Getting ready to leave China

April 12 – 16, 2013

We spent our first day in the old city of Dali wandering around, looking at all the tourist shops. It is a community of artists. There are people carving, making jewelry and pottery around every corner. It was amazing to see that the stores didn’t all sell the exact same thing as we found all over Southeast Asia. We found a Buddhist center that served an incredible vegetarian buffet every lunch and dinner for ¥5, less than $1, per person. We took our meals on low benches along a narrow cobblestone alley, accompanied by a droning Buddhist chant while looking up at the tall mountain range that hemmed in Dali to the west. We ended up eating all meals but breakfast there.

Making a braclet

Making a bracelet

Buddhist vegetarian food

Buddhist vegetarian food

Chan and friend

Chan and friend

The remainder of our time was spent cleaning, disassembling and packing the bikes and panniers. It took us a while to find cardboard boxes to fit our purposes. We went around and asked stores selling refrigerators and other large appliances, before we found a bike shop willing to sell us some boxes. Our Surly bicycles have couplers that allow the frame to break down into two parts, so we can pack them into airline approved sized boxes. Traveling with bikes or oversize bags can be expensive, so we had to spend time constructing the boxes to fit the airline dimensions.

All in all, it took us three days to get everything done. We could have gotten the work down quicker but we enjoyed sleeping in and taking breaks to wander around town. We spent one afternoon in a puzzle shop attempting to figure out how to put all the pieces back together.

The pieces just won't fit

The pieces just won’t fit

Wuhua Tower

Wuhua Tower

The day of our flight, we work up early to put away the last of our things and tape up the boxes. We walked through most of town before finding a restaurant that was open. We then took a cab to the airport a few hours early in case there was a problem with the boxes we needed time to work out. When it was finally time to check in, the attendant didn’t even bother to measure the boxes to make sure they fit the specifications.

We had a short but very turbulent flight to Guangzhou where we had to recheck in the boxes to fly out of the country. This was actually a massively stressful moment, as Chan had estimated, based on China Southern’s absolutely ludicrous excess baggage tariff schedule, they could have charged us as much as $3,000 to send our bikes, as we were only technically allowed one bag each for flights between China and the South Asian Subcontinent. The check-in agent was confused about our ticket since it originated in Los Angeles over four months ago and she actually asked Chan how many bags we were allowed to take for free. Chan immediately said “two each”, she accepted his answer and we walked away without paying a dime. Finally, it was time for our flight to Delhi!

The last ride in Asia

April 11, 2013

Distance: 44.7 miles        Climbing: 3139.8 ft

It was raining when we woke up. We thought it really funny that the only day it really rains is our very last day of biking in Asia. We put on raincoats and covered our bike seats with plastic bags before heading out for some coffee, real coffee, not Nescafe. We found a trendy looking café and pointed to the only item on the menu in English, “espresso”. That was perfect with us as we both enjoy our coffee black. What was delivered with not even close to espresso. We were handed two 20oz cups filled with warm milk and maybe a dash of coffee to give it some color. Chandler and I were flabbergasted. Don’t know how that happened.

Chandler finished his milk drink and I donated mine to the trashcan, we headed out of town. Chan was heard to be saying “milk was a bad choice.” The road was empty for several miles. We passed through farm lands growing wheat and eventually found ourselves climbing again. Right as the hill was starting, we saw a huge puff of dust and then the traffic started piling up ahead of us. As we rolled up we saw a huge truck filled with rocks that had flipped over on our side of the road. The trail of fluid leading up the road implied that the brakes had gone out and the driver drove himself off the road and luckily hit a big pile of soft gravel on the shoulder which slowed things down pretty quick. The driver was already out of cab wandering around, and a nearby excavator was already on the way over to clear it off the road, just another day on the road in China. Thank goodness we weren’t in there a few minutes earlier.

Wheat and mosoleums

Wheat and mausoleums

Oops

Oops

The road climbed and climbed up through trees and little towns. We were on a route filled with people learning to drive. We have seen scores of these little cars, usually VW Santanas with exclamation point decals on the back packed with 5 or 6 students and a grumpy looking old man. Every so often, the car would pull over and a teenager would hop out of the driver’s seat to trade places with another teenager, who then drove off, honking the whole time. Chandler got a huge kick out of telling me that it was referred to as a “regular fire drill” here. The hill kept going up forever when we finally noticed wind turbines dotting the summit and knew we were done. We had one last downhill all the way into town.

