Friday, July 13, 2007

Day 95-100: The perfect End

I left Chengdu for Beijing well-rested, ready for new impressions and experiences, but slightly concerned about flying with the bicycle domestically. However, no issues surfaced, although I was surprised not to arrive at Beijing’s international airport. Instead, the aircraft landed at an unusually small airfield, apparently in the vicinity of the larger airport. Immediately after I stepped off the plane, I spotted my bag and bicycle on the conveyer belt only meters from the aircraft. I grabbed my belongings and approached two other western travelers in hope of sharing a taxi to Beijing. An hour and a half later and plenty of negotiations, we were all dropped off in a narrow alley of crowding restaurants and hotels near the Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. As I checked in at the Far East hotel, I ran into Harel, a quiet Israeli gentleman I had met briefly in Lijiang. Although its exceptional size, China seems smaller when traveling, and I have often met the same people in various locations throughout the Yunnan and Sichuan province, but to reunite after almost a month in one of the largest cities of the world is very rare and almost frightening. We were placed in the same dormitory with four other backpackers in a nicely air-conditioned room for an astonishing 60 Yuan (6 Euros - more than double than any other dormitories I had stayed), and headed out for dinner. On our way we ran into another Swede, Carina, who was in China for her second time to explore more of the country. Together we went out for our evening meal to celebrate our first day in Beijing and share plans and ideas.

Beijing is an overwhelmingly large city where you can spend weeks sightseeing and touring in and around the capital. Its population of over 15 million people does not even begin to describe how huge it appears when walking the streets among thousands of other tourists. As a result, I felt a bit stressed over what parts to visit and explore. After consulting Carina, Harel and other travelers in Chengdu, I decided to focus on the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and a cycle tour around the metropolis, prioritizing the Great Wall since I had seen a great number of temples, monasteries and parks throughout Yunnan and Sichuan provinces already. Also, the Great Wall is probably one of the most famous, celebrated and spectacular sites of the world. In point of fact, the 5000-kilometer wall is visible from the moon, which speaks for itself. With all that being planned, I had a hefty schedule to live up to, thus early the next day I woke to rush out into the street, heading for the Forbidden City on my bicycle. Before I entered the holy site, I wandered around the adjoining Tiananmen Square. The Square is full of walking tourists, taking pictures and buying souvenirs. Amazingly, it is large enough to house them all, hence it never feels cramped. As a matter of fact, it is the largest public square in the world, making ‘Stortorget’ (eng. translation: Big Square) in my hometown appear minuscule. In every direction of the Square there are other famous sites – to the north the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’, which is the entrance to the Forbidden City, to the east – ‘Museum of Chinese History’, to the west – ‘The Great Hall of the People’. In the middle of the Square stands the ‘Monument to the People’s of Heroes’, surrounded by red and gold Chinese flags and guarding soldiers. Not surprisingly or unintentionally, it felt extraordinary communistic and propagandist. Nevertheless, the Tiananmen Square was impressive. After an hour, I crossed over the square to the north and entered the Forbidden City, once home to two dynasties of emperors and the largest and best-preserved groups of ancient buildings in China. The site is not so forbidden anymore as thousands of tourists crowd it everyday. Just to buy the ticket I spend half and hour queuing and later pushed my way through packs of Chinese tourists in matching outfits of different colors. There was the orange team, the blue team and it seemed as if the entire spectrum of colors were present. Just as I left a crowd of orange dressed children fascinated by me and my camera, I ran into a student from Beijing University. He took me to the gallery of the school and presented some remarkable art work. It way have been part of a huge tourist scam, but I enjoyed the gallery and his engagement, as well as his fascinating work, thus bought two traditional Chinese paintings from him. I continued to fight my way through the swarm of tourists for two more hours, having walked through most of the site. There were so many temples of various sizes and purposes that I forgot the name of most of them as I left the area, stopping for some dumplings on my way back to the bicycle. The Forbidden City, named so because it was off limits for 500 years, certainly is an impressive site, but the current restorations for the Olympics and great number of tourists made it a less astounding experience for me. Half the day had passed but I had yet another large site to conquer – the Summer Palace of Beijing. This immense park is located about 20 kilometers north of the city-center and is dotted with palace temples, gardens, pavilions and bridges around the Kunming Lake. Not having notably cycled for a few days since I pedaled to the Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu, I pushed on with full force and arrived quickly at the park in the early afternoon. I spent two hours in the Summer Palace, walking around temples, crossing bridges and finally taking a boat across the mirrored, clear lake. Unfortunately, clouds were hanging low over the park, resulting in small showers and obscured views. Just when I left the park, the clouds had become too heavy and released rain with full power. Wet and exhausted, I arrived at the hotel just before supper, and made plans for the evening with Harel and Carina.
You can visit the Great Wall of China at many different locations. It stretches east-west, 5000 kilometers from its speckled remains in Liaoning province to the Gobi desert. Simply summarized, the closer you are to Beijing, the more tourists you will encounter, and the more restored the Wall might be. As a result, I wanted to get as far as I possible could from Beijing in order to visit the Wall in solitude, and be able to witness parts of the Wall unrestored. I had heard of the possibility to camp in one of the many towers consistently positioned every few hundred meter on the Wall. The idea quickly appealed to me and just as swiftly I convinced Harel to join me. With our sleeping bags and my one-person tent we headed for Jinshanling, about 110 kilometers north of Beijing to hike the Great Wall for 10 kilometers to Simatai, where we would climb the challenging last way up an extremely steep section of the Wall as far as tourist are allowed. On the way we planned to find an appropriate tower to camp in. After a subway ride, bus trip and an expensive taxi fare, we were finally in Jinshanling in the early afternoon, starting our hike towards Simatai. Before we could climb up on the Wall and get on our way, we had a few hundred meters to walk. Tensely, I paced the last meters up on the Wall, curious of what I was about to witness. Once there, the beauty and magnitude of it took me by surprise. Although I had seen several pictures of it and its colossal scale and length, I was still in chock of how enormous it appeared as it twisted its way over the mountain tops. The fact that human slaves had built this Wall with their bare hands was an unattainable thought. Amazed, we continued to walk east towards Simatai, up and down the Wall, always on the top of the mountain chain. The surrounding environment of layers of mountain peaks also stroke both me and Harel as exceptionally stunning. Clouds were softly floating between the mountains below us or creating a mystic, dramatic light above us. In front, the Wall swirled its way under our feet through the spectacular landscape. We walked slowly, stopping to take pictures, too often or too seldom, we could not tell. It all was too beautiful. After three hours the drizzling rain turned into a heavy downpour and we decided to stop for the day in the third tower from the tallest peak we had crossed during our 3-hour walk. We figured we were close to Simatai and would easily walk there the next morning after sunrise. The main reason I had desired to camp was to watch the sun set in the west behind the Wall, and rise over the mountains in the morning to the east. Unfortunately, as the rain continued to pour down and the wind grew stronger and stronger, my hope of seeing the sunset completely diminished. We settled down in the tower, Harel putting up his hammock, me pinching up my small tent, prepared our dinner of bananas, cookies and beer and gradually made ourselves comfortable. As we were sitting chewing on Chinese Oreo cookies, I saw an orange spot of light emerging on the stone wall behind Harel. Can it be true? I yelled out something incomprehensible, jumped up to run to get my camera, scaring Harel almost to death. The clouds had mysteriously cleared at the horizon, behind the Wall where the sun was slowly setting. The golden rays were so strong they filled the sky with a delightful orange color, leaving the Great Wall as a silhouette in the foreground. Not only did we get to experience the sunset over the Great Wall, but I also witnessed the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. Very satisfied and excited over our mutual experience we sat and talked until the sun had disappeared completely, only leaving room for darkness. Shortly we were both asleep. We woke up the next day to an even more stunning sunrise with soft clouds lingering in the valleys of the mountains. Again, the sun was casting golden rays, illuminating the sky in orange hues, the Wall barely visible in the morning hazy mist. The landscape took a dreamlike appearance I had never before experienced of endless layers of golden mountain peaks with translucent clouds hovering in between. Again, me and Hajal stood startled, orangey illuminated, and amazed by the beauty of nature and the Great Wall. As lightness emerged, we walk towards Simatai for about an hour until we reached a guesthouse which served us a very essential nutritious meal before we were about to tackled the steep climb of the Great Wall of Simatai. By now I had cycled over 3500 kilometer and completed few treks, thus, frankly, the climb was quite easy, although I had heard stories that told otherwise. At the top, where visitors where not allowed to proceed, we could see the Wall stretch as far as the eye could see. Now the day had fully arrived and the sky was clear and vivid blue with no clouds to obscure the view. Again, we took a few moments to try to grasp the magnitude of building the Wall, an undertaking which took 2000 years to complete, before we headed back down and walked the last kilometers to Simatai. The way back to Beijing was as complicated and tedious as our way to Jinshanling, but will not interfere with the memories of hiking the Great Wall – an experience I will never forget.
Both me and Harel agreed that a hike of that enormity deserved unrestricted celebrations, thus we met up with friends to share some Chinese rice liquor and beer. A new friend that I had met in Chengdu, Tim, joined us for the party. Tim added greatly to the celebrations with his stories of life in the state of Lousiana in the U.S. and surviving Hurricane Katrina, as well running a few businesses, practicing a rare kind of martial art, speaking several languages, and traveling, all while smiling and spreading positive energy around him. This 23-year old man had enough stories to fill the entire evening with laughter and excitement. Tim is a charming and intellectual character that you do not meet often in life. Be prepared, though, to listen more than speaking. My last day of my journey consisted of treating a hangover, shopping, packing and again, dissembling the bicycle for the plane ride. The day was quickly over and at the end of it I was sitting with ten other travelers, some older friends, some new acquaintances, around a big wooden table in a typical Chinese courtyard with red lanterns lighting up the patio, drinking local beer for 2 Yuan (0,2 Euros) a bottle, trying to grasp that my journey was over. People were singing, playing guitar, making jokes, sharing travel stories and laughing as if time stood still. As the evening progressed I thought more and more about my experiences over the last 100 days. It seemed as if I had been traveling for an eternity and my experiences felt infinite. Everyday I had been presented new experiences that would last in my memories for years to come, some as long as I will live. I felt as if the last 100 days had extended my life with 100 months, having encountered countless unique and new situations. From every experience I learned something valuable, something new about the world that would broaden my knowledge and perspective of life. I realized how easy it is to get trapped in the routine of life and lock yourself to one way of thinking, forgetting that the world is greater than your backyard. Nevertheless, life is also about routine and familiarity, which leads to close friends, relationships and family. With that thought I retired to bed, not only extremely pleased with my travels, but excited to get home to family, friends and my girlfriend.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Day 85-94: The end of cycling

Just south of Emeishan city lies the village of Baoguo. Here travelers gather to prepare a 2500 meter vertical climb to the peak of Mount Emei. The mountain is covered with thousands of concrete stairs, all leading up to the summit, at 3099 meters elevation. Along the stairs are various Buddhist monasteries and temples, sadly most of them under construction or newly renovated, but still add to the atmosphere. The main motive to climb the mountain is to witness the sunrise or sunset over the bed of clouds that surrounds the summit almost all year around.

