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In China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge, a Mountain Culture Flourishes

As he hiked through this UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jake Maynard found that the people who made the canyon home challenged his American idea of "wilderness".

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The donkey lady has a good eye for weakness. She’s been following us up the mountain for a quarter-mile, her animal in tow, calling to us to rent one.

It’s too far,” she says to my girlfriend, Noelle. “Just take a donkey.”

We’re halfway through day one of a two-day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge at the edge of the Himalayas in China’s Yunnan province. Cut by the Jinsha River—the main tributary of the Yangtze—the gorge plunges more than 12,000 feet from peak to riverbed. It’s one of the deepest canyons in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

It’s November, the dry season, and the air at 9,000 feet is warm and dusty. Rhododendron and pines frame the trail, giving way to bamboo in the steepest sections. In the lower elevations, lemon and wild kumquat trees droop heavily with fruit. There’s also wild hemp—marijuana, essentially, or something that looks a lot like it—that grows in occasional trailside clusters. The few plants I find look to have been been picked clean by hikers. 

Noelle, who speaks Chinese, has been haggling with the donkey lady through bouts of panting. I may have undersold the difficulty of the hike and she’s struggling with the elevation and exposure. While I was interested in the hike itself, she was more intrigued by the chance to try yak meat; the area surrounding Tiger leaping Gorge is a gateway to the Tibetan plateau. 

So far it’s been unlike any hike I’ve ever done, as much a cultural and commercial experience as a natural one. Whereas hiking in North America is all about seeking raw backcountry, here the hike has created an economy of its own. On the trail, commerce flourishes. Every half-mile or so, we’ve encountered a vendor hawking the same goods: Snickers, Red Bull, water, straw hats, and marijuana. 

“Weed,” the vendors, older ladies with a distinct grandmotherly vibe, say as we pass, fidgeting with their smartphones from their tin-roofed huts plopped tight to the trail on any marginally flat space. “Weed? Ganja?” 

The weed hawkers transitioned to donkey rentals as we approached the 28 Bends, a series of steep switchbacks famous for breaking hikers’ spirits. Knowing this, the donkey lady follows us closely. She wants about $30 USD to transport us through the bends, emphasizing the distance by pointing to the ridge above.

Bends aside, the trail itself isn’t that difficult for an experienced hiker. Getting there is the hardest part. We started our trip the previous day in the city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. From Kunming, we took a three-hour high-speed train to Lijiang, a tourist hub. 

From Lijiang, we took a public bus through the mountains, winding on narrow roads through gritty industrial towns where the traffic was slowed by concrete trucks and sanlunche’s—basically motorcycles with a two-wheeled carts mounted to the back, used by farmers and delivery drivers. Most drivers, including our bus-driver, seemed to take traffic laws as mere suggestions, crossing double-lines to pass whenever the opportunity presented itself. 

We got off the bus at Quitou, a small mountain town at the start of the trail, then spent the night at one of the many hotels serving visitors to the gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Photo: inigoarza/RooM via Getty Images

Long before foreigners came to photograph the gorge, locals were using these routes to guide animals into the hills to browse.

Partway up the 28 Bends, I start to think that Noelle should have opted for the donkey ride. The bends are steep—Himalaya steep—and we can feel the exposure through the thin air. “I know lots of people who have done this,” Noelle says, trying to encourage herself. “I know unathletic people who have done this.” 

But catching a lift is no longer an option; the donkey lady has left us without notice. I can hear the donkey’s bell descending the mountain. So we take it slow, huffing with every step. Each time Noelle asks me how many bends we’ve done, I make up a promising number. 

“It’s really close,” I keep telling her. “It’s just up the hill a little ways.”

This might be the kind of deception that ends a new relationship, but the view from the top of the bends is the kind of vista that saves one.  There, the full scope of the gorge reveals itself. Across the ravine stands Yùlóng Xuěshān, orJade Dragon Snow Mountain—a massif of saw-toothed peaks separating the Yulong Mountains from the Tibetan plateau. Topping out at 18,000 feet, the highest peaks keep snow year-round even though we’re at the latitude of South Florida. The exposed rock faces are basalt and limestone, startlingly dark against the cloudless sky. The contrast is so stark that some locals call the range Black-and-White Snow Mountain. 

