Two weeks in the Chinese highlands

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Where I stayed

Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My first encounter with real, authentic Chinese locals is as we shelter together in a long tunnel from a monsoon downpour. I try out some Mandarin on some friendly guys with motorcycles, and am able to make myself partially understood with the aid of hand gestures (okay, perhaps the hand gestures were the main medium - Mandarin is not universal here!). They give me the thumbs up, and as the rain eases we all set off.

The expressway leading north from Mohan sports bilingual signs, but soon becomes forbidden to cyclists, so I exit into a village and ponder which way to proceed. My instincts (possibly the GPS and compass also play a part) serve me well, and I soon pass the milestone for kilometre 2,780 of the G213 national highway, and in the right direction too. The road winds left, right, up and down, but is smooth and almost totally unused by anybody. I pull off onto a track leading to a stream and find my first camping site. As usual, the first fireflies to cross my peripheral vision give me a jolt, resembling LED torches. Myth no. 1: China is swarming with people, everywhere, and discreet camping is not possible.

The next day is all hills, but I'll say this: the Chinese roading engineers (perhaps 'ancient cart-hauling trailblazers' of somesuch dynasty is more apt?) are fantastic. Probably due to the preponderance of underpowered vehicles toting heavy loads, the gradients never seem to surpass 4-5%. Climbs are long, but gentle, and roads typically rise steadily to a crest, from which they descend again, unlike the up, down, up, down that seems to be the way in most other countries. Of course this makes for long and winding ascents, but there was probably no option for Yunnan, which is about as hilly as Laos (i.e. very!). Myth no. 2: Chinese roads are terrible.

Late in the day, I spot a small town buffet where I get hearty portions of rice, tofu and greens for 3 yuan (US 45c), and I eat well and takeaway more. In search of camp, I slip off the G213 to investigate a trail leading into the hills, and see a large grain hopper with shelter stemming from a hillside, seemingly abandoned. I investigate, then carry bike and gear up the stairs, wait a while and set up on the concrete platform when it seems dark enough. Motorbikes pass on the trail below infrequently, but the shroud of the tent makes it easy to fall asleep. Around 2 am, I awake to a motorbike stopping, footsteps outside and torchlight on the tent. Then, nothing but the rain on the shelter above. I call a "Nǐ hǎo" but there is no reply, so I try to silently dress in the tent, on high alert, and presuming someone is outside watching. Eventually I lurch out of the tent, ready for action, but nobody lurks. I sit outside for about 45 minutes before deciding nobody is interested. The next morning, whilst packing up, I meet the man who had passed my tent on the way to his house somewhere unseen amongst trees on the hill above. He smiles in amusement as he sets off to work.

Many people of all ages call an English "hello" as I cycle by. I pull into a restaurant for noodles. A vanload of young Chinese men are eating at a nearby table. The floor is littered with bones, food scraps and anything else they reject. One of the restaurant staff lights up a large bong, through which he smokes a cigarette, which gets me coughing. He watches his pre-school grandchild play with the cigarette packet, open it and take out a cigarette.

Another myth: the Chinese road-users share well, and although they honk too much for my liking, have nothing on Indian motorists. I don't see too many risky manoeuvres, and am never forced off the road as I was regularly in India.

I camp amongst shrubbery in front of a ruined house before the city of Jing Hong, entering the city the next day to try to register my lodgings (a tent) with police before the compulsory 72 hour window expires. I have lots of trouble actually finding police in the first place, then communicating my problem to them. Eventually, a friendly security guy I mistake for police calls the emergency number after I request it, having read it on my China visa paperwork. Several police cars arrive fairly promptly. Whoops! on closer inspection I see that the 110 number is nothing to do with the accommodation register, and is only for emergencies!

