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.