Tea time in Jinghong

March 26 – 28, 2013

We always have a bunch of chores to do when we get to any major city like laundry, grocery shopping, fixing things, etc. We also like to take a few rest days in a place where we have good food options and interesting things to do, so we decided to take a few extra days in Jinghong.

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Chan’s soup

 

Besides dealing with errands, we spent most of our free time drinking tea. The Yunnan province is famous for its Pu’er tea. This style of tea is unique because it is typically consumed after it has been aged anywhere from a year to decades. The teas are typically pressed into cakes and loosely wrapped in paper which permits exposure to humidity and natural microorganisms which “ferment” the tea over time. Certain teas age well and a 500g cake can end up being worth thousands of dollars if properly conditioned. Some people purchase the cakes as a form of an investment, especially recently as the tea has become more popular, the market price of Pu’er has rocketed. Teas from the wild trees are the most coveted, but from what we understood it is very difficult to accurately trace the specific origin of any given tea and the market is fraught with false claims.

Our first day in town, we wandered a few feet from our hotel to find a large tea shop with the proprietor waving us in. We poked around looking at the various teas, teapots and all the other tea related accoutrements before the owner motioned for us to sit down for a drink. First she placed loose tea leaves in a gaiwan, a flared porcelain cup with a lid, washed the leaves quickly with boiling water and used that water to warm the drinking glasses. This process was done twice before she poured the warm tea into a decanter from which she than served to us in tiny teacups. The tea leaves are quite potent and needed to be seeped for only a few seconds at a time. The leaves were re-infused at least a dozen times before they were discarded. The flavor and color of the tea changes with each infusion, usually starting pretty rough and bitter, then becoming sweeter, then more delicate, though each tea is different.

Our hostess made us three different teas, all from the same region but from different years. The tea from this year was very bitter with a light straw color while the teas from older years produced a rich red colored tea with a more sweet finish. We communicated with her through hand gestures and a calculator which she used to indicate the age of the teas, and the trees in the photos on the wall. She was very patient with us, which we greatly appreciated. After several hours of drinking tea, we learned a lot about tea without the benefit of verbal communication.

Our tea hostess

Our tea hostess

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Tea from the same region but three different years

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So many varieties of tea

We visited a few other tea shops, but the first was our favorite and visited it a few times to drink tea and watch kung fu movies. Each tea shop serves tea from different tea trees and regions, so it was interesting to taste the different variety and years that people offered. It was also interesting how people reacted to us. Some people were just not interested in making the effort to get past the language barrier, while others would practice their English or use translation apps on their phones. One woman wanted to make sure we were comfortable and decided music would help, so we sent an hour drinking tea to Justin Beiber.

We spent the rest of our time wandering around the town and watching Downton Abbey. We found a huge grocery store which carried a number of western items like peanut butter and PBR along with the usual unidentifiable Chinese food items. The internet was very finicky, so we spent a bit of time trying to figure out what was and wasn’t banned. All social media websites and personal blog sites, like WordPress, were off limits and Google would shut down if we searched for certain topics. Skype barely worked, but we were able to convince Chandler’s brother, Tayler to upload the photos and post we had written. Thanks Tayler!

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Chinese PBR for our troops

 

The bee’s knees

March 25, 2013

Distance: 45.6 miles        Climbing: 2414.7 ft

There is something about southwest China that is very relaxing. Maybe because the temperature is cooler we didn’t feel the need to rush out the door and instead lingered over breakfast and coffee. Maybe because the old highway is like a big shaded bike path built just for us and the local farmers.

When we did get started, we pedaled past farms and banana plantations as we went waited and waited for the daily hill to climb. We were pleasantly surprised to only encounter a few gentle hills and flat pavement. Today was special though as we saw some new things: pineapple and bee hives. The pineapples were being grown down in the shade among the rubber trees, the latter we’ve seen a lot of. It took us a while to figure out what was growing as we peddled by.

