Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Kunming

I arrived in Kunming and discovered something called a "backpackers hostel". For the first time since Istanbul I met English speakers, travellers and tourists and had a conversation beyond, "how much?", "how many kilometres?" and for the first time on this whole trip I met some other long distance cyclists, no fewer than five on my first day here! Apparently there are tourists all over this country but my route across China has managed to bypass them all. The staff put on a Christmas spread, there was no Turkey but they did manage to make decent Christmas pudding and custard served with sliced carrots and cucumber. Then we celebrated with that most traditional of Christmas games, an arm wrestling competition.

Roar like a tiger.

Enter the local champion.

What about the cycling I hear you ask. Well, I sit in the saddle, turn the pedals, which turns the wheels and moves the bike forward. Sometimes I move fast, sometimes I move slow and sometimes, when the road has descended into a muddy pit, I don't move at all.
Good Chinese road atlases are available everywhere but they never (ever, ever) show topographical info. I got my first look at a topographical map of the country here in the hostel and it confirmed to me what I have been suspecting for a while now. China is very mountainous. It has been fun travelling without really knowing what lies 100km ahead, to start the day not knowing whether the road will take me through an industrialised river plain or over a roadless, snowy mountain. It has led to some memorable experiences.

The roads have been horrendous in this part of China. Main roads linking big cities will just descend into roadblock without warning. After the advice of local police I embarked on a big detour to find smooth asphalt but in the end the road failed me, it was total road block. What did I do? Well first I cried and then I back tracked to the last town I had past. There was no traffic going south (because there was no road) so I got a train ride to the next town, arriving in some skanky suburb in the middle of the night. Some rat/feret like kid took me to a 1 dollar hotel. It was so rough that before I could sleep I had to hurl out of the window. Actually it wasn't a window, it was a hole cut in a piece of plywood that served for the wall of my 7th floor hovel. At first light I escaped and got a police escort out of town (me following a police car, flashing lights and all).

The G213 "national highway", China.

It's all worth it in the end though.

I was planning on a short trip through Vietnam but the visa takes 4 working days to issue and I can't be arsed to wait. It's tempting to stay here watching DVDs and eating pie until new year but I have an appointment to make in Bangkok so it's the Jungles of Northern Laos for me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lanzhou to Chengdu

Seasons greetings from Chengdu, China. I wasn't planning on stopping here but my bike needed some major repairs so here I am. Here's a piece of advice for anyone planning a trip like this one. Buy a kickstand. I can't begin to describe how annoying it is balancing a loaded bike up against your bum whilst trying to fiddle something out of the panniers only to have the whole thing come crashing down onto the road. Way back in Georgia the bike took a bad tumble whilst I was messing about in the panniers and it bent the rear drop out. Result: The bike went from 21 gears to 9 gears and those 9 do not include the lowest "climbing" gears. That's right, I've cycled the length of Central Asia and more with only 9 gears. It hasn't been too much of a problem until now but China has proved to be relentlessly mountainous and covering the distances with only nine gears has been slow and has taken it's toll on my legs. It even put me in bed ill for a few days.

I was always too gutless to try and straighten the drop out myself, if I got it wrong the bike frame would be a write off. So I find myself in the Chinese mega city of Chengdu, a city which seems entirely devoted to selling mobile phones. I found a decent bike shop and with the entire staff, all the customers and a good few people that came in from the road to watch, the mechanic straightened my drop out by bashing it with a big hammer. It feels good to have a full 21 gears at my disposal again.
I've had to resort to Mcdonalds for food here in Chengdu. Is my impression of Chinese food, as an unnourishing, watery slop, a unique one?

It's getting worse. The kids don't run screaming anymore, they just burst out crying.

The China I imagined, a flat, industrialised place criss crossed by big expressways has so far failed to materialise. Instead this is the China I will remember. Very rural and very beautiful.

Route info Lanzhou to Chengdu: The G212 is recommended. It is quiet, very remote and stunningly beautiful. There are three fairly big passes to Minxian. The road then descends to Dangchang and follows a river cutting through steep mountains (a gorge?). The scenery is amazing and it follows said river for a few days until finally leaving the river to go up a massive climb over a series of switchbacks to Wenxian (try counting them, I lost count after 30) .
After that the river is dammed and you follow the resultant reservoir. The road here is in horrendous condition, is mercilessly up and down and the views are jaw dropping. Don't expect more than mud hut villages and some agricultural traffic in between towns.
The G212 eventually runs out and it's the G108 to Chengdu. More developed and not as stunning as the G212 but still nice. The road "rolls" it's way through a few valleys before finally flattening out at Zitong.

Next stage: I can't stay here too long or the winter will catch me up again. I'm heading arrow straight south to the tropics.

Switchbacks to Wenxian.

Every cyclists dream.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

First Taste of China

Looking at the map it seemed the G212 "national highway" going south would be a flat, busy road running through a developed part of the country. It's turning out to be a quiet road snaking it's way over some not unsubstantial, remote mountains. In some of the places i've passed through even the adults are too shy to speak with me but once they realise that I won't eat them everything is fine. Spent most of last night autographing school children's homework and having my photo taken with an endless stream of visitors to my "hotel" room.
The last 4 days have been the hardest, coldest and most fun in months, i've only managed 260km, which speaks for itself. I don't know how cold it's been, cold enough to freeze a freshly boiled bottle of water in a couple of hours. Hasn't been too much of a problem but I can't believe that this time last week I was considering cycling across Xinkiang, I would have died.

The Chinese are a very shy lot. They never shout or whistle or even say anything unless I speak first. They just stare....silently. I'm back below the snowline tonight but what lies south of here is anyone's guess.

(A few peolpe have asked for more photos of me....fools, here they are.)

Climbing the pass. When it's not winter all those steps cut into the side of the mountain must be farmed. Impressive no.

Making the pass.

Going down the other side.

Children running at the sight of me.

Not suprising when I look like this.

The cheapest 'hotel' yet, 3 Yuan.

Entertaining guests.

The rural Chinese are a tough lot. Could you imagne your granny doing this?