On the road in Yunnan
25.08.2013 - 27.08.2013 30 °C
After nine days of cycling with Painted Roads from Shangri-La to Dali, the legs weren't quite finished. We had completed 720km on our bicycles, winding through the valleys and gorges of the Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze to you and I) and thought that perhaps our legs and our livers had had enough. But it only took a day's rest and revival, including sustenance from Cafe 88, a few light Dali's and a squint at Google Maps to realise how wrong we were. And so it was on a grey drizzly morning, strangely reminiscent of The Peak, that our panniers were packed with Chinese Army biscuits, bread and cheese, spare innertubes and a change of clothes, and we were off down the main road out of Dali old town. After a send-off breakfast at Cafe 88, we had said goodbye to our friends David and Echo, and crucially the Painted Roads back up bus....we were now on our own.
Our destination was Lijiang: the missing link in our Yunnan tour. Our plan was to reach Lijiang, unscathed, in three days. Our route would wind its way north, crossing the Yangtze river a further two times (we had previously crossed the river after Tiger Leaping Gorge near Shigu). After 80km our first night would be in the sprawling town of Binchuan, followed by a further 90km to Chenghai Lake the following day, finishing up with a rather challenging 120km stretch to Lijiang, including a 30km, 1600m climb.
It was an inauspicious start. A drizzly cycle lane took us along the main highway out of Dali. The occasional veg van had been skillfully parked for maximum inconvenience and the puddles were making mincemeat of my freshly and expensively laundered cycling gear. As we made our way down the road, I wondered if all recces of Painted Roads tours at some point started out like this? After 10km, Chris made the executive decision to turn off. A more scenic route was required. A swift left turn led us down a wide avenue towards Erhai Lake and straight into the howls, yelps, and barks of 100s of puppies: we had happened upon the Sunday Dali Dog Market. Fortunately this wasn't the sort of market to be found in Vietnam. These perfectly groomed puppies weren't for the pot, but came in all shapes and sizes: old English Sheep Dogs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Labradors. These lucky creatures, as we routinely observed, were destined for the Chinese household; that's to say, on guard in the front yard, snoozing outside the odd hotel, and, depending on size, decorating the odd handbag. This was to be an entertaining diversion from what turned out to be a pretty hideous exit from the 'arse-end' of Dali. The one scenic spot of the day was to be found outside the main Cement Works to the south east of the city, the scale of which was in proportion to the rate of construction in (destruction of?) China i.e. massive. Our arrival was predicated on the in-hailing of dust, diesel fumes, dirt and God-knows-what-else from a heavily truck-laden road which we thought would be a handy short cut around the Airport...No amount of altitude training can prepare the lungs for this kind of enslaught.
Happily, after crossing a small pass, the cycling was easy going, and eased our legs into what was a greater physical challenge on the bikes with the extra gear we were carrying. The town of Binchuan turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and gave us a very real, bustling insight into China. We eventually managed to locate a hotel, and a fantastic street restaurant for dinner which served us dumplings, eggs and tomato, fried beans and cold beer. Our air-conditioned room (a first for the trip) was located opposite a busy street market selling the unlikely combination of fresh fruit and veg, and underwear. We stuck to the fruit.
Day Two saw us undulate out of Binchuan on the 220 towards our first crossing of the Yangtze since Tiger Leaping Gorge. As it happened, we weren't too sure exactly what we were crossing at the time...we were cycling on a newly constructed bridge for a newly constructed road which skirted a recently flooded valley for yet another hydro-electric scheme. As we cycled along the water, it was apparent that the valley was still in the process of flooding, and the houses were still taking the shape of the new town on the far side of the water. It was probably the Yangtze.
Our second day in the saddle was turning into an increasingly impressive ride, on a non-too-busy road which ended in us turning off to cycle up the left-hand side of Chenghai Lake. The lake, which is famous for being one of the few places in the world where Spirulina can be grown, was glimmering beautifully in the evening light. A large sign which read "Chenghai Lake Village Holiday Resort: 14km" promised a welcoming end to a scenic day. Instructions from David and Joss 'It's the tallest building in town, you can't miss it" proved worthy, and while the hotel was clearly being refurbished on the ground floor, the lakeside restaurant ensured sufficient distance was put between us and the drilling and sawdust, and ran a reliable line in cold beer.
