Into The Mountains: Kunming to Huize
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China @ March 3, 2012 - 11:11 am

by Thamar

After cycling 700 kilometres in the blistering cold from Beijing up to The Great Wall and then down south to Taiyuan, we decided we'd had enough of the north. The weather was far colder than we could have ever imagined and it just made everything bleak. Then there was the intense pollution - and besides Beijing and perhaps The Great Wall - there really was nothing of value to see.

However I must mention that the food, especially up north is spectacularly good - although they do add chilli to everything. Unfortunately, due to our lack of knowledge of dishes in Mandarin we usually end up eating the same thing and occasionally get surprised - but it's always tasty and cheap.

So after two weeks in China and me on the bed sobbing my heart out with disappointment and frozen toes, we decided to catch the train down south to Chengdu and then Kunming. This would effectively mean that instead of cycling from Beijing to Taiyuan and then to Xi'an and then Chengdu we would skip the section out between Taiyuan and Xi'an (honestly nothing to see there) and add in an extra section - the stretch from Kunming up to Chengdu.

Another problem was that because of our visa we have to leave the country after 30 days and re-enter, so we have a flight to Hong Kong on the 11th of March which after the train rides which would take 4 days altogether, we'd only have two weeks to cycle a 1000 kilometres, and we knew it would be a bit tougher terrain than before.

The Train Ride: Taiyuan to Chengdu and then Kunming

By Richard

We bought our tickets for the train to Chengdu the day before, hoping to get ahead of the masses. When we got to the train station the next day it was slammed. We had bought some bags to put our panniers in and everyone ogled us as we unpacked our bikes into those big cheap bags you get with really thin handles, which made carrying them quite difficult.

We got through the first gate but as we passed through with our bikes security stopped us and told us we couldn't take the bikes on the train. Tham had asked the day before but seemed that now we couldn't. A few minutes later two ladies came running towards us. I was left with the bags while Tham followed them with the bikes. They said it would take like three days for our bikes to get to Chengdu on a freight train, so Tham checked them onto Kunming instead and there was no point having to go through the process again once we got to Chengdu. To get both bikes transported to Kunming cost us 284 RMB which is about R300, on top of the R600 or so we'd paid for the train tickets - we could only get hard sleepers as the soft sleeper bunks were sold out.

When Tham returned to where I was waiting with the bags, the one lady who was very loud and enthusiastic was shouting "quickly, quickly" and ushered us through the crowds towards the train. We were running with the bags (I had both the heavy ones) and she was screaming for people to get out the way. We even passed through security without having our bags checked! We made it to the train with about five or 10 minutes to spare, besides the fact we'd got there more than an hour before.

We are in a hard sleeper which has six bunks - fortunately we are both on the bottom bunks which means we can sit on our beds, which isn't the case for the others up top. By chance we tried to see if we could get dinner in the dining cart and we could - it was R30 each for a set menu. As we started to eat people stared like I’ve never seen before. We also got a "hello" from a Tibetan man dressed in what looked like traditional attire (there is a Tibetan community in Chengdu).

We slept well but were near the door where everyone was smoking so felt a bit sneezy. Funny you're allowed to smoke on the train but we weren't allowed to open any windows?

Day of Arrival in Chengdu

We woke early this morning to a much different looking countryside. We have been following the Yangzi River most of the way as it snakes through the valleys with mountain peaks on either side. Then there are factories and mines which once again dominate the scenery. There have also been countless tunnels which we have gone through.

Closer to Chengdu as I look out the window it's flattened out a lot. It also looks fertile and lush and there are signs of recent rains - quite opposite to the dry north.

We arrived at Chengdu station and we had to follow the hordes of people out to the exit. The bags with our panniers are really heavy and we had to stop and rest halfway out and then got shouted at by a security guard for stopping! We took a taxi to our hotel which was a bit pricey but worth it. The hotel is the one we'd been liaising with a bit before as we want them to help us organise our train tickets to Tibet eventually and we are sending our Tibet permits there - it's called Traffic Inn and they speak 'excellent English'.

There are two rivers which run through the city - we are staying right in the centre next to one of them. It's very pretty at night when everything is lit up. We went out for dinner and had Thai food since it was next door to the hotel. I enjoyed the amazing Pad Thai noodles - the best I’ve had so far. Tham had chicken green curry which probably wasn't the best idea as on top of the flu it seems she's picked up a bug from the train as well!

We walked along the river after dinner and were just talking about what we thought of the city when we stumbled on something they call the 'English Corner' where people meet to chat and improve their English skills. There were one or two seedy foreigners there but the locals were the ones who accosted us and launched into conversation about everything from politics to food. They all knew who Nelson Mandela was and said he was their hero too.

