Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan, China

[ 1 ] February 2, 2013 |
Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Just reading the name “Tiger Leaping Gorge” makes you feel like you are in China. Commonly named as one of the top 10 things to see in China, this is a very special piece of natural wonder that we were not about to miss. A stones throw away from both Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet, the Yunnan province is very much off the beaten path for most westerners traveling to the China given the effort it takes to get there in the first place. Lucky for us we had come north through Laos, so seeing all the sights that this amazing province afforded could not be missed. The crown jewel of the Yunnan province (in popularity at least) is in fact Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a geological absurdity. Describing it is like trying to describe the way the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls makes you feel the first time you see it.

a deep look into this "gorge-ous" landscape

a deep look into this “gorge-ous” landscape

The river cutting through the gorge is a major tributary of the Yangtze River, China’s longest river the third longest in the world (after the Nile and the Amazon) and fourth largest in the world in terms of volume (after the Amazon, the Ganges, and the Congo). Also drainage point for much of the snow and glacial melt coming off of the Himalayan Plateau – this all basically means that there is an insane amount of water flowing through this place. On top of this, the gorge itself is a natural narrowing point concentrating all the water into a compressed waterway.

ranging waters in Tiger Leaping Gorge

ranging waters in Tiger Leaping Gorge

The power of the turbulent waters makes you feel completely at Mother Nature’s mercy. One false step into the waters would certainly spell doom. Gazing into the eye of the beast is certainly a humbling yet exhilarating experience.

While the entire area is a World Heritage Site, I found it most surprising that it wasn’t until 1993 when the area was finally opened to foreign tourists. The gorge is most easily accessible from Lijiang and is located about 40 miles north of the city. A quick read on WikiTravel will help you navigate the easiest and most cost effective modes of access (bus, taxi, etc.).

buying local peaches at a roadside stand on the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge

buying local peaches at a roadside stand on the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge

While many travelers choose to spend a few days hiking the upper path along the gorge and fully taking in all the beauty it has to offer, with only a day dedicated to exploring this wonder we chose to make our way to the central part of the gorge and take a quick 2 hour hike down to Tiger Leaping Rock, a lookout point on the rivers edge from which the gorge is named.

standing above the raging waters of the Yangtze River below

standing above the raging waters of the Yangtze River below

The morning of our trip we hopped on a public intercity bus (Lijiang to Shangri-La). The bus dropped us off halfway between the two cities at the turnoff to the gorge. From here we grabbed a local shuttle that would take us to the central part of the gorge. We snaked our way along a cliff side road barely wide enough for two-lane traffic. Given the sheerness of the surrounding cliffs, landslides are all too common. For nearly 10 minutes, our minivan swerved wildly as it switched between avoiding fallen rocks and the occasional passing vehicle.

massive rock fall took out this huge chunk of road on the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge

massive rock landslide took out this chunk of road on the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge

Nearing the final destination, we suddenly came to a complete stop. A quick look ahead, we noticed that the entire road was gone in front of us. A massive landslide had taken the entire road out just a few days before our arrival. With complete Chinese industriousness, a work around had already been arranged. A small footpath around the rock fall had been cleared, up the cliff face, over some fallen rocks, and back down again. Alison’s jaw dropped about two feet as she quickly realized that they were expecting us to strap on our 50-pound packs and traverse this rocky, days old footpath to the other side. I’ll let you use your imaginations as to the conversation that ensued next between us, but needless to say we decided to press on.

assessing the road and figuring out how to get around the road outage

assessing the road and figuring out how to get around the road outage

traversing the footpath carved into the hillside around the landslide

traversing the footpath carved into the hillside around the landslide

Al traversing the precarious foot path hastily carved into the hillside around the fallen rock which took out the main road

Al holding on for dear life – don’t lean back to far!

