China is a huge country, so when you want to go bike touring in China where do you go?
Quick answer, Yunnan.
I saw this map during the week:
The Heihe-Tengchong line (or the Hu Line) is an imaginary line that divides China diagonally into two parts, cutting across the country from Tengchong city in Yunnan to Heihe city in Heilongjiang. East of the line is 43 per cent of the country's land and 94 percent of the total population. West of the line is 57 percent of the land but only 6 percent of the people.
What bearing does this information have on bike touring in China? Well, it shows you where you wouldn’t want to ride, right?
I mean you wouldn’t want to be cycling too far to the east/red side of that map. That would be factories, busy roads, densely populated areas and quite possibly, pollution. The flipside to that of course, is that where there is population, there are lots of roads and also, where there are people, there is culture, visual activity and stories.
So where in China do we go to find a satisfying ride on well made roads, through scenic landscapes, where we can connect with locals and hear their stories, and learn about their cultures? Yunnan.
Yunnan is a province with a medium to low density of population, with great roads through a mountainous landscape, stunning scenery and a diverse mix of ethnic groups who all have their own unique cultures. It also has a very agreeable climate for cycling. Kunming, the provincial capital is known as the city of eternal spring due to it’s agreeable, year round temperate climate. The mountainous areas outside of Kunming feature a much more varied climate, but through the spring and fall months, this area is perfect for cycle touring.
The weather in Yunnan is just so nice. The provinces further east, tend to be more humid and subject to more rain through spring. Sure, it rains in Yunnan too, but the crisp clear air and blue skies that you can experience here are less frequent in the provinces towards the coast. It makes for the perfect backdrop when riding for several days from Zhongdian, through Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lijiang and onto Dali.
There are actually 25 ethnic minority groups in Yunnan, so while you might have an expectation that China is somewhat homogenous, Yunnan is far from it. It is one thing to see some sort of cultural performance in Lijiang or to see people dressed up in their traditional clothing for show, but it is entirely another thing to be riding down the road and be regularly passing people dressed in brightly colored, ornate costumes, not because you are there, but because that is basically how they dress every day. You can only really experience this on a bike trip, because you are passing through these communities instead of seeing staged examples being imported into a city location for your gawking pleasure.
The food is terrific. I mean food throughout China is really great, but with the tribal elements of Yunnan and the availability of fresh ingredients, and especially an abundance of vegetables, you can expect a great variety of dishes during a trip in Yunnan. This is important when you are on a bike ride as you are usually eating more than you would be at home.
History. China as a country has a long long history obviously, and Yunnan is no exception. The difference is though, that until the mid 20th century Yunnan was essentially a patchwork of semi-autonomous zones, mostly identifying along tribal lines. The communities had probably more in common and more interaction with neighboring southeast Asia, Tibet and Sichuan than with Peking/Beijing.
The Tea Horse Trail which refers to a network of trade routes connecting the Indian sub-continent with Myanmar, Sichuan and Tibet is often referred to as the Southern Silk Route. The cultural exchanges that this route facilitated, shaped much of the cultural identity of the region and was instrumental in the interchange of Buddhism between China and South Asia. Today, you can actually cross sections of the route in Yunnan, in fact two sections of the route, converge in the city of Dali, an incredibly atmospheric place to visit with its stone paved streets and its auspicious positioning according to the Feng Shui principles.
A cycling tour in Yunnan is a true adventure! You won’t be seeing many other foreigners most days, crossing paths with tourists only a couple of times as we pass through the cities of Lijiang and Dali. There are some great hotels waiting for us in these cities and also in Zhongdian (known often as Shangri-la) where the tour starts. In between it’s a somewhat rustic experience. The kind where you’ll sleep well because you are tired and you’ll eat well because your hosts eat well and you’ll feel like a guest more than a customer. These are the places you will likely remember the most though. The city hotels are for comfort, and the in between places are for adventure.
Don’t let all this talk of mountains and rustic accommodation deter you. Sure, it is a challenging ride, but if you have time to prepare for the trip, you will find it achievable. The gradients on the long climbs are not exceedingly steep, as these roads were built when vehicles had far less powerful engines than they do now. You’ll just find a rhythm and spin along most of the time, only every now and then needing to put your head down for that final grind it up an accent. There will be lots of times when the stunning views and the locals will distract you so much that you won’t even have time to think about your burning muscles.
So just remember:
Bike touring in China? Bike Yunnan!