” What time do you get up in the morning?” He thought for a moment, and began. ” When you can clearly see the hairs on your arm, and distinguish each one, it is time “. A normal answer would have been a bit of a letdown and we had enjoyed having lunch with a Zen Master.
That was back in Chiang Mai. He wished us good fortune in our visa application and we parted, us to do a bit more tourism and he, ‘ to stare at a wall for a few hours ‘. We had the visas in our bags, and as we rode out of Luang Namtha and would find out in a few hours if the visa hassle had been worth it.
In every backpacker town, there is always one person whose world citizen credentials make you feel like a day tripper. They are confident beyond words, and enjoy there time as the font of all knowledge. Esther had fallen under the spell of just such a person. ” She said, that because we have never visited China before we will only get 30 days at the border, even with a 60 day visa “.
It was a beautiful start, with a ride out into a hazy valley of muted colour. We would need to climb soon and my legs were showing little sign of being in the best of form. I could have done with another day to recover, but we could feel inertia building. It was far too easy to walk to the backpacker restaurant and order euro-food. We needed to start before it became too hard to do so.
The road rose, finding a line between jungle covered mountains. This is about as fertile land as we had seen in Laos, and where there was flat land, commercial crops were being grown. Melons were being picked by gangs of Laos, and at the side of the road, a big truck with China plates and always nearby a big Merc or Audi with China plates.
We get near to the border and there is now a stream of trucks coming towards us. The drivers wave. A simple act, but it lifts our spirits more than you can imagine. The lorry drivers of China are a breed apart, the alphas of alpha. They need no sleep and have the reactions of cats and need as many lives. To call it a hard job is not even beginning to quantify things. In the next two days we will see the wrecks of those who do not make the curve. It is good to get a wave from people at the top of the food chain.
Just before the exit point from Laos, there is a shanty town of dust, wood smoke and packing case homes. People are doing what ever it takes to get a half slice of a half slice of 1% of the action. We get our out stamps from Laos and maintain our ‘ no bribes run ‘. Now, onto the big border.
There is a neutral zone of improvised lorry parks. Drivers pass the dead time waiting for customs catching up on sleep and playing cards. They are going nowhere fast. The China border is impressive, which is what it set out to be from the first lines on the architects pad.
After all the anxiety, the staff at the border could not have been nicer. There are smiles and ‘ hello ‘, and we get our stamp for 60 days and are back on our bikes and riding into a new country.
Usually one country will flow into another. Some of the style of one will leak into the other for hundreds of Kilometres either side of the border. Not here. China becomes China at the border, and it begins with a building boom and lots of smoking and spitting.
What is now a highway passes through a zone of Cassino and hotels. All built and all sitting empty. We have over shot where we had planned to stop, but there is a second chance at a hotel. We turn from the highway towards an unnamed town. Luckily, hotels the world over look like hotels if you do not count the ones made of ice in Norway. We try to book in and a small crowd press their noses against the foyer glass to watch the pantomime.
Of course we have no Yen and the ATM looks like it only deals with a local card. We manage a command performance worthy of an episode of ‘ from the actors studio ‘. We have dollars and a wad of Laos Kip, and somehow get one double room for one night, and some yen to get something to eat. We are good, and just because we make it look easy do not think for one minute that it is. This is what we tell each other at moments when our stomachs churn with anxiety.
” Esther, we are in China “. This is hard to believe for someone who had not met anyone foreign until the age of 16 for a swimming competition in Portugal. We lie in our soft beds listening to the sound of the market in the street bellow. It does not run out of energy until 2 in the morning and things become almost quiet excepting for the sounds of phlegm clearing and the occasional bark. We have absolutely no idea of the name of the town and never will.
We have no idea, but we have lost an hour now that we are on ‘ Beijing Time ‘. All of China is on one time zone and has no daylight saving, spring forward fall back messing with the clocks. You may need to use a torch until 10 in the morning in the eastern provinces, but you know where you are with your tv schedules.
Our first full day in China and we are too nervouse to eat breakfast. We rejoin the highway and put some distance between us and the border at Mohan. It is easy riding thanks to a whole load of engineering easing out the grades. Occasionally we catch sight of the old road as it twists and turns. This would have been hard just a few years ago.
There are huge and very organised banana plantations on both sides of the highway with everything in neat rows and terraced when needed. It fades into jungle on the higher slopes where clouds are held in our valley. It is rather beautiful. We take a turn to the town of Mengla looking for a bike shop. The outer zone is hotel and flagship headquarters, all less than a few years old. It makes your head spin.
We manage to find a ATM that wants to do business with the imperialist master card and then stumble across a hotel. We are feeling worn out by the assault of so much decision making. Lets call it a short day then. We fail to find a bike shop worthy of that name.
