We spent a day in Kunming hiding out from the rain, which was torrential at times and made the day rather cold. Still, we were a little tired after the long cycle from Chengdu, and so were happy to spend the day relaxing with a book. In the evening we headed to the train station to take the night train to the town of Lijiang, from where we planned to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge. This part of the trip was a bit of a ‘holiday’ from the cycling as we left our bikes at a hostel in Kunming, because we figured we were unlikely to have a use for them in the area, and it is a bit of a hassle transporting them. The train was excellent, very clean and with comfortable beds. Each cabin contained 4 beds, but we were the only people in our cabin so we had plenty of space. We both slept well and awoke just as we drew into Lijiang. After the obligatory argument with a taxi driver over the fare we eventually found ourselves at the lovely Panba hostel. Unfortunately it was too early for beds to be ready so after breakfast we headed out to explore the historic town of Lijiang. The old part of the city has been well preserved, and although very touristy, is really very pleasant to spend a few hours walking around – lots of narrow, pedestrianised, cobbled streets full of handicraft shops and small restaurants. As it was early the place was very quiet – not what we were expecting as lots of people had told us it gets really very busy with tourists. We hadn’t bought any souvenirs in China yet – indeed on the trip at all – and as we knew that postage from China is really quite cheap, we took the opportunity to buy a pair of cast iron dragons and a few other small items for wherever we end up living when we get back. In the afternoon we both had massages to loosen up our leg and back muscles a little for the trek, and Pete braved a local barbers to have a haircut – despite the usual communication issues, it thankfully didn’t look too bad!
The next morning we were up early to get the bus to the village of Qiaotou, which is at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. It was raining and we were nervous that we were off for a miserable trek in the rain, but we didn’t want to wait another day on the off-chance the weather would improve so off we went. The bus left at 8.30 and was supposed to take 2 hours, but due to 4 separate accidents that we saw had happened on the road (the road is bendy and it was a little wet due to the rain, resulting in a few skids and certainly adding to our overall impression that Chinese people are not good drivers!), the journey took much longer and we didn’t arrive until midday. Maybe this was a good thing, however, as the skies had cleared and the sun had come out by then. After a quick lunch we set off, tackling the steep ascent which marks the beginning of the high trail along the gorge. At around 900m, the total ascent is not to be sniffed at, and it took us around 4 hours to reach the village of Yacha which is around a third of the way along the gorge. Halfway up the climb there was a local woman with a stall very openly selling bags of cannabis, which surprised us somewhat as China is reputed to have a tough stance on drugs. It’s not really our scene so we politely declined and continued on our way. Further along we saw lots of cannabis plants being cultivated in people’s gardens so clearly a blind eye is turned to the practice in this area.
Yacha contains the Tea Horse guest house, which we decided to stay at as evening was approaching. It is a lovely guest house, made out of wood and with fabulous views over the gorge. The staff are lovely too, welcoming us with a free cup of tea as soon as we arrived. Despite having such a wonderful setting the rooms are very reasonably priced – just 60Y (6 pounds) for a simple, but comfortable room complete with a great view. After showering etc we sat admiring the view some more as the sun went down with a beer or two. There were a few other people staying and we had a nice evening getting to know each other a little. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the highest gorges on earth, with the mountains on either side rising to an incredible 3900m above the raging waters of the Yangtze at the bottom. It gets its name from a legend which says that a tiger once leapt across the gorge – considering that even right at the bottom it is rather wide we are not sure about that one!
The next day we got up for sunrise (not so arduous as it doesn’t rise until 7am), before a leisurely breakfast. Thinking we might need the energy we ordered 3 lots of chocolate and banana pancakes between the two of us, not realising that we would get 2 pancakes with each order, i.e., 6 pancakes in total – a lot even for us! After that we wobbled off down the path, which thankfully was rather flatter than on the previous day. The skies were clear and once the sun reached our side of the valley it was really quite hot. We reached Tina’s guesthouse, from where we planned to get a bus back along the valley to Lijiang, at around lunchtime, so we had a nice lunch followed by a sit in the sun, before getting the bus back at 3. In true Chinese style we were sold a through ticket that was supposed to take us directly from Tina’s back to Lijiang – slightly more expensive than changing bus in Qiaotou, but we figured it was worth it. However it turned out that our through ticket involved changing buses, and a half-hour wait, after all. Most annoying when you get misled like that, sad to say it happens all the time in a country like China where people just tell you what you want to hear when booking tickets etc, rather than the truth.
We eventually got back to Lijiang, only to have another argument with a taxi driver – we agreed a price to be taken to our hostel, but then he drove us to the edge of the old town instead – the old town is pedestrianised (although the street our hostel was on is open to cars), and he refused to drive round it or take us any closer. Instead we had to walk all the way through the old town ourselves, which took 40 minutes! Taxi drivers – scoundrels the world over! After a shower and a couple of pot noodles in the hostel we headed to the train station for the night train back to Kunming, along with Frederic and Joelly, a French-Canadian couple we met in the gorge who had tickets for the same train. The train is a double-decker and this time we were on the upper level, which seemed a little more wobbly than the lower level, and so we didn’t sleep quite as well on the return journey as on the way out. When we got to Kunming we shared a cab with Frederic and Joelly to the Hump hostel, where we had left our bikes. The weather was good and we spent the day wandering around Kunming, doing some shopping, and sitting in the sunshine – it’s a hard life!
We also visited the post office to send home our souvenirs from Lijiang – too heavy to carry! Finding the post office proved to be more of a challenge than expected, not helped by the usual unfriendly attitude of the locals towards foreigners. Without wanting to sound like a couple of whingeing poms abroad, we do feel that the Chinese attitude towards foreigners requires a mention here. Although there are many things about China that make it a great place to visit and cycle around – loads to see, excellent cheap food and accommodation, great roads and infrastructure, etc – unfortunately the attitude of the locals has been a very significant detraction to our enjoyment of the country, so much so that we would hesitate to return.
In stark contrast to just about all the other countries that we have visited where the people have been friendly and welcoming and have generally made an effort to help us when we needed them to, out of the main tourist areas the Chinese are suspicious and distrustful of foreigners, viewing us almost as something from outer space that is there to be stared at and laughed at, but to be kept at arms length at all costs. One issue is the significant language barrier – English is barely spoken in China (not that we blame them for that when 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin), and despite our best efforts all our attempts to speak Chinese are met with a blank stare and laughter. Thank god for our phrasebook with phrases written in Chinese. Because ‘saving face’ is a huge part of Asian culture in general, Chinese people would rather avoid us completely than have the embarrassment of a difficult conversation. Thus a blank stare and laughter is actually a good response, quite frequently people that we try to talk to give us a filthy look and turn away, or wave their hands in our face in a ‘go away’ gesture. We estimate that only around 1 in 10 people will stop and actually try to help us. Just great. This attitude is not helped by the official attitude to foreigners – distrust at every level it seems – which, as described below, can cause significant problems for finding hotels etc.
Anyway, we eventually found the post office (helped it must be said by probably the most friendly person we met in China, a nice young girl who actually took the trouble to walk us there as it was a bit difficult to find). We had more friendly Chinese attitudes that evening when the owner of a small restaurant that we went into said ‘no foreigners’ repeatedly loudly in our faces, accompanied by laughter from the other diners. Thanks, we will happily spend our money elsewhere.
By this stage – after 7 weeks in China – we had just about had enough of this attitude and were itching to cover the 500km to the Vietnamese border ASAP. So we left Kunming cheerfully, and had a pleasant enough ride to the town of Lunnan, where unfortunately we had our worst run-in with Chinese bureaucracy yet. We got there quite early – around 4pm – and checked into a hotel that was nice and cheap. The receptionist wasn’t quite sure how to register us, so said she would check with the police during the evening. No problem we said, quite used to late evening visits from the police by now. After resting and going out for dinner we had a knock on the door – here we go, we thought. It turned out the police weren’t going to come to us, we had to go to them, but they had sent a taxi that the hotel paid for so off we went. After 45 minutes sat on a cold bench in the police station we received the bad news – the hotel we had checked into wasn’t licensed for foreigners so despite it being 9pm at night we had to change to a different hotel, which was of course twice the price. I mean for god’s sake, how ridiculous! So back to the hotel to pack up, reload our bikes and cycle through the dark to a different hotel. The room we were given there turned out to be just above a karaoke club and was too noisy for us to sleep, so we ended up changing rooms again – 3 hotel rooms in one night has to be a record!
The next morning we continued to cycle south. The map showed an expressway (which bikes can’t normally go on) with another road adjacent. But when we asked for directions, everyone directed us onto the expressway, and there was no sign prohibiting bikes so we figured it was ok. After 10km we encountered a friendly traffic cop who told us we couldn’t take that road, but there was no other road evident and when we tried to get him to tell us which way to go he gave up and told us to carry on. The road was just like any other road to be honest, with one lane in each direction, rather than the usual motorway-like set-up, so it was clearly fine for us to cycle on. Indeed the traffic was very light and the scenery very nice, so it was a pleasant ride. Unfortunately Christine wasn’t feeling too great, suffering from a lingering migraine, so although the going was quite easy we called it a day after 100km at a small town called Peng Pu. The town was set back from the road by a couple of kms so we had a nice ride through fields of sugar cane to get there – a good end to the day. No hassles here, there was only one hotel in town and after a quick look at our passports we were given a room key by the friendly receptioninst.
