We spent a day and a half in Chengdu seeing the sights and sorting out some practicalities. Our favourite sight was definitely the visit we made to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding base on the outskirts of Chengdu. Despite being so close to a large city (13 million people live in or around Chengdu) the reserve is very quiet and green, a lovely place to wander around. We went early in order to see the pandas feeding, as that is when they are most active – they spend the rest of their time sleeping. It has to be said, a life of sleeping and eating sounds quite attractive! The reserve is big and realistically we didn’t expect to get particularly good views of the pandas, but we were wrong there – the pandas are so used to human company they are happy to sit around right in front of you, practically posing for photos! There are over 130 pandas in the reserve and even in the short time we were there we must have seen 20 or so. It was wonderful to see them so close, we couldn’t help but think they looked just like giant cuddly bears. A further highlight of the trip was the visit to the nursery, where 6 baby pandas are being hand reared. Very, very cute.
While in Chengdu we stayed at Sim’s hostel, which was great. In particular all the staff there speak excellent English and are absolute mines of knowledge – they were able to answer every question we put to them in detail, which was great. The cafe there is also good, serving a good variety of not only Chinese and Western food, but Japanese too – a nice change. They also served hot ginger, honey and lemon tea, which was great for Christine as she had come down with a nasty cold – her mum always makes her this drink when she has a cold at home, so it was quite comforting being able to have it here too.
After visiting the pandas we spent some time washing our bikes as they were filthy from the last few days of cycling, then we went to a bike shop as the bearings in the bottom bracket of Christine’s bike needed regreasing, and Pete’s gears needed some tweaking. Despite neither party being able to speak the others’ language we were able to communicate what we wanted done and the very proficient bike mechanic gave each of our bikes a full service, sorting out all the problems, for the very impressive price of just $6 in total. If only bike shops back at home were this good and cheap! Once that was done Christine decided to try a traditional Chinese massage to address a niggling pain in her shoulder that has been an on-off problem since the start of the trip but which has worsened recently with the increased pace of cycling. The massage was great, very thorough and effective, and even better cost just $3 for a whole hour – absolutely wonderful.
We headed off the next day in the direction of Leshan, a city approximately 180km south of Chengdu, where we were hoping to get our Chinese visas extended for another month. We had intended to do this in Chengdu but the staff at Sim’s told us it would take at least 5 working days to process in Chengdu (and as they keep your passport during this time, you can’t go anywhere), but that for some reason it takes just 24 hours to process in Leshan. This was good news as we were expecting to have to wait several days wherever we got it done. We wonder if the fast processing is a ruse by the Leshan authorities to get tourists to visit the city rather than spending all their time in the better-known Chengdu. Before we left Chengdu we visited the post office where we posted a big box of gear home – we had decided to get rid of our camping gear (as in the rest of SE Asia, accommodation and food are sufficiently cheap and plentiful in China that we do not need to camp, and indeed the region is so heavily populated even in the countryside that it is often hard or impossible to find anywhere decent to camp). In total we posted 10kg of stuff back, around a quarter of the total weight we were carrying – a big weight saving. What with our reduced weight and rested legs, we raced the 180km down to Leshan in just over a day. The ride was flat and uninspiring, being rather industrial. It was interesting however to pass through several consecutive towns devoted solely to manufacturing ceramic tiles – no doubt this is efficient but it is a little bit strange seeing nothing but ceramic tile factories and salesrooms in these towns.
Leshan is a nice riverside city and we were happy to spend a day and a half there while we waited for our visa extensions to be done – a process that was far, far easier, smoother and more efficient than getting a visa in the first place. Christine was still suffering from a bit of a cold so we took it easy, just spending some time wandering round the shops and along the riverfront. We meant to visit the giant Buddha statue for which Leshan is famous but we have to admit we were rather lazy tourists and didn’t quite get round to it! In the evening the park by the river turns into an area for various different group activities, including gentle aerobic exercise, ballroom dancing, and some form of tai-chi or something similar. It was great to watch people taking part in public with no shyness whatsoever – we even contemplated joining in the ballroom dancing!
