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Cycling from Kunming to Dali Old Town

By in Travel on

It's been many years since Dali Old Town became a fixture on the Yunnan backpacker trail. The Cangshan mountain range to the west and Erhai Lake to the east make the walled town a great hillside redoubt into which to retreat from days or weeks on the road.

And some road it was — little more than ten years ago, a bus ride from Kunming to Dali would have taken you as long as 12 uncomfortable and unreliable hours. There was no train.

The G56 highway's changed all that, but the old road remains, a beaten and pockmarked section of China's National Highway G320, a 3,695km-long streak of asphalt that runs from the coast in Shanghai to the Myanmar border in Ruili.

No motorist headed to Dali from Kunming would elect to drive this route, but for two-wheeled vehicles, which are not allowed on the G56 highway, it's all that's available. It's a squeak over 400km. We researched the route, set aside four days, packed our bicycle panniers and rolled out of Kunming.

Day One: Kunming to Lufeng (禄丰)
We were familiar with the road to Anning (安宁) from single-day rides out from the city. Renmin Lu (人民路) takes you to the edge of the city, track south on Chunyu Lu (春雨路), and you can get onto the G320 from the roundabout at the southern end. A short climb over a saddle in the western hills, and you're out of the city.

From there it's a steady downhill to Anning. The bike lane is currently in a poor state, so you're best off in the car lane. Fortunately traffic's not too heavy, due to the G56 highway taking the bulk of it.

In Anning, around 300m after crossing the Tanglang River (螳螂川), make a left onto Kunwan Xi Lu (昆畹西路) otherwise you'll end up funnelled onto the highway, and likely bound for an uncomfortable encounter with the cops. Kunwan Xi Lu will track you through town and back out onto the G320. There's a sign to Lufeng (67km to go) as you leave town. We stopped for some lunch after 57km, at Lupiao (禄脿).

There's no big shocks on today's ride — we encountered some sections of poor surface before lunch, but after Lupiao things smoothed out. The day's main event was a descent, which starts at 76km, and runs for 9km. This empties you onto the Lufeng valley floor — a few steady ups and downs and you're there — a new concrete road leads you off G320 from the Geological Park (地质公园) along the western edge of Lufeng.

After finding a hotel we set about guzzling several glasses of fruit juice, after which we strolled though the nighttime activities in the main square — dancing, games, rides — noise and neon surreal after a day on the bike.

The numbers: 102km, 4hr38 rolling time, 22.1km/h average. All told, a longish but fairly manageable day, and good preparation for what's to come.

Day Two: Lufeng to Nanhua (南华)
Lufeng's a small place that's easy to escape from - a roundabout in the northwest will bring you out of town and back to the G320. The road is split here — westbound traffic takes the north side of the river, while eastbound takes the south. The steep-sided, green valley is pleasant cycling, and traffic isn't too troublesome. Surface is a little worn and choppy, but it's still possible to maintain a decent cruising speed.

First Dali (Xiaguan) sign, just after Lufeng
First Dali (Xiaguan) sign, just after Lufeng

There are tunnels on this section, the first at about 10km out, so be sure to have your lights mounted or handy. There are five tunnels in total, two tiny ones that raise no problem, and three longer ones that are worth going through cautiously. They're only 100-200m long, but unlit and not straight.

After about 12km on the clock, you begin to notice that you're steadily ascending. While the gradient does tick up now and then, it never turns into the monster that we feared it would. Just before Yipinglang Zhen (一平浪镇) the road comes back together — just track through the small town, skipping the several turn offs. The following section is good shady and winding cruising road. After 38km down, we stopped for an earlyish lunch at Jiuzhuang (旧庄). Shortly after, a left turn took us in the direction of Chuxiong (楚雄).

After 47km down, a steepish climb begins, but it's only really challenging for 3km, after which you crest the ridge and zip downhill for the next 3km. This brings you back south of the G56 highway again for the undulating run into Chuxiong, which lies at about 80km down.

The highway runs riverside through Chuxiong, and while there are a few traffic lights to stop at, it's relatively free of obstacles. After going through town, a left will keep you on G320. There's good surface after Chuxiong, though with a few short but nasty little ups and downs that you'll feel after all those Ks.

Roast duck at Nanhua market
Roast duck at Nanhua market

You'll see Nanhua from the top of the last climb, and begin a steady descent into town — unfortunately the surface is rough and there's plenty of other road users, so keep it steady. A roundabout (go straight on) brings you into the small downtown area. Nanhua has a large and diverse food market (on the right, soon after the roundabout) where Nanhua baba (南华粑粑, a local flatbread) is on sale. Wild mushrooms are a local specialty worth sampling between May and October.

117km, 5hr50 rolling time, 19.9km/h average.

Day Three: Nanhua to Xiangyun (祥云)
After two long but relatively straightforward days, day three starts to throw in some proper work. It starts benign, but that's overlaid with a sense of foreboding: the road is headed steadily up a valley. We're going to have to climb our way out.

