Yunnan Province, China - if pushed for my favourite tour I would have to say that this is it. A gem of a ride that takes us from the Tibetan town of Shangri-La, via passes high and gorges deep, to the town of Dali, home the Bai minority people. Between these two contrasting towns we have a stunning ride on almost deserted roads, as for nigh on two weeks we explore magnificent scenery of snow-capped peaks, pine forests, cobbled climbs, and an ancient tea trading town, We dine on what many who have tried it consider to be perhaps the finest cuisine in Asia - the kitchen of Yunnan really bears very little resemblance to the rather dull Cantonese fayre of your local Chinese restaurant.
This year’s tour was a small but splendid affair as Echo, Li, and I travelled with PaintedRoads regular David and newcomer Paul enjoying the finest weather we have experienced to date in this fine fine province.
PaintedRoads’ LabRat runs are fast becoming a popular tradition amongst our more adventurous guests. A new tour in an interesting and off the beaten path location, these inaugural runs contain, to one degree or another, an element of uncertainty somewhere along the way. Whereas usually, I go over a route one final time alone before running an inaugural tour, a LabRat Run involves taking a small group of laidback adventurous PR regulars along to join in the fun of the final pre-production ride.
This year's tour was through a region of China through which I have long planned to run a tour. Indeed as far back as the dawn of this century, when I travelled overland from Kathmandu to Hong Kong via Lhasa, I have been of the opinion that the Kham region of Sichuan Province was perhaps an altogether better place to experience Tibet than the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This feeling was reinforced when, in 2007 and 2008 (as far as my tatty olf memory recalls) I explored the area on a somewhat overloaded bicycle, camping and exploring and pondering running my own tours.
And so it came to be that at the tail end of May this year seven PaintedRoads regulars join me to ride the inaugural Sichuan Tour. We were supported by Echo, and our regular driver, mechanic, tour explorer, and trusted friend Lee. Additional support was provided by cycling guide Monk, and second driver Maveric.
The ride is surely beautiful and challenging. And this year the challenge was even tougher than expected with a startlingly early onset of the rain season and a two day section where the untimely demise of the main road building contractor had left the road in a state far worse than it was a year ago, quite the opposite to the situation we had been led to expect when exploring the way last June. It transpired that not only had the chap in charge of road repair operations made his way prematurely to the Happy Hunting Ground, he had also managed, rather cunningly, to spirit all of the contract’s money with him, leaving a swath of disgruntled peasants along the way eager for payment and and making sure that work didn’t continue until they received satisfaction.
The route was nothing if not eclectic. Road surfaces ranged from pristine tarmac, to wet and muddy, to gravel, to rural concrete byways. Climbing was an ongoing theme of the tour, with some of the longest ascents and consequent descents imaginable. Climbs of over 40 kilometres were all but a daily occurrence, and the downhills that followed, with the often shallow gradients that such a long climb often ensures, were laid back relaxing affairs through exquisite mountain scenery. Not all hills are surfaced equally in Sichuan though, and those seeking a more exciting pass to cross were not left wanting, as on occasion we ascend and descend on loose and exciting byways - shredding dude!
The highest pass of the tour was 4700 metres, with roads above 4000 metres cropping up on a leg shatteringly regular basis. However with sleeping elevations considerably lower than our highest point each day altitude-related health issues never cropped up, save of course for the inevitable breathlessness while crossing an oxygen-depleted pass. What was interesting to all was the difference a few hundred extra meters in altitude could have on a fellow or lass. When 4000 metres seemed OK, an extra 500 metres could take the wind from even the largest lungs. The passes were not only metaphorically breathtaking but also quite literally.
I feel that I have rambled on quite long enough, now I should leave the pictures to tell the story.
Before signing off though, I would like to thank David, Kreg, Marko, Dianne, JP, and Allison very much for not only their participation and good humour but also their enthusiasm for an adventure through a beautiful and challenging wilderness.
Ladies of the Yi minority group
The first major climb, 45 KMS of ascent from Daju village
Mani stones - the mantras of Tibetan Buddism carved in stone are a regular feature
One of many pristine road surfaces...
and one of many gravel roads
Local ladies at Bao Shan village
Leaving Bao Shan by boat
The beginning of two days of less than pristine byway
Two day's of unexpected road works left us all a tad tired
Lunch at 4500 metres
Descending from 4500 metres we loose 2000 metres on one wonderful descent
A Buddhist monastery
Another 40-kilometre descent
Many thanks to Echo, seen here at 4400 metres, for her endless hard work running the tour, always with a cheery smile
Later in the tour, the Tibetan homes are treated to a coat of white paint.