We leave the security guy watching my bike, and the police invite me to get in the car. We change drivers at the police station then stop to pick up the son of one of the officers. All the while I have the feeling pedestrians looking at me in the back of the police car assume I'm a criminal, so I smile at them. I am at a loss as to where I am being taken, but we finally stop outside the cafe of an English-speaking Chinese woman, a popular Lao Wei (foreigner) haunt. She is a great help, and relays that tourists camping needn't register lodgings, although given their apparent lack of familiarity with the system I remain dubious but at least have a cover story: I tried.

I head back out of Jing Hong in heavy rain, stopping for a buffet + takeaway, decide against camping at the entrance to a nearby forest park and eventually end up pitching right next to a group of rental rooms (Zh S) up a quarry road. The bad weather masks me from the dog, but he makes an appearance the next morning, and brings one of the residents, a young man named Nun Na Yi, who kindly gives me hot water for coffee, and speaks some English.

Progress is slow, but comfortable. I find a great camping spot at a river ford just before dark, and am woken by a male/female couple and their torches at 4 am as they descend past my tent to cross the small river. Where are they going? The next morning I filter and boil river water for the day. Incidentally, a great thing about China is that boiled/ing water is available free almost everywhere and one usually needs but to ask for it. The Chinese say "Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one."

I pass through the city of Pu'er late in the day, the overcast sky not helping my impression of it being a soul-less concrete wasteland. The highway leads into hills above the city, and when it is clear I pull off onto a forested hillock alongside (very convenient, these are), lie low and wait for it to get dark.

Feeling an itch on my back, I reach over to try to dislodge whatever is stuck there. I don't feel anything, so take my shirt off and discover to my horror a hairy caterpillar at shoulder-blade level. Using a stick, I flick him off and crush him. There are three or four more at lower back level! Having dispatched them all, I notice a rising prickly heat on the underside of my right wrist and see it has already reddened and started to swell. I try to remove as many of the tiny spines as I can, but there must be about a hundred. I am relieved, however, that very few penetrated my shirt as that would have made sleeping difficult. The swelling persists and it is painful to hold the handlebar the next day.

The following afternoon, I am surprised to have a couple on a motorcycle call to me in English, and stop to respond. It is only when they remove their helmets that I see they are not Chinese. This German/French couple are riding around the quiet roads looking for places off the beaten track. The young man had earlier cycled this way, though using the expressway, which he recommends to me. He also suggests I avoid Kun Ming, which is a concrete jungle, and suggests I extend my visa in Da Li. His map shows the most direct route, one section of which entails what must be a crazy bit of climbing, the road being 100 km over what is only a 40-50 km distance as the crow flies.

As we part ways, he warns there are no more villages for the next 30 km, so I start to ask for water from the locals, or to sleep at a bunch of Zh S by the road. There is nothing available there, but a friendly resident named Xia Xing Tian lets me use my tent in front. He is a coffee farmer, and works along with several others who stay there. They bring me a cooked dinner and give me my first, and long-awaited, taste of Chinese beer.

I continue, next day, on the expressway, but it is awful. There is nowhere to stop for a rest, no shops, few exits, and of course some long tunnels. A few police vehicles pass me without incident, but one stops and I am told I cannot ride this road. There are no exits for many kilometres, so after some head-scratching, we load my bike into the back of their pickup and they drive me the remaining 10 km to Tong Guan.

Pedalling off again after a 3 yuan buffet, my delight at being on an unused road soon turns to frustration as the condition deteriorates into a lumpy, potholed mess. I start to wonder if the police didn't drop me on an unmaintained road out of spite, given how good the road had been thus far. I break a spoke in my newly-built front wheel, and after replacing it see that a heavy downpour is imminent. Heavy rain is a daily occurrence, but without access to any news source I am oblivious to the flooding occurring elsewhere in Yunnan province.

I pull off the road by an open, abandoned building just in time to avoid a drenching. Pondering sneaking in the open door to stay the night, I instead cross the road and talk to the owners, but am declined, and feel my presence is resented by some of the workers sheltering with us. The family give me lots of fruit and some freshly-steamed potato-like tubers to eat though. After the rain, they go back to work and I cycle to the very top of the hill, stay out of sight and camp on a wide terrace.

