One reason why Lijiang is such a magnet for travelers is not just its status as a World Heritage Site but also its proximity to some of China’s most stunning natural landscapes. Snow-capped mountain ranges, turquoise lakes, fierce rivers and deep gorges are all within an easy drive of Lijiang. Serious travelers hoping to get off the tourist route will find endless opportunities for hiking into big country. But most tourists would be happy just to take the easy Instagrammable routes of Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Go in with your eyes wide open because not only do these sites have jaw-dropping scenery, they can also be a bit of a tourist gouge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is famous of course – the narrowest part of the Yangtze which funnels the river running from its Himalayan source through a gap so close a tiger purportedly could jump across to evade a hunter. Whether you believe that tale or not, there is no denying the drama of white water roaring over dark grey boulders just a few metres away from the viewing platform. In the rainy season, it must be doubly dramatic – as the volume of water increases, so too would the fury of a river forced to squeeze between the steep crack of the gorge.
Two stone tigers stand on either side of the river impassively watching tourists busily taking pictures. Most tourists would take the easiest way to see the gorge; that is to head to the lookout point (apparently drivers from Lijiang are not allowed to go beyond this major carpark) and then hike all the way down to the riverside and back up. Wooden steps and walkways make this fuss-free but a lot less adventurous and much more sterile than hiking deep into the gorge over a day or so. However, I am a self-confessed couch potato and so this option was good enough for me. Don’t knock it though, I still huffed and puffed my way up and down steep flights of steps, thankful for welcome benches placed along the way for people like me to catch our breath.
The excursion to Tiger Leaping Gorge took us half a day and the drive there took us through really nice scenery too. The majestic Haba mountain range and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain loomed over us the entire way. In the west were the distant hills of the Nujiang region. We stopped by a wonky looking dilapidated tower to catch sight of the ‘first bend of the Yangtze river’. To be honest now on hindsight, we wonder if this was a scam and if our driver had brought us to the right lookout. There were no signs, the lookout seemed half completed and precarious and now looking back, maybe even a bit dangerous to climb. Not a bad view though:
Along the way we stopped for lunch. We have, by this time so close to the end of our long road trip, gotten used to, and even quite fond of the many standalone menu-free eateries along dusty roads. Most of the time we can be assured of good solid cooking coming from the kitchen. But we did not realise this was to be the last of our lunches in these places.
The system was the same – first, visit the fridge and check out what was fresh and available for the day, discuss how you want it cooked and then place your order. My Mandarin is really not the best and often these sessions were both fun yet stressful as I tried to decipher the rapid-fire suggestions in Mandarin coming from the patient ladies who take the orders. Often it descended to just point, shrug, mime and smile sheepishly. But no matter how I screw up the orders, whatever ends up on the table is usually always good.
Our excursion to Tiger Leaping Gorge took about half a day but you really need a full day for Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (JDSM). Be warned though, it’s not a cheap excursion. Everything, and I mean everything was pricey.
The entrance fee was expensive and tickets, I was told, were carefully controlled to limit access to the highest part of the park – the glacier park. JDSM has a few ‘areas of attraction’ – the glacier park, the blue moon valley, the yak meadow, the spruce meadow. The glacier park is where most visitors want to go to but tickets are limited so either buy ahead of time or be part of a ‘package’ which included a buffet hotpot lunch at a restaurant in the park.
The only reason why we bought this package deal was to secure the tickets to the glacier park. The so-called buffet hotpot was really not worth the money – the range of ingredients was not extensive. You sit in a freezing cold room, pick at freezing cold food left on the buffet table and quality was not great either. Like I said, go in with eyes wide open knowing what you’re in for.
Note that the entire experience is one that is carefully controlled – no deviation. Queue here, stand there, board this bus, that cable way etc. If you’re thinking that once you get admittance into the park you can freely wander around you’d be sadly mistaken. The only way to get around the park from one area to another is by electric bus and/or electric golf carts. And yes, everything had a price.
On one level it is good that they control the numbers coming into the park to prevent overloading of resources. Also good that electric vehicles are used to transport visitors which meant a more pristine environment. But note that the entire experience is still much like a theme park, highly controlled and guided. And even when they say they control numbers, you’re still pretty much surrounded by people. A lot of people.
Still no denying that the views from up at glacier park are beautiful. A top of the world feeling where the views seem to go on forever, range upon range of hills and mountains stretching into the hazy distance. We visited in winter, so there was a lot more snow on the ground. In fact it snowed the day before we arrived in Lijiang, creating even more of wintry feel at the peak. But coming in winter also meant there was a risk where the cableway could stop running if the winds were strong.
But now that we’ve been there done that, I can safely say that glacier park for me, is highly over-rated. If you have traveled to other snowy climes, you won’t actually see anything new up there. The views are stupendous of course and you’re really near the peak but it’s not a place where you can even frolic in snow. As I said – everything is fenced up and controlled. You can walk a designated route via walkway to a higher level, but that’s about it. Grab a handful of snow from beyond the railings if that thrills you, but nothing to really write home about. Certainly not worth paying for that silly potpot package deal just to get to the top.
More than that, to get to glacier park, there are multiple scams to get you to part with your money – not entirely the fault of park management but the huge tourism machinery that has grown up around the park as a whole. We were told by our driver that we needed oxygen canisters (he demonstrated theatrically how we would be gasping for air up in glacier park), that we needed extra padded jackets (he scared us by saying the temperatures would be negative 15 Celcius). We ended up with the large oversized ugly orange coats, weird ginseng concoctions that claimed to increase oxygen levels in the blood and oxygen canisters that were overpriced – and truth be told, we could not know if there was really oxygen in those tanks.
But when we were up there, the temperature was a warm 6deg Celcius and the air while thin, was not unmanageably thin. We spent easily several hundred dollars on all this rubbish. It was all so unnecessary.
So you’ve been warned.
Is JDSM worth a visit? Absolutely. Is glacier park worth the extra money? Nope. Although I have to say the skewers of seasoned tender chunks of BBQ chicken up at glacier park were absolutely delish. We went back again and again for multiple sticks. Not cheap but maybe the mountain air made it super delicious.
Another part of JDSM that we liked was Blue Moon Valley. Electric golf carts take you to the pebbly floor of the valley. Get off and start walking. You’ll pass colourfully festooned yaks and alpaca for tourists to pose with (I felt sorry for them, they looked so done). But more importantly, you’ll pass the beautiful turquoise waters of the lake and the tiered limestone water terraces. With JDSM’s snowy peaks as a backdrop, the scene could have come from anywhere in the Swiss alps.
The valley is so pretty that it is no wonder that several wedding couples chose to have their wedding pictures taken there. Also entertaining are the antics of some Chinese visitors who love to mug for the camera. We took it slowly and wandered around the valley until the late evening when we squeezed with the throngs for the electric buses that would take us back to the central car park for us to hop on our van back to Lijiang.
JDSM and Tiger Leaping Gorge are for sure, must-sees in the Lijiang area. But once is good enough. Maybe next time we can take our time to really go beyond the main sights – there’s still the Nujiang area, Lugu Lake and other areas to slowly sink our teeth into.