Leaping Tiger, Hidden Lijiang

Arron explores the ancient streets of Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province, before heading into the magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Words and photos by Arron Layton. Edited by Katy Who.

The cobbled streets are smooth and polished under my feet and the roads shimmer in the sunshine. You can almost feel the presence of the thousands of people who have walked these pathways for hundreds of years. As I wander over the small bridges that span the quaint trickling streams running through the streets, I find myself struggling for grip and I’m occasionally caught out by a small slide back down the other side of the hump-backed bridges. The traditional buildings have such a traditional Chinese aesthetic; I feel like I’ve wandered into a film set. If you imagine ancient China, Lijiang is pretty much spot on: the ebony, curved, terracotta roof tiles and locally-produced carved wooden beams create a gorgeous, yet humble architectural atmosphere. Many of the roofs feature stone animal carvings, which, according to local superstition, provide good fortune for the occupants of the house and protects them from harm.


Lijiang is famous for two significant reasons in Chinese culture: most recently, during the civil war, Mao Tze Dong lead a mass retreat through the area to re-attack the republican movement and recruited an army on the way, eventually winning the civil war and reuniting China's different regions and tribes to the united communist country we recognise today. Secondly, Lijiang is known for the Tea and Horse route. This is a road where the east of China met the west, and the locals would trade tea from the region with horses. Lijiang’s valley, with its fresh glacier water and lush grazing grasslands acted as the perfect location to trade.

Visiting Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

If you really want to experience Lijiang old town, you must visit either at sunrise and sunset as it can be a bustling tourist town. They also recently installed a new high speed train, so the town is very well connected and thus, has never been busier. Fear not though, as with most tourist hot-spots, if you can brave an early morning, you can experience the peace and serenity that the town has to offer. Take a short hike to the black dragon pools and for a small fee on a clear day you can look directly up to the lovers mountain: Yulong Snow Mountain. Also known as Jade Dragon Mountain, it can be seen reflecting in the morning sun in the pools. Yunnan Province is also famous for its delicious coffee, so take a warming mug down with you to accompany that stunning sunrise view.


In the evening as the sun sets, the small town comes alive with the street vendors opening their doors to the buyers market. Unlike most markets that tend to sell mass-produced items for the tourist market, Lijiang for the moment at least still sells handcrafted goods like locally produced paper and books, silverware made by silversmiths and even hand made copper tea pots that look truly exceptional, (we even have one hanging in our van!).


If the hustle-and-bustle of the town is too much for you, you can arrange a local guide and head for a two hour drive north to one of the most impressive landscapes in the world. Tiger Leaping Gorge is a cavernous expanse between Yulong Mountain, standing at 5600m, and Haba Snow Mountain, at 5536m. Running through the centre of the gorge between the two hulking mountains is the Yangtze river which runs from Tibet to the East China Sea. Where the Yangtze cuts in between the colossal mountains, it creates one of the deepest gorges in the world. At the gorge’s narrowest point, it is only 30m wide.


The views along this gorge are spectacular. For the more adventurous, it is possible to hike along the 50km trail following the main section of the gorge, starting from a lesser known hamlet called Chansheng. Its not the most charming place however, as there tends to be so much construction there that a thick layer of dust covers the road. The first 500m consists of a road you’ll share with large trucks as they trundle to and from their destination, creating gigantic plumes of eye-watering dust. Once you make it past this though, you can wave goodbye to the traffic. The only congestion you’ll find from here are horse men who offer to carry your bags for an undisclosed fee and goat herders taking their livestock out on the hillside looking out for the lushest pastures.


A much more pleasant and peaceful journey is to be had from the Naxi Guest House onwards. The trail consists of a gravelly, flat single track with occasional rutted sections and views over the neighbouring mountain. The route takes you in and out of bamboo and pine forests that can provide welcome and forgiving shade in the hotter parts of the day. The colosseum of mountains that surround the track from this point are incomprehensibly huge: it’s the kind of landscape that makes you feel microscopic. Camping isn’t really an option on this route, so the only real way to stay refreshed is to stay in the beautiful guest-houses dotted along the track. Their views are breath-taking and near-impossible to capture. In hindsight, trying to recall the sheer scale and mass of the landscape is a difficult task: it’s almost too colossal to believe.


Once the upper trail is complete, the path takes a descent down into the middle gorge. Here the trail continues down hill into the luscious greenery, where the trees start to close in and the entire landscape feels like a forgotten world. Boulders pepper the trail, abandoned by the sheer power of the flow from the unforgiving river, and these fragments of rock allow those who can clamber onto them a beautiful view of the raging torrent that is the Yangtze river.

Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge are two places that will remain fresh and vivid in the memories of all who visit for decades after they’ve left. That is the magic and the power of this long-lost, magical location on the stunning Tibetan Plateau. Lijiang and the surrounding areas are well-worth a visit on the way to Shangri-La or just for a unique and breath-taking trip it its own right.