Exploring my new home: Yunnan province

After three months of living and working in China I have my first full week off. As Cyril is starting his working life in Amsterdam I am ready to go on a little cycling holiday. Getting on the bicycle is a perfect way to clear my head of work clutter and have some time to mull over the first impressions and experiences in my new home country. I send my bicycle ahead and take a train to Dali. From there I cycle to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang: visiting three major tourist destinations in Yunnan. We didn’t cycle here when we came through last year, because we were weary of high altitudes and cold, but now it is August and I am well rested and healthy. Some of the most special moments of this little trip occur in between these touristy places when it is just me, the bicycle, the surroundings and the people I meet.

Dali

Dali is six hours away from Kunming by train, towards the mountainous West of Yunnan. It is home to different ethnic minorities and boasts a historical city centre, with cobblestone streets and little waterways that flow between old stone houses. After China started opening up to tourists in the ’90’s it became a popular backpacker destination. Now the old centre is somewhat over-restored and converted into a slew of souvenir shops and restaurants.

Dali in the early morning
Dali in the early morning

Apparently this is get-away number one for Chinese people who are looking to have a bit of fun outside of their marriage. The streets are crowded with Chinese tourists who are pulling their trolley suitcases over the cobble stones, wearing flower garlands, taking selfies and munching on food. It is all very festive but a bit too much for me. Busy places can be strangely lonely when you are on your own. Still, the people who run the guesthouse and the restaurants are nice. I find my Chinese has definitely improved in the last couple of months and I can now order food, ask for prices and tell people that I love China.

Lake Erhai village house
Lake Erhai village house

I pedal out of the busy town, first cycling by three beautiful pagoda’s and then down to the edge of Lake Erhai. All of a sudden the tourists are gone and I am mostly alone. I follow a winding road through sleepy villages alongside the lake to the North. At the North edge of the lake is Xizhou, which is my first pleasant surprise. I visit the Linden Centre and speak to Brian Linden, the co-founder. He and his wife are also in love with China and have a long history of working and visiting the country. 10 years ago they decided to sell their house in the USA and invest in restoring traditional Bai minority houses. One has been turned into a hotel and cultural venue. Bai houses consist of three wings around a central courtyard, with the Western wing facing a ‘reflection wall’: it reflects good forces into the house and bad forces out. I’m so happy to have found this place, and very inspired by all this creative energy and historical beauty I cycle onwards.

Xizhou Bai house courtyard
Xizhou Bai house courtyard

Jianchuan

After a good nights sleep I pedal onwards. It is great to be out on the bicycle again, and to discover how quickly I find the familiar rhythms again. My second day is about 90kms. The road is a bit busy but I don’t care, I’m cycling! People are smiling and waving and I don’t have a care in the world. Rain has been predicted for every day but in the end I only get rained on for maybe an hour during the whole week.

New Vietnamese hat is great for the rain
New Vietnamese hat is great for the rain

I finish the second day in Jianchuan, which is an even bigger surprise than Xizhou. Where Xizhou is already a little bit developed for tourism, Jianchuan is completely off the map. It has beautiful streets with original shophouses and courtyards, still in use. I manage to stumble across a gorgeous little boutique hotel, again set in a traditional Bai house with courtyard and reflecting wall. The owner spends the evening explaining a lot of aspects of Bai culture to me. In Jianchuan the houses might not be as spectacular as in Xizhou but arts and crafts and traditions are very much alive. This is mostly visible in beautifully carved wooden door screens, stone work and a little good luck charm my host gives me, made by a local Bai lady. Together we watch a video of Bai dances and drink roasted tea out of burnished earthenware. Another inspiring meeting and another place I would love to visit again.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

From Jianchuan I push for Hutiaoxia, or Tiger Leaping Gorge, in one day. I am excited to see the Yangtze river and roll down to its banks to follow it up to Hutiaoxia.

The Yangtze river
The Yangtze river

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most famous tourist destinations of Yunnan and of China. Here the mighty Yangtze river pushes through a deep and narrow gorge, a spectacle of roaring river and forbidding mountains. Most people visit the gorge on a day trip from Lijiang, and when I arrive I understand why. The village of Hutiaoxia in nothing more than a dusty truck stop with a massive traffic jam that snakes through it, a lot of roadworks and one very underwhelming guesthouse (a cranky landlady and rats and fleas keep me up at night). I don’t think I’ve ever experienced roads that were simultaneously muddy and dusty but here it happens. Instead of hiking the high trail I decide to cycle the road that follows the gorge but it is so narrow and dangerous that I turn around after 5km. I am thoroughly disheartened by my depressing surroundings and decide to leave the morning after instead of staying an extra night in flea palace. I may have missed out on something amazing by not hiking the gorge but I am quite tired after a couple of long days cycling. I’m happy to opt for an extra day in Lijiang to just wander around and relax.

