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Cycling Yunnan Province with BikeChina Adventures

In January 2003 I took an eight day bicycle tour with to Yunnan Province in Southwest China. Looking at their web site, seemed like the type of touring company created by a cycle tourist. They have a variety of tours and I signed up for an eight day trip. Relative to my other cycle trips, with 204km, this one had less cycling (though BikeChina has longer tours with a lot more riding). This was fine as my interest was primarily in doing an initial reconnasance of a small part of China with interest towards a possible longer solo trip later. Language was my biggest concern, but I was also curious about lodging, food, road conditions and other things I would need.

The trip met and exceeded my expectations. I was enthused about our bilingual guide, Godspeed, a gonzo cycle tourist himself. It was nice to go with small group (3 + guide) and enough adventure and changes to keep everything interesting. I also ate a lot better food than I otherwise would have with my limited repetoire of Mandarin.

I was amazed by sheer variety in sights and places visited. In order of interest, here was my top six highlights of the trip (1) Tibetan town and wonderful surroundings near Zhongdian (2) Tiger Leaping gorge with dramatic cliff walls and crossing the Yangtze (3) the Old town of Lijang (4) Beijing stopover including Great Wall (5) exploring the city of Kunming (6) wonderful food.

In 1933 James Hilton wrote "Lost Horizon", a tale of several travelers whose plane had crashed in a remote utopian valley. They eventually had to decide whether to stay in "Shangri-La" or return to their world. This tale was made into a film in 1937 and helped popularize the term "Shangri-La". While it has been over promoted to get tourists, I was still quite amazed about some of these back areas. Seeing them via bicycle and during low season was wonderful.

I misplaced camera memory card, so unfortunately no photos for this trip (unless I scan some images). Below is a more detailed journal for the trip.

19 and 20 January, Travel to Beijing

Cycling through China had been in my thoughts for a while and had caught my attention as a way to get my feet wet and explore a possibility of a longer solo journey. Everything lined up when HP changed vacation policies (meaning I better take some early in 2003 or lose it) and United Airlines filed for bankruptcy (meaning I'd better use some of a large bucket of frequent flier miles). The trip was finalized about a month before departure. Enough time to get a visa, study guide books and prepare, though I knew barely a few words of guidebook Chinese and could recognize the men's restroom but almost no other characters.

My alarm went off at 3am, a start of what I figured would be a 36 hour travel day: 90 minute ride to Denver, two hour flight to Chicago and then a long flight over the Pacific. We left Chicago about noon for a 13 hour flight plus 14 hours of time change to arrive 3 pm the next day.

While the flight itself followed the sun, we actually saw a sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset in middle of the day since we flew far north of the arctic circle. We crossed Hudson Bay with sheets of ice broken by occasional long cracks and then across islands in NWT before crossing north of the Bering Straight and inland through Siberia. At midday local time it was almost dark, with full moon, stars and just hint of red on the southern horizon.

My first impressions of Beijing airport were both modern and clean. Smaller than Singapore, though seemed like we walked through most of the airport. At baggage claim were machines to automatically exchange $US to Chinese Yuan, approximately 8.2 to 1. I exchanged enough for taxi fare.

Lonely Planet Guide cautioned about taxi touts that would overcharge and suggested going to the official stand outside. I was within 5m of the taxi stand when someone came up and offered far to the city. "Y200". I looked shocked and countered, "Y100". He countered Y150. I said Y100. He said Y110. I said Y100 and started to walk away. Ok, Y100. This was slightly more than the Lonely Planet description (Y85), but I also had a firm fare and didn't need to worry about a taxi taking the long way into town.

My first impression was busy roads with more chaos and more agressive drivers than even Boston (!). Separate bike lanes along much of the way. We passed along some rather fancy shopping places. I had mentally put Beijing in the mold of developing nation such as India, but so far Beijing has more in common with Singapore than the large Indian cities e.g. Chennai. For example, traffic was mostly cars, buses and bicycles and not also motorcycles, oxen, three wheelers, pedal carts etc.