After two weeks of cycling more then 1000 kilometers, and few resting days, I was reluctant to climb the thousands of steps leading up to the summit of Mount Emei. Also, the monotony of walking up stairs did not appeal to me, thus I decided to take a bus up to 2500 meters elevation, walk two hours, climbing the most evil part of the stairs, find a place to stay and rise early the following morning to catch the sun breaking the day over soft layers of clouds at 3099 meters above sea level. As a result, on my second afternoon in Baoguo village, I caught a bus with the party of Chinese tourists in matching clothes, hats and flags. The bus wove its way up the steep road, a very familiar sight, but now I was comfortable seated on an air-conditioned bus opposed to pedaling up the mountain. After two hours the bus stopped and all passengers rushed to pull their jackets out of their bags and cover themselves in the chilling temperatures of 2500 meters elevation. The quick ascend made me slightly lightheaded and caused a mild headache. Nevertheless, the two hours passed quickly as I marched my way up the concrete stairs through the forest, monasteries and temples. By the time I found a small house along the path that could serve me my last meal of the day and provide shelter, it was after seven o'clock. After dinner I retired to bed early to prepare for a two-hour walk at the crack of dawn. The cramped room felt primitively simple, just large enough to house a bed and a TV, with an external door that would not shut or lock, adding to the uncivilized experience. Ironically, for the first time since entering China, the TV displayed a perfect digital picture and provided numerous channels, including a few English speaking alternatives. The odd mixture of old and new was shortly lived when my alarm clock buzzed quarter past four, three hours before sunrise, making my entire body shudder in disapproval. Slowly I made my way out the door, stepping into the dark, silent forest. Immediately, I was startled by the open, clear night sky, dotted with billions of brilliant stars, visible through the tree tops. Never before have I witnessed such a bright, vivid and clear starry sky. Breathless, I stood paralyzed by its beauty and scale until my balance lost orientation. I advanced up the stairs into the darkness of the forest, the beam of my head-flashlight leading the way. After an hour and a half I reached the summit. To my surprise, I was alone, wandering through the temple grounds in complete obscurity and silence. The stillness was interrupted as I climbed the last stairs to the Golden Summit as other hikers made their entrance. At the edge of the cliff, looking out over the dark clouds, I stood for an hour and a half as lightness emerged, watching and hearing hundreds of Chinese tourists entering the famous site. It is widely recognized that Chinese people constantly, openly and loudly clear their throats, spitting whenever and wherever possible. The phenomenon is especially noticeable in the first hours of the day. Adding the early morning exercise does not exactly relieve their eccentric habit. One after one they came climbing the final stairs, panting and wheezing. The constant noise soon transformed into an orchestra of hawking and spitting in various tones. It truly was disgusting. When the sun made its entrance, all sounds came to a stop, and every visitor stood in awe, watching the sun rise over the sea of clouds, turning the sky into a rich orange and yellow color. The entire temple site was illuminated in golden hue. To the west, the Gonga Mountains appeared in the far distance as the sun continued to rise. The 7500 meter glacier peaks are rarely visible, even on the clearest day, perfecting my visit to the Golden Summit of Mount Emei. Climbing down stairs from an elevation of 3099 meters to approximately 500, I highly underestimated. It required stepping down thousands and thousands of tedious steps. Fortunately, I found company at the top. A British traveler, named Damien, had actually climbed the entire way up, and was determined to step all the way down as well. Together we started marching down step by step after the sun had risen over the Summit. Just before lunch an appearance of a group of Baboons broke the monotonous stride. They are known to linger the area in hope of finding or stealing food from passing humans. Their large size and sharp, long teeth are slightly frightening. Excited, we quickly pulled out our cameras, squatted to get a better camera perspective, but before I had time to press the exposure button, a large male Baboon ran towards Damien at an alarming pace. As Damien instantly stood up, the Baboon reached down into his right pocket, trying to grab a package of biscuits that had popped out when Damien bent down to take a picture. Frantically, the Baboon was trying to grab the food, pulling and jerking Damien’s shorts. When he reached down to stop the fearless monkey, it snapped at him, hit his hand and displayed its vicious teeth. Seconds later the Baboon was eating what was left of the crumbled biscuits, not willing to share any with the rest of its fellow Baboons. It seems that the monkeys of Mount Emei would do anything to fill their stomachs. During lunch, as we started to alleviate our hunger, another brave monkey entered the restaurant. It jumped up onto the table behind us where a woven rise bowl was place, tore the top lid off and desperately began to stuff rise into its mouth. I stood up, shouted and chased the Baboon out of the restaurant, laughing at the exceptionally awkward scenario. The Baboons, not the walk down the mountain, had made my day.

The next day I was scheduled to cycle 50 kilometers to Leshan, a large city to the east, along the Dadu River. However, I woke up early with severe pains in my calves, questioning my ability to pedal. Despite their growing size and strength, descending thousands of steps had left them impaired. I was able to walk with short, tiny steps while biting my tongue in pain. To undertake any kind of stairs was nearly impossible. To my relief, cycling was the least painful of the three; walking, climbing stairs and cycling. Thus, I headed for Leshan, moaning and cursing. On the way I planned to stop at the "1000 Buddha Cliffs", near the city of Jiajiang 30 kilometers north of Emei Town. But after entering the site, having paid the entrance fee and discovering a series of stairs that swirled up and down through the hundreds of Buddha statues, I immediately turned around. I literally could not climb stairs, let alone walk down them. Instead, I cycled the last 25 kilometers to Leshan, and found a hotel on the bank of Dadu River, in the heart of Leshan. I had only one obligation in Leshan; to visit the Grand Buddha of Leshan, the largest Buddha in the world. 71 meters high, carved into the cliff overlooking the Dadu River, it is an overwhelming structure impressing hundreds of visitors everyday. On my first day in Leshan, I cycled a beautiful road along the river to the site early to miss the Chinese tourists. I wandered the site impressed by its scale, unenthusiastic about my sore calves. I spent two days in Leshan, cycling around town or traveling by "cyclo", avoiding walking as much as possible. I found the city charming and its people unexceptionally friendly. The outdoor servings along the river provided a cheerful atmosphere, and I spend both evenings there eating and drinking local beer, one night with the company of a Dutch traveler and a Chinese family playing a traditional Chinese game. On my last night I went swimming in the mighty Dadu River as is surges along the edge of the city. It seemed to be a common evening practice among the locals, although they were floating more than swimming, wearing floatable rings around their waists. I, on the other hand, was convinced I could stay afloat on my own as I entered the water to swim with the force of the river for a few kilometers until the stream weakened and I left the river, proud and excited about the experience.
160 kilometers separates Leshan from Chengdu. I had originally planned to take a bus the last stretch of my journey, but since I left Kunming in Yunnan I had made a promise to myself to not step on a bus when I could cycle. Therefore, I intended to reach Chengdu in two days, dividing the 160 kilometers accordingly. However, a wild idea occurred to me when I was in Leshan, sitting comfortably by the river, looking at the water passing by. Why not end my cycling with the longest stretch of the journey? On a flat, smooth road I could easily average 20 km/h, and I could also cycle over eight hours, that I proved to myself when leaving Lijiang to Ninglang a few weeks ago. Therefore, I could hopefully manage 160 kilometers without too much difficulty. The plan was to divide the day into four two-hour "spinning classes", and between each "spinning class" I would break to eat and drink. Each two-hour "spinning class" would transport me about 40 kilometers. 40 times four makes 160. The plan worked as I uneventfully pedaled to the outskirt of Chengdu city on smooth tarmac and crowded roads. My bicycle computer correctly displayed 160 kilometers and 21,5 km/h average speed as I entered the city. The remaining 15 kilometers until I reached the guesthouse on the north side only slowed me down, but did not pose any problems. Having cycled 175 kilometers, I stepped off the bicycle enormously proud of my accomplishment; ready to put the bicycle away for this time (but for small excursions around Chengdu and Beijing). After a well-earned hot shower, I sat down to order food at the atmospheric, pleasant guesthouse (Mix Guesthouse) and met another cyclist - Ian from England. He had seen my bicycle parked inside the lobby and curiously asked a series of questions. I answered and proudly explained that I had completed 175 kilometers today to finish a 3500-kilometers bicycle adventure. He congratulated me as well as enlightened me that he, too, was a dedicated cyclist. Further, he informed about his latest journey which had started in Istanbul, and was not going to end in the next years to come. Ian had traveled by bicycle for the last twelve years, cycling mainly in China but also other places in the world. In China alone he has pedaled 58,000 kilometers, further than the distance around the equator of our planet. My 3500 kilometers from Saigon in the south of Vietnam to Chengdu in central China suddenly seemed insignificant. Nevertheless, I tried to celebrate my endeavor, but after two beers I stumbled into bed, postponing the celebrations for another night.
Chengdu is the capital city of the Sichuan province. With close to five million inhabitants it is a large, modern, commercial city of clustered high-rise buildings, busy streets and loads of western influences. McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and several western well-known clothing brands are present in every large department store. Still, the city offers a taste of Sichuan culture and history, and one can easily find small, lively streets and markets where men and women sell various traditional foods and goods. I had several days in Chengdu to rest, relax, run errands and sightsee. There are many attractions and places to visit in and around the city. I started with handling most of my errands, such as pick up my flight ticket to Beijing and exchange money. Secondly, I cycled around the capital to get an overview of the central metropolis and experience the atmosphere. I visited the famous Wenshu temple, Chengdu's most well-preserved and largest Buddhist temple. Its tea garden made a perfect place to update my journal, read and observe monks in their daily life. When my bum had had a couple of days of rest, I cycled to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, 15 kilometers north of the city. Here, about 50 Pandas are housed and the site is world-known for excellence in panda research, breeding and nursing. The park is also the largest in the world of its kind. It reminded me of a big, standard zoo, but only consisting of pandas. Walking through the park, seeing tens of pandas sleeping or eating (that is all they do) was exhilarating. Never before have I been so close to these endangered animals. Despite their large size, they are overwhelmingly adorable. Their movements are slow and childlike, fumbling as they stuff themselves with heaps of bamboo; their main source of food. Often they strike an awkward, charming pose as if they know how to get the crowds of tourists to fumble with their cameras, trying to seize the moment. I continued to visit various sites of the city, some interesting, some dull and ordinary. Despite my active engagement of the city, I have had plenty of time to hang around the guesthouse, doing nothing, reading, watching movies or speaking to other travelers, sharing experiences and stories. I have slept more than usual, a sign of relaxation and relief. The massage parlor across the street, offering a professional full-body rub down for 20 Yuan (2 Euros), might play a small role to my peaceful state of mind. My last day in Chengdu will be uneventful but for packing and the tedious process of dissembling my bicycle, preparing it for the plane ride. In a couple of days I will arrive in Beijing to enjoy my last days of my journey.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day 79-84: Beyond 3000 kilometers

