The Definitive Guide to Cycling ErHai Lake
By Norm Kummer
The Old Town of Dali has the CangShan Mountains (苍山) on one side, and ErHai (洱海) lake on the other. The mountains run from north to south and tower 2,000 meters above the town, reaching a height of 4,000 meters above sea level. The lake, to the east of the town, is the second biggest in Yunnan province. It is roughly 50 km long and 5 km wide and runs parallel to the mountains.
There are four general cycling “trips” for those that want to cycle in and around the lake. They are listed below. Some sections of the lake offer several different routes to choose from, especially on the west (Dali) side of the lake. Each of these routes are described further down in this post. Note that all distances are from the Jade Emu Guesthouse (on the G214 Highway) and use the “Three Pagoda Road” to head towards the lake.
XiZhou Village – A relaxing 1 day trip
A short 50 Km round trip to XiZhou. You have the choice of doing the slower ErHai West Lake road in both directions, or using the S221 in one direction. See below for a more detailed description of routes to take for this trip.
ErHai Lake Tour – 1 day trip
This is for those of you that really want to go around the lake in one day. It is roughly 130 Km, and quite flat. There are several possible routes from 120 Km to 145 Km, all described below. I suggest that you do this route going counter clockwise, or south to XiaGuan first and around the bottom of the lake.
ShuangLang – 2 day trip
This is a 45km ride to ShuangLang, with sightseeing and overnight stay in ShuangLang. The route heads north and along the top of the lake to ShuangLang and returns the next day. As there are various routes, you do not need to return the same way you came. See below for details.
ErHai Lake Tour – 2 day trip
For those of you that want to go around the lake, but to do it in a more relaxing two days, this is for you. It follows the same routes as the one-day trip, but gives you more time to relax. It is about 80km for the first day and 50km for the second day. As described above, there are several cycling trips available around ErHai. Below are described the possible routes one can take along each section of the route. This gives you the option of deciding how you want to get from one point to the other, and to modify the trip to suit your needs.
Cycling around the lake can be broken down into two major sections, of which each section can then be broken down into three smaller sections. Here are the sections:
- Dali to ShuangLang
- Dali to the top of the lake (north west corner)
- Crossing the top of the lake (to the north east corner)
- Northeast corner to ShuangLaung
- ShuangLang to Dali
- ShuangLang to WaSe
- WaSe to Airport
- Airport to Dali
If I cycle around the lake, I always do it in one day as I mainly do it for exercise. However, if you are a tourist and want to see something, it is probably better to do it over two days and stay overnight it ShuangLang. It is a very nice place to spend some time, and there is plenty of reasonable accommodation.
By far, the most interesting part of cycling around the lake is from Dali to ShuangLang (going north), and is roughly 50km. This is why if you are doing it over two days, and really want to go around the lake, you should do it in the other direction (counter clockwise), and start with the 80km ride.
Dali to the top of the lake (north west corner)
This section has more explanation than the other sections as there are three possible routes, and it is important for you to select the correct route.
When leaving Dali for the top of the lake, there are three possible routes:
- G214 Highway – The big concrete highway on the west side of town
- S221Highway – The paved road on the east side of town
- ErHai West Lake Road – The road that follows the lake (mostly)
The fastest and shortest route to the north is G214 highway. It is a wonderful concrete highway, 5 lanes in each direction. The cars and trucks use the 3 left lanes, small electric cars, motor bikes, and electric scooters use the second from the right, and the right most lane is the shoulder lane. It looks like it does in Dali, but once outside of Dali there are not many cars, so you can safely cycle in the shoulder lane.
The highway is super smooth and has only a few small hills. Best of all, if you start in the morning, there are plenty of places to get a cheap baba (粑粑), for breakfast, as in only 3元.
It is the best route for enjoying the scenery of the mountains and the farm fields, with some great views of the lake. It is 30km to the top of the lake, however after about 25km you will get to an intersection with traffic lights, and you need to turn right to go to the S221 (turning left takes you to Butterfly Springs). It a short 500m to the S221. Turn left onto the S221 and continue to the top of the lake.
The second way to go is to use the S221. This is a paved road with a reasonable shoulder to cycle on.
