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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Posted in China | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Hallo Hallo!! Gooodbye Gooodbye!!

We are serenaded by the children running toward us as we pedal through the countryside “hallo hallo!! Gooodbye gooodbye!!” They break into a fit of giggles as we greet them and cruise on past, our hearts warm with the welcome we receive.  The women smile at us as they sit by the side of the road selling root vegetables and greens from their gardens; the men are busy cruising by on motos.  Our first week of cycling was a tough one in many ways, mostly because of the trucks and buses passing us the first few days on the busy roads, blowing their diesel exhaust and incredibly loud horns on the mountain roads.  We had some pretty intense climbs, and some of the accommodations were a bit seedy (were we an hourly rental or did we plan to sleep?  Sleep, thank you).  We were happy to get off the beaten path, but at times we felt a little too far off!  Our map was outdated as some of the towns had been relocated and renamed because of dams that had been built, and for 6 days we did not find anyone who spoke any English!  We used our pantomime skills and a phrase book (thanks Molly) and generally got what we needed, but we had plenty of unanswered questions.  We did a homestay with a White Thai Vietnamese family one night, which was a highlight for us.  We were welcomed into their home and given pads on bamboo mats to sleep on.  Experiencing the peaceful village life was a delight – the serenity was much needed.  We met a group of Vietnamese men who had cycled all the way from Saigon, and the oldest one was 90!  They were very interested in us and our bikes, and we were completely inspired by them.  We had a long way to go to get to the French hill town of Sapa, but we made it and are now in a cozy room with a fireplace (and supposedly a view, but we are socked in with fog up at 5000 ft).  The food choices here are great.  We had been craving some western food and now we are content.  Our Vietnamese visas run out at the end of the month, so in a few days we will get back on our bikes and cycle 20 miles downhill to the border and enter China.

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Posted in Vietnam | 14 Comments

A Different Sense of Space

We have been poked, pushed, prodded and patted, and our bikes have been used as a coat and purse hanger.  Touching is how the Vietnamese express themselves, and when they are excited (to see we are biking, to get on a bus, etc) using their bodies is completely appropriate.  We took the overnight bus from Hue up to Ninh Binh (contemplated cycling on Highway 1, but it was just too busy with trucks, buses, motos all honking constantly). Dan helped them load the bikes underneath, while I procured two “beds”.  The beds were narrow, with a pod thing for your legs to slip down into and a railing on the side – made for the Vietnamese (i.e. smallish).  A little claustrophobic at first, but we had to climb up and in even though it was 6pm.  There were 2 aisles on the bus, and upper and lower beds – so 3 across all the way back.  The lights went out and there we were, tossing and turning trying to get comfortable for 12 hours as we honked and swerved our way north toward Hanoi.  We got off in the town of Ninh Binh, by the side of the road just as it was getting light out.  We loaded up the bikes with our panniers and rode to a hotel where we found a most delightful man who gave us great directions for a serene ride through the countryside for the day.  Little lanes, riding past pagodas and traditional houses, and up on the berms through the rice paddies.   Just what we needed.  But since we also wanted to see Halong Bay before heading to NW Vietnam, we got on another (very) local bus the next morning for 5 hours of more honking and swerving as the driver played chicken with the other buses and trucks.  At the rest stop along the way there was one big trough for the women to pee in  : )    Bought some pringles and noticed they had already been opened.  When I showed the girl who sold them she said  “that ok, only few missing” (saving face).  Halong Bay is best seen on a junk (traditional boat) and that’s just what we did.  It was a lovely wooden boat with 8 tidy bedrooms and quite an international group on board (Laos, Ireland, Denmark, China, Korea, Germany, Malaysia and Holland), all interesting people and fun to talk to.  Next up: Hanoi!

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Posted in Vietnam | 7 Comments

Moving on from Saigon

“Saving face” is an interesting part of the culture in Vietnam, and we are convinced that is the only way the traffic works here.  The roads in Saigon are congested with motos and cars, all merging and flowing along seemingly smoothly without traffic signs or lights to guide them.  A few honks, but everyone seems stoic and composed. Crossing the street on foot is another matter. We could be safe and stay on the block where we slept, or venture out and see the city.  Just make a move to cross – don’t stop, don’t slow down, and best not to panic with the oncoming traffic flowing around you. Just go at an even pace with a little faith and you will reach the other curb safely.  After a few times, it becomes second hand and you don’t think twice about it, but those first few times were fairly stressful.  After a few days in Saigon (and with the bikes still in the boxes) we took an overnight train to Nha Trang – a busy city on the South China Sea, where we are putting the bikes together this morning.  Our train tickets said we were prohibited from bringing fish sauce, dried fish or durian (a revered fruit) along as they are too smelly, so we left all that in Saigon.  It is actually the monsoon season here in central Vietnam, and they just experienced 4 days of the worst flooding in 50 years.  Mud slides, houses swept away, and the water is completely churned up in the sea.  It is sunny out today, but the locals are still recovering from the rains last week.    We discovered a beach club yesterday with a delicious pool and comfortable chairs, so after another day or 2 hanging out, we might like to get up and go and actually start this bike trip properly!

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Posted in Vietnam | 11 Comments

Our Home in Vermont – stay tuned for updates from Asia

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Posted in Our Home in Vermont | 10 Comments