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Little pineapple plant

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The pineapple express

At the first set of hives, there was a table by the road with honey displayed on top. We hit the brakes and waited for traffic to pass so we could cross the street. A young couple immediately walked us to and opened the jars so we could taste the different varieties they sold. As we pointed between hives and honey, they began taking us through their entire operation. They picked up bees to show us the pollen attached to their legs and pulled out the shelves inside the hive to show us the honey comb.  They only spoke in Chinese, but through a number of cell phone pictures and hand gestures we learned about keeping bees and honey. The different types of honey they made seemed to be based on the pollen the bees were given, which came as tiny pellets in brown, red and yellow colors. Before we left they mixed up a drink of bee pollen, hot water and honey drink for us to try, which I quickly found out I am allergic to. Apparently the drink is good at eliminating crow’s feet! We bought a liter of the darkest honey for 50 Yuan, which seemed like a deal.

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Honey for sale

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Mixing up a special honey pollen potion

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Busy bees

We left after a long round of goodbyes and we excitedly discussed what we could use the honey in. After a few more miles of flat riding we suddenly came to the Mekong! The road intersected a major route that followed the east river bank and traffic increased a lot from what we had been riding in all day. With the traffic came big trucks whizzing by hauling massive loads of stone and soil. Suddenly, we were in a full on construction zone which was total chaos with the road ripped up into horrendous hardpacked ruts, dust everywhere and us bouncing all over the place, trying not to get in anyone’s way. At that point, we went through a small village, where the drains were all torn up so sewage was running all over the road and we had nowhere to go but through it. We both told ourselves it was just muddy water.

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The mighty Mekong

Finally we caught our first glimpse of the southern end of Jinghong. Our first glance had us thinking we had entered the video game Sim City. There must have been about thirty of the exact same concrete high-rises built on the outskirts of town. The buildings all appeared to be empty with more being built. It was a vacant city that I imagined would someday open its doors to a flood of tenants who would fill up that massive void of empty living space, creating a city of hundreds of thousands overnight. It was surreal.

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Looking for a new apartment?

Eventually, we made it to the more normal part of town and headed for the tourist area. We got a little mixed up trying to find our hotel, but finally noticed a sign leading the way. When we were clean and everything was stored away, we went out for a delicious pizza dinner and walked around town.

Lunch at the temple

March 24, 2013

Distance: 29.2 miles Climbing: 2349.1 ft

We woke up with the sun and to the sounds of footsteps outside our tent. People were curious about us, the bikes and the tent. The officer from the night before came over to say good morning and asked us how we slept with his hands. I packed up everything inside the tent as Chandler prepped the stove and began breakfast. Once we started cooking some potatoes a group of women, their children and a few monks walked past us to the pond. One of the monks spoke English and asked us about our journey. He also explained to us that the women were interested in our stove because they had never seen anything like it.

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Chandler and the monk

Eventually, their curiosity wore out and we were left alone to enjoy our meal. With a decent ride ahead of us, we prepared a large breakfast including potatoes, oatmeal and coffee. After cleaning up the pans and the rest of our campsite, we joined the group at the pond to watch people feeding the fish. The English speaking monk returned for a chat and invited us up to the temple for lunch, which we gladly accepted. Lunch wouldn’t be for few hours so we took our time packing and just hung out relaxing.

Around eleven we biked over to the temple, which was conveniently next door to the park. We were shown the temple and then guided to the back where the monk’s rooms are located. A low table was set up with fruit and snacks for us and we were offered tea and beer. We were surprised to learn that the monks were from Lao and allowed to eat meat while in China (but specifically not tiger, elephant, snake or dog). The Chinese monks do things very differently than the rest of Southeast Asia.

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Temple roof

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Banners inside the temple

As we sipped our tea and beers, we were entertained by a younger monk while everyone else hustled around cleaning all the rooms. We talked about where he was from and answered any of his questions about our lives. We went over how to say various words in English such as wall and window and the equivalent in Lao. We also learned that the monks get to choice what color garment they wear, between red, different shades of orange and brown. After about an hour and a half, lunch was ready. We were brought into a room off the kitchen and presented with two tables set with many different dishes. We sat with the monks who invited us for lunch, the one who entertained us and a few men from the village who came by to help clean.

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Lunch

A number of beers were pressed upon us, but we drank very slowly as we still had several miles to ride later. Everyone was very friendly, but we could only really communicate with the two monks. We were offered the choice pieces of meat, which they gave to Chandler after they understood that I am a vegetarian. There was a lot of rice, dried river moss and some other green stemmed vegetable that was really tasty. Chandler ate several different variations of mystery meat.

