In an earlier post I detailed how our first week in China had been spent following two of the three great rivers of Yunnan. The past two days saw us complete the trio, walking the 16km hike along the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, following the Yangtze River.
The gorge is one of the deepest in the world measuring a whopping 3.9km from the raging river below to the snow peaked mountains above. There are literally shear cliffs which drop down 2.5km – basically, it’s pretty impressive as valleys go.
The highest point in the trail sits just over a giddy 1000m above the river bank which is where we started the trek. It took us just under 4 hours to climb to the highest point and some of it was quite tough.
Despite the rain, mist and roadworks (!) it was still an impressive and stunning hike and we met some lovely people along the way.
Here are some pictures (although they really don’t do justice to the sheer awesomeness of the landscape…)
So the plan was to spend the time waiting for our visa extensions by cycling a 6 day loop around Lugu lake, north east of Lijiang. It’s meant to be a very beautiful place and is home to the last practising matriarchal society on the planet.
We had a late start because despite the relatively early night, we (and by we I mean mainly me) was feeling a little delicate after our antics the night before… That rice wine is strong stuff!
Anyway, the head was a little groggy. After a late breakfast/lunch we get going and cycle the long steady ascent up to Lugu lake.
It’s a steady climb for about 20km and I’m not feeling the best, but at least we have the beautiful Jade Peak Mountain in front and a very strong and helpful tail wind behind us.
The road is fairly busy with coaches who we assume are making their way to the mountain cable car.
I decide I still need some music to get me through so blast out Urban Hymns, The Verve on the tandem’s stereo system… Thanks Richard Ashcroft, I needed that.
At 1.30pm and having completed 20km we reach a toll gate. We have never had to pay at a toll gate before so we cycle up assuming we’ll be waved on through.
We’re not. Instead we’re told we have to pay 320Y each!!!!! We laugh and explain that we’re not going to visit the mountain and we’re heading on through to Lugu lake (where we knew we would have to pay another 200Y admission fee).
‘You still need to pay the ticket to use this road’ says the woman. ‘if you don’t want to pay there is an alternative road to Lugu’.
After consulting the map we see that this alternative route would add another 80km onto the loop around the lake – a days cycle basically – and we were already running behind schedule due to our late start.
We pleaded but she wouldn’t budge.
Taking stock of our options and considering carefully our overall China schedule we decide to turn back and cut the Lake from our plans completely.
Both feeling disappointed (mainly because we feel we have wasted one of our 60 precious days in China) we turn the bike round and head back down the road to Lijiang.
It’s down hill but the now gale force wind is right in our faces, blowing us across the road… Paddy is cursing at his phone because he’s managed to lock the language OSM map permanently into Chinese. As we battle with the elements I manage to check the Lonely Planet guide on my phone kindle app for the bus schedule from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge. The last bus would leave at 3.30.
‘We can try and make it’ yells Paddy over the howling wind from the front.
‘OK’ I scream back.
We had an hour and a half to cycle the 20km back to the hostel, pack for the two day hike, explain to our non-English speaking host that we needed to leave the bike and most of our bags there, and find a taxi to take us to the bus station. It would be tight.
At 3.25pm we’re sitting panting in our seats on a bus heading to Quiatou. After a mad dash, we had made it – just! We were on our way to hike the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. The day wouldn’t turn out to be completely wasted!
P.S – there was also another bus which left at 6pm….
P.P.S – we managed to miss our stop on the way up and found ourselves 30km further up the road than we needed to be… Luckily our nice bus driver flagged us down another bus and we got there in the end!
The day before we left Shaxi I had had a well needed phone catch up with my friend Jo via Skype. She asked me what had been the hardest thing about the trip so far and I had struggled to think of anything…
‘I’m sure there’s lots of things but I can’t really think of anything that has been that challenging’ I had replied.
This is probably quite telling, and sums up our trip very well I think. There has definitely been some challenging days but they have been far outstripped, and easily forgotten when I consider all the great moments. The human capacity to adorn rose tinted spectacles is quite amazing sometimes!
Due to the nature of travelling by bicycle things of course go wrong and there are days where things break, we have to change plans, or one of us is a little low or cranky with the other. It’s rare for a day to go by without at least one of us getting a little frustrated.
These frustrations are short lived however and are, more often than not, swept from our minds by a local we meet, a tasty lunch we eat or an amazing landscape view. When I consider how stressed I was in my last job I feel very lucky that we made the decision to come away and that even my worst moods are easily erased by something as simple as a hearty lunch.
Our time in Lijiang is a good example of all this and has certainly been a mixture of highs and frustrating lows.
