July 17th: Near Lufeng, ChinaIt was time to get back in the saddle...
Leaving Kunming, we took the old highway towards Dali, ducking and diving over and under the new expressway. This same road forges on another 700 km to Burma - incredibly, 300,000 Chinese built it by hand in 1938. Man power is no problem for a country with a surplus workforce of 130 millon, twice the UK's population...
The old mud wall houses in villages along the way were tiled, with roofs rising ornately at either end. Following a shady tree lined road we dropped dramatically through a valley of burgundy and mauve fauna to a one street village where we checked into our 'lugwan', definitely a lower rung on the hotel ladder. The tramp sitting in the doorway opposite, head stooped, didn't move all night; he remained there, motionless, the following morning...
July 18th: ChuxiongConcentration comes with difficulty at the moment for as I type, I am being subjected to the worst Karaoke I have EVER heard - no mean feat in Asia. A noise that can only be described as wailing. Trystan is clutching his temples, muttering 'Jesus, Jesus...what the hell is he doing?...'
Hotels in China are thesis worthy. Take this morning... 7.30am, our humble abode - a knock at the door. 'Ah, come to refill our tea earn, how kind.' No! Wrong! Complicated gesticulations for us to leave - it seems check out time is early in these parts. And in the harsh reality of daylight, the squat style toilets were everything we feared and worse... Is this the future of hygiene for our time in China?
It was a tiring and rainy day along an undulating road; big valleys and misty views. We bumped along quietly as road maintenance money now goes straight to the new toll highway, along with the majority of the traffic. Cycling through dark and damp tunnels into the rockface of a gorge, we waited for passing trucks. As they disappeared into the depths, we followed in mad pursuit hanging on to their tail lights.
Stopping for munchies, I sampled my first Chinese biscuits. These strangely papery numbers were wrapped in a packet announcing: 'Its nice, its deliciou, its nutriciou!' This became a kind of mantra which I hummed away to myself over the hours in the saddle, when we weren't quizzing each other with questions like, 'If you were to have had a Jedi Master in your life, who would he be?'
After our breakfast of steamed bread - savoury and sweet - we lunched in a small village for just 1 Yuan each, around 12 cents. For the record, today's outlay was just 7 US dollars for the two of us, and 5 of that was the hotel!
The food in China, a crucial part of life for every cyclist, is quite delicious. The drink is something else. At supper, we were offered a slug of rice wine by a Chinese at a neighbouring table, leaving us spluttering and coughing in surprise. Just half an hour later, Trystan dashed off to the toilet...
First impressions of China and its people after just a few days on the road is how friendly everyone seems, offering reserved greetings - curious but witheld. A pleasant change from the Vietnamese whose zealous outcries could be almost threatening at times. The staring and the lack of privacy pales in comparison to Vietnam. And so far we've not been met with steely stares but warm smiles, unlike many tales I'd been told.
But back to reality...The Karaoke offender must have grabbed the mike again - I think this time we'll retaliate by blasting out one of a multitude of chinese channels we have on our TV. The mysteries of China continue to unfold...
July 19th: PupengThe rains continues to fall, watering the growing hillsides. But by evening, as we pulled into yet another little Chinese village to begin the search for a hotel, a clear blue sky dried us off.
We wandered idly around for a stopover. An hour past, and still no hotel, despite promises of 'one being round the corner, or back a little, or just over there'... One food shop gave us a very decisive nod - 'Duashau Gonglee?' (how many km?) we asked. Two or three came the reply. We set off down a steep hill to follow this lead. A few km later we checked again, brandishing our phrase book. The spokesman of the group we approached pulled at his goatee, picked his nose, shook his head and pointed us off 18 km into the distance. '18 km?' Our hearts sank... Until his wife interjected, with something we imagine to be ...'Hold on, I've just had a thought...isn't there that hotel just 500m from us up the hill???' I couldn't believe it. We're not talking a big village here, just a collection of houses dotted around.
How long had they lived there?! We turned the steeds around and a few false clues later, finally tracked down the offending building. Almost OPPOSITE the food shop we had first asked at!... I noted the old men sitting by the roadside chuckle a little and imagined their conversation: 'See that? The foreigners went straight past the sign!' With all the tones let alone the regional accents, making yourself understood is a struggle. But at the end of the day, you have to laugh or it would drive you mad!
As for the room, well, it was basic. The young girl who seemed to be running the place unlocked the metal door, opening into a concrete floored cell shared with four washing machines; fortunately, they weren't on. Our own washing came by way of a tap in the road, where every move was monitored by fascinated onlookers. And the toilets?..luckily we never found those.
In the kitchens we ate a delicious meal, and caught a little of a Chinese epic style soap opera - a kind of Dynasty, I thought ironically. The whole setup was kept busy by a flow of truck drivers passing by to fill up their jars of tea leaves with piping hot water. Thermos flasks of every shape and size are omnipresent in China, as all restaurants offer free boiling water.
Full bellied and content, we retreated to the washing machines. It seems while everywhere in China, however simple, can rustle up a great platter of food, accomodation can come in all shapes and sizes...
July 20th: DaliAfter a promising clear start to the morning, the drizzle and clouds set in casting a gloomy light to the day ahead... Leaving our washing machine hovel, we set off to tackle the ranges that lay ahead after a hearty bowl of noodles in a roadside dinner where a few women rushed about with piping hot water. An old lady with traditional clothes came over to our table and coughed over us, but I think it was a greeting.
At the top of each hill, steam rose off us in the cold air. We reached a beautiful plateau, and ascended further. The gradient was very gentle for the trucks - blue Dongfens which left a trail of dark smoke in our faces. Between breaks in the clouds were vistas of mountains surrounding the plateau giving way to forest covered peaks. Small run-down villages along the way were lined with scraps of junk, and ladies sold corn on the cob, boiled and roasted, for passing bus passengers. Locals reacted to us in different ways. Some bystanders we passed were curious, others offered encouragement, some stared or just ignored us. Our hours of toil were rewarded with a great descent through the mountains - the clouds dissipated leaving a clear blue sky just as the road smoothed out, a miracle after 400 km of potholed clatter.
Though we had planned for a short day, the promise of burritos and lasagna was too strong. We pushed on to the tourist den of Dali, pulled in to one of the guesthouses, showered, gloomily contemplated the loos, and joined the throng of tourists along its newly renovated streets.
It wasn't long before we were contently tucking in to one of the Sunshine Cafe's Asia-renowned brownies and ice cream.
Oh, to be in China!