Immediately after crossing the huge and very fast flowing Yangtze river, the road kicked up for our final climb of the day. I really wanted to see what my legs could do now that they were mountain acclimatised and stayed in the middle chainring for a strong push. The road flattened out to pass through a huge industrial estate which is becoming more common on the outskirts of towns now we're further south, and then kicked up for the actual climb we had on the map. Tired and hungry, this felt like the world's longest 200 metre climb and no longer was I in the middle chainring - granny gear all the way for me. Once we reached the town of Qiaojia, we did our usual of asking at a couple of hotels for prices. The first refused us as foreigners and the next accepted us, didn't want to see our passports, gave us a "student rate" and basically kept us hidden from the police in one of the nicest and most affordable rooms we'd stayed in. AND we got breakfast!
The map for the next day promised further undulations and the start of the long, final climb out of the valley and up to Kunming. Google maps doesn't show the new road which takes you along the valley west of Huize, but our mapping app OSMAND does. We followed the Yangtze for the morning completely in awe of how wide and ferocious the water way was, but entered another valley for a tough slog up what should have been an easy incline. I was running on empty as this new(ish) road was completely devoid of restaurants or shops. Finally we found the one and only restaurant in about a 50KM stretch of road and gorged ourselves for dinner. There was no way we would make it to the next town before dark so finally we gave in once I'd run my energy levels into the red we looked for a wild camp spot. It was really easy to find one and we perched ourselves on the hill side with a fantastic view of the mountains on the other side of the valley (see above). There was a goat herder who saw us briefly so we were slightly worried about the police arriving, but since we had zero energy to move any further up the climb, we stayed put. I felt quite sick from exhaustion that night but with the help of a wet flannel (remember the ones we were given by our factory worker friend who found us at the petrol station looking very dirty) I managed to drift off to sleep.
Somehow my body recovered for the next day's climbing out of the valley. We joined back onto the main G road which went through Huize and passed by the town we had tentatively thought we would reach the day before. There was no way we would've reached it; lucky we had the tent and didn't take heed from other bicycle tourers who claim it's so easy to find hotels in China you don't need a tent. Pft.
Finally Mike's rear tyre gave out: the super glue gave out and the hole in the side wall opened, instantly puncturing the inner tube and becoming flat within a second. This is exactly what had happened to his front tyre on a quick descent in Turkey which nearly caused a terrible accident at such a speed. Thankfully, being on a climb this time we were going slow enough for Mike just to feel an odd movement of his back wheel and I called for him to stop. There was no point in trying to fix the tyre as we had the spare we had bought in Xichang so it was a quick tyre change, inner tube puncture fix and off on the road we went again.
The rest of the day passed with plenty of undulations the whole way up the climb to our final mountain pass of China. The sun came out once the climb properly started (as it always does) and even though the intense heat makes it all that little bit harder, the views we were privy to was worth it. Knowing that was our final mountain pass near the end of the two hardest weeks of the trip so far just made the climb go so slowly. Time, in general, passes very strangely on the bike. Sometimes an hour or two can pass in what feels like a second, other times ten minutes can feel like a lifetime.
By the time we reached the top, I was feeling sick again and realised it was probably a little bit of heat stroke as I hadn't been wearing my cap all day. Nevertheless, a quick descent to the first town of Gongshan helped as very little effort was needed. Being turned away from hotels seemed to happen more often down this way and we were turned away at the first place we tried. The other difficulty was that none of the places were called 'hotel' so looking out for the usual Chinese characters meant we missed a few on the lead in to the town. Instead they were called the equivalent of 'guesthouse' or 'Inn', but we finally found a charming place when the owner assumed we were looking for somewhere to stay and just waved us in. We later found out that they'd hosted western bike tourers before so knew what we were doing and why we looked so bedraggled.
