Tiger Leaping Gorge is a strange name for an area high in the foothills of the Himalaya Plateau that draws you into its remote and clear beauty. The Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze River thunders through a narrow gorge. Its deep murky waters tumbling over rocks far below the path and new road. The gorge runs for 15km and at its deepest is 3790m, possibly the deepest river gorge in the world. Its name comes from a local legend. A hunter was chasing a tiger through the gorge. Reaching a flat rock at the narrowest point of the gorge, the tiger escaped his fate by jumping across the Jinsha River, leaving the hunter on the bank alone. This rock is now a viewpoint, the main draw of the gorge and the goal for many visitors. The rock is reached by a small rickety bridge but wider board walks take you to viewing platforms on the upper part of the gorge. Rhododendrons, African marigolds and herbs adorn the rugged edges of the old narrow path, once a miners’ track as well as the larger roads through the gorge.
This small area is part of the larger Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan National Park. An UNESCO world heritage area that recognises the sources of the Mekong, Yangtze (Jinsha) and Salween Rivers that flow close together as they descend from the foothills of the Himalaya at the start of their individual journeys to the ocean.
Driving up from the small town of Qiaotao (桥头), a dusty sleepy village, was a hairy experience. Heavy rain had washed the road away and repairs were starting on the track along with ongoing rock falls. Near misses were numerous as we wound our way up the dark valley. The high peaks in the afternoon light were keeping the sun from reaching the low road within the gorge.
The first night in this remote mountain landscape was spent in Tibet Guest House in the small village of Hutaoyuan (Walnut Grove), with amazing views towards the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. This is part of a small mountain range in Yunnan Province that towers over the ancient city of Lijiang and plunges down to the Jinsha River as it passes through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Veiled in mist the highest peak known as Yulong Xeushan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) soars to 5499m. Rarely summited, this peak was first conquered in 1963. A cable car now helps with this challenge taking travellers to the foot of the glacier at 4506m the easy way. Walnut Grove is the start of the true mountainous landscape, leaving the green and lush paddy fields near Daju behind, becoming more remote with every step.
We set out early the next morning to get some of the climb done before lunch, always heading upwards and away from the river below. The sun was breaking over the mountain peaks, rays emerging through the hazy morning light. The path was narrow, waterfalls cascading on tight bends and shepherds navigating their small herds. Ancient family tombs littered the hillside cared for as is the tradition in rural China. The path meandered far above the new road, a slippery and steep track that has been the end for many walkers.
Halfway Lodge was our first stop with the best toilet view on earth (possibly)! Mountains are visible over the half door that protects you from visitors as you contemplate life in this remote little spot. The path after Halfway Lodge was winding and narrow but the views were spectacular and reaching the high point was a real sense of achievement after surviving the 28 bends to get to 2964m. Late lunch was at Teahorse Guest House and then it was the final slog up the hills through the woodland to the wonderful overnight stay at the Naxi Family Guesthouse. The guesthouse is a step back in time. Traditional lives, limited English and local food combine with beautiful hosts to provide a memorable experience. The beds are basic but comfortable, chickens strut around and Sichuan peppercorns were drying in flat reed baskets in the afternoon sun.
Leaving the gorge the following morning, passing through meadows and a local school, the roaring of the river in the gorge echoed through my mind as we headed towards our belongings at Jane’s Guest House and the road to Dali. This remote corner of China is opening up, tourism is becoming more organised and with this come charges and tickets to visit the gorge. However, now that the famous Yangtze Gorges have been transformed by the dam at Sandouping this small and remote gorge is one of the few places to see the true beauty of China.
All images are scanned from film prints.