Up, Up and Away: 7 days, 440km, and 6500+m

No wifi access, a series of epic climbs, rural Tibetan villages, dirt track roads and lots of camping – here is an overview of our solid seven day cycle between Shangri-la in Yunnan to Lithang in Sichuan, China.

Day 1: Back on the road out of Shangri-la

Distance: 72km / Ride time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.5km/h

Today passed without too much drama. It was the first proper rainy day we had had cycling so we got rain geared up. Here is Paddy in his bright yellow shoe covers.

We passed through some nice valleys and a weird semi-abandoned village called Gezan which was mainly made up of buildings which were falling down – we wondered whether they were the remains after the earthquake which I know hit western Sichuan 4-5 years ago…

We eventually found a camping spot near a river just before the next big climb. We pitched the tent quickly and cooked up dinner in the vestibule. Twin Peaks is keeping us occupied before going to sleep!

Day 2: We meet JK and discover that there are still places in the world where the air is so clean lichen hangs like giant cobwebs from the trees

Distance: 39.4km / Ride Time: 2:58 / Average Speed: 13.2km/h

With the knowledge that tomorrow would be a very long and hard day in the saddle we planned a relatively short day today.

In fact, we didn’t get out of the tent until 10am as it was still raining… We cooked breakfast and enjoyed a lie in with coffee in our double down sleeping bag.

With the rain clearing we pack up and are about to set off when I spot another cycle tourer puffing his way towards us.

JK from South Korea had pitched his tent 10km back down the road and was heading in the same direction as us. It would be nice to have some company so we set off up the climb together.

We plough up the valley, pine forests as far as they eye can see. 

The rain clears and the three of us marvel at the amount of lichen hanging from the trees. It looks like spooky green cobwebs and we fill our lungs with the amazingly clean air.

We reach the top at around 4ish. Great views at 3900m!

Then enjoy the decent and drop back down to 3000m.

We stop for dinner and then cycle 5km up the valley until we find a basic guesthouse. We have our standard ‘shower’ round the back of the house with a bowl of hot water.

Day 3: Snow, crossing the border into Sichuan and discovering our love of tarmac 

Distance: 61.9 / Ride Time: 6:26 / Average Speed: 9.6km/h

A stunning and perfect day for cycling up the mountain!

We leave the Tarmac road behind but the dirt track really isn’t too bad and there is barely any traffic.

We pass a collection of prayer wheels all being continually spun by a small stream below each of the ‘temple huts’.

This lovely couple stop and give us fruit and sticky honey rice cake.

We say goodbye to JK after sharing lunch as he decides he will only go on a bit further and set up camp. We push on wanting to get over the second climb so we can drop down before finding a camping spot.

We had climbed for 4.5 hours – around 35 km – and reached the top which sits at 4400m. This marks the gateway into Sichuan. There is a lot of snow and it’s very cold!

The weather really starts to close in and we’re keen to get down as far as possible before setting up camp. The road on this side of the mountain is REALLY TERRIBLE! Please please give us back some tarmac!

It’s a bumpy ride and we still have another small climb before we can really lose some height and get down to under 4000m.

We’re glad to see a makeshift building in the valley and there is smoke rising from its chimney! 

The guy lets us in and we get warm by his big fire. We don’t have much in the way of food but he sells us 4 noodle pots which we add some boiled rice to. Not a great meal considering how far we’ve climbed but at least it’s something.

We pitch our tent on the gravel lay-by opposite the hut. The pigs attack our loose rice bag but otherwise we sleep pretty well. We hope JK is ok and that he’s not too cold in the snow.

Day 4: A bumpy descent

Distance: 80.5km / Ride Time: 5:05 / Average Speed: 15.8km/h

Another great day weather wise but the bumpy road continues for a long time and we have a small climb to complete before a very uncomfortable decent all the way down to below 3000m where we find ourselves in a green lush valley. 

Tarmac! Sweet sweet Tarmac! 

All the houses are built and painted in the same Tibetan style, this time with flat roof so. I think they are beautiful!