When everyone had eaten their fill, it was time for a second beer and smoking. Chandler and I do not smoke cigarettes but intrigued by what the men were doing. The locals were smoking their cigarettes out of long acrylic bongs which neither of us had ever seen before… Finally, the time had come for us to continue on our way. We bade everyone goodbye, snapped a few pictures and left.

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That’s one way to smoke a cigarette

The rest of the day was nice, even though we started really late, in the heat of the day. We continued on the old highway, which had almost no traffic and ample shade. It felt like we were riding on one massive unpopular bike path. There was another big pass to climb and descend. We passed by a number of banana plantations with the bananas all wrapped up in layers tissue paper and plastic bags. We reached Menglun around 3 pm and checked into the nicest hotel the city had to offer, also the only hotel we could find with enough room in the lobby to store the bikes.

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Bananas in pajamas

All the street food was meat in one form or another, so we went to the supermarket and decided to try some American classics, but Chinese style: potato chips and cookies. There were tons of other products in the store, but we couldn’t figure out what most of them were. The cookies were supposed to be similar to Oreos but tasted like very burnt soybean oil and literally had to be spit out in the garbage. The potato chips were corn flavored which we hoped would be similar to fritos but they ended up tasting like artificial creamed corn. Bad, just terrible and weird and very bad. Better luck next time.

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Mmm, yummy potato chips

We couldn’t figure out how to work the internet in the room, so we just watched the English language news channel and went to sleep.

Parking lot campout

March 23, 2013

Distance: 31.5 miles        Climbing: 3372.7 ft

I was finally feeling better when we woke up and ready to eat something substantial. We decided to wander around before hitting the road. We roamed around a commercial area before finding a grocery store and decided to stock up on food in case we wanted to camp. In other grocery stores we had visited there were always English labels on a majority of the food, not in China. We were clueless about what any of the food was and were a little scared of just grabbing things and hoping they tasted good. Eventually, we found items that looked familiar like soda crackers and Oreos.  Chandler also got a thick pancake with an omelet on top. The first bite was delicious until we found the center was stuffed with meat, so Chandler finished that alone.

After our breakfast, we packed up the bikes and headed out of town. We spent a few minutes on the highway before turning onto the older, less used highway. This road has been such a treat for us. There is very little honking from the occasional vehicles that do pass and the relative silence does wonders for our moods. We had two big passes to climb which were challenging, but there was a breeze and shade. The hills were preferred to the alternative, a 2.5 km tunnel on the highway.

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Tunnel of doom

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Informative sign

Chandler and I were both in the mood to camp and save a few bucks, so at the top of the pass we began looking for a spot as we flew down the hill. The road was cut into the side of a very steep ravine, so there were not many flat options. We found two decent places however one had clearly been used as a bathroom by several people and the other was clearly visible from the road. We kept going, hoping to find something soon. At the bottom of the pass, we entered a small town with a large tourist attraction, a national park which included some caves.

The place looked closed but with a few people milling around, we decided to see if the park offered camping. There was a large map of the area but the descriptions of the different areas were in Chinese, so we had no idea what was where. As we were standing around deciding what to do, a policeman got curious and walked up to have a look at us. Chandler asked him if there was camping nearby and made a sleeping motion, pointing to our tent. The officer made a motion to the very center of the parking lot, and we figured that we had been misunderstood. Again, we made sleeping motions and mimed the shape of a tent. The officer looked at us and again pointed to the middle of the parking lot, then he seemed to think for a minute, shook his head and motioned to the corner of the parking lot.

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Chandler looking good

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View from the campsite

We weren’t sure if the officer understood exactly what we were asking of him and decided to just hang out in the parking lot until it got dark. While we waited, we watched people feeding some large fish in a nearby pond and made dinner on our stove. When the sun was finally setting we began to set up our tent. As I was blowing up our mattresses the officer walked over to us. We were sure he had finally figured out what we were planning and was coming over to tell us to leave, but he just told us to move our tent away from an unsupported slope that was in the slow process of eroding. He didn’t want anything falling on us in the night and he informed us, someone would be there all night if we needed any help. We could not believe our luck. While it wasn’t a Walmart, it certainly would do.

