China Motorcycle Tour from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Shangri-La, Yunnan, China
A 23-Day China Motorcycle Tour; itinerary below.
Please read below the 5,000 kilometer itinerary for this 23-Day China motorcycle tour through Yunnan Province. from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Shangri-La.
The more we run this tour, the greater it seems to get and the more eager I am to give this three-week trip another go-around.
First of all, this tour, hands down, covers the best motorcycle roads and riding in all of Asia. Period!
On this China motorcycle tour we ride our way to the northern reaches of Yunnan, on the Himalayan Plateau itself, a landmass with its own unique climatatic zone and biosphere. We stay above 1,500 meters for the majority of the tour and over 2,000 meters for half of it. Many mountain ranges are snow-capped and glaciated, the air cool, crisp, clean, and refreshing.The variety of the roads on this China motorcycle tour is never-ending, even within the span of a single day; from the sheer perfection of China’s burgeoning high-speed highway system, all the way through momentous mountain passes that we must climb and descend on a daily basis: There will be roads to everyone’s liking.
But please, take this warning seriously: this China motorcycle tour is for experienced motorcyclists only! This is the same warning that applies to all our other tour offerings, but in China it applies even more so because of the ruggedness of the land and the lack of driving discipline exhibited by too many Chinese drivers who only recently received their first-ever licence.However, if you are an experienced motorcyclist, there is nothing on this tour that should cause you any undue stress and you will certainly come home with an unforgettable experience that may never be beaten no matter what else you do.
We visit five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, plus a 6th stop is only one step below World Heritage status – instead rated as a UNESCO Highly-Endangered Site – and should be earning full World Heritage status shortly.
We could call this China motorcycle tour a gourmet motorcycle tour, but we are not because it already is one as we search out every specialty dish that Yunnan can cook up.
We dine rubbing elbows with the locals in their local eateries. You will never experience more authentic Chinese food than you will on this trip; not the adulterated Chinese fare found in Western countries.
If you do not like Chinese food, this tour may not be for you because for the majority of days Chinese cuisine is all that will be available.
Vegetarians will not have any problems appeasing their appetites because the freshest produce abounds in a vast variety.
For those of the Muslim persuasion, halal restaurants will usually be available along our routes and nightly destinations, but in limited numbers and quality.
Uncrowded roads and friendly ethnic minority groups add nothing but pleasure to this unique motorcycle touring experience.
Upcoming Tour Dates:
2016: May 4-26; October 10-November 1.
(Minimum group size is 4 motorcycles.)
If you live in S.E. Asia you are encouraged to ride your own motorcycle on this tour. Any adventurer tourer is a perfect bike for our route.
If you are coming from overseas, you can rent a motorcycle from Asian Motorcycle Adventures. Our China fleet consists of BMW F800GS’s and Honda CB500X’s.
ITINERARY for the 23-Day Shangri-La Motorcycle Tour
Day #1: 480 kms. 8:00 hours approximate riding time.
Chiang Mai to Luang Namtha, Laos
Quick Synopsis: Depart Chiang Mai and ride to Thailand-Lao border at Chiang Khong-Huay Xai. Depart Huay Xai after border crossing formalities and continue to Luang Namtha, Laos for the night.
We ride hard and long today to put ourselves in a position to arrive at the China border crossing early on day #2. This means our target tonight is Luang Namtha, a small provincial capital in N.W. Laos around 70 kms. south of the China border.
We won’t have time to do sightseeing as we cut north-northeast across the Golden Triangle on mainly rural roads. There will be some nice riding today scattered along the route, especially in Laos as we make our way across a series of mountain passes and spend the night in the small provincial capital of Luang Namtha.
Day #2: 110 kms. Approx. 2:30 riding time.
Luang Namtha, Laos to Mengla, China
Quick synopsis: Arrive at the Lao-China border crossing. Go through Laos departure formalities then China entry formalities. Proceed to Mengla for the night.
We arrive at the Lao-China border crossing soon after it opens.
First we go through the Laos departure formalities and after that the more convoluted China entry procedures.
