Southern Yunnan: where the land is marked with contour lines….and the maps are not. And where mangos, melons and pineapples are cheaper than apples and pears. Happy days!
We’ve spent nearly four months and covered more than 6,000 kilometres crossing China, and unsurprisingly the landscape has changed steadily as we’ve made our way from the arid bareness of the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang province, down through the agricultural plains and steep, twisting passes of Gansu and Northern Sichuan, through the dramatic Tibetan foothills of Western Sichuan, and into the increasingly lush and agricultural Yunnan province. As we’ve travelled south, and also as the seasons have changed, the amount of vegetation has increased almost daily. We’ve now crossed the Tropic of Cancer and the hillsides are a dense green jungle, which provides welcome shade on the continuing climbs. Banana trees and huge clumps of bamboo, some 15-20m high, line the roads.
But the most sudden change has been in the appearance of wildlife. Gaudy butterflies flutter by, dragonflies dart and wheel around the bike, and heavily armoured invertebrates muscle their way into the tent.
Since entering Yunnan we’ve noticed the quiet evenings being disturbed by an increasingly loud chirr of insect activity and now that we’re in the tropics we’re serenaded from dawn ‘til long past dusk with a veritable symphony of avian and insect music. Hoots, whirrs, clicks, chirps, tweets, howls, whoops and shrieks reverberate around us. There’s even something that sounds just like a small garden strimmer and something else that gives a very plausible imitation of a thimble on a washboard. Can’t fault a bit of skiffle accompaniment when you’re slogging up a hill.
We’ve been predominantly following the S214 and S218 roads, finishing up on the G213 for the final spurt to the Laos border, which is now less than 50km away. Traffic levels have been much lower than in other parts of China, which has made this one of the more pleasant areas to cycle in despite the long climbs. There are still the same proportion of inconsiderate, incompetent and horn-happy drivers as elsewhere, but as there are fewer of them in number their impact on us has not been so bad. I’ve actually gone so far as to take my earplugs out. In fact, there might actually be a slightly higher percentage of nice drivers here in Southern Yunnan. I think more people have managed to wave at us in a friendly fashion without resorting to hooting their horns or slamming their brakes on to the consternation of the cars behind them than anywhere else in China. We’ve even been passed bottles of water on two climbs – which was very much appreciated.
Mind you, there’s always the occasional piece of comedy driving to leave us shaking our heads in disbelief: we were riding along minding our own business when a car that had just past us going the opposite way started reversing at speed up the road towards us and overtook us on its side of the road then swerved across in front of us and came to a halt – it was typical Chinese driver madness, except for the fact that it was an English registered car being driven by an English guy called John. He had driven from England down through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan & India, then through Burma and then Laos and now into China, on route to the Honda factory in Japan to, as he put it, “take the car back to Honda”. We chatted to him for a while and he told us that this trip had started 7 years ago, but he had spent a lot of time between India & Pakistan. He apologised for his crazy reversing manoeuvre and we quickly forgave him as he was such a likeable guy and his trip sounded epic.
In general the road condition has been pretty good, with exceptions being a long, frustratingly sedate descent on bumpy tarmac into Yuanyang and a long, painfully slow climb for about 20km on dirt and rocks after Jiahexiang. But even on good tarmac, with between 1000 and 1500m of climbing every day progress has been generally slow, and particularly so as our smallest chainring is getting very worn and slips badly when the gradient increases, forcing us to either strain in the middle ring (argh – lactic acid!!) or, more frequently, dismount and push the bike several times a day.
The climbs have had their rewards though. One of the things we particularly wanted to see in this area were the picturesque rice terraces of Yuanyang, so we made the 30km (1500m, five hour) climb from Yuanyang to Xinjiezhen to see them and were very pleased we had. Even on an overcast and misty day they were beautiful.
After admiring the rice terraces (and having our photos taken numerous times with a bus-load of tourists from Hong Kong) we headed off towards Luchun. Our map showed us staying on the S214, but we ended up being directed onto a new road unmarked on our map. This was great in one respect as it was a lot shorter and probably saved us a day’s riding, but a bit annoying in another respect as the new road didn’t go through many villages, and, after a day’s climbing we were perilously low on water. We eventually reached a small village, but the tiny shack of a shop didn’t have much bottled water and the only drinking water available to the locals appeared to be in a limited container, so we ended up just taking a litre to keep us going and then a few kilometres later asking at a worksite where they gave us enough to see us through the evening and following morning.
The next day, we dropped down into the provincial town of Luchun where Jonathan and Annie, our Warmshowers hosts back in Kunming, used to live. Jonathan had headed up the regional branch of World Vision there and he put us in touch with his replacement, Susan, who kindly agreed to meet us when we passed through. We’d wanted to take her to lunch, but, as usual, we completely failed in our mission and Susan not only suggested a fabulous little restaurant (where she introduced us to the delights of bee salad),
but she also sneakily picked up the tab whilst we were distracted by a colleague of hers who’d come to see if he could help us find a bike shop. We are always on the receiving end of people’s kindness but fail miserably whenever we try to reciprocate. Must try harder in future!