A sick ride to China

March 22, 2013

Distance: 74 miles on the bus 35 miles on the bikes

We woke up early, checked out of the hotel room, loaded up the bikes and had breakfast. It was a couple of days ride to the Chinese border and I wasn’t in the best condition to ride the pass on the way. We decided to take a bus to give me a little more time to rest. We rode over to the bus station where Chandler searched for some snacks while I guarded the bikes. When the bus finally pulled into the station, we were prepared to battle with the driver to get our bikes on the bus. The driver barely gave us a second look before nodding yes and climbing on the roof to stow them away.

We found seats and waited while the bus slowly filled up. Eventually, one other westerner and about 20 Lao and Chinese loaded up. The bus wasn’t packed so Chan and I each took a seat on either side of the aisle instead of cramming together. Chan bought some dumplings from a guy through the bus window. Finally, the bus started up and we pulled out of the station. After making a few stops in around town, we headed out of town. As the bus picked up speed, it began to shake and bounce, but settled down when we hit a certain speed.

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The landscape was beautiful as we flew through the countryside. I began to think we had made a mistake by busing it to the Chinese border. However, once we began up the pass, Chandler and I both noticed that while the asphalt looked good, there was absolutely no shoulder and the road was very winding. I was back to being happy we hitched a ride.

After a little while I was starting to feel a little carsick but munched on bread and stared at the mountains in the distance. This approach worked well for me, but the little girl in front of me did not follow the same approach and soon enough she was puking. A large supply of red plastic bags was tied to a metal pole near the front of the bus, which we realized were there for just for this sort of thing. The girl set off a chain reaction because after she threw up, the girl behind Chandler frantically tapped him on the shoulder and motioned that she needed a bag. Then the guy in front of me, next to the original puking girl leaned out the window.  The crowning moment was when the little boy directly in front of Chandler vomited all over his mother, their seat and the aisle floor, which caused his mother to start puking. We were officially in the Barfmuda Triangle. The whole situation was completely ridiculous, there was nothing to do but laugh.

When we made it over the pass, the vomiting stopped and we were able to “enjoy” the remainder of the ride. The bus arrived at the border a little before noon and everyone unloaded to get stamped through. We got stamped out of Laos and rode our bikes to the immigrations building on the Chinese side.  Chandler guarded the bikes and declined the aggressive offers of the horde of money changer ladies while I got stamped into China. The process was easy and straightforward. The guard looked through my passport, scanned it and typed some stuff into his computer before stamping it and returning it to me. I then walked out through the door into China. Without my bike. I had to go to the road crossing gate to get back to Chandler and the bikes, but a guard with excellent English immediately came over to help. I went back to Laos and guarded the bikes while Chandler got stamped through. Then he came back and we rode back into China together. It was a little confusing but the whole ordeal only took about 30 minutes and was really pretty simple.

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Suddenly, we were in China! The signs were in a new language, there were cars everywhere and few bicycles, the affluence was obvious. We peddled along a newly paved four lane highway through the border town excited and amazed at being in a new country.

The border town had a lot of buildings but was curiously very quiet and seemed nearly abandoned. The banks were all closed even though it was the middle of the day so we had no money. The nearest city was Mengla which was about 30 km away. The traffic on the highway was light, but moved very fast, and there was no shade from the blazing sun. After a few miles we decided to get on the old highway and away from the traffic. This was a good idea as I still was still feeling weak and tired. The old highway also offered a shady tree lined path the entire way. About halfway to our destination, we realized we had little water left. When we finally reached a town with an ATM, the machine rejected our card.

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I was getting desperate to be done riding and only drinking the smallest of sips when we found an ATM on the outskirts of Mengla that would take the card. We then immediately bought and drank a liter of water each and a sprite and a coke and they were awesome. Disaster averted, time to find a hotel. As we rode into Mengla, I felt like we had entered a Chinatown of a major US city and would eventually make our way back to the “normal” part of town. The only thing was that Chinatown never ended.

The guide book had two hotels, but one was expensive and the other sounds like a dive, we figured there had to be something else. After doing the initial bike through town, we stopped at a place that looked decent. Chandler went in to check out the prices and look at the room, I stayed outside and got a major headache. The air smelled like someone had poured gasoline over everything. Chan deemed the room to be subpar and I was tired of losing brain cells, we moved on.

