Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dilly-dallying in Dali

I'd forgotten the joys of bus travel in provincial China - the small seats, the chain-smoking men, the vomiting children and the toilet stops. Oh, how we miss the freedom of the cyclist's open-air pee. Riding the bus we are condemned to those waterless tiled hell-holes where you get to see everyone lined up in a row, squatting and squezzing. And there's always one fella on his mobile phone. Surely this is a scene no English person could ever get accustomed to? Our bus takes us through dramatic scenery, out of the Nu Jiang valley, down to the Mekong/Lancang and then climbs up once again to a high plateau where we join a Super Highway, disappear into a long tunnel and re-emerge into another huge valley, the road descending forever into the mist. Finally it reaches journey's end in Xiaguan, a shabby city, where we unload the bikes from the roofand quickly pedal up the road to Dali.

This little town used to be the capital of a kingdom governing most of Yunnan until Mr. K. Khan's Mongol hordes showed up in the 1200's and incorporatedthe area into China. In the 19th century the city was governed by a muslim sultan who rebelled against the Qing emperor. Along with many other Hui (Chinese Musilm) uprisings, this one ended in blood and tears - it's estimated up to 18 million died nationwide in such uprisings - a sign of the empire's desperate hold on power. The quiet town became a popular hangout for Western travellers in Yunnan and is now fully included in the Chinese tourists' itinerary. There's nothing particularly special about the town itself - it's walled and remains low-rise - but it's a relaxing place and is located nicely between mountains in the west and Erhai lake in the east. The area is inhabited predominantly by Bai people, one of Yunnan's minorities, and as with all touristy towns in China, traditional dress is worn by many of the female shopworkers. And, as with all touristy towns in China, there is the local speciality dish. In Dali's case it's lasagne. We're happy to indulge in some Western food and wander the streets. At last this is a place where there are comfy cafes, book exchanges and, essentially for me, a new supply of Yunnan coffee. We're also delighted to catch up with Gill and Bert who we last saw in Luang Prabang. They're heading in the same direction as us and have information on access to some of the Tibetan towns further north in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces (some have been closed to foreigners). Bert is considering buying firecrackers as a dog deterrent. I'm on the look out for a handgun.

South west China has been suffering from a serious drought and Bert & Gill have had many hazy days on their bikes. In Dali, it's sometimes cloudy and chilly and finally rains one day. We both need new rain jackets and end up in the shops selling fake North Face and Columbia gear where we make a couple of shopkeepers rather happy with our purchases. Ambling down the pedestrianised streets we are approached by smiley middle-aged ladies, some toting babies, who ask if we want to "smoke some ganja". But if we want to get high, there's always the cable car up Cang Shan (boom, boom). No, we just want to relax and sample some more lasagne. Ooops, there goes a few more days.....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dog Days

It was around Baoshan that Kublai Khan's army tonked the Burmese back in the days. They went on to chase them all the way back to Bagan. In the morning on the bus I still have a vivid memory of Rambo thrashing the modern-day Burmese army almost single-handedly. If only it were real, eh? Marco Polo was with the Emperor in those earlier days and apparently writes about Baoshan as 'Vochan'. If I sound a bit wishy-washy on this it's because we still haven't read his account of his travels, so everything here is second-hand. Still, it's nice to know we're still arriving in places that the inventor of minty sweets has also visited. The town shows signs of recent expansion - the road outside the bus station isn't yet complete but there's a lovely new hospital in the centre. There are still quite a few buildings with the tell-tale white tiles on the outside - a hallmark of eighties buildings here that now look quite grotty. I am developing a Chinese hotel theory, not particularly brilliant, that nothing is particularly well-maintained here or kept clean. The answer is simply to knock it down and build anew. So, we always look out for the newest hotel we can find. They'll normaly be very comfortable (apart from the bed) and the bathroom will have modern fittings, even if the plumbing's a bit dodgy. The greatest comfort is having a kettle - you can't beat tea and biscuits in bed after a bit of cycling. Speaking of which........

After two more lazy days we set off down the Burma Road, heading south-west towards the Nu Jiang Valley. The Nu river is the second-longest river in South East Asia and the only major Chinese river not to be dammed, and like it's neighbour the Mekong (or Lancang as it's called in China), it rises in Tibet. The government had plans to build dams but have been put off by local protests and UNESCO recognition of the valley's special flora and fauna. But for how long? We want to cycle up the valley, which is a dead end for us - in the north there are dirt roads through the mountains into Tibet where we're not officially allowed without guide, permits etc. - but on the return we plan to take a road out heading east towards Dali. Our first day's ride feels like the easiest we've done in a long time, since we're going downhill for such a lot of it. We end up in a tiny hotel just by the bridge across the river. Gayle has some problem with her gear shifting which I exacerbate with some twiddling. After a sharp exchange of words and the oral equivalent of a frying pan to the head, I stop twiddling. It seems I have misread a critical part of the information leaflet I am reading off. Hmmm.

