Once, a mighty tiger roamed the mountains of ancient China. He ruled the steep cliffs with impunity. But along came a hunter, as mighty in the world as the tiger was in the wild. Slowly and carefully, quietly and expertly, the hunter stalked the tiger. Through forest and clearing, up mountains and down, until late one night, above the river, the tiger was cornered. A huge cliff behind him, and the powerful, deep, ice cold waters of the river below. The hunter drew his arrow, the bowstring stretched back ready for the killer shot. All was quiet. Savouring the moment, taking quiet satisfaction in his expertise, the hunter loosed the arrow.
With little more than a whoosh, it flew towards the tiger. But that whoosh was enough. In a millisecond, the tiger was alerted. And in a flash, with a huge thrust of his powerful legs, the tiger leapt across the terrifying gorge, clearing the churning turmoil of the rapids below. On the other side, he cast a glance back to the hunter. And the hunter, in disbelief, looked back in awe. Returning to the village, he told the tale. For ever after, that place would be named 虎跳峽 – “Tiger Leaping Gorge”.
Haba Snow Mountain
Like many such places, this village had one guesthouse where “everybody stays”. Predictably, it was overpriced and run down. We looked around the tiny village, nestled between the far end of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge and the lower slopes of Haba Snow Mountain, a 5,396 meter peak.
Before long, we found a lovely place where we were the only guests. Clean, comfortable, warm, and with a friendly owner. Each morning, she built a fire in her iron stove and made us porridge and boiled eggs for breakfast. Above the village, and on a plateau below it which ended abruptly at Tiger Leaping Gorge, terraces lay fallow waiting for the next round of farming.
Amidst the forest we found old tombs, overgrown but still apparently tended to by diligent locals. In a tiny hut on the main street, a nice lady made us some noodles for lunch. It was that kind of place, slow and with fresh air enough to make us contemplate, quite seriously, packing Beijing in and moving here. Perhaps a guesthouse, we thought, until we remembered how much work that was for the Kiwis who ran a place in Ecuador we’d once visited.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Our host gave us instructions for the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were approaching it from the other end, and in the off season. Her husband, a nice old man with a lifetime of mountain experience carved into the wrinkles on his face, took us in his jeep and then up some narrow paths. We stopped for lunch, eggs from the wife’s chicken coop, hard boiled on her stove, and small sweet apples from her courtyard garden. The sun shone with full power in the blue winter sky and white clouds tickled the snowy summits of Haba Snow Mountain and the lesser peaks around it. We waved to local farmers as we approached the gorge itself.
Tiger Leaping Gorge has long been a fixture on the Yunnan tourist trail. It’s not remote in that sense, and in season (summer), it’s reportedly heavily trafficked. But in mid-December 2009, when we visited, the few guesthouses were empty and we had no trouble finding a room. At the first place, after a day’s walking, we basked in the sun on the terrace, staring southwards at the fearsomely steep cliffs on the other side. That late in the year, the sun set behind the jagged ridge at around three pm, and it was close to dark by five. But before it did, warm yellow light lit up the green terraces below the hotel, flowers shining red.
The Gorge itself is one of the deepest in the world, at more than 3,700 meters from the tops of the mountains to the river below. The path, though, is much lower in elevation, and at some points actually reaches the river bed by means of a slightly nerve-wracking makeshift ladder. In season, you need to pay to use this ladder, but in December it was deserted. It is here that the legendary tiger leapt the gorge – a death defying 25 meter jump – to escape a hunter. By our standards, Tiger Leaping Gorge was not a difficult hike. It has a few steep climbs, but the infamous switchbacks were fairly meek by comparison to other treks we did that year (Colca Canyon and Choqueqirao in Peru, and the Grand Canyon).
But it was certainly beautiful. Soaring mountains, a wild river, huge cliffs, and slightly insane ladders where slipping means, well, don’t slip! We spend two nights in guesthouses on the trail, alone in the first and with a small group of friendly foreigners in the second with whom we shared a meal. On day three, we left early, down the famous switchbacks, and fetched up at a small settlement where we found a mini-bus to Lijiang.