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July 26th: Dali to Lijiang, China

The lure of the Tibet Cafe's 'Dalai Lama' breakfast had to be overcome. It was time to leave Dali...

All over China, new roads are appearing - including one that would take us all the way to Lijiang, our next city stop. We cycled by way of Sapine market, 30 km out of Dali, parked our bikes and squeezed in amongst the mass of people, tractors and produce. The market was set on a hill. Easing our way past chickens, piglets and other shoppers, we were confronted by patchworks of colourful vegetables, food, clothes and livestock. Everyone seemed remarkably tolerant of lenses, and tourists rushed around in a state of delight, snapping through their camera films.

Today was busier than normal due to a ceremonial gathering of local Bai people. They arrived in village groups, wearing their near metallic blue headscarves, and queued at the temple doors; each carried an array of food and money as offerings. A band of musicians played traditional music whilst others burned incence. The sun shone down in shafts through the branches of an enormous tree, catching trails of incence smoke, lighting up the villagers clothes and throwing their old and tanned faces into darkness. Misformed beggars dragged themselves through the crowd, calling to passers by and reaching up their arms, clutching bundles of small notes. Inside the temple, old men were sitting in the sun and chatting - they wore wonderful fur hats, sunglasses and friendly expressions. When I asked for a photo, they nodded nobly and struck a serious pose.

It would have been easy just to sit under the shade of the tree and watch life go by for the whole afternoon, but eventually we pulled ourselves away and moved on. We left in convoy, cycling with Donner, Marguerite and little Boas in his trailer. It was a beautiful day and the road skirted along the edge of the lake - to our left, the folds in the mountain range looked like a reptile's skin. We were all in a wonderful mood and stopped for a spicy soup lunch whilst Boas charmed and befriended all the locals.

Climbing a long pass, we were separated by our different paces. As we rose higher and higher, the scenery was reminiscent of the Peak District with its hues of purples, browns and greens. It was the beginning of something spectacular, as if for the first time we were really in the mountains. The valley lay below us and we watched the rain fall in the distance, darkening half the sky. It wasn't long before it caught us up, and as the clouds swept in the views were obscured by a downpour.

We were soon drenched, but the road was smooth and we cycled fast - at one point I touched 70 km per hour on a downhill, freewheeling past a bewildered girl in a Yak jacket and huge sombrero. A small roadside town offered a typically Chinese hotel - half built, naked light bulbs and a lack of toilets and showers. But the thermos of hot water warmed us, and the restaurant downstairs was friendly and served the usual excellent food. With vegetables laid in neat piles, we needed only to point to our selection, for it to be thrown into an enormous wok and served just minutes later. John and Nora, our other Dutch cycling friends, arrived and joined us for supper.

(As for the toilets... We were advised in broken English that they were 300m away - over a half kilometre round trip. But as usual, distances in China are random, and they turned out to be just across the yard, a finger point away. Darkness helped obscure too much detail.)

July 27th: Half built hotel to Lijiang

Nothing could interrupt me from a blissful sleep - the karaoke went unnoticed and the echoing blasts of the courtyard radio didn't reach my ears until 7.30am. (The combination of a hard day's ride and the Yoga Party at Jacques cafe in Dali, which had moved on to star gazing on the roof of the MCA guesthouse, ensured my sleep was uninterrupted.)

Once again the rain fell - it is the rainy season after all - and we breakfasted at a little soup stop whilst gloomily contemplating the road ahead. Climbing a range which overlooked a traditional village and their satellite dishes, the fast and undulating road passed through the busy town of Hequin. The Garmin, GPS, computed we were at 2740m - and going up. Finishing a delicious lunch of rice, tofu, peanuts, egg and tomato, the sun shone and dried us out. The view overlooking the plateau of a meandering river and the rooftops of a little village made everything worthwhile. We joined the bicycle lane of a new highway for the final push to Lijiang.

Lijiang itself was heaving with tourists - armies of Chinese holiday makers in yellow baseball caps following their tour reps, who held flags aloft to distinguish the many groups. Mega-tourism. Our hotel stood in front of an imposing statue of Mao. Weaving between the throngs of tourists ambling up the cobbled backstreets of the old town, brand new 'old style' architecture was springing up all around, lending the main part of the town a kind of Disney feel to it. We headed out to the Well Bistro for pizzas, rated by the Lonely Planet as the finest in SW China... Strictly a one by one affair, we waited patiently to a soundtrack of Massive Attack's Blue Lines and Nick Drake. Familiar faces were tucking in all around - we are now very much on the Yunnan 'circuit'. Munching on pizza and pouring over maps - a cyclist's favourite pastime - we discussed ideas for an expedition to Iceland - climbing a glacier whilst towing the bikes on sledges.... Maybe next year?!?

Cookies, apple pie and internet surfing completed the day - we headed back to Mao, passing a string of late night neon 'hairdressing salons', to rest our weary limbs...

Statistics:

Dali to half built hotel - 96km
Half built hotel to Lijiang - 78km


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