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Cycling from Kunming to Lüchun

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Ethnic Hani dancers on Lüchun's main street
Ethnic Hani dancers on Lüchun's main street

Editor's note: Frank Hitman lives in Kunming for most of the year, but in the winter and summer, he works with locals in Honghe to organize unique experience tours from Kunming to Jinghong to the most remote places of southern Yunnan. For more information, visit his website: zoubatravel.com.

In late August, I cycled from Kunming to Lüchun (绿春), a county in the south of Honghe Hani Autonomous Prefecture. Honghe has been my favorite area in Yunnan for a while. I discovered Lüchun county on the bicycle last year and was blown away by what I encountered. Ever since, whenever I have the chance, I jump on a (motor)bike to visit friends and explore new places in these underappreciated lands. In August, I left Kunming on my bicycle to further investigate the area's logistics, make some contacts and find new undiscovered places.

Day One: Kunming – Lüchong (绿充), 125km

The plan was great. I would avoid Chenggong (呈贡) and its polluted, dusty roads in the south. Instead, I would leave Kunming in the northeast through Shuanglong (双龙), then cross the town of Dabanqiao (大板桥) to get to the old road from Kunming to Shilin (Kunshi Laolu, 昆石老路) Then I would cycle from Yangzonghai Lake (阳宗海) to Chengjiang (澄江). From there, I would make my way south along Fuxian Lake (抚仙湖) to Jianshui (建水).

Obviously, this plan completely backfired and my first day turned out to be a nasty test of perseverance. The trouble started in Shuanglong, where I made a right turn into a dusty dirt road that was supposed to lead to Dabanqiao. Sandwiched between an endless row of diesel trucks, completely confused by randomly bulldozed "roads" around the new airport, I nearly lost my mind before arriving in Dabanqiao.

Apparently, the road that I planned to take to Yangzonghai didn't exist and I found myself still hugging Kunming after nearly thirty frustrating kilometers on dirt roads when it started raining pretty heavily. Discouraged and despairing to finally get out of Kunming, I decided to cross Chenggong after all, just to get it over with. But it wasn't close to over.

To get from the Kunshi Laolu to Chenggong is a very tricky process. I arrived in one of those "new" areas with those horribly confusing network of endlessly manicured lanes leading to nowhere. As the rain was showering down from the sky, I was directed into a 10 kilometer detour by the equally oblivious army of gardeners, who where obviously just dropped there randomly straight from the countryside. Finally, I found Chenggong by biking through a garage and carrying the bike through a tea house, much to the amusement of local majiang players.

The road to Chengjiang is a left turn from the S102 which you follow from Chenggong, situated next to the highway exit. I found it very congested with trucks and the small climb and descent was far from enjoyable. When I arrived in Chengjiang I still felt the capital looming too close by and pushed on to Lüchong, a Chinese tourism resort which is not really worth visiting. I booked into a cheap enough hotel room (60 yuan), started recharging with optimism and pledged to always follow the main roads or take the bus out of Kunming on future cycling trips.

Day Two: Lüchong – Qujiang (曲江), 92km

Surprisingly, I started the ride along Fuxian Lake with fresh optimism. After 42 kilometers, I had an early lunch in my favorite donkey restaurant in Jiangchuan (江川).

Donkey butchering in Jiangchuan
Donkey butchering in Jiangchuan

From there, cyclists are allowed to cross the hill on the highway from Jiangchuan to Tonghai (通海). From Tonghai, the old road to Jianshui first descends into the warm and sleepy Dai village of Gaoda (高大). From there, the ride to the lively trading town of Qujiang is almost flat. I called it a day, checked into an agreeable 30 yuan hotel room, and had a delicious dinner with a friendly Hui family.

