Tiger leaping gorge: my two cents

This is a post for any normal person wondering whether they should hike the gorge or not. If you’re regular trekker and know what you’re doing, you probably don’t need this advice. 🙂

Wondering how challenging hiking the Gorge really is? So were we…

Roman and I may have been living in Switzerland, but neither of us are serious hikers. But I’m crazy about mountains and we love the outdoors so were interested in doing the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the northwest of Yunnan province. Lonely Planet raved and was encouraging about it but also had this to say about the hike:

“The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a work out… A few people … have died in the gorge. Over the last decade, there have also been cases of travellers being assaulted on the trail. As always, it’s safer in all ways not to do the trek alone.”

This advice gave us pause and we decided to do some internet research to see what we were potentially getting ourselves into.

We found a lot of info and blog entries; none of it made things any clearer. Some people made the hike sound like the biggest challenge and a life-changing event, others painted it as a piece of cake.

Having hiked it myself now, I’ll jump into the muddle and add my own, hopefully helpful, perspective.

The bottom line

Just to paint the picture, Roman and I are in our early thirties. We are healthy and in decent shape but not massively fit or sporty. (Going into the hike, I even had a cold.) For us, hiking the Gorge was totally manageable.

There are a couple of challenging sections but we paced ourselves for those and were fine. There were also a lot of flat, easy-going sections. There were some bits on the second day that made me glad it wasn’t raining. That would have been do-able even if it was slick but doing it safely would have made for slow, muddy hiking.

We shared parts of the trail with a lovely French couple. I would guess they were in their sixties and they often out-paced us (I blame my cold! 😉 ).

So if you are considering doing the hike and are reasonably fit I would totally encourage you to do so.

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Some bits of the trail are wonderfully flat and totally easy

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Some are more of a scramble. This is looking up after just coming down the steep, rocky path. Ok when it’s dry, would have been tough if it was raining…

Things that might be helpful to know

We did the hike in October, so my advice is based on doing the trail in autumn. Other advice might apply to spring and summer. 🙂

– It is possible to hire guides but the trail is clearly marked with blue and yellow signs and spray painted arrows and advertising from the various guesthouses along the way. We had no problem finding our own way – just keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.

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Signs along the way on the trail, each of them with the same spelling mistake 😉

– We were told that the drive from Lijiang to the start of the trail would take about an hour; it ended up taking two. The later start meant that it would have been tight for us to reach the halfway point before dark. We weren’t bothered by stopping at an earlier guesthouse, but some people might want/need to get to the halfway point on the first day. You DON’T want to hike the Gorge in the dark.
If you are there at a time of the year when there are fewer hours of light in the day, make sure you start early enough. The drive from Zhongdian/Shangrila was also about two hours. (Maybe both drives will go faster for you, but it’s China – when we were returning from Zhongdian the bus ride between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang actually took closer to 2 hours 40 minutes when we had to stop for a half hour at one point for no apparent reason…)
I’d also agree with LP’s advice – don’t hike the Gorge alone. Better to be safe than sorry.

– There are different versions of maps of the Gorge – ask your hotel if you need a copy. Most of them list the same hiking times between different points. We found the times listed to be accurate, based on our moderate pace (which included breaks for photo ops ;-)). (I’ll add a photo of the map to this post later)

– Pack as light as possible! I’ll include our packing list below. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 – 3 liters of water per person. We found that 1.5 liters per person per day was more than enough, but we were hiking in cool, overcast weather. I will bet it gets plenty hot when the sun is out.
There will be spots along the way where you can get drinks and snacks but some stretches you’ll be walking for a while with nothing in sight but the beautiful nature, so it’s definitely good to err on the side of caution with water and I’d have at least a Snickers (sold everywhere in and around the gorge) or some fruit with you in case of and energy lull.

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Gorge views, day one. Overcast but still lovely!

– Accommodation in the gorge is simple but fine. We stayed at the Tea Horse Guest House. For RMB 60 we could have gotten the basic room, which is just a room with a bed. We sprung for the deluxe room at RMB 180, which came with an en suite bathroom (western toilet, shower, sink), soap, TP, towels, hangers and a lovely view. I used the public toilets at the Halfway Guesthouse the next day and while the view was as stunning as Lonely Planet mentions, the smell of it made me REALLY glad that we paid extra for the bathroom at Tea Horse. 🙂

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Arriving at the Tea Horse Guest House. Check out that gorgeous vibrant red Bougainvillea!

