route map
Kunming to Laos, April 2002.
Walter Stanish

I had been living in Kunming for a few months, so I knew of a good bike shop.  I had been reading about 'cycle-touring' online during my stay, and so when it came time to leave I figured that I should seize the opportunity to try it out.  I bought a simple bike, a bunch of tools I didn't know how to use, and a 'U'-shaped bag to sit over the back wheel.

Even at the time, I remember thinking that my plan - to ride to Thailand - was probably fairly ambitious even for experienced bicycle travellers that had decent gear.  My cobbled-together kit was sure to cause problems - and indeed it did, but nothing insurmountable.

Not really having a route planned, but having heard good things about the lakes to the southeast, I at least had my first day's direction sorted out.  After that, all I knew for certain was that I had to be in Laos before my Lao visa expired, and that I could get a bus (the universal transport of rural China) from any collection of hovels I might stumble across, in the event that I were to get really stuck.  The main thing I picked up before leaving, outside of the bike itself, was a small atlas of Yunnan province - this was to enable me to plan my routes, and to have some vague idea of the distances and topography involved.  

I have to apologise for the quality of the photography - I had the shots developed cheaply in a small shop in Jinghong (景洪), the capital of Xishaungbanna (西双版纳) prefecture, and it most certainly shows.

Day 1: Kunming (昆明) to Jiangchuan (江川)
map 1-1
Kunming to ...?

Roads: Dirty, potholed and terrible shoulders whilst heading down the lake.  OK once you turn southeast and up the hill.

Traffic:
Heavy along the main north/south road, but light to the southeast.

Sights:
The flower and plant market at Dunan (small town a couple of kilometres off the road from ChengGong (呈贡), to the west).
This was a pretty hard day's ride; I was unfit for starters, and also stupid enough to ride all day in the sun without sunblock.  

The leg was a fairly easy ride southward out of Kunming, along Dian Chi (lake Dian).  The road was fairly well sealed most of the way, though a large amount of various industrial rubbish (glass, wire, etc.) lay about the edge of town.  After passing out of town in to the country proper, I pulled over for breakfast in a Hui (Moslem) restaurant that I had eaten at once before.  The food was a bowl of noodles - monotonously omnipresent in China.

Shortly thereafter I passed through Chenggong (呈贡; the largish town at the center of the map), before stopping for a short while to consider my route - south or southeast?  Feeling that I had not had a sufficient fill of lake views (or in fact, almost no decent views at all), I decided to veer south-east toward another lake.  I took the only southeastward road, after nearly missing the turnoff, and began a fairly long but reassuringly enjoyable ascent up the mountain seperating the two lakes.  There was very little traffic, and I passed some cheery officials at the top.  After a rapid and most enjoyable descent, I was just about out of water, so I stopped at 'something Jiang', the first mystery town of my trip.  It was a peaceful but nondescript collection of buildings at the head of the new lake.  After refueling, it pedalled off southward toward the lake, and an early discovery of the evil known as 'headwind'.
map 1-2
?... to Jiangchuan (江川)

Roads: Fine.

Traffic:
Light.

Scenery: The lake itself, the odd fishing village, occasional pagodas, and some new Chinese 'resort' towns.

Other:
Headwind off the lake is a bit annoying... it seems to really pick up in the afternoon.


After deciding to follow the western edge of the lake, I battled the headwind for fifteen kilometres or so before coming to an interesting little lakeside leisure-town.  There were a few people kyaking about, as well as some small boats, hotels and a lookout (pictured).
photo

Stopping briefly on the road to enjoy a bit of water and take a photograph, I soon continued southward.  After awhile I turned off the main road, as it had begun to turn away from the lake.  This area is very peaceful, with very little traffic.  I saw here for the first time the small 'whiting'-like catch that the local fishermen leave netted on the road to dry.  It's a common in the area.  

Becoming tired (with maybe five hours having passed since my departure), I realised that perhaps my tires were a little flat.  Battling with the second-hand pump that I had purchased (and tested!) only two days earlier, I soon realised that it didn't want to mate with my inner tube for some reason - school of hard knocks.

After awhile I reached another small lakeside town, this one fairly new and being built up for tourism, of all things.  I am relatively certain that it is not marked on the map, and in fact lies in the southwestern region of the lake where it shows no roads.  I stopped in this town for some food, throwing back an ice cream or two, some tofu and zucchini skewers with chilli, and some sugary liquid.  