21 January, Beijing

A layover day and chance to explore a little of Beijing. In the morning I walked through the Forbidden City. In the afternoon I took a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling.

The Forbidden City is a giant palace complex in center of the city. It was built during reign of the Ming dynasty in the early 1400s. Some of the wooden palaces burned down four times only to be carefully rebuilt in exact same form. I followed along with well done audio tour narrated by Roger Moore (of James Bond fame). Many palaces had intricate carvings including sequence of animals on each corner ending in a man riding a rooster. The tour ended in gardens at north end, with some nice rock outcroppings.

Besides those of us listening on tape, there were also several tour groups usually led by guide waving a small flag or with the entire group wearing similar hats. One group I saw in garden was led by an Asian guide waving Canadian flag and speaking in french. This group was couples, each pushing a stroller with a chinese infant bundled up against the cold. I assumed an adoption group.

I had fun walking through part of the city on my way back. There are many bike lanes and bicycles. Traffic drives aggressively, so watch out! Cycling this will be fun. I saw a number of people wearing repiratory masks sweeping the street.

After lunch I had arranged with hotel for taxi ride to Badaling and chance to see the Great Wall. There are multiple places around Beijing to see the wall, but this most popular with accompanying crowds. Today wasn't too many people with January tourists and near freezing temperatures with hazy overcast skies.

Wow! I was very impressed with size and scale of the wall, as well as the steep mountains it climbed up and over. This section was about 7m high and 4m high on top. Every several hundred meters it widened out to a lookout tower. Steps were in the steepest spots. I followed the path along top to the local high point. At top I was quite amused to find venders hawking "I climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts and certificates. Who says China doesn't have a capitalistic society.

After walking back down, I stopped at the interesting Great Wall museum. I was amazed to find out about a sequence of walls and defensive fortifications totalling 50,000 km and going back 2000+ years. Very impressive scales and engineering work. Also at museum were photos of world leaders photographed on official visits (260+ from 143 countries). The US had Nixon, Carter and Reagan. Denmark was one country with quite a few official visits each with photo (seems out of proportion with amount of trade I would expect between Denmark and China).

A good taxi ride back and then got dinner from nearby sidewalk stalls. I was swindled once when someone handed me a 5 Jiao bill instead of 5 Yuan. The TV was showing Philadelphia/Tampa Bay playoff football game but with commentary in Chinese.

22 January, travel to Kunming

It snowed approximately 6cm last night. Wet slushy stuff that caused traffic to be even more chaotic, so I left early for the airport. Taxi fare using the meter Y119 + Y10 for the toll road. The airport took another Y50 for domestic departure tax. Everywhere people were pushy at the lines, but got to the plane in plenty of time to wait for an hour for departure while the plane was de-iced.

For a non-capitalist society, China has figured out advertising well. Seat backs advertise Bosideng down wear. Safety stickers are from China Telecom and drink cups come from YanJing Brewing Company. Only the airsick bags appear to be without a sponsor. Yesterday Great Wall tickets had China Life Insurance company printed on them.

Waiting at the airport was Godspeed, guide for the trip. He lives in Chengdu and flew in yesterday. Kunming airport was a little more run down than Beijing, but still fairly new and modern.

We got lunch at nearby restaurant and then did some walking through town in the afternoon. First stop was a bank for me to pay the balance of the trip. We need to be at Bank of China, but ended up going to three different branches before finding one that could cash my travelers checks. Not that there was a shortage of other banks we found along the way.

We passed through the Flower and Bird market. Many interesting creatures for sale here. While passing by one of the goldfish leaped out of the enclosure to the pavement. Also down along a somewhat smelly river where some locals were playing an instrument and singing. We did several loops coming along the computer section before finishing back at the hotel. In evening Godspeed went back to the airport to pick up the other two guests, Abe and Jocelyn. I went out and found dinner. I walked in a restaurant and they said "rice noodle". Yes. This ended up being a boiling pot of water with side dishes and noodles. One dropped the side dishes into boiling water and then added noodles.

