Mohan to Dali
On the surface China is a dazzling, modern nation. Take the time to look a little deeper and a slower, more timeless world emerges. It is in one-minute familiar, the next a parallel universe that leaves you reeling and confused. It is hispters on i phones, neon colour, communal dancing in the public squares at night, shopping malls, Cannon toting tourists in buses and sleek freeways. It is also a man ploughing the land with a buffalo, a woman tilling the land by hand, a goat herder on a remote mountain highway, cooking on open fires and villages only touched by the slightest hand of modernity.
The first thing we noticed as we pedaled the small distance between the Laos border post and Chinese immigration was that the aim was to impress. And impress it did. Everything was state of the art and we passed through immigration without any issues. Mohan, the town on the other side was a world away from the dusty, small villages on the Lao side. It was something of a reverse culture shock. We eyed the footpaths, tree lined streets and rubbish bins with suspicion. It was weird. A footpath that wasn’t a car/scooter parking space? Recovering, we took care of the normal ‘we are in a new country’ tasks and bought a sim card and exchanged the rest of our money. Soon we were sailing along a smooth new highway with a wide shoulder, but being us we couldn’t resist the small, shaded road we kept seeing to our right. Checking the phone we found that this ‘old highway’ the G213 in fact ran parallel to the new road. A few kilometres further along we met a Malaysian cycle tourists who gave us the good news that this road continued on our planned route for a good long while.
So here we were, on a shaded road with barely a car in site, passing through the odd village, things couldn’t have been better. Well, until we found milk tea in a bottle that is. Delicious. We took it slowly and reached our first destination of Mengla around 4pm. Again we were a little culture shocked; it was huge (by our current standards), bustling, shiny and modern. Friends had told us that ‘look for places with clocks behind a desk’ because they are bound to be hotels (there is very little English writing). This proved to be useful and after not much fuss at all we were checked into our first Chinese hotel. By our standards, this $10 room was pretty fancy. We were to learn that Chinese hotels can be excellent value. Often from $8-$12 you get a light, clean, airy room with hot water, TV (never use this), aircon (most of the time), and a kettle (the best!).
Eager to explore this new country we were soon walking around checking out the sites. People stared and giggled at us and we saw no other foreigners. We did find amazing street food and then wandered around until we found somewhere to observe life go by and have a beer. From where we sat, the China we could see looked overwhelmingly middle class. Families out to dinner, groups of teenagers on smart phones, shops full of goods and electronics. It could have been the west, were it not for all the Chinese characters and the people themselves. Oh and the middle aged ladies all dancing in lines to Chinese pop music in the public squares on the way home.
It did not take long for us to see a different China the next day as we pedalled out of town. The villages and farmland outside of Mengla was a world away from the modern city we had seen the night before. The cycling was beautiful, but really, we would have achieved more if we had stayed in bed all day and watched Spooks. Unfortunately we had a severe navigational fail (trying to take a short cut), which culminated in an argument half way up an impossibly (we were pushing our bikes) steep dirt track where we made the decision to turn around. To top it off, on the way back we were caught in a severe rainstorm and rolled back into Mengla after 90km completely saturated, exhausted and a bit dispirited.
Take two. The next day, feeling a bit shattered we made sure to take the correct G213 and ignored the apparent shortcuts. The road was a dream. Undulating through forest, cool and damp from the previous days rain. We had glimpses of the new highway below on our right but barely saw a vehicle ourselves. For lunch we happened upon some noodle stalls and after some shy staring worked up the courage to see what it was all about. We were rewarded with a delicious noodle salad kind of thing. In the afternoon the rain pelted down again, but by the time we reached Menglum it had cleared. A quick search and another cheap hotel opened up its doors to us. The power was out in town for a while, which added to the atmosphere as we ate our street side noodles by candlelight. Some men nearby invited us for a drink and we shared some kind of hideous spirit with them. I don’t think I have tasted something so disgusting in all my life!
