South of the Clouds Motorcycle Tour
Riding up the Yangtze and Mekong to the Tibetan Himalayas
The South of the Clouds tour has been our most popular China motorcycle tour since 2016. We’ve now given it a thorough rework, adding new roads and mountain passes for an even more exciting and varied experience. The ride takes us through previously untraveled regions, including the greatest highlights and motorcycling routes of China’s southwestern regions. China is a huge country that covers roughly the same area as the United States. Its striking contrasts include expanses of desert and steppe, the highest mountains in the world, and the vast megacities and ports of the east coast. According to Lonely Planet, the Australian publisher of travel guides, if you could visit only one of China’s numerous provinces, Yunnan would be the place to see. Yunnan means “south of the clouds”, and the province is about as remote as you can get from the perspective of Beijing, the country’s northern hub. In Yunnan, you can still get a feel for the authentic China as it was before the transformation of recent decades.
The stunning scenery, the wealth of natural diversity and the pulse-quickening panoramic roads not only made a deep impression on the Lonely Planet crew, but us as well – prompting us to open our first motorcycle office in Shangri-La nearly ten years ago. The landscapes on this motorcycle tour through Yunnan are so varied that it’s like a continent to itself. Yunnan is the northern neighbor of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, a region of towering mountains, gorges and rice terraces. The Himalayan foothills, the mighty Yangtze and Mekong rivers, subtropical landscapes and the peoples and ethnic groups that have preserved their own cultures, religions and languages over the centuries all come together as a rich tapestry. The top of the holy Tibetan mountain Kawa Karpo is Yunnan’s highest point at 6,740 meters, the lowest point is on the banks of the Mekong at only 470 meters. In between, you can experience twisty mountain roads, cultural treasures and ancient towns, amazing Chinese food, and of course plenty of adrenaline on the ride.
Our China motorcycle tour starts in Shangri-La. The legendary town belongs to the Tibetan regions of southwest China. Shangri-La lies in a broad, high valley, surrounded by grassland with grazing yaks and mountain ranges that mark the beginning of the Himalayas. From here, we enter Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest in the world, flanked by towering cliffs and a majestic 5,500-meter mountain range. We follow the Yangtze to the west and take a lonely mountain road to a stone village that was built on a clifftop perch to protect its inhabitants from the notorious Yangtze river pirates. After crossing a pass at almost 4,000 meters, we arrive at the azure blue Lugu Lake. Its shores and the surrounding mountains are the home of the Mosu people.
We’ll take plenty of time to visit the old town of Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as other beautiful sights in this high valley, at an altitude of 2,600 meters. Our ride then takes us back to the Yangtze, which we follow down into the subtropics. As the temperature rises, wheat fields soon give way to small plots of banana trees and tea plantations. Continuing along the Yangtze, we reach Dali, a former kingdom on the Tea Horse Road, an ancient trade route from China to Burma and India. Dali is nestled between the 42 kilometer long Erhai Lake and the 4,000-meter Cangshan Mountains, which we are going to tackle tomorrow. We then reach the Salween, a river that rises in a remote corner of the Himalayas and flows down into Burma. Following the river as it snakes northward, we reach Tibet and cross a nameless pass. From there, a breathtaking descent takes us to the banks of the Mekong deep in the Himalayas. Forbidding, virtually lunar landscapes and canyons await us in this region, which is inhabited by ethnic Tibetans. We’ll come across a green oasis hidden in a side valley and spend the night in a traditional farmhouse belonging to a local Tibetan family, where we can experience the life and culture of the Tibetans first-hand. The next day, we’ll explore the course of the Mekong, and with it the last of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan – Yangtze, Salween and Mekong – in a nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We’re approaching the literal high point of our tour – riding on tracks and through gorges, we have awe-inspiring views of the sacred 6,740-meter Kawa Karpo mountain and soon reach the Mingyong glacier that flows down from its summit. We’ll stay overnight at the foot of the mountain, at the “flying temple”, and witness the spectacle of the snow-covered peak at sunset and sunrise. On our last day in the saddle on the way back to Shangri-La, we’ll have one final opportunity to enjoy the full splendor of the Himalayas. Over hundreds of bends, we’ll tackle the Pass of the White Horse, the highest of the tour at 4,292 meters, and wind our way down to Shangri-La, bringing us back to the alleys of the quaint, entirely wooden old town of Dukezong.
If you want to experience the authentic Middle Kingdom and its spectacular landscapes, far from the crowded cities and postcard sights, this tour is for you – join us and explore China in a way that only few have done before.