It is my second morning in Tiger Leaping Gorge. As I eat breakfast in the sun-bleached courtyard of a Naxi family guesthouse, 2,000 metres above the upper reaches of the Yangtze, known as the Jinsha River, the enormity of what has been called China's Grand Canyon strikes home. The gorge is 16km long and, from its pounding waters to the summits of the Jade Dragon and Haba Snow mountains, on either side, is 3,900 metres deep. It is just 30 metres wide at its narrowest point, where the river tumbles and thrashes between sheer walls of rock - this is the spot where the tiger of Chinese legend is said to have leaped from one side to the other to escape hunters. A journey through the gorge, about 500km northwest of Kunming, in Yunnan province, can be made in either direction: from the village of Qiaotou, in the west, or from Daju, in the east, along a road perched high above the river that must have been built with Herculean effort. On this track, buses ply a route until rock falls make the road too narrow and precipitous. Then, nonchalant, chain-smoking taxi drivers take over, immune to the chasm below and the gasps of their terrified passengers. My route is for pedestrians only. Known as the High Road, the path climbs the so-called 28 bends (though I count at least 40) to 2,600 metres before continuing along a switchback past waterfalls and jaw-dropping mountain views, then gently descending and emerging from the claustrophobia of the gorge to broad cultivated pastures. The path is exposed but wide enough to be comfortable ... although the occasional passing of mules and mountain goats sets the blood racing. Fortunately, the animals seem happy to allow humans to take the safer side of the path and their four legs seem infinitely more stable, giving a great deal more confidence than two. The whole trek can be completed in a day by a fit and determined walker, but doing so would squander the opportunity to savour the views and spend time in the villages clinging to the sides of the valley, where women in full Naxi dress tend fields of wheat and hang cobs of corn on racks to dry in the sun. The men, bizarrely, seem to farm and tend their mules in suits and slip-on leather shoes. The trail is well serviced by simple guesthouses-cum-family homes; visitors can sleep in the house of a Naxi or Tibetan family for about 40 yuan a night, including breakfast. For the adventurous, yak-butter tea can be sampled, though it might take longer than the two or three days of a trek to adjust to its unique flavour. The gorge is an ideal destination for the more adventurous traveller and can be combined with a visit to the cobblestones, cappuccino and culture of nearby Lijiang, a Unesco World Heritage site. The old centre is simply stunning. Its sturdy, traditional houses survived the 1996 earthquake that destroyed most of the surrounding new town, killing 300 people. The streets and town square are particularly beautiful at night, when houses and cafes are illuminated by red lanterns. Although the crowds can be large and there is the feeling you are in a kind of ancient-China theme park, the town is a beguiling mixture of weathered architecture, fascinating culture and fine food. An evening can be well spent watching old men play ancient music on equally ancient instruments, which were hidden during the Cultural Revolution to prevent their destruction. The music is haunting and made lively by women in colourful dress dancing simple one-two steps in a kind of Tang-dynasty waltz. Three hours north by bus is the town of Zhongdian, where the Tibetan world begins. Mighty snow-capped peaks tower over this region, upon which James Hilton supposedly based the mountain idyll of Shangri-La in his 1930s novel Lost Horizon. This town has its own ancient quarter, but with none of the razzamatazz of Lijiang. Here, there are no crowds and the nightly dancing and singing in the old square is a local affair, not for tourists - and is all the more attractive for it. The whole region is listed as a World Heritage site because of its importance for geological research, natural beauty and cultural and biological diversity. Yet Tiger Leaping Gorge was excluded from this listing on the insistence of Chinese officials. It seems the government has other plans for it. The Yangtze springs from the Geladandong glacier, 4km up on the Tibetan plateau, and for millions of years, flowed uninterrupted on a 6,380km journey to the east coast of what is now China. Now, 1,500km upstream from the Three Gorges project, a 564km section of the Jinsha River is being sized up for a series of eight dams. That will flood 13,300 hectares of land and submerge Tiger Leaping Gorge forever. The 100,000 people who will be relocated by this project are minority Naxi, Bai, Yi, Dai and Tibetan and much of their unique culture and farmland, as well as their ancient stone buildings, will disappear under the water. The project has not yet received central government approval but test bores have already been drilled along the Jinsha; ominously, Li Xiaopeng, the son of former Chinese prime minister Li Peng, is reputedly behind the power company interested in harnessing the mighty potential of the upper Yangtze. Local officials are also said to be buying land and building in the area due to be flooded in order to claim compensation. But all is not yet lost. Farmers are pressing officials to shelve their plans in a pattern becoming typical of China's social unrest - an unrest caused by the powerlessness of the majority, who are caught on the wrong side of the growing wealth gap and don't share in China's economic growth. Their arguments, and those of urban environmentalists, are that the dams will destroy irreplaceable culture and scenery and ruin tourism potential, and are inappropriate in a region known for its seismic activity, rock falls and landslides. More than 20,000 people have been killed in earthquakes here since 1950. Tiger Leaping Gorge is unique. Gazing at the brilliant white glaciers above the Jinsha River, it seems hard to imagine the destruction of the gorge could even be considered. A reprieve for this area of breathtaking beauty may yet come but its splendour should be gazed upon now, before it is too late. Getting there: Dragonair ( www.dragonair.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Kunming. China Southern Airlines ( www.cs-air.com ) flies from Kunming to Lijiang, from where a bus to Qiaotou takes between two and three hours.