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A long draught of China on a slow-moving bike

The train arrived in Kunming carrying a significantly heavier and healthier me than when I arrived in Beijing almost a fortnight before. I spend a couple of days in the calm, leafy provincial capital visiting a museum about the province’s numerous ethnic minorities, meeting other travellers, and tinkering with my bike which contracted its first snap in the frame while riding around the city. In a market I snacked on street food, trying not to be nauseated by the extensive tables of pig heads, pig tails, pig balls, pig penises, fatty sheep buttocks, buckets of squirming eels, eggs with half-developed foetuses and many other unidentifiable “delicacies”.

Charlie crossing an Iranian desert

I rode out of town with an American called Eric who had learnt fluent Chinese without lessons during his four months in the country. We cleared the modern streets and suburbs of Kunming and were soon climbing up lush, green hills in warm weather. It was a delight to ride in shorts, sandals and a vest after the tedious layers of Tibet.

The following morning Eric peeled off towards Vietnam and I continued for three days to Dali. The road snaked through various hill villages where people in conical straw hats worked the terraced land and waved enthusiastically at my soon-sunburned countenance. Some carried two buckets hanging from a stick slung across their shoulders like Victorian milkmaids. The weather developed from warm to hot and each day the headwind developed from a light breeze in the morning to a harsh gale in the evening. My high spirits were untarnishable.

Temple south of Dali

Shortly after crossing a wide valley where wheat swayed fluidly in the wind, I reached the ancient fortress walls of the town of Dali. Nestled in a defensive crescent of mountains, Dali was the capital of the 8th-century Bai Kingdom and was the centre of a 19th-century rebellion against the Qing dynasty. Now it is a major tourist attraction and its ancient buildings and streets have largely been rebuilt giving it a nagging false feeling.

I found a hostel for the night and wandered around the segmented town that saw milling Chinese tourists in some parts and drinking expats with waist-length dreadlocks in others. Speaking to these smelly-scalped foreigners gave me mixed impressions. Some were simply using the town as a hedonistic hideaway but others said they were searching for something; an aspect of themselves perhaps. This brought to mind the reasons for my journey which seem to have become clearer since starting. A “search” for myself is not one of them and the more I see and experience, the more I confirm the views and opinions I always had of myself. I may sound unromantic and closed-minded but I seem to realise more and more that I am exploring the world, notquebec myself.

That evening I watched the heavily-bearded Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project frantically strum their guitars and howl multi-lingual lyrics (including a German song about a rat with swollen testicles). In the morning I caught a bus to the similarly ancient town of Lijiang. Its atmosphere was stifling as tens of thousands of Chinese tourists swilled though the narrow, cobbled streets, stopping to pose for photographs in front of neon-decked Chinese bars rather than the quiet waters of the 800-year-old stone canal next to them.

The city has a depressing abundance of Han Chinese crowd-pleasers clumsily plunked on top of the traditional Naxi culture. The Naxi are a fascinating minority in which the more lovers a women takes, the more prestige she has.

Waking before the sun rose over the jumbled rooftops, I walked through the deserted streets as the light filled in the grey morning gloom with a multitude of colours. When the neon is switched off, the crowds are absent and the clubs with throbbing modern music are closed, a picturesque little town remains. Authentic buildings with aged, mossy tiles running down to low eaves; narrow alleys with red lanterns hung for prosperity; small stone bridges hopping over the narrow canals that intersect everything. When the hordes awoke and took to the streets with plastic-wrapped snacks and foot-long camera lenses, I took a bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

The gorge brackets a 15km length of the Yangtze River between Haba Xueshan Mountain (5,396m) and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596m). It has 2,000m high cliffs and legend has it that a Tiger leapt across a narrow (25m) part of it to escape a hunter. The sign at the entrance to the gorge has misspelled the word ‘scenic’ and instead reads: ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge Senile Resort’.

I met a Swede, a Canadian and a Dutchman in the afternoon and we set off for the two-day hike up the gorge the next morning. The path climbs up the mountainside via the melodramatically named “28 bends” and at the end of an overcast day we stayed at a hostel overlooking the craggy mountains on the other side of the gorge; a thick mist oozing from their tops. The next day was clear and the views spectacular. Waterfalls splashed across the path, near-blinding sunlight streamed down everywhere and we reached the end before walking back along the bottom. I left the next morning after the dormitory I slept in was struck by a sneak thief who removed cameras and cash from the pillowsides of an Australian man and two Danish girls. Luckily, my easily accessible valuables were untouched.

One night back in Dali and I was on the road headed south. I descended through long, fertile valleys where people lounged happily in the cool evenings. I was glad to be back on the bike and enjoy some solitude after the occasionally maddening crowds. I had two days of rain and mist while climbing through high mountains on impressively built roads, contenting myself with imagining the doubtlessly sweeping views that hid behind the clouds. Crossing the swollen, brown Mekong for the first time was an eerie experience as it seemed utterly still and disappeared after just 100 yards in each direction where a wet wall of fog clamped down on the silent waters. I imagined the long journey they had taken from the source high on the Tibetan Plateau and pictured the long route ahead, some of which I would be following, to southern Vietnam.

On one steep climb I grabbed the side of a slow-moving truck which instantly and deliberately swerved towards the gutter, forcing me to let go. Later that day I caught another one for the final mile to the top. The driver pulled over at the pass and invited me to eat with him in a restaurant. We sat and chatted incomprehensibly while tucking into oily bowls of cabbage and pig fat.