I stayed one full day in Xichang to rest, refuel and take advantage of western influences, such as brewed coffee and fast food. By afternoon on my day off I felt guilty for not having seen more of the city of Xichang what I already was accustomed to, thus I rented a cyclo to take me for a tour around town. However, I was more excited about not cycling myself than of the surrounding scenery. Xichang looked just like any medium-sized city I have witnessed so far. Consequently, although my body told me otherwise, the following day I headed for Mianning, about 80 kilometers to the north on the bicycle. The first kilometers were awful, cycling through areas of factories on crowded, bumpy roads, passing one dump yard after another. All the foul odors of our planet were present. A mix of manure, droppings, garbage, fish oil, exhausts, and motor oil made its way up my nostrils and did not leave for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the last kilometers to Mianning were pleasant and I arrived relieved having left the road behind. The next day I hoped for better conditions, but was bewildered by a long climb, lasting 50 kilometers. Although the environment was stunning, the slanting road was once again straining my legs to their physical limits. When cycling uphill for several hours, I tend to loose perspective of the road and can no longer tell how it angles. At times I believe I am traveling on a flat surface, going at a slow speed, believing I am too weak to go faster, when I am actually pedaling uphill on a fairly steep road. This became obvious when the road finally turned downward, and I was free-wheeling at great speeds for several kilometers, setting a new speed record (68 km/h). Shortly, I was in Shimian, 102 kilometers north of Mianning looking for a place to stay. Although it is a seemingly large city, I had difficulties finding a decent accommodation at a reasonable price. Every encounter with hotel personnel made me more and more frustrated as I was trying to communicate my questions. What seems to be an ordinary procedure was here an impossible task. ‘How much is a single room and can I see it, please?’, I gestured as well as spoke out loudly in both English and Chinese in my last attempt finding a room. The response was a series of words in Chinese I believe even a local traveler would have a hard time grasping. Although I clearly displayed my inability to understand they continued their blathering, involving more people to join the useless conversation. When they finally comprehended that I was not getting a word they were saying, they carefully wrote down the Chinese characters and pointed at them with a big smile, thinking that now they are really clever. Then the process started all over and it took a few minutes for them to understand that I do not master Chinese writing either. Eventually I received four fingers for 40 Yuan, and the rest of my questions I left for another day, although I had involved my entire body trying to get my points across, as if playing the charades. Sadly, this procedure has repeated itself numerous times in recent days. It is a tedious process, and making it every afternoon is tearing on my psyche. I am getting more and more impatient, intolerant and unfortunately unfriendly. To my surprise, however, the evening in Shimian was delightful. I walked up and down the neon illuminated streets, greeting locals, trying various foods from the street vendors. Again, I was the center of attention and was invited to join people at their tables or seats when passing by.

To break the daily routine, I decided to leave later the next day, having a peaceful breakfast in Shimian and update my dairy before cycling to Hanyuan, a mere 50 kilometers away. The peaceful setting I had imagined was quickly interrupted by curious locals surrounding me in large numbers, trying to strike up conversations in Chinese. Before I lost my senses I rolled out of Shimian just before lunch time but did not get far. Just outside of the city I was stopped by a hefty Chinese police woman, doing her best to explain that I was not allowed to proceed any further right now. ‘Twenteen, you go’, she confirmed. Not sure what ‘twenteen’ meant I ignored her attempts to stop me, thinking she is probably only demonstrating authority. After a couple of kilometers, however, I noticed a line of trucks building up, and as I continued following the sequence of vehicles I came to a road block. Apparently, traffic was only open between one and three o’clock due to several landslides being cleared from the roads. Having experienced a few landslides previously, I respectfully agreed to wait for an hour and a half until the road would open. The waiting did not concern me, nor did the company of starring truckers, but the fact that I was scheduled to share the dangerous zone of bumpy, dirty, rocky, muddy roads with hundreds of large, old, toxic trucks troubled me. The policemen kindly gave me fifteen minutes to get a head start. I pedaled as fast as I could, but the loose gravel, mud and dust increasingly slowed me down, and after ten kilometers the trucks were roaring behind me. Just as I entered a large area of deep mud and large water puddles, they starting passing me one after another, sending huge waves of mud and water waist high over me and the bicycle. I cursed, waved and desperately was trying to note my presence. But just as me, the truckers were eager to move on and leave this horrible scene behind, thus ignored me entirely but for a few loud honks of their horn. The constant roaring and the intense, thick fumes of black exhausts, forced me to stop and cover up my face in full bandit attire. I considered waiting until the traffic had passed but the line of trucks was kilometers long, and at creeping speeds it would last hours. Instead, I pushed on passing slow moving trucks, squishing between them when necessary. To my amusement, some trucks had flat tires or became overheated, coming to a complete stop and held up the traffic. I swirled my way through the maze of honking large vehicles, holding my breath in the dark clouds of diesel fumes, smoke and exhausts. Eventually, I left them behind and pedaled my way to Hanyuan over cracked, bumpy and littered roads. Hanyuan was a big disappointment. Just as the road on the way there, it is a dusty, muddy and filthy place of run-down concrete buildings and cracked pot-holed roads of poor tarmac. After having checked in at the nicest hotel I could find, I settle down for my evening meal. As I finished eating a young student approached me and asked if I would be her friend and teach her some English. Tired, I accepted, not knowing that it involved meeting her family, dog and boyfriend and 30 minutes walk from the town center. After yet a night of pleasant celebrity treatment, I crashed in bed later than usual.

Despite my short visit, I was pleased to leave Hanyuan, although I was clueless to where to cycle next. After asking over ten locals the way to Yonghe or Jinkouhe, I was still in disarray. I decided to follow the advice of the last man pointing me in the direction I arrived the previous day. Still uncertain of the way, I stopped one last time to confirm my route. The woman at a gas station pointed me in the opposite direction, and I almost gave up, ready to cycle to the next bus station, and give up cycling altogether. Also, I had lost my compass when bumping over the cobbled roads a week ago. Now I really needed it. Finally, I decided to trust my instinct and head towards the sun, which had recently risen in the east. I also decided to follow the stream of the Dadu River, which logically would be going down-stream towards the city of Leshan. My theories proved to be right, but before I had the opportunity to catch up with the time lost asking directions, I was stopped once again by a road block a few kilometers outside of the city. Again, the road was closed due to massive landslides in great numbers, and I was forced to wait until the road opened almost three hours later. The same procedure repeated itself from the previous day as I covered my face with my scarf, pulled my hat down as far as possible and tightly placed my sunglasses over my eyes. Dirty, exhausted and hungry I was lastly closing in on Jinkouhe 70 kilometers later, a city set next to the mighty Dadu River. The city looked beautiful across the river as I was approaching, and instantly was overwhelmed by relief and joy. The thought of a warm meal and hot shower made me forget all the difficulties and impasses of the day. I stopped at the first restaurant I saw at the edge of the city, close to the river, ordered my food and drinks and made myself comfortable by whipping off as much dirt and sweat of my body as possible. When my meal arrived so did a group of middle-aged men who sat down at the table next to me. One of them quickly came over to greet me and spoke comprehensible English. He welcomed me to Jinkouhe, but also kindly explained that no foreigners are allowed here and after my meal I had to proceed to the next town ‘thirtyeen’ kilometers away. I politely responded that I was just staying one night, I was exhausted, dirty and that I was not going to cause problems, and honestly I was not going anywhere further tonight. When he nicely insisted on me leaving I humorously asked what would happen if would stay. ‘Would the police arrest me’, I joked. ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘We are the police’. Instantly, one of his colleagues came over to proudly show his police badge. ‘It is not safe here’, the officer added. 'You must leave now.’ After my meal and additional pleading, I was still not being allowed to stay. Exhausted, my muscles stiff and soar; I cycled out of the city, amazed by the principles of the Chinese police. I quickly thought about heading for the other side of the city and secretly find accommodation, but when I saw the police following me in their private car, waving enthusiastically, pointing me in the right directions, that option suddenly became obsolete. They were escorting me out of the town. Sadly, not only did the ‘thirtyeen’ mean thirty kilometers opposed to thirteen, the entire road was under construction all the way to E’bian. As the sun was setting I entered the city which was bustling with life. However, I was too tired to take part and after dinner I collapsed in bed, once again utterly exhausted.