We cycled into the sprawling white city of Lijiang at 5pm, pretty good going considering we had had a 110km day with two medium climbs. Before calling it a day and finding our hostel we decided it was worth making a visit to the PSB office (closes at 5.30pm) to ask about extending our visas.
With the good news that it would only take three days, we could keep our passports while we waited, and that the visa extension would be added from the final date of our current visa (rather than the date we apply), we agreed to go ahead and get the extension over and done with here.
We knew that applying for our visa extension in China would be a pain and would likely take the best part of a day. Firstly we needed to get an ‘address registration’ slip from the local police station.
We were staying in a very cheap youth hostel near the Old Town which our cycle friends Geart and Systke had told us about. The upside of this was that we were only paying 40Y a night, the downside was that the owners had no understanding of why we needed to find the nearest police station.
In the end they directed us to the nearest station (200m up the road) so after a quick home cooked porridge breakfast we cycled across to see if we could explain what we needed. After some painful English-Chinese communication the guys at this first station said they couldn’t help us and that we needed to cycle across town to the Xian Police station.
We hopped on the bike and cycled through the rain to the other side of Lijiang. It took us a good while to locate this second police station but once we were there at least the guy behind the counter seemed to understand what we were after. We were taken upstairs and we handed over our passports and our hostel’s address. It soon became apparent that there was a problem and we were told that we were in the wrong place and that we needed to register at the police station in Changshui as that was the closest one to our hostel.
We ask for directions, jump on the bike and cycle the full length of town again.
When we arrive at police station number three we are told that yes, they can issue a registration certificate, but the woman who does it is in a meeting and won’t be back until 3pm. Both of us are slightly cranky by now…
Another annoying administrative hurdle we had to complete before we could apply for our visas is the need for ‘special passport photographs’ to be done (annoying we weren’t allowed to use some from our existing stash we had with us). Luckily, one of the two licensed photography places we needed to use was just around the corner so we could at least get this task completed without too much hassle.
We then spend a painful hour trying to get cash out with our Caxton card from every ATM in town. I wait with the bike while Paddy admits defeat and goes to use our debit card instead. I sit down on a nearby bench where a bird presides to poo on my head.
This does NOT improve my mood.
‘It’s supposed to be lucky you know’ Paddy says as he wipes it out of my hair with a tissue. I say nothing…
We spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the Merida bike shop where we tick off some of our shopping list – a new saddle and warm hat for me, fleece glove inserts, and a new helmet insert for Paddy.
We like ticking things off our list and this combined with a good lunch means we’re back in a good mood again.
We get back to the police station for 3pm and meet the lady who can issue the certificate. She frowns at the hostel address and then asks us if we have a telephone contact for them.
After a quick phone conversation with the hostel she puts the receiver down and says ‘sorry we can’t issue you a certificate for this hostel, it is not in our area. You need to go to The Old Town police station. They should be able to help you’
We groan and check out watches. We have two hours until the PSB closes. We get directions and jump on the bike. We’re not allowed to cycle through the old town itself so we have to get off and walk most of the way to the police station. By this time it is raining heavily.
When you are at the right police station, getting your registration certificate is a quick and painless task. We finally had ours but it had taken us all day to get this single slip of paper.
We hurry over to the PSB office and hand in all our paper work. The man glimpses briefly at our certificate, nods, hands it back and proceeds with our application. All that for a simple 5 second check! Arghhh!!
Those of you who are reading this after a day of frantic emails, report deadlines and perhaps cross words with your boss might be thinking ‘big deal’ but for us this was very frustrating.
As I said at the beginning, our frustrations are often wiped away easily and we spent the evening blowing off some steam by enjoying a beer (and regular cap fills of 57% rice wine) while walking through the beautiful lanes which make up Lijiang old town.
We walk through the cobbled streets lit by traditional red Chinese lanterns and cross over streams which are decorated with little floating ‘candle boats’ shaped like lotus flowers.
The streets are busy with people and the stalls and live music make us feel like we are in some sort of festival. We gorge on a delicious street food meal of traditional spicy chicken stir fry, potato cakes, dumplings and Naxi ‘baba’ flat bread.
We keep walking and reach a square and end the night by going to a very lively club which is filled with very cool, happy go lucky Chinese people. It’s a huge party, complete with a bouncing dance floor, balloons, a live DJ and (a rather terrible) MC.
The drinks are 50y per beer!!!!!!! We buy one to share but are soon given another by the guy sitting next to us. We return the kind gesture and quickly make friends by sneakily passing shots of rice wine to him.
