Chengdu in Sichuan Province (China) was the first mis-conception of the trip (no doubt it won’t be the last) as I was expecting a small provincial city, however the population is 4.5million, that’s four times the size of Birmingham.
The first thing you notice as you approach the city is a collection of busy and noisy ring roads (there are 3 in total) but it’s definitely a bike friendly city. However, the weather is grey and slightly damp for the majority of the year, it’s a city that most people’s travel through enroute to other destinations. Like with most Chinese cities it has a large amount of sectioned off ‘bike only’ lanes signed for use by bicycles, but the local moped enthusiasts happily encroach.
The city is world famous for its connection to the Giant Panda and their sanctuary is only 20-30 minutes’ drive from the centre of the city, so it’s in easy reach by bike. Once you have negotiated the rather busy ring road, there is a conveniently located cycle lane which will take you directly to the entrance of the park. I immediately liked Chengdu, it possesses a bizarre European feel, wide open boulevards and chalet style buildings. The traffic didn’t seem as overwhelming as Beijing or Xian and the bike was well represented.
Like in most places nobody wears a helmet and the attire is appropriate for the day ahead (no sign of any PPE), suits, overalls, shorts, traditional attire all appear popular. The pollution levels are significantly less; this was perfectly highlighted by the lack of face masks. The Sichuan region is renowned for its spicy cuisine, everything is cooked with chilli’s, it’s my kind of food, eye-watering hot, dry but always well-presented and wonderfully palatable. We departed Chengdu with a fondness and a small amount of trepidation, we were heading south towards the Yunnan and a more rural experience waited. We were stepping into the unknown and we couldn’t wait our eyes wide open to a simpler and less complicated way of life.
We arrived in the Yunnan Province, the Han people are the main group, but many counties have a big enough ethnic presence to give them autonomous status. The terrain varies from high, cold, steep mountains, down through rolling hills and broad plains and tall, steep limestone hills flanking magnificent riverbeds
Our first destination was Lijiang, like Chengdu, its famous for its close proximity to a world-renowned tourist attraction, Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were staying in the Old Town, which is dominated by tourists and bikes; it’s a breath-taking web of intricate canals with the main focus and heartbeat being the old market square, once the haunt of the Naxi traders. Unfortunately it is now dominated by modernity, in the guise of colourful souvenir shops, thankfully the impact on the overall experience is negligible and still offers breath-taking views of the beautiful Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) The atmosphere of the narrow alleys, red lanterns and constant noise of commerce is stunning, this is the side of China I had been searching for since our arrival, it can become rather busy so an early start will reward with a less claustrophobic exploration. Unfortunately, my slightly cynical (British) nature had kicked in and I began to question the realism, were these rather rickety looking buildings just created for the holiday industry? I sincerely hope this is not the case, as the relaxed, friendly and traditional surroundings were a major highlight and rightly it was given UN World Heritage status in 1999. Tiger Leaping Gorge is around an hour/hour & half drive from Lijiang so it is possible to ride but I would suggest you get a bus or a taxi because on arrival you will have to walk some distance to see the gorge at its best. The gorge is a breath-taking experience, the constant rumble from the angry water as it negotiates its way through the vertiginous surroundings. A mystical feeling takes over as you approach the viewing platforms, the Shangri-La side in tantalising touching distance. The gorge is recognised as one the world’s deepest, it measures 16km long and 3900m from the waters of the Jinsa River to the mountains of Haba Shan. The gorge can be accessed from two distinct locations, Shangri-La and Lijiang sides. The latter is a much flatter gentler trek (especially for the elderly in our party) but longer. In-comparison, the opposite (Shangri-La) side is shorter but steeper with a rather technical descent.
The Old Town in Lijiang is a great place to explore at night, the darkness creates a completely different atmosphere as low lights and vibrant red lanterns come alive with a crescendo of animated chatter and enthusiastic bartering, and the bike is the ideal form of transportation. However, caution should be a priority unless you want to find yourself falling fool to one of the many drainage channels. Extra care should be taken at night as the street lighting is limited.
