Upon completing the stunning trek of Tiger Leaping Gorge, many travelers simply turn around and return to Lijiang by roughly the same route along which they came—going back southwest to Qiaotou and then arranging transportation to Lijiang.
This approach has a few pitfalls. First, it requires that one see the same scenery twice, which is bad for people on short vacations who want to fit in as much sightseeing as possible.
Additionally, the paved road through the gorge has been impassable during much of the last year due to rockslides and dynamiting, which can make it a challenge to get back to Qiaotou at all.
The alternate route back to Lijiang through the town of Daju (大具) is a great way for travelers to get back without retracing their routes or getting snarled in blockages on the Tiger Leaping Gorge public road.
Daju is situated past Walnut Grove at the northeast end of Tiger Leaping Gorge, on a large flat shelf of land on the opposite side of the Jinsha River from the Tiger Leaping Gorge trails.
To get to Daju from Tiger Leaping Gorge you will have to hike for a few hours or hire a minivan to get to one of two ferries (new and old) across the Jinsha that, for tourists, range from 20 to 30 yuan per passenger. The final ferry of the day typically runs around 5pm. Your guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge can help you organize the passage.
Daju is composed of a large central town with several satellite villages. These settlements are in turn surrounded by lush fields of grain and vegetables, which are fed by springs and rivers gushing out of the surrounding ring of mountains.
The locals are very friendly, and there are plenty of opportunities for wandering around the fields and seeing village life in action. Also, there are some small, steep paths leading into the mountains to the north of the town, which make for good hiking and offer great vistas of Daju and the entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Once travelers are ready to move on, they can hop one of the daily public buses back to Lijiang at 7:30am or 1:00pm, for about 20 yuan. It is recommended that you reserve a seat as far in advance as possible through your guesthouse.
This road back to Lijiang goes around the east side of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range and on clear days will offer passengers views of the glaciers creeping down the faces of those mountains. Going to Lijiang via Daju also avoids the 160 yuan entrance fee to the Jade Dragon tourist area, although be advised that if you try to get to Daju coming from Lijiang you will likely be charged the fee.
Guesthouses in Daju are concentrated in the satellite village of Xiaomidi, near the edge of the river. Two good options are the Daju Inn and the Xiaomidi Inn.
I wonder, if I start in the morning (first bus from Lijiang) from Qiaotou, can I somehow make it to the early bus from Daju to Lijiang next day (7:30)?
possible. go all the way through the gorge in one day, sleep in Daju. your cut off will be the ferry - so nail the operating times of that in advance. you might need your running shoes.
Where can I get these times?
If the last ferry is around 17:00, there is not chance. Ain't gonna run like that with my girlfriend.
The old ferry stopped working sometime last year, now you will have to go quite far west to the new ferry, which is a long slog (and a little difficult to find) unless you catch a ride with a local driver (try to hail any vehicle along the road - we managed to hitch a ride with some forestry van for 10Y from the old crossing to the new).
There is no fixed time-table for the 'ferry', it is operated by a few local guys who go home when they think no-one is coming anymore.
Daju does make a very nice stop, but as of last year they try to collect the mountain fee as well as the Lijiang old town fee also at the northern park entrance (when returning from Daju to Lijiang), amounting to a whopping 220Y or so. However, the mountain fee is not payable if you do not get off the bus inside the park area and technically the Lijiang fee should not be required if you do not stop in Lijiang, but continue on to, let's say, Xiaguan. Some people have avoided paying the fees by claiming to be locals (works less well for westerners).
The totally rushed (and a bit pointless) version of TLG would be to hire a car to take you Naxi Family Guesthouse and walk from there to Halfway GH, have lunch there and walk down to the road and onto Walnut Grove. There seem to be vehicles for hire at the guesthouses, who then could take you either back to Qiaotou or to the ferry to Daju.
However, my recommendation would be to stay on night at Naxi Family GH (few people do, even though it has the nicest afternoon views of the mountains), next morning to Halfway GH for lunch and continue on a bit to one of the smaller GH along the higher trail for another night. Halfway GH has become big business in the last decade and has lost its attraction.
Just to add to Ludwig's very good comments: both times I caught rides from the end of TLG to the new ferry, the locals I was riding with had the mobile phone number of the guy who operates the ferry and were therefore able to get in touch with him and tell him there were people who wanted to cross. He still takes his sweet time showing up, though. Expect to wait a few hours if you don't catch him during peak operation hours.
The ferry landing is indeed difficult to find. I haven't been lately, but my experience in 2009 and 2010 was that we got dropped at the top of a steep switchbacked dirt road almost directly across the river from Xiaomidi. One goes down to the base of this road. On the downstream side there's some kind of horrendous excavation project (I recall a local telling us it was to sift gold from the river gravel). The ferry landing is then reached by proceeding upstream on a tiny trail that runs next to the river.
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