Home > Up the Mekong with Mr.C & Mr.D

Bumpy & Hilly Roads

March 30th, Dali, Yunnan Province, China
by Mr. D

After Lao, Richard hopefully stated, "at least the roads in China can't be any worse." - Oh dear, how wrong! Our Lonely Planet was, perhaps, more accurate with its comment on our intended route; "...the road, well, basically dosen't exist." - But we set out regardless and clocked 1000 of the hardest kilometers so far on this trip. All in all making the last 2 weeks, quite possibly, the most physically and mentally demanding of our lives.

Richard builds his new wheel in record time...
with some help from chemicals in Chinese Beer
Rich came back from Kunming a day earlier than I expected. In a couple bulging carrier bags he carried a host of goodies including a nice cosy fleece for me, a chinese-english dictionary, a few copies of the local english language propaganda rag, "China Daily" and most importantly, real chocolate. Mmmmmmm. He'd also been successful in picking up the new rim he'd had mailed to him from the UK. - This rim was the toughest his local bike shop had and it looked the business! - Over a couple hours and a couple beers, Richard had laced the spokes and trued the wheel - not at all bad for a first timer!

Richards early arrival and rapid wheel building left me a bit sad to leave Jinghong so quick. I had been quite happy to escape minority villages for a while and just savor the city hustle and bustle. In doing so, I'd made some wonderful friends, both among fellow travellers and locals. So my days were filled swapping English lessons for Mandarin lessons, taking a crash course on how to survive in Chinese cities, chatting to other backpackers, and reading English magazines.

We left Jinghong late after doing some hard bargaining for books at one of the few backpacker cafes. We're now up on Dostoyevsky and Paul Theroux, and lighter on Coupland and 'Misleading' Planet Laos.

We did most of our cycling in the midday heat 80km up the road to the smaller town of Menghai. The road was mainly uphill and quite busy so we effectively spent the day breathing in second hand diesel fumes - yummy.

We were warned the next morning by a well meaning bloke that the road to Lancang was pretty bad for 30km or so. He recommended that we take a taxi. - But we're stubbon and wouldn't have taken a taxi even if he'd told us the road was bad for 500km - which it was.

And so we slogged uphill again that day on a dirty bumpy road with trucks spewing dust and fumes at us while we mustered every bit of concentration on keeping from cycling off the cliff on one side and the trucks wheels on the other side.

Oh no, not the same questions again!
[ Jaymz handling the public relations near Lancang ]

We made it another 70km before we called it quits and decided to camp for the night in a beautiful forested river valley. We've now got into quite a nice sequence where Rich sets up the tent, while I make a fire and ready our little stove. - We can just go about our business in a fast efficient manner. I then took a wonderful bath in the stream, which was so refreshing after a long day in the road that I wouldn't have swapped it for one at the Savoy. However, while doing so I noticed something a little disconcerting; the smoke around the next corner that we'd assumed was from someones house had grown much bigger... bigger to the extent that I could now see flames licking up from behind the hill. In the time that it took me to get back to Rich and mention we might have a small problem, we had a big problem. The fire was now huge and covering the whole side of the hill on our side of the river. Flames leapt high into the sky accompanied by an errie roar and cackling sound as tree after tree exploded into flame. Smoke filled the valley and we began to get a tad concerned as we felt the temperature rise and watched the fire grow ever larger and then cross to the other side of the river.

Becoming somewhat panic stricken, we debated getting straight on our bikes and booking up the road, but eventually, more out of indecision, we ended up remaining by the supposed safety of the river, and amongst the several bare rice fields that surrounded us. The fire continued to rage as we hastily took down the tent and moved our bikes down to the river.

And then as the fire grew ever bigger than before, we felt a slight breeze blowing back down the valley and watched as the fire began to move uphill and then around the corner.... away from us.

We didn't really heave a proper sigh of relief for another half an hour until it was quite clear that the fire wasn't coming back. As we cooked dinner in the dark we regularly checked down the valley to check on the orange glow and smoke that eminated from the other side of the hill.

Before we left the next day, we checked out the remains of the fire. It had come right down to the edge of the rice fields, and stopped in a clear line by the bare ground. Our arbitrary choice of campsite and a puff of wind in the right direction might have saved our lives.

It was only 40kms to Lancang, but 40kms of butt shaking bumpy dusty dirt road is easily worth 100km of tarmac, so we called it quits early and rested up in a fab hotel for the princely sum of Y50 (about US$6)

In the afternoon as I walked around town looking for some degreaser for my chain, I could not help but feel a little disconcerted as groups of people pointed and gossiped about me as I passed. Groups of children would break into giggles, while the cheeky ones would run up behind shouting 'laowai' - If I turned around they would run away in hysterics. I was quite glad to bump into Rich later, who was also getting the same 'enthusiastic reaction' from the locals.

