After hours upon hours of airport woes in Beijing, we finally got off the plane in Yunnan province. We were exhausted, smelly and hungry, but after taking one look around us, we were blown away. There was green everywhere, in the form of terraced agricultural fields and dramatic hills. I imagined it looked like Hawaii or perhaps Thailand, though I’ve never been to either. We hopped into a minivan, and after a short ride, arrived in the actual town of Lijiang. The city itself was pretty cute, albeit a bit touristy, with cobbled streets and little canals running along the roads. But we weren’t planning on staying for long. We were there to conquer the Tiger Leaping Gorge!
So the next day we headed off from Lijiang in a microbus, winding through the lush hills, praying it wouldn’t rain. On the way, we passed peasants hiking up to the next town, huge baskets strapped to their backs. We even picked up a man along the way who sat calmly in the front seat, smoking a cigarette while we weaved up the road at perilous speeds, occasionally crossing over the center dividing lines to pass other cars. If I hadn’t been so tired from our early wake-up call, I would have been tensed up the entire way, expecting to crash into an oncoming car at any moment.
Basically the way to see the gorge is to do a 2-day hike along it, up and down a huge mountain, then down into the gorge and back out again. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, though. We had seen beautiful photos of the gorge in a guidebook and simply decided we needed to go there. I had envisioned a moderate hike with a well-beaten path filled with tourists. It was as far from that as you could get.
I should have guessed it would be difficult. From the beginning of the trail two local guys followed us on their horses. Clearly they were waiting for us to get to the tough part when we’d break down and hire them to go up the mountain on horseback, but we were determined to do it on our own two feet. We made it to the first stop after about 2 hours of hiking. It was a clear sunny day and we thought we had done pretty well for ourselves, having climbed pretty high already. So after lunch, when the horse guys reappeared, we ignored them, feeling confident in ourselves. Then it started to rain. Well, more accurately, it started to pour. The dirt trail literally turned into a flowing mud river. We were able to find shelter at the base of the epic 28-turn climb, the steepest, most strenuous part of the trail. When the rain let up a bit after half an hour of waiting, we decided to continue on. We hadn’t come all this way to not go down to the gorge! Unfortunately, about 2 minutes into the hike, we realized how impossible it would be for us to get to the top. We were slipping all over the place and we hadn’t even reached the hard part yet. So we broke down, and after some hard bargaining, hired the horses to take us to the peak.
Finally, we all made it to the top, and it was all downhill from there. After making one more stop along the way for some food, we made it to the guesthouse we had planned on staying at, hung out with some crazy Belgian guys and finally made it to bed.
The next morning it was pouring again. We were a little discouraged, but it let up after awhile and we proceeded down the mountain, traversing some epic waterfalls along the way, and arrived at the point of descent for the gorge.
After a treacherous hike, leaping down huge boulders and nearly breaking my neck going across smooth slippery rocks, we made it to the bottom of the gorge. The deafening sound of water falling and streaming all around us as we sat on a massive rock in the middle of the river made it all worthwhile. The crashing rapids drowned out all other sounds.
An hour and a half later, when we climbed out from the gorge, it felt pretty wonderful to look back on how far we had come. We had conquered the Tiger Leaping Gorge.