Crossing over into China last week was surreal. After a half-day of riding bombed out looking roads in cold morning rain, I made it to the border and easily crossed over. I felt like I was in Disneyland on the China side as I cycled down an immaculate road with brand new colourful strip malls and manicured planters. I pointed out some noodles at a little noodle shop and realized just how hard it would be to communicate in China. Aside from the difficulty of pronouncing Chinese, Southwest China has a number of different ethnic groups that speak different languages. Many people in the countryside cannot speak Chinese to begin with.
I made it on the first day to a city called Meng La, which I thought would be a small town, but in China a small town looks like a big city in Canada. Tall buildings and neon lights greeted me as I searched for a guest house.
The ride for the next couple days was beautiful on a winding road through the mountains. Occasionally when I was exhausted I switched over on to the expressway which saves a lot of time and has much less climbing as there are many tunnels. The downside is that tunnels scare me to death. There was not much room for a car or big truck to pass me so I had to always hug the wall when I heard them coming. A few tunnels didn’t have lights inside which I didn’t realize until I couldn’t see my handlebars.
Finally arriving in Jinghing, the capitol of Xisuanbanna region in Yunnan province, I was looking for people who speak my language(s) as the past few days had included only conversations with myself.
I found a guesthouse on the edge of a college campus, hoping to meet a university student to teach me some Chinese and correct pronunciation. I immediately met a girl at the guesthouse who can speak excellent English. She told me to call her Seven… something to do with the number of siblings she has. She is from the Bai minority and her home village is near Dali, several hundred km North of here. The day I arrived she agreed to give me a lesson and after she showed me around the city a little and helped me with some shopping.
I was really fortunate to arrive in Jinghong at this time because it is the annual Water Splashing Festival, the biggest festival of the year. As the city would be filling up with Chinese tourists, I had to find new accomodations as my room was already booked in the college guesthouse. Seven helped me to look for a hotel, but they were all charging 4 times the regular price.
I stopped a fellow foreigner on the street and asked him if he was looking for a place and perhaps wanted to share. He said that he and his friends were looking for some bamboo bungalows that he heard about and invited me to come along. So I’m now sharing a bungalow with Andy, a Swiss guy that has lived in Kunming for the past 4 years and my new friends Daniela and Christina from Italy who are studying Chinese in Kunming as well. Also staying at our place is Masashi, a Japanese guy who has become our good friend. Realizing that my Japanese ability is slipping, so it is good to talk with him.
The past three days we have been enjoying the festival with ethnic markets, singing and dancing, dragon boat races on the Mekong river, nightly fireworks and lanterns. The festival culminated today with a city-wide water fight. As foreigners, we were attacked especially hard with buckets of water and water guns and at times could barely breathe. We armed ourselves with waterguns and spent a few hours walking around the city battling with the hordes of people. It was a super fun and friendly atmosphere with people of all ages taking part in the fun.
A couple more days around here and then time to start heading North. Miss you all.
With all my gear loaded up, I hit the open road and headed out of Luang Prabang embarking on the beginning of a two month solo ride into and around Southwestern China. The day couldn’t have been nicer, with cloudy skies and a cool breeze.
I decided to stop at a bridge and realized that I could ship my phone back to Cambodia for free if I just drop it in. That way I wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight! Seriously though, I stopped on this high bridge over a beautiful river, a tributary of the Mekong, and stopped to take a photo. A high school student approached me and we had a short conversation in English. During the conversation, I started sneezing, as I often do here with all the farmers burning their fields. I reached into my handle bar bag and pulled out my roll of toilet paper that I always keep handy. Problem was that I forgot that I stuck my cell phone inside the roll, and it promptly slipped out skipped off the curb, and over the side. Nothing I could do but watch it float 25 meters down into the river and disappear.
I should say that the first day out of Luang Prabang, which was 120 km with hills the whole way, was two thirds pleasure and one third pain. In total, the day took 10 hours probably because of being sick for a week and losing a lot of strength. When I finally arrived, I enjoyed my first of many noodle soups and promptly went to bed at about 8:00.
