It’s hard to appreciate an amazing view when you’re gasping for air. The 28 bends is the most notorious section of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, one of China’s top multi-day hikes. I thought I’d struggled around at least 15 bends when I saw a depressing red 1 painted on a rock – it had just began and I was already exhausted.
If you are backpacking through Yunnan you’ll probably be tempted to get out of the hectic Chinese cities and into some nature, and tackling the Tiger Leaping Gorge is a great way to achieve that. There are a few tough sections but it isn’t too bad, and the peace and quiet, not to mention the views, makes it a trek not to be missed. Legend has it that a mutant tiger jumped from one side of the gorge to the other, I can’t remember hearing about a catapult but I’m pretty sure that’s the only way a tiger could make that journey, they tend to leave the mechanics out of these sorts of legends.
Day 1: Starting the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
I got dropped off in a grim little town called Qiaotou on a road with 3 options. I walked up, then down, and after being lost for a half an hour in a 2 street town I finally found the start of the trek. After a quick meal of bland fried rice, I was on my way. I was quickly joined by a group of French guys and their Chinese friend. The first section is pretty easy, taking you above the town and on to the start of the gorge. After an hour or so it got a bit tougher, and the Chinese guy was struggling. He eventually gave up and hitched a ride with a mule. Mules act as taxis on the track, rescuing people who bite off a bit more than they can chew. Just over 2 hours after starting we reached Naxi Family Guesthouse, an old-style Chinese building surrounded by imposing peaks. Since I was in no hurry at all I decided to stay the night, and I’m glad I did. The guesthouse sits amid a peaceful little village filled with far more farm animals than people. I wandered around the village and then got an early night, the 28 bends I’d heard so much about entrenched in the back of my mind.
Naxi Family Guesthouse
After half an hour of walking I came across a weathered old Chinese man frantically pointing me in the opposite direction. I’d missed a turn off and I’m still not sure how, as there are red arrows constantly directing the way. It wasn’t the ideal preparation for the 28 bends, but I eventually got back on track and inched my way up the winding path. I needed a break every couple of minutes, but I was pleased to get to the top, because what goes up must come down, and the next hour or 2 was a cruise downhill towards the Tea Horse Guesthouse. This is another guesthouse set amongst some amazing mountain scenery and was a great place to unwind for the rest of the afternoon.
Tea Horse Guesthouse
This was always going to be the easiest day, a 3 hour stroll down to Tina’s Guesthouse, which marks the end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The views weren’t quite as good but it was still a nice walk. I arrived at Tina’s, grabbed a quick meal and decided to head down to the river, the very bottom of what is possibly (there is some debate about it) the tallest gorge in the world. It was a lot further down than it looked, and about half way down I realised the return journey would be even harder than the dreaded 28 bends. It wasn’t all that impressive down by the river and you could probably skip this part and relax over lunch and a few beers while you wait for the bus to Shangri-La or Lijiang. If you crave some adrenaline, head down to the river, but when you reach a sign which says “ladder this way” and “safe way this way” you should go for the ladder. I had a look and it didn’t seem appealing at all – a vertical metal ladder heading high up into the sky, and it doesn’t even save you much time. An hour or so after I’d arrived back at Tina’s I was on a bus headed for Shangri-La, the fabled paradise. Instead I found a dusty, depressing city which had been drastically misnamed, but more on that next time.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a popular stop on the Yunnan tourist trail, but you won’t see many other people, instead you’ll see amazing mountain views at every turn and you’ll get the chance to stay at some of the better guesthouses in the area. It’s not a tough trek and it’s easy to find your way – just follow the arrows and try not to fall into the river below.
Further reading: Do you agree with this “10 best hiking trails in the world” post?
Have you done the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek? How does it compare to other treks around the world? Let me know!
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