China – Lijiang to Zhongdian

(The Great Firewall of China is blocking access to WordPress, so I’m posting through a proxy, but can’t put up any pics unfortunately.)

To recap. Bad news in the visa department. The US have slipped into China’s bad books, so only restricted 3 month visas are only being issued to Americans. It’s a downer, as it means Cara will either have to skip the country every 30 days, or extend her visa at one of the notorious PSBs (Public Security Bureaux). Not good news for cyclists, as we’ll have to plan our route around this. As a Brit, I have no problem, and pick up a 6 month multi entry visa.

Anyway, a brisk flight has us touching down in Kunming, heart of China’s south western backwater, Yunnan Province. Except it’s a far cry from the sleepy city I visited some 8 years ago, just when the economic boom was starting to kick in. Where bikes once ruled, the streets are now heavy with cars and their noxious fumes. They’re fancy ones at that – everything from flash Porsche Cayennes, shiny Mercs and windscreen-tinted BMWs. Not perhaps what one might expect from a relatively small city in the PRC… Even in the sanctuary of the cycling lanes, many of the push bikes have been usurped by super speedy electric scooters, silently gliding through the last remaining shoals of cyclists like preying baracuda… I know England isn’t often much better when it comes to bike-friendly roads, but it’s a shame, given how recent and deep rooted all this development has been, that China doesn’t appear to be learning from our mistakes. On the positive side, at least the scooters-bikes are electric.

Out on the road, it’s worse, with chaotic anarchy prevailing when it comes to the Highway Code. How about lane hoping at whim, or cutting across 3 lanes of traffic when the lights are clearly, unambiguously red? Both useful tools in the drivers arsenal. The complete lack of road sense perhaps isn’t so surprising, as most of these drivers have been at the wheel for less than a decade. And it sure does show…

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Still, Kunming’s a good place to find our Chinese feet and start to get to grips with daily life here. We inch our way round crowded markets rich in produce, and figure out what’s what: whether it be the going rate for a pair of blackened chicken claws, or where to get a breakfast of stuffed bread balls surprises straight from the wicker steamer. Too much new food to try… 3Y, or 20p, for a basket of dumplings, dipped in soy and chilli sauce, plucked with wooden chopsticks. Delicious. On the flipside, we spotted a massive Carrefour (the first step in the death of the market?), and there’s really little you can’t buy here when it comes to commercial ‘western’ goods. Brand name laptops, top end, seriously spendy pro digital SLRs with lenses to match, genuine iPods, and Sat Nav PDAs, as well as a dizzying variety of cheap and cheerful Chinese-branded MP3 and MP4 players, and the obligatory cabinets-full of mobile phones. The prices lower than the UK, but still, given the relative cost of living, who can afford these things here?

We head over to the long distance bus stand. But the sight of two bikes, with fully laden trailers in tow, sets off a gaggle of head shaking drivers – meaning we’re turned away from the shuttle bus to Dali, where we’d planned to start our ride. So instead we leapfrog to Lijiang aboard an overnight goliath of a machine – our lodging for the journey two pencil wide slots tucked away at the very back, shared with a family of three, as modern Chinese society demands here. My feet dangle over the edge of the chinese proportioned beds, to general amusement. In the night, the baby needs the loo badly: floor space will have to do. Its crap is neatly scooped up, bagged and slung out of the window. Some old habits die hard in China…

Lijiang is our first real insight into tourism, Chinese style. Mass chinese style. In 1996 much of the town was ravaged by an earthquake. Since then, the old quarter has been painstakingly reconstructed, earning it a place on the UN’s World Heritage Site list. Except it’s become more like a fake, film set of a cobbled Chinese town than a living, breathing network of alleys. Waterways wean their way down the narrow backstreets and wooden doorways open to reveal terraced abodes set around idyllic courtyards. It’s all immaculate. Just too immaculate; its soul’s been scooped out, a squeaky clean, Disneyfied version put in its place. Delve further into the backstreets and it’s a little more more authentic and trincket free, but it hardly feels like China, or even the China of yesteryear. Still, we find ourselves a cosy, spotless guesthouse (Carnation) and escape the damp drizzle that’s pervaded the air since we arrived.

Drizzle grows to incessant rain, which is enough to put off most of the tour group contingent. In the cold mist, it’s possible to glimpse a faint outline of what Lijiang might once have been like, as locals huddle in doorways and smoky charcoal fires are lit. But when the sun’s out again, the mob’s back. Legions of yellow baseball-capped visitors clogging the cobbled backstreets, chasing legions of tour guides waving yellow flags in the air. If ever I worry about my own impact as a cycle tourist and the wake I leave, it’s but a mere drop in the ocean compared to this…

We escape into the new town – where there’s ironically much more atmosphere – and stumble upon a quadrangle of market stands, serving up a steady stream of earthenwear bowls of noodles – glass, thick, thin, yellow, white – and skewers of vegetables – various unidentified meats and fish – chargrilled over fires. This is more like it. A few students giggle into their drinks as we fumble with chopsticks – we watch them for pointers and techniques.

