It’s a concrete jungle out there…

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The road out of Simao takes us past villages where coffee beans are being sorted before roasting, and tea leaves are drying on tarpaulin in the sun; then we’re funneled down alleyways of banana plantations and papaya trees. The tea terraces are the most impressive though. Kilometre after kilometre of low, thick and neat hedgerows, curling round the land in tiers like an enormous Roman amphitheatre. Picking tea leaves must seem an endless, thankless task. Harvested througout the year, the pickers, with their wicker hats and baskets, are mere blips within the huge magnitude of the landscape. And they work late too. As the last golden light of day retreats across the land, a head pops up and looks around – it must be a disheartening to forever see these terraces wrapping round the hills.

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Sweeping up the coffee beans.

The natural rhythm of cycling, eating and resting is a satisfying one, and Christof and I chat away, swapping stories about our travels. Towards the end of the day, we turn up a red dirt track that climbs steeply towards the terraces. We’re camping tonight, and the search for somewhere to pitch the tent is always an enjoyable challenge – the last lingering minutes of light our stopwatch. Luckily, we find the perfect abandoned house and pitch the inner tent in the porch. Come morning, the mist has rolled in and the surrounding hills rise out like headlands at sea. Breakfast is in a quiet roadside restaurant, where a lady hurriedly fries up some delicious eggs, tomatos and garlic, as well as a plate of fresh runner beans. A bowl of rice fills us up nicely for just a couple of yuan more. As the saying goes in China: rice eats no money. Meanwhile, a puppy gnaws at my feet for attention then attacks the bicycle wheels. Unfortunately, like all the rest of the flea-infested dogs round here, he’s destined for life chained to a post, barking rabidly at anyone who passes. Not that many people travel through these parts. The villages are mostly forgotten, now that the new expressway nearby has taken away their much of their trade. Lonely curls of smoke rise up from chimneys, spiraling amongst the folded palm leaves.

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It was when Christof started chatting to this girl that I realised he’d been on the road alone for too long.

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The search for the perfect camping spot…

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And the porch of the abandoned house we found.

At the junction to Jinghong, our route begins to climb more steeply, emerging onto a ridge with views of the new expressway far below, a swathe of concrete that has cut journey time between the two cities by a half. It also means the old highway, now potholed and overgrown by jungle canopy, is all but empty – the perfect cyclist’s route. Butterflies flit around and we notice cravat shaped welts have been cut into the trees, guiding sap into a bottle. Perhaps it’s being harvested for Yunnan Bao, a natural healant famed throughout the Chinese communities of the world as a cure to (almost) all ills.

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Collecting Yunnan Bao, the elixir of life?

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Parched tea leaves drying in the sun. It’s an around the clock business as the Chinese are thirsty for their tea. And there’s a lot of them.

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A nature reserve. Of course, how could I have thought otherwise.

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This brand, spanking new expressway runs alongside, above and through the nature reserve. At the rate China is changing, I’m sure within a few years it will be heaving with cars and tour buses…

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Wicker everywhere, thanks to the abundance of bamboo.

Jinghong feels like a real stepping stone to Laos, sprawling as it does against the banks of the wide, muddy Mekong that moves in slow and lazy swirls. Chinese signs are shared with Dai script, similar to Laotian, and the minority people who live in these parts are also strongly South East Asian in their features. Street snacks are different too – bamboo filled with sticky rice and peanuts replaces our ‘baozi’ steamed bread staple.

The city itself is an unusual juxtaposition of bright, glary Chinese electronic shops and huge advertising billposters of ladies with immaculate skin, with beautiful pruned and fanned palm trees, broad boulevards, and peaceful gardens. In one, a old ladies wander around a pebble walkway to massage their feet. Electric small wheeled scooters dart here and there, and old pedal-powered trikes trundle goods between markets. Dai women sit at road corners with their scales and baskets of fresh mangos and papayas. Most have wraps around their heads, like turbans, and elegant, long and tight silk skirts. I watch an elderly man in Mao-issue blue clothes and cap taking a sedate stroll down the main street, and wonder what he must be contemplating, subjected as he is to the cacophony of colours and noises. So much has changed in one lifetime – who would have known the Cultural Revolution would lead one day to this uneasy mix of communism and consumerism.

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The old guard. A lot of change in one lifetime.

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Despite the number of adverts for pharmaceuticals on TV, there is still a big demand for traditional and herbal medicines.