This chap offered us yak butter tea as we crossed the tour's highest pass
Cooking up lunch
Visiting a monastery
We were not always the only two-wheeled adventurers
The final high pass
Descending towards the fabled Shangri-La on the final day
Cycling guide Monk
The group - JP, Dianne, Allison, Kreg, David, Keith, Marko, and at the back Monk
As has become our want following a China tour, Echo and I opted for a few days with our China tour partners Cath and Lee in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
A city of some six million people, Kunming has earned the rather apt moniker of The Eternal Spring City. Just a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer and perched in the hills at a lofty 1800 metres the weather in Kunming retains an agreeable climate mostly year round, that is, spring-like and splendid.
Providence, or good planning, has it that Cathy and Lee live on the western edge of the city beneath Xi Shan, the West Mountain, a veritable garden of Eden for the eager mountain biker, and, I dare to say, even more fun on a gravel bike.
Before reaching the multi-surfaced playground up above the city through a warm-up awaits in the form of a character building 400-meter ascent, a fine workout that leaves a chap either knackered, or ready and eager to for the byways, tracks, and trails that abound.
Our most recent visit followed the inaugural South China tour and was also the first proper shakedown ride for my newest bike, a Kinesis ATR VII, the successor to the brilliant and highly acclaimed Version 1 of the early pretender to the crown of gravel bike king. This new bike has already plodded around some trails in the UK, and has earned its wings as a tour-leading rig on the South China tour, but the variety of surfaces, climbs, descents, sealed country lanes, gravel trails, rocky climbs, single track, and rooted descents, all in the company of the young, lean, muscular, and somewhat fit Lee really put the machine (and it’s raging pilot) through its paces.
More of the bike and it's built shortly, for now though some photos from above Kunming.
Wooden houses, rice terraces, rivers, valleys and rural lanes. Long climbs and lovely descents sweeping through terraces of rice and past traditional dressed minority ladies in working the fields.
A small group is never a bad thing with an inaugural tour as it allows some flexibility to iron out any creases. It also gives the opportunity to assess the tour in a real-world situation, with guests on board. And so when Pat & Keith got in touch to say they would like to join this year's South China tour we jumped at the chance to run the tour with a couple of good fun good riding regulars. And so, with Echo taking the role of lead guide we all set off with our regular driver and ace mechanic Lee at the wheel of our support vehicle.
What followed was two splendid weeks of bicycle exploration along the byways of China’s Guiyang Province and Guanxi Autonomous Region. Ancient wind & rain bridges, villages of wooden houses, intricate terraces of rice, bamboo forests, challenging climbs and winding descents, the cycling was as beautiful and enjoyable as the food was fine and the company a pleasure.
Thanks Pat & Keith, looking forward to seeing you both again, hopefully before too much time passes.
Echo takes care of most of the organisation of the China tours, and South China was her first time as the local guide - a task she carried off with aplomb.
Keith takes a rest by the Li River
Pat on one of the many extended downhill sections
Long Ji Rive Terrace, the dragon's back - it's a fine challenging climb to reach our guest house with a view by noon. The afternoon can be spent relaxing or wandering through the beautiful hills, crafted by hand.
Pat & Echo.
Referred to by some regulars as "David routes" PaintedRoads tours are just not right without some gravel excursions.
It's China, some construction is inevitable.
Not as lost as she looks, or felt, it's always great to explore the countryside at close range.
PaintedRoads' tours always take post ride rehydration very seriously.
The back streets of Da Xu old town.
Guide on parade. Wooden houses are typical architecture in the villages of Guiyang Province.
With the building of new highways, such as can be seen top right of this image, the old roads are left quiet, ideal for rural riding.
heading out of town following our rest day.
Ancient (or at least a little bit old) storage huts with corn cobs drying outside.
Winding a path along the Li River.
Posing for a snapshot a kilometre before tour's end.
Our driver, mechanic, and tea brake provider Lee.
Apparently, the largest urban area on earth, the Pearl River Delta may not be the first place to pop into a cyclists mind when looking for a rural ride. The nine largest cities in the area have a population pretty much the same as the UK, so solitude is not something that one expects to find in ample abundance. However, the Perl River Delta is where Echo and I are to be found between our recent exploration of Sichuan Province and our forthcoming Mongolia Lat Rat Run, and so, with the desire for a ride, we set of one recent sunny morning for the 155-kilometre ride from Zhuhai to Chiken.
Chiken is little more than a village but is reasonably well known for its rather novel architecture. The nearby county town of Kaiping was home to an adventurous bunch of Chinese who early last century made their way overseas in search of wealth, something that had enough success in to be able to spawn a small building revolution of more European type dwellings, and fortified towers deemed necessary to protect themselves from marauding bandits intend on relieving these nouveau rich travellers from their hard earned wealth.
