We want to say a HUGE thank you to the landlord and the customers of the Thompson Bell pub in Walmer, Kent (UK) for having a charity night on our behalf. They collected a whopping £300 for Mind and it's been donated through our Just Giving site. Thank you so much, and we hope you had a fun evening!
We spent a really relaxing few days with Peter in Chengdu including a mega morning and afternoon binge watching Season 7 of Game of Thrones up until the penultimate episode. The final episode would be released once we were back on the road again so we'll have to find a way to watch it once we get to Kunming. Another day off the bikes was spent visiting the Panda Research Centre, I think the photos are all that's needed here:
It's one of the cheapest tourist attractions in China and we think it's one of the best. They're doing brilliant work to try to increase the panda population and yet they keep the cost for visiting so low. Maybe they get most of their money from the $1,000,000 zoos around the world have to pay per year to rent pandas from China.
The next two weeks to Kunming would be two of the toughest cycling weeks of my life. Ever since we started looking at routes around the world I knew south Sichuan and Yunnan were two of the most mountainous areas we'd travel through, and now D-Day was finally here.
Leaving Chengdu we went a different route to most bike tourers. Usually people go straight south to Emeishan mountain or Leshan giant buddha and then enter the mountains on an S road. We knew that these mountains had been hit with a heck of a lot of rain in the past few months and we knew from reading that some of the roads can become mud baths with rain and mud slides. So we thought we would stick to the ever reliable G108 (we've been on this road a lot from Beijing) down to Xichang and then tentatively join a S road travelling across country to join back onto a bigger road south to Kunming.
The climbing started a couple of days outside of Chengdu but it took a while for our legs to remember that we were cycling. I think our legs had got quite comfortable being lazy in Chengdu! The climbing started quite smooth and shallow and we were soon making good pace to Mingshan. The more climbing we did, the more Mike was experiencing a clicking with his pedal strokes... Uh oh... This usually means a bottom bracket problem. One lunch time we passed a restaurant and Mike suggested we stop and while lunch was digesting he would make an inspection of the bottom bracket. Ordering food can sometimes we a bit of an adventure in itself when it's not clear what food the restaurant does. We asked the lady in charge for something from the menu on the wall which we had translated using Google Translate camera mode but she said no. Essentially she said "no, I can't be bothered. You can have some noodles I'm already making". Brilliant! The first time in my life I've been told we can't have something from the menu because the cook can't be bothered. After a lot of laughing to ourselves and eating some pretty good noodles, Mike began dismantling his bike to get down to the bottom bracket. The bottom bracket is a cylinder in the frame which connects the pedal cranks. A small crowd soon gathered, as usual, to watch these strange westerners with their big heavy bikes doing something weird on the side of the road. In the end, Mike figured that the bottom bracket needed replacing but we had lost the one we bought in Tbilisi when we left the bag in a taxi (d'oh).
At least with bottom brackets, they can still run even when they're needing to be replaced on so we went to Ya'an to find a bike shop. Before we got there, though, we passed a Giant branded bike shop in Mingshan. We see the Giant brand all over China and they tend to be well stocked. We couldn't see anyone around the shop at all, it was like a ghost town. Except this was a ghost house with thousands of pounds worth of brand new bikes there for anyone to touch or take. We waited for ages for someone to come out of a door or down the stairs and even with all our shouts of 'hello' or 'ni hao' no one appeared. Finally, a little lady from the shop next door tried calling the owner but apparently he wasn't available. How was the shop open?! A small crowd, again, gathered and thankfully one of them was an English teacher and managed to translate what we needed. The only bottom bracket that was in the showroom (which some random man who didn't work there found) was too small so on we went. This had slowed us down somewhat but we had been told that there was another bike shop in Ya'an, so that was our destination for the day.
We found the Giant bike shop which conveniently had about 5 other small bike shops around it, but no one had the right size bottom bracket. The owner (who was present this time) did give the cranks a good tighten which would temporarily help, at least. This guy was doubly useful as he also gave us the card for a bike friendly youth hostel in the town for us to stay.