Surprisingly, the next day I woke up feeling great. Maybe because it was my last day before I would reach Emei and take a break from cycling for a few days. Out of the last thirteen days I had cycled eleven, and it was taken its tow on my body as well as tearing on my psyche. My bum was in bad condition and I was almost running out of my German wonder cream, my knees slightly aching and legs generally stiff. More significantly, I was having difficulties handling the daily routine of getting up early, pack my packs, check-out of the hotel and later in the day check-in, unpack, all while trying to communicate with the locals. I was also feeling a bit lonely not being able to speak fluently with anyone for almost two weeks. Therefore, excited and astonishingly full of energy I pedaled the last 60 kilometers to Emei over one mountains pass and through several of construction sites. Emei is referred to the area of Emeishan city but primarily people associate it with the Emei Mountain, 3099 meters high, spotted with Buddhist monasteries and temples. The hike up and down the mountain is now a common tourist attraction, and I will join all the travelers in the next few days to walk through Buddhist history and culture.


View updated Route Report

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Day 71-78: Roads less traveled

Before I left Lijiang I allowed myself one additional day of rest, relax and a chance to run my last errands before heading towards Lugu Lake, and later Xichang. I was thoroughly enjoying my stay in Lijiang at Mama's Guesthouse. Mama is a powerful, robust, loud, aggressive, but short woman who runs three guesthouses in Lijiang - simply Mama no. 1, 2, and 3. She has recently become famous for her rough manners which interestingly has attracted many pack packers and travellers. When I first arrived in Lijiang and entered Mama no. 3, Mama herself greeted me with a load hello. 'Hungry?', she screamed out next. I nodded carefully and politely asked for a menu. 'No menu! You have egg and tomato. Sit down!', she firmly replied. Her manners were charmingly rude. She truly acts as if she is your Mama, and I quite liked it. Every night she makes dinner for all guests who crowd the restaurant at 18.00 every night to indulge in a delicious Chinese buffet for 10 Yuan (1 Euro) per person. With an accompanying beer for 3 Yuan (0,3 Euro), most guests never have dinner anywhere else. Despite somewhat rude behaviour, Mama and her staff were always helpful when approached correctly. When I left the guesthouse after a total of four nights, they gave me decorative souvenirs for good luck and fortune and as many bananas as I could fit in my panniers. Thanks, Mama.
Initially, I had planned three days of cycling in order to reach the beautiful, scenic Lugu Lake, but a new road through the Mian Mian mountains would save me a day. I jumped on the opportunity, although I knew that crossing the mountain chain would be very demanding as well as a long ride, probably more than 120 kilometers. However, after two full days of leisure and relaxation I was ready for more physical challenges and set off towards Ninglang. The day started perfectly; the sun was shining, warming my skin in the cool, breezy wind, and I was pedaling effortless for the first 20 kilometers. To my delight the road also angled downward, making the first 40 kilometers a true cycling pleasure. However, despite my excitement of free-wheeling I was troubled due to the fact that I knew I still had to climb the Mian Mian mountains. Descending would only force me to climb even higher later in the day. I managed to ignore my anguish as I rolled all the way down to the river at the bottom of the mountain. After a tasty lunch by the river I curiously pedaled on, unaware of the coming obstacles. When the road started to slant upward I accepted the conditions and changed to the lowest gears, nevertheless, worried about how long the ascending would last. My concerns dramatically increased when the dreaded cobbled stones returned once again to make my life a living hell. At 80 kilometers the road was still angled in my disfavor, and the cobbled, rocky road very present. After 40 kilometers pedaling uphill on a road built to destroy bicycles, I stopped by a farmer's house to ask for food and water in lack of better options. He gladly invited my to his mudbrick house, and instructed his wife to get the fire started and cook me a meal, which would only consist of fried bread. As I sat there on a tiny stool in front of the fire, wobbling on the uneven dirt floor, I could hardly believe people could live under such poor and filthy conditions. They had no electricity and the only running water was from a rusty pump in front of the house. The farmer, his wife and father all had not washed in days and everything around me was covered in filth. Still, when preparing my meal the wife carefully washed all utilities in front of me as if she was very aware of their dirty home. Despite their poor living conditions they displayed great hospitality and even refused to accept money for the bread and green tea. According to the farmer I had another 20 kilometers until the road would finally turn downhill. I hoped he would be wrong, but as I found out fighting my way up the road over sharp stones, he was unfortunately right. After 60 kilometers uphill I had already claimed this the toughest, most demanding day of my journey, not including the additional bumpy way down to Ninglang. When I finally arrived after 125 kilometers, eight and a half hours of cycling, and more than twelve hours on the road it was almost eight o'clock. After dinner and a shower I could not even remembering falling asleep before I woke up the next morning, scheduled to cycle to Lugu Lake.

Lugu Lake (Lugu Hu) is located northeast of Lijiang at the Yunnan - Sichuan province border almost 2700 meters above sea level. The beautiful lake with its stunning surrounding scenery makes it a worthwhile stop, although cycling there means climbing mountains above 3000 meters elevation. After a sturdy breakfast I was ready to tackle the slanting roads once again and hoped that this day was not going to be as brutal as the previous. I was wrong. The steep, cobbled road continued to stretch my physical abilities to the limit, and tortured me for 73 kilometers all the way to Luoshui, a small town bordering the lake. Several times during the day I was forced to walk uphill when my legs surrendered, or I had to jump off the bicycle, leaving room on the narrow road for tourist buses on their way to Lugu Lake. At times I was tempted to wave down a bus and join the other Chinese tourists who so empathetically stared at me from their soft seats on the air-conditioned transporters. Just before I arrived, a heavy rainstorm made sure to make this yet another unforgettable day. I rushed to find a cozy hotel built in traditional wooden Chinese style at the edge of the lake. The room had a huge panorama window facing the reflecting water, and for 30 Yuan (3 Euro) it was mine for two days. Amazingly, after a hot shower, all pains and sorrows of the day were quickly forgotten as I layed down on the soft, clean sheets of the bed, looking out through the panorama window over the lake. A sudden feeling of tranquility spread through my body.

I spent one full day wandering around the shore of Lugu Lake. The peak season had passed so few tourists shared the magnificent views of the inland sea. The place had a very calming and peaceful effect on me. I could just sit at a restaurant looking out over the lake, zipping on a beer, letting my mind free. When darkness fell, it was just as quite and peaceful, but for the restaurant of the hotel I was staying. Here, all people of Luoshui seems to gather to drink and share laughs. I decided to join the party and ordered a local beer. Just as my beverage arrived I was invited over to a table of two young men, drinking something a bit more toxic. They were doing shots of vodka, mixed with a Chinese sport drink, topped off with light beer. The combination proved not only to be unexceptionally tasty, but very uplifting. As we made toast after toast more people joined the group and suddenly I was participating in the celebrations, playing drinking games, singing and clapping. When the second case of beer emptied, I rested my case and I retired to bed, dreading the next day of cycling. I woke up feeling just as I deserved. Luckily, I had only 30 kilometers to pedal around the lake to the next big town, Zuosuo, crossing into the province of Sichuan. The hilly road outlines the lake, making it a stunning ride. On my way to the next destination I stopped in Ligu village, a smaller, pretty village on the north side, to nap off my hangover. Thus, the last kilometers towards Zuosuo involved less headaches than the first. During my short stay in Zuosuo I noticed that the presence of a westerner was very rare. I was treated like a king with outermost respect, and attracted half the town's population when I sat down to have dinner or walk the streets. Dave, who I hiked the Tiger Leaping Gorge with, had explained to me his experiences in south China where he taught English for three months. 'Because of your white skin, you are often treated like a king', he pointed out. I was feeling it.