We stop in Qung Mai Xiang for lunch where we gorge on a big feed. It’s good not to be eating instant noodle soup again.

We keep climbing back up to 3000m where we stop at a small village directly above a large hydroelectric damn. This marks a good place to stop as it is directly before the start of the big climb tomorrow. We find an hotel of sorts (former digs of all the workers who obviously built the damn.) There’s a warm shower which is sublime!

We spend the evening with the family next door and the kids practise their English on us.

Day 5: The big one – 4718m!

Distance: 62.4km / Ride Time: 6:19 / Average Speed: 10.2km/h

Another stunning day – we have been so lucky with the weather!

A big big climb today so we start early.

We climb steeply for about 4.5 hours and then stop for lunch. The road remains blissfully paved.

We then continue up through a beautiful valley – Spring is really in the air.

We reach about 4400m and we both begin to feel a little light headed from the altitude. We just take it slow with plenty of stops

Considering the height it’s really quite warm. Paddy is still in his shorts and cycle top when we reach the summit.

To put this in perspective, you could easily fit Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the UK) 3 times under us with plenty of room to spare.

So back down we go towards Sangdui where we will stop for the evening.

From far above Sangdui looks like the dullest, ugliest town we’ve ever seen but as we get closer we see that actually all the houses are incredible fortress like buildings, with beautiful turrets, gates and doorways.

They are like mini castles – I guess you need houses like this to keep out the bitter weather up here.

We find our own cosy haven and I sleep very soundly.

Day 6: New breakpads, groundhogs, glacier valleys and tooth ache

Distance: 71.1km / Ride Time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.1km/h

We have a late start as we needed to fit new breakpads – all those hills have been tough on the ol’ disc break!

We get going and follow the Haizishan Rock Glacier up 45km to another high point. To our right are all the spherical rocks deposited by the glacier.

The high plateau at the top boasts a huge colony of four legged, sandy coloured mammals (the size of a small badger) but we have no idea what they are? They ran too fast for me to snap them on the camera.

At the top it starts to snow!

We drop back down and cook lunch before the last climb of the day. Here is Paddy dutifully collecting water.

At the top of the last climb some Chinese ladies all in pink give us red bull and apples. We also have a celebratory swig of rice wine.

Then the long decent down – great incline through another spectacular glacial valley and at one point we reached 66km/ph (!) – through the protection of my down hood under my helmet I can hear Paddy’s intermittent, gleeful cries of ‘this is cool’ and ‘weeee’. 

Once we reached the bottom the road openes out to the most spectacular plain surrounded by mountains. 

We pitch our tent in one of these ruins and build a huge fire to stay warm.

Day 7: Final 50km to Litang

Distance: 50.1km / Ride Time: 2:50 / Average Speed: 17.6km/h

It ended up being a very cool night and we woke to find icicles on the inside of our tent.

Paddy had a bad night due to very sore cold tooth ache.

It is the most beautiful morning, and once the sun gets going we soon warm up.

The night before a teenage girl had turned up to give us some tinned food. One of the tins contained SPAM. This next picture is for you Katy Sheen.

After a champion breakfast of potatos, scrambled egg and fried spam (the first time either of us had tried this) we cycle through some spectacular countryside and complete the 50k to Lijang by 2pm.

Phew! Looking forward to a couple of rest days but it has been a great week of remote cycling!

Spinning a giant wheel and learning a Tibetan dance in Shangri-la

After our fiasco of a cycle the day before, we woke up in our cosy beds (complete with electric blankets) and took advantage of our empty dorm room to have a very long, well needed, lie in. 

We dragged ourselves out of bed to find brunch and then spent a lazy early afternoon cleaning the bike, doing our washing and generally having a sort out. 

It was a beautiful sunny and crisp day – a bit like those early spring days you get back at home – so after we were done we headed out to explore Shangri-La and do some shopping. This is what I have to wear on washing day… Paddy laughs at me a lot on these days.

Shangri-la (formally known as Zhongdian) is the gateway to the truly Tibetan part of northern Yunnan. At an altitude of 3200m it was a good place to get acclimatised for the week ahead which will eventually see us climb to nearly 5000m!

