Five months ago, at a downhill race in Binchuan China, I met riders from all around Yunnan Province who told me about their local trails and invited me to come and ride them. They lived throughout the province, from the northwest near Tibet to the Myanmar border in the south. In early September, after months of dreaming of the trails spread throughout this magnificent region, I decided to take them up on their offers. This is the story of the mountain bike scene in three areas of China’s Yunnan province—Dali, Lijiang, and Baoshan. It is about the culture, the trails, the potential, and, of course, the local riders who call it home.
Lijiang is in Yunnan’s northwest corner. The city itself sits in a mountain valley at 2,400 meters, surrounded by towering peaks in each direction. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is the area’s tallest, standing at an elevation of 5,596 meters. On a clear day it can be seen from anywhere in Lijiang, including the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a glorious peak to witness; enormous, jagged, silvery and white. “Can we ride there?” I asked He Bin, a local rider, pointing at the snow mountain. “Yes,” he said.
- An old Chinese saying often applied to Yunnan
From Lijiang’s Old Town we pedaled to the outskirts of the city to find a shuttle driver to take us up the snow mountain. Silver bullet looking passenger vans are the vehicle of choice for bikers looking for a lift; you will see these vans throughout Yunnan, called Mien Bao Che (bread vans) because of their bread loaf shape. When modified to have truck beds, they make for a good shuttle vehicle, which the local riders often take advantage of.
After about an hour the driver dropped us somewhere on the snow mountain, saying his truck could go no further. We were at the tail end of Yunnan’s rainy season, and it was cloudy and wet. We began pedaling upwards on a dirt road. Jade Dragon’s peak would drift in an out of site. I was guided by three locals, all around 17-years-old. It seems that many riders in Yunnan are young, often just teenagers. I’ve encountered hoards of them throughout the province, often at races, recognized by stickers on their helmets and bikes that read, “DK”. “What are these,” I asked one of them, while climbing up the snow mountain. “This?” he asked, placing his finger on the sticker. “Dirt Kids,” he said, smiling, “we are the Dirt Kids of Yunnan”.
The trail off the snow mountain was single track and probably made for packing mules or goats. Loose rocks moved under our wheels like marbles. The rainy season, nearing its end, had created deep ruts and covered roots with a layer of greasy moss. (This is not to say it wasn’t a fun trail to ride, just natural). It was steep and technical, especially at the top. As we descended into the Lijiang valley, the trail became increasingly less rocky. It opened up, the track turning from rock to dirt, weaving through the tree line. Below was a great plain of green fields, farms, houses and temples. Behind was the Jade Dragon, looming over us.
We took a rest at a Dongba temple. Dongba refers to the priests and writing system of the local Nashi people, an ethnic minority who have inhabited these foothills of the Himalayas for thousands of years. Dongba encompasses parts of many religions and philosophies: Tibetan, Daoism, and Animism. The written language is pictographic. Many Dongba symbols, paintings and sculptures are depictions of the Tibetan Bön Gods. The Dongba priests beat their drums and performed a traditional dance, and then we continued our descent through the valley, back to the city of Lijiang. The Dongba temple
The Dongba writing system (left) and traditional art
There are also trails that are closer to the city itself, and don’t require a shuttle. The Puji area of Lijiang is the most prominent, and is the location of an annual downhill race. I was taken to the area by He Bin and Lao Mu, a local Nashi who was born and raised in Lijiang, and now owns a bike shop in town.
We pedaled from downtown to Puji Temple, just outside the city, which took well under an hour to reach. The trail itself began directly in front of the temple, under a banner of Tibetan prayer flags. Immediately I noticed that this was a purpose built mountain bike trail; in contrast to the rough, natural terrain we had previously ridden. The trail was fast and flowy, with berms, jumps and drops spaced throughout its length. It was a great sign for the development of mountain biking in the northwest corner of Yunnan; riders here have begun to dig. He Bin on the Puji trail
Who needs cliff bars when you can get some type of meat on a stick from a Nashi woman?
After the ride we pedaled back to Lao Mu’s shop. I was immediately struck by the familiarity of it. It was stocked with Kona, Specialized, and Santa Cruz bikes; the wood paneled walls were lined with bike products that you’d find in your own local bike shop; the mechanic station that unmistakable, eye-catching Park Tool blue. The TV showed Stevie Smith and Gee Atherton’s segment from Follow Me, Killaflaw’s “Set Me On Fire” played throughout the shop. Was this really in the mountains of northwest Yunnan?