We Think We Love Chengdu

We decided to stay another night as we could only get a train to Kunming the following day. After breakfast which was amazing - fruit and yoghurt plus eggs and toast, we spent the day seeing some sights and even stopped at Remnin Park to drink some Jasmine tea. Up till now it's been really difficult to find a real cup of Chinese tea - something I've wanted to do since I arrived in China.

The park was very busy with people of all ages dancing and doing various other forms of self-expression - including karaoke and a fashion show with some old ladies strutting their stuff! In general we found that Chengdu was a friendly, laidback city with the best vibe of all the cities we've visited in China to date.

Chengdu to Kunming by Train

This time we got a soft sleeper to Kunming which was way better - there were four beds but only one other guy was in our cabin. It was clean, carpeted and we could close our door. We thought the train would arrive at 4.30pm but four sounds the same as 10 in Chinese and we were caught unawares when we suddenly arrived at Kunming at 10.30am. We caught a taxi to the Upland Youth Hostel which was very modern. At 6pm we headed back to the train station on a bus with one of the staff members to fetch our bikes - we were on the bus for an hour in rush-hour - we could have walked quicker.

Once again Tham has lost internet coverage and spent most of the afternoon trying to figure out what to do. We met a guy called Ming from Guangzhou at our hostel and he suggested we switch from China Mobile to China Unicom as they offer 3G rather than GPRS. He was right! We spent the evening chatting to him - he spoke good English and was telling us all about his travels to Vietnam (he was here in Kunming to get his visa to go back to Vietnam).

Starting From Scratch: Kunming to Yanglin

By Thamar

The train trip gave me the chance to recover from the worst flu I have ever had - I just felt sorry for the other five people sharing our hard sleeper compartment with me coughing and spluttering all night. Then again most people here don't worry about things like that. Everyone coughs and spits in the street - very loudly I might add - and people mess food all over the floor, throw rubbish by the side of the road and smoke where they feel like, including in your face. So I guess it couldn't have been that bad...

Anyway after the long train rides, I actually started looking forward to getting back on my bike. Our first day back on the road we went easy on ourselves as I wasn't yet 100 percent and it had been eight days since we last had our bums on our bikes. Plus after having to be saved by Alice the last time, we weren't keen to end up in the middle of nowhere if the going got tough. We saw there were a couple of towns on route to Songming so headed in that direction. On the train we had seen some of the terrain we would be cycling through. Although the flowing rivers and peaked mountains looked enchanting, cycling them would be another story.

We headed out of Kunming easily enough (it's often hardest to get out of the big cities) but when we got to the S101 the road was in terrible disrepair and ended up being a very busy road with gravel mostly and narrow shoulders. It was slow going and we stopped early for lunch. Now that it was warm we could actually see what was on offer at different shops as they were open-doored opposed to the closed doors of the north. We both had egg-fried rice prepared by a little old lady who smiled so sweetly, despite her black teeth.

After lunch the road seemed to go from bad to worse but the scenery got better. We even got to one point that overlooked a lake which had a water buffalo wading through the edges. Finally nature!

After 60 kilometres of hard work we were both pretty tired when we arrived at a dust ball town called Yanglin. The main road was being upgraded and was literally stones and dust with some mud thrown in for good measure. People were even shovelling the sand in front of their shops! We were surprised to find a very decent hotel - even in this one-horse town.

There wasn't much choice for dinner but we knew one thing - we couldn't eat anymore Kung Pow Chicken - just about the only thing everyone in China can make. We found a little hole-in-the-wall place and pointed to a guy eating noodles and said we want that. The thing about China is they have lots of variations of noodles. Inevitably we always end up with the watery kind soaked with chilli. This time we got fried noodles with bits of meat - judging by the state of the kitchen we wouldn't want to think about the kind of meat. But it was scrumptious. The best part is it only cost R15 for two portions and was more filling that the R160 meal we had in our first night in Beijing - such suckers we are...

Our Longest Distance Yet: Yanglin to Dongchuan

We left the dust ball town to its own devices in the midst of rush-hour - not before grabbing a street-side donut. Well Richard did anyway. I have been eating digestive biscuits for breakfast with the occasional rice bun or banana thrown in and I just can't eat cake or noodles for breakfast like they do.

The road condition improved after we left but then we started to climb. Still battling with a tight chest, I coughed my way up the hills and honestly felt exhausted early on. We knew that today we had just over 120 kilometres to cover but weren't sure if we would make it. What goes up however usually always comes down and just when I was at the end of my tether we got to the top of some sort of pass. In all fairness the countryside had been very pretty with rolling hills, little patches of farmland and some lovely little villages on route.

