So much has happened since I entered China 2 months ago. I still remember how much more shops, people and cars there was 5kms passed the Laos border. It was quite a contrast with the quiet streets of Laos. The road became an elevated highway with 2 lanes on each side. The mountains of Yunnan province finally showed their towering green peaks. I was still with Chen, happy as a fish in water being back in his home soil. As for me, I was glad to team up with him for the first few days in China as he thought me a few words, food and a few ethical aspects of the Chinese world. On the very first day in China, we rolled passed an outdoor party and got invited to join the festivities. We were told to sit down on seats at a circular table about 30 centimeters high. Large portions of various communal dishes lay on the middle of the table and small individual bowls of rice were served in no time, along with cups of rice wine filled to the brim. Chen confirmed it was brewed by the man sitting on my left; alcohol concentration was around 50%. We discussed, ate and drank for about 30 minutes with our new friends. After a while, we gathered ourselves and jumped back on the bike, the alcohol slowing taking control. Thankfully, we didn’t have too long to go.
Unfortunately, once in Mengla, Chen blew his back tire and couldn’t fix it. I’ve never seen a tire so worn out in my life; every 2 inches there was a rip in the tire where the tube was visible! I was amazed it didn’t blow up earlier. Despite our attempt to fix it, he simply couldn’t roll on it without getting a puncture. And since he was on 29ers, the only chance to find a replacement was in Jinghong where I’d meet with him for the last time.
For the following couple of weeks I was tackling the amazing mountains of Yunnan on my own. Yunnan province is well-known around the world for its tea. After leaving Jinghong, it wasn’t long before I started seeing terraces forming spectacular views on mountain faces. Along the road, tea shops were inevitable; some were offering free tasting!! I find it fascinating how they prepare the tea with all the cups on beautifully carved wood tables. At the edge of a town I once stopped for 2 hours in this beautiful tea shop, sipping different kind of tea and talking with the owner and its staff. Friends stopped over, asking questions about my journey. Since they didn’t speak much English I went to get my dictionary and phrasebook to communicate which went surprisingly well. After going through my photo album and many cups of tea, they decided to find a guesthouse for me. All I had to do is follow their car. Problem is that they thought I was super-human. I can sustain 30km/h for a while, but going up on small hills I’m reduced to a crawl. I lost them pretty quickly so I found a binguan on my own without too much problem.
Along with the fantastic and unforgettable landscape that wowed me on numerous occasions, the people in villages were extremely friendly. On one occasion I arrived in a village called Dadugan, people looking at me like I’m from a distant planet. After spending 20 minutes with the police officers and the lady working at the binguan – guesthouse – to register my details in the computer system, I decided to hit the local market just up the road. Upon 15 seconds of wandering in the market, I was invited to a table and thrown food. Again, rice wine was served and my cup never ran dry. All man smoked, filling the air with smoke. Low ceiling didn’t help with the air circulation. One of the men spoke a little English so we could have sustained conversations. After an hour of eating, drinking, talking and smoking, their kids came back from school. They were quite a good fun to be around; answering their questions, teaching them English, doing some funny faces while taking photos. I even nearly forgot to drink the expensive tea that was served; 3000 Yuan (about $500 AUD) for a kilo. One of the men at the table was cultivating tea and knew what he was talking about. I went back to my room a drunk without knowing what time it was.
I had really good days in the mountains of Yunnan, but also frustrating and challenging ones. I lost my South China map, notes and the waterproof map cover they were in. I spent 1 hour trying to find it, but no success. There was a fair bit road works sometimes making conditions awful. Something inevitable in China is the constant infrastructure building or maintenance but sometimes the roads high in the mountains are simply a nightmare for cyclists. One of these roads awaited me before Leshan where I needed to be on time to extend my visa. From Kunming, which I really liked and from where I met up with the first Caucasians since leaving Luang Prapang, I had to cover 770kms in 7 days. I intended to camp on pretty much every day since I was going to be in the mountains. What I didn’t know was that the road I took turned from good to intense road works then to long dirt sections affected by landslides to finally become cobblestones making Paris-Roubaix look like a Sunday morning ride. Going to bed that first night after leaving Kunming, I only hoped things will improve the next day.
I woke up in a good mood, but after 1 hour of bone-shaking road I started climbing gradients of 15-18% on this hellish road. I had to get off my bike several times of push. At lunchtime I had averaged 9km/h and barely covered 40kms. Later in the afternoon, I came to an intersection where a couple of guys were sitting on their motorbikes. I inquired about the road ahead and they all confirmed my worst fear; the cobblestone road keeps going for at least 200kms. My bike computer indicated an elevation of around 2500 meters and I had to bend my head backwards to look at mountain peaks I was heading to. By 18h30 I passed by a school where I hoped to pitch my tent. After a short photo-session with the kids, the teachers didn’t allow me to spend the night on the yard. Instead, they told me to get to the next town where I could get a guesthouse; only 8kms they told me. That’s about 1 hour on this shitty road and it was getting dark. Luckily, I made it to the village with just enough daylight and found a guesthouse with a teenager at the reception with basic English skills. She confirmed the road I was on didn’t improve for another 200kms. So the next day, I decided to jump on a bus to the next city of Zhatong. From there, I’d go back on the bike towards Leshan which I could reach in time.
After spending the night in Zhatong, I was back on good roads towards Leshan; or so I thought. The road I took went up the mountains and started to deteriorate once again. This time, it was hard dirt rather than cobblestones which made for a more enjoyable ride. One of the mountain pass on that road was literally in the clouds. Since the road was dirt and filled with rocks, the mist – which turned to rain at times – transformed some sections in mud and made the rocks very slippery. Sometimes my vision range was limited to not more than 20 meters. I passed goat headers and many rural villages surrounded by lush green hills. After 3 hours of climbing, I was finally starting to go down. It was getting dark when I started the descent. I was cold, sweaty, tired and hungry on a muddy narrow track filled with rocks. I was limited to maximum 15km/h even on the descent. Coming out of the clouds, I could make up a few white spots way down the valley forming the village where I spent the night. The road was winding along the mountain face. It took more than 1 hour to get down that mountain, using my brake pads to a point where they only slowed me down. I stopped every 10-15 minutes trying to warm up. I was glad to find a guesthouse upon arrival and be registered by a cute female police officer. I asked her if the registration came with a leg massage. Unfortunately, the answer was no. After a warm shower I went out for a much needed feed. A bunch of kids were waiting for me at the front the guesthouse! They followed me everywhere I went, asking questions. They even walked in the little restaurant where I decided to have food, surrounding me at the tiny table where I sat. There must have been about a dozen of them at some stage. They were good fun, but I was spent after the long hard climb and tough and challenging descent. The next day I reached Kunming where I stay for a few days to recover and do some sightseeing before heading towards Leshan to extend my visa. The way was as great as the first couple of weeks in China.