That prepared me for the climb up a new, unfinished road over a mountain to the west.  It led down to the main road, where I found a sizeable town.  I think this could be the Jiang-something-something town that is shown on the main road in the map.  I ran the gauntlet as I rode in to the center of town, the main artery being technically closed for the market day.  Reaching the town proper, I checked for hotels in vain.  The town had only one hotel, closed, and nobody seemed to want to open it.  Just my luck!  I did find a street-side bicycle man though, and he had even converter from Chinese valves to my valve!  I rapidly procured this for the princely sum of 5元, so the town wasn't a total loss.  Spirits back up, I wandered around the rear of town, and was impressed by the well preserved older Chinese buildings.

The sun was speeding up toward the horizon, so again I took off, exhausted.  I decided that I would have to make it to Jiangchuan (江川) for the night.  Riding straight down the forgettable highway, the traffic was thick and the headwind was strong.  Reaching Jiangchuan, I grabbed a coconut juice for 7元 and a hotel room for 50元, promptly dropping out of conciousness.

Around 11pm, I awoke and wandered around town.  There were plenty of dodgy hairdressing salons open - China's fronts for prostitution - and not a lot of places to eat.  In the end, I managed to acquire some more chillied tofu and vegie skewers (0.5元/skewer) and yet another cocounut juice, before returning to sleep.


Day 2:  Jiangchuan (江川) to Tonghai (通海)
map 2
Jiangchuan (江川) to Tonghai (通海)

Roads:
New (still being built).

Traffic:
Light, except for the final stretch in to TongHai.  This may change when the entire road is completed.

Scenery:
Other than the two lakes, nothing significant.

Other: A bit of wind around the lake.

Sights: The small moslem town (betwen the '4' and the '8' on the map), featuring winding streets, an impressive mosque and a local bike shop with an electric pump!

photo


Day 3: Tonghai (通海) to Jianshui (建水)

map 3
Tonghai (通海) to Jianshui (建水)

Roads:
Nothing too bad, but some old sections, some construction, and some dirt.

Traffic:
Light, though the occasional bus was running to and from Kunming.

Scenery: Fairly spectacular descent out of Tonghai (通海).  Following the river shortly thereafter is quite a view, and there is some interesting erosion towards the middle of the route.

Other: Towns with shops seem to be very sparse in this region.  Don't run out of water like I did.


After a short ascent to the south of Tonghai, I was rewarded with a long and sustained descent to the point on the map where the road turns eastward.  Here I stopped for breakfast, and made the only local vendor happy by munching away heartily!



Following the road eastward along a river valley, the terrain flattened and I was privy to a spectacular early morning view across a misty farming plain.  Still further along, some amazing patterns of erosion, certainly affected by the local terrace-farming practice, became evident.


After this point, the ride became fairly monotonous.  With large stretches without towns, some bike hiccups and dusty construction work to contend with, I can't say that the latter half of this route was my favourite leg of the journey.  The final few kilometres bosted some significant headwind too, which is never a good thing at the end of the day.  Still, I did manage to scrape through, even enjoying a fairly long descent and happily chatting with some shop and market-stall owners in a couple of the smaller towns.


Day 4: Jianshui (建水) to GeJiu (个旧)

map 4-1
 

Jianshui (建水) to Swallow Cave

Roads:
Pretty good the whole way.

Traffic:
Light.

Scenery: An interesting windy path through the fields outside of Jianshui (建水), some fantastic views from the mountain ascents towards the end of the route.

Other: Towns with shops were sparse, with the Swallow Cave town charging top dollar (or yuan, as the case may be!) for anything at all.

Sights: The swallow cave is worth a look - the entry was free for me, though I'm not sure if I was supposed to pay something.  You can get a boat through the cave, and buy offerings for the large Buddhas placed up upon the cave walls.  There is an 'upper' path which leads around the roof of the cave, offering an alternative viewpoint, as well as a large suspension bridge across the river about 200m from the mouth of the cave.
In the late afternoon at around 4pm, I set off for towards GeJiu.  The first part of the trip, back up the highway to the junction from which I had recently arrived from Jianshui, wasn't a lot of fun.  Turning east from there, however, yielded an enjoyable and refreshingly windy road through some outlying farming villages.  After a short while, I ran in to a few hills, and there was more than one nontrivial ascent before the halfway point - the swallow cave.  The road surface was great all the way, however.

The swallow cave is a famous local landmark, in which many young men have lost their lives.  Basically, once a year some brave youngsters climb the walls of the cave, without any of this newfangled climbing gear, and harvest the swallow nests.  It seems that they have also taken to putting up "I was here" signs, as is evident in the photo.  There is a large river running through the cave, along which you can get a boat ride to another opening.  I didn't partake, as the light was fast fading and I still had a hard ride to Gejiu.
map 4-2
Swallow Cave to GeJiu (个旧)

Roads: Pretty good the whole way.

