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)


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