Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dali - Shaxi - Lijiang. Confucius says: “And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”

Louis had given me a tip off to detour via the small village of Shaxi on my way to Lijiang. It was a market town used as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang dynasty, and is one of the most well-preserved towns on the tea-horse road. The town was a little off the beaten track from Dali, and I spent most of the trip on steep, pot-holed, dirt and gravel tracks. I had left my camping gear behind in Dali, but there were many instances during the climb where I would have preferred to call it a night and lay down in the wilderness. I contemplated just laying in the bush in all my clothes for the night, but I eventually reached the summit and descended into Shaxi in darkness. I stayed at Horsepen 46, run by a friend of the Dali house. I wandered through the market square the next day and admired the cosy little village, but moved on quite quickly in the direction of Lijiang.

The rough dirt track leading me uphill to Shaxi

Looking down onto Haixihai Reservoir during the climb towards Shaxi
Contemplating the descent towards Shaxi after sunset
The cobblestone streets of Shaxi at night

I thought the second leg of this route would be easier, but it provided a second day of climbing. I weaved up a mountain side littered with rubbish along the side of the road and the occasional truck passing by. Yet again, I'd left it late to finish the climb, and didn't reach the top until sunset. This meant another descent in darkness. I enjoyed riding in the dark but it also meant missing out on all the spectacular views I'd been working for on the ascent. Some kilometres down the track I was confronted with felled trees and a closed road. Some chinese people in a van signalled for me to make a detour through the woods, so I made my way through a dusty track and eventually found my way back to a paved road. Yet again I was prepared to lay down in the woods and get some sleep, but I made it out alive and cycled all the way to Lijiang old town. I was looking for a cheap hostel, but couldn't find it, so settled for another one...which turned out to be the one I was looking for but had changed its name. 

The sunset before reaching Lijiang
Reaching the summit of another climb
Lijiang is at 2400m elevation (higher than Australia's highest peak), and I became quite sick once I arrived there, so I spent a few days recovering, and just wandered about the old town. I met Olivia from South Africa and Harm from Holland and we drank and dined together. It seems the hostel owners wanted to concentrate all the foreigners into one room in the hostel. They both headed off to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and I intended to head there by bike as well, but my body wouldn't allow it.

Old Lijiang Town

I got news from home while in Lijiang and had to return to Australia to be with my family, so my trip essentially ended in Lijiang. I made a quick return to Australia via Dali to pick up my things and say goodbye to my family in the Dali house and then to Kunming to pack my bike in Hui's bike shop before boarding a plane and landing in Kuala Lumpur, spending 17 hours and having a nice sleep overnight in the airport, then reaching Australia's shores after too many days in transit. I was glad to return to the many comforts of home. I'd ridden around 1700 km during one month in Hong Kong and China, now it's time to think about my next destination upon return from Australia.

Looking out from Lijiang train station
Jade Snow Dragon Mountain in the background
The new highway construction coming into Dali by train
Back in Dali admiring the view
View from my rooftop room in Dali
Just some of the services provided by train stations
My bed for the night in the newly constructed KLIA2. I was told I couldn't sleep there when I woke up at 8.30 the next morning. Too bad I had already spent the night there.

China day 18: Dali to Shaxi
Distance: 113.6 km
Average speed: 13.9 km/hr
Max speed: 45.4 km/hr
Total ascent: 1348 m
Total descent: 1288 m

China Day 19: Shaxi to Lijiang
Distance: 100.2 km
Average speed: 13.3 km/hr
Max speed: 51.3 km/hr
Total ascent: 1519 m
Total descent: 1217 m

Nanning - Dali. Confucius says: “When the wind blows, the grass bends.”

I didn't have much inclination stick around in Nanning, and spent most of my time there recovering and organising the next leg of my journey. It was the first large city I'd been to since reaching mainland China, but it didn't capture my attention very much. On my second day there, just as I was about to leave my hostel for the train station, I ran into a guy at the supermarket who had an Ortlieb handlebar bag. I suspected he was some kind of cyclist, so I stopped and spoke to him at the check out. It turns out he (Steve from Switzerland) was indeed a touring cyclist, and he began his trip in Hong Kong at the same time as me. In fact, several weeks earlier I had attended a couchsurfing meeting in Hong Kong, secretly hoping I would meet someone there who was also travelling through Asia by bike. Of course, I met no such person, but it turns out that Steve was at that very same bar on the same night at the same couchsurfing meeting, we just never spoke. Steve had tired of China and was on his way across the border to Vietnam. We shared a meal and a beer at the train station and parted ways. 