Food at the Tea Horse was simple but good and the portions were massive. The electricity cut out briefly a couple of times so it may be a good idea to have a flashlight or mobile phone with a light on hand after dark. 🙂

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Our room at Tea Horse

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Our view at Tea Horse – not bad! 🙂

What to pack

Roman and I each carried our daypacks. Aside from the aforementioned food and drink, here’s what we needed:

• Layers. It was definitely cold and wet at different points during the hike but I also worked up a sweat during the more challenging sections. You’ll want to make sure you can keep warm enough and dry too if you have to hike in the rain like we did. The guest houses in the gorge provide electric blankets but are not heated so having a (dry) long sleeve shirt to sleep in is good. In addition to my base layers I traveled with my fleece, raincoat and scarf which were essential. I had extra clothes as we were continuing on to Zhongdian – I didn’t mind having my warm vest when it was time to eat dinner outdoors at our guesthouse! 🙂
• A side note – keep your clothes and other sensitive things dry by storing them in plastic bags in your pack.
• Sunscreen and lip balm – it can get dry and windy. We didn’t need the sunscreen the first (wetter) day but I was happy to have it the second.
• Tissues. I needed tons because of my cold but these are always a good thing to have on you – never know when the toilet you’re using won’t have TP.
• Basic toiletries only. You’re gonna get sweaty and dirty anyhow…
• Only the essentials of our valuables. We kept the laptops at our hotel back in Lijiang with no problem. Of course you have to feel comfortable with the hotel that’s keeping your stuff…
• Camera – worth the extra weight!

Things we didn’t use but were good to have along just in case:

• Hats and sunglasses – the sun made an appearance only during our last hour in the Gorge but then it was plenty powerful!
• A change of clothes – our rain coats did the trick and kept us dry but it would have been pretty miserable going if our clothes were really wet.
• Basic travel meds – you never know!

I’ve gone into greater detail about my backpack and other gear in earlier posts if you want to know more.

One thing I don’t think I’ve talked about before is socks. I have a couple of pairs of Smart Wool socks. I didn’t use them tons in SE Asia because of the heat, but for mild to cool weather, they are brilliant. Your feet stay dry and warm – never too hot – and they are comfy as heck. Love them!

If you’re thinking about visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hope this info is helpful. Happy hiking! 🙂

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Gear check in

A technical post for any interested fellow travelers. 🙂

Going home gave me the chance to switch out/augment some of my travel gear; the rainy season in Laos is affording us the opportunity to test some of our stuff’s durabilty/imperviousness. Here are some notes/reviews.

Back packs

Roman and I both bought the Osprey Waypoint 65 for the trip. It comes with a large, main pack and a smaller day bag that can strap on tot he back of the larger pack.

So far I am satisfied with the large pack, but I’d been getting frustrated with the day bag. It’s ability to attach to the large pack necessitates some compromises in terms of access and space. It’s a function I’ve never used – the one time I tried it I felt like I about to teeter over at any moment because of how it skewed my center of gravity. I’m traveling with a camera, and once the camera bag is in the day pack, there’s basically no room left for anything else.

So when I was home, I ditched the day bag and picked up a new back pack – Eastern Mountain Sports’ 20 liter Fen (women’s), and I’m really happy with it. It fits tons more than the Osprey day bag and is really comfortable. (Although it is definitely a women’s pack – Roman finds it much less comfortable.) It also did a decent job staying mostly dry during the rainiest sections of our bike trip – although I’d recommend putting anything you really want to keep dry in plastic.

Shoes

I’ve also ditched my Naot sandals. As light weight and comfortable as they were, I could never adjust the velcro strap as tightly as I would have liked and I came too close to twisting an ankle too many times – they had to go. They’ve been replaced by my cheap as chips H&M flip flops. Less arch support, sure, but boy are they portable. 🙂

Still loving my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers, although even they were no match to the weather we encountered on the road trip. They are currently caked in mud and drying out in the low-land sun in Pakse; we’ll see how well they recover!

