Hike tiger leaping gorge

How to Visit and Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge

The stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province is home to an approximately 16 kilometer long gorge, that’s one of the deepest in the world.  It’s also the location of a superb hike in the mountainous valley that you’ll find between Lijiang and Shangri-La.  You can visit Tiger Leaping Gorge on the route between Lijiang and Shangri-La, or take a few days here to enjoy the stunning scenery and great (but a wee bit difficult) hiking.  The hiking here at Tiger Leaping Gorge is famous for the solitude, the guesthouses along the way, and the mythical 28 bends.  Here’s our guide on how to visit and hike Tiger Leaping Gorge.  We’ll cover how to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, where to stay, what the hiking is like here, and how to move on from Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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tiger leaping gorge

Visit Tiger Leaping Gorge

The easiest way to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge from either Lijiang or Shangri-La, is to take this transfer, and tour. Choose a one-way or two-way trip with daily departures

Where is Tiger Leaping Gorge

Located some 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Lijiang City in the province of Yunnan, is Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world.  For us, it was on the road to Shangri La and the next stop on our journey.  The Gorge is 16 kilometers (10 miles) long and 3790 meters (12434 feet) deep at the deepest point but incredibly only 25 metres (82 feet) at its narrowest point.

Why is it called Tiger Leaping Gorge?

The name Tiger Leaping Gorge comes from a legend.  It’s said that a tiger leaped across the gorge to escape hunters.   It was apparently at the narrowest point of the gorge that the tiger leaped, but that was still 25 meters (82 feet) wide at this point.  It’s at this point in the gorge that there’s a rock in the middle of the river.  Presumably, there wasn’t a bridge to the rock at the time of the legend.

The Rock in the Middle of the Jinsha River

What is the Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge?

There are two primary trails to hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge.  You can hike a total of about 22 kilometers of the trail.  The upper trail is at an altitude of about 2,700 meters (8,500 feet) and you can walk it in a single day (but quickly) or you can walk so far and then stay at one of the guesthouses along the way as we did.  It’s rarely crowded.  And for Chinese natural areas that’s probably the BEST reason to come here.

What is the Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge?

The paved road at the bottom of the gorge runs alongside the river.  It’s possible to walk the trail along here, but it’s nowhere near as spectacular as the upper trail.  It is more popular with Chinese tourists, who arrive by bus, see where the tiger leaped, and then jump back on their buses.

How to Get to Tiger Leaping Gorge

You’ll usually visit Tiger Leaping Gorge as part of a one-way trip between Lijiang and Shangri-La (or vice versa).  After completing the hike, most independent travelers will then continue on to the city that they didn’t originally arrive from. There are usually a maximum of four buses that run this route each day (only usually in the morning) from both Lijiang and Shangri La and the buses are seasonal, so you’ll need to check locally what the current running timetable is. 

The Easiest Way to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge

If you prefer not to take the public bus,  then you can hop on a transfer from either Lijiang or Shangri La and get dropped at the Gorge, hike to your heart’s content, and then book either a similar transfer or bus out.  Here are the transfer options.

Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge

It’s 86 kilometers (53 miles) from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge.  To get here on a bus, you have the option of a sightseeing bus that will give you about 2 hours to explore and then use it to return to Lijiang.   These buses leave Lijiang at 09:00 and 09:30 and cost CN¥35.  These buses return to Lijiang at 14:30 and 15:30.  The return trip costs CN¥50.  I have no idea why it’s more expensive on the return.

If you want to hike the upper trail (this is what we did), then you’ll need to get the bus from the Lijiang Bus Terminal to Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia (the terms appear to now be interchangeable). For this bus, it’s best to get your hotel or hostel to write a note in Mandarin to say where you’re going to so there are no mistakes. We used the luggage transfer service offered by the bus driver to deliver our larger bags to where we were staying for the night. If you want to do the same you should also get the note to say where your luggage is going to. The most recognized place to stay in the middle of the Gorge is Tina’s Hostel.