The next day, stopping for a bite I manage to break my seat's mounting tubes lifting the bike by the seat one too many times. I start to wonder how to ride without the seat, or find a replacement, but then I seek out a welder. Unfortunately, the mounting tubes are of some alloy, and the weld breaks before I've even left town. A neighbour of the welder dashes off and returns with some fencing wire and some finer stuff, and rigs up a clever repair, to my delight. Afterwards, he won't accept anything in exchange.

Near day's end, I pull onto the S307 highway which had promised to be extremely hilly. I ride a little way, then take a dirt road going up a hillside. I am passed by some locals on a motorbike and turn onto an overgrown path that leads me ultimately to the top. A woman returning from the fields compliments me on getting the bike up there, and I ask if I can camp a night there.

The next day's climb does not disappoint, and while mostly of gentle gradients on excellent, little-used road, lasts 30 km or so. A massive, roaring waterfall provides an excuse for a pause (see video). Nearer the top, I lunch at a small hotel, am invited to eat with some locals after finishing, and finally am told I don't need to pay anything by the staff, who won't be reasoned with. Thanking them, I leave and reach the pass, which is shrouded in cloud, an hour later.

The descent is great 50 km/h fun, but all too soon I have to turn pedals again. I find a pine forest to camp in, and next morning the local women come with baskets to collect food (mushrooms?). I note the industrious locals have stripped some of the outer bark of the healthier pines in a distinctive pattern, and attached cups to harvest their sweet, syrupy sap.

It is then time to go up again, but this second pass is lower than the preceding. I stop at a small restaurant on top to eat, and am invited to get drunk with some young guys already well underway, one of whom almost has a head-on with a car as he sets off downhill on his scooter!

The S307 meets the S222 that tracks a wide flood plain towards Da Li. A deserted sawmill is a lucky find indeed in this more densely populated valley. It rains all night and in the morning I miserably pack my tent wet, but manage to dry it later on hot concrete.

I stop for noodles in the market of a small town with an eccentric woman, who keeps giving me more and offering me different foods to taste. A few people join us, and then a young woman steps up and speaks to me in English. Li Zheng Xiang invites me to visit her family house, some 7 km away and I am thrilled at the opportunity to sleep in a bed again. Their open-air cooking/dining area hosts a dozen or so trays of silkworms, which they are farming. The grandmother is strong as an ox, bringing huge loads of the leaves the silkworms devour with surprising rapidity. I help out with some small jobs. In the end I'm too preoccupied with getting my five(!) phone batteries charged whilst I have access to a power source to sleep too well.

The following day turns very wet as I ride the narrowing river valley, but dries a bit in the evening. Scarce camping spots leave me squeezed onto the edge of another roadside hillock, while all the local dogs bark away. I can hear the owners speaking clearly, so patiently time most of my setting up to coincide with passing vehicles.

A short distance into the next day, emerging from the valley I enter a whole new micro-climate where suddenly everything is arid. Looking back, I see the misty clouds still hugging the valley walls, surprised at such a variation over so small a distance.

Another grand descent and I arrive at an Nan Jian. It has been common for people to stare at me in China, but when I enter a hypermarket the staff girls laugh at the mere sight of me. I am pleased to find Australian oats, and disappointed to find someone has opened one of my pannier bags whilst I was in the store, but nothing seems missing.

An arid valley meanders northwest and then opens out to reveal a horizon more distant than I've yet seen in my two weeks in China. The final town of the day is Dacun, which has many mosques, and I am surprised how many women wear the headscarf here.

Mao Lian reservoir no. 5, entices me from the open highway with its huge grassy areas - too inviting of a campsite to miss, although as always I am careful to enter discreetly.

And by noon the following day I am overlooking the enormous lake and mountains between which Da Li nestles.
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mikelee on

nice document again Ash, will be good to listen to your stories in NZ sometime soon I hope..

elisalzman on

Great to read you again Ash. My pedaling feet itch as I read. Carry on then!!

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