CHINA!

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.
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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.
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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. 
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Another example of how the Chinese do things here. A simple sign to tell drivers to slow down just isn’t enough…

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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. 

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Hope in Myanmar

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.

Ten quirky things we’ve discovered about Burma

Pretty boys
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.

Big Portions

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.

4 Day Cycle: Mandalay to Hsipaw 

Stops along the way: Anisakan Falls, Pyin Oo Lwin, Nuangkio and Gokteik Viaduct

Day 1: Mandalay to a village 25km from Pyin Oo Lwin. 

We did over 2 days (stayed with a local family) but possible to complete the 95k to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay in one day even with the detour onto the smaller road after main climb.

Distance: 61 km

Road: flat until start of major climb on A3 (red) – horrible due to heavy traffic. Road is two way up the mountains which helps and it’s a very manageable incline despite the overall climb, advise to avoid if you have time via longer rd round though. If you do climb via A3, turn off right onto orange rd after summit for roughly 7km and then left onto small white rd leading north through mountains. This road is excellent and only one major climb, really quiet with nice villages and countryside for stops. Avoid the A3 where if you’re not a fan of trucks!

We stayed with a super friendly family in a village where we were well looked after. Here we all are outside the house in the morning.

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Spot the smiling westerners! 

Day 2: Village to Pyin Oo Lwin via Anisakan Falls 

Distance: 35km

Road: very good apart from when you turn off to the falls which then becomes pretty bumpy for a couple of km. Good rd but steady incline up towards Pyin Oo Lwin.

The waterfall is well worth the visit despite the long walk down and sweaty track back up. We really enjoyed our swim even though it was freezing!  

  
We ate in one of the cafes at the waterfall entrance and Paddy made a new friend – a tame Raven who seem to take a real liking to him! 

  
Back on the road we reached Pyin Oo Lwin at 3.30. We didn’t do much sight seeing in the town the next morning as we wanted to send some post to the two families we have stayed with over the last few days as a thank you. 

Day 3: Pyin Oo Lwin to Nuangkio

Distance: 55km

Road: 25km of down with some great views of the plateau. Passed Peik Chin Myaung Caves at Wet Wun but we decided we didn’t have enough time to visit. Good road, fairly heavy traffic still. 

We ended up camping just outside Nuangkio. We had decided we would take the Mandalay-Lashio train from there in the morning as far as Nawngpeng as this way we would experience the famous Gokteik Viaduct and cut out one of the steeper climbs on our journey to Hsipiaw. 

Day 4: Nuangkio – Nawngpeng by train. 

Nawngpeng – Hsipaw by bike

Distance by bike: 63km

Tickets were 250 kyat each for the train and we paid 300 for the bike! Here are some views from the train journey gulp! 

  
The road from Nawngpeng to Hsipaw is a really great ride. A really nice incline decent pretty much all the way and good road. This means you don’t have to be constantly on your breaks and we completed the ride in just over 3 hours with stops.

A few trucks but we did the majority of the journey on the top ring, had an average speed of 26km/ph and even overtook some trucks along the way! Note there is a 10km incline at the end leading up to Hsipaw.