Buses from Lijiang to Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia leave once or twice an hour and you start the Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail from where you get dropped off.  This bus costs CN¥24 one way.  There may be an extra charge for your luggage.  It takes about 2 hours to go from Lijiang to Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia.

The bus drivers do this route every day and they’ll make sure that you get off at the right place. The first place you need to get off is in Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia to buy your entrance tickets to Tiger Leaping Gorge (read on for more details on this).  It’s recommended to then get back on the bus after buying your tickets, and travel on the bus for about another 2 kilometers (1.25 miles), to the bus stop for the hiking trail (there is a signpost to show the way).  The driver will advise when to get out.

Shangri La to Tiger Leaping Gorge

It’s 106 kilometers (66 miles) from Shangri-La to Tiger Leaping Gorge.  To get to the gorge from Shangri La you’ll need to take a bus from Shargri-La to Hutiaoxia Town, (buses going to Kunming, Lijiang and Dali will stop at Hutiaoxia) and these buses cost about CNY40.  There is one bus that goes directly to Tiger Leaping Gorge from Shangri-La.  It leaves the Shangri-La bus station at 07:30 and it takes about 3 hours.    These buses cost CNY44.

Costs and Entry Fees for Tiger Leaping Gorge

When you arrive in Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia you’ll have to pay the scenic area tickets. These cost CN¥65 per person.

What to Hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge

There are two areas of Tiger Leaping Gorge to hike – the Upper Trail, which takes you on the “High Road” and then there’s the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge to explore.  We’ll start with the Upper Trail, explain that route, and then go onto Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The Upper Trail Tiger Leaping Gorge

The upper trail at Tiger Leaping Gorge goes from Qiaotou to Tina’s Guesthouse, which is at the end of the Upper Trail and positions you perfectly for exploring Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Most people do this as a two day hike (Honestly it’s glorious up here, you don’t want to rush through in one day), and stay at one of the hostels/guest houses on the way.  I’ll cover the options shortly.

Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge

The Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge trail is further down the gorge itself and also lower in altitude.  You’ll start from Tina’s Guesthouse and head down towards the river, returning on a circular route.  You should note that this area is NOT covered on your scenic area pass, it goes over land and trails that the locals have developed and you’ll have to pay additional fees to enter and use their ladders and trails.  This is the trail on which you’ll see the rock that the tiger leaped from and also the infamous Sky Ladder of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Where to Stay at Tiger Leaping Gorge

If you’re going to hike the two days from Qiaotou to Tina’s Guesthouse, then you’ll want to stay at one of the guesthouses on the upper trail.  There are several.   Owners speak basic English, and face it international tourists have been coming here since 1993, and it might not have been in great numbers, but they probably know what you want more clearly than you do. 

Staying on the upper trail at Tiger Leaping Gorge

The cunningly named Halfway Guesthouse is where we stayed and it is, surprisingly, halfway and therefore a good spot to stop for the night.

It’s worth stopping at other guesthouses along the way for refreshments (all provide drinks and meals, and the Naxi Guesthouse did stir-fried pumpkin that I still drool over!)

Naxi Family Guesthouse

The Halfway Guesthouse overlooks the gorge and the Jinsha River and has a stunning view of the Yulong Snow Mountain.  The view from our room was spectacular.  Rooms are clean, beds comfortable and there are hot showers too.    Rooms often sell out here, (and you can pre-book), so the “halfway options” are

Halfway Guesthouse

Room at Halfway Guest House Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge Half Mountain Residence Inn

Hutiaoxia Town Muyun Banshan Homestay

They’re all within a short distance of each other and all have stunning views, and dinner and breakfast options too.

Staying in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge

When you’ve finished your hike to Tiger Leaping Gorge, you’re probably going to want to stay at least another night or twos.  This means that you’ll be able to explore Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day and you won’t have to hustle to get on a bus to the next location on your trip.