Tomorrow trip begins for real.

23 January, Kunming

Today a visit to Kunming. Prior to arrival, Godspeed had shipped our bicycles on the train and they stayed in boxes today rather than unpack and repack them tomorrow. It was a fun walk through to see sights of the city as well as a cab ride or two.

First breakfast! We walked around the corner to local restaurant. Two courses, meat/mushroom filled dumpling and also boiled milk with egg. I'm glad we're getting lots of exercise on the trip since so far food has been delicious. Godspeed definitely knows ins and outs of ordering. Abe, Jocelyn and I have been learning a few names and symbols but still many more to learn.

After breakfast we visited Yuantong Buddist temple. The temple dates back to the Tang Dynasty (1314-1320) and is still in active use. Smell of incense as well as candles and false paper money was in the air. Worshippers mixed with tourists with little separation of both. We walked around the beautiful grounds and took in the sights.

Next a walk through Cuihu Park. Vendors were selling bread to locals to toss for seagulls. The seagulls swooped by to pick up bread and fly on, with some also waiting below for dropped crumbs. There were quite a few people out in the park a very public place.

We walked past Bird and Fish market as well as many smaller streets as we generally headed south through town. Surprising to me how much was for sale out with various street vendors. People would look at us with a curious, "you are from out of town" look, but there was almost no aggressive sales. It was neat to walk through it all.

We reached the East and West Pagoda 40m high towers with broad avenue in between. The east tower had a distinct list. A nice cup of tea in fleeting sun and then a lunch stop.

After lunch a taxi ride we explored Haigen Park and Lake Dian south of town. Some 40km by 13km this is a huge water. It was peaceful walking through the park, though for a while strong gusty winds. Several couples out getting wedding pictures taken in the wind. I'm hoping for tailwinds tomorrow. Our walk definitely showed contrasts between mostly new modern buildings and occasional older and sometimes very poor housing. However, in contrast with India, there seems to be more new building here and less chaos. There is also a huge variety of architectural styles. Hopefully some of the older Chinese styles will remain preserved.

On way back a stop at the bank and post office before making our way back to the hotel. A pretty interesting walk through the city today. Another delicious dinner.

After dinner, we packed things in panniers and Godspeed went to drop off our excess baggage at a friend for safekeeping. The phone rang, but I let it ring... after tales from Abe and Jocelyn yesterday, it was likely a prostitute. The previous evening Abe had answered the phone four times to someone speaking Chinese. Mostly saying "hello" and once "ok". After going to sleep, at 1 am they heard knocking on the door and Abe answered to find a prostitute there. Apparently, this sometimes happens at particularly at 2 or 3 star hotels and particularly to single men checking in alone.

24 January, Zhongdian

Today we flew to Zhongdian and started exploring this mostly Tibetan town at 3200m elevation. I am struck by both the friendliness of people as well as bright colors in people and buildings. When we landed it was -1C and was otherwise brisk cold with rapid changes from sun to clouds.

The day started with 6:30am departure to make it to the airport for an 8am flight. Uneventful flight, though it is always a little tougher to travel with bicycles. Shortly before 9am we arrived in bright sun with sign proclaiming "Shangri-La".

Our 737 was the only plane at the small airport and hence no taxi that could fit four bikes. I stayed at the airport while Godspeed went with Abe and Jocelyn went to find a hotel and find a truck to come back. It was peaceful calm waiting at the airport emptied. A friendly and curious airport guard not much over 15 came over. I could pantemine some words, but wish I knew more Chinese.

After arrival a delightful brunch that illustrated friendliness of Tibetan people here. As we were waiting for meal of Yak Butter Tea, Yak Soup, Yak stir fry (there is a theme here...), bread, tomatoes + eggs, a group of Tibetans clustered around our small charcoal heater and struck up conversation.

