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Cycling across heaven: From Deqin to Lijiang by mountain bike

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GoKunming contributor Guo Duomi recently took his bicycle to the high roads of northwestern Yunnan shadowing part of the ancient tea horse route from Deqin to Lijiang. Here he shares with us details of his journey through the foothills of the Himalayas.

Deqin is reached by bus or private vehicle from Zhongdian (中甸) aka Shangri-la (香格里拉), a trip which allows you to gauge what is in store for the return journey by bike. About 10 kilometres northwest of Deqin (德钦) sits the tourist hamlet of Feilai Si (飞来寺) which is towered over by the as yet unconquered Meili Snow Mountain (梅里雪山)- known in Tibetan as Kawakarpo or Kawagebo.

There are innumerable hiking opportunities in this area which is popular with outdoorsy types from China and all over the world. It is advisable to spend a day or two here to soak in the scenery and allow yourself to acclimatise to the altitude.

Day 1 – Deqin to Benzilan (102km)
The road from Deqin to Benzilan (奔子兰县) encompasses breathtaking scenery and two breath-sapping passes over 4000 metres high. The first 30km out of Deqin are almost all uphill, be sure to look back for glimpses of the imposing Kawakarpo through the clouds as you go.

The road is quality tarmac until about the 20km mark at which it turns to cobblestones. At around 30km you will reach the highest point in the ride of 4300m. Don't pat yourself on the back too hard though as the next 12km is hard going on undulating cobblestone road through to the second pass at around 4200m. The scenery here is other worldly as you pass glacier covered peaks, bare mountain sides, grazing lands for hardy yaks and the odd abandoned car.

After the second pass it is basically all downhill. Unfortunately the first 20km or so is on bone-jarring cobblestone but after this it is plain sailing on good road. The air warms and the scenery changes to denuded, shrub covered hills with terraced farming occurring at all altitudes.

Day 2 – Benzilan to Zhongdian (86km)
Having surveyed the route on the drive in you may consider discretion is the better part of valour and hire a van back to Zhongdian. If you wish to ride the road remains good, the scenery fantastic and the traffic light. The first 20km is fairly flat road until you cross the Jinsha River (金沙江), the headwaters of the Yangtze. From here it is a masochistic 66km of almost constant climbing to Zhongdian. On large sections of this climb water is not easy to obtain, if you ride this section you should head out well-provisioned and early.

Approaching Zhongdian you will pass the town's two-run ski field and the beautiful Napa Lake (纳帕海).

Day 3 – Zhongdian to Baishuitai (108km)
This quality of the road on this stretch is good, the traffic light and the views awesome. The first 20km is pleasant gently undulating road taking you past numerous Tibetan villages, hot springs and the entrance to Emerald Pagoda Lake Park (碧塔海公园). From here you bid farewell to Tibetan country, undertaking the first (and biggest) climb for the day followed by a lengthy descent into the Yi village of Jiligu (吉利古).

From Jiligu it is a climb, descend, climb rotation over three further (and progressively lower) passes to reach the Naxi village at Baishuitai (白水台). Whilst the famous limestone terraces at Baishuitai are themselves a little underwhelming the surrounding scenery is spectacular.

Day 4 – Baishuitai to Tiger Leaping Gorge (82km)
The road quality in this section is again excellent, with the occasional massive pothole made by a falling rock reminding you that you would not want to be riding the road during or after heavy rains. The first 40km or so is undulating road through beautiful countryside with even less traffic than the day before. The route takes you into Haba village in which life meanders on under the watchful gaze of Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山). A short climb out of Haba is followed by a lengthy descent offering impressive views of Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡).

From the small town of Jiangbian (江边) it is another 12km mostly uphill to the back of Tiger Leaping Gorge and the village known as Walnut Garden (核桃园).

Day 5 – Tiger Leaping Gorge to Lijiang (105km)
Taking the back way to Lijiang requires you to retrace the last 12km of the previous day to Jiangbian and then proceed to the old ferry to Daju (大具). The 'road' down to the ferry is a poorly signposted trail and lugging your fully laden bike down to the landing is quite an exercise, though probably less taxing than pushing your bike up the hill when you get to the other side.

The climb out of Daju may be described as many things; picturesque, unrelenting... soul destroying. The traffic is light but the road is cobblestone and despite the fact that it constantly appears a pass through the mountains is just around the next corner the climb continues for 30-40 kilometres.

From the top the road alternates between tarmac and cobblestone and begins undulating with some serious climbing still required. You pass the yak meadow chairlift and then the cloud fir/dry sea meadow chairlifts at Baishui. After here the road descends to the plain for a 30km dead straight slog into Lijiang.

*Note: After hitting the base of the first climb at Daju in the early afternoon my companion and I found ourselves well shy of the top in fading light (and teeming rain) so we flagged down a van heading for Lijiang to complete the journey. If you were to tackle this ride it is highly recommended you leave Walnut Garden at first light carrying ample food and water. You should be prepared to overnight in Baishui and complete the ride on the next day. You can alternately ride through Tiger Leaping Gorge to Qiaotou (桥头) and take the main road to Lijiang; whilst still very challenging this represents an easier route.

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great article and photos! i've saved your directions and will make this expedition one day when i return to china.

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