The road north has been described as a perfectly smooth road by another cyclist. But this is before they decide to straighten out the curves and level out the bumps. Before they remove large sections of the "perfectly smooth road" so that they can widen it. And before they start blasting out the valley walls above us, creating huge landslides, piles of rocks and dust, dust, dust everywhere. In typical Chinese fashion, the roadworks continue for about 80km. In the afternoon, straight after lunch, we have to wait a couple of hours while blasting takes place. When we do go through, there are still stones falling. Ultimately though, all this means is that we go a little slower through some very pretty landscapes. The valley is wide and fertile, the river green-blue and big. But there's been little rain here for a long while and the landscape is quite dry, the views hazy. When we reach Liuku, the main town in the valley, the road has become smooth again and the valley has narrowed into a gorge. There are roads east to the Mekong valley and west over the mountains and into Burma. We find a half-decent hotel run by an exuberantly drunk man who insists on helping clean up the bikes and carry our bags up to our room. He finds a guest, a woman, who speaks English - she learnt in Ireland but has lost the accent - who is helping her sister set up an English-language school. Another aspect of this valley is the mixture of ethnic groups living here, each with their own language. Mandarin is probably only spoken on official business, although we detect many of the businesses are run by in-comers. As we travel up the valley it seems to get more spectacular. It's not perfect - the one-horse towns are a blight, and there are about twenty small hydro-electric plants running down the steep valley sides - but then you get glimpses of the snow-covered peaks, or you ride past an old village of wooden houses set amongst terraced fields, accessed only by a steel cable. These river-crossings look fabulously scary - just hook your pulley on, slide across and don't look down at the rapids.

It seems that as we travel north the villages become more numerous. Paths disappear up vertiginous hillsides and up narrow side-valleys. We soon become familiar with the other valley residents - the dogs. Now there are good times and bad times to cycle through a village. Generally, between 11 and 3 is good because everyones dozing, including the mutts. But early morning or late afternoon and we cyclists may be the canine entertainment for the day. Something about our moving feet? Or our quiet approach? Some of the dogs are simply barking, but they like to get close to do it, and often fall behind out of your field of vision. Others are silent, but want to chase you down. We soon develop techniques to deal with them - the important one is that I let Gayle ride in front so that she can draw out any crazy hound. Her response is to shout loudly, which wakes up the village, but usually stops the dog in its tracks. If the dog is persistent and getting too close to ankles I get off the bike and chuck stones, but I'm an awful aim. I consider practising on some of the dogs that are chained up. These normally go beserk when we go past. I am shamelessly afraid of dogs, so passing through villages starts to make me hyper-alert and nervy. I feel like I'm playing the 'Hunt 'em and Shoot 'em' games that the kids play in the internet cafes. Every building could be sheltering a ferocious beast, or more likely a small yapper that just wants to have a little fun. At the top of the valley, after six day's riding, we reach Bingzhongluo, the village we're aiming for. In one restaurant where we're choosing food we are offered pork or dog. We go for the pork. I only wish that the locals ate more dog to be honest.

The views from the village are wonderful and we are so lucky to be blessed with good weather - only one cloudy day in the valley and one evening of rain - our first since goodness knows. Our hotel looks brand new and empty - ideal. But then we discover another guest, a Chinese fella who now lives in Canada, who we met back in Laos. Tai is also riding a bike which he also got at the same shop as us in Bangkok. His destination is Lhasa and we never expected to meet him again, but circumstances have brought him up the Nu Jiang valley. Cycling in Tibet is illegal for foreigners and Tai has no Chinese papers, so he is hoping to sneak in to the region along the dirt road at the valley head. We eat together and afterwards he is intorduced to a driver who offers to take him past the checkpoints that are further along the road. We hope he makes it. We spend a couple of pleasant days around the village before heading back south. The area is so peaceful and the landscape is beautiful - lots of pine trees and the blue-green river winding its way through the mountains. One noticeable feature of many of the villages here are the churches. French missionaries arrived here coming up the Mekong and more recent evangelsts have also been at work. In one town we meet two young Burmese men who have come over the border to proselytise. We have seen several mosques in Yunnan, but these are the only churches. The locals are working hard in the fields now - lots of ploughing

We return to Liuku by bus and are about to ride east out of the valley to get to Dali in 3 or 4 days. But it only takes three mad dogs and a sky full of dark clouds to make us reconsider our plans. Why don't we take another bus and get over to Dali sooner? So we do.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Nice Cup of Cha?

