Since leaving Chengdu we have cycled about 900km and climbed almost 7000m. We have another 650km to go before we reach the Lao border, meaning we are finally clocking up some proper bike touring distances. In our first two months in China we have done a lot of train travel, sight-seeing and exploring cities, but these last couple of weeks in Yunnan province are all about bike travel in the countryside, apart from a visit to the capital Kunming. Less touristy = more riding.
The speed of life
We are into a steady rhythm of getting up around 7am, then faffing about for about two hours before we start our cycling day. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if we are camping or in a hotel. To get going always takes a long time, despite us being seasoned bike travellers by now. It doesn’t really matter. There is no rush and the mild winter weather allows us to ride all day. We kick off our day by cooking a first breakfast of hot porridge and espresso outside our tent or in our hotel room. Then we pack up the tent, get into our cycling clothes, load up the bicycles and off we go. Usually we stop soon for a second breakfast of steaming jiaozi (dumplings) with a hot and sour dip.
Then we’ll have an early lunch: a big bowl of spicy noodles in simple roadside restaurant.
An early dinner of noodles or fried rice and vegetables and a beer in the place where we will stop for the night. We will look at the route for the day after and do a bit of reading but we are usually in bed by 7pm and sound asleep not long after. Bike, eat, sleep, and repeat. We love this rhythm, it feels healthy and it gives us everything we need. The speed of bike travel is the perfect speed of life.
A few days ago we crossed from Sichuan province into Yunnan, China’s southernmost province. The change in scenery is subtle but immediate, starting right at the top of the mountain range that defines the border. Yunnan is less developed and less densely populated than Sichuan. As we cross the border and descend towards Kunming we can see endless forests on the hills around us. This means we can camp more, as there is more undeveloped land. Still, it’s a challenge to find an even spot for our tent in this hilly province. One night we sleep in the bend of a hairpin, halfway up a 2500m mountain pass.
Another night park rangers allow us to camp on a beautiful beach on Dianchi lake, South of Kunming.
We cycle through villages and towns that are on no tourists’ itinerary because there is nothing in particular to see. We see village markets, hill tribe people, kids going to school, everybody going about their everyday business. It’s lovely precisely because it is so mundane.
Only one town is at first sight a real disappointment. Panzhihua is ugly, dirty and dusty and we have a hard time cycling into town with the busy traffic. It was founded only 50 years ago and is thriving because of a giant mine, one of the largest in the country. After our initial dislike of the place however we find that people, as in most places, are really nice and they are curious about our bikes and gear. I am fascinated by the fact that it is possible to stamp a whole city out of the ground and make it such a lively place in such a short time. The same thing happened when new land was created in the Netherlands but in China everything happens on a much larger scale and much faster, because the government can realise their plans without having to go through procedures with planning and environmental commissions etc.
Our first destination in Yunnan is the capital Kunming. It’s a relative backwater by Chinese standards, with ‘only’ 5 million inhabitants. During the communist heyday it was considered some sort of Siberia, with party officials who were falling out of favour being sent here. One huge difference with Siberia: the climate here is very moderate, earning Kunming the title of Spring City. As the city is close to the Tropic of Cancer and is located at a 1900m altitude plateau it has year-round pleasant weather and very little pollution. When we arrive it is in the low twenties during the day and around 10 degrees at night. Perfect for cycling.
Kunming is less developed than Chengdu, and the pace of life here is different. It is decidedly more Southern and we enjoy the laid-backness for a couple of days. We meet some great English speaking locals and have some good conversations about life in China and in Europe, art, politics, the future, cycling, embarrassing toilet moments, everything under the sun.
We learn the Kung Fu tea ceremony from our all-round wonderful warmshowers host Lin and celebrate our three year anniversary together with a vegetarian feast with TCG Nordica art gallery director Luo Fei and his colleague Wei Bang. After a couple of weeks where we could only talk to each other it’s refreshing to share ideas and dreams with other people. It’s also refreshing to find out how well-educated Chinese people see their own country and culture and their place in the world. Just like everywhere else, there is no one set definition of China and the Chinese people and we appreciate discovering all the subtle nuances and varieties in opinion. We have made new friends here and we’d love to come back one day.
But first we will cycle a bit more. We have picked a route that will take us away from the highway and the towns. The S218 is a much smaller road that leads through hill tribe villages along the Lao border. More cycling, more camping, more of this simple speed of life.