Lijiang

Lijiang has a poor reputation for being a noisy and busy tourist trap. When I arrive I am pleasantly surprised at how relaxed it is. Later I find out why: there are not one but two ‘ancient towns’, and I am staying in Shuhe, the one that has been most recently developed and is therefore not quite as crazy as the original ‘ancient town’ in the centre of Lijiang. Shuhe is also an easy 5km cycling away from Baisha, a charming Naxi minority village with an interesting embroidery centre and impressive historical frescoes.

Baisha fresco
Baisha fresco

It is quiet and as I wander out of the village this tiny old lady beckons me to follow her. Of course! I feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland when I follow her down some alleys to the courtyard of her home. Auntie Liu has a table full of big and small guest books with stories left by all of her visitors. She feeds me rice congee, tea and sunflower seeds and we spend a pleasant moment just sitting together. I have to pay 30 kuai (4 euro) for the privilege so here is one entrepreneurial 82 year old who has turned her charm and hospitality into a business.

Auntie Liu of Baisha village
Auntie Liu of Baisha village

The rest of my time in Shuhe I spend wandering around the cobbled streets and feasting on some fantastic Yunnan food in One restaurant. Yaya is the owner, a cool lady who lets me try some Tibetan wine which is surprisingly drinkable. I never would have thought of vineyards in Shangri-la but apparently a French couple has introduced winemaking here and it is doing well.

Wo ai Yunnan, Yunnan I love you

Before I know it it is time to board the night train, back to Kunming, and back to work. It has been a short trip but I’m full of renewed energy and ideas. Sometimes it is difficult, traveling alone again, trying to settle into a new country with a complicated language, but I am very much looking forward to the next 9 months in beautiful Yunnan. Most of all I am happy I am finding interesting and inspiring people. As we discovered time and time again over the last year, it’s always the people who make the journey worthwhile.

Naxi lady
Naxi lady

The Myanmar highlights of Inle Lake and Bagan

Now online: our Myanmar pictures, including some snaps by our friend Janneke Verhagen.

We quickly settle into our Nyaung Shwe home. It is an amazing place, simple, spacious and light. We have our first home cooked European breakfast extravaganza since forever which makes us feel like kids playing house, set table and toasted bread and all. We even like doing the dishes. The house is a couple of kilometers from Nyaung Shwe centre, set in a quiet village-like surroundings with herds of cows plodding by our sand path in the early morning and at sunset. A sweet Nepali family lives on the grounds and friends of Patrick help us out with settling in and finding our way around. Home.

Boating Inle Lake

One friend of Patrick is Zaw, aka Mr. Sugar. He takes us on a two day tour of Inle Lake. We settle into a couple of big comfortable chairs in a large longboat and veer out onto the gigantic lake. Seeing the landscape glide by without having to make any physical effort is quite a treat. Mr. Sugar tells us a lot about life on and around the lake, and takes us to see a village where his grandfather used to live.

Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts
Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts

It is a touristy place but traditional life goes on as it has for the last few centuries, with fishermen and craftsmen working and bringing their wares to the markets around the lake by boat.

With a surface of 116km2 Inle lake is large but shallow, with a maximum depth of less than 4m in the dry season, and only 1,5m more in the wet season. It is a busy place with longboats motoring to and fro, transporting Intha villagers, tourists and goods. There are fishermen who use small shallow boats, not much bigger than a surfboard, with one oar. They have an incredible technique where they balance on one leg on the stern of the boat, curl the other leg around the oar to navigate the boat and simultaneously throw their nets in.

Inle Lake fisherman
Inle Lake fisherman

Other lake labourers are harvesters who drag up weeds to use as fertilizer for the floating gardens. There are many different crafts being practiced around the lake; we visit blacksmiths, silk and lotus weavers, cheroot makers and small village factories where crispy rice pancakes are made. We visit a market where hill tribe women are selling their vegetables. Zaw tells us how king Alaungsithu founded the Hpaung Daw U pagoda by the lake and transported craftsmen and -women from the coast to here, so they could produce all that was needed to keep the monks in robes and the pagoda with all its rituals functioning.