We were led to the police station to register (all very easy) and settled down to a good night sleep safe in the knowledge we wouldn't be bothered by a knock at the door. We had been in touch with Vera (our warm showers host in Kunming) and asked if we were going to try to do the 130KM left to her house in Kunming. We were going to try! The prospect of only one more day on the bike before a good rest was too good to not make an extra effort for. This day was Sunday and we also really wanted to apply for our Vietnamese visa the next day to stay on track.
We woke to torrential rain which did not encourage us to get out on the bikes, though we don't mind rain too much once you embrace the fact you'll get soaked. The main reason why we found it so hard to leave that guesthouse was because of this little fella owned by the proprietors:
With heavy hearts and thoughts of just slipping him into our rack packs, we headed off south in search of Kunming. We really pushed on in the morning aided by a slightly tailwind and lots of descents and had done 60km by the time we stopped for lunch. The progress slowed somewhat after lunch as we decided to take a local X road across country to join a larger S road which would take us into Kunming to the south, where Vera lived. This X road, as all other X roads which we have used, was in a terrible state and also incredibly busy with local traffic but there was no other way into the city without turning back and it's actually quite nice to see how busy small towns can be in China. The S road had been upgraded to a G road (it doesn't really mean anything except maybe being wider and eventually busier) and we started the long undulations down past the airport. The incline was just enough to really slow you down and long enough for it to drain your legs and by the time we got to the top of the final one (or the one we had correctly guessed to be the final one) we were wondering whether we should look for somewhere to stay and do a quick half day into the city in the morning (as suggested by Vera). We looked at the map and figured we still had 20KM left in us if it was mostly downhill, so just kept pushing forward. Cities always take longer than you think to get through, but since we were coming in from the south east, we were missing a lot of the traffic lights and time consuming traffic and managed to pick our way through the suburbs just in time to reach Vera as the sun was going down. Vera already felt like a friend since I'd first contacted her through the Warm Showers facebook page not long after we got to China many weeks before. We quickly dismantled the bikes to fit into her flat and went for noodles before the restaurants shut. I was so tired from the previous two weeks I could barely string a sentence together and my appetite was non existent, even though I knew I needed to feed my muscles. I found space for a beer though, and after lots of talk of cycle touring highlights we all collapsed into bed for a much needed snooze.
We didn't have a lie in, though we needed it, because we needed to head into the city early to apply for our Vietnamese visa. The process was super easy! The consulate is notoriously difficult to find, but since we got a taxi into town we were dropped right at the door. Once you find the right hotel plaza complex, you go to the fifth floor and follow the signs. The application form is there for you to fill in (i.e. You don't need to print your own from the internet), you bring a passport photo and 550yuan for a 90 day visa, hand it all in and return two working days later for your lovely visa in your passport.
Besides the visa, we needed to do a good strip down of the bikes so we didn't have to do anything major whilst spending time with Mike's dad in Hoi An. The bikes had almost done 10,000KM at this point and it was evident. Gear cables, brake cables, bar tape and bottom brackets all needed changing and poor Mike didn't really get a break and a rest because of doing this for most of the time we were there. Still, we made time to hang out with Vera when she wasn't working which was really lovely. One evening she took us to the local Mall and said she had a surprise for us on the top floor. The elevator doors opened and unbelievably there was an equestrian centre on the top floor of a shopping mall in a big city. China is always full of surprises. She also very kindly treated us to dinner and took us to a sushi restaurant where I managed to find on the exhaustive menu a katsu curry - could this visit get any better?!? The only downside to the stay in Kunming was that I needed some dental work done. I'd been getting pain with hot and cold things for about a month so Vera took me to the local dentist. It turned out that an old filling just needed a change of material so out came the old and in went a new and there's been no problems since. All in it was 280 yuan - really cheap for good work!
Wednesday afternoon we collected our passports with their new visas and were due to set off on Thursday morning towards the border. Mike awoke feeling exhausted and not mentally ready to leave, which was understandable considering he'd been working solidly on the bikes since we arrived. We checked with Vera and said we would stay somewhere else that night (either in town or on our way out of town) but she was cool with us staying til lunchtime. A rest in the morning was all Mike needed and we were eventually off out of Kunming towards the Vietnamese border.
