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North Yunnan - the roads to Sichuan


North Yunnan is a fantastic area to cycle in. The north west is the most visited area. You can go from Zhongdian, these days renamed into Shangri-La to either Tibet or Sichuan. This is by far most people used to reach Lijiang and Dali.

Ladies in Zhongdian at the Tibet Hotel
The Tibet Hotel in Zhongdian

The road north from Shangri-La goes all the way to Litang and crosses some serious passes. Both roads are difficult to do in the winter when the passes are covered in snow.

The Tibetan route is still officially closed although it is possible to get permits in some big cities as Chengdu, Kunming, Xi'an and Beijing.

There is a beautiful route going to Sichuan from Shangri-La to Sichuan.

Shangri-La (Zhongdian) - Litang

There are a few little towns down this road. Here in this part of north Yunnan on the way to west Sichuan you can find some basic accommodation and supplies (apart of bike supplies of course for that, do your work in Kunming or Chengdu).

Is it worth some people asked me. Yes, this road is worth to cycle, though it's not an easy route. If you are interested in taking this road, be prepared for some serious climbing to altitudes over 2500 to even 3000 meter. Zhongdian (Shangri-La, if you want). Zhongdian-Litang will take you at least a week.

Around Zhongdian
Around Zhongdian (Shangri-La)

Some adventures try their luck and go out of Zhongdian to cycle to Tibet. This is a serious road and it's not unlikely if you have no permit, the PSB in Markan will send you back with a fine. I did this road by hitching and was lucky. Some others on the road, including two cyclist were less lucky and got heavy fines.

Scenery in north west Yunnan on the way to Zhongdian
On the way to Litang, traveling on top of the world

Once in Litang you have still the opportunity to try your Tibetan luck and you can cycle to Batang. Success depends on how busy the PSB is. Some pass, some others don't. There are also routes into the north eastern areas, Qamdo for example, but I have never traveled these so I can't commend.

From Litang you can follow road 317 to Kangding. The road from here on is new and easier. Some of the passes now have tunnels which make the ascents shorter though not easier (I hate tunnels!)

The road to Litang
The road to Litang

A more extensive review of the road from Chengdu to Kangding, Litang and further to Yunnan can be found here.

Kunming - Zhaotong - Sichuan

North Yunnan, the roads to Sichuan includes a beautiful though little visited area of Yunnan. Sad but true. Leave Kunming following road number 320 until you reach Sonming.

In Sonming, a little town with a nice market take the direction north, following road number 213. This is another back door to Sichuan.

I have memories on this road which I took from Sichuan to Kunming, the other way around. The reason I took this road was the weather. It was already mid November and I didn't have my cold weather clothes with me so West Sichuan was no option.

Up to Sonming it's all relatively flat. The first part after Sonming is relatively flat too. When I was in the area, the Chinese were building a new road to Dongchuan starting at Rongshan. That road should follow the river and is maybe flat. However, the old road (213) start swindling up here. This road was made of little uneven laid bricks, very difficult to cycle. From here on I wasn't able to cycle more then 50-55 km a day which took me over 5-6 hours due to the road condition.

The old 213 goes over quite high passes and then goes down back to the river before going up again.

This road is most likely not upgraded so be prepared to have a hard time until you reach Yichexun. From here you find yourself back on a sort of motorway. It's not very busy and after the horror of the last 200 km, a real pleasure.

The Zhongdian moastery, just outside the town center
The Zhongdian monastery, just outside the town center

Taking this road to north Yunnan gives you a great opportunity to visit little visited but still worth cities as Zhaotong which has a beautiful (though small) old town center. Although Zhaotong itself is quite a widespread city, the center of the town is quite small. It's good for a day or so.

North Yunnan around ZhaotongIt's another 2 days cycling to cross the Yunnan-Sichuan border town at Yanjin, all on this nice and quiet big new road.

It's a short ride from Yanjin to Junlian but it is difficult. After Yanjin the road was at the time (2001) in very bad condition. Most of this area was very scenic.

Due to heavy rain I had sometimes to push my bike. The mud was sometimes 10-15 cm deep. Not much fun then. The 40 km or so took me a straight 3 hours hard work and I was more then happy to get a hotel room.

The whole road from Kunming to Junlian, your first town in Sichuan, will take at least 9 days. From Junlian, you can follow to Chengdu, another 5-6 days cycling. Here is the description the continuing road to Chengdu

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Map of Yunnan

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Map of Yunnan