Out into a foggy morning and a big climb to make your legs tremble. We pull up into sun and a clear sky and back onto the highway that we had left. NO CYCLING, it could not be more clear and we chose to ignore it. We have a wide shoulder to ride on and it feels quite safe.
The shoulder vanishes at the first tunnel. It is not too long and we put rear lights on. We have to assume that there will be consequences for any of the trucks if they do squish us or at the very least a lot of inconvenience. Even a short tunnel shatters the nerves with the noise and the feeling of vulnerability.
We gain height. Now, birds are singing and there is dense jungle both sides. This really is wonderful. A police car goes by and I guess he has made the choice that we are going to be nothing but hassle to pull over. He makes a good choice.
There is a series of tunnels, all with no shoulder and little lighting. The final two of the day are pitch black and the last one is 3Km in length. Our nerves are shredded. We have done enough today and the gps shows a hotel in a town off to the side. Before we leave the highway we stop for food. ” Welcome to China ” says the waitress and throws us a big beaming smile.
We eat the first meal that goes down without complaint in days. The nerves of the border crossing and change of culture are starting to fade. You would think we would be getting used to this by now. On to a hotel in Mengelis and early enough for a walk around.
There are huddles of people on impossibly low wooden chairs. Card games are intense and there are bundles of money at stake. A market with wonderful fruit and slightly less wonderful pigs scrotum and penis. There is a tense feeling. Things are a little more focused on the prize here than the Asia we have traveled through.
We set out on what we think is the old road – the G213 to have a day away from tunnels and the AH2. We are on the wrong road and will be all day. Terraced slopes are covered in rubber tress to the horizon. In places that reverts to jungle and then to fruit trees. Mopeds are parked at random points and we can hear work being done, things cleared and shaped. It is just 17’c.
When we pass villages, we get ” Hello ” shouted more than we expected. People are so keen to greet us and wave. This is a genuine feeling of hospitality. The younger ones shout ” Good morning ” and have been paying attention in class. We did not really want to go to Jinghong, but have stumbled across a perfect route to it.
We rejoin the side of the Mekong in our third country to ride by its side. Just when I am mentally composing an email to friends about the good road surfaces it quite literally falls apart. Fine smooth black top gives way to sand within a few metres and it is rippled and hard. The reason is clear as we round the bend. You hear from other travellers about China -‘ They just rip up the road for 300Km leaving no surface at all! ‘, for example.
You also read about China building a new city every few days. You do not expect to ride into the place where they are doing just that. The Jinhong New City is being built on the banks of the Mekong. It is monumental in scale. This is the sort of things that the Romans did and it is breathtaking in its audacity.
It leaves us and the cars and big trucks with about 10Km on sand and gravel. It is a truly horrid few Kilometres of curses from the Anglo Saxon end of the English language. We walk into the first building that looks like a hotel. It could be a hospital or an old people’s home for all we know. That was a hard end to a beautiful day.
It would have to be said that we have had two days of stunning bike touring since we crossed into China. We go for a walk around town. We return convinced of the often quoted saying ” The next person to walk on the moon will be Chinese “. You have to see it to believe it.
Small boys back home and Chines men here share the same habit. They pull up their shirts to show off round bellies and catch the breeze. Both look strangely pleased with themselves, but the small boys will tend to not be holding a cigarette between thumb and first finger in the Asian style.
Another noisy night in a hotel. We are back on the 213 and less than fresh and of course we have a big climb to do. The new road will be with us all day just to show how easy it all could be. Easy grades are off limit and this turns into a toll road soon. We have just shy of 400m of climb to start the day.
We enter a National Park, our little road becoming more minor. Just to prove how rural it has become, a herd of water buffalo are being moved down the middle of it. This really is stunning. We gain more height and start to ride through tea plantations. Time for a meal. We have a ‘ crib sheet ‘ of favorite foods and our order always comes with a ‘ fire bucket of rice ‘. You would end up in hospital if you tried to eat even half of it.
Our little road kicks away from the toll road highway and heads up into the hills. We have done 1,000m of climbing and there is much more to come. Tea looks such an unpromising shrub to base an empire and fortune on. The plantations carpet the hills to the horizon now. It has clouded over for the first time in weeks, but the effort is draining. Throats are left as dry as a tube of Pringle’s and swallowing is hard.
The final few kilometres are more of a ridge ride and the altitude brings cooler air. We get to the little village of Dadugang ( I doubt you will find it on any map ). The gps said there will be a hotel and to whoops of relief all round, there is. The best part of 1500m of climbing done, and it has been breath-taking. We take ourselves and our crib sheet in search of another feast and bring chaos to the streets with people who want to say ” Hello “. It is a good feeling to be welcome.