Goodbye Simao, Hello Puer City

A day off in dusty Puer is about all we can handle, even though Cara barely stirs from our hotel room – surrounded as she is by a pile of snotty and phlemy tissues, and nursing a pounding headache. We decide to leapfrog onto Simao on the more direct highway rather than the sinewy backroad, as a widespread diesel shortage means fewer trucks are prowling the roads. There, a fellow cyclist is nursing his own wounds. We first crossed paths with Christof, a mathematics teacher taking a year’s leave from his school in Germany, on the road to Litang in West Sichuan. Just the other day, he emailed to tell us he fell of his bike, split open his head and badly bruised some ribs – and is now resting up in Simao.When we meet up, Christof tells us more about his accident. He was working his way down a muddy, potholed descent when his bike slipped out from under him. Judging by the thick, uneven stitches in his head, it must have been pretty serious – “a fountain of blood was coming out”, as he put it in his deadpan, Germanic way. A few cars stopped and their drivers watched events unfold through their windows. But when this muddy, bloody figure walked over to them, they hurriedly sped off – as did a police car that he tried to flag down! There was nothing else to do but get back on the bike and ride to the nearest city. There he found a hospital. But again, no one wanted to get involved. Communication is always a problem here and this unwillingness to get embroiled in an uncomfortable, potentially confusing situation seems quite typical – perhaps it’s an issue of losing ‘face’. Even the nurses refused to deal with him, until he had a rant in German, cajoling them into action. Not the kind of story a cyclist (or any parent reading this blog) likes to hear…Still, the run of bad luck was offset when he bumped into a Scottish teacher, working with the UK’s Voluntary Service Orginisation in a nearby college, who sorted him out with a place to stay and looked after him. Alastair, his wife Lesley and their two kids have lived in Simao for just over two years, where they teach at a government funded, and surprisingly immaculate and well laid out boarding college. It’s always really interesting to talk to someone who lives in China – our visit here seems so fleeting, even if by biking we’re ensured the full on, uncut version. The college is home to students from the outlying ethnic minority villages in the area. While around 8 per cent of China as a whole is made up of ethnic minority people – ie non Han – the figures in Yunnan are far higher, at around a third. Alastair visited their homes, and was surprised at how rural and simple the villages were compared to the cities. Which reminded me that I’d always wondered how so many students can afford the nice clothes and mobiles we see them with. Because although China is certainly cheaper than the UK, it’s not as much as I would have thought, given the average wage, lower rents and the fact that most of the stuff is made here in the first place – or fake. One the one hand, incomes are low. But on the other, there’s a real pressure of consumerism, judging by the sheer number of ‘modern’ clothes shops we see in every town, and the mobile phone retailers selling the latest models from Sony and Nokia. It turns out that most of the students get round this by having just one set of trendy clothes that they don each day, methodically cleaning them in the the evenings.Ali gave us an abreviated Puer tea pouring ceremony, using the baked tea for which the area is famous. So famous in fact, that Simao recently renamed itself Puer City, presumably to cash in on the potential tourism – a similar move to Zhongdian acquiring the mythical name of Shangri La to tap into the tour group trade. The fact that there’s already a Puer, the one we stayed in, didn’t seem to matter. To ring in the new name this April, the whole city was scrubbed squeaky clean. Schoolkids repainted their schools, trees were pruned and the many white tile buildings around town were polished up again. The effect is certainly impressive. Simao – I mean Puer City – feels like one of the smartest places we’ve come across, with broad boulevards, manicured lawns, sculpted bushes and wide cycle lanes. Not at all what I was expecting, especially given the terse description in the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guide: an uninteresting little town. Another example of how quickly this whole country is changing.As Cara’s still coughing up little bullets of mucus – once a coughing fit even led to vomitting – she’s hopping on the bus to nearby Jinghong to rest up. Christof and I will meet her there, from where we’ll be but a couple of days from the Laotian border…

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