscreen with his forehead, but he got away with only a small contusion.

We then had to wait for the police to come. Nothing had to move! We were a long way from anywhere (four hours off Haba, and two hours from Shangri-La) but hopefully the van bounced back to the other side of the road in the shock so the road was entirely blocked and other vehicles could drive through the scene. After an hour and a half the police came and papers were made. We left again with the van’s driver on board… This was my first road accident after 6 months travelling in countries where driving is insane. I think myself as lucky considering the many  buses I have taken…

An hour later, we drove through a pass and entered… Tibet! The landscape and the architecture were very different: a wide valley with maze and sunflower crops, and pastures populated mostly by yacks! Houses are also very different: two side stone walls, a richly carved wooden façade with two columns large, and a slate roof.
In Shangri-La (not the city’s real name as it was changed from Zhongdiang as a reference to the mystical place from the James Hilton book Lost Horizon to attract tourists), you can see many people in traditional Tibetan attire, and Buddhist monks all over the streets. Signs are both in Chinese and Tibetan. This is the gate to Tibet. Indeed most of western Yunnan and western Sichuan is actually Tibet.

David and I visited the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, getting in for free thanks to the Lonely Planet’s recommendation to show up after 5 pm. When looking around in the back alleys of the Monastery’s complex, away from the crowd of Chinese tourists, we found a temple. We were lucky enough to arrive for the prayer… I recorded this 6 minute excerpt of the ceremony. I invite you to listen to it with good headphones or speakers. Close your eyes. Imagine a large room with colorfoul paintings all over the walls, columns and long drapes, 40 or so monks sitting in rows with drums, trumpets, belles and cymbals… and press play…

Check out this page if you want to know more about the Buddhist instruments: Cultures and religions of the Himalayan Region, Buddhist Ritual Instruments by Matthew C Glen

One thought on “Trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge and on to Shangri-La

  1. xavier

    Whaou, que de chemin parcouru ! Impressionnant, passionnant ! Ton compteur va bientôt passer le cap des 20000 kms, c’est la moitie du tour du monde, si mes souvenirs de geo sont bons ! Va falloir marquer le coup. Merci pour cette tres fidele retranscription de ton voyage. On a l’impression de faire un bout de chemin avec toi. Bises


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