Turbines at the top of the hill

Turbines at the top of the hill

We rolled into town and went to the first place any American would go: the Walmart! We considered camping out, but weren’t sure if the Chinese knew about Walmart’s parking lot camping policy. We got a quick snack and headed back out of town. We had not realized that old Dali City is 10km outside of new Dali City, but we thrilled that were was actually a bike path the entire way.

The Walmart in China

The Walmart in China

Old Dali City turned out to be a dream. It was SUPER touristy, and pretty much as stereotypical as it could get, but for some reason we loved it. The main city was surrounded by stone walls studded with towers with ornate ancient looking roofs. We found the MCA guesthouse close to the center of town but off the main road, so it was quiet and very peaceful. They had a huge storage area for the bikes and Chandler was able to haggle the price down to fit our budget. Then we found a restaurant which served pizza, burgers and homebrewed beer. We celebrated our last day of riding with shots of belly warming scotch and completely blowing the budget on dinner.

Waiting for our victory feast

Waiting for our victory feast

 

Going to Weishan

April 10, 2013

Distance: 26.7 miles        Climbing: 1781.5 ft

We started the morning with a lovely ride along some old local roads heading out of town. We were able to spend a few miles pedaling through farms and a residential area before merging up with the old highway. Since the main highway went north through a different valley, this old route wasn’t too bad with smooth pavement and little traffic. We were in a valley following a river, which meant we were struggling against a monster headwind. It didn’t really seem to bother us. We had an overcast sky which meant cool riding and were both in wonderful moods.

Heading out of town

Heading out of town

Farmed river valley

Farmed river valley

We didn’t have too far to travel to get to Weishan, an ancient city situated in a long valley which managed to be left unscathed by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. We were looking forward to reaching a more touristy town, dreaming about cheese, real coffee etc, but took our time on the road. We stopped to buy some strawberries and tomatoes on the side of the road. The wind was really blowing and swept the hat off the woman selling the fruit. Luckily, it landed right in my arms, which she appreciated. I noticed we paid the same rate for our strawberries as the Chinese trucker who had also stopped to make a purchase.

Strawberry lady

Strawberry lady

As we approached town, Chandler and I became more and more excited. We passed buildings with old styled roofs, the kind I had envisioned all buildings in China to have, and murals. It appeared that we were finally going to a town with some culture!

Mural

Mural

The center of town was easy to locate because it is built up around the Gongchang Tower. Shooting off from the tower were cobblestone roads lined with tourist shops and antique sellers. We hurried to find a hotel before setting off to explore the town. We walked up and down every street in the old town admiring the architecture before deciding it was time for dinner. Weishan is mostly visited by Chinese tourists, so there were no restaurants catering to Westerners, meaning no vegetarian food. Chandler was excited though. He found a place serving steamed dumplings with a delicious spicy dipping sauce. We also stopped in a bakery across from our hotel for desert, which as usual, turned out to be a disappointing exercise. Our “butter bread” baguette looking things turned out to be covered in a cloyingly sweet salty mess. Chan managed to power through them, waste not, want not… right?

Street view

Street view

Gongchang Tower

Gongchang Tower

We went to bed excited for the next day, our final bike ride in China from here to Dali City.

The neverending climb

April 8 – 9, 2013

Distance:  50.4 miles           Climbing: 5344.5 ft

We woke up feeling great after a wonderful night’s sleep and had another dry meal. Good thing we carry lots of dry goods and quick snacks with us, otherwise it would have been a rough morning. When Chandler returned the key to our room to the owner of the store, he tried to slip in ¥20, but our friend refused to accept our money. We figured we would buy a few extra bottles of water from them as it didn’t seem like they got much business.

packing up

Packing up

We said good bye and immediately started climbing again. The weather was cool as we made our way up the mountain. We passed by a number of abandoned roadhouses, no longer needed after the construction of the new highway. I got a bit discouraged when we would approach what appeared to be the top, only to find the road snaking further up the mountain. I swear we were climbing forever. While it was tiring, we were traveling through some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip so far.

Big hills

Big hills

Kung fu master or tea farmer?

Kung fu master or tea farmer?

We had a victory feast of triangle cheese, crackers, dry ramen and bananas with chocolate and peanut butter when we reached the top. We had just completed our biggest pass to date and were ready for a relaxing downhill. Downhill we went, but it was anything but relaxing. The road was in awful condition, covered in potholes, cracks and poorly repaired potholes. It was more comfortable to stand up than sit down through the jarring ride. I was just as tired when we finally reached smooth pavement after standing up for 20km as I was when we finally finished the climb.