The traditional place to stay in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge is Tina’s Hostel.  This is a GREAT place to stay.  But if Tina’s is full, or if you want a little more luxury, I’ve detailed the other places to stay in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tina’s Guest House

Teacher Zhangs

Buridge Café Guest House

All three of these are relatively close to each other, and they’ll put you in a good position to explore Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge before moving on.

Staying in Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge

If you want to explore even further down the gorge, then heading downriver you’ll get to Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge, aka Walnut Garden.  By now it’s not quite as spectacular (strike that, it’s glorious), and it’s fabulously quiet.  We had two nights down here at the Tibet Guest House (and the food is absolutely incredible), but your best options for staying here are

Tibet Guesthouse

Deck at Tibet Guest House

Sean’s Guesthouse.

Both of these guesthouses are family-run and they’ve been here for decades and have great reputations.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge Upper Trail

We hiked the Upper Trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge over two days.  We’d traveled from Lijiang and arrived at the bus stop and paid our dues at about 10:00, we set off on the trail and we arrived at the Halfway Guesthouse at 17:00 after a fabulous day of hiking.  It rained a few times during the day, but it was warm rain and not much of a bother.

Our minibus from Lijiang had dropped us off just after the entrance ticket area to Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG), where the unenthusiastic folks relieved us of our CNY65 in return for access to the scenic area.  Our 40-liter Osprey backs stayed on the bus, to arrive at Tina’s hostel where we’d retrieve them in a day or so, meaning that we carried only what we needed for a night on the route along the upper gorge trail.

We were joined by 9 other people on our hike, they’d also taken the bus from Lijiang and were heading to various points in the gorge that night.

As we set off it started to rain pretty much immediately, so the zip-off trousers came off (it’s easier washing my legs than my trousers and it was going to get muddy), the backpack rain cover that I bought in Sapa went on and the raincoat also went on.

Trail Conditions Tiger Leaping Gorge

The rest of the hikers had slightly different attitudes to the rain.  The Swiss couple brought out the brollies, the Belgians had coats, the Germans went for long plastic Macs, the three English students were in raincoats and the two Chinese girls just hugged their cardigans a little tighter as we took two steps forward and one back in the increasingly sticky mud.

The trail started on a hard-packed road, there was some tarmac and then it divided. We carried straight on. Climbed over a pile of earth, walked through a farmyard, into a field of corn, and stopped. Reversed, asked the farmer, who was watching with much amusement.  Climbing back over the pile of earth, we received a fabulous Chinese hand wave that could have sent us anywhere from NORTH WEST to SOUTH EAST, but just not the way we had been trying to go.

It’s better signposted these days.

We should have realized we were going wrong when the horses stopped following us. On all Chinese trails, there’s an easy way and a hard way. The hard way is when you walk, the easy way on this trail is to get a horse to carry you up (or down).  And so as we rounded the first bend after getting out of the minibus, we were trailed by a local man leading two horses, draped in clanging bells. I wondered if he made a bet with himself as to which of this particular group would be the first to succumb and take him up on his offer.

Pretty much like the T-shirt, postcard, and water-selling lady who trailed us on China’s Great Wall two months ago, he started his sales technique on the weak, those at the back of the pack.

Starting the upper Trail Tiger Leaping Gorge

For once it wasn’t me – as we followed the Germans and headed to the front of the pack. The sound of the bells around the horse’s neck had disappeared as we clambered over the pile of earth and so we found him waiting for us when we trooped back, mildly amused.

The trail is signposted.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Upper Trail

There are red arrows painted onto rocks, trees, and buildings. There are yellow arrows and finally, there are blue signs with Tiger Leaping Gorge on them and we picked these up eventually, more or less as we arrived at the Naxi Family Guest House, the first stop for us on the trail.