After Leshan we headed southwest past the holy Buddhist mountain of Emei Shan – we would have liked to have spent a day or two climbing the mountain and seeing the monastries en route, but we didn’t really have time, and besides the pollution from Chengdu and Leshan, along with foggy conditions, meant that we wouldn’t have got any good views in return for trekking up the mountain. So we carried on and were quickly in the countryside and back in the hills. The Chinese apparently have no compunction about building roads over the top of big hills if that is the most direct route – unfortunately our map does not show altitude clearly so we frequently have a nasty surprise when a big steep hill looms out of nowhere. Still, we are fit enough now to get over such hills without too much of a problem, and it was certainly nice to be out of the big flat industrial basin that Chengdu sits in. We spent our first night out of Leshan in a town called Ebian, on the edge of the Yi ethnic minority autonomous region. The Yi are a relatively small ethnic minority with very distinctive culturual traditions, such as the elaborate hats they wear, but also with problems such as a high level of poverty – cycling through this region was like being back in Central Asia, rather than China, with people living in basic accommodation sometimes without running water or electricity, livestock running everywhere, and with donkeys being used for transport almost as much as motorized vehicles. It is said that ethnic minorities in China (including the better known examples of the Tibetans and the Uighurs) have historically been discriminated against in favour of the majority Han Chinese, and it certainly seemed to be the case that the area felt much much poorer than surrounding regions.
One consequence of the disparities between the Han Chinese and the ethnic minorities is that the authorities are sometimes reluctant to show this side of China to foreigners – as is the case in Tibet, where independent travel is not allowed. While cycling through the Yi region we noticed we were passed by the police at least 10 times each day – particularly noticeable as the traffic was otherwise generally light. Perhaps we were being paranoid but it very much felt like our movements were being noted. We experienced a greater problem the day we left Ebian, when we encountered a large sign overhanging the road we planned to take that announced the area was closed and aliens (foreigners) were not permitted to enter. Hmmmm, we thought, what to do now. Some police were passing by at that point and they stopped and confirmed we could go no further, suggesting instead we take a different road that would join up with our planned route further south. It was a minor road but the police said it was fine for cycling along. Unfortunately they – and our map – failed to mention the 3000m pass that came towards the end of the day. Our starting altitude in Ebian was just 500m, so that was a climb of 2500m (actually the total ascent was much more than that because the road was very undulating at the start). To put that in context, Ben Nevis is just 1300m high. Anyway we didn’t know this was coming so we set off merrily, cycling up the road, which followed a river upstream. Up and up and up we went, and we kept thinking, we must be almost at the top. It wasn’t until almost 5pm that we got a view of the distant pass, and realised what we had let ourselves in for. We had long ago passed the last habitation and really didn’t want to turn back, and of course we had literally just a few days before sent home our camping stuff, so we had no choice but to continue. We were exhausted but to make matters worse the road surface became very bad, too bumpy and covered in slippy mud to ride on, so we had to push our bikes up the final 800m of ascent. Because it was getting dark no traffic was driving that way so hitching wasn’t an option either. It was 7pm and just about dark by the time we got to the top. It was beautiful and surreal because we had come through the cloud layer, and could see the tops of other mountains poking through the clouds around us. But we weren’t exactly in a mood to appreciate the view. We layered up as it was cold and started the perilous descent down a steep bumpy road by torchlight – no fun at all. Despite being keen to get to the first town (which we knew was 20km down the hill) and wanting to enjoy the downhill, we had no choice but to keep our brakes on firmly to give us time to see potholes, rocks on the road etc. Thankfully after 5km or so the road surface improved and the gradient decreased so we were able to roll more confidently, but nonetheless it took us over an hour to reach the town of Hongxi, where we were extremely glad to see lights and people around, and to establish that there were some cheap truckers’ rooms where we could stay. After a couple of pot noodles each we collapsed into deep dreamless sleep.
In the light of day Hongxi turned out to be a dreary place, high up in the mountains so often cold and wet, with the consequence that everything felt damp and mildewy, including the room where we were staying. Keen for some decent accommodation with a hot shower, we set off soon after we woke for the town of Mei Gu, which we knew was 50km downstream, and so pretty much downhill all the way. A nice gentle ride but of course just our luck, when we got there we discovered that Mei Gu in fact sits on a cliff about 200m above the river, so we had a steep ascent just when we didn’t need it! The town was small but big enough to have a decent hotel which we collapsed into, and spent the afternoon sleeping and eating while our bodies recovered from the previous day’s exertions. It turned out we picked a good day to have a half day, as it poured with rain all afternoon. Consequently however, when we left the next morning we were faced with wet, muddy roads – not great. To make matters worse the rain had caused some small landslides onto the road, as well as one bigger one that almost pushed an unlucky lorry off the road down into the ravine (see photos), and closed the road for most of the day while it was cleared and the lorry removed. There was no way round without a diversion of a couple of hundred kilometres, so the queue of traffic was big. Thankfully we were able to rather smugly overtake the lot and simply carry our bikes over the landslide – we also had a nice quiet road on the other side which was nice. We had planned to cycle around 100km, but the roads were very poor quality which significantly reduced our speed, and we were still a bit tired, so when we reached a biggish town after 80km we decided to stop for the day. Very excitingly the hotel we stayed in had an American TV channel – National Geographic – and we spent a happy afternoon watching wildlife documentaries and the like!
