We landed at Kunming and made our way to immigration, I had an uneasy feeling, no idea why probably because of the publicity China gets in the west, but I definitely felt uneasy. We each had to go through immigration separately, me first:
"Why are you here?"
"We are booked on a Bike China trip of the Yunnan province."
"My husband and I, he's over there."
"How long will you stay here?"
"Well, we have a 30 day visa but we'd like to extend that to see more of your country."
"Where do you want to go?"
"Sichuan, Shaan-xi, then over to Urumqi before we head into Kazahkstan."
"How are you travelling?"
"We're on a tandem."
"A two people bike."
"It's a long way."
"Have a nice ride."
"Thank you, goodbye."
Vernon was even faster, he didn't get any questions. Into baggage claim and watch as all the carousel hangers leapt out of the way, that's our box coming through then! We gathered up all our possessions and headed out to find George who was holding a sign with "Bike China Clare Vernon" written on it, he lowered it as
soon as he saw us, we're not easily missed. A quick introduction to David and Sonia who were also on the tour and then over to the taxi rank to give a quick lesson in how to get a boxed tandem into a minivan, there was quite a large audience most of whom were disappointed when we got the box in first time with no problems and no need for random advice. The taxi driver wasn't quite so clued up and we ended up sitting outside a rather plush hotel overlooking Green Lake while he phoned George to find out where we should be; around the corner at Green Lake View Hotel, overlooking a traffic intersection. After checking in we headed out for a bit of sightseeing and to find dinner. I got my first experience of Chinese public toilets at Green Lake, I knew they would be squat style and I needed to bring my own paper (although I forgot this bit but Sonia came to the rescue with her own supply) but I wasn't expecting there to be a complete lack of cubicle doors. On returning to the group I shared this bit of information and Sonia told
us about the squat toilet one of their friends used with the full length mirror on the back of the door for the full visual experience.
The following morning we were going to be hiring bikes for a cycle tour of the area but the fifth member of the group (Amanda) had arrived sans luggage so we had a bit of a delay while she returned to the airport where, thankfully, her luggage was waiting for her. We were soon at the bike hire shop creating havoc through being too tall for most of their stock, an amount of fettling later we were off into the Kunming traffic for the first time.
There is a simple rule on Chinese roads: the biggest thing wins. As cyclists we were above pedestrians and cyclists on smaller bikes but below pretty much everything else, the rule is bent slightly for attitude: act like you aren't going to be cowed into submission and you won't be. It also helps if there are enough of you to achieve critical mass, at traffic lights drivers can turn right on red (Chinese drive on the right), if you are on your own cycling across a junction on
Chinese public toilet
(one of the more salubrious ones)
green a right turning driver will usually just drive in front of you and expect you to avoid a collision, if however there are twenty of you the driver will wait. We quickly got the hang of things and soon escaped the city, reaching Dian Chi Lake just as the wind got up, the lake is a popular spot for wedding photos and there were large amounts of silk and tulle being buffeted about while photographers assistants tried to keep fancy hairstyles, flyaway dresses and veils under control, our suggestion of gaffer tape and bike helmets was studiously ignored - can't think why, it would have worked!
We left the lake before we could be charged with harrassing newly weds and headed back into town and a rather nice teashop belonging to the company George works for when he's not doing favours for cycling friends, we got a lesson in how to brew China tea and tasted some very good Pu'er tea, providing a retail opportunity for those of us without baggage constraints.
Up early on the 2nd April for a short flight to Dali and the start of the tour proper, George collected Vernon and I from the hotel
Temple in Kunming
The first of many.
at 06:45, checkout took an age as did check-in when we reached the airport. We were just racing to the security area when we met the other three dashing to check-in, they had been even more delayed at the hotel than we had, we wished them luck and ran through to the scanners where one of our bags had to go through three times, once completely empty and we each got the added bonus of an all-over body rub from the holder of the magic wand. By now we could hear increasingly frantic announcements with one clearly recognisable word - "Lewis", we were holding our flight up. They finally let us go, we gathered our scattered possessions and sprinted for the gate where we were whisked to our plane and just cleared the steps before they were driven away. All the other passengers stared in a slightly hostile manner as we appeared but that quickly changed to the universal look of "Oh, foreigners, well what can you expect?"