We then pedaled through a valley where the traffic and wind picked up and our moods started going downhill. The lack of consistent meals has made China a challenge for us to maintain positive attitudes. We stop for snacks, but that can only go so far before we find ourselves in the same predicament again.

We had one more much smaller pass to complete before reaching town. The road rolled up and down several times, confusing us as to where the actual top was. We stopped for an Oreo snack, thinking we were finally done climbing for the day, but ended climbing up two more small hills. Finally, we reached an area overlooking a huge valley with a city nestled against the mountains.

We pedaled through town until we found what looked like a new hotel. Chandler went inside to check out the room and prices, while I was entertained by the locals. Several children got up the courage to chat with me and eventually showing me their English school books. We finished the night with the usual plain ramen noodles for me and street food for Chandler.

Chan's double dinner

Chan’s double dinner

The next morning we listened to a baseball game and were treated with the Red Sox beating the Orioles. After that, it was time to fix the stove. We figured that if we could just find a bit of leather, Chandler could make a new gasket, replacing the flimsy silicone one that came with the stove and was now in pieces. We ended up walking all through town, passing the commercial area into the industrial area with people welding outside and huge semi truck mechanic shops. It was only when we had given up and were returning to the hotel that Chandler spied a cobbler mending shoes on the street. He looked through the old lady’s pile of cut up old shoe scraps and selected two different thickness of leather. Back at the hotel, he made a copy of the broken gasket and our stove was working again within minutes.

Industrial area

Industrial area

After our luck with the stove, he decided to tackle another problem. His front wheel had been making some noise so Chan took apart the front hub and found some grit had made it through the seals and trashed to bearings inside. Armed with the words “ball bearings” written in Chinese thanks to Google, he made the rounds through the industrial area stopping at all the motorcycle repair shacks. Motorcycle bearings don’t use ball bearings, so he struck out there. Finally, he found a few bicycle shops but the owners were absolutely clueless about ball bearings despite Chandler’s intricately drawn section views of a bicycle hub. All the bikes in the shops were absolute crap and the owners didn’t seem to know anything about them except maybe how to bolt the wheels on. Frustrated, he was finally able to find of all places at a fishing rod store (fishing reels use ball bearings) that also appeared to repair bikes. He was able to get a handful of used ball bearings a size too big, but they were better than the shattered ones rattling around in his hub and would hopefully limp his bike to Dali without causing too much harm.

Not looking good

Not looking good

Sleeping at the gas station

April 7, 2013

Distance:  47.4 miles           Climbing:  2795.3 ft

The morning started on a rough note. Chandler noticed the gas canister for our stove was leaking, when he investigated the problem, he discovered the pressure gasket was torn. Looks like no eggs for breakfast. We had a little disagreement about moving on or staying another night while we fix the problem. In the end Chan didn’t think we could find a replacement part locally so we decided to leave town.

We then had to make a choice between taking the old road to Dali or the new road. While the new road looked appealing with its fresh pavement, we weren’t interested in the traffic that would surely accompany it. The old road was a few miles longer, it promised only one pass to climb instead of two. We decided on the way out of town because it was easier to find the old road than the new one. Our moods weren’t the best as we peddled through the usual gas-smelling outskirts. The pavement was broken up, there was a very small shoulder and lots of traffic.

I was beginning to wonder why we had bothered with the old road, our pace picked up and the traffic thinned out. We cycled along a valley bottom, next to a muddy river for a few miles before we hit a construction site. As we waited in line with a number of cars, an excavator loaded a dump truck up with dirt and rock from the side of the road, sending giant clouds of dust in our direction. Now, I was sure we had made a mistake by not taking the new road.

A little construction

A little construction

When we finally made it past the construction site, the riding conditions improved greatly. After a little while the muddy river joined up with a deep green river. Once again we were riding along the Mekong, this time on the western bank. There were trees lining the road to give us shade the terrain was flat and we were making good time.

Mekong River

Mekong River

After crossing the bridge, the road began to climb. We spotted a large dam on the river, which was the first one built on the Mekong by the Chinese in the 1980s. We started looking for a place to camp, but the terrain was really steep on either side of the road. After the first mile of not finding anywhere that looked suitable for camping, Chandler made a suggestion. He saw a road coming up that led to the reservoir behind the dam. Chandler thought that might be a nice relaxing spot to spend the night. I wasn’t as interested though. The side road climbed up a ridge for a mile or so and if we were going to climb up a mile, I wanted to continue looking on the main road. We got into a big fight, which ended with mutual silent treatments and us continuing up the road.

