8 Days Yunnan Cycling Tour from Yangtze to Mekong Rivers

Day 1: Arrive in Shangrila
Day 2: Cycle to Wujing Village
Day 3: Cycle to Tacheng/ Visit Snubed-nosed Monkey Reserve
Day 4: Cycle to Weixi Lisu Autonomous County
Day 5: Cycle to Zhongpai Village
Day 6: Cycle to Lanping
Day 7: Lanping-Shaxi
Day 8: Shaxi-Lijiang and Departure

Day 1: Arrival Shangrila
Our meeting point is in Shangrila. You’ll be met at the airport for a short drive to our start point hotel in Shangrila old town. There will be a group meeting at 6pm where we’ll go over all the formalities of the trip and answer any questions you might have about the upcoming trip before heading out for a delicious Tibetan banquet in the old town. For those arriving early, not a bad idea if you wish to acclimatise and do some exploring, there is the old town to wander, Songzanlin Monastery to visit, and endless hikes in the surrounding hills, lakes and national parks. There are also numerous cafes, restaurants and local wares to sample as well as Shangrila’s own craft brewery that uses locally grown ingredients.

A town of many names, Shangrila, Xianggelila in Chinese, formerly called Zhongdian, sits at 3280m above sea level and is traditionally a Tibetan town (known as Gyalthang in Tibetan) and is most famous for Songzanlin Monastery, south west China’s most important monastery. Renamed Shangrila in 2003 to promote tourism, numbers of visitors have risen dramatically and much of the town has modernised, following a path that most Chinese tourism towns take: emptying the old areas of residents and making them commercial. The old town was almost destroyed in 2014, but has been restored now and, despite the development, it’s still one of the more charming old towns in China, particularly the architecture of the Tibetan homes; enormous ornately decorated buildings utilising the plentiful local wood; dwellings not found on such a grand scale in other parts of the Tibetan world.

The surrounding landscapes are probably the real drawcard though, for which Shangrila makes the perfect base: cool, crisp mountain air, deep blue skies, lush grasslands, pine forests, hot springs, wheat and barley fields, handsome villages, numerous lakes and flowering rhododendrons and azaleas in spring. With an extra day, jump on a bike or scooter and check out the spectacular views of Songzanlin from afar (no need to go in, unless this is your first monastery! There are several smaller temples in the surrounds that are have few tourists) or head for the hills on foot!

Shangrila Altitude: 3280m

Day 2: Cycle to Wujing Village
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 100 km
After breakfast and a bike set up, we begin our adventure with an epic 100km ride.  Although it sounds like a long day, apart from a reasonably gentle six-kilometre climb, it’s all flat and downhill!  We cycle out of town and head straight for Napa Hai on the outskirts of town, a large spectacular water catchment that is visited by several species of migratory birds, including the black necked crane.  It’s also a grazing area for livestock and a water source for agriculture that produces wheat, barley and vegetables and surrounded by several Tibetan villages: seen reflected on the lake surrounded by mountains makes for some fine views!  We leave the lake behind and start our mornings climb; prayer flags greet us at the pass at 3560m and the highest point of the trip, and then it’s all downhill from here. Our route takes us on a massive descent, over 1000m, to the mighty Yangtze below.  Viewpoints will beckon you to stop along the way to take it all in – and there’s plenty of time to do so – as this will be the easiest 100km you’re ever likely to cycle.  Tiny Tibetan and Lisu villages will dot the high hillsides as we descend to the river where the ride flattens out.  A few small towns are passed by until we reach Wujing, a small Tibetan town where we lodge for the night.  

After settling into the hotel, we’ll head out for dinner in town and, time permitting, visit the locally famous old 30m high Buddha tree, named Malishuwang, and check out the local ambiance. Whilst a relatively unknown place to outsiders, Wujing is close by Damofusi monastery high up in the mountains on the opposite side of the river.  It’s a remote retreat where hard-core Tibetan Buddhist llamas head to delve into the deeper practices of their religion and, thus, is a pretty well-kept secret outside of in-the-know Buddhist circles.

Wujing Altitude: 1950m

Day 3: Cycle to Tacheng/ Visit Snubed-nosed Monkey Reserve
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 35 km
Our second day on the bikes, we ease into proceedings with a gentler 35km ride that continues along the Yangtze River before crossing a bridge over the river and following a smaller tributary, the Lapo River, that takes us along a beautiful fertile valley.  Quaint farming villages, groves of gingko, rice and wheat fields, and densely forested hillsides are the views from the road.   Our destination is the Xiangguqing valley, just beyond the township of Tacheng, where the golden monkey (also snub-nosed monkey) reserve is located.

