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


  1. AnonymousJune 03, 2007

    det var ett herrans tjat om vaderna. kom igen nu - upp till bevis. foto krävs för att övertyga bulk brisbane att medeltidsträning verkligen har ägt rum... ;)

  2. Wonderful report, it will be very helpful when preparing my trip.

    Pirola Sarne