By late morning we should be finished, provided there are no glitches. We lose an hour with the time change and proceed to our Mengla hotel. Should arrive at our lodging by mid-afternoon. Our first Chinese feast awaits tonight.
Day #3: 135 kms. Approx. 3:00 riding time.
Mengla to Jinghong
Quick synopsis: Early morning ride to the regional police HQ to have mcs and paperwork inspected. Afternoon ride to Jinghong.
We have to overnight in Mengla because in the morning we must visit the regional police headquarters to have all our vehicles inspected and our papers scrutinized, once again. We also have to sit through a rather silly driving education course, given in Mandarin of course, which serves no useful purpose other than to keep some Chinese citizens gainfully employed.
In the afternoon we ride to Jinghong, a major shipping port on the Mekong River. Jinhong is the capital city of the Sipsongpanna region of Yunnan and is considered to be the birthplace of the Thai speaking people and the cradle of Thai culture. Historically Sipsongpanna was once one of the major kingdoms in this part of S.E. Asia. Many Thai minority ethnic groups still reside in and around Jinghong, and the housing and clothing styles are decidedly Thai.
Day #4: 333 kms. Approx. 7:00 riding time.
Jinghong to Yuanjiang
Quick synopsis: Ride through tea country to our night’s destination of Yuanjiang.
This is the region where, many thousands of years ago, tea was first consumed and cultivated. It is by far Yunnan’s most important commodity and was the driver of ancient commerce to the furthest flung empires across Asia and all the way into Europe. Tea transformed Yunnan into one of the ancient world’s most important places and it became a major crossroad and transportion hub.
In China, the finest tea comes from Puer, and this is where we will lunch today and do a bit of tea tasting. Just like wine cultivation and production, tea cultivation and production is every bit as involved and complicated and you will learn some of its intricacies today.
Day #5: 305 kms. Approx. 7:00 riding time.
Yuanjiang to Jianshui
Quick synopsis: Fantastic ride through the Red River Basin and the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces. Lodging tonight in Jianshui, one of the caravan stops on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road.
A large variety of ethnic minorities populate this area who over the centuries engineered and built massive rice terraces that continue forever; to the tops of steep mountain ridges, on down their opposite sides, across valley after valley. Thousands of square miles are covered by these rice terraces and a fantastic road snakes through it all. This is the road we will ride. It is impossible not to screech to a stop every few minutes to take another photo.
This region is so unique that the Chinese government has applied for UNESCO World Heritage status. I can fathom no reason why they would be denied it.
We lodge tonight in Jianshui, a well-preserved ancient city and a major caravan stop on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road.
The giant city gate, Chao Yang Lou, is a popular meeting place for musicians and group dancing every evening. The city’s Old Quarter streets are paved in stone and lined with a wide variety of traditional shops and businesses. A very photogenic city, day and night.
With over 1,300 kms. under our belts, it’s a good time to catch up on some R&R.
Day #6: Rest day in Jianshui.
With a late morning start, we take a short ride to Jianshui’s outskirts and visit the centuries-old Chinese village of Tuanshan. These villagers recently got together and decided to open up all their homes and lives to tourists so outsiders can see how actual Chinese peasant families live and work. This is a large agricultural based community and you can wander into anyone’s house, fields, and businesses and be greeted with a warm welcome. A unique cultural experience.
The rest of the day you are free to explore the many attractions in Jianshui at your leisure.
Day #7: 310 kms. Approx. 7:00 riding time.
Jianshui to Shilin
Synopsis: Ride to Shilin. Shilin is the satellite town for the Stone Forest, which is the tour’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our first of three UNESCO World Heritage Site is on tap today, the Stone Forest in Shilin, one of Earth’s natural wonders.
Bizarre limestone formations spring up vertically out of the ground, covering a 350 km² area. Interspersed among the pillars are numerous lakes, adding even more atmosphere to this other-worldly landscape. Many of the spires look like petrified trees, thus the name.
We will visit the Stone Forest in the afternoon on Day 7 or the following morning, depending on our arrival time.
Day #8: 80 kms. Approx. 2:00 riding time.
