The Snow Mountain Tour (400 mile cycling tour!)

DISCLAIMER: This post is going to blow your mind!

Ted and Luanne (the innkeepers here at the Kaiwen Village Inn) asked me to evaluate their “Snow Mountain Tour”, a 700 kilometer (400 mile) cycling route that forms a loop around the 5 major snow mountains north of Lijiang. What made this side-adventure so unique was that I was loaned a mountain bike to ride the whole way while Thomas, Richard’s nephew as my driver, followed behind me in his van. Sorta like a pro cycling team’s support car! Before I left, Ted warned that the route would be very dangerous in certain places – many sections of the road have narrow shoulders, shear dropoffs, and at times very heavy truck traffic. Other sections ascend extremely steep hills through elevations of over 3000m (11,500 ft)!! The air gets so thin that there have been reports of cyclists losing consciousness haphazardly and falling off their bikes! Yikes! Having Thomas following behind me in the van was definitely the best part. If at any point I wanted to stop riding, I could signal him to pull over so that we could throw the bike in the back and continue the route driving.The tour took me 6 full days to complete.

After leaving Lijiang, I rode up through a pass beside the hill that establishes the First Bend of the Yangtze River. It’s an important landform because it sends the Yangtze flowing east through China instead of letting it flow south into Myanmar. From there, I rode due north along the Yunnan-Tibet Highway past Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains until the Yangtze River turned east to pass through Tiger Leaping Gorge (another place I’d like to visit!). At this point it was a steady climb to get up to the Shangri La perfecture, a high plateau inhabited by people of the Tibetan culture. Our first night we stayed with a Tibetan family. The Tibetans are known to like large things; they build huge homes, drive large trucks, cook over large metal stoves, and breed large animals; Yaks, razorback hogs, and Mastiff hounds! For breakfast, we ate Tibetan bread made from barley flour and drank Yak Butter Tea, a blend of black tea, barley flour, walnut oil, cannabis oil, and a mixture of other ground herbs. It’s quite salty! The yak butter floats on the surface but feels great on the back of your throat when you drink it.

We set out on Day 2 towards the city of Shangri-La. We stopped for the afternoon so I could visit the “Song Zang Lin Si” Monastery, the second largest and oldest Buddhist monastery after the famous Potola Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Within the monastery, hat wearing and photography was forbidden. Over 600 monks live within the walls so it is a protected place of worship. Many of them I learned work outside the monastery, in the city. One monk invited me into his living quarters for tea and as I warmed my hands over a small fire, he showed me a $1 bill he’d been given by another American.

The temple has dozens of Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, or “Mani”, each with a different Sanskrit mantra written around the outside. Some Tibetans believe that simply touching a prayer wheel will bring great purification to negative karmas (i.e. bad juju). When you turn a Mani wheel, you spin it clockwise 3 times and recite the wheel’s mantra. As the wheel turns, it stabilizes the mind and allows the practitioner to focus on the mantra. Most mani wheels are paint-can sized, but others are larger, sometimes much larger. The one stationed above Shangri-La Old Town is 80 feet tall and weighs 60 tons! It’s the largest prayer wheel in the world and requires 20 very determined people to turn it all 3 times.

The ride from Shangri La to Deqin was a most formidable challenge. The road ascends to 15,400 feet to Bai Ma (white horse) Pass where it cuts over the shoulder of the White Horse Snow Mountain. The air up there was REALLY thin and the wind always seemed to be working against me! I’d be panting for breath, burning up underneath all my outer layers but my bike was only moving at a crawl. For a while, seeing Buddhist “lung ta” prayer flags in the distance kept me cranking but after a few km’s of brutal switchbacks, I stopped to signal Thomas with the van. Enough torture already!

In Deqin we stayed at a small, locally run guesthouse in the village of Flying Cloud. At first, it seemed as if Thomas and I would be the only guests staying at there but then shortly before dinner, an 8-car caravan from Sichuan province arrived and the guesthouse booked another 30 guests for the night! So much for a peaceful and quiet evening! To escape the clamoring Chinese invasion, I went out with my camera to climb the ridge looking for places to take pictures of the Meili Snow Mountain and Kawa Karpo during sunset. I found an awesome spot which also happened to be absolutely drowning in multi-colored leng ta prayer flags. Tibetans usually string them in places of superior beauty or religious significance. This place was no doubt “of superior beauty”.

The location of the hostel in Flying Cloud was absolutely most impressive. It sits on the mountain directly opposite from Meili Snow Mountain. Before sunrise, guests can go up to the 5th story rooftop and wait to see first light hit the peaks. Everyone goes “OOOOoHH” when peak glows bright orange and the rest of the shaded mountain remains icy blue. No need for an alarm clock when you’ve got 30 Sichuan travelers stomping up and down the stairwell! The view from the roof also provided some great photos of the Tibetan “stupas” across the street. They charge an entrance fee so I was happy to have saved another 60 yuan by peering down from the guesthouse rooftop!

