We managed to put away nine burgers between us during our 2-day stay at the hostel in Chengdu. Don’t get me wrong, Chinese food is absolutely fantastic but it was such a novelty to have a menu that we could actually read and to be able to eat something other than rice or noodles. We were anticipating that the final section of our dash through China was going to be the toughest leg of all – we needed all the calories we could get.
The first cycling day out of Chengdu was to be our only reprieve from the mountains for the foreseeable future. It was smooth and flat – we hit it hard and managed to push out our second longest day ever on the bikes – 192.5km. We stopped only to eat an enormous hot pot for lunch (not what we thought we ordered or wanted but you can’t afford to be fussy in these parts) and to stock up on fruit from roadside stalls.
There was one particular fruit being grown, harvested and sold on an almost exclusive level in this part of Sichuan – we had absolutely no idea what it was and had to have a lesson in how to eat one. They were delicious and became a staple for the next few days. When we arrived back in the world of Google, I was able to deduce that these were loquats. We soon discovered that the Chinese have a voracious appetite for them and purchase by the plastic bag full. This explained the initial confusion when I first attempted to purchase 4 individual fruit and the stallholder tried to offload 4 kilos! We were soon following the local way of doing things however – these things were just too good. The only downside being that our handlebars were sticky with fruit juice for days afterwards.
We soon found ourselves riding next to the Yangzhe River and were for once grateful for spending almost an entire morning cycling through tunnels with only occasional glimpses of the river below us. It almost certainly saved us an awful lot of climbing up and down hills.
On one particular open-air section, we stopped for a couple of strawberry cream filled cupcakes – our snack of the moment. We were admiring the first small banana plantation we had seen on our trip on the other side of the river and trying to build up some energy to carry on pedalling. Suddenly there was a deafening boom, the ground beneath us shook and a section of the valley opposite that we were admiring broke off and slid down into the river. After the dust had settled, we noticed the bulldozers and diggers moving in. Yet another new road being built, and more sleepy rural communities being dragged into the 21st century.
Later that same day, we were congratulating ourselves for achieving a whole day cycling without being hampered by road works when we were hit with some of our worst to date. We bumped along through mud and dust for a number of kilometres before being diverted onto a dried up riverbed. The small stones and gravel turned into large boulders and it became impossible to cycle. Other road users were almost non-existent. This was the main non-expressway road between the main cities of Sichuan and Yunnan but we felt like we were off charting unexplored territories! We heaved our cumbersome loads for 5 kilometres – unfortunately there are no photos of the worst section as it is fair to say that Steven had a sense of humour failure at some point along the way!
As is so often the case, our optimism and thirst for exploration was restored when we arrived at a town for the night and met a whole array of people just queuing up to make us feel better. From the lovely guesthouse owners who cooked us up a fantastic feast to the group of children who stood around us silently but smiling as we ate and most of all the man with the outstanding red jacket. Steven was delighted to be able to try it on – shame the arms weren’t quite long enough.
The road continued to be a building site for the whole of the following morning. This was unfortunate as it is was one of the most scenic stretches of our journey; towering, moss covered cliffs with sparkling waterfalls plunging down the sides of them and cascading over the road – soaking us as we tried unsuccessfully to dodge the droplets.
It was about this time that we realised just how hard this final section was going to be. We were glad that we had pushed ourselves so hard on the previous leg as it gave us some wiggle room to reassess our goals and cut down our daily distances. There was just no way we could keep doing such huge days and contend with the endless mountains and the ever increasing heat and humidity.
We only realised just how far south we had come when we arrived in the provincial town of Mojiang and passed a sign for the Tropic of Cancer. That explained why it was so hot! The vegetation had completely changed over the past week or so from vast bamboo forests which created shady tunnels over our heads protecting us from the searing heat of the sun, to endless banana plantations stretching from one side of the valley to another, the fruit wrapped securely in blue plastic bags to protect them from insects and bruising. The roadsides were lined with mango trees dripping with fruit. We cycled through nature reserves, apparently home to herds of wild elephant and the odd tiger or leopard. We spent a lot of time looking nervously over our shoulders in these places!