After brunch, assembled the bicycles and rode 4 km to the Song Zan Lin Monastary out of town. Wow! The monastary is perched on a hill surrounded by smaller houses. All of it very brightly painted. We viewed different parts of monastary and met a few monks. Three strong memories here: (1) the monk using the cell phone, (2) the surprise one monk expressed at my height and (3) the careful and reverential way in which we were each presented with small token on a string.

On return we walked through Zhongdian. Lots of smiles and nods from both sides as locals examined the tourists and us tourists examines town including the market.

For dinner another of these friendly tibetan experiences. We were waiting for dinner, talking and deciding for fun to see if we could replicate the fancy napkin foldings. As we failed miserably, the waitress who had been watching quietly came over to give us folding lessons for three different styles.

At evening a cold night at 3200 meters.

25 January, Zhongdian

Today a day to explore surroundings of Zhongdian with a short bicycle expedition both in morning and afternoon. Lots of sun, some wind, some rough roads and much beautiful scenery. Shangri-La is here.

After a filling breakfast with rice noodle soup, yak butter tea and a large cooked bread we headed northeast and to the grasslands. The valley is wide and open here (reminds me of a place like Jackson Hole in USA but replace elk with yak). In winter, mostly brown stubble with just a few pigs, sheep or other animals. Apparently in summer much larger lush areas.

At grassland was a tourist gate with admission. Godspeed asked if we were interested in riding horses and soon all four of us were on tethered horses being led out a ways into the grassland area. Definitely got a good sense of size and scale here. Also interesting to see how Tibetans here live with a surprising blend of old and new. For example, a super-mario type video game being played in small room as people cluster around small electric heating warmer. Traditional dress brightly colored but also a basketball hoop. Cable TV but also people riding what look like rototillers on steriods.

Everywhere people seem friendly and curious. When cycling by, one hears an occasional "hello". A response from us of either "hello" or "ni-hao" elecits an occasional laugh. People sometimes look us over (including my size). If you catch their eyes and smile, a bright smile and greeting back. Smiles are universal.

We had good lunch, though seemed to be getting a bit sluggish. After lunch we started second cycling part to find a large limestone bridge and hot springs south of town. First few km were bumpy gravel, but fortunately improved after that to paved road. We slowly climbed along large dam and rounded corner to follow a lake. From there through the countryside.

Along the way we saw several yaks, clusters of tibetan houses and people in fields. An occasional taxi, three-wheeler, "super rototiller", person walking or bicycle along the road.

It was slightly further than Lonely Planet said but over last hill was descent and in bottom a resort with several large hot pools. Wow. Nearby a river flowed underneath a huge limestone block to form the bridge. The others purchased bathing suits and swam while I explored a bit further and soaked in some sun.

It was getting late as we cycled back retracing our steps. At one point several people were taking their yak for walk on a tether and offered us to take photos. On restart, my back tire was flat. Likely a snake bite. Godspeed patched things and we ambled last bit into Zhongdian at end of long but nice day of riding. I'm happy to see a little more cycling today. 47 km today.

26 January, Qiaotou

A travel day with a dramatic change in peoples and landscapes. It was a long and sometimes slow nine hour ride. The first half was still high plains of "Shangri-La" valleys and second half was long descent down steep valleys.

We met at 8am for breakfast. Rice noodle soup at small cafe. Godspeed had talked with owners and they opened especially for us. By 9:10am we were off and riding over the valley and past the airport. For next 45km we roughly followed the valleys with gentle rises and falls. Still Tibetan houses, a few yaks and broad open plains. Mostly level with a few climbs. Very nice smooth road at first but then a little worse after that.

After 45km, we climbed up side of the drainage. At top was steep descent down valleys on the other side. Zoom! I was still riding cautious slow on the bike but one could have gotten considerable speed down ~1000+ meters of descent. It also looked quite different from the broad valleys above.