Big dam

Big dam

We didn’t bother talking to each other for the next two hours as we just climbed up and up and up. We passed through several small villages and farms, but there was nowhere to camp. I was becoming a little desperate when I noticed a family sitting outside their store all waving and smiling at us. Next to their store was an abandoned gas station used to keep a pile of wood dry. I hollered for Chandler to stop and said we should ask if we could camp next to the wood pile.

We turned our bikes around, bought a bottle of water and somehow managed to communicate with hand gestures that we wanted to camp. The man running the store agreed once he understood that we had a tent. We then decided we should have a beer to relax. The family immediately invited us to sit with them and pulled up some stools for us. They offered us tea and Chandler and cigarette. Chandler does not smoke cigarettes and said no, but the man offered again. Chandler said no again but they man became more adamant and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Chan took it to maintain the peace, thinking he could just hold onto it when the man whipped out his lighter and lit it up for Chandler. The situation was so ridiculous that we just laughed and Chandler smoked it like a cigar, not inhaling the smoke.

Finally relaxing

Finally relaxing

Goofing off

Goofing off

We had a pleasant time attempting to chat with the adults and teasing the little boy that was running around. After watching the sun set and finishing our beers, we said good night. The owner then gestured for Chandler to follow him to an unused building next to the gas station. He unlocked one of the rooms and offered it to us for the night. He sweep it clean of bugs and dirt and helped us carry our bikes up the stair to stow them safely inside.

We could not believe our luck. The bikes and tent fit in the room perfectly. We were in such good moods that we weren’t bothered by the stove being broken. We had a dinner of dry ramen, tuna and crackers and Oreos for dessert. Then we watched with a movie on laptop and fell asleep.

Cool Pie Zorro

April 6, 2013

Distance: 51.7 miles            Climbing: 2782.2 ft

As we set out, Chan tried to adjust his seatpost and snapped the cobbled seat clamp that had been installed back in Vietnam. That will teach him to not mess with his bike. When we pulled up to the shop, Chandler explained the situation to a young girl with a series of gestures. Together, they found a quick-release thing on another bike that would fix the problem. She then tried to get everything to fit back together, not realizing that a shim was needed, brushing Chan off as he tried to put it in. This has happened to us a number of times. Someone “helps” us, but clearly has no idea what they are doing. Eventually, Chandler was able to wrestle the part away from her and get things sorted out.

We had one more delicious Mexican meal before hitting the road. We were delighted to find a bike lane heading out of town. However, a bunch of people had decided to park their cars in the middle of it, so we ended up just riding in the road anyways. We had a pleasant time riding side by side, chatting as we passed through another construction ghost town. We had a change in routine today as we went down a big hill before starting uphill.

More Sim City

More Sim City

Bike path

Bike path

As we hit the edge of town and we found ourselves fighting for room on the road with the Saturday traffic. The road had a very small shoulder with raised lane reflectors positioned exactly where we wanted to cycle. Chandler decided to use this moment to do a little video interview. As he scanned the road with cars honking and passing too closely, I must have used every foul word I knew and I have quite the vocabulary. People drive very recklessly in China. The new wide, smooth roads encourage speed, the inexperienced drivers buzz around with a crazed selfish impatience, wildly taking over other vehicles on blind curves going uphill, passing three abreast, etc. We’ve seen some wild driving in the rest of southeast Asia, but usually congestion and crappy roads tend to moderate the insanity. It seems like there is an army of testosterone fueled 17 year old drivers set loose on the brand new expressways of China.

Sugarcane truck

Sugarcane truck

Preparing to go through a tunnel

Preparing to go through a tunnel

When we started climbing the hill, our focus shifted from frustration to concentration. We passed through a short tunnel which was lit, making it less scary. At the top of the hill, we were welcomed with a huge carved mural depicting what we assumed was the construction of the Burma road. I was especially happy to see the Chinese honoring the land surveyors!

