China: the old towns of Yunnan Province

From Dali to Lijiang: the old towns of Yunnan

04/05/19 - 15/05/19
Total distance travelled: 10,100km

Three big milestones were reached during this leg of the journey: 9 months on the road, 10,000km pedalled and we climbed to our highest altitude so far: 3100m asl.

Olly's fun fact: 93,000 vs 152,000. Yunnan Province is 1.64 times bigger than the UK (measurements in square miles).

Dali and the Cang Mountains

This section of our adventure has been marked by sublime stays in what I'm calling, 'the old towns of Yunnan': Dali, Shaxi and Lijiang. We have only cycled 200km, which feels a bit meagre now that I'm writing it. However, we have done a lot of climbing and we have enjoyed taking time off to explore these three wonderful towns and their surroundings. The infamous bus journey from Pu'er helped us cover some significant ground as the twelve hours we endured on the smoking, spitting, weaving wagon saved us some 570km of pedal power. In the five days to come we have new challenges in store: we are going to be cycling via Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri-La. This is going to include some longer days, cycling at altitude and having to take our tent out of hibernation! Our route through China (and, indeed, through every country we have so far visited) has been incredible and this is all thanks to Olly and the time and effort he puts into route-researching and planning. He discovered that Dali, Shaxi and Lijiang were towns worth visiting and I am so grateful to him for bringing us to these places. I know he is very much looking forward to the next leg in the mountains. I think it's going to be quite raw and wild. I'm trusting China to keep us fed and well, though, and have heard good things about road-side, instant noodle stops.

North Gate, Dali.

In the main square, the morning we left Shaxi.

Picture-perfect Lijiang

It does feel that the cycling has played a less significant role during this leg of our journey than the wonderful, old towns that we have visited and stayed in. Dali, Shaxi and Lijiang are all incredibly picturesque and captivating places. I have found myself to be increasingly inspired, reflective and motivated as we travelled just 200km between these towns. That's not to say that the cycling hasn't been great, it has! In fact, cycling into and out of Shaxi both Olly and I commented on how much fun we were having actually cycling. I then realised that we must have been enduring the cycling recently, having what I call "commuter days". The cycling has also been challenging as on two occasions we have climbed to 3000+ metres above sea level. This is the highest I have ever been in my life!

At the top of the big pass

All three towns are bursting with charm, even the bins are pretty! Cobbled streets, red lanterns and tinkling bells have abounded. In addition, the towns have felt mystical, perhaps even spiritual, as we've learned of traditions, tales and legends. Being surrounded by mountains has certainly added an air of awesomeness too. We are both inspired by, intimidated by and in awe of mountains, and their dominating presence for this part of our journey has certainly piqued our imaginations and curiosities. We've been reading more, researching more and reflecting more too.






In Shaxi

In Lijiang

As a result of all of the charm and lanterns, the towns have been very touristy. Shaxi far less so than Dali and Lijiang. For this reason amongst others, Shaxi is our favourite spot so far in China. I am (was) writing from Lijiang, the Venice of Asia. Olly tells me that there are 354 bridges here that criss-cross over the babbling river and the many canals that run right through the old town. It is undeniably beautiful, but it was quite nice to trade in the cobbles and sickeningly fragrant flower-pastry shops for smooth tarmac and a Walmart in the new town.

That said, it is quite nice to be in touristy towns as we are, after all, tourists. It's a bit easier to wander around in these places without there being too much gawking: when we're cycling people do just stop and stare and they often take photos too. We are, I appreciate, a bit of a sight. A couple of times that we've been really taken by people, especially by older women in wonderful, bright, colourful, traditional outfits, and have thus stopped to take a photo, half-way asking permission by holding up the camera, they have made the international money sign at us and we've felt a bit uncomfortable. It's a shame because we're just so in awe, but it turns into something a bit seedy.

Olly in amongst the ladies.