Day Three: Qujiang – Nansha (南沙), 130km

From Qujiang, I cycled slightly uphill to Jianshui for the next 45 kilometers. Over lunch, I was told some suspicious information about the road and elevation to Nansha. Some new friends at my lunch table informed me that the road to Potou (坡头) was going to be "flat", and that I would be steadily descending on a bad road to Nansha from there. Since Potou means "top of the slope" I wasn't so sure whether to trust this information.

Indeed, I found myself on a nearly 20 kilometer climb before I reached the "top of the slope". The road was great and that came in handy because I had to accelerate in order to avoid a massive thunderstorm that was following me over the hills. At Potou you'll find yourself looking over some charming misty hill tops. After my second lunch, I started the less rewarding 45 kilometer descent over a bumpy road of badly maintained asphalt.

Hilltops near Potou
Hilltops near Potou

After a good 130 kilometers of riding, I was satisfied when I arrived in the hot and humid valley through which the Honghe ("Red River") flows. I rolled into the town of Nansha, which at 240 meters above sea level is the lowest place this close to Kunming. It's situated in a deep river valley to which the prefecture owes its name, which cuts its way through the countryside from Yuanjiang to Hanoi.

The Yuanyang (元阳) county seat was moved from Xinjie (新街) to Nansha in the early 90s, upon completion of a large dam on the Red River. Unlike many other travelers, who tend to head straight up to Xinjie, I appreciate Nansha as a fun subtropical town with good food and laid-back Dai people. I usually stay overnight.

I wolfed down an amazing dinner of the local specialty of dried marinated beef with fried sour bamboo, mashed potatoes, fennel soup and three big bowls of rice, and washed it down with some cold beer. The hotel room in Nansha was nice and cheap (30 yuan) and I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to find such value in Xinjie.

Day Four: Nansha – Laomeng (老勐), 83km

That morning I got ready for my first serious climb to Xinjie and beyond. The road ascends steadily for 40 kilometers. After cycling upwards for 1250 meters over 27 kilometers, I had an early lunch in Xinjie.

Unfortunately, I got harrassed by a table of hopelessly drunk Hani guys and had to leave hastily in spite of good food and a very friendly owner. I felt sorry for the no doubt hardworking wives of those guys who were so incredibly drunk on a Monday morning. Sometimes I wished Chinese society could be a little bit less tolerant of drunk fools like this randomly ruining the atmosphere in their self-centered haze.

After Xinjie, I pushed on for another 10 kilometers of uphill. Then I saw the reservoir that signaled the 40 kilometers of descent lying in front of me. I passed Panzhihua (攀枝花) and found that a wall had been built around the best viewing spots of the terraced valley. At the entrance, where visitors had to pay 30 yuan to look out over the valley, women dressed in their most colorful minority costumes jumped in front of my bike and tried to sell me all kinds of useless things. I continued my descent.

Near Panzhihua
Near Panzhihua

Soon I found myself following a few small river valleys through banana plantations. I spent the night in Laomeng, a village in Jinping (金平) county. Word has it that the road to Jinping's county seat is pretty good and stretches through some brilliant scenery.

Day Five: Laomeng – Lüchun, 65km

Laomeng is nearly as low as Nansha and, although it started gently, I knew I was looking at a full day of climbing to Lüchun. Banana plantations always bring mixed feelings. The laid-back lifestyle of many of their inhabitants have both positive and negative sides. People are very friendly and often provide travelers with free shelter, alcohol and many kilos of bananas. As they tend to be enthusiastic beer consumers, you should beware of glass lying around on the road that is smashed by heavily coiffed teenagers that carelessly swing around on motorbikes.

Endless layers of blue plastic used for the bananas litter the ditches. The biggest disadvantage of a banana valley is a physical one: it can take a while before you climb your way out of it. And so, the climb to Lüchun is considerable.

Beyond the banana plantations
Beyond the banana plantations

Although I have heard people complaining, I think this section of road is in great condition. The only drawback would be its length. The current road from Nansha to Lüchun is a grueling detour of 150 kilometers. But like in so many places in China, change is on its way. Currently they a new "second level" highway from Nansha to Lüchun is being built which will only stretch 90 kilometers in length.