I left Zuosuo as usual early in the morning to witness a road slanting downward. Thankful, I pushed on, traveling over 40 km/h for a longer period of time on perfect smooth tarmac. I had almost forgotten what it was like cycling at speeds where I could sense the wind striking my body. For 113 kilometers the road followed the river through the valleys of the mountains all the way to Yanyuan, a city located in a plateau of converging rivers. The environment was different and reminded me of the plains of the Vietnamese coast. The climate had also changed. It was warmer and the rays of the sun burning hot. Shortly after I checked in at a hotel, a young woman approached me, speaking fluent English, and introduced herself as Christina (her English name). She was wondering what I was doing in Yanyuan. Not many Westerners are seen here, she added. After presenting my travels, Christina offered me to join her and her little brother at a local restaurant that serves Sichuan specialties just outside of the town. Minutes before I had contemplated what I could possible do in this remote town, thus I gladly accepted. Christina was very impressed by my cycling accomplishment and I was equally impressed by her knowledge of English, only having studied it in school for four years. She is certainly one of the few Chinese students from the countryside who will make a good living for herself, opposed to the idiot currently sitting next to me playing pointless computer games, smoking non-stop. Although Christina is only a student, she too, insisted on paying for the meal, like all other Chinese people who have invited me to a meal. The following day I had a short, but hilly 60 kilometers to Pingchuan. It was now warm and humid, forcing me to dig out my light wear from the bottom of my panniers. Sweaty, I checked in to a decent hotel after being followed and stared at by several locals, puzzled by my arrival. They gathered in groups, whispering, pointing, giggling, shaking their heads, wondering what freak on an odd machine had entered their town. Most villagers eventually gave me a thumbs up, few laughed or stood astonished, frozen with open mouths. Small children ran to their mothers in fear, occasionally with tears in their eyes. After a shower at the hotel their behaviour did not change, but a group of brave boys approached me as I was walking along the main street. In broken English, with a shaking, nervous tone, they asked me where I was from, what is my name and other common phrases they had learned in school. They seemed very excited to have met me and invited me to join them at a small store to have a cold drink. As we sat down the entire group light up a cigarette each, taking short, nervous drags, continuing the questioning. Interestingly, they all asked the same questions over and over, taking turns practising their English. Their excitement and nervous behavior became clear to me when the bravest boy of them all explained that they had never met a foreigner before and this was the first time they spoke English outside of school. They are 17 years old. We spend the entire afternoon together, playing basketball, taking our photo at the local photo store, and surfing the Internet so they all could show me to their friends through the web camera. (One boy asked me if I had heard of Internet and pointed out that it is very good). Exhausted of being treated like a king and living the life of a superstar, I excused myself and went back to the hotel to rest before we would meet up for karaoke night at the only nigh club in town. To my huge disappointment I suffered from food poisoning later in that evening and could only lay motionless in bed but for the necessary visits to the bathroom. I surely would have wanted to see those boys sing.

The last stretch towards Xichang ended up measuring 90 kilometers, adding up to almost 500 kilometers since I left Lijiang eight days ago. It too, presented challenging mountain passes and rough roads. However, the heat took me by surprise and left me without water for one hour climbing a 30 kilometers pass, also making it an unexceptionally demanding day of cycling. Again I was stared at, worshipped, and treated like a king whenever I stopped to eat or buy liquids. At lunch I was served by three women, constantly filling up my tea cup, adding rice to my bowl and making sure all was in order. When I left them behind for the last kilometers to Xichang, the whole family gathered to wave me goodbye. Xichang is a large, modern city on the rise with emerging large concrete buildings popping up at the edge of the city. It has a pulse of a modern metropolis and I am truly happy to be here. After having checked in at the hotel, I headed to Grandma's kitchen, a modern restaurant Christina had recommended back in Yanyuan. The name is misleading for the restaurant looks nothing like your grandmother's kitchen. It is a sofisticated place with matching furniture, decorative cloths and contemporary paintings on the walls. The 42" flat screen just adds to the modern impression. I spent the evening right there, in front of the TV, watching the NBA finals, eating an enormous hamburger with fries, peanut pecan pie and drinking diet coke and Cafe Americano. God bless, America.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Day 63-70: Unforgettable adventure

The main reason western travelers stop in Lijiang is to proceed to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world. It is located between the Haba Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan), where the mighty Jinsha River flows, north of Lijiang. Both mountains measure over 5500 meters and it is an impressive 3900 meters from the river to the snow-covered mountain tops. The hike through the gorge is an adventure one cannot miss traveling in southwest China, in the province of Yunnan. I knew the trek through the gorge was going to be one of the highlights of my journey.

Before I left to go hiking I decided to stay in Lijiang for a couple of days to rest my muscles and enjoy what the old town of the city has to offer, despite its similarities with Dali. The old town of Lijiang differs greatly from the otherwise contemporary city. The ancient town is a beautiful maze of cobbled streets, dark wooden buildings, never-ending souvenir shops and lively markets. The narrow, winding streets make it difficult to navigate and I spent a great part of my first day trying to find my way around including locating my hotel. To my relief many other travelers had faced the same problems, making me feel less incompetent. After a visit to the Black Dragon Pool park with the famous and spectacular view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan), I ran into Alberto and Sebastian, the two Dutch fellows I had met in Hanoi waiting in line to enter the Chinese embassy. We had discussed doing the famous hike together, thus made dinner plans to discuss our next adventure. But before we headed into the wild we made a 30 kilometers cycle tour, leaving Lijiang to Baisha to visit the now very well-known Dr. Ho (He). He is an old man, looking just like you would picture a Taoist physician, treating patients with herbs that he collects on the mountains surrounding the village. Interestingly, he has made a name for himself over the years and has been featured in many newspapers all over the world, as well as international TV stations. As a matter of fact, two days prior to our visit NBC was there to interview him, and many other TV stations, including channel four from Sweden, have also paid a visit to Dr. Ho. Every visitor got a thorough introduction of his clinic, success story and treatment methods without any charge. It was a genuine experience, opening up my eyes to alternative medical treatments.

Originally I had planned to take a round trip by bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, but after four tiresome bus rides with the bicycle, I had promised myself to never set my foot on a bus for the remaining of my journey. Therefore, on day 65 I headed for Daju, a village 90 kilometers north of Lijiang and 50 kilometers from the gorge, on my loaded bicycle. Leaving Lijiang was a straight, endless slope lasting 30 kilometers towards the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The entire morning I had the colossal snowcapped mountain in sight, leading the way to the north, inspiring me to pedal up the slanting road. I took the opportunity to stop for breakfast at one of the tourist cafés facing the mountain. The view was incredible. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the pricy noodles. I must have ascended significantly because the low temperatures forced me to dress up in my full wind-proof attire as I left the mountain behind me. I continued to pedal uphill, dressed for winter, until the road dramatically turned downward. After 40 kilometers traveling at sneaking speeds, I quickly took the advantage of the steep slope and caught up with a bus full of Chinese tourists. Free-wheeling behind the bus I attracted most of the passengers to the rear seats. Having all of their attention I did all the tricks in the book; letting go of the handle-bar, cycling slalom and standing up waving. When I finished entertaining the crowd I gave full power and passed the long bus at 60 km/h feeling like a rock star. I hoped that the Chinese tourists had enjoyed the show as much as I had. The joy quickly ended when the road turned evil once more. But not only was I continuing to pedal uphill, the smooth tarmac had become a rocky surface of sharp stones sticking up from the dirt, ready to puncture any bicycle tire, forcing me to pedal next to it, on gravel, sand and loose stones. After about 65 kilometers I finally could rest my legs as the road leveled out, and gave away to smooth tarmac. Again, the joy was quickly interrupted by the return of the rocky road. However, this time I was descending, straining my arms and fingers opposed to my legs. The dreadful road forced me to break constantly for the furthest descend I have encountered this far; an unexpected 28 kilometers. Sadly, I could not enjoy the view or the speed as I had to keep my eyes locked to the thin strip of gravel bordering the road, insuring that I did not slide down the side of the mountain. In a rear moment, I looked up from the road to see another cyclist struggling his way up. He was a Swiss trooper who had started his journey in Lhasa, Tibet, and was on his way towards Kunming where I started my tour in China. As we stood there in the middle of nowhere sharing experiences and having a laugh at the horrible road, his tire flattened. Apparently, he had hit one of the sharp rocks in the road and now was suffering the consequences. He cursed the road once more and explained to me that this was his sixth flat tire in recent days, and had run out of tire patches. Fortunately, I still had not had a single puncture and could offer him some of mine. As we continued to chat, I watched him repair his rear tire, trying to remember all his moves for my first flat tire; an inescapable fate. We said our goodbyes and I rolled down the rocky, bumpy road to Daju, happy to have arrived despite my throbbing headache from the last two and half hours of constant rattling.

I still had one more day before I would reach Qiaotou where I had agreed to meet Alberto and Sebastian to start our hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Before I could start cycling towards the town on the lower trail of the gorge, however, I had to cross the Jinsha River, a task I highly underestimated. Just to find the ferry at the side of the river was an adventure in itself. After an hour of cycling around the village asking every resident of Daju where the ferry is located (the people of Daju cannot for the love of God show directions), I found the small dirt road leading to the edge of the river. To get down to the ferry I had to carry my bicycle along a narrow, steep path in loose gravel and sand, which took me another half hour. Ironically, after all that strenuous effort and time, the ferry crossed the river in less than a minute. Before I had caught my breath awaited the other side of the mountain, and a 45 minutes walk uphill on a similar path. Fortunately, this time there was help available and for 30 Yuan (3 Euros) the Captain, his man and a pony carried all my gear and bicycle up the vertical mountain side. The men left me in the middle of nowhere on a wrecked dirt road, huge peaks surrounding me. I felt very small. At this time I did not trust any directions from anybody ever set foot in Daju, so I cycled partly on instinct and partly on compass until I reached the main, paved road. For a moment I lost my senses and asked a woman which way I should go, right or left leading to Qiaotou. Not to my surprise she gestured me to go the wrong way, and once again I was frustrated having cycle unnecessary meters. At this point I have pedaled many pointless kilometers due to poor direction from the people of Yunnan. However, I have finally figured out where the communication dilemma lies. Instead of showing me the way I should go, I am often pointed the direction where the destination is located, and that is not at all times the correct route. It seems to be a difference of communication. Sometimes I forget I am thousand of kilometers away from home.

