I’ve always wanted to come here and it didn’t disappoint. However my overriding impression as the bus took us to our first nights hotel at Kunming was just how Western it looked.
Day 2 meant a coach transfer to Nanhua. With China modernising and road building in full swing, the reward was the original road west was bypassed by the new motorway, great if you were a cyclist, motorcyclist or single cylindered lorry. Like a swarm of locusts the group photographed anything that moved. Harvested yellow maize hung to dry outside houses and everywhere people laboured in the fields. An orange banner heralded our arrival to the Ju Hua Inn and we dined on woked vegetables and carp.
Day 3 took us to Xiazhuang along the lonely rutted old road. This hadn’t been ignored by the locals who used the perfect surface to dry maize, chillies and rice.
Day 4 came early, as the hotel had a pet cockerel next to the kitchen. Rice soup for breakfast fuelled those who fancied it. The rest feasted on dough balls and eggs. A flat road passed carp ponds and fields. Maize looked predominant, now the rice had been harvested. However it was noticeable that villages seemed to concentrate on different produce. One grew mushrooms, others garlic and this was often announced by large murals on walls. Coffee at Xiangyan, a very modern town. Wealth was apparent in some, what does the future hold for the rest where the per capita income is the same as Angola? The road north to Binchuan was one of the best I’ve ever ridden. A fast descent then gradual decline with mountains either side, not unlike Montana – glorious.
Day 5 took us to Jade Mountain. We took the bus and then walked the 1360 steps to the summit at 3240metres. A sacred site for Buddhist, the white pagoda towered above us and the prayer flags fluttered whilst pilgrims rammed 2 metre long joysticks into a furnace that smouldered in the courtyard. We’d drawn lots the night before and the four winners descended back to the hotel as the bus could only carry four bikes to the top. It was quite a descent as Josiane led the mini peleton back for a beer.
Day 6 arrived and the groups cycling pattern had settled. Richard was out front scouting the way, Peter and Gina on a tandem along with Phil and Ian followed in his wake. At the back Josiane, Frank, Graham and I armed with digital technology were exploring the road life. A temple passed and all four of us entered. In the clearing in front ladies were seated whilst others were offering prayers. I had a fabulous half hour sitting with them folding lucky golden tokens with the ladies and entered the village raffle. If number 145 did come up, I hope they find me. Chinas wealth is being built on manufacturing and a massive concrete works was excavating the hill in front as we descended and turned right for Haidong. Another temple stop and then along the lake road, well it will be when they’ve upgraded it to a 6 lane highway as we dodged the earth movers.
Day 7 meant that we had to take the shorter way to Dali as they were blasting the new road north. It was bumpy but fascinating watching workers hanging of precipices and using huge bits of equipment with minimal care for self preservation. We didn’t stop in new Dali town for lunch as our guides figured that £2 for lunch was way overpriced. In the end we feasted on coke and western chips in a green café by the east gate in old Dali.
Day 8 was an early start; I’m getting a reputation for these. The reward was a practically deserted three pagodas park. Built around 836AD, these are one of the few artefacts that have survived in this area. However the Chinese realising the tourist potential have built a myriad of temples behind them in 1986. By 1100 the park was crammed with Chinese tour groups and we left to take the cable lift up to the Jade belt walk under the mountains. As we walked the 8 miles there and back I wandered who had built the path. Almost flat and widely paved throughout it was a testament to long gone Chinese effort.
Day 9 took us along the western edge of Lake Eryuan at quite a pace. Our first stop was a local market, but what’s this? As we dodged the vegetable and live fish sellers we encountered other Western tourists. The huge advantage of cycle touring is that you see the sites others missed but here the paths of cyclists and tour buses converged. Onwards and suddenly the fields were fully than ever, as thousands of farmers were tending the fields with a seemingly endless planting of garlic. We ended the day as the first Westerners ever to stay at the Erhaiyuan Hot Springs Resort and our dinner dotted in red reflected the heat of the 88 degree pool that fed the resort. Imagine Bath, multiply the single pool by 30 and then take away all the tourists that was how it was. However it’s a sign of a potentially burgeoning Chinese middle class that the day we left (Sunday) it was full.
Day 10 took us to Jianchuan. Initially flat the road switch backed over the moment before the long descent to Jianchuan. Not the prettiest day, however we were starting to run into fellow cycle tourists be these Dutch or American.
Day 11 was the final push to Lijang and the views were getting better. As we climbed the distant Jade Mountain range reared into view which would be our constant companion for the next 5 days. There were a few delicate stomachs in the group today and we feasted on biscuits and French rolls at a roadside shop having chatted at length to a Dutch cyclist doing a 6 month tour of the area. Into Lijang and into a lovely hotel in the old town
Day 12 meant a tour of Lijang. Rebuilt after an earthquake a few years back it’s now basically a Chinese Shopping Mall disguised as a UNESCO site. Added to this was the Jade Park or should I say Theme Park. Inside was the finger painter, temple, photographers and ethnic centre and anything else that the Chinese thought may interest the tourists. However for us coffee starved Europeans, the Norwegian café with its proper coffee machine and brownies was a must. The evening entertainment was the much lauded Naxi concert. Like marmite you either love it or hate it. The Octagenarians strummed ancient instruments and then fell asleep, the ladies sang and the principal, who was mercifully late, bored the life out of us with his endless monologues.
Day 13 took us back over the climb to Quiatou, but not before I’d played Pool on an outdoor snooker table. The subsequent descent took us to the Yangtsee River which we followed on both banks as we cycled under the shadow of the mountains. The hotel was the most basic yet as we awaited;
Day 14 and into Tiger Leaping Gorge. An early start to avoid the tour buses was rewarded, and we descended to the rock where the Tiger had leapt all those years ago. It must be the oriental blood but the Chinese tourists and there were a lot of them all had cameras and were more interested in these than the view. Onwards was much better, little traffic and vast views. As the worlds biggest Gorge it had 1/3 the drop of Everest, yes it was spectacular. A rocky descent and trip across the Yangtsee finished a fantastic day
Day 15 was the last cycling day, only 55 miles and the first 20 miles up, up, up. Everyone made it and Tony our guide won the Polka Dot Jersey. Down now and a most bizarre site. A flooded area with Chinese Tourists on Yaks with a Jade Mountain backdrop, surreal but beautiful. Lijang arrived and Day 16 took us to Kunming where the Yunnan Experience stage show was so good, I went twice.
So that was China, a fascinating place on the cusp of major change. New England next year, a bit different I think.