Punctures were a daily nuisance and I brought a cheap Chinese chain which snapped four times on a single hill climb before I replaced it with my knackered one from Kathmandu. At some point I crossed into the tropics for the first time on my journey. The weather grew accordingly heated and more humid. In one town a large gathering of 16-18 year old boys invited me to join them for lunch on the roadside. I ate while they passed around a small shard of mirror, taking turns to preen. At least three of them were wearing make-up. Due to the One Child Policy in China, there are significantly more males than females as girls are often aborted before birth or even killed shortly afterwards as they are less profitable than a son. Due to this there are roughly 25 million young men in the country who will never find wives. This statistic has given rise to extreme vanity (laboriously extravagant and ridiculous hairstyles abound) in the competition to snag one of the relatively few women who resultantly can afford to be exceedingly domineering and just plain rude. I often saw women screeching hysterically in public while there docile partners endured with heads bowed.

The next 120 miles of road was being rebuilt so detours on bumpy, makeshift roads were common. Trucks would bounce by, kicking up thick clouds of dust. Sometimes I would be stopped by a casual worker while car-sized boulders were loosened before clattering down the cliffs and rolling across the road with a deafening clap. On several occasions I witnessed the undeniably inefficient sight of two trucks passing in different directions bearing identical loads of rocks, earth or rubble. Surely a phone call would save a lot of time and petrol in these instances?

For one long stint I was turfed onto a winding old cobblestone road that zigzagged through steep rice terraces, neat tea plantations and quaint farmyards. I camped on hilltops and in the mornings enjoyed fresh air and golden panoramas during my breakfast of porridge and locally grown coffee (filtered though an old sock). Tropical birdsong lulled me to sleep at night and woke me gently at day break. The road workers were extremely friendly and I was invited to eat with them on several occasions. It struck me that they were always of the local (predominantly south-east Asian) ethnicity and that those keeping shops and driving cars were all of Han Chinese decent. I began to understand that modern China consists of the eastern heartland and several colonised hinterlands where the local people are ethnically, linguistically and ideologically different. Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Lijiang. All instances of largely exploitative colonisation. Admittedly, things are often efficient and infrastructure has been put in place but it is the Han who benefit from it. The local people are building roads for low pay and harvesting rice, often for export to the east. Regardless, the biggest smiles, friendliest greetings and occasional beers all came from the locals rather than the Han.

Morning and evening rides were a delight. Cooler air; clarity of thought; sun-dappled fir trees (the fragrance of which transported my mind back to glorious Scandinavian summer); banana plantations; the sweet smell of wood smoke; children playing and giggling as I pass; washing my face in a cold stream; weathered old men with bare feet driving buffalo slowly along the road using thin sticks and oblivious to traffic. I would lie at night, sweaty, dusty, dirty and fidgety in my baking tent; a smile on my face.

The final 30 miles to Jinghong were downhill and I free-wheeled quickly, feeling triumphant and singing along to The Kinks who blared from my earphones. That evening I enjoyed cold beers with a bunch of expats who are starting up a hotel. Jinghong is the capital of Xishuangbanna Region; China’s slice of south-east Asia. With palm-lined streets and dissected by the Mekong, the town is enticingly relaxed and I unwound for a couple of days before taking a three-day hike with Ita and Dima (a couple of Israeli lads). We took a bus to the end of a road and ambled up valleys, over thickly-treed green hills, through jungle and past colourfully dressed women from various minorities working on the terraces. The first evening we stayed with a 70-year-old man and his wife in a small village of the Akhe minority. His traditional wooden house stood on stilts and consisted of one large barn-like room containing a slightly less traditional fridge and television. He spent the evening gathering in mats covered in tea leaves which had been drying in the sun. On our second day we passed a few modern, plastic-coated Buddhist temples. Depressingly, they looked like Asian Disneyland. We stopped for a break at a deserted hilltop watchtower which peered over into Myanmar, just a couple of miles away.

Back in Jinghong I sampled a Chinese disco where orange-robed monks sucked thirstily from bottles and I was given glass after glass of warm, watery Chinese beer by young Chinese men who all like to test the belief that white men can drink more alcohol than them. Curiosity in another of their beliefs about white men resulted in my crotch being unsubtly scrutinized every time I used a urinal.

A hangover and heavy, humid air accompanied my first day on the short ride to the country of Laos. Hills and tunnels. In the late afternoon I saw four cyclists slogging up a hill towards me. They were about to eat and camp so I backtracked with them for a mile or two and got to know them over dinner. Mike is from London and brought a bike in Bangkok, Manne and Tim are Swedish and on a long journey tracing the Himalayas and Canadian Loretta has been drawing a wiggly line through Asia on her bike for two years. We camped in the gardens of a science academy and swapped stories and information late into the night.

My last day’s ride in China was a chore. I put my head down and stepped heavily on the pedals. A series of winding and unlit tunnels provided terrifying interludes to the hard graft. The longest was an unventilated three miles with the roar of approaching engines filling the darkness all around me. After a brief encounter with two Swiss cyclists, also fresh from Laos, I camped near the border. On the last day of my three-month visa I crossed into Laos.

A new country always feels like a new start to me and is a refreshing experience. Returning the greeting cries of “Sabaidee!” from everyone I passed, I rode to the sleepy town of Luang Nam Tha and reflected on my time in China. The world’s most populous country, yet with vast areas effectively void of human life. I have now visited only five of the thirty-four provinces and the country remains an enigma to me. The more I see, the less I understand. It’s impossible to make generalisations as the huge country is really an amalgam of wide-spread and very differing cultures tied together by common government. The devastation wrought by the Cultural Revolution has left an unfathomable blend of old and new, fear and repression, beauty and hideousness, astounding efficiency and crippling inefficiency, waste and want. I’m no nearer to grasping it than when I first visited two years ago but I’ll be back in a few months to explore more and (likely) comprehend less.

Much more by this author on his blog.

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