On this leg, we have encountered Dai, Bai, Yi and Naxi minority people. Most of these groups have their own version of the Chinese language and there are some traditional foods too. In Lijiang where there are Naxi people, there is a delicious fried bread called "baba". We managed to secure a meat-free baba from a lady on the corner of one of Lijiang Old Town's many winding streets. It had an egg cooked into it and then the lady rubbed in various spice pastes before spooning small, cooked green peppers into it too. It was so delicious, hot and oily. It's a shame we only bought one and had to share! It cost about 65p.

The view from where we ate our baba

For us, though, the most notable feature of, and difference between the minority people is their dress and especially that of the women. Their headdresses change. All are completely fascinating and beautiful. The Bai women traditionally have a white and red headdress that they braid their hair into. I also noticed how a lot of women wrapped their hair in a colourful headscarf and then wore a straw hat on top of it. It gave their heads some significant height! Bai women also seemed to wear lots of layers: a colourful patterned shirt underneath a colourful patterned cardigan and then on top of that a funky woollen tank top or gilet. The Naxi women have a more triangular headdress which is black with an embroidered trim. They also wore a blue overall-type garment. Lots of women, not obviously in traditional dress, wear the type of hats we're only used to seeing at weddings, even the many women working in the fields often wear a fancy floral, sinamay number.


At about ten o'clock at night, after half a day on the bus, we arrived in Xiaguan. It was a relief to step off the bus and have our feet firmly on the ground. It was even more of a relief to recover our bicycles and find them still fully intact. Following the kerfuffle at the bus station in Pu'er, the drivers had hauled our bikes into the hold of the bus with little consideration for their worth and value (and I'm not especially talking of their monetary value). The drivers are not alone in not understanding what the bikes mean to us. For our part, we must be more trusting and we are much more so now than we were at the beginning of the trip.

We had boarded a bus to Dali, but the Dali we were to spend three nights in was still 20km away. Xiaguan is also known as 'Dali New Town', a modern city that has sprung up outside of the smaller, traditional town and at the southern end of Erhai Lake, which means "ear-shaped" lake and which is the seventh-largest freshwater lake in China. That evening, we cycled just 3km down the road to a hotel and almost immediately went to sleep, looking forward to some rest and to putting an eventful day behind us.

In the morning, knowing that we had just 20km ahead of us, we didn't rush around like maniacs, though the funky smelling bathroom meant we didn't hang around too long either. We made a stop for steamed buns, which really have lost some of their charm since we ate them on the bus journey, and for some stock-replenishing at Walmart before crossing a bridge and following a road around the west side of the lake to Dali Old Town. We had wanted to follow the road that hugs the lake, and we did so initially which included passing through the Islamic quarter. I have learnt that green signs with white writing denote a Halal shop or restaurant and I had spotted a few of these before spying the green, domed roofs of the mosque. There was a crowd stood outside of it and we realised that a funeral was taking place: many men struggling with a coffin (which had wheels!) passed us. We were stood to one side, hoping not to get in the way. Despite the funeral, almost every man carrying the coffin smiled broadly at us and a couple controlling the crowds cried "NI-HAO" and waved. After weaving our way through the crowd and bumping along the pot-holed street, we decided to head back onto the main road. It had an excellent hard-shoulder and afforded great views of the Cangshan - Cang mountains - to the left and the lake and small, lakeside villages to the right.

It was an easy ride to Dali and it was wonderful to pass through the east gate, adorned with bunting, and into the old town. We then bumped our way along the cobbled streets to our guesthouse, the Summer Flowers Inn, which was such a haven of peace and tranquility for the three nights that we spent in Dali. The inn was a spectacular building on four levels. We spent two of our evenings up on the rooftop admiring the view of the mountains and the town: the sweeping, tiled rooftops were so mesmerising and the mountains, simply awesome.

In Dali, lots of girls were getting their hair braided and buying more traditional clothes - long, swishy skirts - to walk around the "hippy town" in. Olly asked if I thought this description of the town was accurate and I think it is by Chinese standards. Bai culture, which is found in the Dali area, is also famed for its tie-dye which has a certain hippy vibe. Moreover though, Dali was very hip. Cool cafes, craft beer bars, dessert shops and lots of English slogans and signage, often a little inaccurate in quite a sweet way, denoted it as such.