This particular valley is home to roughly 360 individuals, and is part of the larger Three Parallel Rivers National Park, designed not only to protect the monkeys and other species that inhabit it, but also from habitat loss and the preservation of the important water catchment that the biodiversity in the valley depends on to survive.  After lunch, there will be time to explore the area and see if you can catch a glimpse of these highland primates or other wildlife.  We’ll settle in for the night with dinner near the park and surrounded by nature.

Tacheng Altitude: 2070m

Day 4: Cycle to Weixi Lisu Autonomous County
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 75 km
Today’s ride is the most challenging of the tour. With a steady climb for 46km we make our way up the valley, passing by several Lisu minority villages and their farmlands.  The higher we go, the fewer villages we see, as the valley narrows and the forest becomes denser.  Finally, we find ourselves on a plateau of undulating highland with lush grassland.  After stopping for lunch, we have a 20km descent ahead of us before a shorter climb into Weixi town and our hotel for the night.  Weixi Lisu Autonomous county is the main centre for the Lisu ethnic group, and we’ll head into town to try out some of the local food and experience the relative bustle of this rural centre.

Weixi Altitude: 2250m

Day 5: Cycle to Zhongpai Village
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 50 km
We continue our journey with a quick transfer, bypassing a busy section of road.  Back on the bikes, we greet the Mekong River at a point where three of Asia’s largest rivers – the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween – are less than 150km from each other.  Between them are immensely steep, snow-capped mountains; barriers that cause them to diverge to different parts of Asia, sustaining huge modern-day populations along the way, once having given rise to the ancient empires and cultures that came before them, and eventually terminating in completely separate oceans, thousands of kilometres apart.  We’ll spend the next two days cycling along the path that the Mekong etches through the mountains on its journey southward.  There’s a section of tunnels that we’ll possibly skip before jumping back on the bikes and making our way to Zhongpai, a Lisu village, and our hotel with views over the Mekong River and Biluo Snow Mountain’s snowy summit that separates the Lancang and Nujiang Rivers.  We are in Nu minority area now which means the food has changed, influenced more by South East Asian flavours, and the eating style is more tactile with people using their hands to eat.  We’ll enjoy a banquet of this unique cuisine in the evening.

Zhongpai Altitude: 1770m


Day 6: Cycle to Lanping
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 56 km
Back on the bikes and we ride on undulating roads above the Mekong…the views are simply astounding as we make our way to lunch after 36km of biking.  We’ll transfer the next section of tunnels and dusty roads and make our way to the top of today’s pass (don’t let the altitude profile scare you…we won’t be cycling up the big hill!!!).  A beautiful forested twisting downhill ride will bring us to the outskirts of Lanping where we pack up the bikes for a ride into town.  Lanping is the only autonomous county for both the Bai and Pumi people.  It has been fairly recently recognised as one of China’s poorest areas and, as such, much development has gone into the place.  The Bai people are originally from around the shores of Lake Erhai and Dali and moved into this area in the past along the old tea horse route.  The Pumi are a Tibetan related people that were originally nomadic peoples, related to the Qiang, who occupied the highlands of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. They were eventually forced into Sichuan and the Hengduan Mountains in Yunnan from the 13th century with the expansion of the Mongol empire.  They became agriculturalists and maintained livestock in the highlands where they remain today.  We’ll check out the local scene for our evening meal in this rarely visited town. 

Lanping Altitude: 2420m

Day 7: Transfer and cycle to Shaxi
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 65 km
Today is our last day on the bikes.  We transfer (2 hours) beyond a busy trafficked section of road to begin our ride at near Baihanchan Reservoir with an optional climb of 16km climb out of the Jianchuan valley (you can start riding at the top of this hill if preferred).  At the top, it’s downhill to Lashi Lake with incredible views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain as the backdrop.  From Lashi Lake, depending on time, we’ take a circuitous route of the plateau Lijiang sits on, with possible visits to Shuhe and Baisha Old Towns.  Our destination hotel is on the edge of Lijiang Old Town.  We’ll visit the old town tonight for a farewell feast and celebration of the end of our journey!

Lijiang is a massive tourist town and a summer escape for northerners these days so lots of tourists and lots of suburbs of holiday homes.  The old town is the original old town for which the term “Lijiang-ified” was coined:  that is, developed into a massive tourist trap and losing much of its authenticity.  Having said all that, early mornings, late in the evenings or, if the light is right and you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of its former grandeur.  It’s still UNESCO listed and is an impressive maze of old buildings and canals; it’s outlook under the ever-present Jade Dragon Snow mountain makes it one of the most picture-worthy towns in China.  An extra half day would be enough to explore the old town.  With more time, Shaxi is only a couple of hours drive away and is set in a rural valley with dozens of old villages to explore by foot or on two wheels It has an old town that has been well preserved and offers a much more intimate look at local life and the old tea horse route of the past.

Lijiang Altitude: 2420m

Day 8: Departure Day
Today is departure day and you are free to leave at anytime. We’ll organise a transfer to Lijiang airport for your departing flights.