A few jelly legged steps later, we were across. Not anxious to do that again. Another vehicle was waiting on the other side of the rock fall to take us to the mid-point. Hiking down from the road to water’s edge takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Describing the descent down to the water’s edge as precarious would be an understatement. For the majority of the trail, steep stone steps had been carved into the cliff face – a luxury I would soon realize. The untraversable points of descent were attended to with metal ladders “secured” to the rock wall with small hooks and wire. There were three of these ladders in total. Two of them were in the 20 to 30 foot range and didn’t feel “too” unsafe. The last ladder on the other hand was in its own category. Upon approach, you are greeted with a friendly sign – “Safe” (arrow to the right”, and “Ladder” (arrow to the left). Of course I chose left.  Half enclosed with a makeshift metal surround, looking down this ladder was like looking down the barrel of a gun that disappeared into the brush some 100 to 200 feet below. Here goes nothing…

the "ladder of death"

the “ladder of death”

I wasn’t ten steps down the ladder when I realized that this death trap was swaying left and right in sync with each footstep of my descent. After 10 minutes of one foot in front of the other my fight or flight instincts kicked in – they were screaming flight. Only half way down at this point I held the ladder close and tried to regain my senses. With the cold metal of the ladder held in a close embrace it was about this time that I noticed that this stupid ladder wasn’t even secured to the rock wall like the other two. No, it was simply attached to the rickety wooden ladder underneath – the old ladder that this “new” metal ladder was obviously meant to replace. Flight x2. I took a deep breath and made my way down the rest of the ladder with a quickened pace. Reaching the bottom safe and sound, I took a minute to thank my creator for letting me exist for one more day before moving on. Definitely taking the “safe” path on the way up.

up close and personal view of the gorge from Tiger Leaping Rock

up close and personal view of the gorge from Tiger Leaping Rock

A quick five-minute walk down from the ladder of death, I found myself at the famous “tiger leaping rock” from which the gorge got its name. Legend has it that at tiger jumped from this point, the narrowest point of the gorge, across to the other side eluding the hunter that was chasing it. At 82 feet across, the legend is certainly a tall tale; nonetheless the monstrous rapids are a clear indication that this is the river at its most concentrated point. The most amazing part is that the rock outcropping that makes up tiger leaping rock serves as the most magical viewing platform one could imagine. A few sure-footed steps out onto tiger leaping rock and you are surrounded by 270 degrees of torrential chaos. This is about the time when that “humbling and exhilarating” feeling I spoke of earlier kicked in. Surrounded by 7,000-foot sheer cliffs on either side, I was drowned with a feeling of insignificance – like any one of these waves could sweep me off this tiny speck of rock never to be seen again. Its an adrenaline rush unlike I’ve experienced in a while and one that my sense of self-preservation only let me experience for about a minute and a half. Certainly not for the faint of heart, I still have to hold back a wince every time I look at the pictures I hastily took with one hand while standing on tiger leaping rock.

don't let the smile fool you, I'm was so nervous right then

don’t let the smile fool you, I’m was so nervous right then

Mounting my sense of accomplishment, I rode it all the way back up the cliff where I met Alison sitting contently at a little café enjoying the spectacular view. A little worse for wear, I was exhausted and ready to head back for a hot shower and good long sit.

Mental and Physically Exhausted

mentally and physically exhausted after my hike down to the gorge

We hopped the next shuttle back to the main road – switching vans again mid way as we re-tread the same homemade footpath around the rock avalanche.

No trip to Yunnan would be complete without an adrenaline filled journey to Tiger Leaping Gorge. It seems like a completely surreal experience reflecting back on it now – the cliffs, the raging waters, the razors edge situations. It was a magical journey into the belly of a beast. Inexhaustibly thankful for a safe return given the circumstances, I would no doubt return at the drop of a hat given the chance. Tiger Leaping Gorge is a must see adventure for anyone visiting China’s Yunnan province and worth a journey to the province for the experience itself.


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Category: Asia, Blog, China, Destinations, Featured Posts, Pat's Blog

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  1. Anita WIlson says:

    As your Mama I just as soon not have read about this experience! Do NOT ever take a risk like that again- You hear me! Your Mama

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