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.

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