I must open with an apology for the long delay. Perhaps after our relatively internet-free existence in China it was hard to regain momentum, or the languid pace and steamy heat of the tropics has undermined our will to sit down and blog. Maybe we were just blogged out for a bit. In any case, here we come, finally emerging from the oncoming chill of winter in northwest China, and hurtling down towards tropical climes.
Before reading this post, however, you might want to go back and take another look at the previous one, which has just been revised and reinvigorated, with exciting additions such as my collection of colourful Central Asian Ladas (I nearly got run over for at least two of those photos so I hope you appreciate them), some insights into the unexpected consequences of racial profiling in Xinjiang, and at least one more terrible pun.
Our departure from Urumqi was as remarkable, in terms of the unexpected kindness of strangers, as our arrival. Having had to consign our bikes as luggage a couple of days prior to our own train journey, we caught a taxi to the station. As so often happens in China – perhaps because people tend to be quite outgoing and communicative – the complete absence of mutual language failed to hamper conversation, and on discovering we had ridden from England, our Uyghur taxi driver was so stunned that he refused to take any money for the ride. In all my life and all my travels, I have never known a taxi driver to refuse money (let alone express enthusiasm about cyclists), making this one of the most remarkable moments of our trip thus far. And here is the gentleman himself:
And then it was time to get on the train. As great train journeys of the world go, Urumqi to Kunming should surely be on every locomotive-lover’s bucket list: 4220km over 3 days, from the great deserts in the northern rain shadow of the Tibetan plateau to the jungles of China’s tropical south. Despite the excitement of such a phenomenal journey, there were more than a few twinges of regret. No more slow passing of seasons, no more watching the landscape, the food, the faces, the dialects change little by little, at a rate of about 80km a day. Instead we would be sitting passively whilst mountain crags and hidden valleys hurtled past the window, stuck behind glass as desert gave way to pasture and pasture gave way to fields, until one morning we awoke to rice paddies and a decidedly humid tint to the air.
And then we were in the tropics. Hard to imagine we’d been waking up 2 weeks earlier to ice rime on the tent. The feeling of riding away out from Kunming Station into the perfectly warm, gentle morning sun will stay with me as one of my favourite ever climatic experiences. Not too hot, not too cold, just a safe, enveloping warmth that promises it’s there for the duration, that even if you’re caught out in the evening without a cardie you’ll be just fine.
We’d booked into the splendid Cloudlands Youth Hostel – the manager is a keen cyclist, and was recommended by a bike shop owner we’d been emailing about building a new wheel .
Our major task in Kunming was to stop off at cycle tourist heaven, Pegasus Cycling. As well as a building me a nice, shiny new wheel (see below), the owner Hui Li – a keen cycle tourist himself – gave us two free crossbar bags (again, see photo) and a partly-used gas canister left by a customer who hadn’t been allowed to take it on the train, where such items are banned. This was particularly handy, as our own gas canisters had similarly been confiscated at the train station in Urumqi (though happily we got away with carrying our superb Japanese kitchen knife, a present from dad that would have been devastating to have to leave behind).
The manager of Cloudlands helped us plan a nice route out of Kunming, directing us to a wetland park on the shores of Lake Dian, just south of the city, for our first night camping. As we arrived after dark, finding a spot was a bit tricky, but we were well satisfied with our choice when we awoke the next morning:
After this brief, flat warm-up stint, it was back to the hills. Unlike the western wilds of Xinjiang, the no-bike rules are strictly enforced on the Kunming-Laos motorway, which is a shame because it cuts out an awful lot of crinkles – both vertical and horizontal. On the other hand, it leaves the old road, which winds up and up and along and around endless mountain ridges, pretty much empty apart from local traffic, leaving us to enjoy the scenery and sights of Yunnan without having to dodge trucks around every corner.
Our next night was spent at a “Bamboo Park”, apparently a place Chinese urbanites come to discover just how much fun bamboo can be, through activities such as walking in it, eating it, and punting around on metal-framed rafts with decorative bamboo cladding. Although we had to pay both to enter the park and again to camp, it was a convenient, flat spot with a toilet nearby, all countable blessings. The experience provided a timely reminder of a fact that I discovered some years ago in Japan but had annoyingly forgotten: bamboo is mozzie heaven! Whenever bamboo is cut, it leaves a vertical tube which collects water and makes a dream breeding ground for the little buzzers. A swift deployment of mosquito coils soon had things under control, however, and the evening passed pleasantly. We provided much entertainment for early bird tourists punting on the lake the following morning, as we packed up and loaded our bikes.