It’s amazing how quickly we find our party personas again and we’re soon up on the dance floor pulling some shapes and providing a lot of entertainment to our fellow clubbers.
Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos because we were having such a great time.
We have really enjoyed our route through the mountains over the past five days and couldn’t be more glad to get away from the main highway and miss out the tourist trap of Dali.
We have had to really get to grips with the Chinese language as the people we’ve met have barely spoken any English. We both find the language fascinating – it is so different from any western language either of us have learnt – and we have been using a combination of apps to learn words and phrases.
We downloaded memrise which has been good as it allows you to download different courses and it’s good for helping you recognise the Chinese characters. Paddy also downloaded the dictionary Hanping which has been very useful as you can use it offline (we still haven’t been able to get a SIM card) and I have Chinese Skill too which is good for learning the structure of sentences.
Learning the different characters is highly addictive especially when you start to be able to combine them to make new words. For example, ‘to eat’ is a combination of ‘mouth’ and ‘to beg’…
We have yet to see another foreigner since crossing the border with Ruili and our cycle through rural Yunnan has felt very special and personalised. It’s good to mix things up though and it will be nice to have a coupe of days in a more touristy place where we can maybe meet some other travellers and enjoy a well needed rest day!
We will be heading towards Shaxi which will definitely see us back on the tourist trail. It is the first place since Ruili that has an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The ride will take us 3 days to get there from our current position in Ying Pan.
Day 1: 51km
We woke up to a grey, miserable and very wet morning in Ying Pan. It has rained pretty much every night in China but this was the first morning the rain was still beating down. We contemplated having a rest day but agreed we should keep going so we packed up and donned our rain gear.
Today will see us complete another climb – 1300m to 3090m (the highest we’ve been so far). Mist is clinging to the mountains so we linger a bit longer to see if the weather clears a bit and warm up with two helpings of steaming dumplings.
By the time we set off the rain has turned to just a gentle drizzle. The first section takes us along a little river through a small valley (well comparatively small for China). We both agree it feels like we could be cycling somewhere in Wales, maybe the Brecon Beacons?
There are some very steep climbs here so we play a round of 20 questions which takes our mind off things.
The sensation of being somewhere in the UK quickly ends when we cycle up to this very Chinese looking bridge.
This marks the beginnings of a beautiful old town called Lajing which clings to the valley on either side. All the houses are still built from wood and compact earth with very quintessential grey tiled roofs.
We keep climbing and reach the the more modern part of town. With the colder weather comes hearty food and we stop for a steaming beef stew. We, and the tandem, spark quite an interest in the town and a big group of locals waves us goodbye from the square.
We keep climbing, it’s still very cold!!! Again, the views are pretty spectacular though.
Finally we reach the top and snake our way down the other side to a town we think is called Hualian… It’s the first big town you come to anyway!
We cook up a vegetable broth in our hotel room, have a nosey around town and then snuggle down into bed our breath creating clouds of mist above the bed!
Day 2: 76km
Not much to report on this day as it was cold, grey and a pretty boring cycle on the main road. A medium climb and then downhill for 15km.
Two lovely things did happen though:
We hadn’t passed a place to eat for a good couple of hours and when we stopped to ask a family where the next town was we were told we had a 35km cycle ahead of us before we could properly eat again. All we had was cake, peanuts and oranges in our panniers.
I, in particular, was very cold, tired and hungry at this point and the look on my face obviously showed it… The lovely family invited us into their house, gave us tea, fed us and let us warm up next to their fire. They refused to take anything from us in return.
I was still feeling very tired and pretty grumpy, I let myself get cold and then couldn’t get warm again. Never let yourself get cold!!! Paddy basically pulled us through.
Later in the day a guy stopped us on the road and passed us two yoghurts through the window. Perhaps we were giving off a ‘we’re struggling today’ vibe… People are wonderful.
It gets gradually warmer as the day goes on and at 5.30pm we stop in Madeng for dinner.
We cycle out of town and find a great camping spot in the hills above the town.
We set up camp amongst the cover of a forest of pine trees and at dusk decide it’s safe to light a campfire which makes us both very happy.
Day 3: 67km
It rains all night and although all our stuff stays dry and our Hubba Hubba tent holds up well we both don’t sleep well… We also leave our shoes too near the edge of the vestibule and each wake up to a soggy left foot…
We cook breakfast in the rain but thankfully it subsides and beautiful blue skies appear in time for us to take the tent down.
We had decided to take this yellow road route to Shaxi which takes you south and then north rather than following the main road around and down.