There was no way I was cycling the next day, so I spent my time in the tiny town of Pak Mung hanging around getting to know some locals and playing with some kids. It seems the closer I get to China, the more noodle soup there is, so I had it for all three meals at 3 different restaurants. My only other choice for food was pieces of meat I recognized from high school science class that didn’t exactly wet my appetite.
The next day starting early in the morning mist, I started an 80 km day of climbing mountains. Left at 7:30 and finally arrived at 5:30.. thoroughly exhausted and happy to be on flat ground again. The day started out with 25km of straight climbing which with all the weight I’m carrying took 5 hours! I couldn’t figure out if there was something wrong with my bike or if I was just that tired… I finally did figure out that my front brake was rubbing on the tire and it made my climb a lot easier, but still difficult for someone not accustomed to mountains.
When I reached the summit and had not found anywhere to eat in the villages I passed on the way up, I asked some ladies at a little shack on the side of the road if they had any rice they could sell me, utilizing my Lao phrasebook. They seemed pretty confused and I wasn’t really sure if they got the point of my question. Later, I realized that these people were Hmong, an ethnic minority, and many of the older people likely didn’t speak or read Lao… ha ha.
So I sat down on a rock and pulled out my camping burner and pot to make some instant noodles that I carry for just such an event. Within minutes about 30 women and children from the village were gathered standing around me occasionally bending over to see that indeed I had a flame coming out of this little contraption. I seriously felt as if I had brought fire to these villagers, although this is a serious exaggeration. These people scratch out a living by subsistance farming on the steep mountain-sides of Northen Laos and collect their wood often from far away, as I often see women and children carrying wood in baskets on their backs down the road. For them, my little stove must seem like a pretty convenient little piece of technology. The lady I originally had asked for rice, did in fact bring me a generous bag of rice and some baby bamboo shoots to compliment my noodles. I must have looked a little pathetic at the side of the road and when a bus stopped for passengers to have a pee break, a Lao man came over and gave me a bannana and a foreiner gave me a 2 liter bottle of water after being appaled that I drink from local wells. I tried to explain that I purify water with a Steripen as not to waste so many plastic bottles water, but he insisted that I take his water anyways.
The ride, tough as it was, had spectacular views and some exciting downhill stretches. I passed by many Hmong villages and saw some of the older people in more traditional dress with interesting piercings and barebreasted women. I felt as though I had gone a little back in time and thoroughly enjoyed the day.
On Saturday I said a sad good-bye to Lucky as it was time for her to head back to Vancouver. After one month of spending everyday biking, eating, sightseeing, and getting sick together, my life feels really quiet all of a sudden.
After we left Vientiane we spent three days biking up to Vang Vieng. We were instantly hit with severe culture shock. It was like arriving in Las Vegas after driving through the desert for 3 days. Ok, a little exagerated, but there is definitely something funny about this place. We sit down to dinner after a really long day of riding, and face the street to see drunken foreigners stumbling down the street in bikinis while young monks scurried by in the other direction. This place is like beaches in Thailand transplanted into a beautiful river setting in rural Laos, which is to say that its weird. Rural Laos is a fairly conservative place, and I think a lot of people don’t give it the slightest thought. We have met many who feel the same way and were a bit turned off by the place. Undoubtedly the surroundings are beautiful with a calm river backed by limestone karst peaks and with tubing, kayaking, mtn biking, and rock climbing, I can see why this place has become so popular. I just wish the Thailand party sceners would have some respect.
When we arrived in Vang Vieng we both came down with a stomach bug that kept us in our guest house for the better part of three days. Finally feeling better, we hopped a bus to Luang Prabang, as it was nearing Lucky’s return date. I then came down with a fever that kept me in bed for another 3 days, but enjoyed the charming colonial style town when I made it out.
We bussed back down to Vientiane, as Lucky’s birthday was the day before her departure. We stayed in a really posh hotel for a couple nights and we spent her bday doing an eating tour of Vientiane topped with chocolate mousse.
After saying good bye, I bought a bus ticket back up to Luang Prabang, and met up with Eric and his girlfriend Carly, who are good friends from Winnipeg. It was really nice catching up with them and seeing people from home. Immensly looking forward to a visit home this summer.
Today I warmed up my legs with a 60km trip to a really nice waterfall. Spent the afternoon reading at a little private area I found about halfway up the falls.