The super expensive hotel refused to book a room for us, but gave us directions to a small place around the corner. We checked in, carrying bikes and panniers up a few floors, happy to be done for the day.

I was still not feeling 100% and not interested in eating. Chandler went to find dinner by himself while I watched Superman 2 on TV. In an attempt to avoid eating mystery meat (read: dog) at a small restaurant he was able to communicate that he wanted chicken, by flapping his arms like a chicken. He ended up with stir fried chicken feet, which he reported was as gross as it sounded. He ate the vegetables around the chicken feet and filled up on rice. New country, new food!

Couple of days in Oudomxay

March 20 – 21, 2013

We ended up spending a couple of days in Oudomxay while Jenny recovered from a fever. Our guesthouse was comfortable and had good wifi, so it wasn’t a bad place to regroup. I spent most of my time exploring town while Jenny lay in bed waiting for ibuprofen to kick in. There were a couple of restaurants with English menus in town but there wasn’t much else geared towards tourists, which was OK with me.

There were two major markets that I came across. I spent a while searching through the Chinese market fruitlessly looking for a pressure gauge for our tires. One of the more maddening things about searching for something in a market like this is that there are about 30 different shops selling the exact same stuff with some very minor variations. This required me to describe a pressure gauge with my hands over and over again resulting in a full range of responses from complete bewilderment, mild hostility, to earnest helpfulness, though the closest thing I was offered was a low pressure gauge for a paint sprayer. The other market was a pretty large produce and meat affair, including at least one dog on offer. I was able to find bananas, sticky rice and some bread to provide Jenny with some nourishment.

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Veggie market

The highlight of my wandering was finding a small cycle touring operation, Samlaan Cycling. There was a friendly guy there who dug up a spare Schwalbe tire that was much better than the spare tire we are carrying. He let me borrow their big floor pump which made it easier to swap Jenny’s front tire to the rear and put the new tire on her front wheel. I rode back over with the pump in the afternoon and when he saw my bike he said he had seen us way back down by Phoukoun a week earlier while he and his boss were scouting out touring routes. Pretty random! We had a good chat then I rode off to find an “herbal sauna” I saw on the local tourist map.

At the top of a short but very steep hill I found the sauna/massage spot run by the Red Cross. For a couple bucks I had the sauna all to myself. It was more of a steam room, with a boiler of sorts perched above a fire fed by long logs. The boiler had two pipes running to the separate male and female steam rooms. At first the wall of steam was overwhelming, but I was able to relax and take in the steam which was infused with local herbs. Quickly I was soaked in condensation from the steam, so I stepped out onto the porch which overlooked a small river. A man came in with a gigantic metal kettle of scalding hot herbal tea. The light breeze quickly dried me off and was a little chilling, so the hot tea was nice. I had a couple more rounds of sauna, then headed back to see how Jenny was doing.

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Sauna fire

The next morning I climbed a flight of stone stairs behind our guesthouse which led to a small plaza where a number of university students were studying. At the end of the plaza was a large building that served as a local museum. I walked in and was greeted by a young man who knew a bit of English. He turned the lights on for the exhibit hall upstairs, as I was the only guest, and walked around with me briefly describing things. The exhibits seemed a little bit random, but were interesting regardless. The first few items were a collection of pottery, drums and other ancient artifacts from the nearby Beng District. Next, there was a display of several dozen firearms from the period of armed conflict in the middle of the last century. There were also a few handmade rifles used by villagers for hunting small game. The rest of that side of the museum was an assortment of artifacts from the period of time that Oudomxay was a Chinese military base, including some typewriters (which were curiously QWERTY) a large projector from the cinema, and a collection of a Lao alphabet lead printing type for a letter press printer. Tucked in another corner was a collection of villager tools, clothing and ceremonial items, including mousetraps, wooden platform shoes used for walking on muddy fields and vertical banners attached to poles used to celebrate the birth of a child and to promote good luck. Nearby were a couple of bizarre homemade contraptions that turned out to be machines used to crush poppies for the production of opium. I left the museum and wandered around the eastern part of town where a new large concrete stadium was under construction.

