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Going with the flow: Cycling the Nujiang

By in Travel on

Lieuwe Montsma is a long-time Kunming resident and cycling enthusiast. He has travelled stretches of the Old Burma Road by bicycle and by motorcycle. This is the second installment of his cycling adventure, the first part, where he cycles along the Pijiang, can be found here.

The Nu mountain range stretches between the Lancanjiang Valley and the Nujiang Valley. There are two roads that cross the mountain range — the S228 and the "Former S228". The S228 is closed for road works, and because of the distance and elevation between Wayao and Liuku — our points of departure and destination — we decide to take a bus. The pass at the old S228 road is situated at 2550 metres elevation — a full 1225 metres higher than Wayao, our point of departure. The distance to our destination Liuku is 94 kilometres, with basically nowhere to stop in between. Once we are on the bus we realize how horrible and dangerous cycling the old S228 would have been, with all the traffic squeezed onto the small old road. We don't mind taking a bus anyhow, because our aim is not to tackle difficult mountain passes but to go as far up the Nujiang Valley as possible. We end up travelling on buses for two full days: from Wayao to Fugong, where we spend one night. Then from Fugong to Gongshan and on a small local bus to the touristy town of Bingzhongluo.

A bit of Nujiang infrastructure history

About 20 years ago, the Nujiang was even more remote than it is now. The motorway from Kunming didn't yet go beyond Dali. Construction work on the motorway to Baoshan had just started — causing the G320 Provincial road to be destroyed and blocked by heavy trucks. The best way to get to the Nujiang was to take a flight to Baoshan, where my colleagues would pick me up and drive me to Fugong in the upper Nujiang Valley. That was a long and hard day on the road because most of the way it was cobblestones — the good thing was there was hardly any traffic.

Luckily for the people on the bus there was a tree just at this spot to stop them falling into the river. Note that the road surface is just gravel. In those days there were no crash barriers and if one ended up in the river one had a great risk of dying of hypothermia — the water of the Nujiang is very cold because it brings meltwater from the highlands of Tibet.

On my revisit in 2012 things had changed. The cobblestones had gone and between Fugong and Gongshan they were improving the road even further. On our way down we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams at one of these road works. At lunchtime they opened the road but since nobody had properly lined up traffic literally crashed into each other. The road north of Gongshan was very small, and a major bridge had washed out.

This is what the road to Tibet looked like in 2012:

Up the river once again

After two days on busses and hanging around bus stations, we are glad to be on our bikes again. We start off by going upstream, just as we did by the Pijiang. After stocking up on food and drinks at the local supermarket we set off for Wuli, where there is a trail hacked out in the rock face of the gorge, known as the Wuli Tea Horse Trail.

Last time I was here, in 2012, there was only a small trail leading north out of Bingzhongluo. Now, we could cycle over the smooth tarmac of the improved road and in no time we were in Wuli.

The Tea Horse Trail at the gorge at Wuli. In the background three generations of bridges across the Nujiang.
The Tea Horse Trail at the gorge at Wuli. In the background three generations of bridges across the Nujiang.

After taking a short diversion to walk the tea horse trail, we continue to Quinatong Village. This is where the checkpoint for entering Tibet is. We expect that this will be our northernmost destination and our turning point, but we are wrong.

Border run

We ride around a bend in the road and find ourselves a short distance away from the checkpoint. We don't want to just turn around at the checkpoint, as that might look suspicious. The guards wave us over, so we continue towards them. We explain that we just want to have a look and don't want to go to Tibet.

The checkpoint guards take their time, examining our passports and doing the usual vehicle search. In this case, the bicycle panniers. We are not in a hurry as it's only fourteen kilometres to cycle back to the hotel. After half an hour, we are told — to our great surprise — that we can cycle to the actual Tibetan border and back. They will keep our passports, and we will have to be back before 6 pm, their closing time.

The border, they tell us, is some 20 kilometres further. The road is all new, so an unplanned extra round trip of 40 kilometres is doable and we set off. Right after the first bend, we cycle through a construction site, where they are building a new large and covered checkpoint, complete with staff accommodation. More traffic is expected to come this way, now the new road has been built.

The new road to Tibet. In the middle the new checkpoint under construction. The tiny old road can be seen near the river.
The new road to Tibet. In the middle the new checkpoint under construction. The tiny old road can be seen near the river.

