Our journey to the Chinese border was quite eventful, with 8km to go my gears decided to stop working completely. On closer inspection it appeared that the gear cable had snapped, so with our limited bike mechanic knowledge ( i.e. we’ve never done this before) we set about replacing the cable. An hour later and the cable was replaced but the gears where still not working properly. So, as it was getting late we cycled on, with my bike in a very high gear.
At the customs border we met a group of German travellers coming from China and got chatting to them about their time in Mongolia and China. Turns out one of them was good with bikes and he had a look at my gears. In no time at all he had them working again. Danke Schon!!
We cycled the last few ks to the border and after all the messing about, we only had 9 mins until the Chinese border closed (China is also an hour ahead of Laos). First we had to check out of Laos. Due to the rush we wheeled and stood our bikes next to the window and gave them our passports, however some rather pedantic chap in a uniform decided that no, we had to put our bikes around the corner before we could check out. So we did this and came back. Rather stupidly we managed to overstay on our visa by one day, somehow we miss counted the 30 days ( I think we forgot to include the first day because we arrived so late in Laos.). So we were charged $10 US each, probably a completely made up price (judging by the grin on the guys face) and we could have paid less, but with no time to spare, we paid and got going. The official from earlier told us that we couldn’t cycle, but after 10 metres we hopped back on the bikes and rode to the Chinese arrival area, it was too far to walk in the time we had!
At the border we couldn’t work out where to go, no one seemed to be able to direct us, so we started to wheel our bikes inside the building, until someone stopped us. We left the bikes against a wall and went to the passport control area. Several men in uniform appeared and one led us to a desk where we filled in arrival cards. Whilst I was doing this, the man started going through my bar bag, rummaging around. It was quite funny really cos I use it a bit like a handbag, so there is everything in there… a used handkerchief, bike tools, empty sweet wrappers and sweets, biscuits, a fake wallet, sweaty gloves, bits of tissue, loo roll, you name it. Not entirely sure what he was hoping to find, but he soon closed it and smiled, waiting for us to complete the paperwork. After lots of examination of our passports and visas, we were allowed to enter without any problems. High five!
We cycled down into the town, both hungry and tired by now. The town looks a little bit like a deserted film set as you arrive, but once you reach the restaurants and the people it’s quite nice. After asking around for a cheap hotel we kept being pointed in the same direction. However this hotel looked v. expensive and grand. Perhaps being foreigners they assumed that we have lots of money?? The sign said 180 Yuen per night, but on asking they said 120. It was way more than we wanted to pay (10 Yuen is equal to £1 roughly), but keen to shower, eat and sleep we decided to stay there anyway. People rushed to help carry our bags and on arrival at our room we discovered that it was like a palace… Fluffy duvets, a kettle and tea set, movie channels, soft lighting, hot shower, shampoo sets… luxury!!
It was nice to be in China at last. The buildings and the structure felt familiar, more like home, with pavements, brick buildings, 2 or 3 storeys high, bins and landscaped grass areas. We had some nice food – to order you go to the kitchen area to a open refrigerated cabinet and choose the meat you want, plus the vegetables and then sit down. They will cook up something based on that, all served with a massive bowl of rice. You are also served Chinese tea which is very nice and there seems to be an unlimited supply. We started asking the staff to write down in Chinese the names of the dishes that we like, so that we can order them again. Luckily we can both use chop sticks quite well already, but people seemed surprised that we could eat like them and stared or laughed at us eating, quite amusing. We quickly learnt our favourite phrase ‘Doe sow chen?’ How much? very useful to be able to ask this before ordering food and in shops.
We left Mohan and headed to a town called Mengla which we believed to be either 75km or 60km away, map and guidebook had differing opinions. A new highway has been built since both the book and the map were printed so the road sign said 45km, excellent!
The road was so smooth and flat, a dream to cycle on, and we were delighted to see friendly road signs advising you to ‘buckle up’ and ‘take a rest’ with the cartoon elephant who we called Alberta. We cycled fast and were coasting along quite happily. Instead of going up hills, the Chinese simply build tunnels through them, so we passed through 4 tunnels along the way, which were ok, but the roar of approaching traffic was a little daunting; a small car sounds like a jumbo jet coming up behind you!
We reached Mengla and found place to stay for 50 Y. The owners were friendly and pleased to see us. The next day we wanted to get online to check email and see what we could connect to on the web. The first internet cafe we found they shook their heads and pointed to a Chinese ID card – foreigners can’t use the internet. Hmmn. The young guy at the hotel let us use his computer and we were able to see our email, but only briefly. So we decided to keep looking and see if we could buy a dongle.
As a web designer I am able to work on the road and have been doing some work in Thailand. More work came though and I was really keen to get internet access (wifi) using our laptop. Chris tried various shops whilst I stayed with the bikes. They all had usb pen drives but no dongles. We know that China manufactures dongles for most of the companies out there, so it was slightly ironic that we couldn’t buy one anywhere.
He returned later with funny tales of giggling girls hiding behind sales counters, unable to serve him or provide much information, after saying ‘how can I help you’. But they had dongles, it was just a question now of working out the data packages and asking if the dongle and sim card will work in all provinces of China. If this sounds dull to you, well it is really, but try figuring it all out in another language, where no one speaks any English and where they don’t really understand gesture. Well not our gestures anyway – it’s like the bloody Krypton Factor! Feeling a bit frustrated and demoralised we stayed in dicos until they closed that night and did as much as we could.
