The wizened woman hopped from one bare foot to the other. A harsh stream of Mandarin flowed from her lips. None of us knew the words, yet her meaning was clear. Louis and Jetty were not leaving unless they gave her money.
“She won’t let us out!” Louis yelled to my husband, Ed, and me, frustrated yet bemused.
The two were standing on a scrabbly patch of land just off the hiking trail, a little bump of rock that offers trekkers a scenic overlook of Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge. A wooden pole perched on posts — a crude toll gate presumably constructed by the women — blocked their return to the trail.
“She wasn’t here when we reached this spot,” Louis explained.
“We saw the post, but didn’t know what it was for, so we just ducked under,” Jetty added. “I guess we’re her prisoners now.”
I undertook this hike in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province knowing I would encounter such trailside entrepreneurs — their tactics are legendary. But, still, I couldn’t resist the lure of the mountains, with their views of a rugged landscape and, yes, encounters with the Naxi people who call this place home.
Ed and I chuckled softly in commiseration with the hikers; the woman already had given me an earful when I tried to bargain down the price of a banana at her snack hut. Confident that Louis and Jetty would either pay a few yuan to be released or persuade her to let them go, we continued up the trail.
Minutes later the two caught us, telling us that the woman relented, opened the gate and shooed them back onto the trail. While we pondered whether we’d run into other such inventive locals, Liz and Frank puffed up.
“Did you guys run into the Snickers Lady back there?” Frank asked in a light brogue.
“The Snickers Lady?” I asked.
“That little old woman selling fruit and water and things in the hut back there. I tried to buy a Snickers bar, but she wanted to charge me 50 yuan for it!” he said indignantly (50 yuan is about $7).
“Well,” said Liz, “maybe 50 yuan is a fair price for that Snickers bar. After all, she had to lug it up this mountain.”
“Good point,” someone said as we surveyed each other’s sweat-streaked faces. Then we turned in unison and began trudging uphill once more.
Legend of the leaping tiger
Carved into Yunnan province’s Haba Snow Mountain, the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail has quickly become one of China’s most popular hiking paths, especially among foreigners. The roughly 13-mile footpath leads trekkers from the tiny town of Qiaotou up the steep, craggy side of Haba Snow Mountain, whose tallest peak pokes up nearly 18,000 feet. From there hikers traverse a trench carved into the mountain’s flank before tumbling back down the other side into Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge. Along the way, the trail unspools through two primitive towns offering trekkers food, water and lodging.
The gorge from which the hike gets its name is a spectacular cleft between Haba Snow Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the latter of which is an imposing string of 13 basalt-and-limestone peaks. Water from the Jinsha River, which helps form the upper reaches of China’s mighty Yangtze River, rushes through the gorge at an average 50,000 cubic feet per second, creating a roar so thunderous it reaches the ears of hikers on the primitive trail thousands of feet above.
Chinese legend has it that a tiger traveling from one mountain to the next was able to safely cross the roiling Jinsha by leaping first to a massive 43-foot-tall rock set in the middle of the river, where the gorge narrows to a slit. The tiger’s courageous and agile maneuver resulted in the gorge’s name.
Before starting our journey, Ed and I had stopped to see the gorge and famous rock up close; a sprawling visitor center marks the site. After paying homage to the ancient chunk of stone and to the tiger, whose visage is chiseled into the mountainside, we began to climb.
Not for the wimpy
The trail we hiked has existed for decades and probably centuries. Locals regularly used it to tromp between the hamlets that cling to the mountainside — before the government began pouring a web of easier-to-traverse concrete paths.
About 10 or 15 years ago, locals said, foreigners discovered the age-old footpath. They came to test their mettle against its challenging, steep-sloped terrain and to reap the reward: stunning views of the gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, whose snow-topped ebony peaks appear to be dusted in powdered sugar. Foreigners still make up the bulk of the trail’s hikers. And locals like the Snickers Lady are finding it lucrative to tap into the growing tourist trade by hawking snacks and drinks trailside, or offering simple, clean lodging and hearty fried rice and noodle dishes.
Most hikers take two days to walk along the trail. On the first day, they hike to Halfway Guest House, which is actually about three-quarters of the way, then take the final short trek back down to the road on the second day. Many continue along the pavement to a burg called Walnut Grove, said to offer even more breathtaking views of the gorge via riverside trails.