Lao Mu clamped my bike in the stand and began working on a plethora of problems. It seemed to be that time of year where everything on the bike decides to break down. As Lao Mu bled the brakes, I asked him what he thought the future of mountain biking in Lijiang was. “I’m optimistic,” he said, “I’ve spent so many years running this bike shop, it’s helped me to lay a solid foundation. Now I’m confident I can help continue the professional development of mountain biking in Yunnan.”
Dali is just a two-hour bus ride south of Lijiang, but is remarkably different. The topography is stunning; the city and neighboring villages sit in a fertile plain between Erhai Lake and Cang Shan, a massive mountain range featuring 18 peaks, the highest over 4,100 meters. Throughout history this area of Yunnan, situated between the eastern Tibetan Plateau and the western Yungui plateau, has been settled by a number of ethnic groups, most prominently the Bai, Yi, and Hui people, each with a distinct religion and language. Dali is divided between the new city, Xia Guan, and Dali Old Town, originally constructed in the 14th century. Today the Old Town, similarly to Lijiang’s, sort of feels like an Ancient China Disney Land. It’s not without its charms, however, and those looking for a more authentic experience (depending upon your definition of authenticity), don’t have to stray far to find it. Much of Dali prefecture is still natural, undeveloped mountain terrain.
My guide was Lao Fan, a local who I had met and befriended in Kunming a year prior. Lao Fan is a Yunnan based architect, rider and hotel owner. While his current hotel in Dali does accommodate mountain bikers (his office is essentially a bike shop), he is now constructing a new venture: a mountain bike specific hostel at the base of the Cang Shan range. Along with direct access to the trails, Lao Fan is planning to build a pump track and jump area. This will be a first in Yunnan, and is much needed. If you’re not a local, or friends with a local, the trails in Dali can be near impossible to find. (Before meeting Lao Fan I had been twice to Dali, and failed both times to find the trails). Along with guided tours, this hostel is a significant step for the future of Dali mountain biking; it has the potential to open this area to non-locals who would otherwise have significant difficulty planning a mountain bike trip here.
Zhe Mo Shan is the mountain above Dali new city, just a few kilometers down the road from the Old Town. You can pedal to the top (a 3+ hour climb), or hire a shuttle—an access road is available directly from the city to the top of the mountain.
We opted to shuttle. Approaching Zhe Mo Shan’s summit, we were quickly engulfed in a thick layer of fog. The temperature dropped as the elevation rose, and it felt worlds away from the city below. In China, it is extraordinary how quickly you can go from one space to a drastically different one; it is perhaps one of the greatest dualities exhibited by humanity on earth. Just a few kilometers from the modernity of Xia Guan, we were in a much different, older China. Dozens of goats and their herders popped in and out of the fog. Farmers carrying their daily yield on their backs walked down the mountain, toward the city. A foggy start off the summit
The trail off Zhe Mo Shan’s summit was intensely rocky, but quickly turned into a ripping single track descent. When the fog dispersed, we could see the beauty of the area. The trail crossed small streams and dipped in and out of the forest. Below us we could see Xia Guan (Dali new city), and the mountains across the lake. It was a strange feeling to look behind and see nothing but wilderness, and then to turn and see a sprawling city beneath. Some fun Yunnan tech. By the end of the rainy season, the local vegetation flourishes
The next day, Lao Fan and I began pedaling into the Cang Shan range. The road into this particular section of Cang Shan was a mix of cobble and dirt; the entire pedal offered amazing views of Dali’s Old Town, Erhai Lake, and the vast, fertile plains on the edge of the water. At the halfway point we came across a temple dedicated to one of the five Chinese classics, Journey to the West; the surrounding forest was filled with large stone statues with trails weaving between them. It was tempting not to bail off the access road onto these trails, of which there were many. Lao Fan assured me it was worth it to go higher, and so we continued to pedal.