On arrival at Dali John met us with the rather superfluous news that Amanda, David and Sonia had missed their flight, we had already guessed that as they weren't on the plane
we were on, they were on a bus and would be with us by 13:30. We checked into our next hotel and John took us out for brunch before we finally got the Jaffanaut out of it's box and rebuilt it with help from John, Dave (the van driver) and He (sag wagon driver), they were fascinated by the S&S couplings which turned a pile of bits into a recognisable bike and very quickly began second guessing which part we would need next, appearing with it just as it was required. We soon had the bike back together and set out on a test run around the old town, the bike was fine but the stoker came back a bit shaken what with cars being driven on both sides of the road randomly, mopeds trying to take our space and cyclists trying to ride between us. Pedestrians tended to keep out of our way, point, stare and laugh except for the two small children who screamed and ran away.
By the time we got back to the hotel the others had arrived and sorted their hire bikes out so we nipped out for a quick lunch before a shakedown ride
along the highway out of town. We visited a temple where the women were praying for a good harvest and for money to come into the village, the men were playing mah-jongg. As ever we provided entertainment as we rode into the village, men wandered up to studied the Jaffanaut but Dave was very attentive and wouldn't let anybody touch it while we were wandering around getting our first look at rustic China and probably being just as annoying to the locals. We got quite an audience as we set off, they were fascinated by the way I sat with both feet on the pedals with Vernon holding the bike upright while we waited to ride away, I think bets may have been placed regarding how long before I fell off.
For the second time dinner was a hotpot, a large metal bowl divided into two sections with spicy stock in one side and non spicy stock in the other was placed over a gas burner in the middle of the table, we were given plates full of uncooked vegetables, meat and noodles which we put in the stock to cook, then fished it out with chopsticks. As there was
a vegetarian in our group we divided the pot into meat in the spicy side and no meat in the non-spicy side, which wasn't perhaps the best idea as I like spicy food and one of the meat eaters doesn't. The meal was OK but being limited to two flavours (spicy and not) isn't brilliant in a country with such a wide range of culinary styles and the spicy was VERY hot; we agree later that if John threatens another hotpot dinner there will be a minor revolt.
The next day we loaded all our bags into Dave's van and rode off towards Xiashankou; the first part of the route was on a wide smooth cycle path next to a newly built road and we rolled along for a few miles until we came to the first roadworks of the day and had to do a bit of offroading to get past them, a short distance later we saw another sandy section, David, who was at the front, rolled straight through it, we got a bit more warning and swung onto the road before we cycled over the wheat that had been spread out on the cycle path to dry!
Lunch was at Wase, just after the cycle path ended and the unmade road began. Vernon called it a day after lunch, he'd been feeling ill all morning, so we loaded the bike into Dave's van and got a lift over the worst 30km of road I have ever seen. The others rode on for about 20km before calling it a day, the road surface was terrible and I was very glad we weren't riding it. On the plus side the hotel we were staying in had hot pools to swim in and a guest laundry with interesting electrics, Sonia managed to work out how to make it all work and passed her knowledge on to Amanda and me so we all got our kit washed and marvelled that we hadn't managed to electrocute ourselves in the process then lazed around in the pool for a while before dinner.
It was an easy start on the 4th as we were driven over the mountain to Qiaohou for lunch before getting on the bikes for the ride to Shahshia. Quiahou provided an opportunity to add to the "Toilets I'd rather not have found" list - a stinking shed with a filthy
concrete floor with three slots in it, no cubicles, you just squat next to whoever else is in there. There was no tap for hand washing but Sonia, who was rapidly getting a reputation for being prepared for any eventuality, produced wet wipes from her day bag. After lunch we got on the bikes, the Jaffanaut was first off the van and, as we were the slowest vehicle, we set off towards Shahshia while the others were still getting sorted, the valley was very lush with green terraces all the way down to the river and we stopped regularly for photo opportunities. After about 10km we were concerned that we hadn't been caught by the peleton and were just thinking of stopping to call John when He drove past and gave us a thumbs up, we were on the right road, so what the heck had happened to the rest of the group. Eventually Amanda caught us and explained that there had been a few mechanical issues at the start, shortly afterwards Sonia appeared on John's bike as her bike had a bent disk, as she rode by we could hear the grating sound of slipping gears, the tandem was
fine and we plodded on up our first semi serious hill, suffering in the altitude and pushing a fair bit of it before rolling down to Shahshia where John took us for a ride around the cobbled old town and got a fair whinge from me for his troubles, cobbles and a tandem don't go comfortably together and I'd had enough by then.