We get going and enjoy a wonderful 20km cycle downstream through a beautiful valley, acres of farmland on either side. We make good progress with an average of 24km/ph.
Then we come to a turn in the road and are faced with a cobbled road… It’s very, very, very bumpy and there are a couple of minor landslides. We definitely wouldn’t advise this route in the wet season… It’s hard going on Paddy who can’t really look up from the road to enjoy the views. The cobbles continue for 22km (!) until we reach the next major village and turn north and upstream towards Shaxi.
If you do decide to take this route be sure to bring plenty of stuff for lunch as there isn’t really anywhere you can get a good meal between Madeng and Shaxi. We ended up eating a horrible quick noodle pot at a shop…
Tired and very hungry we reach Shaxi which is very pretty and filled with lots of Chinese tourists. Do not try and push your loaded bike around the cobbled, twisty streets while you find a guesthouse!
We’re staying in a lovely place just up from the main square. It’s probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in the whole entire trip but is only 60Y.
We are looking forward to a lie in and a day moseying around this sleepy town.
Day 1: 42.5km
We didn’t leave Huang’s house until ten to four so gave ourselves just 40km to cover. We planned to meet the Nu Jiang river and follow it to find Lujiang (Xiaopingtian) where we would find a hotel. The Nu Jiang is the first of two big rivers (the other being the Mekong) we’ll be following over the next 5 days.
It’s a warm afternoon and we cycle down some amazing valleys which are covered in tiered farms which almost act like contour lines, making the landscape seem even more impressive than it is already.
We make good progress but then are forced to wait for 45mins as there has been a landslide and they are only letting traffic through every hour. The road is pretty bad in places too. This meant we couldn’t reach Lujiang before dark but we luckily did find a hotel 14km before Lujiang on the road side near the bridge just after the road meets the river.
Day 2: 97.5km
Today saw us have a late start as our gears had been jumping the day before on the hills. While I hunt for breakfast Paddy spends time tweaking the derailer to see if this would get rid of the problem. Once we get going we follow the river proper which carves its way through an amazing valley.
On the other side of the river we spot a collection of around 150 sandy brick, one room cottages very neatly built in rows. It’s a weird looking place and looks pretty derelict. We wonder whether this was one of the agricultural communes which were built during the Cultural Revolution when the communist party forced thousands of people into the countryside to work the land…
The land is intensely farmed the whole way along the river and we wonder if we will be able to find a camping spot.
The road is good, but fairly up and down (AV 18.8km/ph), and we make up the time completing just over 5 hours actually on the bike.
At dusk we find a track which leads down to the bank of the river. We set up camp and try not to get too much sand in the tent.
Day 3: 75.1km
Paddy is a little grumpy in the morning as he discovers he stepped in dog poop the night before… At least we’re near a river! The view manages to cheer him up pretty well though.
Onwards from our beautiful camping spot to Laowo.
The gears are still jumping which is driving us both crazy so we are forced to take an hour of the morning by the roadside. I had noticed that our smallest chainring had warped slightly and while tweaking Paddy notices that our chain link has bent out of shape. We replace the chain link, bend the chain link next to it back into shape and we are in business. No more jumping!
We experience our first proper tunnel! What is to become the first of many in China.
We are also stopped at another checkpoint and our details are carefully recorded in an online system.
We stop for a delicious meal which is a super rich beef stew cooked with lots of mint. There is so much meat and it is super delicious but we end up paying 60Y for it – this is a third of our daily budget!
A slightly surreal thing happens in the afternoon during a snack stop. We’re sitting on a wall, the only people around, enjoying an orange when 5 cops turn up. They take positions on the road and start stopping the traffic, clearly checking for licenses. One motorbike fails to stop so one of the cops starts comically running after it his hat falling to the ground and as it speeds away, he grabs his pistol and fires three shots into the air!
At Liuku we leave the Nu Jiang to start our climb which will eventually find us meeting up with the Mekong River. Liuku is a large town, a slightly surreal place. Lots of sky scrapers and flats crunched in together between the river and the towering mountains behind.
Just after Liuku we pass another army checkpoint where thorough searches of luggage are being done and everyone has to hand in their ID cards to be scanned. Our bags aren’t searched, but we get lots of questions and our passport details are again put into the online system. Our profiles clearly appear on the screen as the guards asks us where was the last place we were stopped. The guards are friendly but a couple of them are holding automatic machine guns and the whole experience is very surreal and intimidating. I can’t help thinking of Orwells 1984.
The cycle up to Laowo is a lovely end to the day and when we reach the small town it’s obvious we’re the first foreigners who have passed through in a while.