Armed with a new pair of cycling gloves and half a kilo of Yunnan's finest Arabica coffee, I am ready for more cycling. Armed with a fire extinguisher Gayle is ready to make war with the rowdies on our hotel floor who insist on screaming at each other outside our door at all hours: 10pm, 3am, 6.30 am, whenever. It is time for us to depart Jinghong. We're now on Beijing time (GMT+8) which means the sun is rising later - psychologically this is very important for us - now we don't have to get up until 7.30am. We can choose to take the Super Highway or the old road winding up out of town along a valley, and opt for the latter. However, so does all the traffic, and we're not sure why. After a very long haul to the top we descend very quickly and come to the Super Highway anyway - what a waste of effort. However, we stick to the old road which goes right through all the villages and small towns and is more interesting. In the afternoon we find ourselves climbing again, up through woods. Eventually the views open up and we are on a high ridge overlooking acres and acres of tea plantations. This area is called Pu'er and is where tea cultivation began. It's early in the season so there's not much happening at the moment. We end our day in a one-horse town and find a rather smart hotel and some good grub to fill us up. A marvellous day.

Our next day begins with a chilly and wonderful descent that just seems to go on and on until we arrive at the Super Highway again. The new road is obviously a great boon to the region as it speeds up transport links, but you have to feel sorry for one small village that now finds itself literally living right underneath the damn thing - completely put in the shade - quite a depressing sight. We stick to the old road again, twisting and winding, rolling along from village to village. I am delighted to see that all the crazy dogs are chained up - but maybe that's what makes 'em crazy? I definitely do not care. Along the way we pass huge banana plantations and occasional groups of farmworkers in a huddle around a truck. They form a banana-packing plant - cutting, boxing and stacking the produce onto the truck. In some of the busier towns it's market day and we notice groups of women in traditional clothes marking them out as a particular ethnic minority, for which Yunnan is famous. Looking at the faces of many of the people you'd be hard pressed to say where we were.

We're aiming for the city of Simao which has been renamed Pu'er. This must have come as a surprise to the residents of the town of Pu'er which lies 50km to the north. How very Chinese. The old town of Pu'er has also been renamed. It's all a nonsense - everyone still uses the old names. Simao once upon a time was a French and British concession - this was the 'customs' point for the export of nearly all the tea in China. Long before the Europeans arrived the Chinese were sending out thousands of tea horse caravans to cross the southern Silk Road into Burma, India and Tibet. Now it's a bustling provincial city with big palm-lined boulevards and lots of new buildings. Like many Chinese cities it hasn't got much character, or places to sit out, come to think of it, but there's good food and lots of smiling and staring people. "Laowai" is the word we keep hearing - it translates as something like "Old Whitey" - which is better than Old Big Nose, I guess. (They probably say that quietly too.)

Our aim is to get over to the west of Yunnan and cycle up the Nu Jiang valley which borders Burma and Tibet. A quick glance at the map and we decide to take a bus halfway there. It's an odd feeling turning up at the bus station to buy a ticket, but it's all very straight forward. We wait until the next morning and turn up with our fully-loaded bikes. But there's no bus, we are told. Yes there is, I say, we've got tickets for it. No, you don't understand, there's no bus. No I don't understand. It's at times like these that any grasp I have on Mandarin seems to dissolve like sugar in water. Thankfully there's a very nice young woman at the ticket counter who speaks a little English and explains the bus has been cancelled. Why not go to Jingdong, she suggests. How about all the way to Baoshan, we counter. Yes okay, on the night bus tonight. And the bikes are okay? Yes, the bikes are okay. After another day's waiting we roll up to the bus station and when our bus arrives we approach with a crowd of other passengers. The bus men look twice when they see our loaded bikes. We unload them - look, see, not so bad is it? Luckily we're at the start of the bus journey, so the hold is empty. We are invited to load the bikes ourselves, and get a whole locker to ourselves. No problems. We get on board and to my horror find that we are on a sleeper bus. A terrible invention - this sleeper bus consists of two aisles with three bunk beds across. Each bunk is the length of an average Chinese person. As I wedge myself in on the middle top bunk, Gayle gives me a cheery 'Goodnight'. The bus sets off and I'm trying to get my knees out from under an armpit when the TV screen, which is about 2 feet in front of my face, comes on. Oh goody, it's Rambo 4...........