We've become very comfortable in the Chinese culture and with how the country works. We know where to go to buy something, we know how to find places to sleep, we know what to eat and where, we know how much things cost etc. So the prospect of moving on to another country is slightly daunting but logically quite silly. We were overwhelmed and intimidated when we first got to China and didn't even know which roads were best to cycle on but that anxiety didn't last long, so we know we will settle into Vietnam very quickly. There's a WhatsApp group for around the world cyclists to share info and ask questions and so I took the opportunity to ask general advice about Vietnam and the expected cost of living. Lots of advice flooded in and I'm already starting to feel more relaxed and excited about a new country.
Even though we left Kunming after lunch we still battered out 60km to a small town called Tangchi. On the approach we passed through a tourist area which was completely deserted. There was even a western branded hotel... Well a shell of a hotel which once was. Immediately after this, there was a huge power plant which seems to now be the main work place of the town as, on the other side of the power plant, the town was thriving even though it was small. We found a guesthouse (after a few rejections) who were happy for us to stay. Here we experienced one of the strangest but enjoyable things we've found in any hotel/guesthouse anywhere in the world.
That is a bath big enough for two or more people. We filled it enough to lie down and almost swim in it. When the lady owner showed me the room she indicated that it was her idea to put these in each room because she enjoyed them herself. Brilliant! I like that attitude!
There was no real rush to get to the Vietnamese border. The only real deadline is to get to Hoi An by 3rd October to meet Mike's dad but we've given ourselves enough time to not panic. We took an enjoyable ride down to Mi Le and passed through the karst limestone rock formations famous in this area in China.
There is an official forest which you can pay to enter but we don't like the idea of paying to see a natural wonder so bypassed the tourism trap. Luckily the G road we were on passed through some limestone formations 'in the wild' so we still got the best of both worlds. When we come back to China we'll go to the tourist trap because all of the pictures look pretty spectacular but for now we thoroughly enjoyed the surprises we encountered at each bend of the road.
We took an evening stroll around Mi Le to find our dinner and China really comes alive at night. In the day, towns can be fairly quiet with people just getting along with their own business but in the evening everyone takes to the streets to socialise and eat. Eating is such a huge part of Chinese culture that you never need to worry about the quality of food or state of hygiene. If a place is bad it will shut down very quickly, so as long as it looks as though it's been up and running for more than a few weeks, you'll be fine.
Next up was another short day to Kaiyuan. Whilst looking for a cheap place to stay, we happened upon a bike shop looking very well stocked. As soon as we stopped we had no idea what the next two days would hold, but they turned out to be some of the best we've had on the trip.
Peng is a young owner of the bike shop and his family also own a guesthouse a few doors down. He asked if we wanted to stay there and then paid for two nights for us and invited us to dinner that evening. We ate al fresco on the street thanks to his chef brother and we were further invited to spend the day with the cycling community. Of course we accepted - this is what the trip is about. Meeting a group of about six or seven mountain bikers in the morning we weren't sure where we were going or on what terrain. We ended up climbing up to the top of a communal space still being built which had a strange Big-Ben (yes yes, St Stephen's Tower) like structure at the top, currently empty. Maybe it'll be turned into a cafe eventually (or at least it would if it was in Europe), maybe it'll stay as an empty space.
We held a bit of a celebrity status as everyone - cyclist or stranger - wanted to pose for a photo with us. The sun was blazing and we were hot and tired from cycling up the big hill to the top of the mound with Big Ben but we were overwhelmed with the excitement of everyone that we were happy to hang about and take photos. We ended the jaunt with lunch at a restaurant owned by Peng's friend and eventually retired to have an afternoon of rest and naps. In the evening, as usual, was a huge communal dinner with lots of beer and wine (what they call very strong spirits here) before heading to bed with huge smiles on our faces.
