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

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.