Broken Birthday Bridges

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Friday, February 4, 2011

Waking up in our grotty room, Mikey tried to make it lovely for me, serving coffee and singing happy birthday. I was tired though from 3 long days cycling without proper meals. No noodles to be found so it was breakfast of packaged cake (ughh! So sick of it) in the park and we set off. The flat, scenic 10 miles to the Hekou junction really cheered grumpy me up. It was sunny, we could talk and we were making great progress. We stopped at the junction for a juice and turned the corner feeling really excited that we had only 30 miles along a flattish river road to do to Manhao, our last stop in China.

We stopped at what appeared to be a check point, but turned out to be a group of laughing local men closing off the road. They were letting some cars through, so we argued with them and they seemed to say the cars were only going a short way. The blog I had read was from 2010, and we didn't see how the road could possibly have disappeared in a few months. They indicated on our map that we needed to go back the way we had come and take the expressway. This would have not only have involved 27 miles uphill, it would have meant there was no way we could reach the border in time unless we did two 100 mile days. Aaaahgghhh! What to do? As usual, we decided that the men didn’t know what they were talking about, and that even if the road was dug up in parts, it would be better to carry our bikes and take the short route.

Neither of us felt good as we cycled through the barrier with the men laughing after us. We knew we were in for a tough day, but the worst feeling in this situation is the worry. Turning each corner we didn’t know what we would find, and the further we came, the more committed to this path we were and the more stuck if we had to turn back.  The first 7 miles were fine, we could see a new road in construction above us and although our little river road was a bit bumpy it was fine for us. We started to hope that they had closed the road because the work above made it dangerous because of rock falls.

Round the next bend however, we saw the problem. Our road disappeared under water! What? Why? We could hear a van on the new road overhead though so we decided to head up. Getting the bikes 200m up a rutted path was exhausting, but doable. The road was in good nick and we headed towards the bridge over the flooded road, just hoping they would let us over.  We arrived to see that it was nowhere near finished and had gaping holes. The construction men looked at us in astonishment, but let us through when Mikey begged and even helped us carry the bikes over a massive pylon. We crossed quickly ignoring some official looking types trying to talk to/stop us. Hoping this was our last obstacle we continued along the top/new road.

We kept an eye on the road below, which dipped in and out of the water for a while before disappearing  completely. I remembered reading on a blog somewhere about lots of people being displaced from their homes when the government built a dam and made a reservoir – was that what had happened? Anyway, we had turned onto the road at 12pm. Three hours later and we were exhausted and had only made 10 miles, lots pushing the bikes. Several times Mikey took his bike to the top and came back for mine – my spirits were low and I wasn’t really 'Manning up’ today. (In fact I cried my eyes out!) Ironman saved the day however and kept soldiering on and telling me it was going to be ok.

After several ridiculous climbs, and many  points at which we felt we might have to turn back, we eventually came to the end of the line. A half built bridge over a deep valley. I gave up and sat down and put my head in my hands, resigned to a 5 hour trek back to where we had started. ‘Never give up’ Ironman, however climbed down some rubble and found a tiny path round the side of the valley which went down to the bottom and up the other side.

We tried getting the bike onto the path loaded up, but after mine nearly tumbled down into the river, we realised we were going to have to unload completely and make loads of journeys. I unloaded while Mikey somehow carried my bike to the bottom. I was falling around all over the place without any luggage and terrified that he was going to slip and tumble down the 100 metre near vertical slope. At the bottom, I decided the only way to be helpful was to get to the top the other side and see if we could actually get the bikes back onto the road and, if there was indeed a road. The climb up was horrible and needed hands and feet at the steepest parts. At the top however, I could see a car and workers, suggesting that the road must be passable. I shouted across the good news and Ironman steamed up the side of the valley 5 times with bikes and gear. He had chest pains by the end, but I used my medical knowledge to diagnose muscular strain rather that a heart attack.

