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Lijiang to Chengdu on a Tandem Bicycle Part 1: Riding to Shangri-La

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The view out the window was an expanse of white one second and full of towering mountains the next as the plane descended out of the low hanging clouds and landed on the runway, sandwiched between two mountains.  We arrived in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China, the start of our two week long bike tour to Chengdu. 

The crisp morning air was a welcome change from Zhuhai’s humid summer breeze, our first feeling of fall (or more accurately spring, as Yunnan is said to have eternal spring weather) a season not observed in the tropics.  Outside of our hostel we packed up the panniers, did a final check of the tandem, and took to the road leaving our hostel, and Lijiang behind us.  On our way out of town we spotted a breakfast restaurant serving fresh naan bread, and bee-lined straight for it, smiling with satisfaction at the rarity of our find.  I can’t remember the last time I had fresh bread that I didn’t have to make myself.  We devoured our naan with spicy pepper spreads as dips, super delicious, although in hindsight that much spice first thing in the morning was not the brightest idea, my mouth was on fire.

Back on the bike it was time to climb our first mountain of the trip, if you could call it that at only 300 meters of elevation gain, a baby compared to the upcoming 1500 meter climbs.  Heading out of town, to our pleasant surprise, we passed a few other foreigners as well as Chinese cyclists also headed for Shangri-La.  Lijiang is one of our favorite places we’ve been to in China so far, and the surrounding area did not disappoint.  The views were absolutely gorgeous, green mountains dotted with farm animals.  More than once on our way out of town we were stopped by herds of sheep or cows walking down the road, a much better and safer form of traffic than we are used to. 




The climb topped out at 2700 meters before rolling down the mountain for 45 minutes losing 900 meters of elevation.  This was our first taste of how slow climbing is touring on the tandem, as it took us less time to descend 900 meters than it did for us to climb 300 meters.  Slightly terrifying when you consider we have multiple 1500 meter climbs to come.  We ended our first day of riding at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, a surprisingly sleepy town for an attraction that famous.  It turns out the Chinese don’t often hike the gorge, just take a day trip from Lijiang to take a picture at the “Best Photographic Location” as they’re labeled at almost all tourist traps in China.  And no, I am not exaggerating, the Chinese really will drive 2 hours just to take a picture.  Friends of ours who have hiked the gorge confirmed that they only encountered other foreign tourists in the gorge, no Chinese.  Weird.

We were hoping to ride down into the gorge (there’s a road that goes through it) to see it from the inside and take some pictures, but were deterred by the 60rmb entrance fee (per person) and so settled for heading back down the highway a couple kilometers to a spot where you can see the gorge from the road.  Despite the river being a lovely shade of poop brown, it was a pretty dramatic scene with towering rocky mountain peaks dropping straight into the river on either side.  We would love to come back and hike through the gorge next time we are in Lijiang (we never get tired of visiting beautiful Yunnan!).



Tiger Leaping Gorge as seen from the road.

Staying the night at Tiger Leaping Gorge put us at the bottom of our first monster 1400 meter climb which left us in our granny gear for most of the day.  We were headed up to Shangri-La, slowly but surely, nodding respectfully at any fellow cyclists we passed suffering up the mountain with us as we climbed.  The climb was grueling, and seemed endless as each corner only found us heading up some more, with no breaks in the terrain, except for the frequent ones we took to avoid dying, or falling over because it really did feel like we were going that slow.  The painstakingly slow climb did give us plenty of time to admire the views from the mountainside, overlooking the valley below, the scenery reminding us of the Appalachian Mountains we love so much from home.

Five hours and two pairs of extremely tight and tired legs later and we finally reached the top (kind of) at 3200 meters.  The grueling climb was over, but don’t be fooled, there was no downhill to be seen, unfortunately.  It was still rolling along a plateau of sorts all the way to Shangri-La.  As relieved as we were to be done with our first major climb, we were rather disheartened to look at the Garmin and realize we had only gone about 40 kilometers.  Sh*t.  We didn’t have much more riding in us for the day, and a lot more kilometers to go before we made it to Shangri-La. 

We pedaled as far as our legs would take us before finding a spot to camp for the night by the side of the road, resigning ourselves to a short “rest day” tomorrow finishing up what we had planned to ride today.  I guess this was a lesson in “not everything goes as planned” although thinking about it now we could’ve done the math as it took us an hour on day one to climb 300 meters in elevation, times that by 4/5 and, well, you have today’s ride.  As it turned out there weren’t many great camping spots, as the area had very sparse tree coverage and there were no side roads for us to get off the highway.  Water was much easier to find, thankfully, as there were lots of water filling stations along the road for cyclists to stop and fill up bottles (this route to Shangri-La is extremely popular with cyclists).   A previous construction spot where they had dug out the mountain was about as much shelter as we could find, so we set our tent down on the dirt and called it a night, thankful for our camping mattresses to hide the ridges and rocks in the soil.



Some stunning views headed up our first big climb.


On the road to Shangri-La.

The next morning we cruised along the plateau towards Shangri-La, our legs thankful for the relatively flat terrain and a short ride of just two hours on the bike.  The famous town of Shangri-La proved to be quite difficult to find.  As is typical of China, the signage is terrible, and once we arrived in the correct area, we couldn’t figure out where the old town was as there were no signs telling us which way to go.  It doesn’t help that the place has about a million different names in Chinese, and the official name on the map is not Shangri-La.  We have never had this much trouble trying to find a tourist trap before.  Our heads are still spinning on this one.  Eventually, after about 20 minutes of riding around aimlessly with frequent stops to look at the map, we found the right road and a nice police officer told us how to get into the old town. 

We were thankful for a nice hostel, a good lunch, and some much needed rest after being at elevation for the first time.  Climbing up 1400 meters in one ride and then staying at an altitude above 3000 meters (10,000 ft.) on day two after living at the beach with no mountains to climb for a year and half proved to be quite grueling.  In a way we were glad for our unexpected change in plans as it gave us the opportunity to explore some of Shangri-La, a place we had been looking forward to seeing, and bummed that it came so early in the trip as we didn’t think we would be stopping so soon.  There are always silver linings, if only you stop and take a look around.


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