Escaping the Golden Week crowds: cycling in Yunnan

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read or been told, that travelling in China during public holidays is a big no-no, that the hordes of people returning home or getting away on holiday would make for an agonising reminder of just how many people inhabit this vast country.

This is particularly true of the October ‘Golden Week’, a week-long holiday in the first week of October, celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China back in 1949. Unlike Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), where the majority of people return home for the holiday, Golden Week sees Chinese people going on holiday, as October is the perfect time of year to visit most of the country. It means that almost all of China’s tourism hot spots are hideously crowded and you’d do best to avoid travelling at this time of year.

This is, however, sound advice for tourists trying to decide which time of year is best to visit China. But what do you do if you live here, also have the holiday from work and want to explore while you have the chance?

You do something that the average Chinese tourist doesn’t want to do. So, you don’t go on a bus tour to a national park just to take a few pics before jumping back on; you don’t try and get on a train from a major station during the peak travel times, and you certainly don’t head to West Lake in Hangzhou to get stuck in endless human tailbacks across once-beautiful bridges.

Instead, you cycle up mountains, in high altitude through endless spectacular scenery. You drive far enough from the areas of organised tourism hell that the only beings you see are villagers and yaks. In short, you head to Yunnan and forget that there’s even a public holiday going on.

We spent the October Golden Week holiday this year cycling with tour operator Bike Lijiang, who devised us an itinerary that showcased the natural splendour of China’s most southwestern province as well as avoided the crowds as much as possible.

Jade Snow Mountain near Lijiang, Yunnan.

Ours was a private tour with the coffee-mad Chao leading us on the bikes and the easy-going Xiaodong as our support driver (and believe me, I needed the support car!)

Haba Snow Mountain.

Our route covered:

  • Start outside Lijiang at Bike Lijiang’s excellent lodge and clubhouse accommodation
  • Lijiang > Shangri-La, 45km cycling (rest of journey in the car)
  • Shangri-La, sightseeing around the city, including the beautiful Songzanlin Lamasery and giant prayer wheel
  • Shangri-La > Haba village, 17km cycling (rest of journey in the car)
  • Haba village > Tiger Leaping Gorge, 32km cycling (rest of journey in the car)
  • Tiger Leaping Gorge, 10km hike along the gorge
  • Tiger Leaping Gorge > Lijiang, 22km cycling (rest of journey in the car) and a brief visit to an extremely busy Lijiang.
On the road to Shangri-la.

It was the first time we’d attempted a cycling holiday and although I like to think I’m relatively fit, I admit I found the high altitude (ranging from 2,400 to 3,500 metres above sea-level) and the mountainous terrain tough going. But oh, what a way to appreciate the vast beauty of the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants! A lot has already been written about Yunnan’s virtues, and I won’t repeat the platitudes here, but suffice to say it lives up to expectations.

The spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan.

And the best thing about the trip? Virtually no people and certainly none of the horror stories you hear about travelling during a public holiday. Only really the last day, as we made our way back to the well-known tourist town of Lijiang, was affected by the volume of tourists.

I’m on a bike somewhere in this photo!

After days in the quiet surroundings of Sean’s Guesthouse in middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the loudest noise came from the thundering rapids of the Jinshan River, it was a shock to the system to encounter a seemingly endless stream of coaches and cars snaking their way up the gorge to a viewing platform at the southern end. Luckily, the tour had been planned so that we were on our way down the gorge as this cavalcade was on its way up, but still it was a reminder of just how busy certain areas do get during these national holiday periods.

Jinshan River and the rapid the tiger reportedly leapt across.

So, for all you non-believers out there, you can travel in China during the holidays – you just need to do a bit of advance planning, get off the beaten track and onto your bike!

I loved cycling in Yunnan so much, I wrote about it for Lonely Planet!

What are your top tips for travelling during public holidays, in China or elsewhere? Comment below!

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