Our foray into China was one we debated quite a bit. We talked about skipping the country all together, because of time, visas, many other reasons and well…. China is big. Really big. There was no way we would have the time to cycle from Vietnam to South Korea… and I’m not sure I would want to anyways. But in the end we decided that we would be missing out on a pretty interesting part of the world, and skipping China altogether would leave a void in our trip.
We knew we needed to focus on one area of the country and we opted for somewhere less populated, a bit more remote and culturally diverse. We chose to start our ride from Kunming, Yunnan Province and cycle to Chengdu, Sichuan Province which did not disappoint. It was one of the most interesting, challenging and beautiful sections of our trip so far and unbeknownst to us one of the most popular cycle routes in the country.
When people talk about China I think for many they have an idea of a country that is steeped in history with some great heritage and a lot of rice paddies on the one hand and on the other a developing country that has emerged as a mighty producer with endless miles of factories churning out black smoke and cheap products. Although this may be a reality in some parts of the country it is not what we experienced at all. Apart from the odd factory and bizarrely overbuilt towns we passed on the way through the country, we were surrounded by some beautiful nature, cycling next to grand rivers and towering mountains.
After a bus ride with an disgruntled bus driver from the border town of Hekou we arrived in Kunming, a relatively small city for China with around 6.5 million residents!
Our first Chinese city experience was interesting. Construction seems to be rampant with new tower blocks going up everywhere while numerous complete buildings seem to stand empty. The infrastructure of the city was pretty impressive with dedicated bicycle lanes throughout the city and large wide roadways everywhere. However, it seems that speed rather than proper design was the driving force in nearly all elements of the city. Many things were often not well thought through and the ‘fit and finish’ of nearly everything from buildings to roadways, highways and utilities definitely deserved the label “Made in China”. But I digress….. we managed to take in some of the culture of the city visiting the local temple and massive lotus pond. But the true cultural experience of modern day China came when we went to KTV with our Belgian host, Sander and some of his friends. KTV or “Karaoke TV” is something of a national past time and it isn’t just for friends to go out and rip up the mic, its also somewhere to bring your business associates for an evening of schmoozing. Needless to say the locals were good, really good, the two cyclists who just arrived in town, were not. It was a blast and a great introduction to modern China.
After Kunming we hit the road and headed west towards the mountains and the ‘remote’ areas of China. At first it was anything but remote. We cycled on the old highway and passed through some big and small cities a few factories and a lot of construction. Things didn’t seem very remote and were definitely not devoid of people. On the road we were surprised to see some more cycle tourers. A group of four young Chinese cyclists on mountain bikes, we were glad to see it. The next day another group of tourers, and then another. It turns out that cycle touring is popular in China with university students, and that we were on one of the most popular cycle tour routes in the country. The circuit is Chengdu to Kunming, or vice versa, exactly what we were planning to cycle. Our route would take us through a few Chinese tourist destinations along the road, Dali, Shaxi, Lijang, Shangri-la, Litang. Dali was our first port of call and after a few days of cycling we ended up chatting with a group of young Chinese tourers and ended up riding with them. It was a great change for Claire and I for a few reasons. I think we both enjoyed the company and having some new people to chat with, cycling as a group is also fun now and again as it’s a different dynamic. Cycling with ‘the guys’ meant we got a young person’s perspective on their own country and the rest of the world. By far the best perk of riding with locals was the food. Before the guys showed up, we would enter a restaurant and play a veritable game of Russian roulette with our meal. In China all restaurants seem to have a small fridge with glass doors filled with the basic ingredients available to make your meal. This was great for us as we could point something out and order that way, but it meant each time we would experience something new. Example; point to a pepper it may come out in spicy oily sauce or it may come out with pieces of pork, you never know. It was fun, but we always knew that there were delicious things which we were missing out on. No longer. Each meal was a spectacle and one which was never once the same and was always delicious.
In China meals are without doubt a social affair, and are shared in a way that we in the west just don’t really do all that often. You are often not given your own plate, all dishes are shared, everyone eats from the same plate and reaching over the table is not rude; in fact it is a necessity and encouraged. Table manners in fact will slow you down. Smacking your chops as you mow down seems to be standard practice, open mouth eating isa faux pas. The variety in the food throughout our time in China made it one of my favourite ‘food destinations’ on the trip without a doubt. From hot pot (Chinese fondue), DIY BBQ, chicken feet to all sorts of other wild dishes China is a culinary experience.
Our time with guys was a short, but memorable. We stayed in a few guest houses that we otherwise would have never found! Cheap as anything, but generally not open to foreigners. We parted ways in Dali the first of our touristy stops in China. And it was a sight to behold. Chinese tourists are a breed of their own. If you have ever been abroad and experienced a tour bus of Chinese tourists I’m sure you have your own take on what it is like. Now imagine a small, ‘historic’ village with not one bus load of Chinese tourists but hundreds of them. They were packed in wall to wall, the streets were filled to the hilt, it was a sea of tourists in Dali, unlike anything I had experienced before.