As it was we were being transported from Shahshia anyway, so we loaded the van up and piled into the minibus for the trip to Jianchuan, stopping at a kiln on the way to see the production of bricks and roof tiles, it was dirty and dusty and looked like very hard work. Everything was done by hand, treading the clay, forming the pieces and loading the kilns which were charcoal fired with the charcoal produced on site as well. I was dusty just from walking around the site and was glad that at the hotel we had a bathroom with working lights and no leaks - that was a first for us.
The next morning we were transported out of town before mounting up to ride down to the Yangxi and along to the first bend.
Two cool dudes playing the blues...
...well it was definitely in at least one minor key.
At first the road was a bit naff with a lot of roadworks but once we were past them things got much quieter and we rolled down to Shigu for lunch, arriving a bit early so we got a chance to walk around the town, meeting the worst two musicians yet, a couple of old guys playing stringed instruments which sounded worse than bagpipes (I know that's hard to believe, I never thought I would say (or type) such a thing), the musicians were pretty cool looking though.
After lunch we crossed the Yangxi on a very little ferry which managed to carry the minibus and the van as well, it took two trips to get us all across and included a minor altercation with a moped whose rider thought that the ferry ramp was a good place to park when there was a minibus reversing off the ferry, one bump later he rode up to the turning point and stopped just where He was heading for in the minibus, we yelled at the rider to move but he couldn't start the moped so just sat there until I stuck one foot on the back of the moped and gave
it enough of a shove to move it out of the way. He gave the rider some cash for the minor damage to the moped which then started first time and was ridden away. Dave chose to reverse onto the ferry so he could drive straight off it.
Our afternoon ride took us along the the opposite bank of the Yangxi to Qiaotao, rolling along by the river on a quiet road to the bridge linking the Shangri-La and Lijiang regions before turning onto the main road which we had been warned was "not nice" and had a lot of traffic. We were a little surprised to find the road was wide, smooth and quieter than most we had ridden on in Australia. Once again we found ourselves at the front of the group and wondering if we'd missed a turn, eventually Amanda caught us with news of mechanical issues in the peleton, then He drove past and led us into town and to our hotel, 87km for the day, our second longest day ride since we started travelling in November.
Before dinner we took a walk around the town meeting, a woman in traditional dress who was happy to
pose for photos in exchange for cash, she had the most amazing headdress on and pulled wonderful faces at us, laughing all the time, she was very good value for money. We also braved a local shop to find snacks and wine, well to be honest we selected the snacks we thought we could recognise and sent David to the counter to do the communicating thing. We ended up with a selection of nibbles which were all edible and a bottle of Eternal Pulchritude red wine, bought because the name sounded so dire, it didn't taste as bad as we expected.
Finally we were approaching Shangri-La; after an early start which included getting a restaurant to open so we could have breakfast we were driven up the valley to the top of the pass where we mounted up and set off towards Zhongdian (Shangri-La). Zhongdian County was renamed Shangri-La in 2001, after the fictional land in James Hilton's Lost Horizons, in a bid to increase tourism to the area and the town has also taken the name, other Shangri-Las are also available in a number of different countries.
From the top of the pass at 3200m elevation we had
a rolling ride through a brown winter landscape which hasn't yet got it's spring growth started, under a cloudy sky temperatures were low enough that we had three layers on and got chilly if we stop moving. For the first time we saw yaks and in Sonia's case nearly got landed on by one which was on top of a cutting and got startled by the cyclists below it, lost it's footing and stumbled down the cutting, no yaks (or Sonias) were hurt. The landscape was dotted with stupas festooned with prayer flags fluttering in the cold wind. We kept up with the solo riders better on the rolling hills and even with pee and photo stops we usually caught up on the descents (hurrah for gravity assist). At one point we were accompanied by a number of eagles circling above us looking to pick off the weakest rider, thankfully we were on a downhill at the time so looked strong.
In the afternoon we saw Sonia and Amanda sitting in a field with two local women, David was walking across to join them so we stopped and wandered over carrying the only food we had (a couple of bananas).
Sonia had been riding by when she was called over by the two women who offered to share their lunch with her, we were soon all there sitting in a potato field laughing, talking in international arm waving sign language and using camera screens and David's iPad to show where we had been. Amanda had a go at planting potatoes, unlike in the west where we plant potatoes in ridged rows these were planted in twos under individual pyramids of earth raised using a mattock. After John arrived the communication got easier and we were invited to see their house, a rammed earth building with space for animals on the ground level and human accommodation upstairs, the main living area had a wood fired range for heating and cooking and a huge stereo system of the type last seen in Britain in the early 1980s. We were also shown a room with a Buddhist altar and a bed in it, this was reserved for visiting monks. As we left David realised he had left his helmet behind, apparently this means he will return.
