The road to Shangri-La

Late in 2013 I took a long awaited trans Yunnan trip, destination Shangri-La, or at least what some consider to be Shambhala, the mythical valley from the classic Lost Horizon book by James Hilton. In reality the inspiration for the book probably came from a small village in Tibet, but who knows - either way it was a magical journey.

Sadly, just a couple of months after my journey the old town of Shangri-La was raised to the ground to the ground by fire. But surely Shangri-La is a state of mind more than a physical location.

Here are some of my favourite images from the journey between Kunming and Shangri-La, and a few words from one of my online diary entries.



With my head pressed between the seat in front and a small opening in the clattering dirty window beside of me I grasped at the chilling air of relief on the outside of the smoke filled local bus.

Every few minutes I came close to retching as the woman just inches behind me grogged deeply and then spat it out onto the floor, right next to my bike bag. It was about 4 hours worth of hell more than I could take, yet it was infinitely better than the 45-minute ride over the mountains crammed 10 deep and a bike into a 7 seat mini van, also smoke filled, and with the woman in front of me hurling out of the window – I just looked down and thought of England for the entire journey, some things have not changed in China.

Sure enough I’d rather be outside and pedalling my way around the province, which is China’s “wild southwest”, a high altitude tribally rich region which overlaps with the forbidden Tibetan outreaches; the very foothills of the Himalaya, and you can feel it with every breath of the thin air – outside of the bus that is.

Travelling light and by bike is the ideal, but the reality these days is that you have to carry so much camera kit, computers and other gear that it’s impractical. There’s also an alarming lack of information, and what there is scribed in Chinese – so despite several months of research I didn’t even have a map, and linking together hotspots by bussing and railing between remote regions seemingly served only by treacherous highways was the way to go, even if it did cut down drastically on in-the-saddle time.

Renting a car without a driver is a no go in China – unless you have a Chinese driving license, and I can tell you that this opens you up to all sorts of scams, and hostility.

My routing took me from the provincial capital of Kunming (home of the main Chinese high altitude training centre) northwards through the historic cities of Dali & Lijiang and through the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge and along the back road to Shangri La, which was interspersed with some of most epic and spectacular riding on Earth, although the weather did restrict things at times.

For both road and mountain biking this place truly is a Shangri La, if you can figure out where to go and how to get there that is, and do it without relying on the huge restrictions behind “the great firewall of China”, which blocks most social media, Google, Blogger, YouTube and so on (and VPN’s are too slow to use).

It had been 6 years since I was last in China, when I made several visits. Things had changed a whole lot; since the Beijing Olympic Games the whole country has opened up to capitalism, and it’s shockingly clear – a whole lot of people have become rapidly rich, and the divisions between the ideals of the old communist system are huge.

Mules and bent double old ladies plod with their heavy loads along the same roads as the nouveau riche in their Merc’s and Jeeps, and they also live in their mud brick houses between their new luxury housing developments and resorts, seemingly a case of too much too soon.

Bikes are everywhere in China, mostly steel trikes which carry truck weight loads and rod braked roadsters, with a fair smattering of locally made mountain bikes – they are there as a transport necessity, and during the entire three weeks I didn’t see a single “sporting cyclist”, although there were occasional touring cyclists along the route.

I guess this shows the social status of the bike in China, which is pretty much were it was in the west many years ago – a poor mans option.

That said, there are exceptions – mostly amongst the newly emerged middle class, and I spent a few days with a Chinese Rasta guide, complete with his high end Santa Cruz, carbon Mavic shoes and Oakley shades – which would add up to somewhere in the region of the entire annual earnings of the Naxi family living in the mud brick house next door.

Things are a little different in the urban corridors and SEZ’s of the east, which do have comparatively thriving cycling scenes, but elsewhere the bug has yet to take a hold, although that doesn’t just apply to cycling – I didn’t see a single sporting person during the stay either, apart from the odd kid’s football more basketball game. It seems there are more important things to tend to before turning any focus to the luxury of sport, but when they do truly grasp sport it will change the sporting world dramatically.


In a few days I’ll be back on the big white bird, with some hopeful and heavy thoughts on my mind – if you do get the chance to go to this region of China grasp it with both hands, travel light and warm – and forget the excessive planning, simple pointing, gestures and images will get you through semi-sweetly, and it will add hugely to the travelling experience, but do avoid the highways.



Wheels of choice - It was a real personal battle choosing lightweight and multi-purpose kit for the trip, but in the end I settles ion a super-retro Litespeed Blue Ridge touring bike, as it can handle the rough with the smooth.

Tech tack - Keeping things light, dependable and multi-functional was my main aim, and I ended up investing quite a bit on gear for this trip. These images all came from a Fuji XE1 and Fuji 18-55mm & 50-200mm lenses, although I had my Canon gear and a small Sony as backup, which I didn't need this time around.