We have been trying to remain alert for the ‘ first of things ‘, and also, ‘ the last of things ‘. I think we may have seen the last Gecko, now that temperatures are lower. I did actually see our first caravan. About a week ago it was spotted, parked up in the back of an industrial unit. An undignified semi retirement functioning as squalid accommodation. It obviously had colourful tales of exotic youthful travel to tell. 7Eleven stores were left behind in Thailand, and nothing has really taken their place.
Then there is the utilitarian wooden furniture of Asia. Often appallingly designed, and put together by someone who both hates carpentry, and has not an ounce of love for wood . At best, it is brutally functional and gives you somewhere for your coffee cup. It is these wooden tables and chairs of everyday life that have now been left behind as we have biked north. Not one piece was ever made from anything less than the finest hard-wood. They disturbed me and all that I thought I understood about inertia. Not once did I get used to their unexpected solidity and weight.
I was trying to think up a word to describe the experience of lifting a chair, that at the last-minute turns out to weigh twice what you thought it should. Then of course I remembered the book ‘ The meaning of LIFF ‘, by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, that plays exactly this same word game. The air that rushes to escape from a leather sofa as you sit on it should have a name, and so should those triangular things that separate your shopping from the next persons at supermarket checkouts. There are times on any long distance bike ride when you are left alone with your thoughts. Go and look up ‘ The meaning of LIFF ‘ on the WWW., you will be glad that you did.
The end of a warm day in China, and we are in the town of Mojiang ( as always, other spellings are available ). We go for a walk in the town park. People are coming out to socialize, to sit and talk, to meet friends or let children wear themselves out running around. The men, and it always the men, have bought their caged birds to be hung from the trees and sing as the sun dips lower. It is slightly competitive, that is obvious. Many of the cages are beautifully carved and each has just one bird. Positions of the cages are changed to optimise the territorial tensions and maximise the performance.
Mojiang is off the beaten track, and we are the centre of attention, ( next day when we try to send a parcel to Europe, we find that it takes an hour as this Post Office has never done this before ). We are stared at, never once having less than two dozen pairs of eyes following us as we walk around the park. Young girls run up to us in small giggling gangs, ” Hello, where you? ” They are all keen to try out their English. Small children have their hands forced into a wave for us by beaming parents. It is like being a minor Royal, or slightly B list famous and is draining beyond words and simultaneously wonderful.
Of course it is a climb out of town and back onto the 213. We had not expected it to be quite so brutally steep and quickly we have gained enough height to be riding among the tea plantations and forest. Overcast and cool, we have recent and vivid memories of how horrid this could have been in full Asian heat. We are riding a rising and dipping road through a perfect landscape of dense forest and misty vistas. The 213 drops a little and we are in a hidden valley that is fertile and industrious. The wide brimmed hats are everywhere, working the terraced fields high into the hills that stretch from the broad and flat valley bottom. It is 15’c and we are over a mile high. It has been very hard work on heavy touring bikes, and where we get a view of the road ahead we hope for as flat a ride as possible, one that follows the contour.
The Indian Cuckoo is calling again ( we looked it up ), and signs of Spring are there to be seen. It is not the full blown Spring of Europe, more a phase shift, a hint of minor variation. We stop at a village to find biscuits and milky drinks. Esther makes a sketch and is quickly surrounded by excited children. My hairy legs get attention, stares and giggles. We had started the morning passing a Mosque, and now this remote village has a small white painted Christian church tucked away on the outskirts.
On we ride, and the road drops. It is too steep, too bumpy, and far too twisty to let the bike gain the speed that it wants to. The road is doing its best to shake the bikes to pieces and demands total concentration to avoid the bigger lips and holes of the tarmac. 22’c after the descent and we can peel off clothing. We join a river, there are trees fresh in the vivid green of new leaf, and the 1200m descent continues. The river has the feel of a Highland Burn, the first of this character that we have come across in Asia. We stop to let brakes and rims cool and to prise open our hands from the work on the brake levers.
It is 10’c warmer by the time things flatten out and we are in the town of Yuanjiang. It is just a brown smudge on the map, but in reality is huge and shockingly busy after the remote ride through the mountains. That was a 30Km descent and would have been brutal going the other way. We both know that we had better check what happens to the 213 in the morning. It is not good news when we do find out. We use the gps to guide us to the reception of a hotel and collapse within moments of shutting the door of room behind us. Checking into a hotel in China always takes an eternity with a search for the possible quiet room, the end of the corridor sanctuary from the noise of the Chinese. Passports are always copied or even driven to the Police station for checks.