Finally I was pedaling towards Qiaotou, but it was already after lunch and I knew I was going to be late. I was also aware of that I had to climb a few landslides that had crashed on the road in the last weeks. Only a few had supposedly been cleared. When I was faced by the first huge pile of rocks I knew I was not going to arrive in Qiaotou for a few more hours. The landslide was massive, covering the entire road and measuring over 20 meters in height. It was not the size, nor the height that scared me. It was the fact that the landslide led directly to the edge of the road, and a 2000 meter plunge down to the river, that terrified me. The loose stones that rumbled down at every step crossing the enormous pile of stones did not exactly calm me down either. After climbing the landslide, not carrying any bags, having both hands to balance, I knew that this was going to be the most frightening experience of my life. I quickly thought about turning back, but that meant cycling 20 kilometers to the river to cross it again, and pedal 100 kilometers on the same road back to Lijiang, and cycle 80 kilometers on the other side of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in order to reach Qiaotou. This would take days. I decided to give the landslide a try, promising myself not to look down, and calculated that I had to cross it five times to get all my gear and bicycle on the safe side. After my first load of equipment I met a group of travelers on the other side as I was unloading. I met them in Lijiang at the guesthouse I was staying and we had enjoyed a few beers together and played pool at the English pub on one of the nights in Lijiang. It was very calming and relieving to see them again, this time at the edge of a massive landslide. They recognized my problem but also realized that they had to cross it in order to make it to Daju. When I returned with the second load one of the girls of the group was shaking from fear and tears was rolling down her cheeks. I did not blame her; I was shaking like a leaf on a windy autumn day myself, but was too focused to shed tears. Carrying the gear I was able to free one hand to balance my weight against side of the landslide, but when I carried the bicycle over, I had no hands to rely on, and I was walking up and down the slope of the landslide, holding my bicycle firmly, looking straight ahead taking one slow step after another at the very edge of a 2000 meter plunge. When all my equipment was on the safe side I felt more alive than I have ever felt in my entire life.

Before I reached Qiaotou I had conquer three more landslides, fortunately not of the scale of the first, and I had cycled almost 50 kilometers, 20 more that I expected. It was now past three o'clock and the Dutch fellows had already left for the first stop of the trek. I was complementing heading into the mountain or waiting to start the hike the following day. Being exhausted mentally as well as physically I decided to wait as I met a friendly couple staying next to me at the guesthouse. I quickly invited myself to join them the next day and they gladly accepted. The lovely couple, Dave and Jess, turned out to be very easy-going, friendly, inspiring people, and the perfect couple to share the Tiger Leaping Gorge with. On the two days it took to stride through it I saw more scenic mountain views than I probably have ever seen in my entire life traveling. When the clouds cleared we could see the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and its glaciers glistering in the sun at about 5500 meters elevation. At the same time we could look down 2500 meters to witness the force of the mighty Jinsha River as it surges through the gorge. The trail winds its way up and down the mountain side, at times physically challenging, but more often simply enjoyable. Along the way we met other hikers just as awed by the scenery, creating a magical atmosphere. We spend two nights in the gorge, looking out over the gigantic, impressive peaks, eating, drinking, talking and laughing, until we retired to our beds. Tiger Leaping Gorge was an unforgettable adventure.

After two days trekking and two additional days cycling my legs were beat and lacked energy. Still, I managed to pedal the 80 kilometers to Lijiang on the larger road east of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It was a misty, rainy day, the beautiful mountains well hidden behind the thick, grey clouds. After 40 kilometers the cycling lots all of its appeal and I just wanted to arrive in Lijiang. Every kilometer seemed to take an eternity. Eventually I made it back to the ancient city of Lijiang, completely soaked from the heavy rain, drained out of energy, hungry, thirsty and tired beyond description. After dinner I collapsed in bed enable to join the others at the Sexy Tractor bar across the street from our guesthouse. Now, I will allow myself at least one day of rest before I head east, on my way to Chengdu, about 900 kilometers away.


Monday, June 4, 2007

Day 57-62: Magical scenery

Dali is a beautiful town situated next to the Erhai Lu Lake, one of the largest in China, with the stunning Jade Green Mountains as an ideal backdrop. Dali’s small cobbled streets, cozy restaurants and cafés make this ancient city a wonderful place to stay a few nights after four days of demanding cycling. I instantly took the opportunity to treat myself to all the delicious food I could get my hands on. The city offers a variety of snacks easily accessible along the small streets, making me eat constantly. For lunch on my second day I had a stick of seasoned grilled potato, two fried rolled rice cakes, a plate of vegetable dumplings, three juicy plums, a banana, a sesame muffin, a Chinese croissant, a few local cookies, a fruity icy juice drink, and two ice cream cones to top it off. By the time I had finished eating it all, it was time for dinner. After four lonesome days on the road I was also keen on meeting other travelers to share experiences and speak anything but broken Chinese. I was fortunate to run into two Swedish girls that also just had arrived in town. It felt relieving having someone speak my native language to me instead of foreign blather.

There is not much to do in Dali but to wonder around the pleasant streets and alleys and absorb the atmosphere, drink, eat and relax. However, I and the two Swedish girls agreed to go on a short boat tour on the lake, and I did my own cycle tour around town to familiarize myself with the surroundings and the local people. I had three full days of rest in Dali and when the fourth morning arrived I was excited to get back on the road. I left early to catch the morning mist and fresh air. Cycling out of Dali was majestic. The sun had just appeared over the mountains to the east, illuminating the Erhai Lu Lake and castings its rays on the peaks to the west. In the perfect moment when I was cruising at my average comfortable speed, the fresh morning air softly striking my face, I heard a sudden noise from the back of my bicycle. I stopped to see that my rear rack had loosened and was pressing against the rear wheel. At first I was troubled, but soon realized that all the bolts had just come off due to the bumpy roads towards Dali. They simply had been shaken loose and I had forgotten to tighten them. Luckily only one bolt was missing and I was able to replace it easily to continue to enjoy this extraordinary morning. I expected a mountain pass to arrive sometime during the day and at 45 kilometers my anticipation was confirmed. I fought my way up the steep road for 20 kilometers until I finally reached Beija, my intended destination for the day. However, Beija was not only far from the road, it is located a few hundred meters below the road, making it difficult to reach. Again I trusted my anticipation and continued pedaling, hoping the road was going to turn downhill shortly. Half an hour later I was in the next town, Songgui, having rolled down the mountain at record-braking speeds (new max km/h: 64,3). When I arrived in Songgui I felt great. Despite the 97 kilometers I had bicycled, my muscles were not hurting, my neck and shoulders pain-free and I was in good frame of mind. However, Sunggui quickly changed my mood. This small, unfriendly and dirty town I was going to be very happy to leave behind. The only event to enlighten my stay was a children’s play in action just outside my grubby hotel, honoring the children’s day. Little girls and boys were heavily dressed made up and made up, resembling small clowns hopping around the stage, singing badly and out of sync. It was very cute.

The total distance to Lijiang, where I planned my next longer stop, and also to engage in some trekking, is approximately 180 kilometers, meaning that I physically could have completed the stretch in two days. But I was looking forward to some relaxed cycling and give myself time to thoroughly appreciate the beautiful, mountainous scenery. Therefore, the following day I planned to only pedal 30 kilometers to Heqing, a city only 45 kilometers from Lijiang. About half way I stopped to ask for direction as I have been forced to many times due to the Chinese road sign, or more correctly, the lack of Chinese road signs. I approached a group of men repairing a dusty, old truck ready for the junkyard. When I presented my simple question of directions the men started to argue immediately. An older man was convinced I should travel back one kilometer then take a left, something I was not too keen on. A younger, more aggressive man had another solution. He suggested me to take a right just at the next intersection visible from where we were standing, then slowly turn right, and at last make a sharp left to catch the main road. Both men drew detailed drawings of their recommended routes, and it almost felt like they were competing for my attention. From what I could understand the latter directions was a short-cut and would save me time. On the other hand, it seemed very complicated opposed to the first option. When I hesitated, not sure who I should let down and who I wanted to declare winner, the younger man gestured that he and his wife would show me the way. We traveled down the road, he and his wife on their motorbike, me on my bicycle, and quickly left the main road onto a smaller path leading to a small village. The dirt road was bumpy, filled with pot-holes and full of sand and rocks. Slowly we made our way through the village to enter another one, on small winding roads between mud houses, cows, chickens, children in chock, old men dropping their pipes in astonishment, and when I though we would come to a larger road, we crossed into another village. After five kilometers, and at the point where I felt I could not find my way back, I got anxious and jumped off my bicycle, illustrating that we were going the wrong direction, heading south instead of north. I was starting to wonder what this man and his wife were up to. Where were they taking me? What did they want? The man positively signed that we were almost there, at the bigger road leading to Heqing. I looked him in the eyes, shook his hand and hoped for the best. Two kilometers later he pointed straight ahead. And there it was; Road S212 going to Heqing. I shook his hand once more, gave his wife a big smile and rolled my bicycle over the last bit of dirt road onto perfect tarmac. Back on the big road I realized the magnitude of their kindness. They had taken more than half an hour of their time traveling seven kilometers just to show me a shorter, faster way. I felt truly bad about not trusting them, and thinking of them as bad people.

When I arrived in Heqing I was surprised of its beauty and spend most of the day cycling around the streets, getting puzzled looks from the residents. From the day I left Kunming the weather had been absolutely perfect. Everyday I woke up to a blue sky and a soft breeze. Because of the altitude it does not get unbearably hot, although the mid-day temperatures can climb above 30 degrees Celcius. Still, the breezy winds keep me cool and I can actually appreciate the warmth of the sun at times, something unthinkable in Vietnam. The day in Heqing was no exception. On my way to the city, the sky was so clear I was even able to catch a glimpse of the glaciers far away in the distance. The sight had inspired me to move on despite the beauty of Heqing and the next morning I left my hotel at 5:45, again to witness a clear sky. Leaving Heqing I was stunned by the magnificence of nature. As I slowly pedaled my way through the landscape I could see the sun slowly rise above the mountains. The more it appeared the more the landscape around me illuminated. The bright green rice fields took a dreamlike color of green, only imaginable in my fantasy. The sky was perfectly clear in various shades of blue. The fields were full of workers harvesting in the golden rays of the sun, their long shadows creating a symmetrical pattern in the landscape. My eyes filled with tears. If it was from the stunning scenery or the cold wind in my face, I could not tell, but I was certainly moved by the scale of the experience. Before I knew it, I had arrived in Lijiang.

