Cycling through Yunnan

Yunnan, known for its tea and rice-terrace fields; banana & teak tree plantations; wild edible mushrooms; spicy food, spitting locals & stinky toilets; colourful traditional clothing; beautiful Dai, Bai & Naxi villages, & totally enjoyable, gradually inclined mountain roads with magnificent valley views.

The entire Yunnan province is stunningly beautiful to cycle through. We’ve been through national parks, botanical gardens, up quiet mountain paths & through some ancient villages too. The mountain roads are incredibly gradual in inclination, making the uphill cycling last a lot longer yet feel completely painless as we zigzag our way up, only to descend the other side again, in front of yet another climb. The mountain views are breath-taking, their peaks are covered in snow and their slopes packed with lush green vegetation so delicately prepared and cared for.

We have seen neatly organised terraced rice fields & carefully cut tea tree plantations, and we’ve watched how the locals grow, clean and collect their crop from their vast land. The women tend to work in the fields more than the men; we've spotted the men in the local restaurants & bars playing games all day long whilst drinking bottled beer. Women even get to work on construction sites, shovelling sand, stone and throwing bricks up to others to build walls.

We have also cycled alongside the deathly cliff edges of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, where only a thin white painted line separated us from the huge drop. We have visited the White Water Terraces, formed over thousands of years from the deposits of calcium bicarbonate dissolved in spring water. We also spent a night in Shigu, a town by the first 180-degree bend of the 6418km long Yangtze River. The following day we experienced an optical illusion after crossing the river by boat - thinking we were on one side of the mountain which defines the river bend, yet we had somehow already cycled round to the other side; we would be totally lost without our GPS!

We also cycled over a 2950m mountain to an ancient village, Shaxi, known for being on the Ancient Tea Route leading from Yunnan to Tibet. More recently we cycled up to 3722m before a long chilly decent through a green valley with free-roaming yak, goats, horses, ponies and pigs, before reaching the city Shangri-La.

All restaurants here have small stools and short-legged tables, making us need to crouch in a typical bicycle-position, over our bowls to eat. Our knees go through torture sitting on these short stools, often being banged into the table edges, yet the variety of food on offer allows us to forget these little burdens. 

The food ranges from dumplings small & large to different meats cooked in garlic or chili together with an assortment of green leaves; we have also tried yummy dairy products from goats and yak. There are also sadly a lot of flies in this part of the world and we spend much time flapping them away from our bowls of rice or noodle soup in order to enjoy the food fully.
In one of the last mountain villages we visited, before arriving in Shangri-La, we ate in someone’s house together with many men who slowly wandered in, expecting to be served their noodle soup, as usual. After attempting to make conversation with one of the locals we were asked to follow him through the village. We walked through the dark and were stunned to suddenly come upon 100 men in black & red costume, dancing to their local anthem in a basketball court. We sat and watched them all dance in rhythm at the same time, yet during their breaks it seemed like we stole the attention, being the only white people there. 

The Chinese are not short of being the noisiest people on the planet. They speak loudly to their companions only centimetres in front of them; they talk loudly on the phone; they beep their loud car, motorbike & truck horns - so loud we needed to cycle with rubber earplugs for a week; (we feel we might become deaf before we return home.) They are loud in hotel corridors, slamming doors or laughing in conversation with their companions, not seeming to realise they are in a hotel where others might be resting.
Not only do the drivers honk loudly, they also drive like suicide drivers; on leaving the city Lijiang we saw several accidents as drivers continuously attempted to overtake without looking – even just before corners, or even moving out to find themselves right in front of a car driving in the opposite direction. They never look out or back when turning into a main road & just don’t pay enough attention to others on the road! The only thing that keeps them quiet is smoking massive bongs, which the men here do most of the time!

The most spectacular part of the Chinese Yunnan buildings is their decorative tiled roofs. We have seen styles from the ethnic minorities; Dai, Bai, Naxi and also Tibetan. The traditional Yunnan house always opens to a courtyard space, around which the living rooms are organised. The toilets are often nowhere to be seen.. so if you’re ever looking for one in this part of the world, try listening out for the snorting of a pig, as the toilets are always right beside the pig huts!

We’ve cycled by some picturesque Bai houses in the Dali region, all made from brick and wood, with white-painted walls and hand-painted scenes in blue, depicting dancing people, local nature, birds & animals. We have also seen Naxi handmade wood houses in the mountains. Now closer to Tibet we see more clay-brick & mud-made houses, with exterior walls which slant inwards like those of a pyramid. Even the windows of these houses have a slanting frame imitating the walls. We have also seen many colourful temples, old & new, with fabulous layers of roofs painted in reds, greens & blues. 


We have met a few Chinese cyclists on the way; all heading to Tibet of course and making us terribly envious as a result. We cycled a couple of days with some single cyclists we met; our Greek friend Petros, a French girl called Agnes and an Irish lad, Robert, whom you can easily spot in our photos!

Cycling through Yunnan is so relaxing when passing by the mountains or along rivers. We only wish we could inspire you to come and do the same.

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