We arrived into Chengdu and things immediately started to change for us. The first big difference was the weather and the vegetation. Spring had sprung and spring in the tropics is a marvelous place to be. The flat plains of the desert gave way to steeped rice fields and people were growing vegetables on every available piece of land. The sun was shining as we arrived into this new side of China and it was almost like the start of a new Chinese adventure. The hardships of the desert were over since the the weather was more stable with tropical winter temperatures standing around ten degrees during both day and night, beer was costing three yuan per bottle (about 30p) and we had a choice of small country roads leading south from Chengdu. We stayed in Chengdu for four days as we organized our documents for our visa extension and more importantly went to visit the Panda Sanctuary!! This was the best value for money excursion of the entire trip. Costing just six pounds entry per person you get to explore the sanctuary for the entire day and we must have seen over 100 different pandas, from babies to fully grown adults. Highly recommend.
As we approached Chengdu, everyone told me to look forward to the food, and the hugely popular Sichuan hot pot. In my opinion I can tell you avoid this at all costs, bubbling chicken stock with a whole chicken in along with lots of tofu and uncooked green vegetables, was not the delicious Chinese delicacy I was looking forward to. The main spice in this reason is called Sichuan pepper and, in my humble opinion is the devil incarnate-it bubbles and pops in your mouth like an unpleasant visitor and should be avoided at all costs. The saving grace of the hot pot however is that it is called the chatting dish and whilst it may not taste amazing, it is a real social dish. Our hostel organized a hot pot night and it was really fun chatting to both the Chinese staff and Western guests about travel experiences and their experiences in China and what to look forward to. Now for some pictures of pandas.
To organize our visa extension we decided to do this in the PSB office in Leshan rather than Chengdu since they can organize this for you in just twenty four hours whereas the office in Chengdu takes seven days. This meant riding out of Chengdu for 100km and spending the night in Leshan. The ride to Leshan is pretty uneventful since the urban sprawl fro Chengdu pretty much fills the entire ride, but the weather was much warmer than what we where used to, and for the first time since Kazakhstan I didn't need to wear all my clothes to bed! The following day we collected our extended visas, giving us another thirty days in China. Our aim was now to cycle south from Leshan to Kunming via the G213 National Road and arrive in Kunming for Christmas, giving us 14 days to make the journey. Easy we thought, although what we were not prepared for was the condition of the G213, which is no national road and really only used by locals to move between villages. There is a large section of this road, about 300km which is more like a steep gravel track, but although this makes for harder cycling you are rewarded for your effort with beautiful views from the top of the climbs, Idyllic mountainside villages and lots and lots of waterfalls. It is great cycling and we loved it. The first section runs from Leshan to Zhongcheng, and then to Pu'er. The towns are pretty uneventful however, giving you lots of cheap accommodation and meal options but like a lot of Chinese cities, the main power is coming from coal and this creates a pretty smoggy outlook over even the smallest city. The beauty of this road is from the road and not the cities and the more difficult the road the more beautiful the scenery becomes.
As you continue along the G213 you reach an area that we affectionately called the cobble mountains. A series of mountain climbs which the are literally lined with cobbles. Cobbles are perhaps the most physically demanding of terrain rattling your bones and everything else imaginable ,you propel your 45kg of touring bicycle climbing to a height of 2700m. We were only able to manage about 40km per day as the terrain was so tough and this runs south from from Yongfeng to Jiachexiang, putting our ambition to reach Kunming by Christmas in jeopardy. Luckily once you reach Jiachexiang, there is access to the paved motorway via a side road and I recommend that anyone following in our footsteps follow this route. The road then becomes a beautiful sweeping descent for over 20km offering some beautiful cycling and a real relief from all the cobbles!
As we continued along the highway, you then are able to rejoin the G213 at the town of Jinsuo. Giving you the best of options since leaving the motorway and heading back alongside the the country road to Kunming. Whilst cycling again we came upon a small village with a small rock band playing music loud, a lead singer and two guitars and even a drum machine! Everyone was wearing white headbands and we did not know if this was a wedding or a live show.We enjoyed the music and as we approached we were asked to come and join the village for their celebrations. We were soon approached by a lady called Jenny who was a very good English speaker who told us this was a funeral for her Nan, and everyone was wearing a headband in mourning and the music was a celebration for her life. It was a real honour to be invited to join the funeral and we joined in with the family for food and music. Jenny explained to us that it was Chinese custom to celebrate the death of a loved one, and they will give offerings for the deceased to carry onto the afterlife. These offerings make the form of lots of crete paper gifts in the form of elephants, lions and houses complete with model kitchens and cars which are then burnt with the funeral pyre. Jenny was the perfect host and explained to us how the local traditions are kept, even in this modern world and we were so fortunate to be guests of the family.
Only three days later we arrived into Kunming on the 23rd of December. We had made it for Christmas and we very happy to arrive and aimed to celebrate Christmas in a Buddhist country! Kunming was our favourite city within China-it is a tropical warm city with lots of vegetation and lakes dotted around a small province. We checked into a hostel called the hump which offers cheap rooms and was organizing a Christmas party on Christmas eve, including Christmas dinner!! Unfortunatly spicy shredded turkey cooked on a BBQ was not quite the meal we were hoping alongside grilled tofu and hot sauce! The downside of the Christmas meal was me getting sick on Christmas day, i'm not sure if it was the BBQ or if it was the road catching up with me. Christmas day was spent opening presents on Christmas morning with Finola before walking to the nearest supermarket to buy ingredients for our Christmas picnic. Brie, bread, wine and chocolate although not a minced pie in sight! We walked to Turtle Lake in the middle of city and the sickness and then started to take root. After the first bottle of wine and numerous runs to the toilet I had to retreat to the hostel where I appropriately had the hump! The remainder of my Christmas day was spent bed bound! Happy Christmas to me!
My sickness heralded the end of Christmas and we left Kunming on the 27th December with the intention of cycling to Vietnam for New Years Eve. The border was just 400km away and we aimed to reach it in just five days covering 80km per day. After saying our goodbyes to everybody we met in the hostel operation reach Vietnam for New Years was on! This unfortunately was met by the sticky end when I fell carrying Finola's bike over a rocky ravine the morning of the 29th following our nights camp. I thought my ankle was broken and we were met by the kindest Chinese hospitality of our two month adventure in China. What happened next will be written about in China Part Three.
Tim & Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.