The Truth About Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2018
There is a lot of outdated information on the 'Net about hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in China's southwestern Yunnan Province. From prices and homestay accommodations, to trail conditions and route, this area is changing fast. We hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge in May 2018, relying on popular internet blogs for guidance. We found that a lot of the information written before 2018 was unreliable or created false expectations. It got us to the trailhead, but we encountered a number of surprises (both good and bad) that didn't match what we had read. Here are a few of the surprises we had in the Spring of 2018:
Surprise #1: Explosion of inns and variety of accommodations
Homestays have increased in number and have modernized. The original inns are still there - Naxi Guest House, Half Way Inn, Tina's and Tibet House. These days, there are many more inns from which to choose and all have excellent views. There are also more accommodation options: $5 dorm-style rooms with shared squat toilet to $20 luxury private rooms with double beds and western-style bathrooms. At the middle and end of the trail, competition is increasing. Check out a few places and negotiate on room rates or meals. Show you are willing to go somewhere else and you may get a better deal.
Surprise #2: Food is meh, at best
Our culinary experiences at the original inns did not match what we had read online. Many travel blogs rave about the food served at the inns on the trail. Food is a personal judgement, but I will say that we were wholly unimpressed with both the menu choices and the bland flavor. Inns seemed to have "westernized" their menu, which in China means that all flavor has been stripped away. Our dinner and breakfast at Naxi Guest House on days 1 and 2 were unmemorable - large portions, but bland. We stopped at Half Way inn on day 2 for lunch; the food was inedible and the porch was covered in flies. After waiting an hour for grease-soaked noodles, I could not even gag them down. Unlike travel blog descriptions, we did not see a single "Naxi sandwich" on any menu except Tibet House. We ate dinner and breakfast on days 2 and 3 at Tibet House, which does have the trail's best food, but that is relative (and we were admittedly spoiled on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit when it comes to terrific Tibetan food). The sweet yak cheese dumplings that I ate at Tina's before we boarded the bus on day 3 were the only food that stands out as being surprisingly delicious in my mind. Food prices were also significantly higher than expected - we paid an average of $5 per person per meal, which is double the price for half the quality elsewhere in China. Prepare to be underwhelmed by the food.
Surprise #3: Half Way inn's "toilet with the best view in the world" is actually a squat-trough without doors
and your view is the ass of the person next to you when you walk in. Or you can look down to see what's happening in the trough below, which I don't recommend. I don't get the hype. The mountain scene, which you cannot see when you squat, is the same as the view you get from the trail. They don't even provide toilet paper. No need to toilet break or eat at Half Way Inn. It was gross.
Surprise #4: It is FOUR long, non-scenic miles to Naxi Guest House
We read that it is 90 minutes to the first homestay on the trail, Naxi Guest House. That would be an aggressive pace for the average hiker. Hand-drawn maps of the area are provided by guest houses and are biased and unreliable. GPS truth: it's four miles from Jane's Guest House in Qiao Tou to Naxi Guest House.
From the trailhead, it's a steep two mile climb on a hot, tree-less, dusty scrub-grass hill at a starting elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. Men on donkeys with loudly clanging bells follow you, prodding you to go faster than you should, given the elevation. I guess the idea is that you'll get tired and hire them. Unless you really want a ride, ignore them. Stop long enough and they will eventually pass you and continue on to their next victim. We only encountered this on the first day.
At the top of the first climb, the trail levels out for a bit. It's two more miles, including a steep downhill, to Naxi Homestay. Not a single person on the trail the day we hiked made it in 90 minutes; the average was about 2.5 to 3 hours. The scenery during these four miles does not change much. There is a large infrastructure project and mining operation on the hill across the valley, which is your view for the first several miles of the trail. Have patience, though. THE VIEW GETS BETTER once you get past Naxi's.