Dali is a mere 2hours away by train and was a wonderful surprise, it’s definitely bike friendly, and around every corner is a bike hire outlet. Once the original backpack hangout, the Bei town is the essence of the Yunnan. In the past the tourists have flocked to the area in the hope of finding themselves, nowadays there are significantly less westerners heading here so you are likely to experience a taste of the real China. The city and old town are dominated by Erhai Lake and sit in the shadows of some stunning mountain ranges. The lake is a great place to pedal especially with the cool breeze which blows through the plateau. You can pedal around the whole lake which is called the ‘Erhai Ring Road’ encountering a selection of lovely villages. There are plenty of bike hire outlets dotted around the water. Enjoy watching the cormorant fisherman plying the trade on the water, the understanding between animal and man is so compelling, and is a dramatic symbol of the real China. The east side of the lake is classed as rather rugged and the west side is dominated by some beautiful traditional villages. Dali is located west of Cangshan Mountain and east of Erhai Lake and was originally built during the Hongwu period of the Ming Dynasty with a rich history of over 600 years. Our hotel was located just off the famous Foreigner Street with its mystical eastern charms blended seamlessly with a chic western style, an evocative concoction of slate roads, numerous street vendors overwhelming the senses and the flow of water; it’s easy to get lost in an ancient world. The main staple is bean and mushroom and I was exposed to my first taste of Taro which considering its bland appearance was surprisingly delicious.
Close to the old town and just a short bike ride is the magical ‘Three Pagodas’ which is a masterpiece of ancient Chinese architecture and has stood for over a millennia. The experience is hypnotic; the Pagodas are so dramatic especially with the green mountains as a mesmerising backdrop. From the Bell Tower you can see a stunning panoramic vista of the the Lake with again some rugged mountains enveloping the water. The Lake is only a short distance from the pagodas, locally the mountain is called the Black Dragon with green and the lake is the Half Moon with blue. According to legend, the lake has a gigantic jade cabbage on the bottom and this ensures the lake becomes white as jade. The lake is a substantial tourist attraction and consists of three islands, four continents, five lakes, nine bays and the Erhai Park. A boat trip is a must do, the surroundings so peaceful, promoting a wonderful calm. Surprisingly the boat is guided graceful through the fresh waters by women who are adorned in vibrantly decorated traditional attire, their age is inspiring, all appeared post retirement age but possessing an increased vigour and physical prowess which would embarrass many UK pensioners.
The lake is best accessed through the ancient village of Xuzhou, which is one of China’s most famous historical and cultural sites. The village is home to the Bei people, and it retains many traditional Bei folk houses built in the Ming and Qing dynasty, the narrow evocative streets are the domain of the bicycle or moped, the car an occasional interloper. You can wander freely in and out of the old mansions and the Yan, Yang, Yin and Dong courtyards. Dali’s relaxed, rather pragmatic atmosphere was a wonderful discovery and we will definitely be returning that I can assure you. Next stop Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan and a 7-hour train journey from Dali.
Our arrival by train in Kunming was met with a chaos which we had previously not experienced on our journey. The hectic commerce from the colourful line of street vendors purveying all manner of local produce and the mass of vehicles creating a crescendo of noise. The humidity only accentuated a feeling of claustrophobia, well it is known as the ‘Spring City’ for its unchangeable climate. There is still a heavy military presence in and around the station following a high profile shooting near the transport hub last year. Once again, the bike and moped appeared a popular mode of transport with a constant procession of bikes weaving expertly through endless traffic servicing the train station. Once away from the melee, the traffic relented and the cycle lanes became king, their convenience and relative safety an obvious draw. The city and its suburbs are home to 7.2 million people, unfortunately it no longer has an old town, and it’s completely dominated by the metallic clean lines of skyscrapers and shopping malls.
Our stay in the city was brief, the next morning our Yunnan road trip began. We were heading for the Nine Dragons waterfall with a stopover in the nearby town of Luoping. The 4-hour drive was lengthy and bumpy so it’s unrealistic to attempt by bike. However, in and around the waterfall is a great place to pedal a bike, the scenery is magical; the surroundings dominated by a collection of grass laden mountains ranging through several shades of lush green and quiet bucolic roads. The local farmers cultivate small plots of land, laid out in patchwork of colours, squashed tightly into the hillsides, it must present a daily headache, but they cope admirably. Despite the rapid growth and progress in China, life here is pastoral. A few visitors contribute to the tranquillity, mist envelopes the mountains. It’s a different matter in the summer, as the surroundings are mobbed by tourists.
The area has plenty of scenic locations on offer; one of my favourites is the Duoyi River and its water wheels. The Duoyi is a lovely tributary of the Nanpang River and turns up onto the hills to the beautiful reservoir at Lubuge. This area is home to the Buyi people and their prowess at farming both flat lands and hill slopes is evident all around. The vibrant dressed women assume most of the agricultural duties and the men put their hands to construction work, ploughing and fishing. The river is easily accessible by bike, the route has many undulating sections, but the climbs won’t cause much problem to a frequent cyclist and the dramatic views of the lush landscape is a worthy recompense, especially the intricately manicured rice terraces.
Author, ‘Simple Words from the Saddle, Simply More Words from the Saddle & The Way of St James’