After the bends, as the trail drops through fir and bamboo thickets, we start seeing goats. First, just a few. Then a dozen more. Then at least fifty, marching down the trail like they’re late for a party. Some wear bells, making a brassy chime as they trot. They pass us closely, accustomed to tourists like myself, who are enamored with the way they bleat and cant their heads to study you. While they make a mess of the trail, it’s important to remember that it’s their trail: Long before foreigners came to photograph the gorge, locals were using these routes to guide animals into the hills to browse. 

The goats were headed home. There are three villages along the trail, mostly populated by the Naxi people, an ethnic minority known to foreigners for their matriarchal traditions and baba, a heavy bread that is often stuffed with red bean paste or pickles.

Jagged mountain peaks of Tiger Leaping Gorge at sunset, Yunnan, China Photo: JossK/iStock via Getty Images

We descend into a Naxi village and pass the Tea Horse Hostel, one of a dozen guesthouses along the trail that offer rooms, meals, and alcohol. Most are small, timber-framed, and built of local stone. Constructed in the style of traditional Yunnanese country houses, the guesthouses usually feature three distinct buildings forming a U shape around a central courtyard. Ornate woodwork covers the gables and many of the porch railings.

As it turns out the houses’ proprietors are practicing a benevolent deception of their own: Each sign says their guesthouse is a twenty-minute walk away. Fifteen minutes later, the next boulder says the guesthouse is still a twenty-minute walk. 

We arrive at the second village an hour before dark and opt for The Halfway House, one of the largest and most popular guesthouses in the gorge. With a central courtyard full of ornamental plants and corncobs hanging to dry on the eaves and porch railings, it looks like an overgrown version of the country houses we’ve passed all day.  

November is the off-season at the gorge, but the place is still busy. A group of Malaysian hikers are photographing themselves on the guesthouse’s huge balcony in front of the mountains. A group of Chinese tourists, who came to the village via the low road, are drinking beer in the dining room. A crew of South Korean retirees are scurrying to catch the sunset with enormous cameras swinging from their necks. 

Our room, which costs about 20 USD a night, is clean and has hot water. There’s a balcony that looks out at the gorge. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain fills the entire viewscape, alpenglow striking the peaks and casting the limestone strata in a pale gold hue as we roll ourselves into bed.

A hiker capturing a valley in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Photo: JaniceEdge/iStock via Getty Images

Day two begins with power lines. Leaving the village, the trail and the power poles follow the same path, winding around a mountain. If this were traditional American wilderness hiking, the lines might ruin the view. But Tiger Leaping Gorge isn’t just a natural wonder. To experience the gorge is to see the way that people like the Naxi live, and have lived, in this beautiful, occasionally difficult landscape. 

Nowhere is this clearer than when we reach the waterfalls. A mile into day two of the hike, some of the best views of the trail begin. The trail snakes alongside a rock face; at some points the path is a ledge hacked into the cliff, just a few feet wide. Water falls from the ridge above, eroding the trail down to slick limestone. One hundred feet above us, I see a water pipe that has been run up the cliff face and set into the waterfall to collect water for an irrigation system in the next village. 

It’s hard to think of myself as an adventurer when faced with the reality that, not long ago, someone hiked to this point in the trail, climbed the cliff, used a rope to haul one-hundred feet of plastic pipe into the air, and bolted it into the rock. But that’s the gist of it. And that person who put the pipes there gets the same view daily that I flew halfway around the world for.  

That, as much as the mountains, is the beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge. It serves as a reminder that, in most of the world, human habitation is an inextricable part of beautiful and rare landscapes. In the US, where the majority of us live in cities and travel to wildernesses artificially designed to be devoid of people, it’s easy to forget that nature and culture have always been intertwined. 

The trail winds through the gorge, passing another waterfall siphoned with a pipe, and carves through a cliff face where the trail is sketchy and narrow. From an outcropping we can see the end of the gorge and the last village in the valley below. According to the cliff-face, Tina’s Guesthouse is down there. Supposedly it’s only a twenty-minute walk away.