That evening as we watched Chinese TV in our hotel room we saw a McDonalds commercial. - We both looked at each other and went "Mmmmmmm" - Then laughed... that's how messed up you can get out here!

Actually compared to Lao, Chinese cuisine is something of a wonder. Tons of different foods and dishes, with fresh veg, and meat that has been kept in a fridge and actually looks safe to eat. They still have noodle soup here, but they also have so much more.... the only problem is getting what you want.

We've almost given up on good restaurants with menus, becuase although my knowledge of Chinese writing does extend to chicken, beef, pork, and common veg, it dosen't cover fancy names or the equivalent of "chateau-briande" in Chinese. And so our first attempt at pointing at the menu resulted in hearing a squak from the kitchen two minutes later. 5 minutes later we heard the chopping of a cleaver, followed by the sizzling of a wok, followed after 11 minutes by a huge plate of chicken bits... including the head. Everything else was diced so small including the bone that we were very careful what we picked at.

Another time we enjoyed a huge plate of chickens feet covered in sweet and sour sauce. Richard was brave enough to try one, but I've already had the privelege once already and have no desire to experience the succulent feel of stringy chickens foot skin slip through my teeth again. A week later in Lincang we had donkey stew.

And so my strategy for learning chinese writing has changed. I am now rapidly learning the characters for dog, rat, brain, feet, claw, scrotum, and foetus, in an effort to forestall any future poor ordering.

On the up side, cheaper 'fast food' cafes by the side of the road are great. They line their veg in a clear display cabinet, and have stacks of different meat in the fridge. We've now got quite adept at walking into restaurants and pointing at chunks of beef and pork and a few veg and getting some pretty tasty fry ups. Slowly we're learning the names of some common local favorite dishes and are now able to eat good 'normal' food every day. - As a double bonus, this food that we find stomachable is usually, also the cheaper alternative.

Brekfast though tops it all. Our LP guidebook reckons that breakfast is the meal that most foreigners have the most difficulty with. - Not at all! - When not cooking our own porridge, we'll go from restaurant to stall to restaurant having several breakfasts one after another. We might start with a rich noodle soup followed by some fried bread with sweet honey & sesame filling at a stall near the market. We'll then duck into a little shop and fill up on meat dumplings and cocanut soyamilk, then round off with some fresh fruit from some more stalls as we head out of town. - Big bags of strawberrys for just Y4 (60c) or maybe a bunch of bananas for Y1!!! - After a power breakfast like that, the hills are easy.

Well, perhaps easier. Not long after leaving Lancang a brief stretch of tarmac deteriorated back to cobbles, and then to dirt. At the same time the hills started getting bigger and bigger.

Cycling on dirt roads seem quite exciting at first. Cobblestone roads even add a touch of quaintness to the picture, but in actuality they get old and tiring very fast. After Lancang we experienced plenty of cobblestone road. In some stretches, we'd encounter huge road crews carefully laying stone by stone of a road that stretches hundreds of kilometers. To the amusement of one road crew, we even stopped to take photos of this slow and intricate work. Sadly cobbles are only good for bikes if they've only recently been laid. For the most part they give you a bone shaking continuously jarring ride, so we end up cycling in the dirt verge by the roadside. This is not without its own problems; the dirt by the side contains hidden rocks and huge banks of loose sand that threaten to spill unwary cyclists. After a while cobble roads break apart or were broken apart in preparation for resurfacing leaving huge tracts of nightmarish rocky road that required absolute concentration and rugged determination to travel. Trudging uphill would be slow but the real kicker was coming down the other side at grappling with the brakes and avoiding potholes, never going much faster than on the way up. The reward for your uphill slog stolen by the poor quality of the road. Occasionally in frustration I would let rip anyway, but it would not be long before you'd round a bend and the road would go from bad to awful, sending the bike shaking and bouncing out of control; derailler clanging, and bags banging. It was at times quite dispiriting.

But it could still be wonderful at times. Halfway through the trip we rounded a bend at the top of one hill and were presented with a spectacular view of an enormous valley. Richards face lit up in awe as he exclaimed, "this is better than bloody Switzerland"

Halfway through the trip we decided to leave the 'main' road we had been on. (Yes this dirt road we'd been following is actually one of Chinas principal highways stretching some 3500 kms to the North) We planned to follow a minor road 'cross country' towards Cangyuen and Tengchong. Instantly the traffic passing us dropped from 40 vehicles per hour to 2 vehicles per day. We rode into a wonderful Lao style world devoid of television and contact with the outside world. In a flash we were back amongst strange minorities talking unknown languages and wearing colorful clothes.