Traffic:
Light, but moderate with a good sprinkling of large trucks toward GeJiu (个旧), probably due to the fact that it's a mining center.

Scenery: Some fantastic views from the mountain ascents in the middle of this leg.

Other: Towns with shops were almost absent in this region.

Sights: The swallow cave is worth a look - the entry was free for me, though I'm not sure if I was supposed to pay something.  You can get a boat through the cave, and buy offerings
Pushing on, the light soon vanished and I was left riding along a major highway at night time.  It wasn't pleasant - nor was the fact that I had some huge ascents in front of me (particularly the final ascent to Gejiu, which is situated almost at the top of a very high mountain) and there was a strong wind hugging the sides of every hill.

Just as I was almost exhausted, I stumbled upon a beacon of hope -- an ice cream vendor!  Re-glucosed, I pedalled of with renewed vigour, albeit fast to fade.  Shortly thereafter, reaching the base of a large ascent (unbeknownst to me, it was the final ascent), I met a local boy on a bike.  He showed me how to grab on to the back of a truck and get a free tow.  I grabbed on to the same truck as him, and I had a bit of a breather.  Unfortunately, it was proving perhaps more tiring to grab on to the truck and to keep my relatively heavily laden bike vertical than I assumed the ride itself would be - even in my exhausted state.  So, I let go - a big no-no!  My friend turned around with an expression of horror on his face ... he knew, once the trucks got started up the hill, their velocity was unapproachable on a bike and there would be no more free rides.  He also knew, there was at least another three or four kilometres straight up the slope.

Nevermind.  I eventually reached the top, turned off to GeJiu (which is situated in a large but seemingly nonvolcanic crater, accessed through a small valley) and grabbed the first hotel.  It was about 11pm.

I stayed a day here, leaving largely due to boredom and lack of vegetarian sustenance, but I did discover a lively local bike shop that stocked a good deal of foreign parts (Shimano and other brands; see picture of local guy doing wheelie).

The view of the massive cliffs aside the town, which is set around a lake at the centre of its 'crater', was quite impressive and thus worth mentioning too - but overall I can't really recommend GeJiu (个旧)... I found it to be dirty, boring, and unfriendly.



Day 5: Gejiu (个旧) to Yuanyang (元阳).
map 5
Gejiu (个旧) to Yuanyang (元阳)

Roads: Fantastic!  Under construction when I was there, but likely to be relatively new and in good condition by the time anyone reading this passes through.

Traffic:
None.  (Well, the odd bulldozer on the side of the road, if that counts!)

Scenery: The best of the entire trip.  Firstly, the spooky tunnel was great, and then the lonesome and spectacular descent along a new road - free of traffic!  Though the river valley left a little to be desired during this leg, it was interesting to come across large tropical banana plantations this far inside China.

Other: No towns or shops until the river valley.
Looking at my map, I had realised that I would now have to turn southwest, or risk running in to Vietnam instead of Laos!    Starting again early in the morning, I eventually realised that in order to get south out of town one had to exit northward through the only access valley - going back the way that I had come.  After backtracking to the the main road and following it further up the mountain, I soon reached dead end.  Where did the road go?  As my eyes adjusted to the literal darkness, it became clear that there was a large tunnel under construction that lead in to the mountainside.  With nowhere else to go, and not wanting to backtrack, I cycled inward.

There were no lights in most of the tunnel, though I could hear people up ahead and there were faint lights in the distance.  The floor was wet and muddy, and the numerous large piles of construction material made it hazardous, though by no means impossible, to ride.  

Passing a group of lights - construction workers on their 4am smoko - and then another, and another, I started to wonder how long the tunnel was!  It then angled downward, as if I were descending in to the bowels of the earth.  Strange indeed!  Eventually, after what must have been four or five kilometres, the tunnel emerged and a wide, smooth and vechile-less road led me down the mountain through a winding valley.  At this point, the view was increadible.  Though I was freezing, and had to pull out some more clothing on account of the descent-induced wind and the low air temperature before sunrise, the feeling of being the only person for miles on this great road with mountains all around was superb.  As I continued to descend, looking at the beautiful wooded, rice-terraced or formerly terraced slopes on either side of the road, I realised that I was really losing a lot of altitude.  In fact, I was descening from the highest to the lowest points of my entire journey in a single morning!  



Needless to say, I freewheeled for about three hours, stopping as the sun began to rise to take the picture above.  I needed to sit my camera on the road in order to get a slow enough exposure... but it was no problem to lie in the middle of the road - there wasn't a single vehicle!