There is only one hotel in Laowo which we find after asking for directions.
The nights are beginning to get much colder as we get higher and we’re glad of our warm blankets. Tomorrow will see us climb to just over 2800m and then drop down again to meet the Mekong.
Day 4: 79km
After a bowl of steaming Dou Fen this time with churos (sounds like a weird combination I know but it’s very nice) we start the climb through the valley.
We weren’t planning to do such a long day what with the climb as well but there isn’t a hotel until a place called Biaocun (20km up the Mekong) so we end up completing an 80km day.
The climb to the top is Spectacular, SPECTACULAR! Quiet road and the best views and countryside we have seen on the trip. The first section takes you up through a valley where you follow a bumbling stream up river to the village where the two roads meet (where, for reference, there is a great restaurant which is also a hotel). This section is a little steep in places but very manageable.
We then turned left and started climbing up the mountain pass. Great road, easy incline with breathtaking views. This is why we came away! It really is amazing. Also there is no downward sections, just climbing, and we just hope the other side is a pure descent too.
We reach the top after 27.9km and 5:45 hours (3:39 actually on the bike). We average at 7.6km/ph! The top is marked with all these Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind. Its the highest we’ve been and we feel proud we’ve managed it.
We wrap up for the long decent which will take us down to the Mekong. The last time we saw this river was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – we’ve done nearly 3000km since then.
We finally reach Biaocun which is a beautiful rural town on the river with farms running through the middle. The town has three sections, upper town, lower town and the section across the bridge. After cycling around a lot we discover that the hotels are all in the lower town.
At the hotel the woman has no idea what to do with our passports and keeps brandishing her own ID card at us. We try to explain that our passports are our IDs. She calls her husband who also seems pretty baffled by all the stamps and visas. After a while they obviously agree to abandon the idea of registering us and hand over the key.
Day 5: 57.7km
Our final day takes us along the Mekong towards the town of Ying Pang.
The road is very up and down and we pass two hydro electric dams. There are a number of tunnels and all the heavy traffic leading to and from the dams means that the road isn’t in great shape for a lot of sections.
Here I am enjoying the view.
There is a big steep climb up to Ying Pang town which has spectacular views across the valley.
Ying Pang has lots of hotels so don’t go for the first one you come to. This is the view we enjoyed from our window and we paid 50Y.
After a great streetfood dinner in the centre of town we hit the hay. Tomorrow will see us do another high climb as we leave the Mekong behind us.
Our plan was to only stay in Zhen’an one night and continue on our way down towards the Nu Jiang River. That was until we met Huang Wen Sheng (translating to: yellow, culture, strong) and got invited to spend the weekend with him and his extended family.
We met Huang after attempting to get a Chinese SIM card in the local phone shop. The woman who owned the shop couldn’t speak any English so she phoned her little brother – Huang – and he very kindly came over to help us.
Huang’s English is very very good and after an hour of chatting and sharing tea and beers he told us he would like to invite us to stay with him in his house and to meet his family.
They were spending the weekend altogether along with friends in a kind of special memorial commemoration to the family’s relatives who were no longer with them on earth. There would be lots of eating and drinking and a visit to the family grave up on the mountain.
We were touched by Huang’s offer and keen to meet his friends and family and gain an insight into Chinese family life. We promised to be at his house for 8.30am the next morning.
Huang grew up in Zhen’an but studied computing in Kunming where he met his lovely wife who is originally from a town near Beijing. After they got married and had their first daughter the couple moved back to Zhen’an where Huang built a house for his new family and his parents. They have all lived together in this new house for about ten months.
Huang told us that he always loved English in school but we were the first foreigners he’d ever seen in Zhen’an and that he was very glad to practise the language again.
Not long after we had arrived, more of Huang’s extended family and friends arrive too (most of them live in Zhen’an too).
We all eat breakfast together (about 25 of us). Served up is a custard like soup called Dou Fen which is made from a kind of pea.
This is mixed with rice noodles and a number of different condiments which the eater adds themselves according to their taste – chilli, a delicious peanut and sesame seed mix, dill, spring onion and salt.
After breakfast a party of us jump in the car and drive up the mountain overlooking the town. We park and then walk 7mins through the woods up to the family grave.
The views are beautiful and over the valley we can see other graves peppering the mountain side.
The family grave is quite a big one, a large stone tomb made of grey stone, decorated with carvings of scenes from old Chinese fables and the 12 animals of the different Chinese new year. Birds, dragons, horses and a large yinyang symbol decorate the front.
