Archive for November, 2007

Stranger Danger in South Yunnan

Judging by the amount of people who stop and quite literally gawp at us, Southern Yunnan doesn’t see too many foreigner visitors – probably just cyclists on their way to or from SE Asia. ‘Lawai!’, everyone shouts in astonishment, with a finger jab in our direction for good measure. Imagine the reaction of tourists in Dorset if everyone pointed and cried out ‘foreigner!’ whenever they passed…

Or mouths freeze in a comical ‘O’; I calculate the probability of a double take, heads jerking right back off shoulders, at around 80 per cent. If anyone hasn’t seen us, they’re quickly roused to attention. Grannies grab the nearest baby and swivel their heads in our direction excitedly. Sometimes we overtake kids on bikes ambling back from school along jungly roads. I like riding alongside them and trying to coax out a smile. At first, sheer surprise translates to silent stares, but then innevitably they crack broad smiles back.

Being on the road can be exhausting enough as it is, and at times all this pervasive attention can be overbearing. When we stop, each crowd sponges up yet more passers by, as new faces lean in to the circle to see what the fuss is about. A few people have stared or stalked us to the point that we’ve felt more comfortable moving on. Purposefully overshrill and attention-seeking yells of ‘hello’ from passing cars can be a bit annoying too. That’s fame for you, heh. Continue reading ‘Stranger Danger in South Yunnan’


Not quite like Tescos…

En route to Jingdong, we stop for a can of ginger and sugar cane juice. To the left, a man welds gates together using a homemade mask – some cheap sunglasses set in a rectangular piece of cardboard. Our eyes are drawn to the goings on at the butchers opposite, where a cow is being dismembered; trucks pass by, kicking up dust all around. Its severed head is still connected to its body, and lies in a thick pool of blood. As the butcher deftly slits open its belly, a balloon of intestines plops out onto the dirt floor. Hm. Maybe we’ll give meat a miss for a bit. It all seems a far cry from the neat styrofoam packets of beef in Tescos…

By the looks of things, not a lot is wasted in China. That evening, our dinner choice is laid out before us on skewers outside a restaurant. As well as vegetables and beef, the individual parts of a chicken are neatly set out on a shallow, silver dish, like an autopsy report; there’s claws, beaks, legs, wings, and some brains too. As Cara has a ‘No Eyeballs on the Plate’ rule, she quickly turns away…

The next day, in Zhenyuan, we have our usual bowl of noodles, and I have a grilled fish skewer too. Before long, we realise I’ve also accidentally ordered Water Buffalo Tail. We’d been pointing at it and chuckling, lying as it was next to the broccoli like a giant mouse tail. Now, we notice it’s joined the fish on the outdoor grill, and is being lacquered with oil and chili paste. Maybe someone else ordered it? Nope, the restaurant is empty. Like a misunderstood raised eyebrow at an auction, there’s no going back. Cara’s particularly squeamish about food and can barely even watch the poor tail being cooked. But I’ve been trained on sheep’s head in Kyrgyzstan, locusts in Thailand and parrot in Guyana, so when it arrives – first grilled, then chopped up like a sausage of ever decreasing size – I duly work my way through it. ‘Seems to be some kind of bone in the centre’, I note, munching my way round it like a sweetcorn. “That’s the cartiledge. Within the cartiledge are the nerves and the marrow. This is what allows the tail to flick and move freely,” says Cara informatively. We stop to consider the various water buffalo tails we’ve seen flicking and moving freely that day.

“I’m adding Tails to my No Eyeballs on the Plate rule,” concludes Cara when I’ve finished… And although the taste wasn’t that bad, I think I’ll have to agree.

Stats and Facts:

One pink water buffalo tail – lightly grilled with chili paste: 4Y (25p)

How to make a cup of tea in China


Travelling around non-English speaking countries in Asia inevitably unearths its fair share of amusing translations – whether they be emblazoned on road signs, dotted about menus or waxing lyrically across biscuit packets. Typos are one thing – we all make enough of them, and I’m sure there’s plenty of grammatical blunders on this site. But once in a while, a real linguistic gem pops up, making you wonder why companies don’t just send the copy to a native speaker, to cast a quick eye over it before it goes to press…

Today, it was the instructions on how to prepare a cup of tea, written on a tin of tea leaves in our hotel room.

