April 21st – 26th. 454km
Another amazing week in China. Sorry, these updates are probably sounding very monotonous, but we’ve had more spectacular scenery, friendly people and great food, so spirits are high! We’re making decent progress north now too, covering the distance we need to every day without it feeling too much like a slog. We’re into Sichuan Province with plenty of time left on our visas so we’re treating ourselves to another well earned rest day.
From Mosha we thought we’d bottomed out in the valley, but it turned out we had more downhill to start the day. Good and bad, as it was an easy and fun start, but also it meant we’d be needing to climb out of the valley and regain all the lost altitude further down the line! The clouds were hanging low over the mountains and it wasn’t an overly interesting day compared to the previous one. We followed a river along the valley floor past a few new looking but empty touristy towns. We stopped for a tea break next to the river then finished the day by lunchtime, stopping at a restaurant and hotel where a room cost us Y40. It was a good thing we finished early, as by 4 that afternoon, the sky was very dark and the wind suddenly picked up, gusting through the valley. As if someone flicked a switch somewhere, torrential rain started and the electricity cut out. The storm lasted for half an hour, with debris getting blown down the main street and rain lashing against the window. We went for a walk in the early evening once it cleared, and it turned out the electricity was out everywhere in town. Luckily the power came back on after a couple of hours so we could get some dinner, and more importantly get back on the internet!
The friendly staff from our hotel waved us off the next morning and we rode off down the road covered in leaves and fallen branches. The first 40km followed the river into a gorge which narrowed the further we cycled. The road was pretty flat so our speed was good for the first few hours of the day. We had a quick tea break but then hit roadworks. For the rest of the day, the road was broken up, with lots of gravel sections, and long stretches where it was down to just one lane. From an altitude of around 500m in the valley, we started climbing. For around 50km we were riding uphill, stopping for lunch halfway, sitting on a roadside barrier.
We gained over 1,500m vertical, reaching a high plateau late in the day after a very long and slow afternoon. A rolling few kilometers and then a final uphill push got us into Shuangbai, another touristy town in a beautiful spot next to a lake. We found a hotel which looked ok and I agreed a price. After taking all our panniers off our bikes ready to take to our room, the receptionist decided she didn’t know how (or couldn’t be bothered) to register our passport details on the system, so said we couldn’t stay there. Actually in this area we’ve had more trouble with hotels knowing what to do with our passports. I guess they see fewer foreigners, so it’s taken longer checking in to hotels and sometimes a few phone calls to the police or Public Security Bureau. This was the first time we’ve been turned away though, so reloading the bikes and finding another hotel was a frustrating end to a tough day.
Our legs were quite sore the next morning, but luckily we didn’t have a particularly tough day ahead. We stayed quite high on the plateau, with rolling hills keeping us between 2,100 and 1,800 metres. The weather was good and we rode through green fields and farming villages for most of the day. We passed a nice lake mid-morning for our tea stop, then got a load of steamed buns and half a watermelon for lunch when we passed through Chuxiong. We had a bit of a climb in the afternoon up to 2,200m and over a ridge covered with wind turbines, but then a nice easy coast into Maoding where we stopped for the night.
There was rain overnight and the roads were wet in the morning, but the skies were clear when we set off. We continued north-east through lush green forests through the morning and started climbing again. A steady uphill topped out with a tunnel cutting through into another valley, where the landscape suddenly changed. Emerging from the tunnel, we had a 20km descent into a dry and rocky valley which felt much warmer than the one we’d just left.
Halfway down, we rode through some amazing sandstone rock formations, then down into a rocky ravine. It felt almost desert like at times, with minimal vegetation and arid, rocky mountains around us. We stopped in Yuanmou at a cheap hotel whose staff were super friendly, helping us to our room with all our panniers. When we left the next day, one lady handed us a note and waved us off. We had no idea what it said, but after sending a picture of it to my Chinese speaking brother, Phil, we found out she’d written ‘Wishing you both a safe trip.’
Leaving Yuanmou we joined the G108, a national main road linking Kunming with Beijing, over 3,000km to the north east. It certainly doesn’t feel like a main road though. Especially to start with when just out of town it was blocked with big construction barriers around a giant hole in the road. There was a lengthy diversion signposted, but one of the workers said we could walk our bikes around the edge of the hole. It was a pretty sketchy narrow path, but we got around, our tyres knocking chunks of dirt and concrete down into the muddy puddle below.
We continued on the 108 mostly on the flat with big mountains around us. Clare got a puncture mid-morning from a sharp piece of glass which went straight through her tyre. After changing the tube, we started into a long but gentle climb up a rocky hillside covered in solar panels. The road wound its way around hairpins and switchbacks, with the retaining wall covered in paintings of the traditions and history of the local people. The sky was clearing through the morning and by the time we reached the top we had amazing blue sky above us and incredible views of the valley below.
We were on a ridge above a deep gorge, with taller mountains around us in the distance. We stopped a lot to take photos as the sky was so clear and the visibility better than anything we’ve seen before in China. We reached Yongren after a gentle downhill where we stopped for lunch, spicy meatballs and a cheeky lunchtime beer. The lady in the restaurant wanted a selfie with Clare before we left! The rest of the afternoon was goregous and sunny with a deep blue sky free of any of the smog and haze that is so common in this part of the world.
We started the next day climbing away from Yongren in the sunshine. Up and up, through pine forests to a plateau at over 2,000 metres. We stopped in an immaculate rest area, more like something we’d expect to see in Japan or South Korea, with flowers, picnic benches and sculptures. This was right on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. Leaving the rest area we cycled through ornate roadside gates denoting the border itself. Almost immediately, the ground to the east of us dropped away into a massive canyon, with the Yangtze river flowing many hundreds of metres below. This is the first time we’ve seen the Yangtze since crossing it riding into Nanjing back in November last year.
We left the G108 here and turned left onto the S214 to head north to Panzhihua. After a slow morning of climbing, we coasted for a while, high up on the plateau before starting a long gradual downhill. 45km in, we stopped for lunch in Datian, a small mountain town. With no fridge to point at and just a Chinese menu, I picked one of the few dishes I could read, Mapotofu, a spicy tofu dish. Our first taste of authentic Sichuan food, famous for being super spicy. As expected, it was delicious, but the Sichuan pepper left our lips and tongues tingling and numb!
From Datian into the ourskirts of Panzhihua was mostly downhill but a few ups, through a beautiful valley running parallel to the expressway past a couple of lakes. Panzhihua sits on the Yangtze in a deep valley surrounded by mountains. The city spreads along the valley floor and up the mountainsides, making for a very steep area to cycle through. It took a while to get a hotel, but after a couple of loops through the city centre we found somewhere decent. It’s not a great place to cycle, but seems like a nice city in a great setting, so we’ll have a day off and a little explore on foot.
We absolutely loved Yunnan. My brother, who’s spent a lot of time in China, recommended it as his favourite province and we can see why. It’s a shame we didn’t get further west onto the Tibetan plateau, but hopefully we’ll be able to get a taste of that in Sichuan after we’ve extended our visas. Here’s our route through Yunnan and into Sichuan: