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Michael Barker
Cycle Tour through South-west China:
Kunming (Yunnan) to Chengdu (Sichuan) - July-August 2002

August 1998
Page 1
Copyright © Michael Barker, 2002.

All Photos by Michael Barker

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From where I live and work in Harbin in the north-east of China, I made my way to Hong Kong for a look via Beijing. From there I took a ferry to Macau to find a mountain bike where I was told I could buy a good quality bike and avoid the hefty taxes in China, and buy one made in Taiwan as opposed to mainland China. I later found out for myself that getting this was far from true so I left Macau with nothing except a hole in my wallet (some nice bikes but not cheap). In Guangzhou, I found a fairly well-stocked bike shop by chance and bought a mountain bike with front suspension for around 3100Y, including XTR derailleur and everything else LX (brakes, cranks, hubs).

Ruins of St Pauls, Macau

I only planned to stay one night but ended up staying five as I couldn’t get a train ticket out of the city. Being summer and school holidays, the trains were full and the ticketing system means you cannot book tickets more than 4 days in advance - the catch being that all the tickets that you can buy are apparently sold out. I ended up getting one from a scalper for more than the true cost of the ticket. Getting a bike on a train was probably going to create more hassles than I wanted. I had heard stories that getting a bike may create two main problems: 1) you may have to pay money, and 2) your bike may not be on the same train as you. To avoid encountering these I put it into two of those red, white and blue bags you can find almost anywhere - wheels in one, frame with shocks and handlebars sticking out in the other. With 30 or so hours ahead, I headed for Kunming (the capital of Yunnan province) where I planned to cycle to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province).

Kunming (Capital of Yunnan Province & start of Cycle Tour)

On arriving in Kunming, I reassembled my bike outside the train station so I could find a hostel to stay in. I looked up to find about 30 curious locals standing around watching me taking my bike out of my bags, and assemble the wheels and seat on my bike. A policeman came to disperse them while chuckling to himself so it was amusing all round - in fact I am used to it so it didn’t bother me at all. I found a good hostel, the toilets were typical Chinese public toilets - the squat type with no doors, only small 2-foot high partitions between each hole in the floor. They were pretty good compared with what I experienced later in the small towns and villages.

In Kunming, I ate the best noodles and fried rice I have ever had in my life. A large bowl for dinner including soup was just 3 yuan (about US 37 cents). I met a Swiss guy who had cycled here solo all the way from Switzerland and covered about 20,000 km. He was on his way to Japan! I visited pagodas and a Buddhist temple that is more than 1000 years old. Outside I was pestered by beggars, many of them disabled or from minority groups. Every city has its markets, the flower and bird market here had parrots, fish, squirrels and black beetles. I asked and learned the beetles are put into alcohol while still alive to make medicinal wine. They even had vending machines in Kunming which I hadn’t seen before in China, selling things like preserved eggs, instant noodles and condoms.

Kunming - Dali

The first day riding out from Kunming I rode 65 km. Most other days I rode 80-100 km, depending on the road and weather conditions, and on the places to see along the way. I didn’t have a helmet (I couldn’t find one big enough to fit a foreign head!) but at the end of some days it was too hard to resist the opportunity to draft the last few km’s behind a pedicab or something to get you quickly into the next town. I could’ve done to have made the trip longer and slower as the area I cycled through had so many things to see. For the first two nights I camped, but as it rained everyday but one that I cycled, I took the cheap indoor option (usually 8-10 yuan per night). It didn’t rain all day but usually once or twice, other times being treated to the hot summer sun. The first night I camped on top of a hill in a tiny village of about 3 families. The tents must have looked like something from outer space and they somehow contacted the police and at 9 p.m. around 8 of them arrived saying it was not permitted. But at 9 p.m. we weren’t going anywhere and at 10 p.m. they gave up.

Old Man, Shaping

The police want foreigners where they know they will be safe. The second night, there was torrential rain and I woke up to horses and buffalos walking around my tent. The trial of riding with a poncho was short-lived after impossible aerodynamics but it came in handy for protecting my bike and bags from the rain overnight.

Summer is rainy season, but also my summer holiday I had no choice but to make the best of it. The provinces I chose were at the end of some heavy rain, major flooding, washouts and landslides so I was still getting the end of it. With all the rain I collected all the muck from the road and was covered from head to toe with a combination of diesel fumes, coal dust, blood, mud, clay and buffalo shit. The diesel fumes were from the untuned trucks that passed me on the hills; the coal was on the back of the trucks; the blood from a crash I had when avoiding a 3-wheel motorcycle taxi in the wet. Other than that, the traffic conditions for cycling on the open road in China were great. In some parts, there are also converted tractors which chug along at 30-50 km/hr on the flat, one time it came in handy when I managed to grab onto the back of one of the long hill climbs - and had 3 pigs in the back staring at me.

Despite being filthy, there were often no places to wash. Showers were a luxury and I could probably count how many times I washed, or washed my clothes, on one hand. Every day I would be wet and muddy again. So, to make life dirtier, there were often no facilities to wash anyway, sometimes not even a toilet! One time after riding 100 km (the last 10 km being uphill), and arriving cold, wet and tired, I would have done anything for a hot shower. I had to settle for a flask of hot water and a bowl - and washing outside at dusk in the cold mist with the locals walking past. At the same place, the squat toilets were ‘full to the brim.’ These ones you should never go in at night! Everything was the bare essentials and the beds sometimes seemed harder than the camping mat in my tent.

Cycling through small towns and villages, you really have to turn a blind eye to food hygiene and hope for the best. There might be a man putting tealeaves into cups with his grubby hands. This didn’t matter too much as the cups were dirty anyway; dishes might only get rinsed in cold water and there is certainly no hot water on tap. Some places had flies everywhere. There are cracks in the dishes and fingers or thumbs in the food when it is served. All the ‘do nots’ you read about are impossible when you are traveling like this.

In Xiaguan I took a photo of a dog restaurant which had about 8 live dogs outside waiting to be ordered from the menu. A man was cleaning the hind of another one which had already been cut up. Dog seems to be more common in the Korean restaurants. Most people seem to pass through here and head straight to Dali (Old Town) but I found a bustling old market here also and some interesting back streets.

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