Cara’s over the worst of her flu now, but has passed on the germ baton to me – so I’m the one sounding like a local as I hawk up globs of phlegm on the street… Nice. Taking to the road once more, we pick up a quiet route out of Jinghong that hugs the Mekong, stopping for fresh pineapple sold by the roadside. The seller deftly lops off the skin, and fashions the end into a lollypop-like handle. It’s utterly sweet and delicious. Amongst the other tropical fruit, there are pyramids of enormous grapefruit, equally succulent, arranged in a range of sizes, from babyheads to cannonballs. Chinese white tile ugliness give way to wooden Dai houses built on stilts. They’re high enough to accommodate oxen and water buffalo beneath them, though we notice the modern Dai family favours a new car over animals penned in for the night. Traditional craftsmanship is still very much evident: wicker’s the main theme, thanks to all the drainpipe-thick bamboo sprouting from the land. Rocking chairs (just like the ones in IKEA) are made from wicker, bags are made from wicker, motorbikes have purpose-built wicker panniers, and some riders even wear (presumably non EU-tested) wicker helmets… In Menguan, we bump into Stefan from Berlin, who we first met on the road to Dechen. A touch on the plump side, his non-cyclist’s physique belies the fact that he’s ridden all the way from Germany, and like most of the long distance riders, is now migrating south away from the mountains to the tropical warmth of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

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Ahhhh… A tiny little baby pineapple.

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Yet another gourmet lunch breaks up a day of riding…

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Christof making friends again.

Plantations of bananas and pineapples come and go, until our road runs parallel with the new, unfinished, high-pillared and very concrete expressway. It straddles enormous chasms in the lush, overgrown rainforest and tunnels relentlessly through mountains. Yes, there are sign panels indicating this area directly runs alongside a national park, touted on the tourist billboards for its wild elephants and rare vegetation. But needs must, I guess. Another example on China’s vocal stance in the protection of the environment coming a distinct second to its lust for economic growth. Anyway, although the expressway is tarmaced, it’s yet to be opened, so the old highway is busier than we’re used to. Noticing that plenty of local two wheelers have sneaked onto the expressway, we cross a dusty track and follow suit. It’s a good move, as it feels more like a gloriously empty, wide and utopian cycleway – bar a three kilometre, unlit and partially built tunnel that’s a little harrowing to navigate.

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It was all going so well, until we realised the tunnel hadn’t actually been finished… Still, no one seemed to mind.

We’re now in Mengla, just 50 kilometres or so from the Laotian broder. We’ve negotiated the strip of the karaoke bars and the dubious neon pink parlours, where overly made up women watch us go by. We’ve enjoyed our last Chinese dinner with Christof (big mugs of tea, bacon-thin slices of smoked water buffalo and mushroom, spicy spring onions) and had a succulent babyhead grapefruit for desert. Now look we can look forward to crossing the border into Laos tomorrow…

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Tai Chi for hairdressers?

We were used to seeing large groups of elderly folk practising Tai Chi in the morning, as a means of meditation and to keep physically healthy. This was something else though: hairdressers from a salon synchronized dancing, presumably limbering up with time-honed moves for the day of shearing and pruning ahead. Notice how they’re overseen by a suitably daper, serious-mannered ‘shifu’ – their teacher. Perhaps this little display on our last morning sums up China best. The newfound freedom of expression (not to be confused with speech, mind) to dress how you want, and buy all everything you want – mobiles, clothes, cameras… Old traditions morphed into the 21st century.

And it also reflects how, as much as I loved my time here, I’m a long way from understanding this place. I mean, where else but China would a dozen hairdressers dance in the style of a boy band, out on the pavement of the main road, at 7am – and no one bat an eyelid??

There’s no doubt about it – we’ll be back.

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5 Responses to “It’s a concrete jungle out there…”


  1. 1 Christof January 3, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Dear Cass,

    another fabulos summary: how quickly my memories fade, due to the fact that I add pictures after picture riding on and on. Thank you for helping my brains out of the dark.
    There is another detail that might interest you. Our assumption the liquid from the tortured trees might serve the making of Bai Yao seems to be wrong. Here near Ranong in southern Thailand I found the same trees, not as daedally let bleed (but anything seemed to be more perfect in China) but also in plantations. I happened to have a landowner as a guide who explained all to me: They are rubbertrees. I saw the processing of the milk as well. At the moment there seems to be a bit frustration amongst the farmers as the price for one matress-shaped piece all of a sudden dropped by one sixth.

    best
    Christof

  2. 2 ben September 19, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    Really beautiful images and thoughtful words. Thanks a lot for sharing =) This seems like it was a very special trip

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  1. 1 Tours 2008 - and dancing hairdressers… « out there biking: the blog Trackback on January 3, 2008 at 10:08 am

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