“Wo men da che hao bu hao?” asked Ya Ting, my new travel buddy in Yunnan province, China.
What she meant was she wanted to hitchhike from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge – our destination and the sole reason I had made the trip up from Dali, my favorite Chinese hippie town.
I was definitely game.
As we walked to the highway that morning she explained that she’s from Shenzhen, so she likes to do things quickly. It was clear by the way she walked quickly, talked excitedly, and had an energy about her that was infectious to everyone around her. She was scrappy. She would even haggle the printed prices on a menu, always succeeding in getting us a discount. In short, I liked her a lot.
I had met Ya Ting in my hostel in Lijiang. I was a little worried arriving as the only foreigner, fearing I might be solo for a while. Ya Ting immediately took a liking to me and asked if we could travel together. I was glad to have a new friend who I would travel with, speaking Mandarin and hitchhiking together, for the foreseeable future.
We stuck out our thumbs and walked along the street for about 15 minutes before we found a car headed in our direction. He was able to take us most of the way, at least to a major highway near the gorge. Once there, we’d need to hitch another ride. We hopped in and Ya Ting rapidly asked directions for the leg of the trip we’d take two days later, from the gorge to Shangri-La.
He dropped us at an intersection in Qiaotou and we stuck our thumbs up for no more than a minute before a car stopped to take us to the gorge. He was a young man on his way to Shangri-La.
“Aww! Wo men mingtian qu!” (we’re going tomorrow!) breathed Ya Ting, pained to be missing a perfect opportunity but unwilling to give up the task at hand, which was climbing 20 kilometers over two days through Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The hike started out easily enough, but quickly turned steep and challenging. A warm and dry day, it was surprisingly inessential to have all of the layers on that we had shown up prepared with. I shed them periodically throughout the first half hour.
Though most people hike this during the high season in the summer months of July and August, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect time than the end of February, while snow still topped the mountain peaks but didn’t present cold enough conditions to keep us away – it was shockingly dry and warm, with cacti. Yes, cacti!
It became clear about 2 hours in that the map, proudly displaying Woody’s hostel as the epicenter of Tiger Leaping Gorge, was not at all to scale. I thought we’d be to the top within the first couple of hours, but the ascension took up the entire first afternoon.
The first day was spent mainly getting through the part of the trail known as the 28 bends, which was an ascending trail, steep in some parts (but still nothing like the steepness of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka or Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo).
That night was spent at Tea Horse Guesthouse in a small town along the way, after about 10km, or 5 hours, worth of hiking.
That night we were invited by a couple of Korean tour guides to join for dinner, where I ended up being the incredibly under qualified translator between their broken English, to my broken Chinese, for Ya Ting. In that way, we all somehow managed to communicate.
The following day was almost flat for the first 10 or so kilometers before descending steeply back to the road, and Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, which was our ending point.
Following a quick lunch, it was time to hitch to the next destination: Shangri-La.
We had a whole lot more trekking to do at our next destination – Deqin near Tibet.
Do it yourself:
- Get to Lijiang via busses from Dali, which leave several times per day
- Most hostels are in the old town, which requires an additional minibus or shared taxi. Haggle on this one
- I stayed and kept my belongings at K2 which is the youth hostel located in the old town. I kept my large backpack in their storage room for almost a week, without any extra charge or complaints from them
- Ask your hostel if they can organize a shared minibus to Qiaotou, which runs about 250 RMB per bus. Otherwise take the #13 bus to the southern bus station and hop on a bus bound for Shangrila from the North Gate of Lijiang and get off at Qiaotou, which is where the Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket office is. Tickets are 65 RMB
- Follow the upper rather than lower (shang, rather than xia) path if you want to do the same hike as I did. Do this by following the road past the school. Once you see this sign, follow the path upwards. Painted rocks with arrows guide most of the way. When in doubt, look for mule droppings to find the correct path
- The lower path is paved and can be done in a day, but doesn’t get great reviews. Upper can be done in as little as two days but can be extended over 3 or 4 as well
- Busses out to Shangri-La or Lijiang leave from Woody’s and Tina’s Guesthouse, near Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, daily in the morning and afternoon (or you could always hitchhike, like I did, from Qiaotou which is on the way to Shangri-La)
- Most people do this trek in the summer months, however, I did the trek in February and thought it was fabulous. It’s also worth noting that the spring and summer bring rains, which can make the trail muddy and makes the otherwise beautiful jade-hued river run chocolate milk-brown