It began:

Taste of Imbibe Ways and Means.

Then went on, in a timeless way to describe the simple act of adding hot water to a cup of tea:

Take Tea Leaf 3-4g, plunge into grail. Seething water thrust forth into 2-3 minutes.

Brilliant. The Chinese use the same leaves for several cups of tea, adding hot water, to help reduce the bitterness. So finally, it explained with a little less clarity:

Apropos of imbibe, commonly repetition capable of sab-3 imbibe.

What the? Anyway, it made us chuckle.

Weishen and a question of pollution

Back on the road, it’s another late start with 65km to cover – we’re getting into a bit of a habit here… Except this time an imposing climb back into the hills beyond Erhai Lake looms ahead of us, shared with convoys of trucks and diggers – along with their heady mix of dust and fumes. To navigate our way around China, we’re using an English language Nelles map cross referenced with a Chinese one, so we can track down the small roads, and point to a symbol when we get hopelessly lost. In theory, we’re following a backroad, except like so much of China it’s reduced to rubble in the wake of major resurfacing.

By stark contrast, over in the valley on the other side of the pass, horse and carts are the main mode of transport, carrying both goods – long lengths of bamboo, for instance – and acting as group taxis – picking up ever more stragglers along the way, until even perching room has gone. I like the details: the seats are made from recycled rice and fertilizer bags, and old motorbike tyres provide the rubber. There’s a strong Muslim presence here; the mosques feature an unusual architectual pastiche of both pointed Islamic domes and Chinese gabled tile rooves.

A string of villages, hiding in their backstreets – away from the developers – Qing Dynasty houses set around big, flagstone courtyards, leads us along a broad, flat valley to Weishen. According the guidebook, the town is home to the Hui and the Yi people. And very nice people they seem to be too. There’s a distinctly relaxed vibe, a cheap and clean, motel-style hotel, internet access and plenty of options for dinner – all key ingredients for the travelling cyclist. In the morning, a knot of bystanders gather as we eat local fried vegetable bread in the square. Kit is duly inspected and the single wheel trailer is analysed up close; my saddle comes up to their chests, which causes much laughter.

The town is also truck free, and the electric, open minibuses that glide around are good to see too. It highlights China’s contradictions. On the one hand, there’s battery powered scooters and CNG buses in the cities, and solar powered water heating on many rooftops. The large portion of the people still use bicycles – both electric and conventional – for day to day chores, from mums shopping with their kids to villagers returning home from market day. Yesterday, Cara watched a program on the state TV channel on Totnes’ – yes, that alternative village tucked away in Devon – practical methods to become greener and less fuel dependent. Our hotel room has a door key that automatically turns off all the lights and appliances in the room to save energy. When we left Dali, I noticed a man on a trike painstakingly rifling through all the rubbish, splitting it into different piles to be recycled. Nothing is wasted.

Yet on the other, there’s overwhelming pollution in most of the cities, reducing the sky to a permanent grey cast. There’s brand new mutant tractor-trucks, so popular in these parts, that crawl up mountain roads, putt-putting thick, smoothering clouds of smoke into the environment. Without oil, the country relies on coal-fired power stations to fuel its economic growth – which is having a direct effect on both local and national weather conditions, including high levels of acid rain. In fact, there’s even a strange pride in heavy industry, with billboards of smoke-belching factories and powerstations – the much lauded symbol of modernisation – dotted about the countryside. As well as the real thing, slap bang where you least expect them. China’s wiping the slate clean by levelling its beautiful, atmospheric towns and old quarters. Yet the town planners seem intent on squeezing out bike lanes to make more room for cars. Then again, with the way people drive here, maybe they need it…

Tomorrow, we’ll continue of journey to Laos, as we start to warm up in Southern Yunnan.

