Human contact - interaction with people
We’re back in Chengdu and ready for the last part of our Chinese journey. Our bikes are with Larry, an American who came to Chengdu as a Teacher, and never left because he loves China.
He has a bike mechanic shop in the outskirts of the city where he builds custom made Bamboo bikes, organizes Tibetan biking tours and sometimes helps lost touring bikers who need bike repairs and tune-ups. Larry is our ‘bike’ savior. Without him we would still be cycling around Chengdu trying to find a bike mechanic. Isn’t it hard to believe that there are no bike shops in a 14 mil people city? This is probably due to the fact that the city has a very easy bike rental system in place and the rentals are available everywhere, so there is no need to own a bike.
On our way to Leshan, we bike through small villages and discover a new side of China. Mining and Agricultural industries are omnipresent, each cm of land is used for something. The Chinese are amazing gardeners & farmers. It's even more impressive because the terrain we bike through is difficult to work - almost all is done by hand and not machines. Altogether, there are 300 mil farmers, and China holds the #1 rank in farm output in the world even though only 15% of the land is farmland. The farmed land can be confiscated at any time by the government for new roads, train tracks, bridges and industry. If a farmer's land is seized, they are displaced and have to work on construction sites or in other industries like a handy man. I encourage you to read more information about the agriculture industry in China, and the challenges farmers face by clicking on the following link:
As usual, we are being photographed by many people, including being the main attraction at a "stag/stagette party" which they do the same just like we do in Europe or America.
On that same day, we have to wait behind a big concrete truck that drove into a big hole on a small village road and we get rained on. Eventually, we make it to Leashan.
We are really happy when we arrive and the hotel staff gives us a room even though we look dirty and drenched. The city is mostly known for the Giant Buddha - biggest in the world. The tall stone statue, carved out of a cliff of red sandstone faces Leshan and the Dadu and Min river. It’s under renovation at the moment, and unfortunately we’re not able to see the 71m high statue from the bottom. It’s hair has been carved so the rain water can run all the way down to the ground to prevent the erosion of the statue.
This technique clearly works as the statue was completed in 803 and still stands even though it does need some repair. After a couple of rest days, we try to continue our trip, but Frank breaks his chain. Luckily, we are not too far from the city and once Frank has replaced the chain and identified the issue, we return to the hotel. Another rest day in a nice hotel for me :) Sometimes, I get a bit restless when we’re not biking and hang around in a nice place, but my legs are very thankful and say ‘merci’. We have the replacement pieces within 24 hours thanks to Larry and off we go again. It’s raining again and we arrive in Emei Shan fully soaked. We’re happy when we see the McDonald sign. We can order food, have wifi and dry our clothes a bit. McDonalds have become our savior in desperate moments. Coffee, fries and burgers bring back our smiles. We hope to visit Mount Emei the next day, but in the morning we realize that this will not happen. It is still pouring down, and we decide to take the train and miss 300 km (and the rain) of our biking road. Getting our bikes on the train was another adventure, but thanks to an efficient young train agent, the problem is resolved very quickly. On the train, Frank speaks with two young women who speak English very well. One of them is a teacher in Computer Science. The school she is working for has an exchange program with a High school in...White Rock, BC. And the other woman works as admin staff for Chevron. She has an interesting work schedule. She works 28 days non stop (12 hrs/day, except for Sunday 6 hrs/day), and then she has 28 days off. Her schedule overlaps with her colleague for one day so they can brief each other about the ongoing work. My guess is North American or European unions would not allow this kind of schedule, although it sounds somehow appealing.
The rest of the road to Kunming has lot of mileage and elevation plus big temperature differences. We’re back drinking a lot of sodas for refreshment, and we feel our stomachs are not always happy with the bubbles and sugar intake. The two bigger cities we visit (Xichan and Panzhihua), are pleasant and are a manageable size population wise (1 mil vs 10 mil). Nevertheless, we’re still a rare species, we meet no other Caucasians and we are by now used to the staring, which is not always friendly. That said, we also have a wonderful experience in Yongren, when two young Chinese men invite us to stay overnight at their place.
We’re invited for dinner, breakfast and a sightseeing tour, and a big party dinner with more friends. They even get fries, steak and a pizza for us. We finish the second evening in a Karaoke bar with a group of 15 people where we sing very badly, drink too much beer and cry when we leave. They are the most hospitable people we met on our trip, and it was the nicest evening in China.
The time we’ve spent together will definitely be one my fondest Chinese memories.
The road into Kunming is very dirty and the air quality is probably the worst we had so far. When we cross through a tunnel (we’re not allowed to use), we come out the other end wet and totally covered in mud due to riding behind a truck cleaning the street with water. The truck is so slow which allowed us to safely cross the tunnel. On the other side of the mountain, the climate is completely different, it’s cold and rainy, and we’re happy to eventually see the Ibis hotel sign. The hotel staff is very friendly and helpful, we’re even allowed to take the bikes into our hotel room.
The hotel also has a laundry service so I don’t have to wash our clothes in the sink while Frank is packing our bikes before flying out to Bangladesh. Everyone and everything has been cleaned and tuned-up as necessary before the next part of our journey begins. Our bikes have been reviewed by Bruce, a Chinese bike mechanic.