The route runs parallel to the G214, and is usually never more than 1.5km away. Because it is “closer” to the lake, there are almost no hills, but you also do not get a good view of the lake as you would from the G214. This route is 1km longer at 31km to the top of the lake. Use this road for a return from ShuangLang or XiZhou if you do not want to cycle through the villages of ErHai Lake road.
ErHai West Lake Road
The third way to go is along the ErHai Lake Road. This is the route to take if you want a to see all the little villages and great views of the lake. This is also the route that all the tourists take. As the route winds its way along the lake and through the villages, it is about 13km longer than the highways. As well, because it is so popular, and there some traffic choke points, you can expect to take at least an extra hour just to get through this section, even if you continuously cycle, especially in the busy season.
About 5km from the top of the lake this road ends and you will be forced to turn left and cycle to the S221 (near Butterfly Springs, which is the same road from the G214). From the start you will have covered 38km so far. As a side note, if you get fed up with the slow progress on this route, it is easy to go up to the S221 and continue your trip. Look for the sign that says “Dali- Lijiang Road”. Follow it to the S221 (which is the Dali-Lijiang road) and continue your trip.
Crossing the top of the lake (to the northeast corner)
So at this point you are at the top of the lake, on the northwest corner (mountain side). As you round the corner to the top of the lake you will see this sign (somewhat covered by trees, and this intersection:
The land on the north side of the lake dips south into the lake, creating a “U”. So this means that you have a decision. You can follow the “U” of the lake road or you can cut across the top of the “U” and save 4.5km. The lake road is not particularly interesting, with the lake on one side and farm fields on the other. If your goal is to have a “true” cycle around the lake, then take it, otherwise head straight for some local life. If you do take the lake road, you will see this sign. The road in the picture is representative of what you will see.
Heading straight will eventually bring you to the village of ShangGuan. If you can catch it on market day (Saturday), it is especially good. Take your time going through and enjoy it. It is actually a fairly large place.
Near the end of the commercial area the town (after 4km) S221 turns north, going to Lijiang. You want to go straight and onto the concrete road (the S221 is paved). Look for this sign:
Very shortly afterwards you will see this intersection. Angle right.
After a few more shops things quiet down and you will find yourself in the “residential” section. In order to get into this section, you will cross concrete barriers used to keep out trucks.
Enjoy the scenery. After a 1.5km you will come across another set of barriers at the other end of town.
Go through the barriers and then turn right. 20m later you will meet the Lake Road again. Turn left you will now start the next section of the road to ShuangLang.
Northeast corner to ShuangLaung
There is only one road to ShuangLang, so no decisions required.
This road is okay, with some nice views of the lake and ShuangLang at certain corners.
There is a Temple, and a small market which is worth a stop if you have time. From the Temple it is less than 5km to ShuangLang.
At this point you have two choices, go through ShuangLang or go around it. Each has problems. Going through it means a 2km ride along a cobble road with a pile of people in your way. Going around it means cycling up a substantial hill.
If you are staying in town or want a serious break, then you will enter the town. If you are coming from the other direction, finding the entrance is a bit tricky. You will have climbed a slightly before turning left with the cars.
If you are going around the town, the hill is quite steep, especially if you are coming from the opposite direction. If you are not a serious cyclist, you will likely end up walking your bike. It is at most 200m of walking, so not a real problem. While you get to go back downhill on your bike, the road is rough and the cars plentiful, so you can only do it slowly. The only saving grace is that at the top of the hill there is a small park which gives you a great view of the town and the lake.
ShuangLang to WaSe
The next segment is from ShuangLang to WaSe, and there is only one road. This section is still relatively populated and has lots of new guest house construction. It is by far the most popular section for tourist who are staying in ShuangLang and want to go out for a day of exploration. You will see lots of rented electric cars, electric bikes (electric scooters), and 4 person bicycles. It is populated with lots of lookouts and places fixed up for you to take travel photos. This section also has some very nicely done restaurants without door patios to enjoy the scenery. Arguably, on this side of the lake, it is the most scenic section. WaSe itself, at least along the waterfront, is nice. The tour boat that runs on the lake stops at the small island out front. WaSe is a good place to get some food and relax for a bit. It is one of my stops when tour the lake.
