At 7:30am, we disembark the stuffy train and breathe the crisp Lijiang air. Ahead of us looms the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang’s undisputed landmark which attracts gazillions of tourists to its much over-hyped new-old town. Yet behind the city walls, adventure lies in ambush. We’re stoked to surprise it right where it expects us.

Leaving the station
Leaving the station

The train ride from 昆明 Kunming had been a little different than expected. After last month’s knife attacks, we were prepared for quite some trouble getting our bikes on board. Much to our surprise, we had been waved through with the advice to take the front wheel off. The train had been a double-decker with significantly less space in the sleeping compartment than most, but attaching it to the railing in the hallway was relatively hassle-free.

A short stop at a breakfast joint for some small-basket baozi and coffee (Peter conveniently brought his Aeropress espresso-kit) will fuel our first few kilometres. We hope to find further food and drink along the way.

Classic bike-in-front-of-gorgeous-scenery-shot

Having previously ridden the new large road to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I this time planned to avoid that disaster and stay east of the mountain range that connects Lijiang to Shangri-La. Our goal today is the town of Daju 大具 (or Big Tool, hmpfgrghihi), a place we understand has some basic accommodation and a ferry across the Yangtze on the east side of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Constantly aiming for the mountain range’s highest peak, we ride on a long, beautiful flat with gaggles of camera-toting Chinese tourists swarming around in cars, vans, buses and on bikes. Granted, the mountain is indeed a sight for sore eyes. I’d never actually seen it on my previous three visits because there had always been either rain, fog or the fumes from a distant forest fire which shrouded its shiny nipples.

Peter buzzing the ridges

When our road finally bends up, we’re met with an unpleasant surprise. All traffic including us is funneled through a gate where an entry fee of 205 RMB (€ 26) is extracted from each individual determined to continue north. “For the development of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Scenic Area” (i.e. for its utter destruction and exploitation). Tourist hotspots around China always have absurdly high admission fees, but this is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. armed police are standing around to catch any non-payers, so after a bit of discussing, we reluctantly pay around 185 RMB each and decide not to let it rain on our parade.

Goats looking the wrong way

While the toll gate doesn’t entirely stop it, traffic now flows past us in waves. The pristine scenery is a lot more enjoyable without a constant flow of honking buses. A long slope furtively takes us further up the hill until we suddenly realise we’re over 3000m. A big bus parking for this-or-that tourist attraction that’s comprised in the ticket price but that we’re really not keen to see appears on the horizon and two orange-clad security guys yell at us pointing at the parking. As we howl past them on a serindipitous stretch of downhill, they frantically start fiddling with their phones.

Meant to attract tourists. Mainly attracts gravity.
Meant to attract tourists. Mainly attracts gravity.

Possibly ticket-checking but exactly what they wanted, we’ll never know: the following two orange jumpsuits they supposedly alerted all come running too late to stop us. With regained freedom we make it down to the town of Heibaishui, a precursor to a much more exciting Baishuitai: limestone terraces with crystal-clear water flowing down. We stare a bit at the reflections of a hundred brightly-coloured tourists and then decide to ride on.

A mistake: we should really have eaten something at that point. Sure, it would’ve been overpriced, but it’s really the last opportunity before Daju. The signposted Yak Meadow up ahead has no visitors and absolutely no amenities. To make matters worse, the road now quickly deteriorates into a cobblestone uphill. Luckily, Peter, our saviour, digs up a savoury salami out of his pocket, which really hits the spot. And since this isn’t Archer, I don’t want to hear anyone say ‘phrasing’. A few baby goats uncomfortably watch us from behind a washing basin.

Daju 大具 in its glacier alluvial
Daju 大具 in its glacier alluvial

At the top of this lengthy endeavour (still not Archer) stand the remnants of an Yi village, supposedly built to attract tourists but now in total disrepair. I can see the mountains through the foundations of the wooden huts and each one of them is slanting dangerously towards the abyss. We take a short break before climbing on to our highest point at 3250m. Having only just arrived at this kind of altitude (Kunming is 1900m), we’re a little out of breath when we roll into a village where we quickly wolf down some instant noodles and ice tea.

Peter on a recon mission at Daju
Peter on a recon mission at Daju

What follows next is an almost uninterrupted, 40 km long feast of a downhill, all the way down to Daju which lies at a mere 1700 m above sea-level, quite possibly one of the lowest points around. The temperature shoots up from nearly freezing to well above an agreeable 25 degrees and the valley, which looks like an ancient glacier alluvial, is perfectly lit at this time of the day. Our eyes are partying in their sockets and that’s not only due to the road buzz.

Daju, despite being a part of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of Yunnan’s most stunning areas, is a town almost entirely unheard of. Most people make the hike from Qiaotou to the north-east end of the gorge, without ever passing by the southern side. A serious omission, as I find Daju one of the most pretty – if a bit dead – little towns around.

Our hotel (slightly eclipsed by Pete’s toothbrushing splendour)

After a quick recon through the tiny town centre, we get bed in the Teager Leaping Gorge hostel 虎跳峡旅舍 (0888-5326036, 139-8885 77743) for 50 kuai. A bit on the pricey side, but it has a charm factor which the adjacent Jinsha River Inn 金沙江客栈 (0888-5326071) does not have. Unfortunately, we’ll end up paying for this charm with a pretty bad night’s sleep.

Gladiatoring it up between highland barley and wheat
Gladiatoring it up between highland barley and wheat

4 thoughts on “Acrophobia Pt1: Pretty River 丽江 to Big Tool 大具”

  1. Sander,

    Can you pinpoint the exact coordinates of the tourist fee entrance? Did you ever study the satellite map to see if there might be any possible dirt roads leading around it?

    What exactly does the ticket entail you to? Does it include the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain cable car, or is that an additional ticket?


  2. The ticket does not include the cable car, but it does provide access to all the sights on the road, like the mountain and the Heishui terraces and the yak meadow. All pretty worthless in my opinion. For us, the ticket was just an expensive toll for this beautiful road.

    The ticket office is right here:,100.261488&spn=0.01164,0.021136&t=h&z=16

    The road there takes a right across a dried up morene and then continues towards the pass and heishui. I think getting around it becomes really difficult because of that crack in the ground and because of the orange jumpsuits checking who may be a little more diligent next time. That said, you may totally get away with riding from Daju to Lijiang without a ticket. Didn’t see any booths in the other direction.

    However, if you’re really resolute to not paying the entrance fee, I’m sure you can find some dirt track around somewhere.

  3. Thanks for the location. Based on the lay of the land, it looks like any attempt to avoid the toll station would involve a very circuitous route on rough mountain roads, and even then it’s not certain that they haven’t also got a guard posted along the lesser roads at some point to collect the entrance fee. I’ve seen it before.

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