Surprise #5: Half pavement, half dirt trail
We were surprised how much of the trail is either cement or paved road. After leaving Naxi Guest House, the first mile is a cement trail covered in donkey doo-doo. The trail becomes a dirt footpath again at the notorious 28 Bends (truth: 28 bends is over-hyped; it's not that bad). As you enter and pass through the towns further along Tiger Leaping Gorge, expect to walk a decent bit on paved roads. These towns are growing fast, with new resorts and better road access in the works. This will be a huge boom for the local economy, but it has compromised the authenticity of the trail experience. It seems they are trying to preserve and/or re-route the dirt foot paths, so this might not be an issue in the future. There are also lots of electrical wires and water pipes that interfere with otherwise idyllic photo spots. I hope they re-route or obscure those from sight someday, too. These are signs of progress for the community, but not so good for the tourists who come there for the view.
Surprise #6: Hiking into the canyon is EVEN BETTER than the high trail
We tacked on a day of hiking into the canyon as an after-thought to the high trail. Wow, travel bloggers really under-hype this section! This was the best part of the 3 day trek, even in the pouring rain! This section is not covered by the 65 yuan Tiger Leaping Gorge entrance fee that all foreigners pay when the bus enters town. We paid an extra 15 yuan each for permission to proceed down a well-maintained trail to the roaring Jinsha River. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest canyons in the world. Consider that the Grand Canyon is 6,000 feet deep. Tiger Leaping Gorge is 12,000 feet deep at its lowest point. The immense vertical height of the canyon walls and the dramatic waterfalls are best appreciated as you descend to the bottom. Oh, and you actually have two options to exit the canyon. You'll encounter a woman at a gate who will tell you it takes three hours to take the (free) foot path to the top and she will try to persuade you to take the ladder, which was built by her family and costs 15 yuan per person. It took us only 1.5 hours on the footpath and it's an incredible experience. The people who took the ladder told us it was a tourist trap.
Surprise #7: The Jinsha River is not always turquoise
We saw photos and read about the turquoise mineral waters of the Jinsha River. It was not turquoise when we visited; it was muddy brown. I suspect the infrastructure projects upriver are making the water quite dirty these days. When it's raining, the river turns into an angry frothing maelstrom...which is still pretty cool! (but not turquoise.)
Surprise #8: It was hotter than expected
We hiked at the end of May. Based on what we had read (perhaps by people who had hiked in a different season), we expected the temperatures to be quite chilly and we packed accordingly. We were overheated in both the sunshine and the rain. Even the weather app on our phone didn't seem quite accurate. While the temperature was reported to be in the 60's fahrenheit, it felt much warmer. Truth? In May, plan for all kinds of weather - cool in the evening, hot in the sunshine, humid and always a chance for rain.
Surprise #9: No trash on the trails!
Travel bloggers had talked about trash on the trail. We did not see any trash on the trail. There are many incinerators in the villages and they seem to be well-used. So that was a nice surprise!
Surprise #10: Three days and two nights was perfect
We were unsure how long we should plan to be on the trail. The total distance of the high trail is just 15 miles, which some bloggers do in one day and others stretch out for 3 or 4 days. The lower canyon area is about 6 to 8 miles round trip (bottom to top), depending on where you descend. I initially thought three days might be too long. It turned out to be perfect! We had a late trail start on the first day, taking a mid-morning bus from Lijiang, acquiring our park permit, and dropping our heavy packs at Jane's Guest House (truth: yes, they really do only charge less than USD$1 per piece - 5 yuan!). We hiked just four miles to Naxi Guest House on the first day. It rained in the late afternoon, which was our signal to just chill for the evening. The next day, we hiked the remaining 11 miles on the high trail at a leisurely pace. By the time we had showers and dinner at Tibet House, the sun was sinking. On the third day, we hiked down into the canyon in the morning and arrived at Tina's in time for lunch before boarding the bus. Three days and two nights really was the perfect time allotment to enjoy the hike and experience the area.
We hope this is helpful when planning your Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. If you encounter any surprises during your time on the trail, please let us know by commenting.