We had three nights in Dali, a night more than we had initially planned. We wandered the streets lined with aforementioned hip joints and kitsch souvenir shops on the afternoon we arrived, in addition to sitting in the small, central park and listening to some ladies doing karaoke. We moved to be closer to the men having a jamming session on their erhus, Chinese violins. It sounded exactly like I hoped China would. On that note, I've found it really wonderful to discover that service vehicles (dustbin lorries and road sweepers) play traditional Chinese music as they roll along. In the case of the dustbin lorries, the tune alerts everyone to their presence and so people bring out their bins.

The paradox of choice plagued us on our first night in Dali: we did not know where or what to eat. I am always on the lookout for “something tasty” (…) and to try any kind of local speciality. On more than one occasion we have spent so long looking for somewhere that my hunger has waned, Olly’s easy-going and chilled-out nature has deserted him and both sets of nerves are severely frayed! We almost reached that point in Dali, but saved ourselves just in time by deciding to make like all of the tourists and have a “slate-plate” tea. The many signs claimed it was a Yunnan speciality…

Two tiny stools were brought out onto the pavement for us along with a metal table with a hole in it. A burning bucket of coal was then placed under the hole and a slate was positioned on top. We were then handed a piece of paper and had to choose what we wanted to BBQ. We spent a good ten minutes trying to interpret the menu using the ‘camera translate’ function on our phones which yielded the strangest and funniest results (I’ll write some down next time we are in a similar situation). Eventually, seeing our consternation, we were called over to the fridge and I used my honed pointing skills to select an array of vegetables and some tofu.

It was good fun, sat on the street, tending to our BBQ with what I associate with being a wallpaper scraper! It was a special occasion too, for we were brought out a vegetable I hadn’t pointed to and which has since become one of our favourite discoveries in China: lotus root. The following evening, when we stumbled into our first “hot-pot restaurant”, we were sure to add a healthy portion of lotus root to our silver bowl. From one awesome eating experience to another: in “hot-pot restaurants”, you are given a silver bowl to fill with anything from the fridge – we picked various vegetables and some bean curd, but if chicken feet take your fancy you can add those too! You are then charged by the weight of your bowl of ingredients. Once that is taken care of, the chef cooks your haul and adds a delicious hot (in both senses of the word) stock. We enjoyed our hot-pot with a couple of small bowls of rice. It was really tasty and just £2.50. We have had another less tasty and more expensive hot-pot tea since, but whenever Olly asks what I fancy, I find it hard to consider anything other than the hot-pot.

On our second day in Dali we cycled out to the Three Pagodas which are among the oldest standing structures in south-western China. The tallest pagoda, Qianxun, has sixteen tiers, is 70m tall and was originally built in the middle of the ninth-century. We opted not to pay the 120 yuan entry fee (each) as this was 1.5 times the price of a night in our guesthouse. As such, our cycle to the pagodas was a little anticlimactic, but we got some exceptional views of them from our walk in the Cang mountains the following day and as we cycled out of the city in a few days’ time. Also anticlimactic was our jaunt to the Lone Pagoda which was shut away behind a locked gate and which seemed to be falling into a state of disrepair. It struck me as funny how some things are considered worth preserving and become mega tourist attractions, and how others are ignored, forgotten and left behind.

The Lone Pagoda

We then cycled down to Erhai Lake. On the cycle down to the water’s edge we passed lots of fields of crops. What has struck us is that, unlike in the UK where we have large expanses of the same crop, in China, the farming style seems to be more “allotment-esque”: smaller patches of land designated to a certain crop, next to another patch of something different. Regardless of the day or time, there have been people, mainly women wearing brightly coloured clothes and the aforementioned fancy hats, working in the fields. The beautiful Shaxi Valley was particularly agricultural: we cycled over wheat laid out in the road and watched as purple bags were stuffed with garlic whose rich aroma we could smell from where we stood watching high above the fields.