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Our mud-splattered bike, shoes and legs after one of the more slippery patches of road. Will our shoes ever be the same again? 😉

Bottoms

We shouldn’t encounter too much cold weather any time soon, so I got rid of my layering leggings and a couple of other items of clothing. My bottoms currently consist of my original Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (still love ‘em. They got totally soaked as well during the bike trip and dried out most times even as we were still on the bike), a second pair of EMS brand capri pants (also really good!), the lovely orange and brown sarong I bought in Thailand and a pair of shorts for when I can get away with them (in some cities and tourist spots I feel comfortable bearing knees. :-)).

Rain gear

The advent of the rainy season means I finally have a chance to use the fancy pants rain jacket I’ve been carrying around for months. It was one of the more expensive items I invested in for the trip so I’m glad it’s getting put to use! It’s a Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (which I affectionally call the froggy), and I’m pretty well pleased with its performance. It’s the only reason there were still some dry patches left on my body after biking through the rain on the Bolaven Plateau – no small feat considering the amount of water we were up against! Although if you own one please note that the pockets must be fully zipped or else they will leak if you are driving into the rain as we were. I zipped but didn’t double check the first time and ended up with a wet belly as a result. It also does a good job as a wind breaker if, for example, you’re biking in cooler temperatures.

Girl stuff

I won’t go into detail, but another bit of gear I can recommend to women travelers is the Diva Cup. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a Godsend for long-haul flights, endless bus journeys with minimal stops and situations where you have to deal with questionable bathroom situations. 🙂 Also good for the environment!

Ok so I am a wimp, and other travel notes

This is a more technical post, just notes following up on the last post and on travel gear and things like that. Updates on where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to to come later…

Off roading

The trip from Agra to Varanasi was uneventful; running late by over two hours it was simply long. So after 15 hours on the train we were looking forward to arrive at the hotel.

Teerth Guest House is the name of our first non-Lonely Planet hotel. The staff has been friendly and helpful; even with the crazy delay there was someone waiting at the station to meet us (with a chicken scratched piece of paper with my name on it, charmingly held upside down 🙂 ).

We are staying in the heart of the old town, which is a maze of narrow alleyways, so the rickshaw could only take us so far and we had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Thank goodness the place provides pick up service or it would probably have taken us five times as long to find the hotel as it’s really hidden away at the dead end of one of the smaller alleys.

At 550 rupees a night, it is on the cheaper end of what we’ve been paying. And it shows. The room is a good size and the floors are relatively clean, but the walls and linens are particularly shabby and dirty. This isn’t too bad (hurrah for sleeping bag liners and my pillow cases from home! 😉 ), but we were bowled over by the smell (I am telling myself it smells like spoiled strawberry milk; I’d rather not think about alternative explanations) and the first squat toilet we’ve encountered in a hotel.

We borrowed air freshener from the (overly chatty) manager and that’s helped somewhat, and I’m sure it will be fine for the short time we are staying here, but even Roman mentioned at dinner that he could handle the smell or the toilet, but after such a long journey, adjusting to both was just a bit much. 🙂

The location is good though, and maybe we’ll find other redeeming features over the next few days. And in the mean time, I am doing a decent job cultivating amused compassion for the (wimpy) diva in me who is arching her eyebrow in distaste at the questionable stains on the wall and the bugs that keep landing and ants that keep crawling on the bed. 🙂

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The room at Teerth

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Squat toilet!

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This towel will never be white again

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This guy and his friend love hanging out on the beds

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Air Wick to the rescue! 😀

Transportation booking

For anyone considering traveling in India, I wanted to mention the website Cleartrip (thanks for the tip Kay!). We’ve been using it to book all our trains and flights within India. It’s very easy and convenient and has some nifty features like SMS notification and automatically syncing flight/train info onto our calendars. We had to change some plans today and cancelling the flight we had booked on the site was easy as pie; we even were able to get back most of the cost of the flight. The site also has hotel booking, but the selection is limited and I’ve found the prices are better when I’ve gone direct to the hotel site. But for air and train transport in India, it really is super. http://www.cleartrip.com

Gear check up

11 weeks into the journey, here are some reflections on some of what I’m carrying with me.