It had been decided that some of them would cycle with us over to the next city, Mengzi, the next day and show us a route which cut off about 40KM from our planned route along the G road. Once we got to the bottom of the hills which separated the two cities, one of the ladies from the day before arrived by car and told us to take all of our luggage off the bikes and put them in the car. We jumped at the chance to try out of climbing legs of lighter bikes and almost sprinted up the 400m climb. Mike can't wait to get home and ride his carbon again!
We were handed over to a rider from Mengzi who had met us half way and we said our sad goodbyes. The road to Mengzi was downhill almost the whole way so we were chilling in a hotel room (again paid for by our host even though we tried to pay) by 2pm. On the way down into the city we passed an old railway line. Stopping for a toilet break in what looked like an old train station, Mike read about the railway. It turned out to be French built and ran from Yunnan to Hanoi (probably from when the French colonized Vietnam before the Second World War) and the train sat ceremoniously on the track were American built. Sometimes China can show you the strangest but most wonderful things.
An hour after arriving there was a knock at our hotel door. This normally means the police who want to see our visas, but this time it was two friends of the chap who brought us to the city. They invited us to an event that evening and would pick us up, on our bikes, at 7pm. We had no real idea of what was going to happen or where we were going but that's all part of the adventure! After the last two days we felt we could trust these guys.
It turns out the two at our door were part of the local cycling group who rode out on short communal rides together. We happily joined them and 20KM later we were back in town and sitting down for a second dinner at a BBQ restaurant owned by a fellow rider. We were honoured and totally humbled by receiving some gifts from the group (they were told we would be arriving after we met Peng in Kaiyuan) - a glass tea mug for me and a team jersey for Mike. They were perfect gifts as I'd been wanting one of the glass mugs for ages and this one was marked with their team logo, and as soon as we sat down for dinner Mike had remarked that he'd wanted one of the jerseys. They read our minds!
We were on our own again from Mengzi but didn't rush to leave. We had about 160KM to cycle to the border and wanted to enjoy our last two days in China. There was still a little climbing to do, though only 400m climbs rather than 1400m, and pootled our way to the turn off into the valley which would take us to the border. The turn off was in a town which looked new and was indeed still being built. Looking at the map the named location at the bottom of the valley didn't look like it was very big and so decided to find somewhere to stay where we were and enjoy a long descent on our final day. Unfortunately, the only guesthouse in the town seemed closed but a lady told us in Chinese that there was a hotel up the hill. We hadn't planned on going any further 'up' but the sun was blazing again and we were mentally done for the day so tried to find the hotel she was pointing towards. We went a little way up the hill along the main road but couldn't see anything except half built buildings. When we stopped to ask someone, the lady passed us on a motorbike and stopped to tell us to keep going. What she had been saying was that we needed to go to the next town, about 7KM uphill. We had no choice but to keep going and, bless her, she made her friend who was driving the bike keep pace with us so she could show us where to go. Eventually, after much more 'up' than we had planned, we found Pingbian and after a rejection we found a guesthouse to stay in for the cheapest price we've paid on the trip. Our standards are that it just has to be clean and have a working shower and we're happy.
With one day to go, we can't quite believe we've cycling across China. Two months and two days since we landed in Beijing completely unsure of how China worked we now feel unbelievably sad to be leaving but we must move on to our next adventure. We've already decided we're coming back for our 10 year wedding anniversary, if not before, so we'll certainly come back and see the friends we've made. Our WeChat will still work once we've left so hopefully some friends may even come over to see us in Scotland. I think we need a bit of time to process what we've just gone through: the mountains, the intense heat, the intense rain and the culture shock we first felt. As a couple we're very strong and we're lucky to have experienced all of this together and come out of the other side unscathed.
Onwards to Vietnam and to all new experiences in a new country!
Sometimes we wonder if anyone is reading our ramblings other than our immediate friends and family but we have just had a huge donation by the wonderful Bill Wharf. We've learnt that Bill is keeping a keen eye on us from afar and we wanted to say a huge thank you for his donation and support, especially after Helen went through a rough mental health patch a few weeks ago. It means the world to have your support.
Posts by either Mike or Helen. Individual authors will be named.