Stats and Facts:
‘Old’ Dali to Weishen: 65km
Motel-style hotel: 50RMB (3.3GBP)

Lijiang to Dali – running the tour bus gauntlet

The ride out of Lijiang skirts round Yulong Xueshan mountain, which flits in and out of view through a tree-lined road flush with autumnal bloom. Our tent, winter kit and one of the Extrawheel trailers are on their way home, so now we can travel light and cover bigger distances – today we didn’t leave until 2pm, yet still make it to Jianchuan, over 70km away. But losing our porta-home means there’s more pressure to reach a town or village, and track down a cheap hotel or guesthouse to lay our heads for the night.

In Jianchuan we finally get lucky. Initially, everyone insists on pointing us to swish, upmarket hotels – well, upmarket by our lowly standards. But after some perseverance, a receptionist shyly points us to the hotel’s adjoining ‘cheapo’ wing, where a decent room with a perfectly clean shared bathroom sets us back 30Y – just two pounds. A trucker’s room, by the looks of things, and more our style…

I like places like Jinchuan. There’s nothing really to see. Just another town in the midst of development and modernisation. A busy main drag, a string of hardware stores and a dozen restaurants. But it feels real, and local, unlike many of the tourist-geared towns that are popping up around Yunnan. In the morning, we grab fruit from the market and baozi from a street corner – the right corner it seems, as all the bus drivers and truckers hop out of their cabs to grab their breakfast. Then we spot a shop selling wicker goods. I’ve been hankering over the simple baskets seen all over China for ages. Tied with straps and worn like rucksacks, they’re used to carry everything from chestnuts to rocks to vegetables to laundry. We buy two and I hang them on my rack like panniers, as the locals do, to nods of approval. We’ll post them from the next town – they’ll be great for shopping back home, and with their little feet, they’ll make cool magazine stands too (-:

The road is relatively flat, give or take a couple of small passes, and lush and green compared to the mountains we’ve left behind. The land is rich and fertile, and to either side, people are busy working their plots and fields. There’s a noticeable range of ages – the whole family is out, young and old, sowing seeds, tending cabbages, picking rice. People here are different too; most are Bai, the main ethnic minority. The women wear indigo blue clothes that are dyed locally, their faces darker, their round foreheads peeping out from under broad rimmed wicker hats. The older folk are stooped and tiny, stunted by years of lugging huge loads over their small frames.

One of the great perks of cycling touring is that you can never eat too much. Food is literally fuel, and just as we’re looking out for a lunch spot, we notice a sudden spike in basket-carrying villagers. Hm, they’re all empty on one side of the road, and overflowing with fresh produce on the other. A market must be close by! Sure enough, within a couple of kilometres, the streets are heaving with produce, spilling out in great mounds along the road. While the old highway we’ve been following isn’t too busy for the most part, the traffic quickly clogs up and grounds to a halt – only concerted honking reluctantly clears a path through.

I love markets. Everything is laid out to be scrutinized and haggled over: noodles bound like balls of string, chunks of fresh meat, baskets of tangerines, hession sacks of tea leaves; some large and crumpled like autumn leaves, others fine and charcoal-grey. We stop at an eatery and park our bikes, away from a scrum of women sifting through bright red chillies. Our movements are closely monitored by the farmer who sits by our side, his rough hands deftly maneuvering his chopsticks round some slippy tofu. Dumpling soup is on the menu, with thin, pork-filled pastry, chives, ginger and flecks of chilli. Delicious.

A last 30km busy drag sends us around Erhai Lake to Dali, past pagodas and Confucian temples tarted up for tourists. Oblivious to the buses that hurtle up and down, fishermen in conical hats and rolled up trousers are out cormurant fishing on its calm waters, and women are heaving out grass to dry on the shores. The influence of this beautiful lake on local life has always been significant – even the traditional embroidered shoes here are curved up at the toes in the shape of a boat. And now there’s tourism to add to the mix too.

