The angry, pulsating brown water thundering past mere feet away resonated at my very core. At narrowest point of Leaping Tiger Gorge, the full force of the Jinsha Jiang or “Golden Sanded River” coursed past me in a naked display of raw aggression. I had never seen such power or stood in such close proximity to so much unbridled energy. The raging power and fury of the Jinsha resonated on a primal level.
Passing through Tiger Leaping Gorge was part of a journey my riding partner Zhang Wei Lei and I made three or four years ago while tracing the southern route of the Ancient Tea Horse Road through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Grinding out the miles through this densely forested mountainous region was a part of my lifelong romance with the Asia. I was in the midst of exploring a land that has intrigued me almost as far back as I can remember.
Rediscovering an Ancient Trade Route
Tracing the Ancient Tea Horse Road, an old trade route where the Han Chinese traded fermented black tea for horses with Tibetans to use in battle against Mongol invaders from the north, we to trek through the incredibly diverse landscape, some of the best scenery China has to offer. Day by day we worked our way through the mountains from Shangri-li-la to Lijiang. The route south took us past sleepy hamlets interspersed among terraced hillsides into the inner reaches of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lying between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain the turbulent, muddy waters of the Jinsha Jiang cut their way through the Leaping Tiger Gorge, one of the deepest in the world. Free from tourist buses and throngs of vacationers eager to disgorge themselves from the vehicles, we passed quiet hamlets populated by indigenous Naxi people. Local women still wore traditional clothes as part of daily life.
The Jinsha Jiang eventually becomes the mighty Yangtze, the longest river in China. At 6380 km in length, it is the third longest river in the world and flows entirely with China’s borders.
Into the Gorge
Pedaling into the mouth of the gorge, we tracked along dense, shady forest roads cut along steep, intimidating cliffs overlooking the churning river below. Spiraling golden-brown waters cut through stunning mountain vistas.
Deep in the Yunnan mountains, the air is crisp and clean. Heavy blue skies interspersed with dark threatening clouds overhead. Wandering clouds scraped along jagged emerald peaks. The Jinsha river twists and turns, squirming like a snake slithering along the bottom of the gorge.
Occasionally, we paused at the side of the road to take a rest and make pictures. Wei Lei would burn a nail and we’d continue our journey further into the soaring chasm. The Chinese cyclists are the only riders I know who take smoke breaks.
The central mountains of Yunnan offer no physical comfort, continuous climbing becomes your world. Despite the endless ups and downs, it’s difficult not to be overcome by the natural splendor. However, the beguiling serenity of the revolving golden-brown water hid the unmitigated wrath that lay ahead.
Danger from Above
Gradually snaking our way deeper and deeper into the gorge along the sheer narrowing walls, we came across small fields of loose scree dislodged from above by heavy rains lay scattered on the road. Upon rounding a sharp corner, we happened upon a school bus-sized boulder cratered into the pavement.
Beachball sized pits and divots standing as a testament to previous rock marred numerous sections of the road to the inner gorge.
Getting hit by one of these gargantuan behemoths meant being squashed like a bug. Instant death. Scanning the towing walls above me, I timidly pressed on feeling somewhat naked and vulnerable.
The previous days’ heavy rains had saturated the mountainsides. Disaster could rain down at any moment with little or no warning. In an instant, it would all be over except for the shouting. Tumbling boulders are a real thing and a more common occurrence than one thinks.
Winding through the twisty road, strewn with occasional loose basketball-sized rocks and boulders, I wondered if I would inadvertently fall victim to a careening rock slide tumbling from on high never to be heard from again.
Standing at Hell’s Gate
After an hour or so of riding, we reached In the middle of the gorge. Now at it’s narrowest point, the river drops 100 meters (330 ft) and necks down to some 25 meters (82 ft). Ancient legend says a tiger, in order to escape from a hunter, jumped across the river at this point in the gorge.
We left our bikes with parking attendants and descended a couple hundred meters to an observation platform at the water’s edge. The swirling semi-placid waters had transformed into a raging turbid mass of angry water crashing by me like a gigantic freight train mere feet from where I stood.
Leaning over the guardrail to angle for a better shot of the rapids, thundering water sent shivers up my spine. The raw, unfettered energy was palpable on every level. What an exhilarating sensation.
The thundering rapids made normal speech impractical. I had to raise my voice to a low yell to communicate with Wei Lei only feet away. Cool air sucked past me as I steadied my camera for a shot. Ton after ton of crashing water spilled over a massive shark’s fin of a boulder center stream. Foamy brown water ripped and tore along the gorge’s sawtoothed granite walls generating a deafening howl. The out-and-out magnitude of the rushing water and tremendous noise isolated me from those near me.
Falling into the roiling angry brown abyss would mean all is lost. There would be no hope of recovery. Your body would never be recovered.
To consummate our achievement, I climbed onto tiger statue for a quick photo. With growing darker and the temperature dropping, it was time to find something to eat and a place to sleep. Our journey through the Leaping Tiger Gorge was a success.
A Day of Days
As the sunset on the day’s adventure, Wei Lei and I exited the gorge forever changed. Pedaling away neither of us talked. We were both lost in thought, contemplating the day’s events. The sense of reward was real, the experience unique. Yunnan had shown us some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on the planet. China is a magical place, especially if explored by bicycle. Get some, it’s a journey well worth making.