Lijiang is similar to Dali that it is jammed with Chinese tourists. They are everywhere with their sun umbrellas, cameras, camcorders, matching clothes and flags. They seem to really enjoy being labeled 'tourist' because they strive to live up to it. The old town of Lijiang is also typically constructed in a beautiful traditional Chinese style, and offers equally many souvenir shops. As a result, I will shortly head back out into the wild, despite the beauty of the city. This time, however, I will walk.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 49-56: Entering China

Monday, May 21th, at 6:45 I was at the Chinese embassy for the third time to apply for the Chinese visa. When I parked my bicycle I looked up to see that even though I had arrived one hour and forty-five minutes before the embassy would open, I was still not the first applicant in line. Six other troupers had made it before me. Standing in line ahead of me was two Dutch fellows and one French woman teaching law in Hanoi. I scared them with my stories of previous experiences with the embassy and filled in with other rumours I had picked up speaking to other travellers in the last weeks. Nervous and anxious we filled out our forms in line and waited patiently. Two hours later we all had managed to turn in our applications before closing. Excited we met outside the tall, yellow brick walls of the embassy and agreed to celebrate with a deluxe French breakfast.

Leaving Vietnam I felt relieved. I had spent 50 days in this country and I was ready for something new. The day half my journey was completed, I was on my way to China, feeling excited about what awaited ahead. Many questions lingered in my mind. Would I be greeted in the same friendly manner I had been in Vietnam? Could I easily stop for food and drinks? What would the road conditions be like? What about safety? However, walking with my bicycle across the bridge that connects China with Vietnam, seeing China appearing closer and closer, I realized that this was a new beginning. I had to start over, getting to know the people, the culture, the language, and learning new phrases. It was the same questions I had had when entering Vietnam and it all had worked out perfectly. I was very content with my travels and experiences in Vietnam. Now I was in Hekou, the city that lies on the border to Vietnam, cycling around town, absorbing the new environment. Everywhere were Chinese characters in all shapes and sizes, covering every entrance of every store or restaurant. People stared differently, and I was not receiving the smiles I was used to. I figured the citizens of Hekou were not accustomed to a foreigner cruising around the streets on a fully loaded bicycle. They were probably in chock, unable to display any emotions. It was a very hot day. The locals were hiding under umbrellas, drinking refreshing cocktails and juices. In an attempt to escape the burning mid-day sun I joined them to try out some Chinese refreshing drinks. When my coconut juice was place in front of me two Japanese men sat down at my table, curious about my bicycle and travels. After I had presented my situation and explained my ambitions, I curiously asked what brought them to Hekou, in the very south of China, next to the Vietnamese border. In my mind, the reason for being here was merely for transport purposes. Either you were on your way to Vietnam, crossing over the border, or you just left the country on your way to other destinations in China. It never entirely became clear to me why the Japanese tourists were in Hekou, but they logically explained to me that the Vietnamese girls are very pretty and affordably this close to the border. That clarified the dildos that were being sold at the market among fruits, vegetables and meats.

The night bus to Kunming reminded me of a similar bus me and Daniel had taken going to Hanoi. This time, however, there were no air-conditioning, and it was packed with Chinese people, wondering what I was doing on their bus. When I finally entered a deep sleep the bus arrived, ending a nightmare about Chinese people stealing my bicycle. At 4:30 in the morning I stepped out of the bus, equipped myself with my head-lamp, assembled the bicycle, and venture into the dark city. More than half my journey had passed so I thought it was time for a bit of luxury, checking into a finer hotel at four times the cost I had been paying in my last days in Vietnam. I needed to get prepared for China and get a good night sleep before pedalling west towards Dali, about 420 kilometers away. I had spent the last two nights either on a train or bus, thus I took the opportunity to indulge in a hot bath, buffet breakfast and English TV. Kunming is a modern city with rising skyscrapers, western clothing stores, food chains, structured roads, traffic lights and even bicycle lanes. When I was not at the hotel, appreciating the luxurious comfort, I cycled around Kunming, visiting the main attractions. I also managed to stop by a professional bicycle store to get my bicycle perfectly tuned up for the challenges ahead.

I left Kunming fully dressed in my wind protecting outfit as the temperatures drop down below ten degrees Celsius in the early morning. Kunming is located at an altitude of almost 1900 meters, making it especially chilly in the first hours of the day. From this day on I would not ascend below 1000 meters for a few weeks, so my warmer clothes would soon come handy. I was not only excited to use the gear I had been carrying all the way through Vietnam, I was also pleased with a cooler climate that would prevent me from sweating uncontrollably. Sadly, my first impression of cycling in China was disappointing. Leaving Kunming I travelled through the backside of the city, next to factories and old dump yards. The heavy traffic, with exclusively large, old trucks leaving thick black smoke behind them, did not improve my belief. Not until I arrived in Anning, 30 kilometers south-west of Kunming, did the traffic disperse. Although I was still full from the enormous buffet breakfast I had truly enjoyed a couple of hour ago, I stopped in town for my first Chinese meal on the road. I picked a place full of people eating and having loud conversations, and instantly I was invited to join a table of four. As I thankfully seated myself an English teacher was called over from another table to translate our dialogue. After a good meal and pleasant company, I illustratively displayed my appreciation and asked for the bill, but the English teacher had already cleared the costs and despite my protests, he insisted on paying for my lunch. I left the restaurant with a dramatically changed first impression of cycling in China. My destination this day was Lufeng, a city north-west of Kunming. I was not completely certain of the total distance I had to pedal since my map only display kilometres on the larger Express way where bicycles are not allowed. At 109 kilometers, travelling on the smaller road adjacent to the Express way, I was finally there, surprised of the long distance I had been required to pedal. Finding a hotel proved to be as challenging as the cycling itself. Since all sign are written in Chinese characters, it is naturally difficult for me to make out the hotels. When I ask locals they persistently speak Chinese to me, waving their hands in all direction. Every time I gesture that I do not understand, but they ignore my attempts and continue to chatter in their language. Occasionally when they see that I am not following their dialogue, they write out the Chinese characters in their hand, as if that would help me understand. Very little English is spoken outside the larger cities and apparently simple gesturing is also not practised, making communication a demanding task.

On my way to Chuxiong on my second day towards Dali, I met the second English teacher as I stopped for lunch in a small town, consisting of a dirt road and a tiny market. I was introduced to her mother, who served me a delicious meal from her bicycle. It was a custom made three-wheeler with a kitchen on the back, loaded with several different tasty dishes. This time I paid for the meal myself, but for 3 Yuan (0,30 Euro) I had it covered. After 78 kilometers I arrived in Chuxiong, a large city located roughly half-way between Kunming and Dali, and again I was faced with communication issues as I tried to find a hotel. After my forth attempt I checked in to a hotel on the east side of the city. The odd location forced me to take the bicycle back into town in search for food. Just after I parked the bicycle a man approached me, speaking good English with a hint of a British accent. He, too, was an English teacher and seemed extremely keen on practising his skills. I took the opportunity to ask questions about Chuxiong, and wondered where I could get the best Chinese dumplings in town. He explained that his Chinese name was Ping and his English Pierre, and took me to his favourite restaurant a few minutes away. Ping had spent six month in England which explained his British tone, and was truly a genuine man with the kindest soul in the world. Not only did he treat me to the dumplings and dinner, he also invited me to his home and introduced me to his family. He offered me coffee and presented me with a gift, showed me around town and took me to his school where works. After five hours I was overwhelmed by his hospitality, generosity and kindness. I thanked him and offered the same hospitality if he would ever visit Sweden. We exchanged e-mail addresses and he left me his phone number in case I would get into trouble. I wish this man all the best in the world.

Ping and the two other teachers had left me with a very good feeling about China. Still, I would get very confused and sometimes harsh looks pedalling my way towards Dali. I was not receiving any friendly greetings as I used to in Vietnam, which bothered me. Then there were the dogs. In Vietnam I had a few encounters with chasing dogs but they did not pose a problem other than an annoying constant barking. They were often small and crippled. In China the dogs scared me to death. Luckily most of them were chained to a poled, functioning as a living alarm when intruders would approach. On one occasion, free-wheeling downhill, I was not so lucky. A huge German Shepard saw me approaching his territory, which apparently is the piece of road adjacent to the owner's house, and started to chase me with full force. At first I ignored him after looking down at my speedometer that showed 40 km/h, but when he appeared right behind me in a split second I got worried. The beast was in good condition, his long sharp teeth clearly on display, ready to bite anything that came near. I pushed the pedals with full power accelerating quickly up to 50 km/h, but I was not losing him. I pushed harder and harder and must have exceeded 60 km/h before the maniac animal gave up. I was slightly shaken by the incident but more so over the fact that this dog had chased me for a few hundred meters at 50 km/h. This time I was fortunate that I was on a slope, already travelling at a high speed. What if I was going my steady 20 km/h on a flat surface? He would have eaten me alive.

On the third day towards Dali I had no definite destination. There was no large city within 100 kilometers that made a logical stop. I decided to trust the road signs, and with my experience so far I would find a place to stay before making the last stretch to Dali on the forth and last day. However, following road signs in China is especially challenging due to the Chinese characters. Only close to larger cities are the names spelled out in Latin characters, making it difficult to navigate in the countryside. I would try to memorize the look of the characters to later recognize them on the road signs. Fortunately, I had picked up a map with Chinese characters in Kunming, but still I had difficulties finding my way. When asking locals I would just get instructions explained in Chinese, or at times the wrong directions. At 100 kilometer no larger town had appeared and the smaller towns I had tried to find during the day were too far from the road. I was utterly fatigued moving at creeping speed. I was not sure what slowed me down. Maybe it was the hills, the bumpy roads, the wind, the hot mid-day sun, the melting tarmac sticking to my tires, exhaustion, or a combination of all. I stopped by a small farm on the top of the mountain and asked for food, water or shelter. To my surprise and delight, I was offered all. Relieved I rolled my bicycle up the lawn and agreed to a dirty room that could substitute as a zoo for insects. I brought up my tent, assembled it on the bed, washed off and sat down among the chickens looking out over the mountains, thinking; this is assume. The family treated me like a king, preparing dinner, offering fruits and caring for me as if I was the only foreign guest that they have ever had. I most likely was.