Shilin to Kunming
Synopsis: Short ride to Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming.
The capital city of Yunnan Province is our target tonight. It is China’s 16th largest city with over 6 million inhabitants, but it also one of China’s cleanest and most pleasant one. It is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring because of its year-round balmy weather.
Several things should not be missed in Kunming; Green Lake Park, Flower and Bird Street, and the central city walking esplanade. We should have time to visit them all.
Kunming is famous throughout China for their ‘Crossing Bridge’ noodle soup. But this also will be your first chance to take a break from non-stop Chinese food in one of the numerous McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Huts, etc. Tough choice.
Day #9: 365 kms. Approx. 5:45 riding time.
Kunming to Shuanglang
Synopsis: Ride to Erhai Lake and stay in the fashionable, artsy town of Shuanglang.
Most of today’s ride is between 1,800 and 2,400 meters as we climb deep into the Himalayan foothills. This is also our longest (kilometer-wise) ride of the tour inside China, but all on new highway so we make good time even as it cuts across the mountainous terrain.
None of the highways we ride on this Shangri-La Tour are your boring, droning, straight-as-an-arrow superslabs. All will put a smile on your face no matter what type of motorcycle you are riding. Hardly any traffic to contend with.
Shuanglang, our night’s destination, sits on the eastern shore of Erhai Lake. Not that long ago it was a sleepy fishing village. But with the booming of the Chinese tourism industry, it has transformed itself into something of an art and cultural center and is popular with the younger set of new, moneyed Chinese.
Shuanglang has developed their lakefront, turning it into a fashionable boardwalk lined with restaurants, bars, and music clubs – great for people watching. The backdrop across placid Erhai lake of the snow clad Cangshan Mountains with the evening sun setting behind them makes for a memorable vista.
To read an interesting article about Shuanglang and Dali from the New York Times, click here.
Day #10: 127 kms. Approx. 3:30 riding time.
Shuanglang to Shaxi
Synopsis: Ride to Shaxi, a highly-endangered ancient caravan town.
The ride today curves around the northern tip of Erhai Lake, then continues northwest towards the Burma border to Shaxi, which seems to be everyone’s 2nd-favorite place on the tour besides Shangri-La.
The Cultural Revolution, whose stated purpose was to remove all traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society, somehow missed Shaxi completely, probably because of its remoteness, and by doing so left a gift to mankind.
Time has seemingly passed Shaxi by. It is considered to be the most intact caravan town remaining on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road when towns like this once numbered in the hundreds.
Shaxi’s Sideng Market Square has been placed by UNESCO on their World Monument Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Cultural Sites in the World. The best adjective to describe the square is “wow!”
You will have the opportunity to visit this special town before it is overrun with tourists, or worse, destroyed in the name of progress.
A gentle river runs past Shaxi and the surrounding farmlands are a pleasure to wander through.
Day #11: 287 kms. Approx. 8:00 riding time.
Shaxi to Weixi
Synopsis: Long ride up the Yangtze River Basis to another town on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, Weixi.
It is probably beginning to sound monotonous, but another great day of riding is in store. Today though, instead of climbing up and down mountains, we instead follow the Yangtze River Watershed Basin northwards to Weixi through bucolic farming country.
The locals here live in small farming communities in traditional homes and are inextricably wedded to their lands, growing rice, corn, and other basic food crops exactly as their ancestors did for hundreds of generations. Another glimpse into a way of life who’s days are numbered.
The great pleasure on today’s ride comes from simply observing the people go through their daily, time-honored routines as we putt-putt along on our motorcycles across a landscape as pretty as a painting. It’s hard to ride even a kilometer without jumping off your bike for a quick snapshot.
In the afternoon we enter our second UNESCO World Heritage region called the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. Here, three of Asia’s great rivers, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtze, come tumbling down from their headwaters deep inside the Himalayas. They run in parallel gorges eroded deep into the earth’s mantle. Only thirty kilometers as the bird flies separate the three incredibly massive gorges at their narrowest point. We spend the next few days riding into and out of and along each river gorge in sequence. Motorcycle riding just does not get any more exhilarating than this.