The road got busier as we approached Shangri-La and we had a minor "moment" at what we
took to be a roundabout, we were heading leftish so Vernon steered towards the centre of the road only to find a lorry heading straight for us. Basically as we were going left we should have steered to the left before the roundabout and passed on its left and if we were going right we should have stayed on the right. The rest of the ride into town went without trouble and we loaded up the van, grabbed our bags and found the hotel, where there was a power cut until 18:00 but as the water was solar heated we could shower, so no problem then except our room was in the centre of the building and had no windows! John marched back down to reception and got us a room change so we could at least see what we were blundering into.
One major problem with the ride, my right knee started to hurt behind the patella and in the upper right quadrant shortly after lunch and didn't let up for the rest of the day. I gave it some serious stretching whenever we stopped but that didn't seem to help, by the time we got to the
hotel I was having difficulty walking up stairs. We walked/hobbled around the old town before dinner, it really is a big retail opportunity and we were beckoned into shops and pounced upon if we even gave the impression that we might possibly want to window shop, it was all a little bit overbearing.
Thursday 7th was a day off, so we had a late start with breakfast at 08:00, there was frost on the ground as we walked to the restaurant and a definite chill in the air. My knee was still being uncooperative but we only had a short ride planned so it could just lump it. We rode out to Bulun, a Tibetan village about 5km from Shangri-La, the solo riders took an off road detour while Vernon and I took the road straight to the village, passing a field full of yaks including a rather cute baby one before finding Dave's van parked near a house which was being built. Dave was wandering among the lumps of wood being used in the building sizing them up in, what looked to us, a knowing way. We stood back and watched as the villagers got on with the job
in hand. The houses were all made of rammed earth with a stone base to them, once the base is set a frame of vertical planks is raised both inside and outside the house, then horizontal planks are laid inside the frame as a mould for the mud which is then shovelled in between the planks and tamped down. The walls are raised in half metre sections and allowed to part dry before the next layer is added. We watched for a while before remembering we still had to find the rest of the group, they had just got to the stupa in the village centre where we found John trying to find somebody who would let us into their house, eventually he was successful and we viewed another property very similar to the one we had seen the previous day with beautifully painted carved woodwork. John told us a bit about life in the village, the summer months are used to grow as much food and gather as much fuel as possible and get it stored before the six months of snow when it is impossible to work the land; the snow months are used for socialising, crafts such
as knitting and embroidery and travelling. It's beginning to look quite attractive.
We moved on to the largest monastery in the region, on the way we had stopped to check which left we were supposed to take and a taxi pulled up just ahead of us, two passengers got out and stood in front of us right where we would be cycling when we set off, they then stood and waited to see us move and got a little upset when we pushed the bike around them to set off, as we started cycling the taxi pulled out and did a u-turn in front of us. We caught the others just as they passed a very sad looking albino yak tied up outside a shop, there was a sign next to it to the effect that if, as a westerner, you should want to take a photo of the yak the charge was 10yuan. That wouldn't have been so bad but for the rider that its owner would be in the photo as well, the owner who described himself as a Tibetan wizard was wearing traditional Tibetan dress, Lennon style sunglasses, motorcycle boots and had a flowing goatee beard. That's a no then.
The monastery was very impressive. lots of gold and brightly painted carving, close up it was all a bit worn and jaded. John explained a few of the paintings to us and also gave us a bit of the background about the monastery and damage incurred during the cultural revolution and in the years after, the monastery had held 3000 monks in its heyday dropping to a handful but now back to around 300. A lot of the damage was due to neglect after the monks had to leave and parts of it, particularly the monks quarters, are still in a run down state and one of the temples is being rebuilt as the previous one had fallen down due to age. We watched the monks at work rebuilding the rammed earth walls of one building before getting in the minibus for the ride back into town. After lunch we walked around the vegetable market marvelling at the range and quality of the produce on display and gazing in wonder at the sacks full of chillies. Vernon finally got to try yak butter tea (like very milky tea apparently) at an internet cafe with Leonard Cohen on the stereo and we had pizza and Italian wine for dinner - Shangri-La, it's not quite China.
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