Bikes and scooters share the chaotic roads in China

Initially I hoped to be a cycling purist and make my bicycle my only form of transport, but China is far too big and I came to accept that I wasn't going to be able to ride across it in 30 days. From Nanning I purchased an overnight train ticket to Kunming, and realised why I chose my bike as a means of getting around. After checking in my bike and panniers as luggage and getting a separate ticket for myself (and later having to wait 3 hours in Kunming train station to pick up my bike), I was glad I didn't have to catch a train every day. It was a 14 hour trip and I was travelling on the cheap, so of course I didn't get a sleeper, just an upright, crowded seat. The trip wasn't unbearable and I was able to get a bit of shut-eye, but when I arrived in Kunming, I quickly felt my exhaustion.

Kunming had a nice vibe for a big city, the capital of Yunnan province, and I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to return to China to learn Mandarin, that would be where I'd return to. I was staying with a Chinese guy called Hui in his bike shop, so after a bit of extensive detouring (getting lost), I made it to his shop and we chatted about bikes and bike touring and life in general. Hui was passionate about riding and had done tours of his own through Tibet (on a folding bike), and down to Laos, as well as regular rides in China. He told me that he likes travelling and he likes bikes and when he came to Kunming initially he wanted to open up a youth hostel. Apparently it was too hard to find a space for it so he had to settle for his second passion and opened up a bike shop. In a sense he got the best of both worlds by hosting warmshowers guests in his bike shop.

Inside Hui's Pegasus Bicycle Shop

Feeling at home sleeping amongst the bikes for the night

Green Lake in Kunming
From Kunming it would be another 3 or 4 days riding to Dali, so I decided to jump on another train and maximise the riding time I had in the heart of Yunnan. This time I carried my bike on with me and they charged me a negligible 4 yuan (less than $1 AUD) to take my bike on the 6 hour journey. I was happy with being able to escape the bureaucracy of checking my bike in. My bike and luggage weighed around 40kg and between Kunming and Dali train station there were several stair cases I had to carry my bike up and down. At one stage I tried rolling my bike down the steep ramp next to the stair case but the weight of my bike dragged me down and I tumbled down the stairs into a few passers by. The people were nice and they helped me and my bike up, with no damage done. It was rare that someone would offer to help carry my bike, even though it was quite apparent that I was struggling. It was a stark contrast to the machismo of Italy or Mexico, where people were more than willing to display their athletic prowess in lifting your luggage.

Riding into Dali old town from the train station
Looking out from my new home in Dali

Development happened very quickly in Dali, there were guest houses shooting up everywhere
Dali new town feels like any other city, but Dali old town is where the tourists flock to. I met my new host, Louis from Canada, at Dali old town gates and we rode to his glorious dwelling near the centre of the town, which he was sharing with a bunch of relaxed and creative expats and chinese. It felt nice to be in a share house again, indulging in delicious vegetarian food each night, usually prepared from fresh fruit and vegetables picked up from the market 50 metres away. I was impressed by the delectable chinese cuisine, and I quizzed everyone on ingredients so I could attempt to recreate his masterpieces back home. Lockie, an Australian in the house, gave me some Furu (fermented bean curd) to sample. It's used to flavour rice or porridge and it tasted suspiciously and deliciously like vegemite. Nice to know I have a vegemite alternative if my emergency vegemite stocks are depleted.

Furu - Chinese vegemite

In the Dali house I did some juggling, acro yoga and after a 6km ride up a steep cobblestone hill, even got to do some bouldering in a dried up river bed. On my second day there I was craving to get back on the bike, so I pedalled down to Erhai lake and began cycling. It was 120km around the lake, but I thought I'd just go for a short ride. When I got 45km into the ride I was feeling good, so I continued and just rode the rest of the way around the lake. The North and South sides of the lake were quite nice, but the urban areas close to new Dali town weren't very beautiful. The ride around the lake takes you through several villages along the way, and gives you a unique way to slowly admire the lake and its mountainous backdrop from every angle.

