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.


1 comment:

  1. Hej Kusin

    Hoppas allt e bra med dig, nu är snart äventyret slut, Det är inte utan man blir avundsjuk :-). Så vacket där e. Måste bli lite enklare att cykla i den miljön.

    Igår fira vi midsommar hos Anna sill och snaps var inte orolig jag tog dina snapsar också.
    Tyvärr var inte vädert det bästa kunde dock sitta ute en liten stund på kvällen.

    Sköt om dig så hörs vi.

    Kusin vitamin med familj.