We spent the whole afternoon with Susan and her volunteer assistant, Toni. We used their office wifi and then they took us shopping in the local market. It was a whole new experience to go round with people who actually know what some of the things are that we’d often seen and wondered about (brown sugar comes in what looks like little blocks of brown soap).
When we showed Susan and Toni some of our photos, it turned out that the village we’d been looking for water in the previous day was almost certainly one of the three villages that World Vision are currently engaging with in the Luchun area. It takes around two years to do a full needs assessment for a community , and then Susan and her team have to compete with other projects in China for funding, but hopefully the village we saw, and the others in the Luchun district, will benefit from improved sanitation, education, healthcare and agricultural practices in the coming years.
You can find out more about World Vision and its work here.
We met Susan and Toni again the next day. They were going on a field visit to one of the villages further down the road, and they met us trundling slowly up a hill as they were driving back to Luchun. Susan presented us with a box of ginger tea as she knew we’d been looking for some the day before but had failed to find any, and so she gave us a box from her own personal stash which she buys online. I’m drinking a mug as I type this and enjoying it very much – thanks again for everything Susan!
After saying goodbye for a second time to Susan and Toni we enjoyed a 1200m descent for about 30km and then made our way along a river valley. We saw an old lady and a child washing their faces at a roadside tap and asked if we could do the same. They let us freshen up and then invited us for dinner.
It was mostly delicious….although they did insist on passing us choice bits of unidentifiable chicken parts which we had to swallow down with suitably appreciative noises despite the strange, gristly texture. I really don’t want to know what the marble-sized, spherical object was that found its way into my bowl.
After dinner we said our thank-yous and goodbyes and rolled on to find somewhere to camp for the night…which ended up being on the verge at the side of the road, which had lost its nice tarmac topping and was once again climbing upwards.
Sadly, this unsurfaced road was to continue for most of the next day, and it turned into one of our toughest days.
We climbed for nearly 20km and over 600m on a mix of dirt and rocks, struggling to maintain 5kph. When we reached the top, we thought it was downhill from thereon….but were so wrong. We descended a couple of hundred metres, and then re-climbed them (this time on cobbles – oh joy!) and then descended and re-climbed repeatedly for the rest of the day. The road was never quite as bad as it had been in the morning, but a dearth of villages since the one we’d stupidly spurned at the top of the first climb (as it was only just after midday and Keith wasn’t hungry then) meant we didn’t have lunch until 3.30. Luckily I remain my usual sweet-tempered self even when tired, hot and ravenous (ahem!).
Our last few days in China continued to be hilly but after that particularly hard day they thankfully always included some good descending where we could rest our legs, but even so we were both relieved to get to Mengla with a day in hand so we can recover a little before the final 50km push to the Laos border. Northern Laos promises to be just as hilly as Southern Yunnan.
Much of Yunnan has been familiar Chinese territory to us, particularly in the towns: oblivious drivers; a preponderance of scooters and mobile phone shops; a cacophony of amplified electronic sounds emanating from each and every doorway; unashamedly rambunctious expectoration of an endless supply of phlegm; delicious and varied food and interesting markets. But there’s also been a few things we’ve only come across in Yunnan:
A lot of the motorbikes here are fitted with loud speakers, and we speak from experience when we say that Chinese pop music is not improved by the Doppler effect.
Cigarettes are often smoked through huge pipes.
No self-respecting Yunnan lorry driver would be seen without an astro-turf dashboard.
Astroturf isn’t the only strange thing about Yunnan trucks….quite a lot of them have the engines exposed in front of the cab, with the cab facia, including radiator inlet and headlights placed behind the engine….wtf??
Dog is on the menu – the next picture is a dog carcass being blow-torched in the market, right next to a cage containing three woebegone and listless mutts lying nose-to-tail around a bowl of rancid slop. We don’t have an issue with eating animals, but do think they should be kept and killed in a more humane manner first. That said, after being chased down the road one day by a particularly obdurate hound I did feel moved to remark “Bark all you like mate, you’re gonna be someone’s dinner soon.”
We camped next to some rubber trees being tapped for their sap….at least in our ignorance we presume that’s what they were.
Yunnan has some interesting public information signs. We guess the text runs something along the lines of “Oi, peasant! You steal government cables/shoot little birdies and you’re gonna get a righteous pistol-whipping and no mistake.”
And Yunnan has yet more traditional costumes, like this one with two large ornate flaps hanging down over the wearer’s behind…
…and these ones with the brightly embroidered trousers and tunics.
Automatic Mah Jong tables are the business. Two sets of tiles are used – one in play and one being sorted within the machine ready to be laid out at the press of a button. There’s also a handy money drawer on each edge to keep your winnings in.
And finally, we have no idea what this is but we call it the “Doctor Who fruit”.
So, that’s the end of China for us. It’s been a mixed bag of pleasure and pain. We’re glad we’ve done it, and last few weeks in particular have left us with good memories that I’m sure will last longer than the bad ones. And so we say “Zai Jian China! Next stop Laos.”