We stayed the night in a really cheap place for 30 Y, which is quite possibly the horriblest place we have stayed on our entire trip. It was how I would imagine a room in a prison hospital in a poor country to be. The smell from the bathroom was pretty gross and filled the room. The man who showed us the room said it was ‘cheap but not clean’, don’t know about you, but I can’t ever imagine running a guest house where I’d want the description of it to be ‘it’s cheap but not clean’! Charming.
After a night of little sleep – people staying in the guesthouse were shouting and fighting in the middle of night, I decided to try the ATMs to withdraw some cash for the next leg of our journey. I tried every ATM in town, but no, none of them would let me withdraw money. Great. I went inside the bank that was supposed to allow foreigners to withdraw cash, but when I showed her my debit/credit card and passport, the lady shook her head and said ‘Jinghong, go to Jinghong’. Blimey, this was turning into a nightmare, no internet, no sleep, no cash, I was starting to have a sense of humour failure. To top it all off Chris had a nasty angry large spot at the top of his leg, just below his bottom which decided to burst whilst we were out and about.
Part of our reason for staying at the cheap, but not clean hotel was that we had cycled around town trying to find Forest Cafe where a guy speaking English runs a place with free wifi. We found it and wanted to stay nearby.
Peter Lee is a really lovely guy and we were so pleased to see him, he was a ray of light in what was otherwise a fairly frustrating time.
We chatted, learned some Chinese, watch the opening of the Asian Commonwealth games on his TV, he cooked us delicious fried rice and provided unlimited tea, and let us use the wifi for hours. So we were feeling a bit happier and it was great to meet Peter!
As we reach the highway turning we immediately saw a sign saying no bicycles. We asked some local people and they said it would be ok, but after cycling 1km we came to sign saying 3km Tunnel and decided to turn back. Being in a tunnel on a bike for 3 km didn’t appeal to either of us and could be quite dangerous.
So we picked up the 213, the old highway, which was empty and more like an English country lane.
happy to be on the road again we cycled off. It was a tough afternoon’s ride as we climbed hills and scaled a mountain, seeing the highway snaking it’s way through the hills a few hundred metres below us. Dogs here are quite big and like to chase bikes, so I got a bit of a fright when I cycled past a house and two dogs came tearing after me. Despite knowing that they would chase if I sped up, my instinct took over and I cycled really fast away from them. Luckily an old man on the road saw them and me and raised his stick to them. They stopped after that, but i picked up a stick to carry and some stones for future incidences.
It was slow going, but beautiful – we were cycling through the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve - with only 40km done and we were starting to lose the light. After whizzing down hill for a few kms, seeing a silver snake crossing the road, we stopped to camp by a river. The temperature soon dropped and for the first time in about a year I wore my beanie hat, socks, 3 layers of clothing and was looking forward to snuggling into my sleeping bag. We ate some noodles, had coffee and Chris washed up in the river, under the watchful eye of a huge spider!
Next day we cycled down to the next village where we had a big bowl of noodle soup for 3 Y each, excellent value! Chris made friends with the old men there by offering everyone cigarettes. This is a strong custom and we see it everywhere. It works extremely well as an icebreaker and in minutes everyone is smiling and friendly.
I managed to buy some bananas and giant satsumas, as well as wafer snacks and peanut bars. That should keep us going.
After yesterday we knew that it was going to be a day of more climbing, but we were stunned when we reached the top of this huge hill and looked down across the valley to see this amazing view. Terraced hills with rubber trees in rows and rows. We could see the road far below wiggling it’s way along the valley floor, and that’s where we were going which meant we had a brilliant bit of downhill to come. A road sign with an arrow pointing down, confirmed this for us!
We whizzed down for about 10km and it was spectacular. We stopped for lunch and spent our last 30 Y on a wonderful meal of chicken with ginger and spring onion, heaps of rice and pork spare ribs, with two lovely guys who made us very welcome.
We cycled on for another 30km before finding a place to camp. With an audience of very friendly teenagers we cooked and ate noodles, drank coffee and got changed. They were keen to see our tent and two of the guys helped us set up the tent. Then they all left saying goodnight. We sat and pumped 5 ltrs of river water, boiled it and then filled out water bottles for the next day, before settling down to watch an episode of the inbetweeners (which we’ve just discovered and love, bit like a teenage version of the peep show).
With about 60km to go to Jinghong, we got up, ate bananas and wafer biscuits, and hit the road. We were pleasantly surprised by the 25km of downhill which was glorious and the road ran alongside the banana plantations that cover this whole area. We stopped for yet more noodles by the side of the road and met a rather friendly puppy who was keen to share lunch with us. Not much luck there mate, with two hungry cyclists, you’re not gonna get much in the way of leftovers!
After that we followed the river all the way to Jinghong, up and down, along a bumpy road. It was quite pleasant but the road quality deteriorated towards the end as we cycled through big clouds of dust. We arrived in Jinghong, a pretty city, with a layer of dust on everything.
First stop: Bank of China. Second stop: a shop selling cold coca cola!
Hurrah we made it and once again have money and sweet sugary pop drinks. Next stop: find our couch surfing host Ryan and relax for the day.