At 71km a flat rear tire, my second. Sigh. Fortunately quickly fixed. Just following this we came to 20km of road construction. Unlike western construction, the entire 20km was being worked on by hundreds (thousands?) of workers. Pay rate for this tough labor is approximately 300Y per month ($35). Multiple backhoes, trucks and other traffic along the way. A few parts were smooth, a few with rugged large boulders. Most of the route was single lane so there were frequent stops to let traffic pass. We were greeted with many "hello", "ni-hao" and one "you are crazy". It was slow rugged downhill riding and I'm glad I was on a front suspension mountain bike. On my bike I would have had to walk most of the way. As it was, I still walked one or two spots.

At end of long day, we reached end of construction and town of Qiaotou. One main street with stores and half a dozen hotels as well as some restaurants. 94 km today.

27 January, Tiger Leaping Gorge

Today was a short day of cycling but with beautiful scenery. The wide Yangtze river narrows to 20m or so in midst of a deep canyon with some 3900m from tops of snow capped peaks to river below (i.e. twice the height of the Grand Canyon). The narrowest part of Tiger Leaping gorge is 16km in length. The gorge is named for fable at narrowest parts where a tiger lept across the river jumping on large rocks to get across.

After breakfast in Qiaotou we crossed the bridge and followed our river to the Yangtze. The road was still smooth with occasional small rises. After several km, we started climbing up the sides of canyon. At 9km, we stopped at narrow rapids and climbed down to the river.

From here, the road hugged the cliffs. A reasonable road, but no guardrails with deep dropoffs. Occasionally it was unsealed road, but still better than construction yesterday. A few hairpin curves and steep grades and we were at Walnut Grove.

Walnut Grove is a small cluster of guest houses and other houses about 250m above the water below. It caters a bit to western "backpacker" tourists with bilingual menus and english signs. Below Walnut Grove is a set of terraces with some type of grain. 23 km today.

28 January, Lijang

Multiple modes of transport as we made our way to Lijang today. After today no more significant cycling, so nice to get to our endpoint.

Last night other travelers at Woody's guest house from Brisbane, Australia and Lake Constance, Germany. Nice to hear from other travelers in the area.

There were two general routes from here to Lijang. One would be to retrace our route to Qiaotou and then along the main road. The other was the back road via Daju. Only drawback was multiple kms of both climb and very rough road. Hence, Godspeed had arranged for transport through that part.

After breakfast we cycled 3km further along Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here we met four Chinese with hauling company who would help us get across the Yangtze. Why did we need help? Our starting point was several hundred meters up the cliffs from the river and ending point was equally high on the other side.

Panniers were tied on the horse and our helpers picked up the bicycles. We walked along the narrow trail to bottom. After brief wait, small ferry boat came from other side. Our helpers carried bikes up and we carried panniers. All a fun experience.

The bus driver from Daju called and drove to pick us up. Bikes went into the aisle and panniers in one seat. After brief stop in Daju and picking up a few more passengers, we started up the hill on very rugged road. Passengers got on and off with good and at one point a total of eleven in addition to us in the bus. Everyone cooperative with our bikes rather obnoxiously blocking main aisle on the small bus.

The bus climbed and climbed up many switchbacks. It would have been a long endeavor to otherwise cycle this rough road. Finally up top and along several rises and drops.

Bus driver let us off at Jade Snow Dragon Mountain at golf club. Security guards let us shelter from strong wind and eat snacks in their guard house. After lunch a brief climb into the wind and then long downhill into stiff headwinds.

Lijang was already visible in middle of valley below. Before reaching the city, we stopped at Baisha to see frescos that dated back to 15th, 16th centuries. It was apparent that Baisha was a more touristed area with many small souvenir stands. This area is home to Naxi ethnic minority with many visible in traditional costume.

After Baisha the last 5km and into middle of Lijang. Here we found nice hotel on edge of old town. 32 km today.

29 January, Lijang

Today a day to explore Lijang. Lijang is a major tourist destination with some very interesting sights. There is a sharp contrast between the old town of 4km square and the modern rest of the city.

The old town has a maze of cobblestone streets with many small shops. Water rushes through small canals. Behind the shops and around edges are guest houses, homes and other places. This is center for Naxi region with cultural signs including people in traditional dress and Naxi language and others.