We created a three-day itinerary. On Day 1, we took a two- to three-hour hike to the Naxi Family Guest House, where we met Louis and Jetty and Frank and Liz. Day 2 — when we ran into the Snickers Lady — called for hiking the remaining two-thirds of the mountain trail, plus the short walk to Walnut Grove. On the last day, we explored Walnut Grove in the morning before heading back to Lijiang, Yunnan province’s main city, via a driver we’d hired at a guesthouse.
When we ran into the Snickers Lady and our new friends on Day 2, we were in the hike’s most infamous section. Known as the 28 Bends, it is a tortuous 1,312-foot climb up the mountainside via 28 switchbacks. This section of the trail is only 4.4 miles long, but takes most hikers three hours to complete. The six of us quickly got separated by our varying paces. I began counting the turns to mark my progress, but the trail’s constant twists and turns — in both tiny bends and sweeping curves — made it impossible to figure out what I should count as a “bend.” I finally gave up, sweat streaming down my back, forehead and arms despite the 50-degree temps.
Ed and I had been climbing nearly two hours when we came upon Liz and Frank. Liz had shed several layers; Frank was shirtless. They waved us ahead and we plodded on, a bit dejectedly. The other two couples were stopping at Halfway Guest House, and I began to wish we were, too.
“I think we’ll be out here until midnight,” I said dispiritedly.
Then, without warning, the path flattened out and began gently rolling through a lush forest. The harsh thrum of two massive construction projects that had been belching up the mountainside was snuffed out like a candle flame. All we heard was the wind sighing through the trees and the Jinsha roaring below.
“This is more like it,” Ed said.
A bridge to success
After surviving the 28 Bends, we took a break in the early afternoon at the Halfway Guest House where, for about $2, we filled our grumbling bellies with heaping dishes of egg fried rice. This place is known for its “Toilet With a View,” supposedly the world’s most scenic spot on the pot. Perched on four spindly legs and listing slightly, the shingle-and-bamboo outhouse features three compact rooms. I entered one and gazed out the rectangle cut into the wall facing Jade Dragon Mountain. The window frames carved peaks and blue skies.
After lunch, we followed the narrow, rocky trail chipped into the side of Haba Snow Mountain, crossing several waterfalls, then descended to the roadway below .
We gave each other a high-five. We’d conquered the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail and had the battered quads to prove it. It was time to hit Walnut Grove.
In Walnut Grove, a village near the Jinsha, we spent the night at the Tibet Guest House. At dinner there, we sat in the al fresco dining area with a mother-daughter duo from Australia who had hiked the same riverside trail that we planned to explore the next day. They told us about several gated areas where hikers must pay fees to continue. These fees, once aggressively levied by locals who used methods similar to those of the Snickers Lady, are now assessed with more decorum. At formal gates, signs explain in Mandarin and English what the fees are for: The government does not maintain the paths or its bridges and ladders. The locals do. They also paint helpful signage so hikers don’t get lost. As compensation, they charge these modest fees. It certainly seemed fair to us.
The next morning we picked our way down a steep, scrubby slope nearly to the river, where the path flattens out and winds along the roiling waterway. Sleepy locals sat huddled around small fires near the toll gates, hopping up when we arrived and pointing to the signage so we understood what was required. We paid our fees and kept walking, mouths regularly opening in little O’s as we saw one stunning vista after another.
Near the end of the path, we forked over an extra 10 yuan apiece — a little more than $1 — to walk along a slim, swinging bridge that stretches over the raging river and onto a large rock in its midsection. It’s certainly not up to U.S. safety standards, and I am afraid of heights. I hesitated before placing a hiking boot on its creaking, wooden planks. Maybe this wasn’t such a wise idea.
Then a vision of the Snickers Lady flashed through my mind. Easily two or three decades my senior, she hoofs up the steep side of Haba Snow Mountain every morning, a full pack of supplies strapped to her back, and unabashedly demands what she feels is hers. Well, this hike was mine. All of it.
Head held high, I confidently marched across the gently swaying bridge.
Melanie Radzicki McManus’ book “Thousand Miler,” about Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, has recently been released. She lives near Madison, Wis.