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A fitting finale to a tour of the Jinsha Jiang

On the road in Yunnan

sunny 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.

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

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.

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

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.

Probably crossing the Yangtze

Probably crossing 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.

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

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.

Back on the road in beautiful light

Back on the road in beautiful light

Locals at the morning market

Locals at the morning market

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

A dramatic gorge leads us down to the Yangtze River

A dramatic gorge leads us down to 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.

Delaying tactics

Delaying tactics

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.

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

A snack stop with a view

A snack stop with a view

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

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.

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Lijiang rooftops

Lijiang rooftops

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.

The Forgotten Corner

The Forgotten Corner

Lijiang Old Town at night

Lijiang Old Town at night

Posted by jparsons 09:05 Archived in China Tagged landscapes china cycling Comments (0)

Snapshots from the back of beyond

The title says it all really. These are some of the most memorable moments from our travels to Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in last few months. Enjoy...

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

As I cycled over the brow of the hill, and saw this lake, it took my breath away. Instead of enjoying the downhill, I stopped every 10 metres to take photo after photo as the scene unravelled. In the end I took this shot while eating my lunch with my cycling buddies under a tarpaulin in the scorching sunshine. While eating our bread and cheese (which had become cheese on toast), a storm was slowly approaching. Part of me wanted the deluge, but the photographer in me just wanted to freeze the moment...

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan was full of epic vistas. This was one of my favourites, and the road surface wasn't too bad at this point either!

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

When we went to sleep the night before, Son Kul Lake was enveloped in Scottish weather, just clearing with the sunset. It reminded me of the Western Isles. Fortunately the following morning dawned clear, so I set off up the hill behind our camp to capture some of the beautiful morning light.

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

If there's one thing that can be said of Kyrgyzstan, it's that it is unquestionably vast. This photo gives some sense of the scale of the place. It made me feel small.

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

The scenery of North East Vietnam is quite different to Kyrgyzstan. We often found ourselves dwarfed by the crops growing by the side of the road. This was a stunning valley, on a rare day when the atmosphere was beautifully clear, and around every corner was another bike stopping view.

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

On the same day, we rounded a corner by a forest clearing to find these children peeling nuts. Our guide, Phong didn't know why they were peeling nuts, and nor did the children, but they determinedly continued despite the obvious distraction of a group of westerners on mountain bikes. They deftly peeled the nuts with scary-looking knives, and oddly, the only injury sustained was a cut to my leg from a sharp stick poking out the ground, while I tried to capture this photo.

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Cycling across the Rocky Plateau from Yen Minh to Meo Vac, I was left speechless on numerous occasions. This was one such. We thought we'd seen it all that day. Then we rounded another corner to find this! Chris helpfully provided the splash of colour in the distance.

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

These girls were probably the eldest in a group of about 30 children who were curious to see what a group of cyclists were doing sitting on plastic chairs drinking tea at the side of the road. When they eventually plucked up the courage to come close, we entertained them by reading their school books. They're probably laughing at this point because David Walker (our tour leader) was entertaining a group of younger children with his impression of the Nieeeeeyep man (a Nepalese phenomenon). Most of the children appeared confused with a few breaking out into smiles. But then again, as I commented in my previous blog When the wanderlust strikes again..., we probably seemed quite strange...

Posted by jparsons 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

The wild, wild east

37 °C

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

This being my first visit to Central Asia, I was not really sure what to expect on landing in Kyrgyzstan. Emerging from the plane in the dark I was reassured to find that I wasn’t immediately cloaked in the usual humid fug, which I’ve experienced in so many Asian airports. Instead I looked up to be greeted with a beautiful view of the Milky Way: a small element of familiarity, in what would be an otherwise unfamiliar world. I had thought that I would find a few more signs of being in Asia than I initially recognised: where was the chaotic traffic, street vendors, and odd jumbled buildings? Who had rounded up the meandering animals from the middle of the road and marshaled the locals down from the roofs of the buses? Where were the half-finished houses, and half-crumbling government buildings? Instead, Bishkek’s grand, austere architecture and large solid-looking concrete edifices served to remind me that until the 31st August 1991 Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence following its collapse. Wandering around Bishkek, I got a sense that this was a place where North meets South and East meets West. Once we had cycled into the mountains (90% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,500m in elevation) I revised my judgement to just "East meets the Wild West".

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

In GDP terms, Kyrgyzstan is ranked just 143rd out of 228 countries, and surprisingly, even smaller than countries such as Rwanda, and Laos. Kyrgyzstan has visibly suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's and the political turmoil of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which left nearly 2000 dead, and lead thousands more to flee to Uzbekistan. In the rural mountain areas we traveled to, there was little evidence of political upheaval, but it was clear that wealth was difficult to come by, and subsistence the norm. The obvious signs of wealth that I did see, in the form of cars, trucks, and interior decoration tended to herald a previous era (mainly the 1980's), with the odd exception.

They say "necessity is the mother of invention", and cycling along the dirt roads through sparsely populated towns and villages, there were constant examples of imaginative recycling: oil tankers converted into cafes and basic accommodation; ex-Soviet railway carriages forming a row of terraces. In one particularly remote area on the North side of Son Kul Lake, we found a family that had adopted a railway carriage, rather than the traditional yurt as their summer residence. It looked as though someone had dropped it from the sky, and appeared so utterly incongruous with its surroundings that I failed to notice a goat being castrated about two metres away. It did rather beg the question as to how it actually got there, and why only the one carriage....?

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies,  at the remote Son Kul Lake

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies, at the remote Son Kul Lake

The other striking observation from cycling the back roads of this mountainous country, was the abundance of only two types of vehicle: clapped out Ladas, and Audi-80s hailing from the late 1980’s / early 90’s. As they shuddered or bombed past us on the barely surfaced roads, this confirmed Kyrgyzstan as one of those places (together with Morocco, Nepal and India) where the locals have an exceptional ability to adopt relics of a bygone era and maintain them to a standard of “barely functional” for decades to come.

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

Plenty of examples in the “no longer functional” category were also to be found in odd places. Fortunately the same principle didn’t seem to apply to the traditional mode of transport in these parts: horseback. The horses we encountered appeared well looked after and were vigorously ridden. It was quite common for us to be overtaken by galloping Kyrgyz children, teenagers and adults alike, clearly getting a thrill from riding bareback at speed, and surprising unsuspecting foreigners. When they turned and galloped off again in a cloud of dust, or I awoke to the vibration of cantering hooves on the remote ground near our campsite, it was these times that I felt I was truly in the wild, wild east.

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

The locals call it a night

The locals call it a night

Posted by jparsons 14:19 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged landscapes cycling Comments (0)

Step away from the turkey...

...and feast your eyes on this!

In case you were wondering what Vietnam and Laos were like to travel through, here are some photos of the beautiful scenery. Enjoy.

Vietnam

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

The hills around Sapa

The hills around Sapa

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

Rice fields near Lai Chau

Rice fields near Lai Chau

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

A buffalo marks the route!

A buffalo marks the route!

Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The back up bus catches us up...

The back up bus catches us up...

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

December haymaking

December haymaking

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Locals at a fishing village

Locals at a fishing village

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Posted by jparsons 09:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes vietnam laos Comments (2)

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