IN SOUTHWEST CHINA, THE mighty Yangtze River surges through the white-capped Haba and Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, creating a spectacular river canyon that rates as one of the world's deepest. In a moment now lost to legend, a resplendently striped South China tiger reputedly leapt 25m across the river to excape a hunter, lending its name to Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the country's most popular hiking destinations.
Despite its UNESCO World Heritage Area listing, the gorge was destined to be flooded by a controversial dam across the Yangtze River until protests by China's fledgling environmental movement triumphed in late 2007. The decision to spare Tiger Leaping Gorge and the homes and livelihoods of about 100,000 (mainly local Naxi) residents only shifted the dam problem further upstream, but it did preserve the High Trail, one of Asia's must-do mini-treks.
Popular for its snow-clad mountain scenery and the chance it offers to escape China's crowded streets and overnight in authentic ethnic villages, the High Trail offers solitude and space in a country where wilderness experiences are rare, and almost never come without handrails and toll booths.
Winding its way beneath waterfalls and through pine and bamboo forests, the High Trail clings precariously to exposed cliffs that fall breathlessly away into river rapids far below. The world's third-longest river, the Yangtze River, or Jinshajiang as it is known at this point, surges between steep, narrow rock faces that rise abruptly for almost 4000m to the summits of Yue Long Snow Mountain (5596m) and Haba Snow Mountain (5396m).
A walk along the High Trail is an easy, overnight adventure in the style of Nepal's tea-house treks, which means you can travel light and indulge in the terrific local hospitality offered along the way.
Most trekkers launch their Tiger Leaping Gorge adventure from Lijiang, one of China's best-preserved, ancient fortressed cities. Getting lost in Lijiang's crazy maze of flagstone backstreets and ancient water canals filled with tangerine carp is the best way to discover the tiny stalls selling discs of fried Naxi baba bread and dumplings, and the hundreds of sunny rooftop cafes with mountain views.
Hiking China's Tiger Leaping Gorge
From Lijiang, it's a two-hour bus ride to the village of Qiaotou, and a short walk across the river and down the track to a ticket office where trekkers pay an entrance fee of 50 yuan (A$8, $4 for students). Between Qiaotou and Walnut Grove deep within the gorge, the trail's 22km is best spread across two leisurely days. It's a rush (and an effort) to complete in one day and the scenery is too beautiful to speed through.
A moderate level of fitness helps ease the strain of ascending the switchbacks up the steep gorge walls, but the High Trail is easily followed.
A procession of yellow arrows keep walkers from veering off along the myriad other mountain trails, and the rough maps (there are no proper official maps) handed out by local guesthouses, along with track notes contained in popular travel guidebooks are sufficient to navigate the route.
Village guesthouses located about two walking hours apart provide meals, hot showers, comfy beds and reviving mugs of sweet rosebud tea en route. The hospitality along this trail is overwhelmingly warm and trekkers routinely gush about the Naxi families who plied them with endless platters of fresh pears, walnuts and sunflower seeds. Carving out an existence from land that tetters on the gorge's western slopes, the Naxis farm corn, walnuts and apples on impossibly slender hillside terraces.
We ended the first day of our trek at Nuoyu village, watching the sun disappear behind the 13 stunning peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and enjoying the twin pleasures of being high among the mountains, yet close enough to civilisation to enjoy an icy bottle of beer.
A hearty dinner, drinks, hot shower and the cleanest bed we'd seen in China cost a tiny $10 for two, the wonderful breakfast of freshly steamed buns with wild honey served gratis, despite our protests. Although no English was spoken, we managed to communicate with our hosts about the important things at least.
On day two, most trekkers reach Walnut Grove by mid-afternoon, descending from the clouds to the river's edge to unwind with fellow trekkers over bottles of cold local Dali beer in sunny guesthouse courtyards. This riverside scenery is difficult to leave, and a crowd usually gathers at Walnut Grove as hikers delay boarding a bus back to Qiaotou.
For those with more time and tenacity, the road continues north into fabled Shangri-La County and a region alive with ethnic minority villages that are home to culturally diverse Naxi, Tibetan and Yi peoples. A mountainous route can be hiked with the assistance of a guide and ponies across three long days, but the local bus ride is just as wild, leading over high-altitude hills with an overnight stay near Baishuitai's awesome limestone terraces that pool with turquoise springwater.
Although Yunnan Province boasts around half of the nation's flora and fauna species, its South China tigers have long since disappeared. They are believed to be extinct in the wild, but legends live long in China, and the leaping tiger's absence does little to slow the flow of adventurous travellers to this magical spot.
Surviving Southwest China
Guidebooks to Southwest China contain a horrifying list of dangers and annoyances that will have you quivering in your hiking boots long before you set foot on your first 24-hour sleeper bus. Although journeys through Yunnan province are not always pleasant, this region gets you off the beaten track to flex some serious travel muscle. Just be sure to pack a good sense of humour.
Why the stares? There may be 8 million bicycles in Beijing, but you can bring down half of the Southwest's cyclists just by walking down the street. Foreigners remain terribly fascinating creatures in this remote region, and without a common language to help quell their curiosities, locals often eyeball your every move.
Even the most tolerant travellers can be worn down by a 10-hour bus ride with an unflinching audience, but when it gets too much, headphones, a good book or an eye mask all help. Losing the plot does nothing more than make you even more interesting.
Bad habits? An estimated one in every three cigarettes smoked in the world, is smoked in China. Ride enough local buses through China's Southwest and you'll be on a pack-a-day habit without ever lighting up. Rural Chinese men are a generous bunch; when one lights up, he passes the packet around to his fellow travellers too.
Opening the bus window to let in some fresh air reveals another Chinese conundrum: many rural people have a pathological fear of cold air and will shut the windows and start a smoke-a-thon to help warm up their lungs. Clearing the lungs of phlegm is another nauseating habit that most travellers never get used to. Eventually you learn to dodge mucus on the pavement without cringing, but it does take time.
The essentials of China and Tiger Leaping Gorge
Getting there: A host of Chinese airlines connect to Lijiang and a two-hour bus ride delivers trekkers to the trailhead above Qiaotou.
Getting organised: A 30-day single-entry tourist visa ($40) must be applied for in advance; go to http://au.china-embassy.org/eng/ls. Lijiang has ATMs and travellers cheques and Australian dollars can be exchanged for Chinese yuan renminbi.
Where to stay: Lijiang's Old Town offers a good choice of hotels and guesthouses (double rooms from $15 a night). Village guesthouses in Qiaotou and throughout Tiger Leaping Gorge offer budget-priced rooms, meals and drinks.
On the Trail: Local guesthouses dispense rough maps, and travel guidebooks to Southwest China include track notes that will equip you to handle the journey. Carry warm clothing and avoid the wet months of July and August when landslides and waterfalls can cut off the trail.
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