Lunch at the Naxi Guesthouse at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Some folks stop here for the night, but seeing as it was only coming up to noon and we’d only been walking two hours, it did seem a little early, so instead our merry little band, trickled in (we led the charge) for lunch and a sustaining cup of mint tea. Sitting on tiny wooden stools undercover in the lovely courtyard we then drank Tibetan Yak Butter Tea, and ate pork fried rice and the most delicious stir-fried pumpkin – which unlike its American cousin – is green.

Lunch at Naxi Guesthouse Tiger Leaping Gorge

Heading towards the 28 Bends of the Upper Trail

The trail continues, onwards, and up. There’s a donkey that stops us in our tracks as we round one bend and find a small shack, “Gain Energy for the 28 Bends” says the sign as we navigate around the donkey, with the woman screeching, “photo-money” at me as I snap a photo of the obstructive donkey.

Donkey Road Block Tiger Leaping Gorge

As we charge on, I’m thinking, “You mean we haven’t got to the 28 bends yet?”

This trek is more popular with Western backpackers than native Chinese tourists, so our two Chinese girls are unusual and it’s a surprise when we meet several trekkers heading the opposite way and they’re all Chinese. One man makes a point of stopping and shaking our hands. Of course, this only increases my concern about the impending 28 bends.

We started the trek pretty close to the river and we’ll be climbing up to 2430 meters (7970 feet), then heading down again, close to the river Jinsha. A lot of the climb is sloped, this is no stair climb like Huashan or Huangshan. There are no concrete or stone steps here. This is pure Yunnan mud and rocks and donkey poop.

The 28 Bends of Tiger Leaping Gorge’s Upper Trail

One famous part of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is the “28 Bends”, switchback after switchback of tight, sharp little steep bends, where sometimes the next step is a boulder precariously balanced on the edge of a drop. There are no handrails.

It’s hard, to be honest, to figure out what a bend is.  In the end, I decided that there were a lot more than 28 bends. I gave up counting at 60.

the 28 Bends

We left the Chinese girls a while back, the Germans have disappeared, and so too have the three English students. We share the burden of the lead with the Swiss couple and Andrew, an American law graduate, who just appeared at the back of our group a while back.

Hiking the upper Trail Tiger Leaping Gorge

Arriving at the top of the Upper Trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge

The Swiss summit first. We joke with them later that they’ve lived up to their mountaineering stereotype, and we take the second spot with Andrew as we hit the high point.

Summit Tiger Leaping Gorge Upper Trail

“Nihao”, says the woman at the top, “Ganja?” There’s also Snickers, water, and beer – it’s hard to travel anywhere in China without an opportunity to spend your tourist CNY.

And here there are many ways to spend it, including wanting to go and look from this viewpoint. CNY8 to look, she says, and CNY20 to take a photo. We decline all offers and head onwards, we have a bed to find for the night.

The Trail Summit to Halfway Guesthouse

And it’s a glorious day. There are just the three of us now and we wander amiably discussing life, the American National Parks, and future plans with Andrew, marvel at the mist-covered mountains and negotiate cows and horses in our tracks.

Halfway Guesthouse to Tinas

Guesthouses after the 28 Bends

It’s about a two-hour hike from the summit after the 28 bends on the upper trail to get to Halfway Guesthouse.  If you don’t want to hike a further two hours, then there are now two guesthouses before you get there.  It means a slightly longer walk the next day, but most of it is downhill.

Tea Horse Guesthouse has fabulous views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Tiger Leaping Gorge Yachajiao Manor is the boutique hotel with a hot tub on each room’s terrace.  Perfect for amazing night skies or sunrises.

We headed onwards, and as the drizzle started again, stumbled into the Halfway Guesthouse, found a room for the night, and, on finding that there was no internet connection got to know our fellow hikers.

Halfway Guest House

Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s Guest House

From the Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s Guest House it is about 2 hours hiking.  It’s pretty easy hiking, only about 5 kilometers (3 miles) and it took us about 2 hours.  We did gain about 500 meters (1640 feet) but also dropped down in elevation by nearly 800 meters (2625 feet).

