The high trail of the Tiger Leap Gorge in Yunnan is easily one of China’s best hikes, and a must do for anyone visiting Yunnan. The problem is timing: although the hike is only 25km, almost all itineraries require two days because they get you to the start point of the hike, Qiaotou (桥头), too late to complete the full trail in a day and still get transport out. So people end up staying overnight on one of the routes guesthouses. Which is no bad thing if you have stacks of time. But I just had a weekend to visit from Kunming, and I also wanted to see Shangri-la on the same weekend.
There is a workable solution to complete the hike in a day: you can take an overnight bus from Kunming (昆明) to Shangri-la (香格里拉, pronounced Xiāng-gé-lǐ-lā), and ask the driver to drop you at Qiaotou enroute. This got me to Qiaotou at 6:45am, allowing me to finish the hike by 14:15 the same day, and then catch a 15:30 bus from Tina’s Guesthouse to Shangri-la.
I struggled to find much information on this approach to hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the net, and took a bit of a gamble that it would work. I decided to write a quick summary of my experience for anyone else who was keen to get the most out of their time.
Transport: taking the overnight bus from Kunming
The classic approach is to fly to Lijiang, stay overnight, and get a morning bus to Qiaotou, arriving about 11:00 to start the hike. You take two days to complete the hike, and return to Lijiang or travel onwards to Shangri-la the following afternoon. A cheaper alternative is to take the overnight train from Kunming, arriving early enough in the morning in Lijiang that you can catch the same bus to Qiaotou. As neither of these options would work for my timings, I decided to check out the bus routes.
The long distance bus route from Kunming West Bus Station to Shangri-la (香格里拉) goes through Qiaotou (桥头), the small town at the head of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. According to the bus schedule it takes about 12 hours for the bus to drive to Shangri-la, and Qiaotou is about 2 to 3 hours drive before Shangri-la. So my plan was to take the latest possible bus from Kunming, and arrive early morning (but hopefully not to early!) in Qiaotou.
Departure times seem to vary by day, and the only reliable way I could find to get accurate information was to go the bus station and ask what was available. I went on a Thursday afternoon and bought a ticket for the latest bus next day, departing Friday evening at 20:00. The ticket price was RMB 208 (about USD 30). I had to buy a ticket for the full route to Shangri-la, there was no discount for getting off early.
The Bus Trip
Turning up on Friday evening the bus station was a little chaotic. I arrived early, at about 19:10, to have time to find the bus and convince the bus driver that he should let me off early in Qiaotou. At this stage I still wasn’t clear that an early drop-off was possible, as the ticket sales lady hadn’t been overly enamoured with my plan the previous day. In practice it wasn’t necessary to arrive so early as the bus only turned up at the departure bay 20 mins before departure.
I was a little concerned about my ability to negotiate with the bus driver. One issue was that I didn’t know for certain if Qiaotou was actually called Qiaotou. Qiaotou itself just means “bridge” in Chinese. I had read that the town had been renamed Hu-tiao-xia-zhen (虎跳峡镇 which means Tiger Leaping Gorge village), and this is what it seemed to be called on Baidu maps (the China equivalent of Google Maps). So initially I told the driver in poor Chinese that I needed to get off early at Hu-tiao-xia-zhen. This wasn’t a successful strategy and elicited a lot of grumpy hand waving that seemed to loosely translate as “I have no idea what this stupid foreigner wants”. So I tried Qiao-tou instead and this hit the spot. “You mean Qiao-tou?!”. While not seeming overly happy about the situation, the driver agreed to let me off at Qiaotou, and took my berth number so he could find me to rouse me if I was asleep at the time. There was also another lady getting off at Qiaotou (a local, not someone doing the hike), so it seems to be a reasonably common (and not unreasonable) request.
This was my first experience of a China long distance bus. I had been expecting normal seats, but the bus is actually configured with 3 rows of double-decker sleeper berths. Each berth is fitted with a sheet and comes with a pillow and thick duvet. The linen seemed to be clean, but then again the lighting was helpfully low so it wasn’t possible to really inspect it.
On first sight I thought this would mean I would actually sleep properly on the bus. But the experience was a little less comfortable. The berths are about 2/3rds of the length a normal height person would need to lie flat. As a result you end up in an uncomfortable kinked posture whichever way you try to lie which makes sustained sleep difficult. This isn’t just a westerns are taller than Chinese issue, everyone was scrunched up like an accordion.