Before we had arrived in China we had heard stories about foreigners being barred from certain hotels, being forced to move to a different hotel late in the evening and even being told there was nowhere in town that they were allowed to stay and sent off to cycle into the darkness and camp on the side of the road. Luckily our experiences were different although as we headed further south we encountered more difficulties. At a hotel in a small town called Ludian, we checked in and were just getting settled in when there was a knock on the door. Steven was in the shower so I went to answer and was confronted by four policemen and two policewomen – some in uniform and others plain clothed. A smiling lady called Kate could speak good English and asked if they could come in and ask us some questions. Taken aback, I just let them all pile into the room. A strange feature of Chinese hotel rooms is usually a floor to ceiling window between the en-suite and the bedroom – luckily on this occasion Steven had pulled down the blind before jumping in the shower otherwise I’m not sure who would have been more shocked! They were just curious about what we were doing and where we were going so after 10 minutes chat and a few obligatory photos they left us in peace.
A few days later we arrived in the town of Jinning, just south of Kunming. Here for some reason, having found it incredibly easy to find accommodation the whole way we came up against a brick wall. At the first place we tried, we were ushered out and pointed along the road – we were none the wiser about whether it was actually a hotel or not. The second place, when I produced our passports instead of a Chinese identity card, the receptionist dissolved into floods of giggles and had no idea what to do with us. She let us carry all our bags up 3 floors before telling us (via her brother on the phone) that foreigners were not allowed to stay in her hotel. Exasperated, we lugged everything back down again. She was clearly embarrassed and offered to lead us to another hotel where we would be allowed to stay. We followed her on her motorbike to a large hotel that looked promising and waved her goodbye. Unfortunately the reception staff were much less friendly here and indicated that the hotel was full. I highly doubted it – the place was huge. I just think they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of registering foreigners. We were ready to give up when we spotted a police hut across the road. We decided we would present ourselves there and make it their problem to find us somewhere to stay. On the fourth attempt we were accepted in what was probably the nicest and the cheapest place we had tried. By the time we finally got into a room we had no desire to try and find dinner. Cold porridge oats and honey it was then!
These accommodation issues were only a problem when we were staying in an official hotel where they are legally required to report the details of who stays each night to the police. In many smaller towns and villages, the only options were unofficial guesthouses, often rooms above a restaurant or shop, where they didn’t register anything. Mostly we preferred staying in these sorts of places, as they were far cheaper than a hotel and we usually met a few interesting characters. They weren’t always the cleanest, shared bathrooms left much to be desired and we generally shared our space with all sorts of critters but we always felt safe.
There was one particular “unofficial” guesthouse that will always stick in our minds – we nicknamed it the House of Horrors. We had spent the morning cycling along a river valley, the sides of which were covered in rubber tree plantations. Every village we passed through had rubber piled up everywhere, waiting to be processed. The smell is like nothing I have ever smelt before – it is truly putrid. We couldn’t believe that people could live with that smell every day – we were barely able to cope with it for a couple of minutes at a time. At 2pm we reached a village and although there were still lots of daylight hours left, we knew there was a tough hill starting in 20km that we wanted to save for the relative cool of the early morning. So we stopped and used our magic piece of paper to ask about accommodation. Sure enough, as has been the case all through China, there was somewhere to stay and luckily for us it seemed that this was the one village where rubber was not being processed and we were saved from a smelly afternoon. The price for the night was the equivalent of £3 and as I went to inspect the room I was not expecting much. There were clean sheets on the bed, a fan, a grubby bathroom – that was good enough for us. When I returned downstairs I warned Steven that there was an extremely pungent smell on the 1st floor where there was a whole room with shrimp spread out to dry on the ground.
This turned out to be the least awful thing about the place. As we were sitting downstairs with a cold drink we noticed the two young girls of the house playing with something in a cage. On closer inspection it was a small bird in a cage not much bigger than it. The youngest girl was shaking it around in a way that reminded me of Darla in Finding Nemo. At one point she grabbed its wing through the bars of the cage and was carrying it around by that. The bird was clearly not enjoying itself.
Unable to express how cruel this behaviour was effectively to the child and also it being clear that this was completely normal behaviour from the reaction of other adults in the vicinity, we turned our attention to the lady of the house who was busying herself with a pair of scissors. We soon realised that she was cutting off the wings and legs of locusts – of which she had a sack full. A few seconds later we noticed the buzzing and movement from inside the sack – these creatures were still alive while the amputations were occurring! At that moment we decided that our best option was to retire to our room and hope that we would not witness any more horrors.
During our last few days in China, we both spent a lot of time reflecting on our experiences in this massive country full of extremes, contradictions and surprises. We both entered China with the expectation that we would be more than ready to leave after our two-month stay. To our great surprise, we were no where near ready to leave by the time the end came. Yes, we were relieved to get to the end, immensely proud of our achievement and desperately looking forward to a few days rest but we were still fascinated by the culture, touched and amused by the people, and amazed by the landscapes (both natural and man-made). I have no doubt that we’ll be back one day.