We started climbing properly after Ya'an and Mike's bottom bracket was holding out. The thing with these is that they click with every pedal stroke but somehow Mike managed to keep his sanity. By lunch time we were finding out rhythm well and felt like we could do a big day. We're also getting used to Chinese people pulling up alongside us on their mopeds and trying to talk to us and we can manage a few sentences at least. But this time, the Chinese lady pulling up next to me was speaking perfect English! We had a brief chat and established that she was an English major and had just returned to China after spending a coupe of years teaching Chinese in Thailand. I explained what we were doing and where we were going and she was amazed (as most people are) and offered to buy us lunch. Absolutely! We never turn down food, and this would be our second lunch. Kelly was so lovely and also took us to her family's shop where her mum was repairing curtains. Lots of laughs and plenty of welcoming later, we were off again with the assurance we would reach our destination for the night in about three hours. Siping was only a small village on our map but Kelly thought there was a small hotel there.
We were still on the G108 but the mud slides were becoming more frequent. Thankfully, because it's still a big road with traffic, the debris is always cleared.
Once reaching Siping the rain had started. It had become a daily occurrence for the rain to start falling late afternoon and continue for a few hours and we were in no mood to camp after a really tough climbing day. We couldn't see an obvious hotel so asked one man who flat out said no, we must go another 30 KM to the next town. Not exactly what we needed to hear! However, experience has told us to keep asking because you never know what might happen. The next man pointed us to carry on down the road and round the corner... This brought us to a bridge with a restaurant and various other buildings. If we can't find a hotel, at least we could eat, but as soon as we stopped the lady signalled for us to come inside. Mike chanced his arm and asked if we could sleep here. 'Yes' came the answer and we were relieved more than you can imagine. The room was basic and just above the restaurant with a shared, rather basic and quite dirty bathroom but at least we were dry. This wasn't somewhere which registered us as it was quite informal but as expected, along came a knock on our door later that evening. This time instead of the usual police, they introduced themselves as government workers. Their English was broken but they seemed like they just wanted to come and say hello and ask if they could help with anything. We were already in our pjamas by this point so we just shook our heads no and signalled that we just wanted to sleep and soon they left. This was followed shortly by a power cut which turned out to be quite common in this part of the world, but overall we had a good sleep and ready to set out early in the morning.
This fateful morning of the first mountain pass started out raining and kicked up immediately. A man in a pick up tried a couple of times to give us a lift to the top of the pass but since he wanted money to help us out, we kept refusing. It was a steady 25KM to the top of the pass at 2322m from 960m when we left Siping. By mid afternoon we reached the top and were well into the cloud and mist. We'd been passing signs for pandas but had no luck with seeing any, but thoroughly enjoyed the existence of the signs.
We put our jackets back on for the first time since the big climb up to Bolu in western Turkey and started descending down the mountain to find somewhere to sleep. The following day saw no mountain pass but plenty of undulations and short, sharp climbs through the absolutely stunning scenery. We were hoping to end the day by climbing part way up the next mountain pass to make the next day easier. This mountain pass was going to be the longest continuous climb either of us had ever done. We were due to go from 870m above sea level to 2600m over a road distance of 50KM. Looking at the map it was impossible to tell if there would be any hotels for us to stay in part way up the climb and this area had been so intensively cultivated we couldn't count on finding somewhere to wild camp, especially since we needed to make sure we were very well hidden to be safe from police interaction. With all this in mind, we stopped at the town at the foot of the climb and had a really long sleep and lots of food to put us in good stead for the epic climb of our lives.