We clear the encroaching weeds and long grass from the tomb and then each family member lights some incense and kowtows to the grave. We also light a small fire to offer our thanks to the mountain spirit who looks after the area. Huang explains that this commemoration takes place every year. Every Chinese family will choose a weekend to hold their commemoration within a 20 day period in April. We were very lucky that Huang’s family had chosen to hold theirs the weekend we were passing through Zhen’an.
After this ritual we make our way back to the house. Friendship and family ties are obviously very strong. Everyone lives close by so it’s easy to get together for special occasions like this. Huang has a strong network around him and we instantly feel part of this network. Everyone is so welcoming and the children are encouraged to call us aunty and uncle right from the first meeting.
Huang explains that life is very much centred around the family. He shows us the red plaques on his lounge wall which detail his complex ancestry.
Lunch is served and the custard Dou Fen has set into a solid jelly like block. It gets cut up into chunks and mixed with chilly and peanut oil in a bowl. Some people simply hack a big chunk off and plonk the sauce on top. Dou Fen is really popular in Yunnan, it’s like the staple food here.
After lunch the cooking activity continues as dinner is prepared in the big covered courtyard. Huang and his friends invite us to sit down to a drinking card game and the beers are brought out. I’m allowed to take it slow but Paddy has to put his best Irish drinking hat on.
A delicious bowl of homemade sausage and cured ham is presented. It goes very well with the beer. We finish one game and then the rice wine comes out…
A constant stream of snacks is brought to the table.
Sweets, nuts, dried plums and hot packets of Ba Ba – yellow rice doh filled with a sugary peanut sauce.
We relax on the big sofas for a while after the card games and the atmosphere reminds me of Christmas Day back home!
Huang’s niece teaches me some Chinese words while Paddy attempts to call a travel agent in Iran.
At around 5pm dinner is ready and it really is a FEAST.
There are so many dishes; whole fish, duck, chicken and pork as well as an array of delicious vegetable and lots of differently preserved eggs. The group sit around 4 tables all of which are covered with dishes. The food is amazing!!
Over dinner we ask about Chinese society and what it’s like to be starting a family in the China of today. Huang talks about the how there can be huge pressure on you to be wealthy. Wealth gains status in your community. ‘Without wealth you have no respect and no voice’ he explains.
After dinner, we take some photos together:
To round off the day, Huang tells us that he’d like to take us to a special monument which stands on a mountain about 20 minutes from Zhen’an. The mountain was the staging area for a large scale battle against the Japanese who invaded China during the Second World War.
The drive up has scenery which is just incredible! Huang tells us that the monument was completed 18 months ago and that the road has been specially built by the government so that locals and tourists can visit the site. Chinese sentiment is less than favourable to the Japanese and it is obviously important for people to understand what it cost China to win the war.
We arrive at dusk and are blown away by the monument which consists of thousands of individually carved stone statues, all dressed in army uniform.
It is an amazing place, the faces of the statues are so real and are apparently based on real men who died in battle at the site.
The night is nicely rounded up with a classic spicy chicken foot – a delicacy here! I cause a slight panic when I get a very painful piece of chilli stuck behind my contact lens after rubbing my eye!
The next morning we are all invited over to Huang’s brothers house for breakfast and dinner. When we arrive duck, rabbit and chicken (all of which had been freshly killed that morning) dishes are being prepared. Huang’s brother oversees the cooking while we play more card games although we don’t really drink as we need to cycle 40km after lunch.
Needless to say the lunch was delicious if not a bit rushed as we needed to get going. We swap contact details, take some final photos and say our goodbyes.
We never got our SIM card, but that hardly mattered after such a great weekend with such friendly people
Please also read recent comments below this post from other travellers regarding this crossing.
There is only one current border crossing between Myanmar and China and there is a certain amount of uncertainty and mystery about how cyclists can cross.
There is comparatively very little online about cyclists crossing this border and lots of differing information about what you need to organise to be permitted to cross. Posts by cyclists on the Lonely Planet ‘Thorn Tree’ forum led us to an agent and described what others had done.
The area between Lashio and Muse remains a restricted zone in which foreigners need a government permit to cross.
We had read some reports that we also needed a guide, the travel agent we were liaising with regarding the permit (Exotic Myanmar Travel and Tours) was insistent we did, although 2 weeks previously they sent other cyclists up the road without a guide and only a permit. Apparently the rues had recently changed and now you need a guide, and not a cheap guide!
Initially we were also told that we needed to go with the guide all the way from Mandalay but we knew that we could definitely cycle as far as Lashio.
