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Lonely Planet Writer

Shangri-la on two wheels: cycling adventures in Yunnan

Under an endlessly bright, blue sky, amidst clean, crisp air, an old woman herds a grunting, clucking menagerie of farm animals down the road towards you. Piglets and their parents, goats, yaks and the odd chicken pass on either side as you glide through the quiet, sleeping village.

Elsewhere, at a simple roadside shack, you wait as the owner hand-churns butter tea, mixing together tea leaves, yak butter, water and salt, all the while chatting away in rapid-fire Tibetan to the child strapped to her back. As the high-calorie tea eases your altitude sickness, you stare out across the plain that stretches off towards the fabled ‘lost’ city of Shangri-la.

Yunnan's hair-raising roads offer incredible mountain views © aaabbbccc / Shutterstock
Yunnan's hair-raising roads offer incredible mountain views © aaabbbccc / Shutterstock

This is China’s most southwestern province – the vast, beguiling Yunnan – and these are the sounds, sights and tastes you’ll encounter as you explore it by bicycle.

Touch the clouds

Yunnan, which in Chinese means ‘south of the clouds’, is one of China’s most diverse provinces, both in terms of the variety of ethnic groups that live here and the breathtaking contrasts of the landscapes. Soaring mountains sheltering Naxi, Tibetan and Bai people, amongst others, stretch up to the clouds in its northern region. In the south, the Mekong River snakes its way through the dense tropical jungles of the Hani and Dai people on its way to neighbouring Laos.

The route

Yunnan is big so don’t expect to cover it all in one short trip. The airport at provincial capital Kunming is a major hub and arriving here affords travellers the chance to strike out north or head south. The best times of the year to visit are in spring and autumn, although given the area’s diverse climate, you’re sure to find at least one area with pleasant weather at any time of the year.

Historic Lijiang makes for a good stopover on a cycling tour of Yunnan © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet
Historic Lijiang makes for a good stopover on a cycling tour of Yunnan © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet

A good route includes starting at pretty-if-touristy Lijiang before heading to charming Shangri-La. From there, pass through remote Haba village, in the shadow of Haba Snow Mountain, before entering breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge and spending some time hiking along the roaring Jinsha River. You can then return back to Lijiang, which has an airport.

Any cycling tour through the rural areas between urban hubs, though, is sure to showcase Yunnan's natural splendour and provide the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the people that live here.

You can hire bicycles and a local guide when you reach Yunnan © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet
You can hire bicycles and a local guide when you reach Yunnan © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet

The joy of cycling is as much about the parts in between the day’s final destination, and northwest Yunnan offers almost endless stunning scenery to freewheel your way through. From snow-capped mountains to thick forests, across great plateaus and past eye-catching local farmhouses, it is a delight to ride on roads much-less travelled by others in the region.

There are, however, some major destinations that you shouldn’t miss:

Lijiang

With its picturesque canals lined with pretty wooden buildings, Lijiang is stunning, although with crowds of tourists almost year-round, it is unfortunately a victim of its own success. Try where you can to nip off the main tourist drags and wander the back streets – you’ll find that in many tourist towns in China, the multitudes tend to congregate together on the same paths, leaving those immediately surrounding them much quieter and all the more charming for it.

Ganden Sumtseling Gompa in Shangri-la © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet
Ganden Sumtseling Gompa in Shangri-la © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet

Shangri-La

Still known locally as Zhongdian, the town’s name was officially changed to Shangri-La in 2001 in a bid to boost tourism, though the town still feels refreshingly free of Lijiang’s crowds. Be warned, though: there are plans to extend the high-speed train from Lijiang to Shangri-La, meaning much easier access. Go before everyone else does.

Sitting at just over 3000m above sea level, it’s important to take things easy here. Spend time slowly wandering around the city’s old town, or stay cosy in one of the many great guesthouses and cafes, such as the Compass. Just outside the city lies the resplendent golden Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, which houses hundreds of monks studying the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of the largest outside Tibet itself. Surrounded on all sides by open countryside and distinctive square Tibetan-style farmhouses, the lamasery is a haven of tranquil contemplation.

Haba

En route to Tiger Leaping Gorge from Shangri-La, Naxi minority village Haba makes a quiet overnight stop, with some basic and cheap accommodation available. It’s also a base from which to hike the 5396m Haba Snow Mountain, if you fancy getting off the bike for a day. Necessary equipment for the hike, which is a tough two- to five-day trek at high altitude, can be hired in the village. Alternatively, spend a night enjoying the views and Haba’s stunning remoteness – you’ll see few fellow travellers here.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge offers a scenic break from the saddle © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet
Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge offers a scenic break from the saddle © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet

Tiger Leaping Gorge

A number of excellent guesthouses, such as Sean’s Spring Guesthouse, offer the possibility of staying right in Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest canyons. From here, and for a break from cycling, you can hike along the golden-brown Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze, which wends its way along the foot of the gorge, arriving at thundering rapids where, legend has it, the eponymous fabled tiger leapt across the water to escape hunters. The noise and speed of the rapids are impressive. Elsewhere, precarious ladders cut into the rock provide an adventurous way to explore the gorge. Be sure, however, to take plenty of small change with you on the hike – enterprising locals have set up tolls along the river and won’t let you pass until you’ve paid a small fee.

Tips and recommendations

Coupled with the mountainous terrain and long distances, altitude in the north of Yunnan is a major challenge for anyone hoping to cycle. Lijiang’s average altitude is 2400 metres above sea level, while other areas on the route can sore to above 3500m. Expect to feel the thinness in the air even if you’re very fit, and plan a route that allows you time to acclimatise slowly. Drinking butter tea is a traditional Tibetan remedy for altitude sickness and can help, while getting plenty of sleep is crucial. Hiring a guide and a support vehicle to accompany you on your cycling adventure will also give you the possibility of driving when the going gets too tough.

At high altitude, the sun is very strong even while the air can feel quite cool. Be sure to pack strong sunblock and long-sleeved clothing for those long days in the saddle.

Butter tea: a traditional Tibetan remedy for altitude sickness © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet
Butter tea: a traditional Tibetan remedy for altitude sickness © Tess Humphrys / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Tour operator Bike Lijiang can arrange bicycle hire, a guide and a driver, and provide excellent accommodation in a beautiful spot at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, just outside of Lijiang.

Alternatively, if you want to bring your own bike, it's easy to arrange a driver in Lijiang. Most hotels and guesthouses will have contacts with local drivers willing to spend a week or so on the road.

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