The Main Hiking Route: Qiaotou to Walnut Garden
This route is about 23km and should take anywhere between six hours and ten hours to walk. The walking times listed in the description below assume an 8 hour total walk. Starting at the Qiaotou ticket office, the first place you will see is Margo’s Gorged Tiger Cafe. Margo is an Australian woman who makes a habit of giving hikers advice when they get off the bus (as long as she’s not out leading a tour). You can leave your bags here for a fee. Otherwise you can leave them at Jane’s Guesthouse, a few hundred meters down the road.
Continue up the road about 200 meters from Margo’s, walking along the brick wall and looking for the small path on your left. There will be painted arrows on the wall to guide you. These red and yellow arrows, marked out by the owners of guesthouses along the route, will assist you throughout the trek. There are a few confusing forks at the start of the trail, but there are enough locals around at this point that someone will be able to point you in the right direction. Otherwise, there shouldn’t be any real trouble following the path throughout the hike.
The first landmark of note is the Naxi Family Guesthouse, around two hours walk from Qiaotou. They make some great food here, so if you’re in need of a meal it’s highly recommended. Around this area is where the really magical gorge scenery begins. It’s also where the hard part of the trek starts.
Not far beyond here is the 28 Bends: a steep, zig-zagging section of the trail that takes you up to the highest point of the trek at 2660m. It’s not all that taxing a walk, though the less fit will need to stop to catch their breath regularly. Touts with horses will probably follow you from the Naxi Family Guesthouse, telling you how steep it is and how you should use their horse. It can be incredibly irritating and they’re unlikely to leave you alone no matter how many times you tell them you’re not interested. They generally won’t persist if you haven’t caved before you’re halfway up the 28 Bends.
There are some lovely views once you have reached the top. But at the best vantage point of the trail, where you can see down the gorge in both directions, some random wanker asks you to pay to take photos. It’s unclear what authority he has to do this, but snapping away without paying him off is bound to cause a scene.
Soon afterwards the trail starts a descent and the next landmark you reach is the Tea Horse Guesthouse. Total walking time between the Naxi Family Guesthouse and here is around 2 hours (3 hours if you struggle through the 28 Bends). This is basically the halfway point of the journey. It’s a further two hours walk to the village of Bendiwan. The first guesthouse you will encounter here is Halfway House, which has amazing views but ordinary service. About five to ten minutes further on are Forest Inn and Five Fingers Guesthouse.
Once you have passed Bendiwan you are in the home stretch. Within 1.5 to 2 hours you descend to the ‘low trail’ (ie. the road), where Tina’s Guesthouse is located. During this stretch you need to walk through a waterfall. Usually the flow is weak enough that this isn’t such a big problem. It’s a 30 minute walk along the road from Tina’s Guesthouse to Walnut Garden where Sean’s Guesthouse and Chateau de Woody are located.
Between Tina’s Guesthouse and Walnut Garden there are several places where you can descend to the Middle Rapids of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The first is from Teacher Zhou’s Guesthouse, which is about 15-20 minutes before Tina’s (you’ll see a sign or two pointing to it). You can use this trail for free if you stay there. The next is the ‘Sky Ladder’ from Sandy’s Guesthouse, which is just over the bridge from Tina’s. Again, you can use the trail for free if you stay there, otherwise it is ¥10. About 10 minutes further along the road from Sandy’s is the ‘Ray of Sunshine’ (Wan Deng Guo) path. It also costs ¥10 and is around a 20 minute walk down and a steep, hard 30 minute climb back up. Both the ‘Sky Ladder’ and the ‘Ray of Sunshine’ lead to the exact same spot, just above the river. The final ignominy is having someone at the bottom charge you more money to take you out to a rock on the river (under what authority is anyone’s guess). A better option is to use the trail down to the river from Sean’s Guesthouse. It’s an easier walk and it doesn’t cost a thing.
Any of the guesthouses along the road (from Tina’s to Sean’s) can organize a taxi back to Qiaotou. The ride costs around ¥80 for the whole minivan and you will usually share it with several other people.