A devastating fire in 2014 burned a lot of the enchanting old town to cinders and there is still quite a bit of building work taking place but you get a sense it’s slowly recovering, although it’s nothing compared to Lijiang or Shaxi.

It’s been getting colder and colder as we’ve climbed and I was in need of an extra jumper – here I am in my new fleece. 

After a quick lunch we climb up to the main temple which boasts great views of the town and also has the worlds largest prayer wheel (it contains 100,000 smaller prayer wheels inside).

It’s a fun way to meet other visitors as it takes 8-10 people to get it turning… 

It’s a beautiful object, covered in Tibetan writing which is very different from mandarin, related much more to the sanskrit languages.

The temple overlooks a big square where people are milling about. 

Here is a yak who was on show for tourists outside the museum which we had a look round.

In the museum there is an interesting collection of medical documents and drawings, some of the treatments are very bizarre and, from what we could gather, tended to involve doing various things with different human fluids! 

Back in the hostel we pack up our stuff before heading back down to the square with the hostel owner, who tells us that the daily communal dance is about to take place.

Everyday, from 7-9pm, between 100-150 local people will come down to the square to take part in a group Tibetan circle dance. A music track blasts out from the corner of the square and women, men, young and old form (generally) two large circles. They all know the dances and newcomers are welcome to take a turn at learning too. 

The dances are quite slow and, I guess, ‘courtly’ although Paddy and I struggled with the unusual offbeats and by the time you think you’ve got hold of a move they are on to the next one.

The temple all lit up sets off the scene nicely and its a great communal atmosphere. Its amazing how many people have come down, presumably after work, to take part and keep this part of their culture alive rather than head straight to their homes to escape the biting cold.

Onwards then to experience even more Tibetan culture – it will be a solid week of cycling to get to Litang over the border in Sichuan province. 

The Very Hungry Cyclists 

Wanting to develop our legs of steel even further in preparation for the many high passes we will encounter in western Sichuan, we set ourselves the task of completing the 180km from Lijiang to Shangri-La in 2 days. 

The first day wouldn’t be too bad, but the second day promised to be a humdinger of a climb and it didn’t disappoint…

Day 1: 86km

Road: climb out of Lijiang, long decent, good road towards Quiatao

Soundtrack of the day: Blur – Parklife Album, Delorentos, James Brown – Best of

Beautiful morning of pure sunshine and blue skies. The clouds were mostly gone and we had a perfect view of Jade Peak mountain from our hostel. It’s sort of a shame we didn’t have this weather while we were walking the gorge, but at least we had a great day of cycling ahead of us instead.

We make our way to the PSB office and luckily get there right before a long queue forms. We have to wait a while but then armed with our visa extensions we hit the road, retracing our steps towards Quiatao but this time on the bike.

The gradual changes in the architecture (amazing ‘block’ tibetan houses) and cuisines are sure signs we are beginning to approach the Tibetan part of Yunnan and Sichuan.imageimage

We keep climbing through the valley after stopping in Quiatao to fill up our ‘washing water’ bottles and to buy oil and a couple of beers.

We were very lucky to find this great camping spot down by the river out of site from most of the traffic. 

We cook up dinner, drink down the beers, snuggle down into bed and watch episode 1 of the cult to series Twin Peaks – don’t tell us who did it!

Day 2: 92km

For those of you who like that kind of thing here is our profile of the days climb:

Knowing that we had a big day ahead our alarm goes off at 6.30 and we pack up, have a good breakfast and by 8.15am we’re away.

Porridge, banana and honey (Paddy convinced me about the honey but still not overly keen…)

75 mins in and we had done just 13km. The road was fairly busy with trucks but we persevered climbing slowly.

After another hour and a half we passed by a cluster of buildings on the road and what looked like a place to eat. Not feeling particularly hungry yet we agreed to carry on for a bit. This was the first in a long line of errors we would make that day.

By the time we were hungry at around 12.15 there was nothing in sight… We struggled on up the valley for another 30mins hoping we’d pass something, our average speed had now dropped to 8km/h.