About two thirds of the way down the valley, there was a large construction of some kind.  I think it was a bridge .. my main memory is that all of the construction workers were friendly and shouted happy Chinese hellos at the crazy foreign cyclist.  I smiled, waved, and didn't really pull on the breaks... preferring instead yet further down towards the Red River (Honghe / 红河) aka. Yuan River (Yuanjiang / 元江) in whose valley I would soon be visitor.  A few minutes after this bridge, the valley really flattened out, and farming appeared on what could finally be described as a 'valley floor'.  I took this, second picture at that time.

Reaching the river-valley, I was surprised to find that it was intensely hot and humid, and I had to remove the additional clothing that I had donned for descent.  After a quick 10km or so down the valley, I reached the first bridge across the river (and the only bridge for a long way)  ... stopped for an ice-cream, crossed, and had soon arrived at wha the Chinese government calls YuanYang.  This town is not actually Yuanyang, but has adopted the guise of its more famous namesake up the mountain.  Famous for what?  Just rice terraces, in fact.  Feeling that I had seen enough already, I settled in to 'new Yuanyang' for a few days and relaxed with cheap Internet, tropical fruit and beautiful women.

Day 6: Yuanyang (元阳) to Honghe (红河).
map 6-2 map 6-1  
Yuanyang (元阳) to Honghe (红河).


Roads: Pretty much dirt the whole way.  Some really great mountain biking segments, highly enjoyable even when carrying a load.

Traffic:
None.  The road was being bulldozer-cleared of landslides in about four or five places, and nothing could pass.  I think I did see two struggling buses at various points along the route, though.

Scenery: Probably equal best with the previous day.  At some points, in the earlier half of the day, the view down the river valley from the elevated track (I wouldn't dignify it as a road) was simply superb.  Of course, there were also some authentic Yunnanese landslides!

Other: Very few shops and no decent vegetarian food along the entire route.


I had two options at this point:
  • To head south, over the mountain and through Yuanyang (元阳) proper, thence taking the more difficult and mountainous-looking road along the border to eventually reach Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), the prefecture that held the Laos (老挝) border crossing.
  • To head west, doubling back a little to the north, and thence south along the safer but perhaps duller highway to Xishuangbanna (西双版纳).
I chose the latter option, probably due to the exhaustion that I had suffered at the hands of my late-night ride up to Gejiu (个旧).  I must say, if I had not had such an amazing day riding to Yuanyang (远阳) afterwards I might have become disheartened and just jumped on a bus.  The problem here was, of course, that there were no buses - the landslides in the area had cut the roads westward, and I would have to catch a bus southward along the seemingly remote border road, which was sure to have its own share of problems!  Thus, I elected to head west, doubling back northward, and to aim to reach Honghe (红河), the next large town, before nightfall.

The views along this part of the river valley were nothing short of perfect, as the end-of-day sampling to the right shows.  As well as the massive rice terraces that were virtually everpresent, there were more banana plantations, and many uninhabited areas.

At the end of the day, after some 'close calls' sustenance-wise, I reached the foot of the mountain on which HongHe (红河) is situated.  Having read previously about this climb, I wasn't too enthused, but after relatively little time I had ascended it without real trouble.  The largest hassle was the poor road surface, which caused me to lose traction and thus half of my pedalling power.  


The faces of the poor Honghe locals (红河人) were amazing to behold as I grumpily completed my ascent the mountainside.  I say grumpily, because the Chinese approach to getting out of strangers' ways (literally, don't do it or even think about it) began to cause problems for its road-hogging owners when synergised with my level of physical exhaustion.

Anyway, eventually I found a cheap and dirty hotel to crash in, where I stayed for a couple of nights.  Amazingly, despite the lack of usable roads in and out of the town, there was an abundance of Internet cafes, running water and reliable phone and television service.  What a country!

The picture to the right is taken from the rear of my hotel, looking up the mountain at the next building.  The stonework and network of transports in Honghe (红河) reminded me of Macau, where I first encountered European-style windy paths, back in 1998.

Day 7: Honghe (红河) to Shiping (石屏).
map-7
Honghe (红河) to Shiping (石屏).

Roads: Bearable out of Honghe, but once you cross the river they start to deteriorate, and a lot of this section was under construction when I passed through.  I guess it will have improved by the time anyone reading this passes through.

Traffic:
Until the final northward stretch to Shiping, there was only a little construction-related traffic and a police vehicle.  During the final stretch traffic was constantly light.