Indeed, Dali’s long been a traveller hangout, and was a firm favourite on the trail when I last visited. In the intervening years, the transformation to fully fledged, glossy tourist town has been completed. Completely renevated, or simply reconstructed in ye older style, the ‘ancient’ city of Dali is now a must-see for the big tour groups running the Dali-Lijiang-Shangri-La gauntlet. It’s less grungy than before, catering more to wealthier Chinese tourists than penny pinching backpackers – the traditional red paper lanterns printed with the Budweiser logo are a nice touch.

Our guidebook steers us towards a strip of restaurants that appeal to European whims, where we overhear a contended English tour group lamenting the lack of decent western food elsewhere in China… That evening, we track down a great place for Shepard’s Pie, of all things, and in the morning, Jack’s Cafe provides a belly-filling breakfast of fresh pear juice and poached eggs on toast…

Yes, I know. Who are we to talk!

Stats and Facts:
Lijiang (2400m) to Jianchuan (2200m) – 72km
Jianchuan to Dali (1950m) – 110km
Poached eggs, toast and juice in a ‘western’ restaurant – 12 Yuan (80p)
Trucker’s room – 30 Yuan (2 GBP)
Wicker rucksack basket – 20 Yuan (1.30GBP)

Ziggy Stardust and the Tibetans

When we were in Kunming we picked up a MP3 player – or MPsan as they call them here, san being the Chinese for 3. Nothing fancy. A small 2mb iRiver, running off a single AAA battery. Originally we’d planned to podcast along the way, but accessing the site has proved too slow via the proxy we have to use in China. We also wanted to listen to tunes, and thanks to a tiny speaker (3GBP) we spotted in Kunming’s surgically bright electronics market, we can listen on the go when cycling side by side – as it even fits into the mesh side pocket of my Ortlieb bar bag. The speaker only lasts four or five hours but we can recharge it with our solar panel strapped to across the trailer, or in guesthouses. Best of all, the sound’s really not too shabby either.

Anyway, we were heading to Sichuan’s Tagong Grasslands. The sun had finally come out and absolutely everyone was waving hello from their houses, fields, even hilltops in a Trumanesque sort of way. The road was quiet, and for a change, even flat. Yes, Life was Good. And while music wasn’t exactly blasting from the bike – as it does from many of the motorbikes round here, thanks to rattly speakers strapped to the sides – you could definitely hear it as we rode along. A strange sight we must have seemed. Two bikes pulling bizarre trailers, two wrapped up head to toe riders, their hands lost somewhere admist thick motorbike ‘moose-mitts’ that sprouted with fake fur, and the gentle, beautifully crafted melodies of Belle and Sebastian wafting into the air.

We stopped at a small but lavishly gold crusted temple, and watched a young boy in a real, matted fur waistcoat working his way around and around a long line of six foot high prayer wheels, each inscribed with the Tibetan Buddhist peace mantra ‘On Mane Padme Um’; heaving with all his might to get them going. Some spun in a blur for minutes, others needed some extra oiling.

Nearing lunchtime, just as the road began to climb, we pulled over and settled down on a huge slab of rock surrounded by a clear stream that forked around it – the perfect spot for drying our tent, which we’d packed up when it was still crusty with ice like a frosty freezer. We unravelled the solar panel to give the speaker a boost, laid out the flysheet and snacked on some meaty baozi (bread dumplings) we’d picked up that morning.

It was a quiet spot, but it wasn’t long before a couple of young Tibetans guys pulled over on their motorbike to investigate. As always, our possessions – now handily laid out on the slab – proved a treasure trove of interest, each item as fascinating as the next, each warranting extended discussions and tutting. They checked out our SPD pedals and were impressed with our demonstrations of how to use them, inspected the trailers, tried on the bike helmets and marvelled at the size of the tent. We noticed one was carrying a foot long silver knife – for cutting yak meat, he explained. These guys were the real deal.

Then they came and sat down with us on the rock. I thought the occasion warranted some music; David Bowie seemed to suit the mood. So we sat together and listened to Space Oddity, then Changes, powered by the sun’s rays, sharing biscuits, warming ourselves after the cold start. I’d like to think it was the first time they’d heard Ziggy Stardust strutting his stuff, here in the peaceful grasslands at close to 4000m.

