Along the Tea Horse Route, between Lijiang and Shangri-La in China (yes there is a real place called Shangri-La), is a place of immense beauty where you will experience a memorable Yunnan adventure. This is not just a stopover but a destination that deserves to be considered and a Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is an experience to put on your bucket list.
Yunnan Adventure along the tea horse route
The area now called Shangri-La used to be a major stop over along the ancient tea horse route. This route through Yunnan was how tea from China was transported to Tibet, India and Burma.
These days, Shangri-La is an old town with a warren of shops selling yak tails, horn and meat. If you’re not in the market for any of those, you might like to buy silver jewellery and brightly woven shawls as souvenirs.
The tea horse route was well-travelled during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). Tea was transported by mules and on the backs of tea porters.
These porters walked for days carrying their own weight in tea. They walked through snow, wind and along high mountain ranges. It was dangerous and exhausting.
Horse trading began during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). China’s rulers traded tea for Tibetan horses. About 15,000 war horses were swapped for 5000 tons of tea.
Shangri-La to Lijiang
A road trip from Shangri-La to Lijiang (another main centre on the tea horse route) is much easier to navigate. It takes around four hours and there’s some beautiful scenery along the way.
The biggest attraction is Tiger Leaping Gorge, a deep and serene wonder of nature where the Jinsha River (a tributary of the Yangtze River) gushes or perhaps you could say it roars like a tiger.
The rapids between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain are famous.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a 16km and one of the world’s deepest.
According to one Chinese legend, the gorge was named after a tiger that jumped over the river while fleeing from a hunter.
If you’ve ever been here you’ll realise it would be impossible for an ordinary tiger to jump over the river.
The distance from one side of the river bank to the other (about 25m) would require magical abilities.
Tiger Leaping Gorge hike
A Tiger Leaping Gorge hike starts with an easy walk down into the gorge several flights of stairs. Climbing down into the gorge is a cinch.
The steps lead deep into the canyon, where at the bottom there’s a timber platform.
The scenery is breathtaking and the river swirls like a giant washing machine, frothing and spraying water onto the visitors on the platform.
The energy of the water is mesmerising and calming at the same time.
On the opposite bank, I squint to catch a glimpse of the stone statue of a tiger, apparently on the spot where the tiger is believed to have leaped from.
High road vs low road
You can get to the statue on foot if you follow the path called the “high road”. This is the local Tiger Leaping Gorge hike – a rough, earth track regularly used by Naxi people to travel between villages. But there’s another trek known as the “low road”, which is sealed. This path is used by day-trippers to get to the various lookout points around the gorge.
While climbing down stairs to the gorge, I don’t even break a sweat. But getting back up is another story.
If you’re affected by high altitudes, it can be quite a struggle.
Fortunately, at Tiger Leaping Gorge, there are strong wiry men who will carry you up in a sedan chairs. It’ll cost about 100 yuan ($15).
Halfway up my heart starts pounding and I feel light headed. I give in to a toothless sedan man who looks about 90. His friend seems young and strong but they both puff and pant as they haul me up the steep stairs.
The ride isn’t exactly smooth. At one point, my chair tips backwards and I think I’m going to fall.
The sedan men stop for a rest and I take the opportunity to walk again. But 20 steps later, I’m back in the chair. I’d realise how difficult it is to climb even a few steps at this altitude.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of China Southern Airlines, MGallery Songtsam Retreat and Pullman Lijiang
China Southern Airlines has flights to Guangzhou, with connections to Shangri-La and Lijiang.
MGallery Songstam Retreat in Shangri-La has lovely views of Songzanlin Monastery. Pullman Lijiang Resort & Spa has accommodation is in private villas.
Where else to go in China? Explore Xiamen in Fujian for beautiful views, culture and history.