Scenery: Some fairly good views when winding up the river valleys, particularly some up-close views of the terrace agriculture that I had been observing from afar for the past few days.  Later in the day, there were some good views on either side of the final mountain climb when coming in to Shiping (石屏).

Other: No shops until the final half or third of the route... stock up on water, I ran out.
Well, looking at my map book I actually decided to ride west (see the westward road on the map, marked '19'?) to a town called YuanJiang (元江).  Unfortunately, however, I missed the turnoff, and although I realised it only a few kilometres afterwards, I figured that I should probably check out Shiping (石屏), as it seemed to be a fairly large town and I had read some good things about it on the Internet.  Besides, I have heard it said that 'real travellers don't like to backtrack'.  I certainly don't like it either, though I am certainly not aspiring to an alleged class of 'real travellers', whoever they may be!

The descent out of Honghe (红河) was pretty good, with a few hiccups in the road to keep me awake.  Being raced downhill by a tuk-tuk driver was an interesting experience (I won).

After pushing along the river a short way, there is a pretty simplistic bridge across to the north, and the river splits in two.  As both of the convergent rivers seem to be of approximately equal size here, I dubbed this place 'the start of the Red River', though that's probably both geographically and linguistically incorrect.  Pushing northward, I passed a fairly large power station and then dragged myself along a valley full of road construction, missing my original turnoff.  Finding no towns for a long distance, I was happy when could eventually sit down and have lunch in a crazy little truckstop restaurant run by a young couple - I believe they were 17 and 19!  Having recently turned 20 at the time, that made me feel old, as it's the first time I've been in a restaurant that's solely owned and operated by people younger than myself.  (I did go to a streetkids' restaurant in Hanoi where the average age was about 13 or 14, but they were being trained and ordered about by an Australian women who started the school/restaurant place as a means to help the children gain proper employment).

Pretty much uphill all the way, I eventually reached the large ascent of which I had been previously warned.  Stopping at the base for a couple of nutritious Chinese ice-creams, I shot up the hill in 40 minutes flat and enjoyed a relaxed descent in the company of a local police vehicle.  

The next day I climbed a hill between the lake and Shiping town (石屏市), as well as barreling around the various markets and food places in town.

Shiping itself is very flat indeed, with a regimented layout that makes navigation easy. It seems to be growing quite quickly, and the large brown blur on the right hand side of the picture attests to this fact.  It's a new highway that's coming in to town from the east - presumably from Jianshui (建水) or Tonghai (通海).

The following day, considering the mountainous terrain ahead, I decided to shoot off to Pu'er by bus and ride on south from there.  After a false start (no tickets left for the first bus!), I returned to the bus stop a few hours later and had an uneventful overnight trip to Pu'er (普洱).

Day 8: Pu'er (普洱) to Simao (思茅).

Pu'er (普洱) to Simao (思茅).

Roads: Good / sealed.

Traffic: Moderate.  This is a major north/south highway, so expect buses and heavy vehicles.

Scenery: Leaving Pu'er (普洱), you ride across a long and straight causeway with fields stretching in to the distance at either side.  Later, there are two fairly large and spectacular descents - one near the beginning of the ride, and one descent in to Simao (思茅).  The view back to the north on one of the river-valley ascents is quite spectacular too.

Other: Not much in the way of towns ... but the truckstops will help you eat or fix mechanical problems.

I left very early this day.  Speeding along a dead-straight causeway out of Pu'er (普洱), I felt alone.  At the end of the causeway, a small ascent started and was quickly done with.  The reward was a lengthy descent through the cool morning air, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  This was just as well, because almost the entire route was uphill after that.  

After a few hours riding (2? 3?), I had my first flat of the trip.  After managing to replace my tube with a spare, I realised that my pump was broken.  Joy!  Pushing my bike up the hill, I soon encountered what seemed to be a small truck stop.  In fact it was, but they didn't have a pump.  They threw me and my bike on the back of a tractor and we chugged 1km up the hill to a larger one.  After a quick fix, and a really fantastic cheap meal (courtesy of the owner's shapely daughter!), I was on my way again.

The climbing continued for some distance, after which a steep ascent appeared.  Conquering it, I glided down in to Simao (思茅), stopping only once or twice to admire the view.  

After a bit of confusion in finding the road to the town itself, due to both extensive highway roadworks and a lack of signage, I eventually began the everpresent arrival-quest for reasonably priced accomodation.  The eventual winner was a nice, clean hotel bordering on a truckstop on the western edge of town.

Day 9: Simao (思茅) to Jinghong (景洪)
map-9-1
Simao to ....

Roads:
Good / sealed.

