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Final Days In Sichuan

Days 95-96; Oct. 21st-22nd Hanyuan, Sichuan-Xichang, Sichuan-Ninglang, Yunnan; 20,280km-20,749km

It’s been a long time since we first entered Sichuan. There have been a lot of changes in scenery from the grass plains in the north, to the river canyons and gorges in the center, to the Tibetan style landscape in the far west, to the cities and traffic in the east, and finally to the cultural relics among the rolling mountains and river canyons we were now in. After a more meandering route than we had taken in any other provinces thus far, it was finally time to make our way out of Sichuan province, 20 days after first entering.

A World (Or River) Apart

Winding roads continuing south from Hanyuan

Winding roads continuing south from Hanyuan

The ride out of Hanyuan continued from the spectacular scenery of the day before. We were going the rest of the way around the man-made lake and having now crossed across the mountain corridor between the two expressways, the road south, the G108, had a bit more traffic on it. As we weaved in and out of the bends of the mountains that overlooked the water a couple hundred or so meters below us we could see the expressway on the other side of the river going in the same direction. Instead of a path which followed the natural shape of the terrain like the G108, the expressway, like a bully in a schoolyard pushing through anyone who stands in his way, cut straight across, with bridges across any inland bends and tunnels through any impeding mountains. The expressway, with its straight path cutting directly south, would be an obvious timesaver, but if you find yourself in the area and can spare the time, I highly recommend the less direct G108.

Locals having a lunch break at an intersection near a village

Locals having a lunch break at an intersection near a village

As we continued south and soon put some lateral distance between us and the expressway, the vegetation and climate quickly started changing again. The temperature was dropping as we climbed in altitude and the vegetation became less tropical and more temperate from the looks of it. We even started driving through areas where the leaves were changing colors. Hard to remember that it’s fall now given that a month prior we were driving through snowstorms.

That afternoon was significantly less interesting as the area was less mountainous and more developed. Just lots of straight asphalt maneuvering around trucks with some stretches of construction dotted throughout.

We Like Making Things Difficult… If You Hadn’t Noticed

After getting to a city called Xichang, we had the option to cut through another mountain wilderness corridor that separated two N-S expressway arteries or to follow the expressways under and back up to the two main cities we wanted to see in Yunnan, Lijiang and Dali. Backtracking wouldn’t be an option (which we’d have to do to come back down from Lijiang) and the mountain roads seemed more interesting. From Xichang to Lijiang would be a very long 350km day through the mountains, but we hoped an early start would be enough since it didn’t look like there was much else place to stay in between if we weren’t able to make it for some reason.

Mountain Weather

Into the mist at the beginning of the day

Into the mist at the beginning of the day

That was the plan but the day turned out to be much more challenging than we had prepared ourselves for. One of the challenges we had to face was variable weather. Shifting temperatures from hot to near freezing, humidity levels from dry to fog and mist to rain, made it difficult to get a good pace going since we had to constantly stop for layer breaks.

First thing into the day out of Xichang we went up into a mountain range, plunged into a dense fog at the higher altitude. Visibility was so low around the windy mountain road that I had to slow down to about 50km/h and had all my lights on in anticipation of any over-anxious drivers that may be speeding around the blind corners.

By lunch we had descended out of the mountains and the weather was cleared up completely. This looked like a good sign, with barely a cloud in sight, so we took off our rain layers. Unfortunately the roads didn’t want to cooperate and for the whole time that we had sunshine, we also had pavement where it seemed that half the whole road at any given time was dug up.

And Then There Was Mud

I suppose we should have expected this...

I suppose we should have expected this…

Just as the road was properly paved again, we got to an important intersection. Straight ahead was beautifully paved asphalt that went on a 100km or so detour north to a scenic lake before looping back down towards Lijiang. To the left was a road that cut directly across to Lijiang, but that of course was unpaved, dirt road. Some people at the intersection told as that the road was dirt for about 30-40km then it was paved for the rest of the way.

Well we went for the shortcut and at first it was fine. The dirt was packed down pretty tight from traffic, and other than a few patches of slippery mud we didn’t have any problems going about 40kph through it. Then, as we were now back in the mountains now, the rain started up again. Pavement and rain we can deal with; dirt roads though are prone to turn to mud. Soon our tightly packed dirt road was slick with deep mud. It got so bad at one point that we had to stop and consider whether or not we could even continue on in those conditions. A 400kg motorcycle, packed with 80-100kg of luggage, plus two passengers (around 650kg/400lbs total) is not easy to keep upright especially when the back wheel is fish tailing at every mud patch, i.e. the whole time.

Layer break as the heat from all the exertion becomes unbearable

Layer break as the heat from all the exertion becomes unbearable

With no place stay on the road and still no replacement tent for the one that broke in northern Sichuan, we had little choice but to keep going at an extremely slow pace until we could get through the mud. About another half an hour or so later after about 10km, we reached a valley in between two mountains and what turned out to be the Yunnan border when we saw the road that climbed up the mountain on the other side was perfectly paved. Hard to explain how gratifying it can be to drive on pavement again after 30km and a couple hours of deep mud in the rain, and for a while we we’re holding our breath in anticipation for the mud to come back, but luckily for us it never did. The fog and rain persisted, and I was freezing cold, covered in sweat after laboring to keep the bike upright for the previous hour. As an aside, for any China bikers, I highly recommend this stretch of road AFTER the mud. Beautiful mountain twisties and the Yunnan scenery is as just as amazing as advertised.

It was getting dark when we arrived at a small city in the mountains called Ninglang. With about 140km still left to Lijiang, continuing on mountain roads in the dark didn’t seem like a good idea. Seemed like we’d have to wait it out until morning before hitting Lijiang and staying in their famous old town. Hopefully Mother Nature would give us a break from the rain, fog, cold, and mud though and clear a path to the city for us!

About Buck

Buck, originally from New York, first came to China in 2006 traveling with some friends and immediately fell in love with the country, returning frequently including a semester studying at Tsinghua University in 2009. He finally moved to Beijing after graduating from the University of Toronto in 2010. He has a passion for adventure and travel, completing numerous long distance motorcycling and hiking trips around the U.S., Canada, and China including a circumnavigation of the U.S. (13,840km) and a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (3,500km). When he's not wandering (and sometimes when he is), Buck works as a web developer and marketing consultant in Beijing.