The hotel staff are helpful and as hard working as ever. The managers small daughter sits by us in the reception lobby and strokes the hair on my arm. It is possibly the most fascinating thing she has seen that week. A poor nights sleep, with shouting and argument from fellow guests. Not good preparation for what Google informs us will be our hardest day yet in Asia. We have seen the elevation details and are worried that we may not manage to get to the next town. We vow that unless there is a very good reason, we will never again look up the profile of the day ahead. It is best not to know.
The ‘ Blue Trucks ‘ are working hard, and are out in number, moving stuff from here to there on this narrow twisting road. Their brakes appear to be water-cooled and send up warm clouds of steam as they pass on the descent. Every so often there will be a water station, to fill up tanks for another crazy ride. Even by 800m, the roadside trees are barely in leaf. To try to maintain moral, we section the climb into 100m rides of altitude gain. It is hard climbing ( expletive deleted ). There are the occasional homes and steadings tended by old women in traditional dress. The ride on the 213 is an education.
The village of Qinglong, and we have joined the path of the Toll Road to squeeze through the mountains ahead. Restaurants are lined up one after another to do trade with the main road and us. We are not very talkative. We know that in the next bit of cycling we are going to throw away a good chunk of the 1,300m of height that we have gained. Meal over and the road drops as expected. But then it goes on dropping. Triceps and biceps of arms are vibrated more perfectly than any masseuse and fingers burn with effort to restrain the bike.
There is a noise coming from my rear wheel. The hub has done more than 34,000Km and is a credit to the name of Shimano ‘ Made in Malaysia ‘, but its time has come. It sings in pain and as the road levels after 15Km of down, the unpleasant reality of up begins. We are now low enough for it to be uncomfortably warm. 30’c and then quickly 35’c which feels horrible when the breeze decides to disappear, which it does.
It is said that it is impossible to experience two areas of pain simultaneously. The mind can flick between them, but you can not focus on the two together. The bottom bracket now starts to complain, and I can worry about that and the unhappy rear hub and its appalling noises at the same time, no problem at all. A pig at an abattoir would be quieter. It destroys concentration and willpower at a stroke.
Luckily, Google had been misinformed or lied to us out of compassion. The climb was not as high as we thought, and a good job too, as I would not have made it. We end the day having done 1,655m of climbing, little of which was enjoyable at the time. We are in the town of Yuangwu, with a sick bike. We need to get up early in the morning to catch a bus or two to Kunming, with the bikes doing he journey on the roof of the bus.
Of course we made it. There is a horrible feeling when you hand your precious touring bike to a bus driver. He has not the slightest idea of its value, its delicate nature, its irreplaceable importance to your continued travel. Your young daughter waving farewell as she leaves in the arms of a boy on a first date may come close to the feelings of overwhelming anxiety, but this is deeper. We are in relative comfort as we drive through a landscape of unrelenting slope. It is up, it is down, but never flat. The road is a miracle of engineering and from it there is the occasional sight of our 213. The terrain on a touring bike is brutal.
We first pick a hotel on the outskirts of Kunming, to rest and organise how we are going to ride into this city of 7 million without getting killed. In front of this hotel is a shopping mall. It is easily 1Km in length and almost as broad. It extends to 5 floors, all densely packed with shops and stalls. We go for a walk around it. The thing is, it is not unusual here, it looks as if a similar MegaThing is being built in two or three locations just 1Km away. If you have ever wondered if there is a shop dedicated to selling Sellotape, I can answer your query right now. Yes there is and there is another next door.
We set out on our 20Km ride into the centre of Kunming with just the purple line on our gps for comfort. We know that the bike shop is near the university and we have that dialled in. There is almost always a bike lane of some sorts as you ride in cities in China. Trouble is, it offers little of the protection that you are used to from elsewhere. Almost no motorbike follows any road discipline or law. They are on the bike path with you along with stalls selling noodles and people selling puppies, and everything in between. Occasionally, you splash through evil smelling pools of standing water. You need total concentration, a map would be pointless and certainly dangerous. I will tell you again, get a gps for riding in Asia.
Xiong Brothers Bike is full of ‘ Top of The Line ‘ exotics. It deserves it’s fab reviews elsewhere on the WWW. and they gave us undivided attention for a wheel rebuild and general TLC. We rode away in much better shape than we have been for quite a while. Our SIDI shoes have been re-soled and we had a smile on our faces of pure ‘ Christ that would have cost a fortune back in Europe ‘ joy. Within a kilometre we had scored our highest total in the Exotic Super Car Game. It is similar to Scrabble, but only just. Lamborghini, Porsche, Porsche, Maserati, in consecutive parking spots!
We wake to the sound of singing from the school next door. It is cheerful, possibly very patriotic and sung at full volume by the children. Obviously, I have no idea of the words. The tune is unmistakably that of the Christmas favorite, Jinglebells. Another day of wonder begins.