Following the jungle roads – Nanjiang to Puer

The last week, we’ve been putting in the grind in our efforts to get to Laos. With every metre we drop in altitude and every kilometre we head further south, the landscape becomes greener and lusher. The mornings are cool and shrouded in mist; the afternoons hot and hazy. Skyscraper bamboo trees have appeared, their bases as thick as drainpipes, leaning over the road like giant foxgloves. There’re banana palms and papaya trees adding to the tropical flavour too. Outcrops of rock poke out of the forest canopy, and some curly rooved, wooden houses are even built into these imposing walls.

Every once in a while, rugged mountains give way to tier apon tier of terraced, waterlogged fields, glinting as they catch the afternoon light. These parcels of land are too small for tractors, so waterbuffalo drag simple ploughs, turning the earth. In fact, there’s far more of an agricultural feel to where we are now. Most people walk the roads heading to or from the fields, hoe over a shoulder, and straw hats on their heads. From a cyclists point of view, it’s good news as there’s very little traffic to worry about. Just a few of the popular tractor pickups (a pickup with an exposed tractor engine bolted on the front) put-putting around. Some water buffalo, their bellies swaying this way and that. And us.

We’re well off the tourist grid. Keeping to backroads that climb and descend through the forest, our days are punctuated by breaks for lunch, and often ice cream too. In one junction village, we sit around a small table, on the typical low wooden stools, sipping mild green tea poured from a small aluminium pot. The bowls of noodles we order come piping hot, and rich with sesame oil – seeds float in the soup, along with crunchy greens and red peppers. At the next table, a man puffs on a water bong made from bamboo, a cigarette poking out of the end, watching from the corner of his eye as we slurp our food.

At another stop, the village crazyman shuffles over as we’re working our way through a bag of tangerines, sold from the ‘trunk’ of a heavy, pedal powered trike – the main form of carting goods round here. The backs of his army plimsoles are held to his feet by mere threads and he wears the old blue Mao cap and uniform – old habits die hard in these forgotten villages. He’s tiny in stature, and leans on a tall walking stick for support. Babbling away incessantly under his breath, his thumb and fingers briefly rub together a couple of times, before returning to grasp the stick, smiling at us with his lopsided grin. As everyone everwhere innevitably wanders over to check us out, it’s hard to tell if he’s curious, or begging. If he’s not, giving him money feels like it would be saying, “Here old man. Take this and bugger off.” A few young guys crack jokes at his expense, which he smiles at in a distant, oblivious kind of way – I’m sure he’s used to it. Anyway, he hangs around longer, so we concede and pull out a few jao and yuan, which he takes, still muttering under his breath. We watch as ever-so-slowly and carefully, he unfurls their creases, folds them neatly, and pockets them away in his coat. For some reason, we both find the care with which he treats this small change – notes worth so little, that lay scrumpled up in my shorts pocket – heart-wrenchingly sad to see.

Eventually, we drop down to the expressway that runs west from Kunming towards the capital of Xishuangbanna, Jinghong. Newly built, buffed and shrub-lined, it tunnels through the mountains and straddles river gorges. Luckily, the old demoted highway is now a little used route, though it noodles up, over and around ever contour in the land unforgivingly. It’s quiet, peaceful riding, but exhausting too. By the time one last pass drops us down into Puer, a town famed for its baked tea, Cara’s cough has developed into full blown flu, and my knees are getting sore. It’s time for a rest…

Stats and Facts:
Unfortunately, our Cateye cyclecomputer has packed in, so the following is based on our Chinese map, which is generally pretty accurate.

Nanjiang (1376m) to Jingdong: 115km – but could be less
Jingdong (1150m) to Zhenyuan: 76km
Zhenyuan (1080m) to Wenhugji: 82km
Wenhugji to Puer (1400m): 68km

This route follows a river much of the way, and is completely paved, bar the odd broken section of road. While the scenery is fairly samey, it\’s a quiet and direct route south.


6 Responses to “Following the jungle roads – Nanjiang to Puer”

  1. 1 Simon December 3, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Get well soon guys…can’t wait to see the photos…sounds beautiful.

    Last week of work this week..can’t wait…S

  2. 2 otbiking December 3, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Sorry we won’t be around to hand you the travel baton and see you off… Enjoy counting down the days (-:

  3. 3 Christian December 3, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Just Google Earth’d you. Only another 642.72 miles to go to Bangkok guys (as the crow flies, not as the wheel turns – sorry).

    Get well soon Cara. I’ve never suffered from knee pain Cass, so you’re obviously riding too fast. Slow down mate…

  4. 4 otbiking December 3, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Actually, maybe we’re not cycling fast enough (-; Or spending too much time in internet cafes… It looks like we’ll be ending in Vientiane instead, then training it from there to be home for Christmas.

    The trails must be getting muddy… Got that Rohloff yet?

  5. 5 Christian December 3, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Sadly no German bling on my rear hub yet. Have bought mountaineering boots, crampons and and ice axe though. I’m off to those tall white pointy things either side of the passes. Really wish you two hadn’t shown me the big hills – 2008 is going to be an expensive holiday year.

    I do have a new bottom bracket as well – my old one was seized by the time we made it back to the UK. Now I know why I was so slow up the hills…

    Stay safe guys, enjoy the Laos thing, don’t have too many ‘Nam flashbacks.

  6. 6 craigdurkee December 4, 2007 at 1:56 am

    making me very jelous reading this mate very jelous indeed

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