On the finished side of the bridge, workmen looked at us as if we were aliens, having no idea where we had come from. Mikey told them to hurry up building their bloody bridge and they laughed. They indicated that we could make it to a tiny village 12 miles from Manhao,  but couldn’t tell us what happened after that. We could at least see there was another road out from there, even if it didn’t go in our direction.  We did the last 4 miles on autopilot. After another day with no proper food we were fantasising about having a three course meal in Pizza Express, with the obligatory white wine. Down on the water we saw boats crossing from the other side and concluded that was probably what we were supposed to have done!

Arriving in a tiny village, we just felt relief that there were cars, and therefore some way out of there. We found a group at a shop and using the phrasebook established there was no road to Manhao, and no buses elsewhere,  but there was a boat which we couldn’t get now. In desperation Mikey walked into an internet café shouting ‘Does anyone speak English?’ Amazingly, a young man stood up and he did! He absolutely saved us, explaining that there was a boat at 8am the next morning, which would take us 1km further up the flooded road from where we could cycle to Manhao. He then stored our bikes in his families’ shop, showed us to a room in their guesthouse where we dumped our stuff, then invited us to share their New Year’s feast.

When we came downstairs, about 25 of his family, of all ages were enjoying an enormous feast together and cheered when we came in. It was basically like turning up at someone’s house in the middle of Christmas Dinner. We were seated on the men’s table and Mikey had to drink copious shots of a tequila like liqueur and smoke cigarettes which were offered as soon as one was finished.  The food was amazing, and when they found out it was my birthday they even gave me some cake.

It felt completely surreal to have been in such a bad situation, starving hungry, no idea what we were doing and then to be the centre of attention in a party. Our friend explained that the reason we’ve not been able to eat for days is because the Chinese all spend the New Year eating with their families and restaurants close.  We had a great time with his uncle who I have renamed Chinese Joe (Kirtikar). He was also very smoothly dressed in a pimping suit, and was absolutely on one, putting cigarettes in our hands, food on our plates and more tequila stuff in our glasses at every opportunity. He also went a got a massive pipe for Mikey to have a go on. Exactly what he didn’t need!

After the meal, our saviour also made sure we could get online and check our route for tomorrow and let our parents know we were ok. The internet café attached to the house was completely full of young boys playing games so he set us up with our computer by a fire, and his aunt brought us fruit and tea. (Chinese Joe settled down next to us with his massive pipe – occasionally giggling and offering us more cigarettes.) Elizabeth was online and when Olaf appeared on the computer screen, the entire family crowded round to look at him. They were completely amazed by him (obviously he is gorgeous and was smiling his head off at them), and they even took a video. Our friend’s little 2 year old daughter was also having a good look at him, which was very cute.  

By 9 we were asleep on our feet, and left the family playing some kind of poker game (lots of bank notes on the table). The lovely women escorted us to our room with flasks of water for tea and showed us to the bathroom and hot water. One of the tiny grandchildren strapped to the aunt’s back was completely fascinated by us and kept saying ‘oohhh’ and smiling.  There were huge explosions going on outside in the street, but none of the children seemed bothered, although a lot of dogs were barking their heads off.

Snuggled up in bed, watching a film to send us to sleep we couldn’t believe where we had ended up. So surreal, but another example of how catastrophic errors in judgement sometimes work for the best. We would never have had the opportunity to spend New Year with a family otherwise, and to have a translator so we actually knew what was going on was incredible. However, we still had a lot of hurdles to bridge before we could cross the border and it was difficult to relax despite our extreme exhaustion. I’ll definitely never have a birthday like that again! My husband is the best looking after me.

Miles cycled – 27 miles (1 of them took over an hour)

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Jojo on

You've got a right hero there Polly.

Elizabeth on

Mikey is a legend and What a difference to last year! As you say - you will never have one like it again! xxxxxxxxxxxx

Charlotte on

Mikey you are such a hero, Polly is a lucky lady :-) At least you ended your birthday in style Polly - what a lovely family xx

Amanda Mae on

Mikey you made me cry again... Found it emotional seeing you do the london marathon but when you look after my piggy like that well... gets me all teary eyed xx

Debbie on

Wow - competition for most exciting blog entry yet! (joint with the india mountain one). I am on Skype now after America, so will try to chat to you soon x x

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