Our next stop is Zhongdian – or rather Shangri-La, as the tourist-savy local government has now renamed it, cashing in on the tour party bandwagon that has swept accross Yunnan. We’d planned to take the quiet, convenient backroad to the head of the famously deep Tiger Leaping Gorge but in their wisdom, the same officials are now extorting 160Y per head – over 10 GBP, a lot of money here – for the priveledge of cycling the short stretch of road that leads there: a landscape appreciation charge…

Enough is enough, and as there’s no room for negotiation, we backtrack and pick up the longer, busier main road, only to be met with a 50Y fee for riding 20km through what seems to have become the cash cow of this dramatic gorge – a new, glaringly huge visitor centre has been built at one end, servicing a non-stop flow of coaches that hurtle up and down to the ‘viewpoint’… Once past this bottleneck, it really is rather lovely, and quiet too. We bump into a Polish couple who have ridden all the way from home, across west Tibet, and swap stories into the night.

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By morning, it’s raining again )-: This isn’t good. Our clothes are soon soaked, while our shoes seem only good for mopping up all the puddles. But as we push into the mountains, at least the road is finally free of fleets of tourist buses. It’s perfectly paved and all but empty, each bend carrying us higher, revealing row apon row of terraced fields, winding its way through beautiful forests heavy with the smell of pine. Escaping the downpour, we retreat into a Naxi (the minority group here) truckstop cafe and tuck into spicy noodle soup, chomping on baked potatoes cooked in a pot bellied stove billowing smoke into the damp air, washed down with cups of salty tea from some passing Tibetans. It’s all very atmospheric. Well, except the spicy noodle soup is straight from an instant ready-to-eat-just-add-water pot, complete with plastic fork, various plastic pouches of spices and lots of plastic packaging. I hope all this modernisation doesn’t mean everyone forgets how to cook – or can’t be bothered to – as seems so prevalent in the West. The frigid temperatures dampen our spirits and slow our speed but by a few days in, the skies are finally clearing, unmasking swathes of forest beneath ranges of impressive snow capped peaks. All around, everyone waves and yells the greeting ‘Ni Hau’, or even the world-popular English ‘Hello’, beaming away at us come rain or shine, staring at our weird looking bikes and trailers, laughing, and even trying to engage in conversion. People are noticeably more open than before, and much more inclined to try and decipher the words we’re trying to garble at them, where once they might have just turned away and simply ignored us. Far less of the ‘Stranger Danger’ phenomina. At last, we dry out around the wood burning stove of our guesthouse – a rickety, wobbly wooden building perched over noisy, oinky pigs, with a view onto lush fields framed by ‘yet another’ stunning mountain range. Three large posters of a genial-looking Chairman Mao are pinned to the drafty walls. When the wooden shutters are opened, blades of sunlight pierce the thick smoke from the stove (cue another packet of instant noodles), cheering us right up.

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The final 50km hoists us up and over a 3700m pass, and back down into the valley via an immaculate road. We pass through a Tibetan ‘eco-village’ – cue the return of hordes of tourists aboard vast, luxury coaches. Very eco. Again, I hardly recognise the place from less than a decade ago. Simply huge Tibetan homes are springing up all around, bedecked with intricate carving and fine paintwork. But we can’t help but feel that while it’s wonderful to see local skills being employed, all the money poured in will eventually suck the life out of this place too, transforming it more into a tourist museum piece than a real village. Who knows…

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Pulling into the relative metropolis of Zhongdian via a huge, grandiose, all-but-empty boulevard (lined with gaudy object d’art), we stop off at a local eatery in the new town. We’re soon tucking into plates of egg and tomato, and local crunchy mushrooms and pork, shovelled down with bowls of rice. It’s only been a week, but we’re developing the bowl-to-your-face and flick-in-the-rice technique nicely, with less collatoral damage on the floor and table. Not that it seems to bother anyone, as the table etiquette here is to spit bones out straight onto the floor (and snot bullets for that matter), to be swept up at the end of the day, or given to passing mangy dogs. It’s good to be back in the mountains. The backdrop is stunning. Peaks surround us, and at 3200m, the air is sharp and clear. Then we roll into the signposted Old Town – a miniature Lijiang – and book into the backpacker-friendly Barley Hostel.

I’m a bit confused. I never realised this place had an ‘old’ town. Indeed, those cobbles do look suspiciously new. Ah, welcome to 21st Century China…

Stats and Facts:

About 15Y to 1GBP.

Overnight sleeper to Lijiang – 140Y per person, plus 50Y per bike.
Carnation Guesthouse – 40Y a room
Scruffy little village dorms – 10Y per person
Barley Guesthouse – 20Y per person
A hearty bowl of noodles (not instant…) – about 3.5Y
A hearty meal of rice/veg/meat for two – about 25Y
Lijiang (2400m) to Zhongdian (3200m) – 260km, 4 days, passes up to 3700m, and plenty of hills in between. Immaculate tarmac.

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