Traffic: Moderate.  This is a major north/south highway, so expect buses and heavy vehicles.

Scenery: The potentially picturesque swamps of Simao (思茅) weren't anything to write home about for me, probably because it was dark and raining at the time I passed through. The district did offer some enjoyable sealed descents though.  Just after crossing the river in to Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) prefecture, the tree-lined highway sports a view out across an extensively cultivated plan.  There's a gradual shift toward Dai architecture along this route, too.

Other: There are a few small climbs when heading out of Simao (思茅) towards the prefectural border.  After crossing in to Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) and passing through a large cultivated plain, there is a fairly long climb upward.

Sights: The famous malarial swamps of Simao, now supposedly fairly safe, due to extensive government campaigns against mosquitoes.
I set out very early, after spending two nights (ie: one a rest-day) in Simao.  Famous though it may be (it used to have a terrible malaria reputation), I can't really recommend the town as a destination in itself.

After a flat-section whilst leaving town, a convoluted series of switchbacks started and I found myself ascending a mountain.  This was quite fun, as I was riding alone, at night, and the dense vegetation on the edge of the road seemed to have turned closer to that of rainforest or jungle.  I then descended, and it started to rain.  

Pushing on, the road began to hug the edge of a vast swamp, and some locals could be seen sleeping on their front porches in mosquito-net protected hammocks... it was frighteningly humid, and sleeping indoors would have meant a loss of breeze.  After another sweaty climb, a fast descent along the well-surfaced road proved irresistable, despite the fact that it was raining.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a crash, as I attempted to break whilst rounding a corner too fast, and skidded off the road.  I emerged slightly cut and dazed, but as I later realised I in fact lost my water bottle in this crash as well.  Bah!  Truth be told, I wasn't using it that much anyway - preferring to swig from store-purchased bottles that I had been carrying in my bike bag.

After following the swamp for ages, I eventually came across an awakening village (most probably that which is shown 20 kilometres from the prefectural border on the map to the left), where I stopped and had some vegetable noodle soup.  The proprietress was particularly chatty, and in no time at all her daughter had appeared and I was being asked to stay and chat, stay and chat, have some tea, stay and chat ... I amazed them with my bold plan to reach Jinghong in a day (I wasn't really expecting to at the time), and used it as an excuse not to lose any time departing.

Pressing on with thoughts of lost comforts, I realised it wasn't at all the 'shi gong li' (十公里) to the border that my expectant captors had quoted, but much further indeed.

A short descent met the demarcating river, and a large gateway presented the bridge to Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), as well as a small collection of elephant images (a major tourist draw to the area).  After crossing the bridge, there was a customs post, and for the first time in my trip I was flagged down and asked to present my passport and visa for inspection.  The customs officers were very helpful indeed, even refilling my water bottle for me.  

After this magical prefectural border, my whole surroundings seemed to change.  The people moved slower, the populated areas were less crowded and the fields were vaster.  Furthermore, there was a bit of a breeze and the rain eased up!  After a short while travelling along the now regularly tree-lined highway and looking out over the vast fields, I passed through a large town and began to climb after reading a disheartening sign - "景洪 110" (Jinghong, 110 kilometres).  I had calculated approximately 160 kilometres for the entire distance, and according to my map I had already conquered at least 60 of these.  Dang.
map-9-2
... to Jinghong

Roads: Good / sealed, some 'molten tar' areas.

Traffic: Moderate.  This is a major north/south highway, so expect buses and heavy vehicles.

Scenery: There are fantastic views of tea plantations along parts of this route.  

Other: Pretty much flat or downhill after the mountain-town in the middle of the map, excluding a large flat section before and after Meng(something), and a climb that precedes the lengthy descent in to Jinghong.

Sights: An old church stands on the descent out of the town in the centre of the map, which some people may be interested in.
So, after what seemed like ages, my exhausted self found resistance futile as a female restauranteur and her two giggling, teenage daughters energetically shouted and waved for me to stop.  Though refraining from eating, I shared some tea with them.  They offered me a bed for the night, which seemed an offer as attractive as the daughters (Whoa!  My Dear Watson, it looks like something's proportional there, but I just can't put my finger on it...) though with my tea I reclaimed my will to resist and and thus departed for the short one or two kilometre haul up the mountain to a place I call 'mystery lunch stop' (the large town in the centre of the map).  

After an immediate ice-cream stop, I rode the length of town twice, looking for a hotel - but was disappointed. My plans to stop here were dashed, but that was OK as though I was exhausted the time was only something approximating midday.

