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.