It turned out that my celebrity status had also reached these parts from Lhasa as my beer was unceremoniously interrupted once more for another photograph with some Chinese tourists. Sadly my Mandarin wasn't up to the task of pointing out that blonde hair and blue eyes can be easily obtained over the counter these days.
Day Three: the big one. With 120kms including a 30km / 1,600m climb we thought it wise to get on the bikes early. At not quite the crack of 8am we donned our helmets and set off down the lake on empty stomachs in search of breakfast. We were soon rewarded in the local market at the end of the lake with some noodle soup and steamed bread; but not before consuming all of our early start in photo stops. The morning light was exceptional, the views stunning. A stiff climb out of the bowl of the lake brought us to a fabulous downhill, interrupted only by some chilli plantations and some serious landscape gardening. An enormous tree being manoevered onto a truck which straddled the road stopped us neatly in our tracks. Fortunately we quickly realised we could scoot underneath the branches and past the developing queue of cars and tractors, without waiting for Christmas. We were subsequently passed by the very same tree, hurtling up the switchbacks at around 30km/h on the major climb out of the Yangtze Valley while we had stopped to inhale some Army biscuits. The ride continued in glorious fashion, undulating through rice paddies until we entered a narrow and spectacular gorge which eventually lead us to our third crossing of the Yangtze River.
At 1pm we stopped our bikes before the bridge and contemplated the view: the blue waters of the Yangtze merging with its brown tributary; the mouth watering line up of Pepsi, Fanta and mineral water at a roadside stall; and a towering wall of switchbacks marking the start of a very long afternoon. We delayed the inevitable for a few more minutes. Our 30km of up would be in the heat of the day starting at around 1,300m, and finishing at 2,700m. The data from our cycle computers at the end of the day showed us averaging about 11km/h on the climb, but we had to stop every 10kms to scrape off the salt, reapply sunscreen, take photos, drink and refuel.
It was an absolutely spectacular climb: one of the toughest, but most scenic of the tour. The road took us along the edge of a precipitous valley and up onto an intermediate plateau. As we gained height, we passed villages hidden from view in the sky, we then rounded a large bend into a second valley, more Alpine in feel. Down in the valley floor appeared to be another section of the Yangtze River, with a dam at one end. The road wound its way up through Eucalyptus trees sprouting from the red earth, vegetation we had encountered previously on the approach to Shaxi. We then entered one last gorge, the final approach to Kilometre 22, the "top" of the pass.
Kilometre 22 turned out to be the top of pass number 1. The road then lead out onto a green and mountainous plateau at 2,600m. Freewheeling down the "other side" at this stage did not appear to be a plausible option for forward movement. After several kilometres, a minor undulation of 2-3km loomed ahead, and finally brought us to the top of the hill. We only had a further 16km to cycle to reach Lijiang, but they were 16 beautiful and "free" kilometres: the reward for four hours of climbing, two army biscuits, two litres of Pepsi, two Fantas, several litres of water, and innumerable photo stops. It had been an epic day already, but it wasn't to be complete without a minor detour around Lijiang's newly constructed outer ring road courtesy of IPhone battery failure at the crucial moment. Some slightly desperate but successful deciphering of our Yunnan map, and correlation with Chinese signage by Chris brought us to Lijiang Old Town. A final test of character took us through the evening maze of alleyways to find Mama Naxi's guesthouse at the heart of the Old Town.
It was a beautiful place to finish, and a perfect end to a fabulous tour. Mama Naxi's guesthouse welcomed us from our hot and sticky selves with a cold and sticky bun each and some deep fried beans. We'd found our way to a guest house where friendship was dealt out in a peaceful setting, with the most comfortable bed I had slept on in a month, a hot shower and a heafty portion of free food. Apart from a cold beer, what more could two hungry cyclists wish for?
As a footnote to this, we celebrated having survived our adventure by grockling Lijiang's shops, and sinking a few glasses of red, and two towers of pasta. We later stopped for a few beers at The Forgotten Corner where live music had enticed a few discerning souls into a cozy bar where the drink, sunflower seeds and atmosphere flowed. Lijiang had offered us the perfect balance of old streets and western comforts required to recover from a tough few days on the bike. The following day we took the bus back to Dali and were welcomed back by David and Echo in traditional Walker style, with a fabulous meal, a beer or three, a Paojio or two, which resulted in a rather splendid but squiffy night out: none of us could pursue a forward direction in a straight line afterwards!
What a fitting toast to a tour of the undulations of Yunnan and the meanders of the Jinsha Jiang.