As we approach Weixi, we are right back on top of the Ancient Tea Horse-Road that we rode along earlier.
Day #12: 214 kms. Approx. 4:30 riding time.
Wexei to Diqen
Synopsis: Another great riding day to the base of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world in Diqen.
Our night’s destination is Diqen, hard on the Tibetan-Chinese border. Diqen sits at 3,400 meters and is surrounded by snow-capped, glaciated mountains. The scenery in this town, wherever one looks, is stunning.
North we ride up the raw Mekong River gorge through an otherworldly landscape of raging wild rivers, near vertical cliffs, and towering, snow topped peaks that soar to over 5000 meters. Just another ho-hum day in the saddle on the Shangri-La Motorcycle Tour as we climb onto the Himalayan plateau proper.
The base of Kawakarpo, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world at 6,740 meters, is in Diqen. Buddhists from all over Tibet pay homage to Kawakarpo to begin a 240 km. pilgrimage around its base. For some it takes months to complete, because step by step by step they completely prostrate themselves on the ground.
Diqen is the northernmost point on the tour and tomorrow we begin the long trek back towards Thailand.
Day #13: 193 kms. Approx. 4:45 riding time.
Diqen to Shangri-La
Synopsis: The ride to Shangri-La over the highest mountain pass on the tour.
Today we take aim for the namesake of this tour: Shangri-La. Does a sexier sounding destination exist anywhere?
And just when you think the riding cannot possibly get any better, it does. The 5-hour ride to Shangri-La takes us through some of the most stunning scenery on this tour. We hit our highest elevation point on the tour – just shy of 4,300 meters.
In this part of China the majority of the people are ethnic Tibetans. They have kept their culture even purer and more traditional than their brethren who actually live in Tibet. Everything is different here: yaks graze in the high mountain pastures and wander along the roadside, houses are built in the traditional Tibetan style, and the cuisine is decidedly different. Yak steak with barley bread and Yak butter tea anyone?
A dozen different ethnic minorities wearing their traditional clothing can be seen on the streets of Shangri-La, sprinkled throughout with saffron-robed monks of the Mahayana Buddhist sect.
After 3,000 kilometers of sitting on a buzzing motorcycle it is time for a rest, a long rest, and we spend three nights and two full rest days in Shangri-La.
Half a rest day should be devoted to visiting Gandan Sumtseling Monastery. Then an afternoon walk through the old quarters will easily fill up the remainder of that day. At night there is always something going on in the Old Quarter’s town square lined with antique stores and shops of all kinds.
We found some great restaurants around town that we promise to share with everyone.
On your second rest day we suggest you hop on your bike and take a leisurely ride to the surrounding villages. The locals are super friendly and warm memories will you take away from these encounters.
Day #14: Rest day in Shangri-La.
Day #15: Rest day in Shangri-La.
Day #16: 266 kms. Approx. 6:45 riding time.
Shangri-La to Lijiang.
Synopsis: The most spectacular road in all of Asia – Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Only a week left on this tour and it is time to start pointing homewards on probably the most memorable road of all, the one that takes us through Tiger Leaping Gorge. This fantastic road follows a contour line along the third-deepest gorge in the world. Tiger Leaping Gorge is formed by the fierce and young (at this point) Yangtze River, which slices a path through towering, snow clad mountains.
Impossible not to jump off of your bike every few minutes to snap a few pics. This could be the #1 road in Asia for sure.
Lunch today is at a simple family-run guesthouse and farm that serves the freshest food you will ever eat.
Lijiang, our destination tonight, is the third and final UNESCO World Heritage Site we visit. It is the most popular tourist destination in China, even surpassing Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. A real party atmosphere permeates Lijiang and it is a great place to meet and mix with the local population.
Day #17: Rest day in Lijiang.
Lijiang’s charming Old Town is a maze of cobbled streets, canals, and stone bridges that date from the Ming Dynasty. You are free to explore this ancient city at your leisure. Lijiang is a ‘shop till you drop’ type place and all sorts of interesting items are for sale.
Day #18: 165 kms. Approx. 3:30 riding time.