Shan hill tribe market lady
Shan hill tribe market lady

We visit a few notable Buddhist sites. One is the Hpaung Daw U pagoda, home to five venerated Buddha images that have been so thickly covered in gold leaf they now resemble five big golden boulders. When we are there it is not just Buddhists who are covering the images but also many tourists, scrambling to get close to the action with their cameras. Later on we visit an older and much more serene monastery, with beautiful 16th century Buddha statues.

Another impressive place is Indein. This is a large collection of stupas, first commissioned by King Narapathisithu in the 12th century CE. They are in various states, some crumbling but many heavily restored by private donors from all over the world. The mix is nice, historical ruin as well as a very much alive religious site.

Indein
Indein

The floating gardens are very impressive, banks of green held in place by bamboo poles and being tended to by farmers on boats, producing tomatoes and rice for the surrounding villages. When I read up on it I discover this is actually not a very sustainable practice, as the floating gardens eventually solidify and reduce the lake surface ever further. The fertilizers encourage weed growth, and all around us we see the water hyacinth encroaching on the lake. Other environmental issues are for instance the lack of proper sanitation in the stilt houses, with toilets dumping directly into the lake. Another issue is excess run off from the surrounding mountains into the rivers that feed the lake, due to lumber felling and slash and burn farming, causing the lake to become even more susceptible to weeds and fill up with silt.

Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar
Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar

Our guide is one of the local people concerned with environmental issues and sustainability of life of around the lake. He supports poor students in a neighbouring village and wants to do something about all the plastic strewn around. It will be difficult to effect much change when the primary interest of the military leadership is not so much in the people and the environment as protecting their own interests. Let’s hope that the change symbolized by Aung San Su Kyi will happen, slowly but surely. Later on we meet another concerned Burmese who tells us about his ideals, his dreams for the country, and what he does to effect local change. We get the impression that many people are doing what they can to help each other in these politically difficult circumstances, possibly motivated by Buddhism which encourages merit making.

Burmese Buddha
Burmese Buddha

Despite the environmental concerns the lake is incredible and we enjoy spending two days out and about on a boat with Mr. Sugar. We wander around the market, smoke an aniseed cheroot and have lunch in a restaurant built on stilts in the lake. The Golden Kite restaurant is owned by Patricks friends and later on in the week they invite us for a delicious dinner. As everywhere in Myanmar the people are the biggest draw, waving and smiling at us from passing boats or lake houses.

The rest of our days in Nyaung Shwe we spend in supremely lazy languor. We meet up again with Janneke, who made it all the way up North by bicycle. She did run into the police multiple times and got escorted back and forth to places where she was allowed to stay, but she also got a real personal insight in everyday Burmese life, invited into the home of people, staying in temples and far away from the tourist trail. An epic journey. She is a great photographer, you can find her work here and we have included some of her pictures from the days we cycled together in our collection of photos from Myanmar.

Bagan

We rent a couple of wobbly wheels to explore Bagan by bicycle but we miss our own rock solid work horses on the sandy tracks.

Riding Burmese roads
Riding Burmese roads

We had high expectations of Bagan and we are not disappointed. It is difficult not to make a comparison with Angkor Wat but the sites are really quite different. Where Angkor has beautifully preserved temples which are each a gem on their own, Bagans beauty lies in the overall view of the landscape, with thousands of pagoda spires rising above the dusty plain. Funnily enough here mass tourism has enhanced rather than destroyed the beauty. Every morning hot air balloons glide over the plain, a beautiful and romantic sight, silent apart from the burners throwing flames every now and again.

Balloons over Bagan
Balloons over Bagan

Bagan was the capital of the Pagan kingdom between the 9th and 13th century. In its heyday 10.000 pagodas were built on the plain, but many were devastated by earthquakes. A big one hit in 1975, 8 on the Richter scale, and destroyed much. Still, much remains and even if the individual temples are not in a great state or not well restored the overall view of the stupa-dotted plain is wonderful. One morning we get up at around 4am and cycle out into the dark to look for a spot to witness the sunrise. Unfortunately many of the 2229 remaining temples are in repair, enveloped in scaffolding and not accessible due to a 2016 earthquake. We therefor miss out on a temple top sunrise but we find a small knoll and watch the hot air balloons floating by.