As usual we were in our shorts, which really surprises everyone, including our Tibetan friends. Like Russian dolls, they peeled back no less than three layers of assorted coloured long johns from under their socks. So that’s the secret of survival round here. When it was time to move on, they helped us load up the trailers and make sure we didn’t leave anything behind, then waved us on as we took to the road once more.

It was one of those unexpected, enriching encounters that refuels the spirit on a long ride like this, and reminds us why love to travel by bicycle so much.

Heading South – and no dogs for lunch, thanks

We’re back in Lijiang, where our tour began. Except this time we’ll be turning our wheels south, towards Laos and Thailand in search of sun and warmth. If we’d thought about it, we’d have started in Chengdu and ridden south from there. But we didn’t, as our minds were full of aspirations of cycling to Lhasa, only to be blighted by visa restrictions and an impending winter.

This means we’ll effectively be stitching together two routes and making a complete Chengdu-Bangkok ride; a tour from China’s mountainous South West into the tropics of South East Asia. And we’ve gone light for Part 2, now that we’ve left the bulk of the big passes behind. One of the trailers has been sent home, along with our camping kit and bundles of warm layers, so Cara will be running rear panniers and we’ll be guesthousing it from here. Shipping costs were good – 16kg to the UK for 30GBP by sea. As ever in China, it all felt very official and ‘un-Indian’. The China Post-issued, regulation-sized box was stamped with neat but mysterious Chinese character stencils after being thoroughly checked by customs, then bound up nice and tight, and sent on its way – a journey time of around 8 weeks.

Here in Lijiang, the sun is shining too; standing against the blue sky in the shape of an unhealthy ECG reading is 5500m Mount Yulong Xueshan, completely lost in a drizzly gloom when we were here last. Old Town was milling with flag-chasing tour groups, so after breakfasting on a couple of baskets of dumplings dipped in chilli and garlic sauce – 60p – we hit Lijiang’s new town. Everyone was out and about, making the most of the good weather. The centre is a weird pastiche of architectual styles – the usual, white tiled blocks, odd looking domes and blue mirrored offices. Various amusing signs caught our eyes, like the Vigorous Fitness Club, and the enigmatic labelling on a tube of hand moisturiser: Moisten an Estate Agent. Ah, of course, moistening agent. The town’s huge statue of Chairman Mao looks a little lost admist all the shiny new shops and developments. A young, hip Chinese couple on folding bikes clambered up for a pic, the guy’s spiky hair and Aviator shades standing out somewhat incongrously against a stern Old Mao.

In the land of imitations, I picked up a look-a-like Camelback Blowfish made by the Chinese outdoor brand Neeko, for a reasonable 10GBP. It’s the perfect size for an SLR, my notebook and a layer, so when we’re exploring towns, I can leave my over-the-shoulder bar bag behind – lugging it around always gives me a sore back. Cara bought herself some perscription glasses – a quirky, upside-down frame and ‘high quality’ lenses set her back just 25GBP. The opticians appeared to double up as the reception for a semi-swanky Chinese hotel. Going to the loo upstairs felt like stumbling upon the villain’s den from a Bruce Lee film: pretty girls in embroidered silk and traditional print uniforms, blood red, plush upholstery, and ornately carved, semi-circular archways leading off down dubious corridors.

As for our accommodation, we’re staying back at the Carnation Guesthouse, a great little place. Our simple room is set back from a wooden veranda, around a spotless courtward full of potted plants, and the owners are lovely people too. There was a slight misunderstanding this morning when I thought they were inviting me to eat the smaller of their two dogs; they pointed to it, then their mouths. In fact, we were just being warned that it bites. It didn’t matter too much, and as I’d already politely refused, saying I was full.

Tomorrow we’ll head south towards Dali, then make a dash to the border before Cara’s visa runs out.

Please check out our main website for details on our bike trips to the Indian Himalayas.

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