The main climb starts at 27km down. We'd heard reports of poor surface, but we started the climb on lovely fresh asphalt. It didn't last: 9km of climbing, most of it on very poor surface indeed, with rain showers thrown in for extra fun. There's almost no traffic, and many roadside properties have fallen out of use. The climb tops out at just over 2400m.

The summit is em-shaped: a short descent on good surface leads into the second climb on the rough stuff. There were a couple of chasey dogs on this section. A bumpy but surfaced descent follows. We stopped above a reservoir in the small village of Libidian (力必甸) for some lunch — a big bowl of rustic vegetable and ham stew (火腿杂菜) was the highlight.

After lunch there were a few small and medium climbs, before a final descent on acceptable surface. We came out onto the valley floor, cruising well, and went smack into a stiff headwind, which made going hard. We took a rest and snack stop in Yunnan Yi (云南驿) — the town was a major stop on the the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) and a key airfield during the Hump flight years.

The road narrows as you approach Xiangyun, and the traffic gets busier, but a steady grind will bring you into to an approach to the town from the south. New concrete road brings you into town. After finding a place to stay we headed to the 'old' town to find some food — a full spread of good eats at a Muslim restaurant, and we were set for the final next day's ride to Dali.

112km, 6hr16 rolling time, 17.7km/h average.

Day Four: Xiangyun to Dali Old Town (大理古城)
It was wet as we departed Xiangyun, and muddy roads on a short descent after leaving town left us rather dirty. After rounding a right-hand bend at the bottom of the descent, we went straight into the first climb of the day, a little earlier than expected. The surface was good, traffic light, and the rain on the trees gave us fragrant and cool air.

This warm-up climb tops out at 8km down, then descends on good surface for 7km. The traffic increases after passing the junction to Midu. The views of the verdant Midu valley made up for it, as we skirted around it to the northwest. The day's main event starts to show itself after 23km down, with the gradient creeping up. After an intersection at 26km down, the climb begins in earnest. The climb tracks across the southern face of the mountains at the north edge of the Midu valley, again providing some great views. Surface is great, and the climb is challenging but manageable — a steady grinder with the occasional flattish respite.

Midu valley
Midu valley

We looked for a place to eat lunch in Houshan (后山) village but found nothing. The climb tops out just after the village at 37km down. We decided to throw ourselves into the descent and find food at the bottom. The descent is mainly on good surface, though there is a 2km stretch of muddy rough stuff in the middle. We stopped for lunch at Jiangxi (江西) just before ducking under the G56 highway for the last time. Immediately after crossing under the highway on an unusual split level section of road, the road widens to eight lanes. It's gradually downhill, and as it's headed north, chances are you'll have a tailwind. Cue 38km/h cruising speeds.

The eight-lane takes you into downtown Xiaguan (下关), narrows and changes names several times. Traffic in downtown is busy, unsafe and dirty, especially in the wet. However, a little advance route planning made it fairly straightforward: you can track straight through town and make a single right turn from Jianshe Lu (建设路) onto Renmin Jie (人民街) by People's Park (人民公园). This will put you onto a road going north out of Xiaguan bound for Dali Old Town. It's up and down, but the destination is near. The Cangshan mountain range rises to the west, sheathed in cloud; Erhai opens to the east, fields rolling down to its shores.

A right turn towards the south gate of Dali Old Town, and you can get through the wall onto Bo'ai Lu (博爱路). Right: time for a pizza.

83km, 4hr22 rolling time, 18.9km/h average.

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Excellent writeup. I've been meaning to do this ride for years.

Well done! thanks for the interesting story. I always love the photos from your journeys and wished there had been a few more. But hey —I have deep admiration for your cycling skills and effort in completing this challenging endeavor! I think one thing is missing in detail here, though: How about a little insight into how the celebration party in Old Dali went upon your arrival?


Great trip. Maps would be cool! Curious where you learned about the history of Yunnanyi?

Better than a map, here's the collated route log (KMZ): www.gokunming.com/downloads/kmz/KunmingToDali.kmz

There's a bit missing at the end of day three (out of battery), but it's pretty obvious how it pans out.

Yunnan Yi - we learnt about it here and there - it's marked on all the old Hump flight radio diagrams. There's supposedly some old planes there.


Hi there

Thanks heaps for this post it was really helpful for planning our cycling route from Dali to Kunming a few weeks back. Unfortunately it rained a fair bit over the four days it took us so the roads and views were not the best.

A couple of notes from our trip:

1. Where the road was poorly surfaced (described in this article as day 3) was for us really thick mud and difficult due to the rain.

2. The tunnels mentioned on day two are bypassed coming Dali to Kunming as the road follows the other side of the river.

For anybody else considering this route on a fully loaded touring bike (like we had) some details of our experience are here:


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