Climbing greeted us the next day and it pretty much continued all morning. We began to get glimpses of the tea plantations and had some sweeping views of the valley below. The afternoon again brought a ferocious thunderstorm and we sheltered in someone’s garden with some men until passed. The day seemed to be slipping from us but somehow we managed to do 54km after 4pm, including 15km of climbing through tea plantations in the fading light. By the time we rolled into the small village it was dark and cold. Looking a little lost I imagine, we were spotted by an entrepreneurial woman who ushered us into her hotel. We gladly accepted. Walking out onto the street for dinner we were relieved to see the usual wok for noodles and ‘things on sticks stand’. By now we had figured out that we are in fact like giant, useless babies. That is, we can’t read anything and can only purchase food we see in front of us, or if there are pictures on the menus.
By the next day we were really tired. The hammocks of Laos seemed a long time ago. It was also strange not being hot, as we had to layer up for the decent. And descend we did, through a heavy mist with tea plantations on either side of us. Unfortunately no teahouses eventuated, we would have loved nothing better than a hot cup of tea! By mid morning the sun was out and we were climbing again. To our delight we met two cycle tourists within about 500m of each other. A Japanese guy, carrying what looked like almost his entire house (including undies drying on his handle bars) and an enthusiastic Chinese guy who snapped photos of us and chatted away in Mandarin. By early afternoon we had reached Pu’er, the town we decided to have our first rest day in. It was a huge mass of seemingly unending mobile phone shops and we had trouble finding a hotel at first. When we did find one, the woman behind the desk became flabbergasted by our Australian passports (some hotels in China cannot accept foreigners, or don’t know how to register them properly. I suspect our problem was the latter). We were made to reload our bikes, marched to the most expensive hotel in town and then promptly abandoned. Sitting outside this shining monstrosity, dirty, tired and having no idea where to find an affordable hotel that would take us, things seemed a bit overwhelming and bleak. However, if there is one thing I have learnt on this adventure, it is that things always turn out okay somehow. We were not disappointed. A very kind English speaking lady from the expensive hotel came to our aid, not only taking us to a cheap hotel but also making sure we were checked in correctly by the staff. What a sweetheart. It was not the last time we were to be rescued in this fashion by the kind Chinese.
Our room was amazing. We spent the next day and a half drinking tea, watching Spooks, reading, writing and generally recovering from 7 days of cycling. We did venture out into Pu’er but there was not really much to see, mainly just mobile phone shops. Back on the road after our rest day we met some Chinese cyclists on the first ascent. They invited us for tea and then looked rather alarmed when we showed them our planned route to Dali. We were promptly told our map was too old and then drawn and shown a better route. They soon sped off on their mountain bikes and we continued our slow plod up the hill. That night was spent in a kind of truck stop and we watched the sunset over the surrounding mountains while drinking a beer and listening to a lady belt out some fine Chinese pop tunes.
The next 3 days involved climbing over mountains and then descending into vast valleys, where every inch of the ground appeared to be farmed. We passed through small villages, where the locals found us quite a curiosity and we found the noodle soup to be quite delicious. For snack breaks we ate mountains of Chinese sponge cake (a new discovery) and drank milk tea from a bottle. We learnt about the infamous Chinese toilets (yep, they’re as bad as everyone says they are) and spent our nights in small Chinese cities. One night we were confronted with not being able to eat on the street and were shown a giant fridge full of produce in a restaurant. Confused, we pointed vaguely to a few items, vegetables? We tried to look up the mandarin for it, but of course, the phone was dead. Hmm, the Giant babies were faced with a new obstacle. After a few minutes of everyone being rather confused, we figured out that you point to whatever item you want (eggplant, tofu, egg) and they make one dish out of it and serve it alongside rice. Now we could even eat in restaurants without pictures!
Late on the third day, we rolled into Dali. Despite feeling like any elevation we had gained had been promptly lost by a long down hills we had encountered, we were in fact now at 1900m. It was a little chilly, and clouds hung low and heavy over the surrounding mountains. We found the most gorgeous hotel just outside the east gate. Then, hand in hand we walked the darkening streets of the old town, observing the tourists (mainly Chinese), street vendors, trendy bars, café’s and beautiful architecture. A rest day stretched before us, we were tired but happy.