In the Shaxi Valley

On our third, bonus day in Dali, we hiked into the Cangshan. It was incredible cycling into Dali Old Town with the mountains on our left and the lake on our right. The Cang mountain range has eighteen peaks all at around 4000m. We hiked from our guesthouse, out of town through the West Gate, through an emerging market, which was in full-swing on our return, and to the start of the mountain path. We had to pay 35 yuan each to enter the national park and we also had to write down our names and nationalities which felt more ominous than any police-check we've experienced. I wondered what was going to happen on the mountain! In total that day we spent six-hours out walking and covered a distance of about 20km. For two days afterwards our calves screamed every time we pushed down on the pedals which was not ideal when climbing to heights of 3000m with a bike that weights 45kg!

We were alone in our hike up the mountain as most tourists opt for the cable car that deposits you at the Zhonghe Temple. It was a good and interesting hike, initially passing through mountain-side cemeteries. Closer to the temple we passed a couple of shrines and then we entered the temple complex and gazed in wonder at the view over Dali and out to the lake. We were joined here by the first of the tourists dismounting from the cable car, many had waved at us as they had passed us overhead. For the first time since arriving in Asia, I had to put on my jumper as we sat and ate snacks under the watchful gaze of the temple dog.

If you look closely, you can see the Three Pagodas.

We had debated going north or south from Zhonghe Si, both are possible. The southbound adventure is 11km long, and we decided that that was best saved for another time, though it was difficult to decide to leave the Gantong Temple undiscovered having read about red panda sightings en route to it. We ventured north along the Romantically named “Cloud Path”. “Yunnan” means “south of the clouds” which I think is such a beautiful translation for this southwestern province so rich in its diversity (spiritual, cultural, ecological). There is a Chinese proverb describing Yunnan as a place where “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”.  It makes for a fairly chilled-out province.

We walked about 3km along the Cloud Path and became engrossed in conversation, reflecting and pondering in a way that only seems accessible to us when we’re walking. There was no one else on the path as many (all) opt to take another cable car to the top of the mountain. We again found the fees for the cable cars to be extortionate when compared to the cost of a meal or a hotel room. We opted to save our money as our adventure is still far from over. We did debate, however, how long-term travel requires a certain frugality, whereas on shorter trips or holidays you are more inclined to spend and so we questioned whether we might be missing out or adding too many places to our ‘to return to’ list.

"Purification of the mind"

We reached a point on the walk whereby the path started to crumble away at the edges and a sign attached to a gate, that resembled something from the start of most horror stories, declared that from this point on the route was not patrolled and we would be responsible for our own deaths. Not managing to see around the first corner, we turned around and retraced our steps. I was glad, in the end, that we did as it meant we actually went into Zhonghe Temple which we had bypassed before; by the time we returned to it most of the crowds has dispersed.

When we eventually returned to our room, we relaxed for an hour or so before we had to head out again. We had read and been told about a vegan, Buddhist buffet restaurant and, recalling wonderful memories from Jinghong, we had decided we wanted to try it out. The buffet opened at 5.30 and we were recommended to get there not long after if we wanted fresh, hot food. We took our bikes to the north of the Old Town and I really enjoyed our early-evening 5km bike ride (no DOMS yet). For just 5 yuan, the suggested donation, we ate two bowl-fulls of delicious food; I especially liked the roasted pumpkin. There was a strict “eat all you take” policy, even down to the last grain of rice. We had no trouble abiding by this rule! By the end of the meal, which we enjoyed sat outside on a bench, Olly could barely move. He opted not to look around the temple opposite the restaurant and sat still on the steps instead.

I left Dali wondering how it could get much better. Dali had been what I pictured China to be: sweeping roofs, small stone bridges over ponds and gates hung with lanterns. Indeed, Dali has capitalised on this and many locals, guidebooks and fellow travellers believe it may have gone a bit too far, similarly so with Lijiang. Regardless, I think Dali was brilliant, and it was quite easy to not follow the herd and get off “the beaten track” (which is something we all seem to want to do so much to the extent that I sometimes wonder if any track is now genuinely unbeaten anyway?!).

