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

The speed of life

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.

Riding in Sichuan
Riding in Sichuan

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.

Jiaozi - or Second Breakfast
Jiaozi – or Second Breakfast

Then we’ll have an early lunch: a big bowl of spicy noodles in simple roadside restaurant.

Noodles with Mao
Noodles with Mao

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.

Yunnan

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.

Camping with a view
Camping with a view

Another night park rangers allow us to camp on a beautiful beach on Dianchi lake, South of Kunming.

Beach bums
Beach bums

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.

Meeting the locals
Meeting the locals

Kunming

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.

Roads like these
Roads like these

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.

New noodle friends
New noodle friends

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.

With Lin and Alicia
With Lin and Alicia

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.

 

 

Chaiyo chaiyo, fighting fighting!

What to do when you feel like your muscles and your fitness have disappeared? After two and a half lazy weeks fattening up on Sichuan food in the big smoke? You walk up a mountain and walk back down again. But first we visit a giant Buddha.

The Giant Buddha of Leshan

Imagine our happiness to be back on the bicycle again! We spend two very enjoyable days cycling South of Chengdu. We even manage to find a camping spot in the densely populated countryside.

Camping in the Sichuan countryside
Camping in the Sichuan countryside

Our first destination before we climb our mountain is the Giant Buddha of Leshan. A 71m high statue of a seated Buddha, carved out of a cliff rising up from a confluence of two rivers. It was made in the Tang dynasty, around the 8th century CE. The initiator was the monk Hai Tong who wanted to tame the wild waters at the foot of the cliffs. Coincidentally he did, as the rubble from the carving fell into the river and calmed the currents. The Giant Buddha is an AAAAA attraction in China’s tourist attraction rating system, but as it is low season and no weekend it is relatively quiet. We had seen pictures of the Buddha but to see it up close is impressive. A nice park surrounds the statue, and a short stroll takes you up to eye level.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Leshan Giant Buddha

From here we descend a steep staircase to giant toe level.

Frogs eye view of the Giant Buddha of Leshan
Frogs eye view of the Giant Buddha of Leshan

Another steep path carved out of the cliff face takes us back up to the plateau again. We wander into the 1000 Buddha Capital park, where we find ourselves alone. Possibly we have the place to ourselves because this is ‘only’ an AAAA attraction and not as suitable for taking selfies as the head of the Giant Buddha. It is a beautiful bonus to the main attraction and holds many surprises such as another giant Buddha, sheltered in a cave and with a beautifully serene face.

Giant Buddha nr. 2
Giant Buddha nr. 2

There is a tacky Kama Sutra cave with plastic sculptures depicting some pretty wild scenes, a 170m long sleeping Buddha carved out of a hill, so overgrown with foliage it is slowly becoming part of the natural landscape again. The whole park is on a hill that has been tunnelled through. In the tunnels there are modern statues that offer the history of Chinese buddhism told in a mix of Socialist Realism, Chinese nationalism and Buddhist styles.

Carved caves
Carved caves

Emeishan

Not far from Chengdu is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains. Emeishan is the holiest of the four, as it is the place where the first Buddhist temple of China was built in around 100CE. Many more were built in the following centuries. Today it is possible to walk up the mountain via thousands of stone steps.

Endless steps to enlightenment
Endless steps to enlightenment

Pilgrims can spend the night in one of the monasteries and see the sun rise over the ‘sea of clouds’ from the Golden Summit at 3077m altitude. It is also possible to take a cable car for one or two stretches of the way, take a bus all the way to the top, stay in a luxury hotel just below the summit or have yourself carried up the steps by traditional sedan chair carriers. On the way there are plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops selling bamboo walking sticks, incense, hiking food (unidentifiable dried… something. We didn’t try), rain ponchos and even warm coat rental services.

Fuhu temple at Emeishan
Fuhu temple at Emeishan

Needless to say, this is another popular destination for Chinese tourists so we were expecting large crowds. We are happily surprised when we find ourselves alone most of the way. Apart from a few monks, some fellow walkers, pack horses and cargo carriers lugging supplies and building materials up and down the steps we don’t meet many people. The people we do meet say chaiyo, chaiyo! This means fighting, fighting! A great encouragement, and we hear it more often when we are back on the bicycle.