Dali itself was a town that has been rebuilt as a tourist town. Originally a historic town from the Ming dynasty, little is left of the historic centre. Instead what appears now is a fantasy world of buildings built to resemble historic structures which house shops selling trinkets, restaurants and hotels for eager Chinese tourists. The impression I got with not only Dali, but the other tourist towns we travelled through was that they were more like a destination for the sake of a destination rather than for their historic value. Each felt like more of a resort / shopping centre / indulgence centre where the burgeoning middle class of China could go to spend their hard earned Renminbi on food and trinkets, a place of indulgence. For us it was welcome to have a break, where we could people watch and window shop wondering what many of the things were which we were passing. But also to indulge in some treats after some tough riding.
After an evening of one last hot pot meal, fire noodles and some bubble tea with the guys, we all had a Chinese craft beer (yes they exist) and said farewell.
We looped back south from Dali, around to the other side of the mountains to visit a smaller historic village Shaxi although had the same Chinese tourist affliction of being over run with small shops selling junk, was quaint, quiet and had an amazing old theatre and some beautiful historic timber buildings. The new road we were one meant we were off the tourist circuit, which was great because it meant it was quiet, traffic was light and wild camping as much easier.
As we cycled north we passed through another tourist hotspot with another ‘historic old town’, Lijang. This was once again a bit of a joke as most elements of the historic town were dwarfed by historic mock up buildings but even more so by the lights, the tat and restaurants. Our stay in the town was a short one.
We snaked our way north to hit up Tiger Leaping Gorge, a famous tourist attraction and joined the swarm of vacationers once again, but only briefly. Thankfully after the short jaunt into the gorge where the famous ‘tiger leaping’ rock is, all the tourists take a few pictures visit the rock and then turn around and head back to the highway. Amazingly, few continue on past the tourist trap. The road which continues into the gorge and then up into the mountains is beautiful. The gorge itself becomes more spectacular beyond where the crowds gather. Rugged, wild and mystical because of the rising and falling clouds in the valley and the mountains above it was a joy to cycle through. We couldn’t get more than a few hundred meters without stopping to take photos.
Where the road left the valley marked the beginning of the real mountains for our cycle in China. We were now in the very rural areas of Yunnan. We had miserable weather for days, the cycle was really challenging and consisted of hours of uphills, some quick descents followed by more climbing. A few breaks in the clouds gave us an indication of what we had accomplished looking down into the surrounding valleys, and also what a beautiful part of the world we were in. A day or so into the mountains we stumbled across a familiar site. We found some calcium deposit pools like those we had seen almost a year earlier when we were in Pamukkale, Turkey!
The villages we passed through were fairly poor comprised of farmers, lots of yaks and very little to buy in terms of food. This pattern continued as we cycled further north in Yunnan and also into Sichuan with the number of Yaks increasing and the wealth of the farmers seeming to decrease.
The history of the region we cycled in is a complex one, which we learned only small snippets about. However we learned that the areas we cycled through were once part of Tibet, and were divided up during the 1950s when an eastern chunk of Tibet was divided up among several of the neighbouring Chinese provinces. As a result many of the farmers and country folk were ‘Tibetan’ which was evident from their complexion as well as their garments. More than 80% of the population in this part of China was Tibetan.
Many of the Chinese people we met along the way asked us why we were not cycling to or from Lhasa and why we were missing Tibet. When we told them we were unable to travel without a paid guide, many did not believe us and often argued that we were wrong, not understanding how the rules would be different for foreigners or understanding why those restrictions would be in place. A scary and very real example of the propaganda and limited access to outside information Chinese citizens receive.
With the weather against us, things went from being unpleasant to being quite bad, as I got sick, very sick. On the side of a mountain in a wet field, we stayed with little water and no food. For two days nothing stayed in me, and for two days it rained. It was probably the worst I had been sick on the entire trip and some of the most miserable days on the trip as well. Cold, damp, wet, hungry and tired. It was a good day when we could finally set off again after I gained some strength back. Hitting the road again meant doing another monumental climb out of the valley we were in. By this time we were cycling between 2,000 to above 3,000 metres and riding elevation gains of over 1,000m a day. It was rough going. But with the motivation of getting to our next stop and sanctuary for a few days (the aptly named Shangri-la) we braved the rain and mountains for one more miserable day before we had dry place to sleep, and a hot shower.
Shangri-la is a peculiar place. It is another city in China that you can see has changed quickly, and was built up in short span of time. This Tibetan town use to be a logging town which when the logging industry went south re-branded itself from the village of “Deqen” to “Shangri-la” as a tourist destination in the mountains. We did the rounds in this small but interesting tourist town; picked up some Yak Jerky, spun the three storey golden prayer wheel and found the best bacon, egg and french toast breakfast we have found on the trip (we earned it okay! – Compass Restaurant in case you are wondering). We also found a start up craft brew bar called the Raven run but a Brit and a Canadian (hey that’s just like us) who serve up tasty pizza and have loads of beers from around the world. It was a bit strange drinking a London Pride with someone from my home town of Toronto in the Mountains of China.
When chatting with some locals and motorcyclist about our planned route, nearly all of them gave us a look of concern. It turns out the road we were planning on taking was often washed out, muddy and very mountainous. We ignored all suggestions to take a different route. It turned out that they were correct on all fronts. It was the toughest stretch of road we would cycle on the entire trip…
For more photos from our time in China click HERE
Our journey continues in China…. Read more soon.