We are staying in Nyaung Oo, the budget friendly village a few kilometers from Old Bagan which is more upmarket. Here we meet three German and Swiss cyclists and have a great evening sharing inspiration. Andreas is a young guy from Switzerland who made a spontaneous decision to do a bike tour in Bangkok. He bought a $200 bicycle (way too small for his size) and fitted it out with two simple wire baskets acting as rear panniers with his backpack on top. He made it all the way to Myanmar and picked our brain for future bike travels. I really loved his low budget set-up, proving bike touring is accessible for everybody and any kind of budget. German Katharina and Lukas are now in turmoil because they never thought about going to China and now, because of our enthusiastic stories, they are tempted to include it in their travel plan. It was great to see their poor brains swirling with all the possibilities.. so many places to go, so much to see!

Andreas' low budget bike touring set-up
Andreas’ low budget bike touring set-up

In Nyaung Oo we also met Pipyo, the owner of Leo, a great little restaurant. He told us a lot about nature and traditions in Myanmar and his dreams for the future. He is from a small village where traditions are still observed and he told us all about the upcoming full moon festivities, with special candy being made and shared by everybody in the village.

New directions

From Nyaung Oo we set off on an epic three day bus journey which takes us back to our bicycles in Bago, across the border to Mae Sot in Thailand and up to Chiang Mai. Here we will stay for almost a week, waiting for a new Chinese visum for Vera.

Yes, I am going back to China. This is not what we planned when we left, but unfortunately our relationship has stranded, and we are making new plans for the future. This happened a good few weeks ago so we have had some time to process this and share with family and close friends. We are fine and have decided to continue traveling together as friends. We will finish the trip together as we planned, in Tokyo. After that we will go our own way. I will move to Kunming to work as an English teacher and to focus on my writing practice. Cyril will cycle back via Korea, Rome, Corsica and Sardinia, crossing the Alps into Switzerland and eventually back home to The Netherlands, visiting old and new friends in Europe.

It is hard at this point in the trip to be in the moment, as we were before when we were just rolling along and experiencing day by day. We haven’t cycled for a few weeks now and we sorely miss the freedom of camping and cooking our own breakfast. While we are waiting in Chiang Mai we are planning ahead, booking flights, looking at whatever lies beyond the end of the trip. On 30 March we will fly to Japan, to start 6 weeks of cycling in Kyushu and Hokkaido before traveling into Tokyo, our final destination. We are eager to satisfy our cycling addiction one more time, and super excited about Japan. It is the last country on our list, and possibly the most alluring.

Our first haircut in 7 months - exciting stuff
Our first haircut in 7 months – exciting stuff

Zài jiàn Zhōngguó, sabaidee meuang Lao!

After two and a half months the time has come to say goodbye to another one of our favourite countries. Goodbye China, and hello Laos! We loved the last stretch along the quiet country roads of Yunnan. We moved from subtropical Kunming, crossing the Tropic of Cancer, into the lush jungle of Xishuangbanna, China’s most Southern prefecture and home of the Dai people.

Our newest team member Hong

We are currently in the small border town of Mohan, and tomorrow morning we will attempt to cross into Laos. This should be pretty straightforward. The only complication is we have found a pet on the road and we want to bring him along for the ride. At least until he is big enough to stand on his own chicken feet. Right now Hong (meaning ‘wild swan’) is still a fluffy little chick who likes nothing more than hiding in our pockets and tweeting like a canary. We found him in Mengla where a lady was selling chicks, dyed in all the colours of the rainbow. Later on that evening we found Hong, all alone, wandering the pavement, squeeking. He is dyed a bright pink so we call him the Only Gay in the Village sometimes. He travels in the snack pouch I have attached to the handle bars. When we stop for a break we let him out to eat and drink and then he follows us like a puppy, running after us with his little pink wings flapping. At night we make a warm nest for him, filling up our hip flask with hot water to keep him cosy. How could we possibly leave him behind?

Hong on the loose
Hong on the loose

Update: it is with great sadness that we found little Hong dead in his box this morning. But we are happy with the good memories of the last few days. We will miss his tweeting and nesting under our wings. 

Wild swan, red book

Hongs name is inspired by the book Wild Swans, written by Jung Chang. Her birth name was Er Hong, meaning second swan. She later changed her name to Jung, meaning ‘militant action’. The book tells the turbulent history of China in the last century by chronicling the life of her grandmother, her mother and herself. It is an amazing read and although it is still on the blacklist in China I found it secondhand in a bookshop in Kunming. It is hard to believe just how many changes and how much upheaval China has been through in only three generations. The book starts during the reign of the last emperor Pu Yi of the Qing dynasty, ruling a country bound by ancient traditions until 1912. Quite literally bound; as were Jung Changs’ grandmothers feet. Through war, famine, oppression, all the way down to the lowest point: a sustained campaign of terror by a totalitarian ruler, who kept a whole country in the dark by cultivating ignorance and fear and division. It is especially hard to believe since China appears so different today. Most people we meet are working, cheerfully going about their business, building houses, traveling, interested in us foreigners, dancing together in the city squares in the evenings. This was unimaginable only 30 years ago.