Friday, March 5, 2010

The China Syndrome

The next few days follow a similar pattern. We cycle, eat a big stir-fried lunch, cycle some more, arrive in a small town beginning with Meng..., find a decent cheap hotel, eat another stir-fried meal and sleep. Our first meal is in a little cafe where the woman opens up her fridge, we point at some meat and some veg and ten minutes later we're eating a wonderful feast. Perfect. This seems to be a popular trend in these parts - and one which we enjoy because we don't have to look all confused at a Mandarin menu. There are occasional problems - such as when we ask for aubergine and tomato together. Obviously not a good combo. In the shops we find our favourite Chinese breakfast ingredients: sugar puffs and milk.

The cycling is easier here - when there are hills, the gradient is kinder. We cycle through a lot of forest reserve, which is very pretty. There's also a brand new Super Highway from the border which is fine sometimes for clocking up the kilometres but one day we reach a 3.5 km tunnel which gets very dark very quickly just as it starts to go downhill around a corner. We backtrack sharpish and find a dirt track that takes us to the old road, winding up over the top of a ridge - it's more effort but more satisfying. And there are many smiles per kilometre to be had here - is it China's population density or just they're a bit more cheerful here?

Most of the hotels we find look fairly new and the rooms are comfortable - tiled floors, white bedlinen, TV, kettle, bathroom, hot water. If only the beds had a little give in them - the Chinese like hard beds. It's probably Mao's fault. Most things are. There's nothing much to do in the evenings but catch up with the Chinese medallists in the Winter Olympics (these are repeated ad infinitum - our favourite is the woman speed skater who talks a million in every interview and looks a bit of a scally) or there's the news to catch up on: earthquake in Chile, British imperialists drilling for oil off the Malvinas Islands, Chinese government plans to spend 4% of GDP on education by 2012. One hotel room has a picture card of pouting ladies in various states of undress who presumably can be called to entertain us should the TV prove be too dull. At reception the room rates are posted up on the wall and all of them have an "o'clock" rate. We like to call these hotels 'Hotels For Homeless Lovers'. It makes them feel less sleazy........ But the best way to experience a Chinese hotel is to pick one that also has a coachload of national tourists, all wearing red baseball caps. They'll fling open all their doors, turn up the TV volume, play cards, spit sunflower seed shells, shout out to each other and generally let you know that you're not alone. They're loud people, the Chinese. Something about their language or the large population?

In Menghun Gayle visits the botanical gardens in the afternoon while I try and finish one of our books - desperate to lighten the load a little. The next day we sail into Jinghong, the provincial capital and probably the largest town we've been in since we left Bangkok. There's a couple of cafes for travellers here and we're happy to take a break from the road. One of our jobs is to plot our onward route westwards across Yunnan and we want to use the internet but none of the internet cafes will have us. "Mei you" they say and shake their heads - a classic gesture. We don't know the reason why but at least the cafes offer internet access. Oh go on then, we'll have a beefburger and chips while we're here.......

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Roadless Travelled

What makes cycling through Laos so enjoyable is the scenery, the lack of traffic and fairly decent roads. We're on the main road through the northern half of the country and there's hardly anything on the road. Including tarmac. Hang on, where's it all gone??? We shudder and shake northwards. After a climb we have a nice long descent, except the road is a mess of stone, gravel, pot holes - nothing but vibrations all the way down, and none of them good ones. There are road workers everywhere and finally we reach some brand new super-smooth tarmac, courtesy of the Chinese. We glide into a village called Namo, find a guesthouse and call it quits. It goes without saying that in the middle of nowhere, i.e. Namo, we meet another cyclist, John from Denmark. John is travelling south and has had two punctures and a broken spoke today. The spectre of a broken spoke haunts me. I had to confess that although we carry spare spokes we lack the tools and knowledge necessary to make a repair. We both wonder how John will survive tomorrow riding over the awful road we've travelled today.

We're excited when we wake the next day - we're only about 40km from the border with China and we're fed up with foe - Lao noodle soup. Today we'll be eating Chinese. Even better, the last 20km to the border is on a brand new road. On the Laos side is a Chinese town - we know this because it's a construction site. After getting stamped out of Laos at a portakabin we cycle down to the fancy Chinese border post - all spic and span. A security guard greets us and offers to watch over our bikes whilst we're inside. It's big and clean and empty inside. We do the immigration and health formalities (Have you any of the following symptons: cough, fever, diaorrhea, headache, flu, muscle fatigue, sore backside, tingly sensation in the fingers? If yes, have you been cycling through Laos? ) and go back for our bikes. "Have a nice holiday!" the guard shouts after us as we pedal off.