There are waterfalls and drop-offs, but it’s a lovely easy hike.

Upper Trail to Tinas Tiger Leaping Gorge

Time to hike the upper trail Tiger Leaping Gorge

We took two days to hike the Upper Trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it wasn’t fast hiking. On day 1, we hiked from 10:00 until 17:00 with about 90 minutes break for lunch.

On day 2 we hiked after breakfast and it took us 2 hours to go from the Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s.

On our arrival at Tina’s Guesthouse, we stayed one night and then headed down to spend a couple of nights at the hamlet of Walnut Garden, where we spent two nights at the Tibet Guesthouse before heading back to Tina’s for a final time and to explore Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Hiking Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge

The rock that the famous Tiger leaped from to cross the Gorge is about two-thirds of the way across the Jinsha River. To get to the rock, you need to go down from the road area at Tina’s Hostel.  Bear in mind that means you also need to come back up.

This isn’t like the Great Wall at Badaling. There’s no cable car, no toboggan run (which apparently there is there..), and the 65 Yuan you paid to get into the Tiger Leaping Gorge Area doesn’t cover this area, so you’ll need to pay different fees for parts of this hike, which is actually more of a wander and a scramble. 

Heading down to the Jinsha River

There are three ways down to the river and the rock. Each was created and maintained by a different family if the signs and stories are to be believed. The government does not maintain these trails (mind you, it doesn’t appear to maintain the Upper Trail either, but that’s by the by).

Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge

The first route is easy to find, after leaving Tina’s Hostel turn right, head down the road until you see the signs, and until someone wants money off you to go down the trail and you’re there. For CNY15 you get access to this trail, called the Sky Ladder.

Heading to the River TIger Leaping Gorge

The second way down is a little further down the road, but we never saw anyone manning this.

We went down the third, which is yet further down the road, but not as far as the hamlet of Walnut Garden where we’d stayed at the Tibet Guest House. There’s a brick-built building with WC on it. There’s also a sign, telling you why you need to pay and that day there was a guy in a minivan saying it was him we had to pay.

Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail

Welcome to China. Not, for the paying, which I have no issue with, but for the randomness of a dude in a van asking for payment, for which there is no receipt.

Arriving at the River Jinsha

The trail down was long, windy, and well-maintained. Steps made of boulders and rocks, no slipping and sliding down mud like the upper trail. At the bottom, a trail cut into the rock as we followed the river upstream to another checkpoint.

If we want to use the Sky Ladder, then it was built by this next family and we have to pay, otherwise, we have to turn around and go back the way we’ve come.  As we hadn’t yet reached the famous rock, we had no alternative but to pay, even though we’d planned to actually return the same way we walked down.

Near the Rock at Tiger Leaping Gorge

We make it to the river, past two or three covered seating areas where we can buy Red Bull, Ganja, cucumbers on sticks, and beer. At the river, there’s the opportunity to cross a bridge – made and maintained by family number three for CNY10.

We’ve come this far, I say to Nigel, viewing the torrent of floodwater raging under the bridge, that I’m convincing myself is reasonably stable, and it’s only CNY10. So of course, we walk across the bridge and stand in the middle of the river on the famous rock imagining that the river is rising rapidly with each crash and surge.

On the Bridge to the Rock Tiger Leaping Gorge

On the famous rock in the Middle of the Jinsha River

We’re eyeing the time as we saunter, now nonchalantly back across the bridge, swaying quite vigorously with two of us on it, it took us 50 minutes to walk from the road to the rock, we have a bus to catch at 3:30 pm and our bags are still at the guesthouse. Worse, between us and our bags is the Sky Ladder.

The Sky Ladder of Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge

Before we arrived here I had no real idea what the Sky Ladder was because we weren’t planning on going this way. But it’s now our way back up, so we head uphill. This makes the 28 bends look easy. Using boulders and cutting into the rock, there are cables to help you go up. They’re slippery, but at least it’s not raining. We arrive at another shack. Nope, we haven’t made it to the Sky Ladder yet.