Louis and Dane bouldering in a dried up river bed west of old Dali town

Lockie, Louis and Dane scaling some more boulders - too tricky for me to conquer
The dried up river bed and our bouldering hot spot

Riding around Erhai Lake

The house contained many weird and wonderful objects and peculiar pieces of art inscribed on the walls. One of the chinese guys that lived there had welded together a two bikes to build a tall bike. Louis said the tall bike attracted a little more attention than a regular, single level, bike. There were obvious difficulties in mounting and dismounting, but the view from up there must have been quite good.

I slept on a room on the roof of the Dali house, and always woke up early as the sun trickled into my room. It was impossible to sleep in because the world looked so beautiful from up there, that I had to get out and enjoy it.

Inspecting a new potential home in a village close to Dali

China day 17: Around Lake Erhai
Distance: 113.2 km
Average speed: 18.3 km/hr
Max speed: 41.3 km/hr
Total ascent: 688 m
Total descent: 702 m

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Yangshuo - Nanning. Confucius says: "The cautious seldom err".

I set off towards Nanning, my next destination, not so early the next morning, feeling not so great after the late night and beer consumed. I hit the road and decided to take a few more risks in the way that I travelled and planned my routes. This time I used google maps to give me the most direct route to Nanning by walking, and decided to follow it. If I'm not going anywhere, then it's impossible to be lost, unfortunately I was going somewhere, and was at times lost. Seeing as I had no problem finding a camping spot the first time, I thought it would be easy to pitch my tent by nightfall in the cover of some trees. But when I began looking, all I could see was long stretches of wet and muddy rice fields. It quickly became dark and I still hadn't found anywhere so I stopped by a small shop and attempted to follow Rodrigo's advice and ask for a place to pitch my tent. After some fantastic miming on both sides, the young woman said to me "You are welcome here", and that was the only english I heard her speak. I will probably say this time and time again, but sometimes very small notions of kindness can have enormous consquences, and I felt my eyes welling up with tears when she said that to me. We attempted to chat, but all I could really communicate with them was my name, which they couldn't pronounce, my age, and which country I was from. Even though China is a very important country for Australia, I feel that this stance is not reciprocated for a big player like China, and few people know much about Australia at all.

The road leaving Yangshuo

I would have been happy to set up my tent on the floor in their shop - in fact I craved being alone in my tent. But they offered my their young daughter's (who I think was 5) bed, and instead she slept with her parents. For some reason, all Chinese beds seem to be about as comfortable as sleeping on the floor. I was grateful for the sacrifices they had made for me and when I woke up in the morning, they prepared breakfast for me and basically forced it down my throat. They also gave me some tins of congee, but I'm not really sure what they are and I haven't opened them yet.

Watching the sunset yet again long before I've reached my destination for the night
My hosts were kind enough to offer me their daughter's room
The obligatory photos before leaving my generous hosts

Saying goodbye
That day I took even more cryptic back roads, and it ended up being like a good old game of "dodge the pot hole". I enjoyed the change in terrain, it was a bit more interesting than boring asphalt, even though my progress was much slower. My brother always says that short cuts lead to long delays, and I think in this case he may have been on the money. Anyway, as the sun was setting, I still hadn't found any decent camping spots, again being surrounded only by rice fields. By the time the sun went down I found myself riding through masses of wet, muddy, red sludge, and decided I should probably call it a day, because I got the feeling the roads I was riding on weren't really roads at all. So I tried my luck again and stopped in at a village I had passed. I signalled towards my tent and got out a picture of my tent and did a mime of me sleeping. The first people I approached shook their heads, and I suddenly had a pang of fear that I wouldn't have a place to stay that night - maybe rural chinese are actually quite racist? But after I spoke to them, word of my presence began to spread around town, and before I knew it, there were about 50 people all gathered around trying to catch sight of me. Some of the kids would just stare at me for minutes on end as if I was some kind of alien creature come to take over the world. Eventually one of the women signalled for me to come with her, so she took me into her home and sat me down and gave me dinner. It was delicious and exactly what my body needed after a day on the road. She told me through gestures that I could sleep in a room in her house. I thought that maybe the town would have an english teacher or someone who could help translate, but no one came forward, so we struggled on with our signals and gestures. As I ate, there were still around 50 villagers that had piled into her living room, all chattering loudly in a language I could not understand and watching me eat - the pressure was on to assert my dominance of the chopstick!