We were both really hungry by this point and we agreed we would have to stop and cook something up ourselves, it was annoying as we had only covered about 35 of the 90 we needed to do that day and we knew cooking ourselves would take at least an hour and a half. The other issue was that we only had a litre of water left… How did we let that happen??!

Our water purifying LifeStraw has sat in our back pannier taking up space for nearly 4 months. Well thank god we brought it. With it we could fill up a litre from a burst pipe on the road and know we had enough to cook with.

So we had filtered water and in the bag we knew there was half a broccoli, an onion and a bag of rice. That with the standard ginger, garlic and chilli we were going to be OK, we had a meal to cook.

We cycled up to a spot with a great view and, slightly desperately, got out everything we needed.

I filtered the water and chopped up everything while Paddy set up the stove.

But the stove decided it wasn’t going to work for us at this critical time. We cleaned and replaced the filter but all we got was a flickering flame before it going out completely. 

‘Dirty fuel’ Paddy says frowning, chomping hungrily on a raw bit of broccoli.

We decant the kerosene into a bottle and sure enough a dark line of sediment sinks to the bottom.

No one can underestimate how hard everything is when you are really hungry. It’s difficult to make good decisions. 

To cut a long story short, instead of simply decanting the fuel slowly back into the fuel bottle a few times, (leaving the sediment sitting in the bottom) we instead decided we should filter it completely in one go using a spare filter from the LifeStraw. The result was no kerosene in the bottle and all of it soaking into the hard dusty ground.

OK, now we had no stove. 

2 oranges and 4 chocolate wafer bars each later we disbelieving  pack up the bike. We had wasted an hour and a half and we hadn’t even eaten. Groan!

Faced with a very long and tough climb (the first of a series of peaks we would need to complete), we got back on the bike.

To top it off I was really struggling with my new saddle which was turning out to be worse than my old one.

I’m not going to lie, climbing that steep mountain was a real low point for me and after the epic climb I was beyond hungry – I admit, despite the breathtaking views, I had a little weep at the top!

We finally find someone selling some pork skewers and buy his whole stock (total of 8 sticks) for 42Y.

We try to stay positive and muscle up the will power to cycle the 20km to the next major town where we gorge on a spectacular feast.

With the sun fading fast, the cold creeping in but with our bellies filled with glorious food, we manage to blast the final 34km in an hour and 40 mins. 

We reach Shangri-la at 8pm (narrowly avoiding cycling in the dark which we try to avoid) and thankfully find a great little hostel very easily.

I’ve never wanted a bed more!

Heading back to the tourist trail – Ying Pan to Shaxi

We have really enjoyed our route through the mountains over the past five days and couldn’t be more glad to get away from the main highway and miss out the tourist trap of Dali. 

We have had to really get to grips with the Chinese language as the people we’ve met have barely spoken any English. We both find the language fascinating – it is so different from any western language either of us have learnt – and  we have been using a combination of apps to learn words and phrases. 

We downloaded memrise which has been good as it allows you to download different courses and it’s good for helping you recognise the Chinese characters. Paddy also downloaded the dictionary Hanping which has been very useful as you can use it offline (we still haven’t been able to get a SIM card) and I have Chinese Skill too which is good for learning the structure of sentences. 

Learning the different characters is highly addictive especially when you start to be able to combine them to make new words. For example, ‘to eat’ is a combination of ‘mouth’ and ‘to beg’…

We have yet to see another foreigner since crossing the border with Ruili and our cycle through rural Yunnan has felt very special and personalised. It’s good to mix things up though and it will be nice to have a coupe of days in a more touristy place where we can maybe meet some other travellers and enjoy a well needed rest day! 

We will be heading towards Shaxi which will definitely see us back on the tourist trail. It is the first place since Ruili that has an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The ride will take us 3 days to get there from our current position in Ying Pan.

Day 1: 51km

We woke up to a grey, miserable and very wet morning in Ying Pan. It has rained pretty much every night in China but this was the first morning the rain was still beating down. We contemplated having a rest day but agreed we should keep going so we packed up and donned our rain gear. 