I wheeled in to the small market, with the plan to acquire some bananas.  After spying the best bunch in the market, I asked the old lady vendor for a price.  "Four yuan!" she said - ridiculous.  That's about US$0.50 - way over the going rate.  "One point three!" I said, approximating a realistic price but leaving fair room for bargaining.  "Hahah!" she laughed ... "Three point five!".  I'd had it with her, she was too greedy.  I turned my bike and wheeled up to the next banana vendor, one stall away.  

"Two yuan!", she yelled afterwards - "You wan't them or not?".  I didn't reply, instead agreeing to a fair price for the next bunch of bananas (larger, but perhaps of a slightly lesser quality), securing my feed for one point five yuan.  Hitching the plastic bag over my handlebar, I rode off to the edge of town, where I also had a tomato-laden vegie-noodle-soup for two yuan.

Riding grudgingly off in to the midday sun, the next ten kilometres or so ran along a  mountain ridge.  Stopping at a truckstop at the end of the ridge, I had another icecream and was informed that it was all downhill now.  Hooray!  I jumped on my bike, and nearly freewheeled halfway to Meng(something) where I planned to stay the night.  I passed an old missionary church (still in use) and some picturesque tea plantations on the way.

Mechanical troubles plagued me during this descent, with my chain coming off and locking a number of times.  With a headwind against me, I limped in to Meng(something), had another ice-cream, and looked for a hotel.  I had been riding about 11 or 12 hours (excluding rest stops), and was positively hammered.  Setting off for the only hotel in town, I soon found out that they wanted a ridiculous rate.  That was all the encouragement I needed.  With the sun preparing to set, I was going to ride to Jinghong.

There was just one small problem - I had a flat.  Pushing my bike back in to town (the hotel was on the south-eastern extremity), I had it fixed for almost nothing, and set off wearily toward Jinghong.  "What a day!"  I thought.  I nearly didn't make it through the headwind and up the gradual descent to the one remaining mountain pass.  Thank heavens though - the other side presented a constant descent that yielded a free trip all the way in to Jinghong.  After spending an hour riding around Jinghong, looking for the foreigners/cheap beds, I eventually stumbled upon the MeiMei Cafe and got myself sorted out.  Unfortunately, the first guesthouse that was recommended to me sucked, so after taking a shower and trying to collapse (in the midst of extreme humidity, mozzies, no fan, and an open window), I got up and left to find another one.

Finally, I got some sleep.

Day 10: Jinghong (景洪) to (another) Meng(something) (勐?)
map 10-1
Jinghong (景洪) to ...

Roads:
 Absolutely 100% perfect during the first leg along the Mekong, and good thereafter.

Traffic: Very light.

Scenery: Great views along the Mekong, and some picturesque  views in the subsequent mountains.

Other: Don't get robbed like I did.

Sights: Beautiful Dai temples.  Dai minority cultural village tourist-trap.  Some other minority's tourist-trap.
Well, my time in Jinghong was certainly interesting.  I really like the city, with its wide boulevards lined with shady palm trees, lazy cafes and friendly locals.  It seems that even though there's a fairly good tourist trade here, it's still a 'real' place - much more so than one can say about other tourist towns in Yunnan such as Dali (大理), or Lijiang (漓江).  Anyway, as well as poking about, I managed to get sick and had to stay for about a week.  I really like the place, and I think I would like to live there for awhile in a couple of years.

I rode out early, skirting the Mekong, managing to get robbed at the town where its path and my own digressed (someone went through my bike bag out the front of the Internet cafe I stopped in - taking US$220 in cash and my travellers cheques).  Oh well, some peasant will do better with that money than I will.

As I rode on, grumbling, I saw lots of fanstastic Dai temples, visited some kind of Dai minority village tourist trap, ate lots of fresh roadside pineapples, and then ran in to some other minority village tourist trap.  Tourist traps are cool, especially if there's no tour bus, because all of the guides are beautiful teenage girls in their local costume, fluent in other languages.  Oh, the joy of eating sweet pineapples with legions of wonderful girls!

I eventually rode on, however, meeting another cyclist on the way.  He was from France, and had rode up from Laos.  Really nice chap.  He had just come from a small town, where he recommended crossing the bridge in to the botanical gardens and staying with the gardener as he had.  He said it was cheap, but it was about what I was paying for hotels... and when I reached the town, they wanted some massive amount of money to cross the bridge.  Hrumph!
map 10-2
... to Meng(something) (勐?)

Roads:
Good, with some 'molten tar' bits.

Traffic: Light to medium.

Scenery: Nothing spectacular, but it wasn't ugly.