GoKunming thanks Frank Hitman of Zouba Travel for his contribution. If you would like to share your stories or video with GoKunming readers, please get in touch with us via our contact form.

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Comments

Hey Frank, cool trip!

I haven't cycled south out of Kunming for ages but am not surprised at your difficulties. Chenggong is definitely to be avoided. Let me know if you want to do another trip soon, I'd love to join in and have cycled around Yunnan quite a bit. My first trip is written up at pratyeka.org/bike/southern-yunnan.html

Like you, I really enjoy the area south of Yuanyang and love Nansha. Let me tell you though - it used to be a lot nicer, before the dam. This brings me to a correction. When you stated "The Yuanyang (元阳) county seat was moved from Xinjie (新街) to Nansha in the early 90s, upon completion of a large dam on the Red River." this is actually false. I first visited the area on a bicycle in 2001 and there was no sign of dam construction. The dam must have been built circa early/mid noughties, and the size of Nansha almost tripled overnight. That said, the county seat may have easily moved earlier.

I've visited the Yuanyang/Luchun area twice and cycled it the second time on some locally acquired cheap Chinese mountain bikes around 2006. However, I was with a not particularly keen cyclist and we jumped on local buses for some of the uphill segments past Luchun on the way down to 'Banna, eventually copping out and bussing as far as Menglun (between Mengla and Jinghong in 'Banna).

Oh one more thing. The Canadian paraglider, Mike, has a jeep and is interested in taking cyclists out of Kunming to decent trails. If you want to get a lift out (or back in to) Kunming he's willing to consider helping out. His number is 15825256431 and he is mostly based around Chengjiang (north of Fuxian lake). When we went paragliding together recently (really fun!) he took a great road leading south to Chengjiang through the mountains that is a lot nicer than cycling through Chenggong.

Nice post!

I quite liked Nansha though dubbed by my guidebook (which I consequently dumped) "a big uninteresting hamlet with lots of concrete and tiles". I had the best of help there from a local grocer without whom I would've run into considerable trouble. I later lost my phone and therefore contact with him, so I with a few consecutive days to spare, I would like to ride back south (and further down) and say hi - and at the same time spend some days in a place that is a little more wennuan than Kunming these days.

Write-up:

www.crazyguyonabike.com/[...]

I liked Nansha too, I got a fabulous hotel there for 60RMB per night and everything was brand new. I got sick and collapsed in a restaurant and the owner of the restaurant called the local hospital for me and two nurses picked me up in a cab and looked after me for the night for a measly 200RMB. Can't complain!

Snap bluppfisk!

www.crazyguyonabike.com/[...]

Looks like we could easily have a cycle tourists convention here in Kunming! Maybe this is where all the cycle tourists go when we retire (from cycle touring?). Its like Florida for cycle tourists!

ah blobbles, your blog was a guide for me through that part of the 3201 towards Nansha. I was happy though to find the roadworks all but completely finished.

Its finished??? I look back on it so fondly now, almost being killed by boulders or asphyxiation from the dust. Its a shame other cycle tourists won't get to experience the same exhilaration and breath taking air? Camping in the middle of it was...interesting as well. Ahh well, like all things in China change is inevitable.

Looks like you got the same as me when you went through omgiri! If you are guys are still around we should go for a ride sometime. My usual ride of up and down Changchong Shan is becoming rutted, I think mainly from me!

Hi Voltaire,

Thank you so much for your correction. I asked a few locals about it and actually tried to distill a story that was as plausible as possible out of their contradicting answers, happy you could clear that up!

When I get back to Kunming next week, I'll post some more anecdotes of my cycling inside Luchun county, and some more pictures.

@bobbles
i have to respectfully disagree with "Maybe this is where all the cycle tourists go when we retire (from cycle touring?)."

Kunming is just the beginning.

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