Farmland on the way to Laibin...camping spots were rare

The quality of the roads quickly degraded and I found myself rolling through this sludge. It rained and flooded the following day.

After dinner an older woman put her hands to her face to signify washing - she was asking me if I wanted to shower, so I got my things together and showered using soap and a bucket. I came downstairs ready for bed, not wearing a bra or underwear, and my host noticed straight away and seemed rather unimpressed. In the end, the town leader came and collected me and instead moved me to the council offices, where I set up my tent and later slept. Either the whole town thought I was some kind of serial killer, or they were all scared for me riding my bike and travelling alone as a woman. One of the first questions that all women ask me is whether I am married and whether I have children. After I set up my tent, my original host sat down with me and we talked using google translate for several hours. I still can't work out whether she wanted to check my credentials or protect me, because when I answered all her questions she sounded very sceptical. for example, she asked me what happened to my phone (it has a big crack at the top and a second crack now at the bottom from when I stepped on it with my cycling shoes). When I told her I got it from a friend she looked at me with a concerned face, as if I wasn't telling her the truth. When I told her I worked as a scientist in Australia she again brought out a look of concern and disbelief, as if I made up that profession on the spot to fool her, "very young for a scientist" she wrote. I didn't really like where the conversation was heading, and she warned me about the many dangerous people that lurk in the countryside, to whom I am very vulnerable. I told her I was aware of that and that although it might not seem so, I do take precautions when I travel. 

Bucket shower that night
My bed for the night in the council offices

I slept poorly that night, waking up to any sound I heard, fearing that the villagers might have stolen my bike, after the fear mongering conversation I had with the old woman. Half of me also thought they might call the police and have me arrested. I was locked in the council offices and couldn't get out without someone letting me out, a prisoner in the village. I woke up early and was all set to have an early start, but it was raining heavily and much of the countryside was flooded. When I went downstairs to the shed, the town leader and his wife followed me down and offered me a bag of things I could eat for breakfast. The town leader showed me a message on his phone that had been translated, it read "I can drive you to somewhere". I was grateful but didn't want to cause any unnecesary trouble. But I recalled how muddy and treacherous the roads were on a sunny day, let alone during a storm. The town leader assured me that the rain wouldn't be stopping any time soon, so I accepted a lift onto the main highway (the first broken line on my trip), and he dropped me all the way in Laibin, a 45 minute drive from the village. I was somewhat relieved to leave the village, and sure that many of the people I met had never encountered a foreigner like me before. At least it would give them something to talk about for the next week.

Driving out of the village to the main road with the town leader

Heavy rain flooded the rice fields

The town leader and his wife gave me a lift to the main highway in Laibin so I could continue cycling

Walking the wild boar to the fields
From Laibin it was about 170km to Nanning, but by the time I finally hit the road, I was mentally prepared to tackle it in one day, and I did. I felt strong on the bike, and when I arrived I was so pumped full of endorphines that I felt I could ride for much longer. I found a hostel to stay in, the Youth Star Hostel, and was surprised to have the female dorm all to myself. The train to Kunming left at 5.40 in the afternoon but by the time I got myself organised and down to the station, I was too late to check my bike and luggage in, so I waited around for the next day.

China day 9: Yangshuo to past Dalezhen
Distance: 117.6 km
Average speed: 17 km/hr
Max speed: 46.7 km/hr
Total ascent: 1064 m
Total descent: 1019 m

China Day 10: past Dalezhen to Laibin outskirts
Distance: 105.6km
Average speed: 12.4 km/hr
Max speed: 49.4 km/hr
Total ascent: 775 m
Total descent: 846 m

China Day 11: Laibin to Nanning
Distance: 179.2 km
Average speed: 17.8 km/hr
Max speed: 44.4 km/hr
Total ascent: 1125 m
Total descent: 1122 m