If they seemed strange to us, we must have seemed even stranger to them. Their reactions were probably no different than ours if we were to see 2 little green men with antenna driving spaceships through wimbledon common.

I wonder if they bite?
[ Akhi girls study us from a safe distance ]
That hot afternoon we stopped for a break near the top of a hill to watch the scenery. A girl walked past us on a path pausing slightly on sight of us and then keeping a very safe distance. Once past she hurried on up the hill as if scared and clearly wanting to get away. Not long later we glanced up the track to see two faces staring back down at us. It didn't take long until a third appeared and together they summoned the courage to slowly walk down towards us. They stopped 10 meters away and continued staring on at us slowly. Soon they were joined by 3 more elderly folks, who being a little more tired decided to sit down and watch us. They talked amongst themselves, but shied away from answering our hellos. Rich pulled out a chinese recorder we'd bought a day earlier and began to practice playing "God Save the Queen" and other British favorites.

After what must have been half an hour, the first girl summoned the courage to come right up to us. She silently held out her hand and demanded to see the instrument. As Rich offered it, she snatched it away and backed off to a safer distance before screeching a few notes. Clearly a bit saddened that 'rule Brittania' did not role off her lips quite as well as it did from Richard, she handed it back and then happily accepted a cookie from me. Instantly the 2 other younger girls joined her and demanded feeding too. After looking on at us for a couple of minutes they moved over to our bikes and immediatly snatched 2 oranges on my back panniers. I intervened at this point and managed to negotiate to get one of the oranges back. After their curiosity was sated and our legs were rested, we all parted ways in good moods with lots of waving.

Reactions continued to differ along the way. One afternoon we passed a large group returning from the fields for lunch. Just like the children in Lao they started running after us and laughing. We past more and more, and soon we must have had almost 60 people of all ages, young and old racing us up the hill.

After almost 80kms on our dirt road we reached the village of xue-lin not far from the Myanmar border. The villagers there regretfully informed us that the road didn't continue past the next town. But they were full of solutions. One man recommended we carry our bikes for 10 kms over the hill to where the road continued again, while another lady mentioned that we could duck accross the border into Myanmar where we could follow the road around. Then proceeded a small debate as to the safety of this option with plenty of throat cutting gesticulation. Just as we'd decided to give the first option a go, the boys in green noticed us and summoned us to their humble police station. They were all very cordial and friendly and brought out a special seat and served us with tea before the interrogation began. "Where are you going," "What are you doing here," "What is in your bags," "Passport please."

[ Rice terraces in Yunnan ]
Almost in a stroke of luck one of the PSB (Public Security Bureau as they are known) was from Guangxi province and could speak a heavily accented form of Cantonese. This broke some ice as I speak a whole load better Cantonese than I do Mandarin. So I plodded through an amusing set of replies in a mixture of English-Cantonese-Mandarin, eventually getting the message accross that we were really just a couple harmless, but 'crazy' foreigners trying to cycle our bikes to Hong Kong and take in the scenery at the same time. They accepted this all in very good humor, but regretted to inform us that there was no road beyond the next town and we MUST go back to the main road.

And so we turned back a bit dispirited and headed up hill and down dale back to the main road.

Going back to the main road wasn't the worst of fates. In a way a couple days in the middle of nowhere was plenty for me. I enjoy being where no foreigner has been before, but at the same time it feels so very wrong. You meet people whose worlds are so very different from our own, who have no common language with us, and who often look at us in fear and at times hostility.

Back on the main road, and in one of the many cafes we had a wonderful chat with a young couple from Lincang. As we were the only other customers there, all the staff joined us too and when we got the typical question of how old we were, I asked them all to guess. One lady thought I was 30-35. Richard with his 2 weeks worth of facial hair clocked in at a respectable 40.

That day we tackled the main road with a vengence as it wound up a deep river valley. Beside us the rivers flowed black from sugar refineries and god knows what upstream... all of it eventually ending up in the Mekong from which people swim and drink. We looked on in disgust and surged forward paying precious little regard to our complaining bikes as they slammed through rock after rock after rock after rock. We churned out a good 100km in the blazing sun, and arrived in the communist-era town of Shuangjiang as the daylight was beginning to fade. Our bikes had held together after a tortuous and difficult day. My butt had not fared so well and was almost too sore to sit down on.