Meanwhile the local beasties were making their own entertainment (giving each other piggy backs):
The spectacular rice paddies for which Yunnan Province is famous soon started to appear, climbing up and and up over entire mountains. Sadly, a mix of poor weather, the limitations of our phone camera, and it not really being the right time of year meant we couldn’t capture just how stunning these are, but I recommend running a quick google image search on ‘Yunnan rice terraces’ to see one of the most amazing traditional forms of land-scuplting on the planet.
To balance out Yunnan’s beautiful scenery were reminders of humans’ uglier impacts on the environment: a lake of polytunnels to dwarf those of southern Crete…
… and the destruction of entire valleys, their villages and farmland sacrificed to new sections of motorway hacking its way between the hills:
En route, we bumped into Enikő and Baláz, the Hungarian couple we mentioned in the last post, who we in first met at Cloudlands. We decided to ride together, though we didn’t get very far – within an hour of our lunch break, heavy rain had set in and we dived for shelter in an abandoned house (they camped inside but our tunnel tent needing pegging out, so we opted for the soggy overgrown garden). However, it being John’s 40th (!), our spirits were not to be damped – indeed, we preferred to drink them straight, as we’d managed to locate some half-decent brandy (a blessed relief from the puky-tasting herbal distillations that seem to be popular in China). Our new friends, meanwhile, had managed to slip off and buy cake, and for some reason had some birthday candles in their luggage. Add into the mix trumpet, violin, and Baláz’s ukelele and we had everything needed for the perfect birthday party. Which we proceeded to have.
However, despite the ongoing rain, we did not have enough time left on our 1-month visa to dilly dally, and we sadly parted company the following afternoon, setting out in what proved to be only a temporary hiatus. About eight tough, wet, steep, miserable kilometres later, a blissful sight hove into view: a hot spring hotel, surrounded by a gently steaming swimming pool! Although it still seemed to be under construction, a quick conversation shouted across a river to a staff member at a window established we could sleep there.
Indeed, to offset the inconvenience of the ongoing construction, rooms were super-cheap – for $12 we got a luxury 4-star room, with lush gold fixtures and fittings, a massive bed, a beautifully-finished bathroom big enough to hang the tent up in, and a balcony to cook on, not to mention the full attention of the entire staff, who had nothing better to do than carry our bags, bring us beer and generally make us feel welcome.
But the days were ticking past and we needed to get to the border. Just as we were trying to figure out whether we could do the last stint on a section of motorway marked ‘no motorbikes or bikes’ but which was clearly used by locals on scooters, a Chinese cycle tourist also heading for Laos adopted us. (He’d been on the road for a full year without even leaving China up to that point!) Despite our mutual lack of Chinese/English language skills, he assured us it was ok to go on the motorway, halving the length and difficulty of our final dive for the border. With nothing but our phone translation apps to communicate through, we travelled together for the next few days, clearly all having forgotten each others’ names (not me and John, obviously) but being mutually too embarrassed to ask.
Temperatures rose, humidity thickened the air, and rice paddies gave way to rubber plantations, a monoculture forest that would march us all the way down the Laotian border, providing handy but bug-ridden camping options. The little latex-collection pots (see below) happen to make perfect mozzie breeding grounds, and there was some other kind of bitey bug that liked to take little chunks of flesh, like horseflies. Combined with the thick mists enveloping us every night from around midnight to a few hours after dawn, camping in the tropics was beginning to prove less than comfortable.
Having crossed the Tropic of Cancer some days back, things were starting to look more jungly, and as we neared the border, hints of decidedly Laotian constructions, such as stilt houses on ponds, started to appear.
Finally, we reached Mohan, a chilled out tropical-feel border town with an elephant obsession and some keen street badminton players:
Thanks to our anonymous friend’s good road advice, we got to chill out an extra day before crossing the border into our next country, Laos.