Poor workhorses
Poor workhorses
Hardest working guys we ever saw
Hardest working guys we ever saw
Monkeys crossing our path
Monkeys crossing our path

We read a claim that the famous Shaolin fighting monks are from Emeishan (not true!) but we can imagine how this story came about: a monk with a walking stick, some wild Tibetan monkeys…

Strike a Shaolin pose
Strike a Shaolin pose

It is misty and wet, which gives the forest a beautiful mysterious silence. There are steep cliffs, dripping bamboo bushes and we cross a troupe of wild Tibetan monkeys. Hiking up some 15.000 stone steps is hard work, but eventually we are rewarded. We come above the clouds and climb the last few kilometers in the sun, looking down on the dazzling white clouds and the distant islands of other mountaintops.

Rising above the clouds
Rising above the clouds

We spend the night at Taizi Ping monastery, an old and charmingly ramshackle temple at 2850m altitude. It is recommended by our new friend Qi Lin, a monk who lives in a monastery a bit further down.

Emeishan monk Qi Lin
Emeishan monk Qi Lin

Taizi Ping is inhabited by one monk and a couple who manage the kitchen and the veggie garden. For a small amount we spend the night and enjoy a typical Buddhist dinner and breakfast of rice and vegetables. The food is prepared without the usual kick of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper. This might excite the senses too much according to Buddhist cooking tradition.

Quanyin, manifestation of mercy
Quanyin, manifestation of mercy

The next morning we set off for the last stretch to the summit. We walk in the dark, the moon lights our path, and we are completely alone. We walk in silence. When we reach the cable car station and the resort it gets busier, but still, it is peaceful and calm. We walk up to the huge golden Samantabhadra statue, a four-faced representation of the Buddha, seated on four elephants. In the cold moonlight it looks magnificent. We walk to the East side of the summit. Below us is the slow moving sea of clouds, gradually becoming more visible as the first light appears, and we wait for the sun to rise. It is an unbelievable sight. Shortly after the sunrise busloads of tourists start arriving, and we start our descent.

Sunrise over the sea of clouds
Sunrise over the sea of clouds
...
Samantabhadra after sunrise
Samantabhadra after sunrise

Going down is easier on the heart and lungs, but much harder on the legs. We have to give up on doing the last stretch and take the cable car from the last monastery to the bus station, barely able to walk. The ensuing muscle pain is as epic as Emeishan, and lasts for days. We lurch like zombies with our stiff and sore limbs and can hardly climb stairs, let alone descend. We decide it is probably easier to cycle than to walk, so we start cycling the day after coming down from Emeishan.

Sichuan cycling

We follow the S306 West towards Shimian, and from there we head South on the S108. There are other options South but they were either impossible because of road works or otherwise not enjoyable, and we hear the S108 is beautiful. This road also means we will climb once more to about 2500m. Our first plan was to head even further West, to the Tibetan plateau, but this is too cold at this time of year. It is possible, but we wouldn’t enjoy it. When we leave it is raining and the visibility is down to almost nothing, but we don’t mind because cycling is indeed a lot easier than walking. We are happy to be on the move.

Happiness = cycling in China
Happiness = cycling in China

It is super easy to find cheap accommodation so we don’t have to camp in the rain but we can sleep in a basic hotel for about $7 to $10 every night. Great! Camping is difficult because every square centimeter is cultivated. Every horizontal surface, right up until the edge of the road, is someone’s vegetable patch. In the end we only camp one night between Chengdu and Xichang, even though we love camping. The hotels are by no means luxurious. They are cold and the rooms are in various states of disrepair, and sometimes there is no hot shower. One is so depressing and dingy it would be the perfect set for a film noir, smoking, moody and silent. Or a gory splatterfest. We count ourselves lucky there are no rats or cockroaches.

Charming hotel rooms of China
Charming hotel rooms of China

The roads are fantastic. Meandering up and down hills, following rivers, passing through villages with shops and street food restaurants. There is not too much traffic and the truck drivers and cars give us plenty of space. The gradients are doable, there are some short stretches of about 9% and we rarely touch 12%, meaning we never have to push the bicycle up the hill. Until Shimian it is as much up as down, so we do 700+ climbing meters per day but always end up on about the same altitude as we started. One stretch of the road to Shimian is under construction. We are allowed to pass the road block, and we enjoy a beautiful ride through the spectacular Dafu canyon with zero traffic on brand new tarmac. After Shimian we start climbing from 900m towards 2500m, spending the night halfway.