Shuangjiang - Chasing the Prosperity Dream
Shuangjiang looked like it had just fallen out of the cultural revolution. It's people were the same. Despite pointing out three times that the light in our room did not work, and three promises of it being fixed, nothing happened. We spent dinner in the company of two very drunk truck drivers who insisted on conversing with Richard who was clearly not in the mood. When we returned we discovered to our delight that not only was the light not fixed, but there was now a karaoke bar open accross the hallway from our room. I stormed down to reception and in my best Hong-Kong-esque hissy fit style lost it at the trio of receptionists. - It did the trick and we moved rooms away from the blaring noise and into the light, which we switched off almost immediatly and both fell into a long deep sleep.

We performed another heraclean feat of mind over bike over appauling road the next day and clocked over 120kms (including a 4500ft (1500m) 25km climb) to the town of Lincang. Along the way people called out 'hello hello', and laughed as we passed by. But unlike Lao, the laughing seemed to be directed at us rather than with us and the 'hellos' seemed to be deliberatly spastic and mocking every time. We began to stop answering, and devoted all our conversation to battling the road, and avoiding maniacal car drivers who insisted on overtaking trucks on blind bends and running us off the road.

In Lincang we took a day off and slept in a niceish hotel with a real hot shower.

Through all this battling we had not noticed how the scenery was changing. On leaving Lincang the road became surfaced, and we began to take in more of the scenery and beauty around us. Yorkshire style dales blended into Rocky mountain style foothills. Cool alpine air blew past us as we once again flew down hills, and at the top of a long pass we would enjoy the sweet smell of fir trees along with a pack of precious cookies.

A couple days before Dali we met again with our old friend the Mekong. Here it is called the Lancang River, and with nothing left to pollute it in its upper mountain stretches, it runs wide, clear and blue. We picked a lovely place to camp along its banks and I took advantage of a wonderfully refreshing bath. After a fine meal from our stove, we were lulled to sleep with the sound of rapids in the distance.

The next morning the sound was gone. So was the rapids. So was the river... or at least most of it. - All that was left was a much smaller stream and along the far banks you could see how the water had dropped some 2-3 meters. It was eerie and scary. We washed our porridge pots gingerly in the stream continuously eyeing upstream for the rush of water that we felt must be coming round the corner any minute.

10 km's up the road as we started to head uphill we spied the corner section of a huge big dam with a big proud slogan painted over it in communist red. - It felt like our river had been raped. - But that didn't occupy our thoughts for too long, we proceeded to climb 5500 ft (1700m or 1 mile) up to the next path.

We carried on hauling ass towards Dali, pushing and exceeding our limits every day, battling against stupid car traffic and occasionally holding onto the back of trucks also struggling to climb the hills. Truck drivers would hoot and wave as we passed each other over and over throughout the day. Occassionally they'd stop and have a chat with us by the side of the road. They became our allies, also battling and struggling with the same road and hills.

only another 10 miles to go...
[ A Bai woman at work ]
And eventually, with enough peddalling we made it Dali in one final crazy day with more trucks, cars, traffic and wind than ever before. We glided down the main street of the old walled town and stumbled into a little microcosm of Anti-China. English signs, Western restaurants, we spotted someone with blond hair, and then two tall foreigners with backpackers... and then lo a corner store with 'Chips Ahoy' and Dove bars. Ohhhhhhhhhhh. We cycled up to a guesthouse and were greeted by a friendly Chinese lass who pleasantly greeted us with the words "welcome to our guesthouse." - She was the first English speaking person we'd met since leaving Jinghong over 2 weeks before.

The Rough guide says it all about Dali in one paragraph. "Dali draws in swarms of foreigners seeking an escape to the realities of China, coddling them with English signs, advertising, beer gardens, massages, day trips, and western food."

So, we're escaping for a while. It rained on our first day here , bringing us a wonderful feeling of 'home.'(first time on the whole trip so far! ) The next morning the skies had cleared leaving a wonderfully blue sky and snow on the tops of the mountain range behind us. Rich is out on a boat ride on the lake today, and as soon as I've finished writing this, I'll be off for pizza. It's wonderful.

We've also changed our plans. We were going to turn right now and cycle to Hong Kong. But we've followed the Mekong up this far that we can't let it go so easily. We're going to try and continue north and find its source somewhere in Tibet or Qinghai. We suspect that at some time either the weather or the boys in green will turn us back. Tibet is of course rather cold and snowy at this time of year, and the highway from Yunnan is 'strictly off limits for foreigners'. But we're not the sort to take 'no' for an answer.