Tiger Leaping Gorge - The Middle Trail
The "middle" trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge is confusing. It's not actually part of the hike to the gorge - it starts and ends inside of Walnut Garden village. Posts from other travelers have described it as the easiest trek you can imagine or the most difficult insanity China has to offer. I can conclusively state that it's somewhere in-between and the background of the reviewer has a big impact on what you'll find. Here's the deal: are you used to serious hiking? Mountaineering? Back country mountain trails? This will be a a walk in the park. There are steep sections and the deadly roaring river below that you shouldn't take lightly, but the narrow trails and carved out rock paths will give you no trouble. However. If you are used to well managed trails with no serious elevation gain, modern conveniences like hand rails on OSHA specified stairs, or you have a distinct fear of heights you're in for a trip. We did it. We would be happy to do it again. We would prefer not to do it in the rain.
Both Greta and I were recovering from illness, so we decided to skip the initial trek in and take a cab to the Tibet Guesthouse. It was lovely, by the way - don't expect to be waited on hand and foot like it's the Ritz, just relax and enjoy the atmosphere (and unbelievable views from the main room and many of the guest rooms). It was a bit out of the ordinary as we missed the big tourist hike, but the drive in was cool and our day hike in the middle trail was out-of-control good.
As hikers go, we're somewhere in the middle of the two extremes listed above, and the middle trail of TLG was amazing. It's kept up by the locals, so don't balk at the entrance fees charged 2 to 3 times along the trail - this thing goes through people's ancestral homes. They receive no assistance (that I know of as of this writing) from the government. The locals built and continue to maintain the trail at their own cost, so don't get stingy over a few yuan. The experience is worth it!
We started the trail from the top of the steps, so ended up going down them instead of up, and honestly this was a relief at the end. It was a slippery climb down a steep system of stairs and a few ladders, but all in all we deeply preferred the gentle incline of the hill climb on our way out.
Lest we forget, there is a raging river below us that would very much like to kill you. We saw four pigs floating in an eddy that brought our mortality into sharp relief. Comparing their size with humans an equal distance away on a rock convinced me how a person might look floating in the same spot.
The stairs were really incredible though - knowing people had carved them into rocks, seeing the litters that old men used to haul human beings up and down these intense steps? I could barely make it up and down myself on a good day, much less hauling a rotund westerner.
A lot of the difficult sections of trail were made so by virtue of the rain. If it had been dry, some of the spots that unnerved us the most wouldn't have even caught our attention. However, the pictures often belie the steepness directly to your right (or left if you're trekking the other way). This above series of pictures (click on the arrows on the sides) was taken in the exact same spot: one from behind as Greta makes her way down the innocuous looking trail, one after I had crossed, one of my crossing, and finally from my perspective standing in the middle looking down. Good times. Oh lordy, let's go down. Down to the river to pray. Pray that we don't fall in the Yangze - washed like the piggies away, oh lordy...
I took a video to demonstrate all the fun:
The rest of the hike involved sweeping cliff walls in the distance with swaying bamboo, weird birds - it was delightful. A bit wet, but delightful.
At the end, we wound up in some nice winding roads near small terraced corn farms. It was quiet, and smelled like wind. We walked back to our guest house and had some tea. I'm sure we had a nice meal, but I honestly can't remember what we ate. I really liked it.