We’re waiting for two people to come down.  They’re Westerners, we fall on them rabidly. How long is the ladder? How many ladders are there? How long did it take you to get down? How far is Tina’s?

It’s almost disappointing to discover that there’s only one ladder. And that it took them perhaps 40 minutes to get here from Tina’s. I feel we might make our bus after all.

The ladder is now a metal almost vertical ladder – it’s just a few degrees off vertical. There are two metal bars across for your feet. Perhaps 18 inches in between each “step”, and there are vertical metal poles for your hands.

The Sky Ladder Tiger Leaping Gorge

Wooden stakes and occasional metal bars hold the ladder off the hillside. Behind the metal ladder, you can see a previous incarnation. It was two metal wires, with wooden steps attached. No handrail in sight. I’m happy for the evolution of ladders.

Looking Down from the Top of the Sky Ladder

70 feet later and I’m climbing over the top, seeing the red painted sign at the top that tells me that I could have taken the “Safe Route” instead of the Ladder.

Safe, I find doesn’t make the heart beat quite so fast.

Safe Path versus Sky Ladder

A metal ladder, more boulder steps, donkey poop mud, and about 20 horses tied waiting for the tourist who needs a ride to the top await us – but 50 minutes after leaving the rock we’re back at the road and heading back for more Tibetan Cheese Hotpot, which is now my burning reason to ensure that we do visit Tibet in the future.

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Facts and Figures about Tiger Leaping Gorgechin

Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike are the stuff of myth and legends.  Here are some of the facts, figures, and legends of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

How deep is Tiger Leaping Gorge?

You’re in a mountainous country here in Yunnan and at its maximum, it’s about 3,800 meters (12,400+ feet) between the riverbed and the mountain peaks at Tiger Leaping Gorge.  When people write it’s one of the world’s deepest gorges or canyons they’re not kidding.  The world’s deepest gorge is the Kali Gandaki in Nepal, which sits between two of the world’s top ten highest mountains – it is 5,500 meters (18,045 feet) from the mountain top to the gorge bottom there.   By comparison America’s Grand Canyon is a mere 1830 meters (6,000 feet deep) at its deepest point.

Does anyone live in Tiger Leaping Gorge?

Yes, there’s a year-round community in Tiger Leaping Gorge, they are primarily the indigenous Nakhi people.

What’s the best time to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge?

The best time to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge is in Spring or Fall.  April, May, and June, followed by September and October are the best times for good weather and clear skies.  Mind you we visited in August, and – remember this is at altitude, so you get relief from the heat of summer – the hiking was pleasant and not too hot.

How long is Tiger Leaping Gorge?

Tiger Leaping Gorge is about 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, although as everyone seems to measure it from a different place the stated length can vary from 15 to 23 km . 

What’s the river that runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge?

The Jinsha River runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge.  It’s a tributary of the Yangtze River (our guide to cruising the Yangtze is here).  Jinsha means “River of Golden Sands” and it’s what this section of the Yangtze is called.  The Jinsha River is 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) long and runs between Yushu in Qinghai Province and Yibin in Sichuan.

What’s the legend of Tiger Leaping Gorge?

The clue is in the name.  The tiger, chased by a hunter, ended up at the narrowest point in the gorge (where the rock and the bridge are now).  The rock was also there, the bridge a recent addition.  The tiger leaped across the river, bounding, presumably onto the rock and then over.  It’s still a massive leap. The river is 25 meters (82 feet) at this point.

Travel Tips for Exploring China

Final Words on How to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge

You can come to Tiger Leaping Gorge on a day trip from Lijiang or from Shangri-La and see the famous river that the Tiger leaped over.  Or you can spend several days here hiking in this glorious part of Yunnan.   Take the upper trail, spend two days, stay in local guesthouses, and hike down to the river, see the famous rock, climb the sky ladder.  Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge is a glorious thing to do in China and this part of the country.

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