Mural

Mural

Surveyor

Surveyor

After stopping for a few pictures, we were flying down the other side into a large city. The city appeared to be brand new like most that we have biked through, but this one sported an old bridge. We didn’t have any info on this town so we biked around blindly looking for a hotel. While going up a road that took us to a residential area, I noticed a man on a motorbike take an interest in us. After turning around near some apartment buildings and searching down another road, the same man appeared again. We were becoming a little weary of him and certain he was following us, when the third time we saw him, he made an eating motion. We shook our heads no and returned with a sleeping motion. He then pointed us in the direction of a hotel and rode away, never to be seen again. Well, not by us anyways.

Maybe something was lost in translation

Maybe something was lost in translation

The hotel turned out to be affordable and nice. We had an enclosed shower, which is a rarity in Asia. Usually the whole bathroom is the shower, so it was nice to not have to make sure the TP was high and dry. There was also a basket of “Sensual senior underpants” for sale next to the TV. We decided to leave those alone and finish the night with ramen noodles and a Kung Fu movie. Hai-yah!

Mexico in Yunnan

April 4 – 5, 2013

Distance: 50.5 miles     Climbing: 4553.8 ft

I feel like a broken record lately, because the highlight of the day was climbing a huge hill, like every other day we’ve been riding in China. Yunnan is a tangle of intersecting ridge lines, so all the roads climb and dive, or just blast through the mountains with long scary tunnels.

Mountain of tea

Mountain of tea

The pavement was really good as usual and there wasn’t much traffic, so we had no complaints as we worked away at yet another long continuous climb. After a while we got to an area where the road was being totally realigned, so our GPS was way off. This was mildly frustrating because we didn’t know how much further we had to go. We had read someone else’s travel journal of this route and were expecting a teahouse at the top for a snack, but the road made a massive detour more than ten miles in the opposite direction of the old road. We were getting a little worried that we somehow ended up on the wrong road and headed who knows where. The road stopped climbing for a while as we went up and down little bumps while traversing below the ridge instead. We were quite hungry and annoyed that the road kept flirting with the summit of the pass to only have us descend again. The wind was picking up and we felt drops of rain hit us. We took out of raincoats and resolved to just power through the last section to get to the summit.

Two minutes later we rounded a bend into a deep road cut, the skies cleared and we saw a sign indicating that drivers should go slowly down the pass. We immediately pulled over for an Oreo victory snack. We kept our jackets on for the chilly descent and bombed down the hill. We were pleasantly surprised to find the new route was linking us back up with the old road and cut out several miles between us and the next city, Lincang.

Finally at the top

Finally at the top

We managed to get on the old highway for a while which was nice, cruising on a two lane road along a gentle stream tamed by a series of small dams with crops grown on the banks. Soon enough we were dumped back onto the major highway and descended the rest of the way to the city in the midst of the usual traffic chaos.

Beautiful views on the way into town

Beautiful views on the way into town

Lincang was like most of the major cities we have encountered in China. Not unpleasant, but not exciting either. There were lots of shops selling industrial things like pumps and tractor engines, hardware stores and the usual slew of western fashion stores. We ended up in the first hotel we stopped at, which had a nice lobby but very cold communist feeling room, narrow with white walls, spare furniture, huge ceilings and tall wrought metal window frames.

Chan went out for his daily noodle soup dinner and reported the town was creepy at night. Lots of people out, but no street lights in our neighborhood, a lit street in a busy city is one of those things that we take for granted. Milling around with lots of strangers in the dark is unsettling. He found a street stall lit by bare CFLs and had a ten minute pseudo conversation with a middle aged man that primarily consisted of different organizations of the words “nice”, “America”, “noodle soup” and “good”. The guy was friendly though and insisted on paying for Chan’s dinner.

Mexican Food!!!!!!!!!

Mexican Food!!!!!!!!!

For the past couple of days, we had been fantasizing about the food we would be eating in India and Europe. Chandler has been living on noodle soup and I have been eating mostly oatmeal and plain ramen. Mostly, our talk has been about Mexican food, especially the stuff we ate in the American southwest on our road-trip last fall. Chandler did a shot in the dark web search found a restaurant in town that actually served just that. Salvador’s is apparently a popular spot in Kunming which has a large ex-pat population, and for some reason they decided to open a branch in this town which seemed sort of odd as it doesn’t seem to be on the map for westerns (the whole city isn’t even mentioned in the Lonely Planet). The food was incredible though. Huge burritos with lots of cheese! We saw the first Caucasian person in the past week or so here, a girl from Chicago who is an English teacher in a rural village visiting Lincang while she had a few days off for the Tomb Sweeping Day holiday.