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...........

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