Square dancing
Square dancing

In the same bookshop we bought the famous Little Red Book with quotations from Mao, translated into English. I’ve read a few and with the clear hindsight of recent history it is hard to believe that this was followed like the gospel for a long time. The titles of the chapters alone are interesting: ‘The correct handling of contradictions among the people’. Whereby people are classed as being with the communists or as enemies. One thing I like however is the fact he wanted equality for women, after a long history of brutal suppression in imperial China. Even if the primary goal was not so much a better life for women but to have a larger work force in order to surpass the capitalist world with rapid industrialisation. Unfortunately today this equality is mostly visible in hard labour jobs such as road works, and not so much in high profile jobs or political functions.

Crossing into Xishuangbanna

Since we left Kunming we have mostly followed a country road with little traffic, closely following the Eastern border of Yunnan with Vietnam and Laos. The S218 takes us away from the mud and dust of road works and into the jungle.

China's country roads

As it veers away from the busy main road a few kilometers below the Tropic of Cancer it also takes us into the tropics and into the home of the Dai people, the autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna. We anticipated the change in climate and we saw early signs of the tropics in the palm trees we saw here or there. Still, crossing the tropic line marks an immediate and profound change.

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer
Crossing the Tropic of Cancer

Banana, tea and rubber plantations, a different people who live in a different kind of housing suitable for year-round hot weather, nights that are no longer uncomfortably cold and beautiful mornings with steaming forests around us.

STEAM
STEAM

The earth is red and the rivers run brown, flanked by lush green hills full of exotic sounding birds. The nights when we are camping we hear crickets whirring loudly, owls and other animals we haven’t heard before.

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle

We camp a few more nights. Usually we find a spot where we are out of sight and on land that is not in use, in the bend of a road or close to a mountain pass. One night we spot a village with a church and try our luck with the builders who are working nearby. They indicate it is fine with them if we put up our tent wherever, so we pick a small field empty of crops on the edge of the village square. An old man comes to check on us from a safe distance. Later on in the night five police officers with torch lights arrive. Cyril talks to them in his best Chinese (hello, thank you, we are from Holland, thank you, hello) and eventually they leave us alone. We don’t sleep so well after that. This is the first time authorities have disturbed us during our wild camping nights and it is quite unnerving. It is officially prohibited in China, as it is in most countries. The language barrier makes it harder, even though we have a nice Chinese note explaining we are nice people who will leave early in the morning.

The rest of the trip down to the Lao border is peaceful and very beautiful. The road goes up and down a lot and we do about 1000 climbing meters every day, making for great views, a nice sense of accomplishment and ever stronger legs. Cyril logs our rides on Strava and we accomplish the monthly climbing challenge of 7.500m in no time.

Climb with a view
Climb with a view

We see traditional Dai villages with large wooden houses, open all around and raised on wooden pillars, with roof ornaments similar to those in Thailand.

The Dai people are related to the Thai in language, religion (theravada buddhism) and culture. And in cuisine: we have a fried fish for lunch with lemon grass, chili and coriander.

Luofei fish. More please!
Luofei fish. More please!

The famous Pu’erh tea comes from this region, and we see shops where they sell the double fermented black tea pressed into fancy shapes like large coins or sculptures. The tea gets better with age so it keeps for a long time. Special vintages can be collected, like wine.

Xie xie China, you have been wonderful. After two and a half months we have only had a glimpse of everything we could possibly see and experience here, so we definitely hope to come back. We are happy with the choices we made: the historical and culinary highlights of megacities like Xi’an and Chengdu, the time off and a chance to make some local friends, far away Silk Route places like Kashgar and Turpan, and finally the weeks of cycling through the countryside of Sichuan and Yunnan. The countryside which in many ways showed us the un-touristy, only ever so slowly changing and ‘real’ China of the minority people and the peasants, in contrast with the polished face of the future we saw in the city centers.We loved meeting the people of China, who never treated us as tourists but were always interested in us in a friendly, helpful and curious way. This will surely be different in Laos and Thailand, where we will no longer be the only white people in the village.

Our hotel manager in her festive garb

So, thank you Zhōngguó, we salute you in a way you will surely understand:

Happy New Chinese Year