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.......

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