Fellow road warrior
Fellow road warrior

Even more fantastic than the roads are the people we meet. We regret that we speak so little Chinese, as so many people are happily surprised to meet us, and eager to talk with us. Someone stops his car to give us two bottles of water. Kids get super excited when they see us, shop ladies give us the thumbs up, motorbike riders wave when they pass us. Sometimes people are so surprised they can only stare. But when we wave and smile we usually get a big smile right back. We make contact and joke as well as we can without language. The smart phone is a great ice-breaker, everybody wants to take pictures and we use a translation app. Some people of the older generations have a way of looking right through us that is somewhat unnerving. But we know what they have been through in recent history and imagine they have no time for frivolous gallivanting foreigners on bicycles.

The Yi people of Langshian

After one week of cycling we take a one day break in Xichang. A day to do small repairs, some bicycle maintenance, to write a blog post and to give our legs a little rest. Two days ago we did our last serious climb to 2500m and after a few very cold days we are finally getting closer to warmer weather. It is dry and around 15 degrees here, not bad for winter. The biggest attraction of Xichang is lake Qionghai, once very polluted but right now in the last stages of an extensive ecological regeneration plan. A beautiful wetlands park has been laid out around the marshes and together with the Xichang people we enjoy a sunny walk. This is the first time since leaving Dushanbe in early September that we are once again warm and well enough to fully relax.

Qionghai wetlands
Qionghai wetlands

Xichang is the capital of Langshian Autonomous Prefecture, the home of many of the 8 million Yi people. I try to find out more about them and read an interesting article about the Yi from a 1987 New York Times edition. It is amazing to consider how fast things have changed here, as predicted in the article. Yes, the Yi have lost some of their customs and traditional dress, but they have also benefited from economic development in the area. Most of the villages we see are tidy and well maintained, people are cheerful. They are a tribe of huge diversity. Every 30 kilometers we encounter a new headdress, a new style of decorating the houses, every area has its own language, there is a complicated caste system that until not too long ago allowed slavery. Again we regret not being able to speak the language. The young daughter of a hotel owner who speaks some English tells us proudly she is Black Yi, which is the ruling caste.

We are not comfortable with sticking our camera into peoples faces without first getting to know them, or unless they start with taking pictures of us first. Still, we’d love to share some of the beautiful faces we see on the road everyday. Here are some pictures of Yi women made by others.

Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 clicks
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 clicks
Pic courtesy of indulgy.com
Pic courtesy of indulgy.com
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 Clicks
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 Clicks
Pic courtesy of Create International
Pic courtesy of Create International

Countryside China

Overall the countryside is lovely. Just like everywhere else in the world: the people are easier to connect with than in the big city. We exchange smiles and waves. Life is cheaper, there is less choice, you make do with whatever is available, people are happy to help you out. Great for bike tourists on a budget.

We can see that life is hard for the people actually living here. Everybody we see is always busy. Harvesting, cleaning, repairing, hauling heavy loads from here to there, selling produce, running a restaurant. The Yi are no longer living in the hovels as described in the above NYT article. But their new concrete houses, with identical ‘traditional’ murals, still have no heating and running water is provided by a hose outside. 20.000 Yi have been displaced when a hydropower dam created a new lake by Shimian. As is often the case in China, the (economic) greater good will have prevalence over minority concerns. Still, there is a government program that once again supports Yi culture after shamanism, slavery and chiefdom were eradicated during the Cultural Revolution and many people were killed. Today the official Yi script and language is taught in schools alongside Chinese. Since 2010 the Chinese government has built many new temples for the Yi Bimo religion.

 

Yi script
Yi script

As we are walking around Qionghai lake today we hear a trio playing and singing traditional Yi music by the waters edge. Life, for now, feels in perfect harmony.

As we are cycling further away from home it is increasingly hard for us to get on our Western high horse and simply say that the Chinese government is bad. Just like everywhere else, the reality here has so many nuances and there is no simple answer as to what would be the right way. Especially now, when democracy seems to be failing us and a wild monkey will be running the USA for the next four years. Who are we to judge? We can only try and understand.