The downhill looked steep and I was hoping that it would go on for a while - what we didn't know is that it actually went on for 21 kilometres. It was kind of like going down Sir Lowery's Pass a couple of times. It's definitely the longest downhill I've ever seen and I said to Rich - they could have the only downhill half marathon in the world - or uphill.

My only concern was that we were descending into the shadow of the mountain and I didn't want to be on what was now a secondary sort of highway once it got dark. Near the end of the downhill we got to a tunnel which was pitch dark - despite us having our headlamps - I couldn't see where I was riding - it was rather nerve-racking.

After the downhill, every little bump in the road felt like a huge effort. Thankfully the road evened out and we made it to Dongchuan - a reasonably big town - just before it started to get dark. We'd done our longest distance in one day - 124km!

At the hotel they had lots of pictures of snow-capped mountains. Richard thought it might be Everest, but I had a feeling that wasn't the case and as we later found out, those mountains were closer that we thought.

It was odd but all the restaurants closed early, so we were forced to squat at some very low tables in a little restaurant where they were making barbeque. What they do is they put all sorts of things on a stick - from broccoli and tofu to chicken and dumplings - and barbeque it (we have seem some deep-friend though which is gross). We managed to get some watery noodles with our skewers braaied in their 'secret spice' which they use on everything. It was so yummy but not the healthiest meal after a long day on the road. All of that plus beer cost us R40. What we didn't know is that this experience would help us in the future...

The Road To Huize: 90km of Heaven and Hell

We headed out from Dongchuan feeling rather tired after our 124km stint the day before. We only had 87km or so to do today which in comparison seemed fine.

We had no idea what lay ahead but as we were leaving the city a lady started to stalk us - she even bought us some bottled water. She was trying to tell us something - we think she was saying we should take the bus back in the city centre. We told her we wanted to cycle to Huize. She looked surprised and then gave us a thumbs up that suggested "good luck".

We did 10 or so kilometres on a flat road and then saw a turn-off to the road we needed to take. It was uphill and narrow. We started to climb up through lots of little villages and although it was hilly it was rather pleasant.

Where we thought must have been near the top we bought some sweets to sustain us up the last hill. That last hill didn't come. We climbed for about 14 kilometres and then the road got worse and steeper and longer. Despite the day before's effort we were feeling strong. It was just a mental battle as we didn't know how much longer the hills would go on for. And then it just became a bad dream and it felt like we were stuck in the same place for hours and hours, which I guess we were.

After lunch at a village consisting of hot milk tea, crisps and some biscuit things, we asked the guy at the store how much further we had to go uphill - he said 25 kilometres. We thought we must have misunderstood.

It was already about 3pm and we were getting a bit frustrated to say the least. Then the road turned to dust and gravel and our hearts sank. Still we climbed. The scenery was breathtaking but the hills were taking our breathe away and for the first time ever I saw Richard losing the plot a bit. I had to take charge and egged him on by trying to cycle as much as I could - although we ended up doing a lot of pushing. We did some good distance considering - about 15 kilometres or so but it was getting dark fast.

Should we set up tent or carry on? It was pretty cold up at this height - we must have been at least 3000 metres above sea level if not more and so thought maybe if we can start descending then it will be warmer. There was however nowhere to camp with the road being rather narrow and we missed our chance to find anywhere as soon the sun set.

Soon it was pitch black and we couldn't see anything with our headlamps in the darkness. We came to a fork on the road and tried to cower away from the massive truck passing us that took up the whole road. Richard put his hand up and unbelievably the driver stopped.

I asked him where he was going and told him we were going to Huize. He said he was going there too and I asked if we could catch a ride. He agreed amazingly and climbed up top the huge truck and threw a rope down for us to hoist our bikes and luggage up.

Once this was done we entered the front part of the truck where his wife was breastfeeding his little baby. We were so grateful we couldn't believe his kindness. It was about 8pm as we head off up and up the pass. It was hair-raising in the truck - it's massive lights illuminating the jagged rocks to our right while the sheer drop on our left was pitch dark. This was some serious 4X4ing!

Richard was about to pass out with cold and tiredness while I was wired - nervous at every turn in the road. The dusty mountain path continued for another 9km uphill and took the truck a good hour to climb! A little town then appeared - the one we could have stayed at if we'd walked in the dark for a couple of hours.

Then it was another 30km down on a tar road to Huize. We arrived at 10pm and the driver asked if we wanted to eat something - we said a resounding "yes". He stopped at a restaurant with one table where all his cronies were waiting and helped us order some food. Basically you point to the fridge and show them what you want cooked - we'd found another way of ordering!

Then he paid for us and wouldn't accept any money we offered but did allow us to take a picture of him. We were so grateful we didn't know how to thank him and even though he had nothing he'd shared what he had with us. That day we'd cycled 50km of the 90km we needed to in eight hours!