As we got deeper into Cang Shan, its vastness became more evident. From below, in Dali, you can only see Can Shan's initial ridge. Once higher, atop its first peak, it becomes clear that this range continues for farther than you can see; all of it pristine, high mountain terrain with endless trail potential. Lao Fan and I began our descent back toward Dali. We rode dozens of trails, all connected by the main access road, snaking between statues and remnants of old temples. On the final trail, we stopped at a construction zone near the base of the mountain. "This is the bike hostel," Lao Fan said. It was directly off the side of the trail, a perfect location. It is scheduled to be completed sometime next year.
Baoshan is situated in Yunnan’s southwest corner between the Mekong River and the Shan State of Myanmar. The mountains are large and steep, giving way to deep river gorges and valleys. This border region is culturally and ethnically diverse, home to many including the Bulong and De’ang people. The food in Baoshan is distinct because of this diversity, often influenced by Burmese cuisine as well, and features a number of dishes found nowhere else in China. Baoshan Prefecture spans three counties, a district and two cities—Tenchong, famous for its beauty and ancient tea production, and the city of Baoshan itself.
Baoshan city is a small mountain town by Chinese standards and a decent sized city by any others. Like most every Yunnan town or city, it sits at the base of a large mountain. Baoshan’s mountain is called Dao Bao Gai, which gradually slopes into the city limits, making its descents longer than any others I have ridden in Yunnan.
I had been put in contact with a local police officer and rider, He Jun Cheng, who I had never met but had mutual friends with. After an eight-hour bus ride I arrived in Baoshan and received a message from He Jun saying he was going to pick me up at the station. I got off the bus and pulled my bike out of the underneath storage area, relieved it was still in tact and undamaged. He Jun sent me a message that he could see me and would be there momentarily. I stood next the bus, surrounded by dozens of Chinese passengers looking curiously at my bike. I heard my name called and turned to see two, in-uniform police officers approaching. He Jun introduced himself and his fellow officer, and helped pick up my bags. My bike was taken by another police officer. “It will be waiting for you at the hotel,” He Jun said. I was quickly shuffled into a vehicle, the other bus passengers speaking amongst themselves, “Look, look! The foreigner is being detained!”
That night I was treated to a dinner, taken to a hotel (where my bike was indeed waiting for me), introduced to most of the Baoshan police department, and was told where we would be riding that week. The people of Baoshan were some of the most hospitable I'd ever met.
The following day I met up with Liu Yang, a 17-year-old rider for the Kona China team and Baoshan native. We were picked up by He Ming, a local bike shop owner who shuttles riders into the mountains. From the downtown area, we drove up Da Bao Gai. The mountain has eight bike trails off the top that descend back toward the city, and countless others that continue into the mountains behind. Many of the trails go through burial sites with large, stone structures along the sides of the trails. There's no telling how old some of them must be.
Much of the mountainous area surrounding Baoshan is part of the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve, a 300,000 acre protected area that has also been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Baoshan government seems to be onboard for the development of mountain biking in this corner of southern Yunnan. Plans are underway for the construction of a bike park just outside the city. The government also sponsored an invitational downhill race in Baoshan’s Longling County, attended by international riders including Jackson Goldstone. If interested, you can read more about this race in the latest edition of MTB Mag Asia
In my final few days in Baoshan, we headed further into the mountains behind Dao Bao Gai. Despite riding for four days in the area, I felt like I barely scratched the service of the amount of terrain available for mountain biking here. It is an enormous, beautiful wilderness area with hundreds of natural trails spread throughout. Wang Zhi Peng, Baoshan's fastest racer. This trail was deep in the mountains (a 2+ hour shuttle from Baoshan city) and felt primordial.
The Chinese mountain bike scene is still in its infancy, its potential unlimited. The scene is remarkably grassroots, with little information available online about the trails and riders spread throughout the country. Each area, from Hangzhou
, has a group of dedicated riders making great efforts to build the sport they love. Many of them are young, like the ones featured in this article, usually still in high school or university. They are super fans of professional riders like Semenuk and Metailler, religiously following western races and competitions. While they often speak little English, they can rally off common mountain bike vernacular with perfect pronunciation: downhill, whip, no-hands, enduro, tabletop. Of the dozens of bike shop owners and Chinese bike industry affiliated people I’ve met in Yunnan, all have shown tremendous hospitality, despite being those directly affected by a trade war between my country and theirs; this is a testament to their character, and to the connecting power of mountain biking. Thanks to all the Yunnan riders who helped create this article, 加油!