We are uncertain why exactly the area is currently closed, the official line is that there is still regional fighting between Shan separatists and the government; the area has seen its fair share of fighting in the past. We suspect the real reason however is more opium related.
Either way we were told we could cycle to Lashio but that we would need to meet the guide there and then rent a car from Lashio to Muse. The guide would bring our permits with him and organise the necessary paperwork at the border.
The whole thing is an expensive option, but we hooked up with a Dutch couple, Geart and Sytske, cycling the same way and split the guide cost with them. We temporarily had a 5th member of the team, but Victor had to withdraw after a pretty bad illness forced him to cut his trip short.
Dealing with the agent was very tricky due to language differences and the shifting sands of information which trickled from her. After 50+ emails we finally settled on the plan, costs timing etc…
As the day of crossing approached Geart and Sytske decided they wanted to put the system to the test and head for the border without the guide or permit. Would they get through?! Unfortunately well never know as they fell ill and did well just to get to Lashio in time.
This meant the 4 of us met the government guide in Lashio in the evening. He turned out to be very friendly and helpful arranging a good value taxi for the morning…although the information he would give about the area, permits, his role, his expenses, was incredibly vague and changeable – but we enjoyed his company.
We set off in the morning for Muse with Tandem sitting upright on the roof of an estate car sandwiched between the 2 other bikes.
We only passed one checkpoint on the road from Lashio and that was just outside Muse. Our guide needed to show our permits and passports and his official guide identity card. Our guide told us that this check point is open 8am-6pm so it might be possible to cross after hours with a bike and avoid this…
Upon arriving at Muse at 4pm and finding out the cheapest hotel in town was $30 (!!) we persuaded our guide to take us over the border that day.
There were a few phone calls back to head office to check this was OK before he headed into the border post with a big box of biscuits for his friend to speed up the process. Finally, around 5pm, we crossed into China.
We still have no idea if we needed the guide or whether we got ripped of by the agent, the guide or the government policy for travel in the region… but this is part of the game! We got to China and are now very comfortable with our overall schedule.
Our first impressions of China are that it couldn’t be more different to bordering Myanmar. In fact, it seems that whenever China does anything it does it bigger and better that pretty much anywhere else.
China, quite literally is awesome. We have two months here but we will barely be scratching the surface of its vast countryside. We’re likely to cover anywhere between 2600 and 3000km by bike but we will only cycle through two of China’s many provinces – Yunnan and Sichuan.
Having crossed the border with Geart and Sytske we found ourselves cycling through the border town of Ruili. The difference between the two countries is instant and it’s a bit like entering a completely new world.
As the four of us walked around Ruili city centre we gaze open mouthed at the clean streets, perfectly paved roads, silent electric motorbikes and huge neon lights which completely dominate the city centre. After 3 months in Asia, parking lines on the roads and street bins which have different compartments for recycling are a real sight to be seen!
The next morning Paddy and I head off without Geart and Sytske as they need to stay to sort out their breaks.
We don’t set off until 10am (Beijing time). The whole of China officially works on Beijing time but because the country is so big this means that the East provinces enjoy later evenings and some towns will unofficially work on two time zones. If we were still over the border in Myanmar it would be 8.30am!
The rain which we had had the day before had disappeared completely and it is a crisp morning full of blue skies and sunshine. It will be a day of up and down through the mountains on the G320 rd.
Huge, lush valleys and rich forested slopes appear from nowhere as we snake our way up to 1100m. It is very beautiful and the wonderfully smooth road, comfortable incline and decent hard shoulder allows us to relax a bit and really appreciate the views as we climb.
Another example of how the Chinese do things here. A simple sign to tell drivers to slow down just isn’t enough…
They say that China will be the top economic superpower in 20 years and you can well believe it, the country oozes productivity.
Despite the obvious challenges that come with this landscape, some major infrastructure has already been completed with evidence of a lot more still to come. We pass at least two huge complexes of new flats, we see the evidence of hydroelectric dams and we spot new roads connecting once remote villages.
The road we follow is actually the old road, running parallel to it for most of the day is the new high-speed road. It is an amazing piece of engineering. Some of it is jaw dropping…
But it is currently very underused because the tolls are so expensive.
We pick up supplies as we plan to camp – food is cheap to buy and we’re looking forward to clawing back some of our budget after the huge expense of Myanmar.
A camping spot was tough to find because the road mostly just cuts its way through a valley, but finally we find somewhere semi-private with a bit of cover 20km from the large town of Mang. We pitch up just before dark and during the night there is an almighty thunder and lightening storm with heavy rain. We snuggle down into our Big Agnes sleeping bag and wonder how all our gear will hold up in its first proper rain test.