Lijiang to Dali
Synopsis: A ride to Yunnan’s most historic city, Dali.
We wend our way southwards over the modern version of the Ancient Tea-Horse Road to Dali, Yunnan Province’s 2nd-most important city and also one of China’s most historic.
The Bai Kingdom and the Kingdom of Dali were both centered here between the 8th and 12th centuries. In the mid-1800’s there was a major Muslim rebellion that shook the entire region all the way down to Thailand. Repercussions of this conflict were felt well into the early 1900’s. More than a million people were killed in Yunnan Province alone.
But today Dali is peaceful and this historic walled city is well preserved. We lodge in the Old Quarter tonight. An early arrival means there is ample time to wander around the streets and explore this atmospheric town.
To read an interesting article about Dali and Shuanglang from the New York Times click here.
Day #19: 305 kms. Approx. 5:45 riding time.
Dali to Lincang
Synopsis: Yet another great ride paralleling the Burma border to Lincang.
We wend our way through the formidable mountains that form the border between Burma and China and which also hem in the western side of the Mekong River valley. We are so close to Burma that most of the highway signs have Burmese writing on them alongside the Mandarin.
This is one of the most fun highways you will ever have the pleasure to experience. An added bonus is that there is hardly any traffic. Nearly six hours of motorcycle bliss.
In the morning we visit atmospheric Duanshan Village, once a major caravan stop on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road. The original town gate still stands in the middle of the Old Town square.
Lincang is home territory to the Wa ethnic group who were feared as headhunters in the olden days. This region was once so wild that both the British during their colonial days and whoever was in power in China always gave this region a wide detour.
Over on the Burma side, the Wa are believed to be heavily involved in the drug trade, seeming to have kept their wild streak alive.
Lincang is incidentally home to the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree, documented at over 3,200 years old, a mere sapling when the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were ruling.
Day #20: 250 kms. 6:00 riding time.
Lincang to Lancang
Synopsis: More great riding along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road.
We continue riding south on the same great highway as yesterday, a road that would make highway engineers in the rest of the world salivate.
The route we follow this morning coincides directly with the Ancient Tea-Horse Road. In some places we can actually see the old paving stones poking through the earth.
In the morning we cross the Tropic of Cancer and the weather starts heating up.
The major stop today is in a village where the locals tend tea trees, some of which are over a thousand years old.
Day #21: 295 kms. 6:00 riding time. Lancang to Mengla
Synopsis: Getting into position to cross the China, Lao, and Thailand borders.
Mengla is our destination. This will put us in a good position to make the China-Lao border crossing the following morning before the commercial trucks and passenger buses arrive to gum up the works.
Day #22: 287 kms. 6:00 riding time.
Mengla, China to Chiang Khong, Thailand
Synopsis: Several border crossings to make before ending the day back in Thailand.
The border crossings today are very time consuming and how long it takes depends upon a great deal on the mood of the border officials on duty. So we have to schedule in a cushion of time just in case.
But we should be able to make it to the Thai side, and there spend a quiet night in a pleasant hotel overlooking the Mekong River.
Day #23: 300 kms. 6:45 riding time. Chiang Khong, Thailand to Chiang Mai
The fun and games are nearly over. All that is left for us to do is make it back to Chiang Mai in the same condition we left in, albeit with an extra kilo or two from all the great eating we gorged on.
So we tone down the riding a notch or two and ease back into town by mid-afternoon.
TOTAL KILOMETERS: 4,832 kms. on the last tour.
Price of tour: USD 6,995. Pillions: 1,995.
Price includes all entrance fees, permits, licence fees, permissions, hotels and meals (except for lunches on rest days).
Price does not include visa fees, lunches on rest days, other meals eaten outside of pre-planned group dinners, items of a personal nature, and petrol.
Upcoming Tour Dates: 2016: May 4-26, 2016; October 10-November 1, 2016.
2017: May 4-26, 2016; October 10-November 1, 2016.
An explanation about why China motorcycle tours are so expensive.
Watch the videos from our Shangri-La recce tour.
Watch the slide shows from our Shangri-La motorcycle tours.
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