The road down the Mekong River was gorgeous! The mountains on either side make you feel so small! I could even feel the temperatures becoming warmer up as we made our decent. In a village along the road, we pulled over to watch some men gathered around a plastic pen. It turned out they were setting up an illegal cockfight! It’s funny actually, in these regions the women go to the markets carrying big baskets of vegetables to sell so they can earn money to buy other goods. The men go to the markets carrying big angry roosters under one arm to fight other farmer’s roosters in hopes of winning them money so they can continue to drink, smoke, and gamble everyday until they expire early!

We heard a round of firecrackers go off nearby, we asked if there was a funeral. One of the men said “No, someone in the village had just one the lottery.” Wow, Hunger Games?  Could it have been Katniss of Yunnan district?

Our 4th night was spent in Weixi, a small city in the mountains above the Mekong that rarely sees tourists. For dinner, we ate a delicious dish of soy sauce chicken and watched two boys race scooter’s around the restaurant while their mother was trying to clean up. Later that night, Thomas and I went to have our feet massaged. The next day, we crossed through the mountains over to the Yangtze River Valley. It was a beautiful day that afternoon and after crossing over the summit, the road turned into a LONG, pleasant downhill for 60 km. The wind was calm and I barely had to pedal. I descended through Yi (yee), Lisu (lee-soo), and Naxi (nah-shee) people’s villages, each characterized by their preferred elevation zone, distinctive housing design, and land use techniques.

We were invited to stay our last night at the home of Thomas’ sister-in-law. We arrived somewhat early that afternoon, so before dinner, the eldest daughter walked us down to the river to have a swim. Yep, that’s right! I swam in the Yangtze. It was freezing cold but the water was clean and the water was calm. The summer rains come in May/June. The massive storms wash huge amounts of silt into the river turning the water brown and the water level get’s so high that it washes away whole bridges and entire hillside villages almost annually! The combination of steep slope and volcanic, sandy soil makes for excellent potato growing conditions but can be deadly when rainfall becomes too intense.

That evening we enjoyed a traditional Naxi homecooked meal – fried pork, green bean stalks, chicken soup, potatoes, and an interesting variation of steamed rice called “yu mi fan” – ground corn mixed with steamed rice. It was hao chirr, for surrr. The two daughters and I rode bikes around the courtyard together after dinner. Each of us had a different size bicycle but we each laughed equally. I think the two grandparents enjoyed the spectacle the most. Everybody with a cellphone was taking pictures of the two girls and this American who’d come to spend the night. The youngest daughter was the cutest thing! Age 4 but was quite the conversationalist. Her photos look adorable.

On Day 6, we continued south down the Yangtze Valley making a small side trip to visit Li Ming Scenic Area. I wanted to hike up the 1,000 Tortoise Mountain. It’s this bizarre, red rock mountain textured like a thousand tortoise shells. People are asked to take off their shoes and walk on them for a massaging effect. It was pouring rain that afternoon so I felt it would be safer to leave my shoes on. I also decided not to bring my big camera. Damn, I still wish I had my phone!

After that it was up-and-over the hill above First Bend of the Yangtze River and then straight on back to Lijiang. I’m so glad I was given this opportunity to tour the Snow Mountains. The trip was well worth the time and money. I mean, how often do people get to go 400 miles riding a bike with the reassurance of a private van in tow? My only other option would have been to travel by crowded bus from city to city, hostel to hostel. That just seems unsavory!

In my opinion, cycling is the most efficient way to take in a large amount of scenery. From the seat of a bike, you’ve got excellent vision, you’re moving at a comfortable pace for scanning the surroundings, at 15 km/hr you cover a substantial amount of distance, plus your appetite is roaring by lunchtime! I’m glad I got to experience both Tibetan and Naxi people’s daily life through the two homestays and it sure felt nice to be traveling away from the hordes of other Chinese tourists! Zai dian.

Do something wild and crazy for your vacation!  Come to the Himalayas and ride your bike! Explore the Xue Shan (Snow Mountains) of Yunnan’s NorthWest Territory in China.  Climb the pass of White Horse Xue Shan (15,400 ft); Spend your nights in high-altitude Tibetan villages; Cycle the Cicada Run along the Mekong River.

We provide bikes, lodging, provisions, transportation and most importantly – guides who know the cultures, history and geography of this amazing region. The guides are fluent in English, Mandarin and local languages.

With Snow Mountain Tours you are provided the opportunity to plan your own vacation – choosing to trek, backpack or bike your way through this wonderful part of the world.  As you plan, we provide feedback about the best times and means to experience the region and its culture so that what you plan can actually happen.  Go to Let’s Talk to begin our conversation.