WaSe to Airport
The next stretch is from WaSe to the “airport”, and again there is only one route. Fortunately, we don’t go to the airport, but just the intersection of the road that goes to the airport and the road that goes into XiaGuan. This section is unique in that it is truly quite boring. There are a few small villages to get some food, but in the middle of this section is a 12 Km section of literally nothing. It also has two additional hills, but nothing terrible.
One thing to note if you are cycling in the direction from XiaGuan to ShuangLang. The “airport” intersection is actually a roundabout, with 4 roads. From ShuangLang to XiaGuan you only need to take the right hand “turn” and you are fine. If you are going in the other direction make sure to take the correct road. It is the last one before you head back on yourself. It is the one just past the police station, after circling about 300 degrees of the circle. If you are on the correct road, you will see this sign.
Airport to Dali
The last section, from “airport” back to Dali can be busy. For the next 10 Km you are going through XiaGuan on the lake road. It has cars, but the good news is that it is a concrete road, so quite fast. Just stay to the right side of the road and you will be fine.
Going through XiaGuan is unremarkable, but a necessity. At the bottom of the lake is a river that heads west, which means you need one of the three bridges to cross the river in order to head north. The third (farthest) bridge is the G214, the second is the S221, and the first is close to the lake, but eventually ends into the S221. You can head back by either bridge/road. As in the first part of your trip, you have the same three route options.
The G214 is the shortest and best condition road (about 15km), but there are two nice hills (with no net gain), so it can be a bit tiring at the end of the ride.
If you are going to take the S221 or the ErHai Lake road, use any of the first two bridges. If you take the first bridge, you will eventually be forced to turn left and end up on the S221 (you also have the option at this point to continue to the G214). Once you are on the S221 you can continue on it, or look for the ErHai lake road. The S221 is an okay road. You have a paved shoulder that is protected from the cars by a solid guardrail. The ride is quite flat to Dali.
ErHai Lake Road
If you want to do the ErHai Lake road, look for the sign on the S221 that points you back the ErHai Road (about 4km from the bridge). Turn right at the sign and near the end of the road you will turn left onto the lake road. This section is similar to what you found at the beginning of the ride. If you still have time, worth doing at a leisurely pace. Starting at the LongKan Pier (after 20km on this road), and not after CaiCun, you will need to turn left and head back to the S221. You will now be just to the east of town. Take your favorite route through town.
A note about the routes to XiZhou:
XiZhou is actually located on the S221, and not the lake road. If you cycle there via the S221 it is almost exactly 20km. It is quite obvious when you have arrived. If you go via the ErHai Lake Road, the total trip is about 29km. You will travel about 26km on the lake road before turning left and heading to the S221. It about 3km from the lake to XiZhou.
Here are some general things you may want to know about riding around the lake.
The roads: Overall the roads are in good shape, with a mix of concrete and asphalt. On the lake side of the road there is a shoulder for small electric cars/scooters and bicycles. Unfortunately, the “water works project” has torn up much of the outside lanes, so cars now use this shoulder. I expect this will last through to the end of 2017. As well, because of the construction, every so often there are small detours or rough patches of roads. None of this should deter you from a good ride.
Bicycle: Presumably you don’t have your own, so you need to rent one. You don’t need a super fancy or expensive bike, but you do want at least a middle of the road one. You should get a hybrid or mountain bike. I use a mountain bike to cycle around the lake.
Food: There is plenty of food and drink all along the lake, from convenience stores to full restaurants. There is no need to bring food, but I do suggest that you start out your trip bringing some water or juice with you. You can buy more along the way.
Weather: The biggest problem is actually the sunny days. There is very little protection from the sun while riding. After a few hours in the sun it can become unbearable. Make sure to wear sunscreen and bring something to cover your head. I usually use a bluff and pull it over my head. Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days. Of course on cold days you will have long sleeves, but do not forget about your face and the back of your neck.
The next biggest problem is the wind. It is rare that there is no wind, but most of the time it is quite bearable. The wind generally blows from south to north. If you are doing a complete lake tour, this is one of the reasons it is preferable to head south first. This way when you cycle along the long length of the far side of the lake, the wind will be behind you.
Clothes: Dress appropriate for the temperature.
So that is the trip around the lake. While there are lots of instruction here, it really isn’t complicated and you should just do it.