Off the Beaten Path in Yunnan China

China loomed large.  It is a gigantic country, and being on bicycles meant we could only see a little bit of it.  We cycled across the border from Vietnam to Hekou City and very quickly realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Absolutely nothing was written in English (or our western alphabet) and few people speak any here!  So we tore the translation pages out of a Lonely Planet guide, chanced upon Ian, who was cycling from England to Vietnam (through all the ‘stans).  He gave us his cheat sheet with Chinese phrases written out, and off we went.  We were able to cycle on a beautiful, quiet river road for a few days, but as we rounded a corner on day 3, the massive road construction began.  And the mountains!  They are building highways and leaving the secondary roads in a messy situation.  We slogged through gravel, mud, and deep pot holes for many miles until it just wasn’t possible anymore, so we hitched a ride in a mini-mini van without shocks and put our feet up for an hour or two.

We cycled through the stunning Yuanyang rice terraces, heading southwest in the mountains for many quiet days.  We slept in some remote, dusty villages, pointing to the food we wanted to eat and trying to play charades as much as we could when we needed something (that never went too well).  Chinese is a tonal language, and not being able to read any signs phonetically made life interesting and at times frustrating.  We really wished we had studied some Chinese before coming!  When we stopped to ask directions, many times they would send us not quite the right way (maybe they were “saving face” since they really didn’t know?)  It was clear that many people had never seen a map of the area before, so if we showed them ours they would open it up all of the way and want to study it.

One morning in a foggy valley we happened upon two cyclists coming our way.  We came together like magnets – they were from Spain, and we shared routes and ideas with them for almost an hour.  As with us, they hadn’t spoken English to anyone for a week.  They were the first Westerners we had even SEEN since Ian at the border!

Internet has been spotty in China, and our blog is blocked, so we were unable to do an update sooner. Facebook is blocked, but luckily Google is still available.  We also heard that a Chinese dissident won the Nobel Peace Prize, but that information was gained through the grapevine, as it was blocked here.

This corner of Yunnan Province in China is very beautiful, and we felt privileged to be able to see it so intimately on bicycles.  There is extreme poverty though, and we had many unanswered questions about the culture, economic situation, and lifestyle.  There were big dogs which lunged at us from chains, and some which chased us – good for an adrenaline rush!  Some cyclists claim that if you stop, get off your bike and keep it between you and the dog, the dog will back down.  Dan tried that and it worked, but I am not so sure I want to give it a go.  I have had success squirting water at them, and Ian recommended keeping some rocks in our front bags – will try that one in Thailand!

We slowly made our way down through Jiangcheng and Simao, then headed south for 120 miles through the lovely tea plantations to Jinghong.  Our last day of riding brought us 10 miles uphill over the last pass for us in China, then 20 miles downhill to the town, except that road wasn’t paved and we had such a hard time braking on the loose gravel as we very slowly lost all of our altitude after 2 weeks of cycling!

We have now spent a week in Jinghong, a lovely city on the Mekong River.  There are wide, palm tree lined streets, slow moving traffic, plenty of outdoor cafes to linger in, and fantastic food to enjoy.  In another day we will head to northern Thailand for a few weeks before cycling south through Laos for a month.   China has grown on us!  At times as we cycled up the mountains we wished we were on a comfy tour bus with an English speaking guide, but overcoming the challenges of cycling alone was all worth it.  Though we have only seen a tiny corner of this amazing country, we feel we have experienced rural China as few visitors do.

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8 Responses to Off the Beaten Path in Yunnan China

  1. ANgie says:

    Wow, great writing and I think you are right- you are experiencing a China that few have. The photos are fantastic as well. Can’t wait to hear about Thailand!

    I don’t think I mentioned it before but we actually are going to Germany to visit Winfield on Dec. 25. We’ll be back Dec. 31. We have a house sitter/dog sitter- but we won’t be checking email or phone during that time.

    I hope you have happy, fun and interesting holidays in Thailand. Some of my very best ones have been in odd places- and I wish that for you, too.

    Love, Angie

  2. Stacy Kutter says:

    Judy and Dan! I have been thinking of you both and glad to hear you are ok and having a great time!! It looks so amazing there. I think you are very brave! Judy, you look fabulous! We have only a little snow here, but more on the way. It is a white Christmas in Vermont this year! Thanks for the post and all of the pics!
    love, Stacy

  3. Nancy says:

    Hi Dan & Judy – your trip continues to impress – the beauty of the countryside and the people (and food) but just as much, your sense of adventure, willingness to be out of your comfort zone, passion for off the beaten track travel. Happy Holidays and can’t wait to see the slide show in the Spring.

  4. Ruth Licht says:

    I felt myself just breathing deeply for you in the mountains. Looking forward to the coffee table book just in time for Christmas giving next year!

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  5. Marc says:

    Wow! What a great adventure…but it’s Christmas and we miss you guys. It’s not the same without you here in our quiet and snow covered corner of the world. Does Santa make it to China?

  6. Ellen Berner says:

    Hi Judy and Dan! Thanks for the “kick in the pants” to get on your blog to see what you two have been up to in the last month+! Amazing. And I can definitely empathize with your struggles and your high points. Amazing photography. I’ll write more in a private email. From Minnesota and 24+ inches of snow…Ellen

  7. Eileen says:

    Hi Judy and Dan,
    We are in Bethel Vt. and heading to Danville Vt. later today. Thinking about you as we are in your neck of the woods. Missing you both.
    Your images and descriptions are amazing. Sign me up for the junket boat trip. That looks like my speed, nice and slow. The house boat village too, so cool, do they rent?
    Hang in there on those hills. Enjoy each moment of your journey.
    Big hugs, kisses and foot massages to you both.

  8. Beth says:

    Beautiful photos – Jinhong looks like a great resting point. the scenery is fantastic – so glad you are having such a good adventure. Look forward to future posts. beth from the sappa supper club.

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