We got on the bikes at dawn to get the most daylight possible. This far south in China it's basically a 12/12 hour split between day and night and we estimated the climb from bottom to top to take between 8 and 10 hours. I find climbing easier if I listen to podcasts rather than music so my mind drifts away listening to the words rather than focusing on a beat to help me pedal because then I'm just focussed on pedalling for 8 - 10 hours. So I was accompanied by the Tough Girl Podcast for a lot of the climb, trying to inspire myself to keep going. Occasionally the ramps would get really steep, sometimes it would be a perfect incline to get a good pace up. Near to the top after about 7.5 hours of climbing, the road works began. They had dug up the road and relaid the mush which, mixed with the rain and humidity, had turned to a thick wet concrete mix - definitely not what we needed! But onwards we pushed and after exactly 9 hours we reached the top of the climb, utterly exhausted. We wanted to push on and see how far we could get down the valley so stopped for a celebratory biscuit, put on our jackets and plummeted down the mountain side.
This has brought us into the valley where the Yi ethnic minority lived. China has started to embrace their ethnic minorities and the Yi can finally teach their language in schools again and their script now appears on local road signs. There are about 8 million Yi people in China and live predominantly in the mountain regions of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi. They certainly look different and paint their houses with beautiful patterns and, above all, we found them to be so friendly. As we descended at speed we would be greeted briefly with huge grins and shouts of "hello!". The Chinese Han population mostly just stare and only interact with you (with huge grins and "hello!") if you first interact with them. Here it was all far more friendly from their side which we loved.
We knew there were two big blips coming up before we could take a rest day in Xichang. Blips are smaller than mountain passes but bigger than undulations. In this case, we had two 400m climbs. We were shattered, our legs were just moving but felt very disconnected from our bodies. Before the end of the first blip we saw an opportunity to wild camp and just took the chance. We were in bed by 7.30pm as the sun was going down, warm and cosy in our sleeping bags. It was such a pleasure to be braced against the cool night air.
In the cold light of the morning, Mike's tyre was showing signs of wear which we hadn't anticipated. He had to super glue the beading of his tyre back together to stop it exploding before we could replace it in a town but this put us back an hour and a bit before we could set off to push as far as we could to Xichang. Over the day we kept pushing on, plodding forwards just trying to get to Xichang. The prospect of a full day off was so enticing but I was so tired I just felt like crying. However, I was so dehydrated and tired that I just couldn't cry. Too tired to cry - that's a new low!
We pulled into Xichang and asked at a few hotels for a cheap room and we managed to get a decent price with breakfast (a rarity in China) and climbed into bed for the longest sleep we could manage. We had gone for 110KM that day, the day after cycling over the largest and longest climb either of us had ever done. Unsurprisingly the following morning we awoke groggy and with the start of a cold. I was too tired to write anything or to produce any videos so we did basically nothing except eat and sleep.
The following day we awoke and my eyes burned from tiredness and thankfully Mike had worked out that we could afford to take another rest day. We were headed for Kunming predominantly to get our Vietnamese visa from the consulate there as you can't get them upon arrival at a land border. We assumed the consulate wouldn't be open on weekends so if we got there on the Saturday (as our schedule had us doing) we would be staying with our warm showers host, Vera, longer than we may have been welcome (we weren't sure and you never want to push the limits). So taking the extra day in Xichang meant that some pressure was off all around. That second rest day was crucial for being able to get to Kunming at all. The one thing we did do except eat and sleep on that second rest day was find a cheap back up tyre for Mike just in case the super glue didn't hold until we got to Kunming. It was a mountain bike tyre so it had a lot more grip than was necessary but for 40yuan (less than £5) it was a bargain.
We had another 1000m climb out of Xichang to get into the valley which crossed between two G roads. Somehow we managed it in a few hours, probably due to the switchbacks which make the inclines quite shallow. We were now following an S road which didn't have all of the mud slide debris cleared and often we would be rolling over rubble strewn across the roads. The blips and undulations across this valley was tough - the inclines were often quite steep in places and sometimes the pace was slow. It was in this valley that we would cross from Sichuan to Yunnan Province and the border line was the Yangtze river. Never in my life had I expected to see the Yangtze river! We crossed the river and the border line at the end of a tough climbing day and planned to stop in the next town we got to. Often these non-mountain pass days total more climbing than a single mountain pass because they just go up and down continuously all day. I'm not sure which I prefer.