With the mercury showing in excess of 35º I was nothing short of impressed with Echo’s performance on her first ever 150 kilometres cycling day. I was also rather happy with the majority of the route we managed to find, courtesy of some fine fellow’s route on Strava mixed with some walking routes courtesy of Google’s algorithms. Even navigating out of Zhuhai was a painless affair, with small riverside paths and some leafy shaded streets more reminiscent of Hanoi than a typical contemporary Chinese city.
Out in the countryside, we found the sort of landscape one may expect of a huge river delta, with lots or riverside paths, bridges and fish farms that put us in mind of PaintedRoads’ Mekong Delta Tour. And the lovely quiet streets of Chiken, where we enjoyed an evening of street dining and cold beers in a cooling breeze, was a fine destination in which to relax after a fine day on the bikes.
Cycling in beautiful solitude
A sneak peak at a whole new tour
So many images and impressions are swimming in my head at the moment that it’s difficult to believe they are all from just one tour. It has taken me some time to calm these swirling fragmented images and organise them into some semblance of a tour description, but I am getting close, and am rather excited about it.
If you're after advice on a cycling route you need to ask a cyclist. Fortunately, this fellow turned up on cue with some sound advice
Lijiang is a much-visited tourist haunt in the very north of China’s Yunnan Province. Many visit this town with good reason - once away from the tourist hordes its cobbled streets are a delight to explore. Few though head north from here, quite likely because what lays ahead is a little daunting. On the southern edge of China’s Tibetan region, the area north of Lijiang takes one into a land of immensely high mountains, dry dusty valleys, forests of pine and rhododendrons, pastures where yak graze, villages of wooden houses, and the traditional fortress-like stone mansions of the Tibetan people. Nomad camps are populated by motorbike-riding cowboys (yak boys?) and guarded by roaming Tibetan Mastiffs. And so with much excitement Echo Lee and I drove north from Lijiang to explore PaintedRoads’ latest Chinese adventure.
Typical Tibetan architecture
Wot, No Bikes?
For the first time ever a PaintedRoads tour has been explored by car rather than by bicycle. Having made such a statement I shall state that it is not exactly true, as I have explored the region by bicycle on more than one occasion (see pics from the previous blog post). What we were doing this time was going over ground previously ridden to see how things look in 2017, and to see how best to piece together the collection of routes we already have. Taking the car proved to be wise as we backtracked and amended the route on enough occasions to cover 1700 kilometres in order to put together a 900KMS tour.
Our research vehicle
A Little Bit Of Yunnan
Early on in the tour is the dramatic little town of Bao Shan. Perched precariously atop a rocky outcrop high above the Yangtse river this delightful little spot has narrow flagstone streets where ponies are the only transport. Were it not such a choir to get to and from, Bao Shan would be a major tourist hotspot, however it is not easily accessible with the result that during our visit we were the only tourists in town. But a journey is what we are all about, and so the dramatic bicycle ride into town combined with the river journey away is perfect, and the dearth of tourist is a delight as we wander the streets.
Bao Shan perches high above the Yangtse river and is home for one night
Lugu Lake, our next port of call, is a beautiful body of fresh blue water right on the Yunnan/Sichuan border, and a fine spot for a rest and acclimatisation day before we head into the Tibetan world.
Lugu Lake, the site of our first rest/acclimatisation day
The last time I left Lugu Lake on a bicycle was ten years ago, and the way we chose back then was so vague it took us two days to find our way into Sichuan. Today the road is better, it is sealed, it is quiet and it is immensely beautiful. Two days after leaving Lugu Lake we find ourselves heading towards our first 4000-metre pass via our first climb in excess of 35KMS. The surface is super, and the gradient is kind, gaining just over a thousand metres during those 35KMS. But the air is thin, and one must never underestimate the effect of altitude when cycling.
And herein lies one of the beauties of this tour, although it is by all accounts a high altitude tour we have the benefit of sleeping notably lower each night that the day’s highpoint. This is a great feature to ensure safe and comfortable acclimatisation to altitude.
The only night we do not sleep lower is our overnight at Baheng Pasture. This is the midway point for our two-day off-road section, mostly gravel tracks, but with some rocky stuff thrown in to keep us on our toes. The pasture is a beautiful spot situated a tad below 4000 meters, and the following morning our first hour or so takes us to a beautiful pass that offers stunning views of snow peaks and a forty-kilometre descent on a white gravel road - strada bianchi, fantastic stuff.
And In The End
As always when exploring a route there are highs and lows. The lows are generally when a part of the planned route doesn't work out for one reason or another, which in the case of this tour was the originally intended ending.