Tomorrow is my first day heading out with my gear on my own, and I’m really excited to get moving again. China is about 4 days of riding away and I hope to do a trek near the border in a wilderness area before digging my hole across the border. (its a joke, just in case the Chinese government are reading this.. I’m not really digging a hole, I am going to cross over at a border crossing).
I’m still not quite sure if this blog is going to work in China, as apparently the block WordPress there. Trying to figure out email posting to the blog, but not figured out yet.. any advice?
Will write again soon, likely very confused and eating noodles with a billion others.
This morning our sleeper bus (bus filled with bunk beds) putt putted its way into Vientiane.
The past week spent in Southern Laos has been great. Don Det Island was fairly relaxing and was a good place for Lucky to relax her leg, which was still hurting and getting her lots of attention from the locals as she hobbles her way down the streets. Apparently a lot of foreigners crash their rented motorbikes, which the locals assume accounts for Lucky’s injury.
On our last day on the Island, we decided to rent a traditional canoe and paddle around the Island… er.. I should say I paddled in a zig zag pattern while Lucky held on for dear life. I suppose the current should have been considered when choosing a route as going against the current on the way back was less than fun, especially with my zig zag canoeing style. I’m not sure if Lucky was more scared of drowning (swimming is not easy with a bum leg) or getting her camera wet that accounted for her white knuckles, so I filled her request of an early drop off and continued to paddle on my own even more zig zaggedly than before without her weight in the front.
Later in the day we rented a mini bicycle which has a padded seat on the back for a passenger and set out to find some rare river dolphins. Little did we know that the boats leave from the far end of the next island over, which seemed to take half the afternoon to get to on a bumpy path. The bike had two wonky wheels, a chain that couldn’t stay on, and brakes that had no chance of stopping us, as we later found out on our first downhill. Eventually we made it to a boat that drove us out to a look out point and we caught a few glimpses of the dolphins from about 300 meters away. It was certainly not thrilling as we could barely see them at that distance, but I suppose we can check it off our list of things to see on our route up the Mekong.
After not biking for about a week, I decided to ride solo to Pakse, while Lucky took a bus. I completed my longest day ever of 150km and somehow arrived before Lucky, later finding out that her bus broke down several times (no surprise).
Pakse was a nice clean and quiet city and we set out on a motorbike trip for 3 days, exploring waterfalls and seeing the famous coffee plantations in the Bolaven plateau. It was nice and cool on the plateau, which was a relief, and we rode through some beautiful mountains and tribal villages. The coffee was delicious, and much better when we learned to ask for it with only a little sweet milk, rather than half coffee and half milk as the Laotians drink it.
Last night we boarded an overnight bus that only arrived 3 hours late as it putt putted the last few hours for some unexplained reason, but we were happy it made it. Lucky managed to ride her bike for an hour as we searched for a suitable hotel in the heat of the late morning.
We are looking forward to exploring the city and hopefully riding out together heading North in a few days.
(written 1 week ago… internet mysteriously stopped as I was about to post)
Yesterday we made it across the border from Cambodia into Laos and onto Don Det Island, one of many islands in the Mekong around here.
Unfortunately Lucky had a nasty fall on Saturday just as we were getting going on a 30km ride to Kratie. Out of nowhere a board fell in front of her tire and nocked her off her bike. Luckily there was a coconut stand across the street which we quickly turned into a make-shift clinic. Got her all cleaned up and bandaged amongst some uncomfortably close-standing locals and jumped on a van heading in our direction. Lucky spent a few days in bed and we were able to head (in a van) to Laos.
Lucky has some nice looking scrapes and swelling on her knee and elbow. We were both really happy that the accident wasn’t more serious, and that she is on the mend. A few more days and hopefully she will be in cycling shape.
Today we decided to double on my bicycle, with Lucky precariously perched on my rear rack, and finally made it to a beautiful waterfall. The island has loads of basic wooden bungalows with river views and although there are tons of backpackers, development hasn’t gone crazy here. It seems all the little restaurants and bungalows are owned and operated by locals, and the people don’t seem too corrupted by money as in other tourist destinations.
We are really looking forward to getting back on the road in a few days, but will no doubt enjoy our time here on the island.