Today will see us complete another climb – 1300m to 3090m (the highest we’ve been so far). Mist is clinging to the mountains so we linger a bit longer to see if the weather clears a bit and warm up with two helpings of steaming dumplings.
By the time we set off the rain has turned to just a gentle drizzle. The first section takes us along a little river through a small valley (well comparatively small for China). We both agree it feels like we could be cycling somewhere in Wales, maybe the Brecon Beacons?

There are some very steep climbs here so we play a round of 20 questions which takes our mind off things. 

The sensation of being somewhere in the UK quickly ends when we cycle up to this very Chinese looking bridge. 

This marks the beginnings of a beautiful old town called Lajing which clings to the valley on either side. All the houses are still built from wood and compact earth with very quintessential grey tiled roofs. 

We keep climbing and reach the the more modern part of town. With the colder weather comes hearty food and we stop for a steaming beef stew. We, and the tandem, spark quite an interest in the town and a big group of locals waves us goodbye from the square.

Giggling girls
We keep climbing, it’s still very cold!!! Again, the views are pretty spectacular though. 


Ascending into the mist

Finally we reach the top and snake our way down the other side to a town we think is called Hualian… It’s the first big town you come to anyway!

We cook up a vegetable broth in our hotel room, have a nosey around town and then snuggle down into bed our breath creating clouds of mist above the bed!

Day 2: 76km

Not much to report on this day as it was cold, grey and a pretty boring cycle on the main road. A medium climb and then downhill for 15km.

Two lovely things did happen though:

We hadn’t passed a place to eat for a good couple of hours and when we stopped to ask a family where the next town was we were told we had a 35km cycle ahead of us before we could properly eat again. All we had was cake, peanuts and oranges in our panniers.

I, in particular, was very cold, tired and hungry at this point and the look on my face obviously showed it… The lovely family invited us into their house, gave us tea, fed us and let us warm up next to their fire. They refused to take anything from us in return.

I was still feeling very tired and pretty grumpy, I let myself get cold and then couldn’t get warm again. Never let yourself get cold!!! Paddy basically pulled us through. 

Later in the day a guy stopped us on the road and passed us two yoghurts through the window. Perhaps we were giving off a ‘we’re struggling today’ vibe… People are wonderful.

It gets gradually warmer as the day goes on and at 5.30pm we stop in Madeng for dinner. 

We cycle out of town and find a great camping spot in the hills above the town.

We set up camp amongst the cover of a forest of pine trees and at dusk decide it’s safe to light a campfire which makes us both very happy.

Day 3: 67km

It rains all night and although all our stuff stays dry and our Hubba Hubba tent holds up well we both don’t sleep well… We also leave our shoes too near the edge of the vestibule and each wake up to a soggy left foot… 

We cook breakfast in the rain but thankfully it subsides and beautiful blue skies appear in time for us to take the tent down. 

We had decided to take this yellow road route to Shaxi which takes you south and then north rather than following the main road around and down.

We get going and enjoy a wonderful 20km cycle downstream through a beautiful valley, acres of farmland on either side. We make good progress with an average of 24km/ph.

Then we come to a turn in the road and are faced with a cobbled road… It’s very, very, very bumpy and there are a couple of minor landslides. We definitely wouldn’t advise this route in the wet season… It’s hard going on Paddy who can’t really look up from the road to enjoy the views. The cobbles continue for 22km (!) until we reach the next major village and turn north and upstream towards Shaxi.

If you do decide to take this route be sure to bring plenty of stuff for lunch as there isn’t really anywhere you can get a good meal between Madeng and Shaxi. We ended up eating a horrible quick noodle pot at a shop… 

Tired and very hungry we reach Shaxi which is very pretty and filled with lots of Chinese tourists. Do not try and push your loaded bike around the cobbled, twisty streets while you find a guesthouse! 

We’re staying in a lovely place just up from the main square. It’s probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in the whole entire trip but is only 60Y. 

We are looking forward to a lie in and a day moseying around this sleepy town.