[Originally published in Footprints, summer, 1993]
by Pamela Logan
You are walking on a trail cut into the side of an ever- steepening mountain. The Yangtze River flows beneath you, an immense torrent of swirling mud-colored water just burst out from between two rocky cliffs. The sun is milky white, the air sparkling clear, and distances deceiving. As you approach the mouth of Tiger Leaping Gorge, you will hear a distant, thunderous roar. That sound marks the beginning of 17 kilometers of almost continuous white-water rapids with a total drop of 210 meters in elevation, a stretch so violent and dangerous that experts have doubted that it will ever be rafted. For the next two days, that sound will be your constant companion.
There are many grand and spectacular hikes in China, but Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the best. It's along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, third longest river in the world. The Yangtze begins as an icy spring far away on "the Roof of the World." On its way down, the river flows through some rugged and remote terrain, especially in the northern part of Yunnan Province, in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau.
--Note that "foothills" is a relative term, be-cause when you walk through this gorge you are walking between two mountains that soar three thousand meters (ten thousand feet) over your head: Jade Dragon Moun-tain (5596 m) to the south and Haba Snow Mountain (5396 m) to the north. Over the millennia, while the Himala-yas have been rising slowly heavenward the Yangtze River has sliced a narrow channel for itself between these two giants. At Tiger Leaping Gorge's narrowest point the river is squeezed between cliffs just thirty meters apart. Legend says that at this spot a tiger pursued by hunters escaped by leaping from one bank to the other in a single bound, so giving the gorge its name.
Most people start the walk from a little town called Daju. The people of Daju belong to the Naxi ("NA-SHEE") minority, one of China's fifty-five officially-recognized national minorities. Traditionally the Naxi were a matriarchal, female- dominated society, although nowadays the old customs are dying out. Daju lies at the end of a tortuous dirt road that connects it to Lijiang, the Naxi capital. The route is plied by a public bus every four or five days, but now that capitalism is all the rage in China, you can opt to ride a privately owned--and completely decrepit--mini-bus for a somewhat higher price. It goes every other day--if the driver is in the mood and the vehicle isn't down for repairs.
Before you can enter the gorge, your first task will be to bargain with the ferry-man who will take you across the Yangtze to the trail's starting point. If you're a good bargainer, you might get him down to five yuan (about a dollar) a person-- otherwise the sky's the limit. The river, more than a hundred meters wide at this point, has just emerged from the gorge, and down by the water's edge it looks dark, turbulent and dangerous. The ferry-man must paddle quickly to save his frail wooden craft from being swept downstream past the tiny beach that is the landing point on the far side.
After disembarking from the boat, you have a climb of several hundred feet to get out of the canyon and onto a bluff where you will see more Naxi farm houses. From here, you walk west into the gorge.
Your first day's walk takes you along a hair- raising and spectacular footpath hacked out of sheer cliff. The river remains far below you, and sunlight rarely penetrates to its surface. This trail is not just for sightseers--local farmers, traders, and miners use it to move goods in and out of the gorge. As you walk you will likely encounter local farmers on foot, trains of heavily-laden mules, and parties of men and women on horseback.
Five or six hours of walking brings you to the village of Hetaoyuan--"Walnut Garden." This tiny hamlet is spread out vertically over one of the few tillable slopes within the gorge. Above and below the trail you can see terraced rice paddy and scattered stone houses following the steep contours of the land.
There are two hostels in Hetaoyuan where you can eat, sleep, and get a close-up look at the life of a typical Chinese peasant. The people here are very poor, with few possessions to clutter up their dark, dirt-floored houses. For dinner you might get nothing more than rice, beans, and perhaps an egg or two, but they taste wonderful after a long day of walking. Once in bed you can listen to the sound of fast-running streams rushing past the house, a perfect lullaby to prepare you for the next day's adventures.
On the second day you will come to an even more spectacular part of the hike, where the gorge narrows, the cliffs loom higher, and the Yangtze at times is a continuous cascade of white. The small tributaries that flow down the walls of Tiger Leaping Gorge should be crossed with care, and in the monsoon season (June-September) you are certain to get wetted by waterfalls. Perhaps by now the exertion of walking has dulled your appreciation for the scale of things here in the gorge. But take another look at that puny little "bush" clinging to the cliff opposite and you will discern that it actually is a full-sized tree. Okay--now that you have the scale, let your eyes drop down to the water below. That's not a drop on the scale of a freeway overpass--it's more like the side of a skyscraper. Got it? Now try to imagine the enormous power of the water that tears away at the rock below your feet. Throw away your ego and let you mind expand, for that's the only way to fully grasp the immensity of the river's twisting, thrashing violence as it hammers its way downstream. Hold this moment. If you can carry it home with you, then you will have caught the awesome magnitude of Tiger Leaping Gorge, something no photograph can ever truly capture.
But now you are nearing the end of the walk. You come upon a group of lean, muscular men hacking gray stone out of the walls of the canyon. They have no time for contemplation and awe; with little more than hammers and chisels they shape raw marble into chunks convenient for transport and machining--difficult, back-breaking work. Your transition back to civilization is further aided by the sight of a small hostel further along the trail, and by a marble-cutting factory that employs convict laborers set amid the rock and greenery.
At last Tiger Leaping Gorge opens up into a wide, fertile valley full of prosperous farms. Here the Yangtze reverts to the broad, placid character it had back in Daju. Spanning a tributary to the river is a bridge that will take you to the town of Qiaotou ("CHYOW-TOE"). Here you can pick up a bus to Lijiang...unless you are lured back into the gorge to return the way you came, once more to ponder the colossal handiwork of the mighty Yangtze River.
For more information on the area:
China, a Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit, Joe Cummings and Robert Story, 1991, Berkeley, CA 94702 -- an all- round guide for the budget traveler.
Southwest China Off the Beaten Track, K. Mark Stevens and George E. Wehrfritz, Passport Books, 1988, Lincolnwood, IL -- full of suggested trips for back-backers and travelers.
Riding the Dragon's Back: The Race to Raft the Upper Yangtze, Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen, Atheneum, Macmillan Publishing Co, New York, NY -- the story of how the Yangtze (or some of it, anyway) was rafted by a western team.
Exploring the Yangtze: China's Longest River, How Man Wong, 1989, China Books and Periodicals, San Francisco, CA -- ethnographic information and beautiful photos from the entire length of the river.