I'd like one of these blankets for my bike!

From Dali we spent three days cycling to Sideng Village, more commonly referred to as Shaxi, though this is actually the name of the valley that the little, market town is in. The cycle took us to our highest point on the trip to date: 3093m. I was quite miserable on the climb due to my (still) aching legs and it was quite an overcast and cloudy day. At the top we donned our down jackets and ate dried, edamame beans, far more common and far less hip here than at home! On the descent we met two cyclists on their way up – they had 7km to go and I didn’t envy them overly, especially the guy whose front derailleur had broken and who was thus operating in just one gear. Both men, a Canadian and a Briton, lived in Dali and were out exploring ‘their own back yard’. It was nice to meet anglophones and have a chat about our adventures in China past, present and future.

Cycling out of Dali along Erhai Lake

I'm on there...!

That night we stayed at the bottom of the hill in the only hotel in town. Prices are rarely advertised and everyone we meet tells us to haggle, but at the last minue something in our Britishness – I’m sure of it – always prevents us from doing so. We’ve become increasingly aware of our “Britishness” on this trip. Before it was something I would have laughed about, but brushed off and been adamant “isn’t really a thing”, despite a very funny and revealing conversation with the Bastley family one time in a restaurant. I remember Karen, Marta, Hannah and others becoming very animated about the fact that all Brits know that “I’ll see” irrefutably means “no”, but are never brave enough to just say it, one of many such sayings and phrases. We’re determined to become more worldly, if that is the right word. Regardless, we thought the price at the hotel was fair and so we set about unloading and carrying the panniers to our room, locking up the bikes and getting clean.

Stopping at a market on the way out of Dali

We always enjoy stopping to watch the goats walk home.

The rest of the evening I’d rather not remember as it ended in culinary disaster. Admittedly, we were in a very small town, but we certainly could have done better than the beige-fest that ensued. I had been on the hunt for a bowl of noodles. Indeed, that is what I got. But not a steaming bowl of hot, spicy, salty noodles. We managed to order plain, white, noodles that came in a plain, white broth and which the lady was adamant we were to only pour sugar over. When I reached for the soy sauce, she looked pained and started waving her hands around in a “seriously, no” motion. We eat a lot of sugary foods as we’re riding: cereal bars, biscuits, little cakes, the occasional bit of fruit. We drink fizzy drinks to quench our thirst and whenever ice-cream is available, we find it hard not to buy it. That night we really needed something salty. We managed to buy a couple of steamed buns from across the road. They were tasty and contained, we discovered, potato, just to ensure that the evening’s beige theme was stridently adhered to. When we got back to the hotel room I rummaged around in the food pannier and found a cucumber that we had been ignoring for a few days. It was limp and soft, but I ate it anyway. I’m sure that night I dreamt in beige.

It was so, indescribably wonderful then to arrive in Shaxi and be invited to have lunch with the hostel owners and their friends. We were given bowls of rice and told to tuck in. There was a plate of fried fish and there were several vegetable dishes too. I really enjoyed the seaweed that happened to be positioned right next to me. The building that our hostel was housed in was so impressive. It was open-plan with a steep, metal staircase leading up to our room which had a futon bed and incredibly funky hot-air balloon bedspread.

In the afternoon, we ventured into the village and were immediately charmed by its smaller size and quieter streets. Our hostel was on the main, pedestrianised road cutting through the town and turning left off it we walked down the cobbled street, flanked by rushing streams over which there were little wooden and stone bridges, to the main square. It was incredibly peaceful and we walked around noticing art students sketching at regular intervals. After a short walk out of the east gate and towards the Yujin Bridge, which was a vital crossing point along the Tea-Horse Road and still serves an important role for those coming down from mountainous villages to the weekly market on a Friday, we sat in the square admiring the theatre opposite.