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Bamboo sandals

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Close up of child's birth announcement banner

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Opium machine

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Letterpress type

When I got back to the guesthouse, Jenny was feeling a little better and decided to go back with me to the sauna in the evening. We both indulged in a Lao massage first, which was only a few dollars, then had a bunch of rounds of sauna. The place got really busy by the end, and a little weird. There was one Lao girl who kept pouring milk all over her skin, so the whole place ended up smelling a bit like rotten milk, then a crew of backpackers rolled in. One of them didn’t bother to observe his surroundings, dropped trou and started walking around stark naked in front of the locals, including women and young girls. This resulted in a pretty awkward moment, as the local people were clearly embarrassed and a little offended. We chose this exact moment to make our exit- hopefully avoiding any perceived association with this band of idiots. We were both feeling pretty good and went back to the guesthouse to put together a plan for leaving Laos.

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Sweaty Chandler

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Sauna makes everything better

Way to plant Jenny

March 19, 2013

Distance: 44.7 miles        Climbing: 2890.4 ft           Descending: 2385.2 ft

I was feeling slightly better when the morning came. Chandler let me stay in bed as long as possible before convincing me it would be better to be sick and rest in Oudomxay than in this weird sooty town with the squat toilet and no running water we were currently in. Eventually, I got up, dressed and waited downstairs as he carried all the panniers and loaded both bikes.

We biked out of town before stopping so Chan could make us breakfast and I could have some time being sick in the bushes. After eating a little for me and a lot for Chandler, we headed off slowly. Chan quickly got ahead of me, but stopped several time so I could catch up and take a break. I had zero energy for biking and just wanted to lie down on the pavement to snooze. We didn’t have far to go with a small 300m pass and a big downhill into town, but it could have been 1000 miles for all I cared.

This little piggy went to school

Small hills today

At one point, I was lagging far behind and when I caught up to Chan, I noticed he was eating ice cream. I asked him if he got me one and he looked surprised and asked me why I didn’t I get one from the ice cream motorcycle guy who had just passed me. I couldn’t handle it anymore and burst out in tears that I didn’t have any money and felt really bad. Chandler immediately apologized and pulled out the second ice cream he had bought for me. I didn’t have much of a sense of humor at this point.

Even fake ice cream can cheer you up, sort of.

The “ice cream” (actually frozen taro flavored water in a soggy paper cone) perked me up a little and we were able to climb the pass pretty quickly. The trees shading the road and slight breeze also helped. Soon enough we were at the top and sailing down the other side.

Lots of banana plantations in these parts

Larry the bird

About 10km outside of town, there were a number of short, steep hills. Chandler cruised right up them, but I had no energy left and walked me bike up most of them. We crested the final hill of the day and started descending through small villages. Eventually, I was peddling through the dingy outskirts of Oudomxay and still had not caught up to Chandler yet. Since there was only one road he could be on, I assumed he was waiting for me at the first hotel he came upon. When I passed two hotels next to each other and came to an intersection, I knew we had become separated.

I did what I was taught to do as a child, and sat down on the curb and waited. (Way to plant Jenny). I knew Chandler was probably looking for me and it would be best if I just stayed in the same spot instead of biking back to where I had last seen him. I did decide that if he didn’t find me by 5, I would find some internet and email him my location. Luckily, he rode up to me, completely out of breath, 20 minutes later. He had stopped at a store in one of the villages on the descent to buy me a sprite, and while his back was turned paying for the sprite must have continued past him without seeing him or his bike. When I didn’t show up, he biked all the way back up to the top of the last big hill where he last saw me and started keeping an eye on the ditch by the road in case I had crashed or gotten sick again. When the ditch turned to gravel parking areas of town, he booked it into town.

Somewhere around this point I realized that my rear tire had a bulge in it. On closer inspection we realized the sidewall had split after the outer sheathing tore next to the rim. Not good. Looks like Chan had a project for tomorrow…

Jenny’s tire bites the dust.

As we biked together looking for a hotel with internet, we were happy to discover we had come up with similar plans about finding internet and emailing the other if we were separated for a while. We found a nice guesthouse near the center of town and once again, Chandler took care of everything while I lay in bed. I immediately went to sleep for the evening while Chandler went out in search of food and ibuprofen.