As mentioned above, the silk sleeping bag liner is an absolute Godsend. For cleanliness but also for warmth – Teerth for example provides no blankets what so ever so it’s doubly good to have them.

The Osprey packs have been mostly great but I’m disappointed that the zipper tabs on mine have come off less than two months in. It’s probably a reflection of my heavier packing that Roman’s pack hasn’t had the same happen to it, but I don’t think my load is unreasonable… (Roman may disagree 😉 )

I have mixed feelings on my Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) clothes. The underwear sizing is much smaller than the clothing sizing, so the expensive high-tech underwear I got is all on the tight side. The tech wick shirts are fine, but they feel too big for me – between the large cut and the plastic-y look, they just don’t feel like me so I find that I don’t wear them much. The EMS Compass Pants are great though – comfortable, light, versatile. Love ‘em.

Love my Merrill shoes as well – they have been totally comfortable from day one, no breaking in necessary. An update on footwear – Roman brought me a pair of light, simple flip flops from home and I am loving this extra luxury. They are my ‘inside shoes’, to be worn only when my feet are clean (I have given up ages ago on the notion that my other sandals are at all clean – they have been through way too much) and only in places where there is no dust, mud, cow poo, etc. to walk through. It’s a little thing but I love having “clean” shoes. 🙂

Another new luxury that we have bought here in India is a small set of Phillips speakers. They are travel size but have really decent sound and it’s just great being able to play our music at the hotels – really enhances the ambience of any place we are.

More thoughts on/reviews of gear later…

Packing for the unknown

What do you bring with you when you don’t know where you are going, what you’ll be doing or how long you’ll be traveling?

This has been the fun mental exercise the past month or so. Roman and I spent probably a total of 8 hours picking the brain of the (very helpful!) assistant manager at EMS in my hometown with these and more questions which has helped me feel a bit more prepared. but I still feel like I’m doing one of those corporate training day exercises where they ask you what tools you’d take from your crashed plane to survive in the desert. For all the apparent logic applied, when you go round the room for the answers, inevitiably you find your judgement has led you astray and you end up with plenty of items that are totally pointless and missing something that would have really helped with your survival. While I’m not nervous, I am curious to see how our projection of what we need lines up with reality.

For my future amusement therefore, here’s an overview of some of the stuff we’re taking.

Travel nerd stuff (some, not all)

Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick T-Shirt (2)
Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick Long Sleeve Shirt (1)
Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (1)
Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick Bikini Underwear(3)
Moving Comfort Alexis Sports Bra (1)
Naot Rachel Sandal (1)
Merrell Moab Ventilator (1)
Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (1)
The North Face TKA 100 Long Sleeve Masonic Hoodie (1)
Stuff Sacks
Sea to Summit 100% Silk Lightweight sleeping bag liner
MSR Ultrasoft Travel and Sports Towel

We also picked up nifty Osprey packs – hope I end up loving mine as much as I think I will. And non-tech clothes, electronics, meds and some other bits and pieces haven’t made the list.

In case you didn’t catch that – that’s two pairs of shoes I’m traveling with. The options have gone from high heel, low heel, no heel, dress up, dress down, old school, new school, does it match my outfit or do I just love them to two: hot or cold. Makes me uncomfortable while being totally liberating at the same time. 🙂

Toiletries are also down to a minimum; my ego is currently in convulsive death-throes over the lack of multiple types of wrinkle-fighting creams, etc., but I suspect these will be forgotten pretty soon too. I was always a tom boy growing up. I’ve embraced the whole dress up, make up thing since I started at my first corporate job, but I really think it will be amazing to wake up in the morning, simply shower (when possible!!) and have breakfast and more or less be ready for the day. Like being a kid again. To be able to spend more time looking out at the world than thinking about how the world might be looking at me.

For comfort

One physical book, a novel in German I’ve been battling with for years now
Plenty of books and music and other entertainment in electronic form (a library of 50 books in the palm of my hand – saving grace!)
A guardian angel pendant from my mother
A small book of photographs of people I love
A silk scarf gifted by a friend years ago that will be making a return visit to India
My own pillowcases
A cloth easily-fold-able yoga mat
And of course my boyfriend (talk about a saving grace!)

I think that’s it. But I’m sure I’ll collect other things along the way. Hope it’s enough to help create home where ever we are.