The next day is much the same – 73km to Zhen’an were we will sleep. We stop for a late lunch in Longling and drop by the small museum which focuses on telling the story of the Comfort Women system which the Japanese ran all over Asia during the war. It’s worth a visit if you find yourself passing through.
We keep climbing up to 1900m – the highest we’ve been so far – and then drop down towards Zhen’an which is a small town surrounded by beautiful tiered wheat fields gently blowing in the breeze.
I guess we couldn’t leave Myanmar without making a reference to the current political situation which has been taking place while we are here. It has certainly been an interesting time to visit the country.
Support for Aung San Suu Khi’s National League for Democracy party is strong throughout the country, clearly demonstrated by the many flags, placards and t-shirts sporting the gold pheonix on its red background. I have often wondered how many of these people have suffered severely for simply showing their support to an opposition party.
Having read Aung San Suu Khi’s book Letters from Burma and heard many stories and reports of the repressive regime that has raged here for decades, our time here has felt very peaceful and full of optimism in comparison.
Things have been changing here for a while but it is still a massively divided country. A small group of men wield all the economic, social and political power and corruption makes it impossible to achieve almost anything.
A number of Burmese have spoken openly about their new found optimism now that their heroine has finally taken office, and although they say they realise that things will take time and that their new leader has huge pressure on her to bring peace, prosperity and freedom to their country you can’t help feel their heartfelt optimism.
Aung San Suu Khi failed to be Myanmar’s first freely elected female president, but it looks like she will be its first prime minister instead. I write this from China having just seen on the news that 60 political prisoners have been released so things are definitely moving in the right direction with her in the top job.
The boys in Myanmar far outstrip the girl for being ‘into their looks’.
Most of the the teenage boys you see will have dyed hair, carefully styled into an extravagant back comb. All the hairdressers we’ve seen are men and we’ve only ever seen men having their hair cut. Peroxide hair colouring is very popular, we’ve seen a pink perm!
Diamonte flip flops, gold earrings and skinny jeans are not uncommon and these young men tend to move in packs as they drive around on their motos, carefully checking their beehives in their wing mirrors before they climb off.
The girls are comparatively unassuming, meek and sensibly dressed, normally with their hair in a long plait or often cut short.
Dogs don’t chase you
For some strange reason cyclists just don’t get chased by dogs in Myanmar.
We have no idea why this is but its true and other cycle tourers have said the same. Vietnam yes, Cambodia yes, Thailand YES, but Myanmar – no.
Fish knife in replacement for normal knifes
In many of the hotels and guest houses we have stayed in, they like to give you a fish knife instead of just a normal knife!
Spreading your butter is a little harder but otherwise it works quite well!!
Right hand drive????
In 1970 the bizarre decision was taken to switch the country from left to right hand drive. Instead of this decision springing from a desire to cut all ties with its colonial past (UK drives on the left) it is rumoured that the change was in fact made to ‘ward off’ attacks from right-wing political groups. Another bizarre example of how superstition has often dictated government policy here.
The majority of cars, busses, trucks and other vehicles are still designed for left hand drive however.
As a cyclist this often means you get consumed by large clouds of black smoke from their exhausts… Particularly unpleasant when large trucks struggle past you as you gasp for air.
Trucks with tractor Diesel engines
Many people have replaced their truck engines with a more reliable, simplified Diesel engine which is mounted on some beams sticking out the front of the truck.
Paddy likes to examine these engines closely whenever he can!
Obsession with coffee mix
The Burmese are obsessed with coffee mix (instant coffee, sugar and creamer) here. You see it served in every hotel, it is available in every shop or cafe and there are about 50 different companies who all have an extensive advertisement campaign for their specific brand all across the country.
Coffee mix in Myanmar is big business.
It is, of course, horrible but somehow we have both grown to really like it!
Weird Indicating Habits
Drivers in Myanmar use their indicator in a variety of situations on the road, many of which are entirely lost on us. We just don’t understand what the truck drivers are trying to tell us!!! It’s certainly not to say ‘I am about to turn off’ or ‘I’m overtaking imminiently’.
1.5 L bottles
…are nonexistent in Myanmar.
You can’t buy them anywhere in the country. You can only buy 1L or 5L bottles… If your bottle cages are the standard size/design like ours, be sure to save and reuse your bottles from Thailand, India or China.
Don’t feel a need to buy 2 of every meal in Myanmar like you do in Vietnam or Cambodia.
Portions are BIG and a lot of the time more rice will be brought out if they think you are still hungry.