Chengdu was initially pencilled in as the end of the tour, but as we explored it became acutely apparent it was just too far to fit into a realistic time frame.
So we drew things a tad closer to the start with the lofty town of Litang, which according to sources is the highest in the world. Cycling to the world’s highest town has quite a touch of drama, doesn’t it? It gives a wonderful element of romantic adventure, people would like that we thought, and so we went to Litang. This was an option that seemed quite splendid until we reached Litang, where we discovered that a decade after my first visit this dusty Wild West town remains a veritable dump. It has beautiful evening light, and we found a great hotel, but a tour must end on a high, and Litang, although lofty in altitude, does not create a sense of euphoria when, after a tough two weeks cycling, one rides into town. Litang also lacks a good infrastructure for departing the tour, and so with a flourish of pen, we crossed Litang off of the list of ending places and refilled the car with fuel.
Three cycling day’s east of Litang is the town of Kanding, the final Tibetan town before dropping to the provincial capital of Chengdu at a lowly 900 metres above sea level. We set off to Kanding crossing valleys and passes and high plateaus on a road that a decade before had been bereft of traffic. Now, alas, dreadful internal combustion powered vehicles blight the road with fumes and noise. The road has no shoulder, and the traffic, whilst not exactly an endless stream, was to my mind too heavy to make for an enjoyable three days riding however beautiful the vistas may be - “this will not do” went the cry.
One of the hotels we will be using on the tour
And so we backtracked to the ending I had favoured secretly from the start, Shangri La. It was to my mind, in all ways but one, the perfect finale to this tour. To end with a dramatic ride across rugged wild passes into a beautiful Tibetan town with character, fine food, good locally brewed beer, and an airport was surely a winner. And so we looked.
It was a road I had ridden back in 2007 when it was empty, very empty. It was also remote, it was high, and I was keen to see it again.
Now it is remote, high, and empty. It is sealed in places and not in others. We also found the finest hotel of the tour along this route, which came as a surprise as finding accommodation was a big concern.
Typical for this tour, baron brown walls, a blue and white ceiling, and a carpet all hues of green
All but one?
I said that ending in Shangri La was a perfect finale in all ways but one, and that one shortfall is an imaginary shortfall. Unfortunately, a lot of things in life are imagined but believed to be true. I expect that many people will tell you that Iran is a dreadful country to visit, that it is a nation of dastardly characters all out to slit your throat. You will, however, only be told this by people who have not been there, it is imaginary, it is untrue, but it stops people from visiting. Likewise fitting Shangri La into this tour can cause the imaginary problem that because Shangri La is the start point for our Yunnan tour the Sichuan Tibet tour must be similar, it is not. It is in actuality very different. Shangri La is the edge of the Tibetan world. In the Yunnan tour we start on the edge of Tibet and travel away, we drop lower and towards SE Asia. The Sichuan tour is high, and it is, for the most part, Tibetan in culture, in architecture, in scenery and smells and textures and taste. Shangri La is a fitting and very suitable end, a lovely place to wind down and relax, to wander the cobblestoned streets, to drink good coffee, and to enjoy a fine craft ale.
Architecturally this tour is divided with the earlier days seeing bare stone houses that give way to white painted abodes as we move on
This road is so new it doesn't even appear on digital maps, fortunately, we stumbled upon on and it fits perfectly in the tour
Anyone who has been on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour will be only too aware of how delightful the little town of Shangri La is. Fly into Shangri La from the low lands and it feels high, Tibetan and exotic. Cycle into Shangri La from Sichuan and it feels low altitude and more regular Chinese. It also has all the little luxuries one will no doubt have missed during two weeks of high altitude adventure cycling, cappuccino, apple pie, pizza, strong beer. It also boasts an airport but an hour’s hop from Chengdu and Kunming, and a lovely comfortable little boutique lodge we have been using for the past few years.
A small town as we head towards Shangri La
Oh, I am looking forward to this tour. It will be the 2018 Lab Rat Run beginning in Lijiang on June 2nd next year, and finishing 16 days later in Shangri La. Full details soon.
Yaks graze in a high altitude pasture
A Buddhist monastery along the way
High passes are always crowned with prayer flags through which the wind blows and sends incantations to the heavens. This pass sits at a lofty 4250 metres
The streets of Tibet
Yak pastures and pine trees at four thousand metres
The road into the village of Longsa Pasture, the highest night of the tour
Yep there's even cactus
The streets of Bao Shan
Many of the roads are perfectly sealed and bereft of traffic...
some are not sealed - this deserted gravel road descends for forty kilometres into the valley below...
where these fellows reside