Sideng Village is still very much a lived-in, old-style, Chinese town unlike Dali and Lijiang whose old towns are simply tourist attractions. It is for this reason, ironically, that Shaxi is becoming increasingly popular. Several hip joints, coffee shops and pizza restaurants line the roads leading off the main square and I could have been tempted in to any of them. Fearing a repeat of a £10 coffee-stop in Dali though, we walked on by. I’m so glad we did because back on the main road we noticed lots of school children huddled around a street food stall. We went over to investigate and discovered wraps of some kind and sausages on sticks being devoured by youngsters in their grey and red tracksuit uniform. We got involved. It was great. We ordered more wraps and a milk tea from the little stall next door. We went back again for lunch the following day. We also ordered what we thought was cheese that would be deep-fried. It was definitely not cheese and definitely a rubbery, jelly called liang fen. Fortunately, it was delicious albeit not cheese and quite difficult to grip with chopsticks.

The following day was market day and it was so colourful and vibrant. We saw flying fish, pigs’ heads, piles of human hair (you get a good price per kilo), row upon row of fresh vegetables, huge slabs of tofu and a box of fireworks that went off unexpectedly that a lady tried to put out by flicking at it with water from a cup. Old women in traditional dress lined the streets selling bunches of greens or sprouting plants that they had carried down from the surrounding mountain villages. We bought strawberries and bananas, but were tempted by so, so much more.

We almost stayed in Sideng Village another day and it would have been brilliant to explore the nearby Shibaoshan, or the ‘Stone Treasure Mountains’. There are 1300 year old rock carvings in the mountains, evidence of the spread of Buddhism from Tibet to Yunnan, in addition to temple complexes and incredible views of the Shaxi valley. However, we decided to continue on and we certainly got our fair share of incredible views when we did so.

With big climbs to come in order to reach Lijiang, we remembered only too well the muscle soreness that had plagued us for days after our hike in the Cangshan at Dali. We were also falling into a bit of a habit, not necessarily a bad one, of riding and resting for almost equal amounts of time each week. We have a three-month visa for China and so are in no real rush to leave. However, everything has a knock-on effect and if we are to be home for Christmas – our own, favoured deadline – we do need to ride. We also become quite comfortable on rest days and it’s harder to get back on the bikes after time off. As important as rest is, the longer the stints on the bike, the more we enjoy cycling, the fitter we feel, and the more we find ourselves planning future adventures. The longer the stints in the nice, comfortable guesthouses, the more I think about what colour to paint my imaginary bathroom whilst munching on a Snickers bar.

Two more days’ cycling brought us to Lijiang where we again bumped our two-night stay up to three.  We cycled from Shaxi to the city of Jianchaun where we wandered happily around the market and marvelled at how many bicycles there were in the town: noticeably a lot more than anywhere else we had so far been in China. During our aimless, evening wandering we stumbled into the older part of town where there were three bike shops on the same cobbled street. From Jianchaun to Lijiang, and we started the day with a hot, flat bread that we later learned was a baba, a regional, Naxi speciality. A lady was making the baba just a few doors down from the hotel and whilst Olly bought water, I walked back to see the lady and parted with just two yuan in exchange for the warm bread that tasted like a doughnut. It was quite light, not stodgy, and it had a delicious, naughty, fried taste. It was better eaten fresh as the half we saved for a snack later on went a bit soggy.

Hitting the 10,000km

Stuffing my face with baba

Olly was a fan!

The final 20km into Lijiang were unpleasant and busy as vehicles of all kinds attempted suicidal overtakes on narrow stretches of road. The relentless beeping of horns rang in our ears for hours after we had stopped cycling. Lijiang, like Dali, has a new town and an old town. The new town is a city with everything you can expect from a city anywhere in terms of shops, restaurants and services – we had a great time in the Walmart buying ‘vegetarian beef’ and Snickers bars. The old town, which is smaller, is what draws the crowds. Hordes of people bumped and struggled along the cobbled streets with wheely suitcases, re-emerging later from one of the many boutique hotels armed with selfie-sticks and not afraid to use them!