On my last day towards Dali I failed again to accurately estimate the distance, forcing me to break the long distance record, 129 kilometers. This was a long day and I did not find my way to Dali until early evening, having conquered a big mountain pass, bumpy roads, false directions, never ending construction site and the usual heat and sweat. In four days I have pedalled over 400 kilometers, pushing my physics to the limit. Now I am feeling that I am truly becoming stronger, seeing my body taking new shapes. My calves have taken abnormal proportions and despite all the food and snacks I am continuously consuming, I am still losing weight. Dali offers a variety of good foods, so now I am taking the opportunity to indulge in pancakes, fruit shakes, hamburger, cakes, and all the traditional Chinese foods without any guilt at all.


Updated Route Report

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Day 43-48: Eating and drinking

Fortunately I had planned one full day rest in Dien Bien Phu to recover and refuel after three challenging and demanding days cycling the roof of Vietnam. The next morning I woke up early from severe, almost painful hunger. I had been dreaming about pancakes and fruit shakes the entire morning, thus excited I rushed out into town to find myself a restaurant that could fulfill my needs. However, Dien Bien Phu is not a large city and still few western tourists make it all the way west in northern Vietnam, close to the Laos border. As a result, no pancakes or fruit skakes were to be found anywhere. The best I could find was a six-egg-omelet and an ice coffee.

Dien Bien Phu is known for one of the last battles of the French Indochina Empire, ending a long period of colonial suppression. It was here that the French colonial forces met their match in 1954 in an historic 57 day siege by the Viet Minh forces. The battle is well presented at the only museum in town. I spend the morning of my first day off wandering around the site, once again reminded of the horror of wars. The rest of the day I spent eating and drinking, before going out for dinner to indulge in more food and drinks. I could simply not satisfy my hunger. I returned to the restaurant I had visited for lunch when the owner made his local specialty exclusively for me. It was the most delicious fried rice I had ever had, prepared with various vegetables, spices and Vietnamese sausage of some sort. I was hoping for a dinner of the same quality. Indeed the chef and owner delivered as anticipated. He served me three tasty dishes, rice, a couple of beers and countless of rice wine shots. At the point where his wife started yelling at him for drinking heavily, I started turning down his generous offers, but he did not listen to me or his wife. He kept pouring rice wine into my shot glass, even when I covered the glass with my hand he would just keep pouring, laughing and making jokes, soaking my hand over and over. When I finally asked for the bill and gestured that I had to go to bed, get up early the next day and cycle to Tuan Giao, 80 kilometers to the north-east, he nodded understandingly and charged me 30,000 Dong (1,80 Euro) . We had a great time and I thanked him for his superb food, hospitality and generosity.

The road to Tuan Giao was expectedly hilly and I crossed one big mountain pass early in the day. Today the major challenge was not the hills or the passes; it was the condition of the road. The entire stretch was under construction, making it difficult to gain speed even when traveling downhill. By the end of the day my bicycle had become so filthy that as soon as I arrived in Tuan Giao I had it washed and polished for an astonishing 5000 Dong (0,30 Euro). From this day on I had my bicycle washed each night for the same price, and each time it would look like it did the day I rolled it out of the bicycle store in Germany where I bought it eight months ago. I was impressed by the bicycle how well it had been performing on the bumpy roads, and that it still was in one piece. Up until this day I have not had a single flat tire, broken spoke or rattling chain. My gear cables have gotten slightly stretched, making it more difficult to adjust the gears but that it is fairly normal and usually easily fixed.

I left Tuan Giao energized by another great meal the previous evening, heading for Son La 86 kilometers south-east. I deeply regret not getting an updated map over the north-west region in Hanoi with more specific information regarding road conditions and mountain passes. Every day I would venture out into the unknown, only aware of the total distance I would have to pedal. The day I cycle to Son La this became very obvious as I was unexpectedly faced with an extremely steep climb soon after leaving the hotel, lasting 17 kilometers. It was not the highest climb I had tackled, but certainly the steepest of them all. The 12% and 14% percent warning signs confirmed my theory as I was cursing, pushing myself and the bicycle up the road at a constant 7,5 km/h. When I reached the top I was almost expecting a group of cheerleaders ecstatically welcoming me with songs of hurray. Instead, I was met by a totally destroyed road covered with rocks, pieces of old tarmac and huge potholes the size of half my front wheel. The road did not improve and the longer I rolled down the mountain the more frustrated I became. I had fought my way up that damn mountain at creeping speed and now I was forced to go down the other side at almost the same pace. Bloody hell, no. As my underarms were starting to cramp from constantly breaking, I was letting go of the brakes more and more to gain speed and relax my muscles. My bicycle jumped up and down as I was free-wheeling down the shattered road and I was praying that it would handle the brutal beating. When I reached Son La late in the afternoon I had fought my way up two additional passes, but by now it had all become a routine. Pedaling downhill I would conserve my energy for the next pass to come, and when it arrived I was most often ready for another work-out. I would make sure to have enough water (lesson I learned from the first day; see previous post) to last me through the pass, and enough snacks to keep the blood sugar leveled.

Son La appealed to me. I decided to stay here for one more resting day before pushing it to Hanoi, which would take three more days. I was not up for any sights or museums and looked forward to just relaxing and resting my legs. On my way to Son La through the mountains I had been offered some of sort of alcohol numerous times, most often rice wine, and it seemed like wherever I would sit down to eat, drink or simply rest, I would instantly have a beer or a shot glass in front of me. Most often I politely turned down the offers, repeatedly shaking my head and smile. Son La was no different. On the contrary, here people drank throughout the day. After a visit to the local market and stocking up on my favorite snacks, I sat down to enjoy a cool, refreshing sugarcane juice from one of the smaller restaurants in the center of Son La. Quickly I was surrounded by a five men, six large glasses and a few of liters of “bia”. As this was my day off I accepted their company, we raised our glasses, toasted and after an hour all bottles were empty. The men stood up, nodded, gave me a last smile and went about their business, as if this was part of their daily routine. It certainly seemed like the people of Son La had made a habit of drinking regularly. The same day, at lunch time, a group of policemen in their military green outfits with red and gold details sat down at the table next to me after finishing their midday meal. Again, I was offered alcohol with authority, but I respectfully turned down their offer, hoping that they would not arrest me for not drinking. It did not stop them, and they gladly poured down one shot after the other of rice wine, slamming the glasses hard against the table, shouting and laughing. Then, like the incident earlier in the day, they stood up, nodded and went about their business, driving off in their rusty open-air police van. Great police work, I though to myself.

Leaving Son La I had a long and eventful day ahead of me. I had to accomplish 115 kilometers to Moc Chau, pedaling east towards Hanoi. Fortunately I felt well-rested and the first 25 kilometers flew by. I still decided that I could use another early meal, stopping at a small restaurant along the road. As I have done so many times before, I ordered my Pho Bo (Vietnamese noddle soup with beef) and sat down at the table, grabbed the chopsticks waiting for the food to arrive. I looked up to see twenty faces starring in my direction, but this has also become routine, so I did not notice anything out of the ordinary until I looked down again at the food that had been just placed in front of me. What was that? It was rice porridge of some sort, and scattered in the gue were unrecognizable pieces of meat. When I found out with the help of my phrasebook that the meat was pork I started eating, chewing the meat carefully still not entirely convinced of its kind. The crowd continued to follow my every move waiting for a response. Out of pure politeness I gave the thumbs up as I looked over to the kitchen where the chef was lifting up slimy, white pig intestines out of a huge steal bowl. I looked down in my bowl and instantly made the connection. I looked up to see all other guests nod in approval with emerging smiles on their faces. I later found out that what I was eating was rice porridge with blood filled pig intestines. At the time I just knew I could not keep eating, and so did the waitress and kindly brought me the same dish without the meat.

Luckily I had brought enough snacks to last me until lunch. At 90 kilometers and exhausted, I stopped again at a restaurant on the side of the road to witness once more drunk people slamming their shot glasses of rice wine on the table, laughing and making load conversations. My entrance seemed to enlighten the party even more and I was quickly invited to join. Again I had to struggle to turn down shots of liquor. I failed miserable. The women explain that you do not turn down an offer from a woman; the men assured that you do not reject an offer from an older man. I was in trouble. When I lost count of shots I knew I had to take a longer break than usual. When I finally returned to the road I was still extremely full from all the food and tired from all the rice wine. The hill that appeared in front of me just five minutes after leaving the party did not improve my condition. But I had put myself in this situation so I had to get myself out of it. Right before entering Moc Chau it started to rain intensively, fully completing my day.

The rain was not going to stop and the last two days it more of less rained constantly. In Son La I had invested in a new poncho which covers me completely as well as most of my bicycle. It came very handy as I pedaled 117 kilometers to Hoa Binh, breaking the long distant record, and on the last day of the north-west Vietnam tour pushed the last 75 kilometers to Hanoi. It had taken me ten days to reach Hanoi from Sapa, cycling eight days, resting two. With the additional two days in Sapa it added up to twelve days, same as planned. Proud I rolled into Hanoi and the first westerner I noticed crossing the street right in front of my bicycle was the Dutch fellow I met before leaving for Sapa, and then also half way to Hanoi on one of the mountain passes. He had cycled the exact same route in the same number of days, but in the reverse direction. We laughed, shared experiences and decided to meet for a beer later that evening. I had a lot to tell and so did he.


I have received my Chinese visa and leave Hanoi today. I will report more about that next time. See you in China.

Full route report of Vietnam