This, combined with the noise and motion of the bus and fairly regular rest stops, means your best case is a night of broken sleep. However I got enough sleep to be fit and ready for the hike in the morning. This was helped by an almost 3 hour sojourn in a motorway rest station en-route: the stationary bus meant it was much easier to sleep during this period. Whether or not this long stop is standard practice I don’t know.
We left the final rest stop about 5:00am. Because the driver had told me we would be arriving at 5am I had set a silent alarm on my phone, and I was wondering if we were close to Qiaotou. Baidu maps on my phone estimated another hour and a half of drive time to Qiaotou, and so I left this tracking and drifted in and out of sleep monitoring our progress as I didn’t trust 100% that the driver would remember to let me off! In practice I need not have worried. At 06:45am I was standing in the dark on the street in Qiaotou.
To find the trail I had downloaded two GPX trail routes from Wikiloc [link 1, link 2]. I fired this up on my phone, and basically followed this straight from the bus station. I’d packed a head-torch that I’d previously got at a good price from Justlooking.com, and a large collection of snacks and water. There was an baozi place that looked semi-open in Qiaotou, so it may have been possible to get a quick bite there. I had expected that the TLG ticket office would be closed given the time of the day. However it was staffed by a very determined lady who diligently intercepted me and made sure I paid my 65 RMB entry fee!
There is some development underway on the initial part of the trek, and I ended up walking through a railway construction site following the trail route. Nobody stopped me, and I soon met the trail path signs, so I presume I went the correct way!
En-route I passed by numerous empty vendor stalls. I didn’t meet a single person who tried to sell me anything (nor anyone I could buy water or snacks from). I presume this is because they arrive later in the day to catch the people coming off the busses from Lijiang. So don’t rely on being able to buy provisions.
I was also amused to see a lot of advertising en-route in the form of rock paintings. The prize for the most prolific goes to the Bodhi Inn in Shangri-la, which has managed to cover rocks along the entire route with their name. I guess Bodhi survived that wave and didn’t die after all. The first Bodhi I mean, everyone knows the second Bodhi sucked.
The lack of vendors gave me plenty of time to enjoy the splendour of the scenery.
Most of the trail is undeveloped, but there is a lot of activity in progress around the beginning of the trail. My sense is that within 5 years they will have turned this into a standard Chinese tourist attraction complete with cable car, paved walkway and flags. So my strong advice is to try and do this hike soon, before it is fully sanitised and ruined. A road complete with viewing platforms has already been installed on the low route.
I arrived at the well marketed Halfway House almost exactly at noon. I kept a good pace on the walk, but I still stopped plenty of times for short rest breaks and to take photos. It’s mostly dirt and rock paths, although there are paved areas near the villages where the guest houses are based.
Although cleverly called the Halfway House, it is more like the three-quarter way house. I stopped for about 20 minutes for a packed lunch on the mountain path just after Halfway House, sitting on a rock with some superb views. I then carried on towards Tina’s guesthouse at the end of the trail. The trail past Tina’s has some beautiful parts with narrow paths along the mountain edge, with sheer drops to the side. As a result you can’t go as fast as you might like along some of these sections as a mis-step would would be dangerous.
As usual, I found the climb down slower and more painful than the climb up. It was slow going in places, and not something I’d want to do in the rain. I arrived at about 14:15 at Tina’s.
Tina’s guesthouse organises daily busses at 9:00 and 15:30 to Lijiang and to Shangri-la. I was concerned about availability, so I had contacted them a few days before to try and make an advance booking for the bus. However they told me it’s not possible to make an advance booking, and that they only sell tickets to people in person. They also said not to worry because there would be space. So I bought my ticket to Shangri-la when I arrived at the guest house, giving me an hour to freshen up and get some more food!
Although they sold me the bus ticket, when it came time to board the bus they said there was no space on the main bus to Shangri-la. So they put me and another couple on the Lijiang bus, and when we got to Qiaotou they swapped us onto another bus going to Shangri-la. This was fine as a solution, and didn’t delay me by more than 10 minutes.
The ride to Shangri-la took almost 3 hours as there was a lot of traffic and the road quality was poor for some stretches. But it was great to see the countryside and also the extensive development of infrastructure (roads and a trainline) underway.
I arrived in Shangri-la before 19:00. The bus to Lijiang would have been faster if you then wanted a quick return flight to Kunming.