A few common shops appear multiple times: tea shops, CD/DVD shops, jewlery shops, clothing and many appear to have identical goods. Mixed in is good set of cafes and restaurants. Some are traditional and some cater to a western "backpacker" set (western+Chinese food, internet cafe, couches, travel books, etc).

Walking around town is broad mix of peoples. More western tourists than we've seen elsewhere, tour groups with Japanese, Koreans, Chinese tourists, people in Naxi or Yi traditional clothing all mixed together.

Last night we visited old town to see traditional Naxi dances. This morning we went to nearby Black Dragon Park and climbed most of the way up Elephant Hill. The park had beautiful pool and several nice buildings with displays.

Also nearby was Dongba (Naxi) museum describing some of the culture and history. It was interesting to me to see roots of "Shangri-La" dating back to James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon" as well as early National Geographic accounts. While Lost Horizon is fiction, China is taking advantage of similarities with this region to help draw tourists.

During the afternoon, we each took separate routes. I wandered back and forth across old town until I was sometimes thoroughly lost as well as not quite certain if I'd seen a particular tea shop before. After a nice dinner in the new city, we were back in old town for more exploration as well as drinks at Prague cafe. 0 km today.

30 January, Kunming

A flight back to Kunming and end of the trip. Overnight the weather changed and by morning it was rain turning to large wet snow flakes. Not much was sticking though. Also overnight, both Abe and Jocelyn came down with a nasty food poisoning that kept them up all night and sick during the day.

I helped Godspeed take apart the bicycles and bind them together with wire for transport. After a late breakfast I took another walk through old town Lijang. Little rivers of water was running over the cobblestones where the drainages had overflowed. Thick flakes were falling. Outside cafes were shuttered as well as a number of the shops. I wandered through and then found a cozy cafe with a kitten and the internet.

Godspeed and I had lunch in old town and then we all packed up and set off for the airport. All of us and bicycles packed in small van for ~20km ride to the airport. The flight was delayed so some longer waiting there before return to Kunming.

31 January, Kunming

A quiet day and end to the trip. Godspeed acquired boxes in the morning. We boxed the bicycles and then Abe, Jocelyn and Godspeed were off the airport. It has been a quick but wonderful trip and so a little sad to see it come to the end.

I walked around Kunming and visited the zoo, bird and flower market and many streetside shops. While the vegetable market was busy in the morning, at least half of the shops were closed in anticipation of the Chinese New Year. Fireworks were still available everywhere.

As expected, the zoo was a bit sad. I saw a giant panda but lying in a concrete cage. Mostly similar animals to what one would find in North American zoos with a large collection of monkeys.

High end electronic equipment seems similar in price to US, but much less expensive on the lower end. Also a large collection of Chinese labels of popular PC software which seems considerably less expensive than US prices. Bicycles are about 1/4 to 1/3 of the price as are many other items. Stopped at the grocery store in case it is not possible to get noodles or breakfast tomorrow. Also caught up with news on the internet. A quiet end to a wonderful trip. Only frustrating thing is this morning I couldn't find my memory card with 320+ photos from all days prior to this one.

1 February, return travel and conclusion

A long day of travel. Taxi to Kunming airport, the flight to Beijing was eighty minutes late requiring a quick airport dash to make my Chicago flight a few minutes before doors closed.

Overall, it was a wonderful if short trip. I saw some fascinating areas with a surprising amount of variety in a short distance. Tibetan towns, Naxi tourist areas, a dramatic gorge, a medium sized city and a few highlights of Beijing all packed within two weeks. was an excellent tour company with small group and bilingual guide. I wouldn't recommend them to someone who gets upset without hot water or western toilet each night, but for those cyclists looking for mild adventure and interesting way to see China, a definite thumbs up (their web site has a good description under FAQ of types of people that do best with their tours).

One of my goals was to experience a small slice of China for a possible future trip. From this I learned a few things:

It may take a while, but China is definitely a place that deserves a longer return trip. The Tibetan towns I saw make Tibet itself an interesting lure if it it opens to foreigners.