Other: There is another entrance to the botanical gardens after you go out of town and cross the river.  I guess you could sneak in here late at night and apply for sleeping quarters, but it had guards when I passed through early in the morning.

Sights: Botanical gardens, if you're up for the fee.  After that, there's some kind of seemingly abandoned forest preserve attraction that had pictures of monkey-like creatures.  This might be worth checking out, though presumably the place is unpopular for a reason.
Pushing on through some really picturesque scenery, I made it through to a very small town.  On the way, I saw another entrance to the famed botanical gardens, as well as a crazy but abandoned-looking forest reserve attraction.  I spotted it by noticing a massive set of concrete stairs up off the road about ten minutes after the botanical gardens.  Needing some amenities, I went up there for a look.  It had some posters of monkey-like creatures, which would seemingly suggest that you can catch a glimpse of them.  

Anyway, after coming to said small town I realised that I could not reach the next town of any size in the same day, so I looked for accomodation.  Asking about, I was sent to the local school! ... It soon became apparent that the school had in fact been converted in to a hotel.  I slept well in what surely must have been an old administrative office, heading out only for a wander around town and a quick and dirty meal.




Day 11: Meng(Something) (勐?) to Mengla (孟腊)
map 11
Meng(Something) (勐?) to Mengla (孟腊)

Roads: Good / sealed.

Traffic: Light to medium.

Scenery: Some good views on the killer climbs!

Other: There is a complete lack of food and drink along this route, other than the few small towns shown on the map, all of which have a very poor selection.
Well, I had the two obvious routes to choose from, the western and the eastern.  The western looked attractive, 'cause it went along a river valley and thus couldn't have too many hills.  I had heard horror stories from other cyclists about the eastern route whilst I was in Jinghong (景洪).  I cracked, being somewhat exhausted and feeling like the main road couldn't be too hard a ride whilst offering the possibility of a free-ride if it proved necessary.  

Big mistake.  It was right up, right down, right up, right down the whole damn way.  Very painful day's riding.  At the 'halfway point' (where you can see the road joining the western and eastern routes on the map), I debated changing my course, but decided that having been robbed I should push on for Mengla, as I would need to exchange all of my remaining Chinese yuan (元) to counter for my complete lack of other accessible funds once I reached Laos.

That I did, and I sailed down in to Mengla (孟腊) after a short climb over the final hill.  Riding about town, I ran in to another friendly Frenchman, who on hearing my story offered to lend / give me some money.  I thanked him and declined, wanting to check out the local banks first.  

Well, they had no facilities, and I jumped on a bus for Laos the next morning without seeing the Frenchman.  I subsequently ran in to him on the other side of the Laos border crossing, finding out that he had in fact gotten up 2 hours earlier than me but would be departing the border at the same time... he had followed his guidebook's advice and made sure he crossed 'early'!


Epilogue

My trip continued quickly through Laos, as I couldn't access funds until the border with Thailand (Vientiane), possessing only a Mastercard and a Cirrus Card, and American Express having nowhere in the whole country where I could replace my stolen travellers' cheques.  Yes, Laos' banking infrastructure is truly *bleep*!  I didn't ride, as it was too damn hot, I was exhausted, it would have taken too long (I might have run out of money) and there was no shade.  People think of Laos as place full of jungles, but the roads are never close to vegetation and in my opinion everywhere I saw there was a horrible place to ride, compared to Yunnan.  There is a lack of bicycle repair shops, a lack of food stops, a lack of villages, a lack of banking and communications infrastructure, a lack of electricity and a lack of sights!  That said, some people like to 'get out there', and I have no doubt that there are parts of Laos that are more suited to cycling than those which I saw.

Vientiane is a great city, as is Luang Prabang, though the latter especially has become corrupted through tourism.  A good day-trip for cyclists in Luang Prabang is to ride south to the waterfall, where you can cool off by swimming, and stay overnight.  The food in Vientiane rules - get up early in the morning and wander around the market areas.  You can sit down and have fantastic 'coffee lao' and riceflour baguettes with the locals, who I found very friendly.  

I did cycle a little more (Vientiane to Udon Thani, Thailand, around Bangkok and around Chiang Mai, including up Doi Suthep), however the robbery and reaching Laos provided a convenient excuse to get lazy and immobile again.

As I finish writing this, I have flown home from Thailand to Sydney, Australia via Singapore, and now set off again.  I'm in Taipei, Taiwan, and I'm considering embarking on a cycling tour of Taiwan.  It's bloody hot here, but at least they have electricity.

-
Walter Stanish

2002-07-02
WenShan, Taipei, Taiwan ROC.
walter@pratyeka.org