After Pengpu we had a nice downhill section leading to the city of Kaiyuan, which was just horrible – it seems to be a city devoted to manufacturing chemicals and the smog was unbelievable. It’s terrible that people have to endure that on a day-to-day basis; their health must suffer a lot as a consequence. We emerged from Kaiyuan covered with a layer of filth and continued onto the much nicer town of Shadian where we stopped for lunch. This was a funny place, being a Muslim town – out of nowhere appears a giant mosque and suddenly everybody is wearing headscarves. It is telling of the warm reception we received in other Muslim countries that we felt really at home in this town, suddenly everybody seemed friendly for a change! After Shadian we were faced with another expressway, but this one had a dedicated bike lane to one side – excellent fast riding to Mengzi. There the bike lane finished, but locals we asked told us to continue on the same road to get to Hekou, the border town. Stupidly we ignored our better instincts and carried onto what was now a dual carriageway, albeit with no traffic on it whatsoever (indeed it was so quiet we saw some locals using it as a flat surface to wash a rug on!) We had cycled 8km (with less than 10 vehicles passing us) when the authorities caught up with us. Some very friendly traffic cops insisted it was dangerous and forbidden to ride on that road and we would be much safer on the busy, single-lane, poor quality alternative road. Annoying, but they were just doing their job and wouldn’t budge, so back to Mengzi we had to go where they politely directed us on to the right road.
Of course it turned out we had been directed onto the expressway by the locals for a reason – the local road is being resurfaced and was at the stage of being unsealed, muddy and very bumpy – very slow, frustrating going. And of course it was quite busy with local traffic, making it a much more challenging ride than the dual carriageway would have been. Anyway we eventually made it as far as the town of Xinxian where we spent the night in a small cheap hotel. We expected this to be our last night in China so were relieved not to have any hassle with the police here. We got up early the next morning because we wanted to get over the border that day, and knew we had 130km to go to get there before it shut at 6pm. It was freezing and very foggy when we left because we were at 1400m and in a cloud, but it soon warmed up as we descended. Despite being a solid downhill, the first 30km were frustratingly slow because of the roadworks. China has a unique approach to road maintenance; rather than do a bit at a time, or do just one half of the road at a time so there is still a bit to drive on, they just dig the whole thing up in one go; anybody wanting to drive on the road just has to put up with a terrible road surface while they work on it. No doubt this is more efficient and gets roads built or resurfaced quickly, but it is a right pain if you end up on one that is being worked on.
After 2 hours we reached the town of Pingbian (at least we think that was behind the great cloud of dust and smog we passed through…), and to our relief the road went back to smooth tarmac. Before we got going with the rest of the downhill we stopped to give our bikes a wash – they were filthy from the morning’s riding and mud and cement dust had gotten into just about all the moving parts, resulting in some worrying grinding sounds when we pedalled. After a wash and some oil however they sounded just fine. The next 25km were wonderful – barely a pedal turn required as we descended from 1400m to 200m. We stopped at Xinjie for a hearty lunch – we knew it was likely to be our last meal in China so we made the most of it, ordering 2 plates of fried rice, fried pak-choi, and aubergine stewed in soy sauce – wonderful! After a brief passport check (by a friendly soldier who even saluted us as we passed!) we turned to the east in the direction of the Vietnamese border.
The road was dead quiet due to the presence of a new expressway running adjacent to it, and we had a pleasant, if unexciting, ride to Hekou, the border town. It was noticeably hotter and more humid here than up in the mountains where we have been for so long, and this, along with our big lunch, induced a sleepy feeling in both of us that made the afternoon ride seem to last for ever, but eventually the city came into view. Right at the entrance to Hekou we spotted a bridge clearly acting as a border; we knew we had to cross a bridge to enter Vietnam so assumed this was it. It seemed preternaturally quiet and as we approached we realised the gates were shut, although it was only 4.30pm (the border is meant to be open until 6pm at least). Having made somewhat of an effort to get here from Kunming in 4 days, we were gutted to think we would have to wait until the next day to cross the border. However thankfully this was not the case – it turned out this border crossing was only for trucks, and that the main border crossing was 3km further downstream and was still open. Phew! So we continued and soon reached the main border crossing, which was a frenzy of activity with people pushing bikes and other small vehicles highly overloaded with Chinese goods across the bridge. It was a bit chaotic but several kindly (and seemingly underworked) Chinese border officials quickly rushed over to guide us through the formalities, which didn’t take too long.
Soon we were crossing the bridge to Vietnam, which felt kind of exciting seeing as we came on a cycle-touring holiday here a few years ago – it is a great country to cycle around and we had been looking forward to returning, so it felt like a bit of a milestone to finally get here. It also meant the most ‘difficult’ part of the trip was over, at least in terms of climate, mountains, visa formalities and other bureaucracy. Now all we have to deal with is pushy touts who see tourists as cash cows – endemic in SE Asia – but we are now seasoned enough travellers to be able to deal with that without too much difficulty. It was great to be able to take a picture of the Vietnamese border post – since Turkey border areas have been off-limits for photography – and to be able to check into a hotel without worrying if we are going to have a visit from the police later on. No doubt this part of the trip will have its own unique challenges but at least we have the prospect of good beaches and the opportunity to live the backpacker lifestyle from time to time – much more fun than slogging through deserts and over mountains!