We were staying just outside of the old town which was nice, both because it made going into the old town an event and also because it meant we could escape from the hubbub. We were greeted so warmly by the manager at our hotel. About our age, he immediately invited us to sit down at the ceremonial table and have a cup of cha, Pu’er no less. Just as we had experienced in Jinghong, every time we emptied our little cup – and the cups really are so charmingly tiny that it is not hard to empty them – it was refilled, to the extent that I whispered to Olly that we might have to stop drinking if we weren’t to be caught in a perpetual, tea-drinking cycle! We were also offered local snacks including flower pastries whose shops we had seen countless numbers of in Dali. It transpired that the flower-pastry shops were even more prolific in Lijiang: every other shop, it seemed, was either selling drums – played by bored sellers using one hand to beat and one hand to use their phone – or flower pastries. It was quite astonishing to see the same shops repeated on every street in Lijiang and it really made us wonder, ‘why?’. The flower pastry, by the by, was even more intense than a Turkish Delight: imagine Cornish pasty pastry filled with purple petals that smell and taste just like you imagine ‘a flower’ to.

Our first breakfast in Lijiang - ask us for the story sometime!

We couldn’t quite believe our eyes when we were showed to our room about an hour later: it was beautiful and huge! The place we were staying was advertised on as a hostel and we had paid just £8/night to stay there, which is about the same price as a DOC campsite in NZ. The spacious, elegant room was calming and it made it so easy for us to relax. We did worry for a moment that once we’d heaved all of our panniers up the stairs and closed the door that there might be a knock upon it accompanied by an apology: “sorry, we’ve put you in the wrong room”. That fortunately didn’t happen and we were very grateful too.

In our 'tea room'

Veggie dumplings for the first time in Lijiang (we went twice)

Lovely Lijiang

We spent longer than we had planned wandering around the old town of Lijiang on our first evening, I won’t say it was because we got lost, but I won’t say that it wasn’t for that reason either… The Yunnan Lonely Planet guide hilariously remarks that maps of the old town resemble “a charcoal drawing of a web created by a spider on LSD”. LP offers the following advice: “if you’re dead set on actually orientating yourself in the old town … do not attempt to use the maps set up on every corner, which, with their seemingly random orientation … are clearly designed to entrap an invading army”. It was very true, but good fun too (in my books, less so Olly’s). Lijiang, for all of its boutique resorts, flower-pastry shops, and bored bongo drummers, is very pretty, very charming and very dreamy to meander around and this was especially so the following morning when we got up early and most of the shops were still closed and most of the tourists still tucked up in bed.

On our bonus day in Lijiang we escaped the city and cycled 15km north to the town of Baisha. Baisha used to be the capital of the Naxi kingdom and residing there today is Dr Ho, a famous, traditional, Chinese doctor who, in days gone by, has been frequented by several members of the Monty Python cast. Herbal tea remedies are apparently his speciality. We looked in at his ‘surgery’ before wandering back down the main street which was awash with really cool, hip coffee shops and bars. A small group of tourists lounged about in hammocks outside one such establishment.  I stared longingly into the interior of another where there was a bike hung on the wall. Olly diplomatically steered me away from these pricey places, promising a milk tea stop, for a third of the cost, on the return journey instead.

Dr Ho's surgery

The ride out to Baisha had been beautiful as we had seen properly and majestically, for the first time, the indomitable peaks of Yulong Shan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The mountain would remain in our sights until we left Tiger Leaping Gorge some days later.

At least one of us was pleased to be on a pannier-free bike ride

Leaving Baisha

All too soon, it seemed, it was time to pack up and head off again, this time in the direction of the mystical Shangri-La and following a route that would take us through the Romantically-named, but ferociously real, Tiger Leaping Gorge. I was sad not to see the hotel’s cute, little bundle of white fluff that I’d been fussing over for three days before we left, and doubly so upon learning that we would leave Lijiang via the same route that we had entered it. However, I felt so full of inspiration and abuzz with happiness following our adventures in Yunnan’s Old Towns that I clipped in to my pedals with resolve. I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone a once-in-a-lifetime trip to these old, traditional towns that lie ‘south of the clouds’.