We knew the next day we faced a climb of around 1600m to reach a pass at 3400m, and wary of our recent experience with high passes, we set off early. The weather was good and the road surface much improved from the previous day, so we made good progress and were able to reach the top of the pass by 2pm or so. Although arduous in places the climb was actually quite enjoyable because we had excellent visibility and great views to enjoy, as well as lots of friendly honks and waves from passing motorists who couldn’t quite believe we were cycling over such a big hill. The best bit, though, was of course the downhill. We descended from 3400m to 1500m over 35km, in less than an hour (including time to stop and take photos) – steep and fast. The road surface was good and the traffic light so we could roll fast with confidence. The scenery was also lovely; all in all it was the best downhill of the trip so far. We rolled happily into the city of Xichang and celebrated what we had achieved over the last few days with a trip to KFC!
We had planned to move on from Xichang the next day, but when we woke in the morning we decided a day off was in order, as we had already cycled 5 days in a row and knew we had another 5 or 6 to do before reaching Kunming, our next big destination. Our rest day was spent doing not much at all other than wandering around the pleasant but unexciting city, nice and relaxing. Based on what our map showed, we expected to have around 200 relatively flat kilometres to cycle before reaching the next big city, Panzhihua. However unfortunately our map was inaccurate distance wise (it was 250km) and the road was very undulating, with many shortish but steep climbs – surprisingly tiring. Still the scenery was mostly great, and the weather was nice and hot, so we had a nice couple of day’s riding. Arriving into Panzhihua was not too much fun though, like most Chinese cities it produces a large amount of air pollution, which combined with the heat and a steep climb to get into the city, meant that by the time we found a hotel we were not only hot and sweaty, but covered in a layer of black grime – nice!
From Panzhihua we climbed 1000m or so over a pass, which gave spectacular views into a river valley far beneath us. At one point where the adjacent expressway curved round a bend, it protruded out into the valley – with a drop of more than 1000m beneath the concrete road, it is probably not a good road for sufferers of vertigo to drive along! Thankfully the road we were on wound its way along the side of the valley so was not quite so unnerving to travel along. It was a long climb to the pass both because there were several false summits, and because the road quality was very poor – mostly unpaved. We were not looking forward to a long downhill on roads like that, but luck was on our side and literally at the top of the pass smooth tarmac started and lasted all the way down the other side. The descent was long – indeed at the top we saw our favourite sign, warning of a long descent – excellent! We arrived into a small town called Yongren where we found our best value accommodation of the trip so far (other than the free stuff of course), a nice hotel room for only $6. The next morning was great, as the descent continued for a further 15km. However, you know the saying ‘what goes up must come down’, well likewise what goes down invariably comes back up, and we spent the afternoon crawling up a 1600m ascent to the small town of Bai Lu, which is inhabited by the Yi minority. The road to Bai Lu goes steeply uphill before running along a high ridge for some time, providing great views of the high villages and rice terraces in the surrounding valleys. It never ceases to amaze us how the people in these villages are able to terrace and cultivate such steep land at high altitudes, a long way from the roads that provide access to the rest of the area.
From Bai Lu we knew we had almost 170 hilly kilometres to cover before reaching Kunming, and had originally thought we would take two days to cover the distance as we were feeling a little fatigued from cycling over 2200km in the last 3 weeks. However we had a cracking start, with good conditions and more downhill than we expected, and had covered 100km by midday, so decided to press on all the way. Unfortunately the final 60km were hillier than anticipated, and we also ran into a strong headwind and rain for the last couple of hours. We were certainly glad when we reached Kunming at around 5pm. We had a hostel in mind and spent around 45 minutes trying to find it, only to conclude that it must have been knocked down (where it was meant to be there was a building site…). It was cold and pouring with rain by this time, and dark, so when our attempts to find a different hostel failed we gave in and found a hotel instead. Fortunately it turned out to be a really nice hotel, and very good value, particularly as the breakfast buffet was one of the best we have seen in China – the next morning we were there for a while and certainly got our money’s worth! After hot showers, a pizza from Pizza Hut (which cost almost as much as the hotel room but was well worth it!) and 12 hours of deep sleep we awoke with the happy knowledge that we had several days off the bikes, during which we were planning to visit the historic town of Lijiang, and to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge (no resting for us!), which we were really looking forward to. We were also happy to have reached Kunming as it is the last major town before the Vietnamese border, and while we have really enjoyed our time in China we are very much looking forward to moving on to Vietnam and the rest of SE Asia in the near future.