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Epic Winter Vacation In China: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers rush side-by-side out of Tibet and south along China's border with Burma, the towering ridge of Yukong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) forces the Yangtze into an abrupt change of direction known as The Great Bend. It turns north, the mountains close in, and the river enters Hutiao (Tiger Leaping) Gorge, one of the world's deepest.

It is narrowest at its start, where a large rock in the middle defies the ferocity of the torrent in a chasm only 30m (100 ft) wide. This is where a tiger once leapt across it - but its legendary name derives not from tigers' agility, but from their unpredictable savagery. Entering its middle section, the water drops another 100 m (328 ft) without warning. Now at racing speed, whole blocks of water thunder and crash onto sharp outcrops of rock, and you can hear the greedy sucking of deep whirlpools pulling at the air.

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The third section of Hutiao's 15 km (9 mi) is even more dangerous and spectacular. The steeply-angled (70 to 90 degree) cliffs rise a sheer 18 to 2,400 m (6 to 8,000 ft) from the water, twisting and turning in a surge of high waves and filling the canyon in a haze of frothing spew. Just looking at it is one of the glories of nature, and you can hike along it in two days (rafting is suicidal).

Beyond the gorge itself, the great Bend continues for about 190 km (120 mi), turning south and east. For experiences rafters, the prolonged wave trains and grade IV rapids are one of the world's greatest six to eight-day expeditions. For everyone, the proximity of the gorge to Lijiang, the cradle of China's traditional Naod and Dongha cultures, justifies including this journey in any top-three wish list.

When to visit

Year-round

Duration of the expedition

1-2 days (sightseeing, or actually hiking the Gorge), 8-14 days (seeing the Gorge, and rafting the great Bend, staying at 1,000-year-old Naxi villages and including side trips to some of the best attractions on either bank)

Highlights

  • Lijiang, built in the late Song and early Yuan Dynasties, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the traditional daily cultures of the Naxi and Dongba peoples are almost untouched.
  • The view of the 'first Bend' from Shigu Township, upstream of Hutiao, where the River forms a broad v-shape turning from south to north, the site of both Kublai Khan's 'Crossing the River on Leather Rafts', and the 1936 Red Army's Long March.
  • The trail cut into the sheer limestone 'cliffs down to the river at Tiger Leaping Rock - where the water flows are 5 to 10 times that of the USA's Grand Canyon

You should know

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Although it is the same river, above Chongqing the Yangtze is called 'Jinsha' ('Golden Sands')

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