This is the new road to Tibet. In the middle, you can see the new checkpoint under construction. Note the snow-capped mountains in the background. The tiny old road can be seen near the river.

After 20 kilometres there is no border. My GPS tells me that the border is further away, so we continue. At 28.5 kilometres we finally hit the border.

We park our bikes against the "Foreigners are not allowed in" sign and take some pictures to commemorate our achievement of setting one foot in Tibet. After ringing the bell, we return to the checkpoint, pick up our passports and return to Bingzhongluo.

At Shentai we manage to get off the new road. We follow the old road through the village, past the Catholic Church and then climb up to Bingzhongluo. We have done a surprising 83 kilometre day.

Bingzhongluo to Gongshan

The next day we set out for Gongshan, after the worst of the morning mist has cleared. After yesterday's adventure, it's a relatively easy day today, with only 45 kilometres to Gongshan.

Apart from groups of welders with smoking generators fitted on trucks every so many kilometres, working on crash barriers, it is a nice and quiet road, smooth new tarmac all the way to Gongshan. Here we have a hard time finding a room for the night. The many welding crews, electricians installing lights, road crews working on finishing up the new road and truck drivers delivering the concrete and tarmac have to stay somewhere.

The prospect of cycling four days on a busy road with stretches of muddy slush with the added stress of finding accommodation every night is not appealing. We are cycling for fun and relaxation and not to get stressed. We decide to give up on our plan to cycle down the Nujiang.

Getting back to Kunming

We miss the one bus in the morning that could have taken us to Lushui, and don't want to wait for an afternoon bus that only goes as far as Fugong. We find a private taxi that takes us and our dismantled bicycles to Liuku. Our driver hands us over to another driver in Fugong, who makes up for waiting for more passengers by hitting speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour — exactly why we didn't want to cycle this stretch of the road. In Lushui we get dropped off at the bus station and get tickets for the bus back to Kunming, the following day.

In the background the "Stone Moon" is visible — a big hole in the mountain only just visible in this picture.
In the background the "Stone Moon" is visible — a big hole in the mountain only just visible in this picture.

An important note for travellers — Liuku and Lushui are about three kilometres apart. Both places have bus stations. The long-distance buses use Lushui, the local buses depart from Liuku. The taxi brought us to Liuku, where everyone got out. We then had to renegotiate the ride to Lushui. Make sure you arrange beforehand which bus station you want to go to.

Early next morning, the bus departs and follows the "Former S228" instead of the new road. The Nujiang is a border area and there are checkpoints for incoming as well as outgoing traffic. On the way in our check had taken less than 10 minutes, but now the internet system is down and all details have to be taken with pen and paper, further complicated by two other foreigners and us two. The rest of the journey is uneventful and after we arrive in Kunming we cycle home in the dark. In December I read in the local news that the new road through the Nujiang Valley has been officially completed and opened.

To cycle or not to cycle the Nujjiang Valley?

From my writing above one could conclude that I don't recommend cycling in the Nujiang valley between Lushui and Gongshan. Although the road works should have finished by now, I personally think it is a road with too much traffic and lacking in character.
North of Gongshan it is a different story, but here cycling options are limited to just one road along the valley. Different routes are possible if one likes to go offroad bikepacking, across the mountain ranges to the Dulong Valley in the west or to the Lancanjiang Valley in the east. Take into consideration that travelling to the Northern Nujiang is time-consuming — it takes at least two long days of travelling from Kunming.

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Looks like there have been lots of infrastructure improvements since I biked this route in 2010.

Thanks for the useful information.

Great article. I did the same trip a couple of years ago - it was possible to get past the checkpoint by bike if you said you were visiting Qiunatong. I was able to cycle up to the Tibet border and back quite easily in a day. I also think the Gongshan to Liuku section is worth cycling if you take it slowly. The scenery seemed nice to me! Especially worth it for the side trip to Laomudeng (thought I took my bike up there in a taxi). And if you are really crazy you can now cycle into the Nujiang from Deqen via the new De-Gong mountain highway via Yongzhi and Dimaluo. I haven't done it but this guy did: www.crazyguyonabike.com/[...]

What's the official policy, when it comes to bicycles on long distance buses in China? How difficult was it for you to bring your bicycle on board, and how did you go about it?

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