Yunnan is full of surprises!

In our first couple of weeks in China, we cycled from Hekou to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. From there, we made our way to Dali first and then the Tiger Leaping Gorge, through busy and beautiful rural areas. We took the back-road out of the Tiger Leaping Gorge passing Haba and the sinter terraces of Baishuitai, before making our way to Shangri-la.

We didn’t really know what to expect when we entered China. All we knew is that we wanted to go up the Tibetan plateau in NW Yunnan and Sichuan. Without any preconceived ideas and prejudices, we just absorbed everything that was going on around us, and, immediately, we were struck by the diversity in people, landscapes, food (lots of vegetarian food 🙂 ).

Already Hekou surprised us by not being one of those dodgy border towns. We had a good taste (literally!) for what we would have ahead of us, with steamed buns, fried potatoes with chilli (specialty from Yunnan), and dumplings. On the main square, few groups of people had formed to perform their dancing until the sun sets.

First day out of Hekou started with road works (we hoped this will not get a tradition for each new country we enter), but after only 15km the dust and bumps gave place to a completely brand new road which would lead us to Yuanyang (Nansha) along the Yuanjiang river. On some sections there was almost no traffic, and it felt like our own cycle path following the equally new and equally empty motorway (who are they building this for?…this question was very often in our minds).

I think I could write a whole page on the approach to Kunming alone, it was just one of the strangest things we cycled through so far. When we thought we reached the city, there was another 40 km of weirdness before we actually got there: clusters of huge buildings, either in construction or finished, but mostly empty, and the roads ranging from empty 100m large highways (again mostly unfinished and empty) to dirt tracks. Kunming itself is a huge modern city, with good bike paths, and lots of good food. We didn’t stay long, but in general we found it pretty relaxed and we had a good time chatting about cycling and Asia with Michael and Ruth, our Warmshower hosts (thanks again Michael for your hospitality!).

Kunming to Dali

From Kunming to Dali was really strong headwind and we struggled to enjoy the road, the section up to Lufeng was quite ugly anyway, with a lot of traffic and road works. But then we cycled through a beautiful valley and rural areas peppered with small villages. These were busy times in the fields, which was dotted with people harvesting and planting (mostly garlic and barley – all human powered, tractors and other machines were a very rare sight). The barley got spread on the road so the grains could be threshed by the wheels of passing vehicles. I guess we didn’t contribute that much with our two wheels, but it was still good fun!

We had a short rest in the old town of Dali, very pretty with some amazing architecture. But at the same time, it is booming with local tourism, with one souvenir shop after the other after. Once more, we realised that with our loaded bikes, we are a tourist attraction (and it is all about getting a good photo, right?!). As it was raining, we had a perfect excuse to be super lazy and didn’t do much, except for having a few beers in the evening with Davide, from Ticino and living in Dali, and his friend, who we don’t remember the name (sorry!) (Thanks for the evening, it was great meeting you!).

After a few more days on the road, we made it to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, apparently one of the deepest gorges in the world with a 3900 m drop from Mount Haba to the West and Yulong Xueshan to the East to the Jinsha River. We cycled all the way to the lower end of the gorge. Some sections were quite vertiginous and we were impressed (or scared? – we did both wear our helmets…) by the minimalistic rock fall protection. We didn’t have the best weather, but it was still stunning! We stayed a night in one of the guesthouses in the gorge, but we had to cancel our plan to do a short hike the next day due to heavy rain. So we decided to continue cycling instead (hoping for the sun to return soon), taking the alternative route through Haba and the Baishuitai sinter terraces.

This route offered us some of the best cycling so far: as we climbed towards Shangri-la slowly we saw the landscape changing…with grassing yaks replacing water buffalos, first appearances of prayer flags and white stupas, and small Tibetan villages with large fortress-like houses.

In Shangri-la (also named Zhongdian or Gyalthang in Tibetan), we start breathing the Tibetan world. A large part of the old town burned down a year ago, but the rebuilding seems to be quite fast, keeping the same type of wooden houses with beautifully adorned wooden window frames. We stayed a few days here to properly acclimatise and mentally prepare for the next leg of our journey that would lead us over many passes above 4500m to get to Litang.

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