Both of us had some issues that needed to be addressed, and to our surprise, our bikes are literally like new. He is very meticulous and organized, I guess both go well together :) Frank has shaved, which is very challenging because razor blades are of very poor quality in China and there are no barbershops in Kunming, or at least we didn’t find one.
Our Chinese journey comes to an end tomorrow, and I am still fascinated by China. It’s huge, beautiful and contains a lot of contradictions. The majority of people in the country side are fatigued with their lives in general. In some villages and smaller towns, propaganda music wakes them in the morning and puts them to sleep in the evening. The differences between the urban wealth and rural poverty are big. Historical tourism is weird as almost all the temples and artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the last 20 years. The revolution has deprived them of their past, good or bad. Freedom of speech and circulation is not for everyone. The government censorship has deprived them of the fundamental right of information and thoughts. The pro government media tells people what to think but if you scratch hard enough, you find scared but rebellious minds. It’s frightening what the Chinese government does to their own people, you wonder what they would do if they take over the world by being successful with the world road belt they are building. And even though I admire their capacity to move mountains, which they literally do, I would not like to live under their scrutiny. Hundreds of years of government oppression has created a sad nation, where everyone is supposed to think and believe alike.
My only regret of our time in China is that I didn’t spend enough time with people to discuss my observations because of the language barrier. As a result, my thoughts about China are single sided, maybe even narrow minded. Most of all, I really missed the human contact with Chinese.
Below a few more notes about my likes and dislikes:
I never felt unsafe on my bike or elsewhere
No road rage in China. While drivers, bikers and pedestrians follow their own rules, moving the wrong way or crossing red lights, everyone keeps moving in the traffic chaos without being upset.
families eat their meals together, either along the street, in restaurants or in the stores/shops they own
Kunming is my favourite city in China. The blue sky and air remind me Vancouver. It is unbelievably quiet due to the electric motorbikes and the amazing pavement
Mapo tofu - a specialty in Sichuan
Weird food, like bee larvae’s and pig feet
Delicious fruit and vegetables
Kunming Underground transit staff - they helped us finding a minivan to the airport. Thanks to them we did not miss our flight to Dhaka
Ibis hotel staff in Kunming
People dancing everywhere in the evening
real estate speculation - there are thousands if not hundred of thousands of unoccupied high rises
life conditions of people living on the country side is miserable
almost impossible to find a camping spot but in a cemetery
additional entrance fees within a tourist attraction. In Xichang, the city is asking an entrance fee to see the lake
water and air pollution in Sichuan and Yunnan
And as a good finishing note, a huge thank you to Zenija who uploads our stories and pictures. Without her, no blog! Thank you to Alexa who reviews our stories, Eric for reviewing and inspiring me to write better and shorter stories, and a big smile on Frank’s face.
A taxi ride with all our panniers from the hotel in Chengdu took us to the South East side of the city to meet Larry from Natooke Chengdu at his bicycle workshop. Larry is from the US, found his happiness in Chengdu and settled down making his passion for bikes his main source of income. Occasionally he guides bike tours in Sichuan and Yunnan with “Bike China Adventure” for clients from all around the world. Larry is not only a bike technician and a bike adventure guide he also builds Bamboo Bikes and ship them anywhere you want :) . It's a passion that became almost a lifestyle. As we re-pack our tuned up bikes we chat about bikes, gears, bike parts, guiding and we left his bike cave with good tips for the rest of our journey to Kunming.
Kunming is about 650Km South of Chengdu “as a crow flies”. Crows don’t care about mountains and deep valleys....they don't care about temples and other interesting places to visit or to ride through. It is a big dilemma to pick one road that will satisfy our hunger to see everything and be in the mountains. The problem with the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces is the lack of connection between one valley and another...you pick one and you stick with it...what ever the direction the valley is bearing. Better to double check before you head into one of them as the way out can be very far from where you want to eventually go.
Based on Larry's recommendations and our ....guts (Sylvia’s and mine :) ) we drew a sort of a draft plan on the map that gives us some kind of flexibility to change plans. A 1200Km itinerary, we definitely have nothing in common with a crow.
First goal, reach Emeishan. A good warm up after few days off the bikes. Riding bikes in China can be problematic and not only because of the language. During and since the cultural revolution many cities and locations have been re-baptized with new names. From one map to another, from one generation to another the same place has been named differently. With the Mega project to make China more progressive and up to date with the occidental countries, little villages are turning into towns, towns into cities and cities into megalopolises.
Even with updated digital maps we stay confused when we cross a town that is not even shown on our map, we get frustrated when a road we have been following for many km becomes deactivated or transformed into a unexpected muddy road forcing us to choose between turning back to another option that would mean many km detour or taking the risk to persist on the same path hoping that it won't be muddy for too long and more importantly that it will take us somewhere. The good side of this is we cross amazing country side and can document a farming lifestyle in villages that for most part are turning in ghost places. All the young generation, in a quest for jobs and attracted by shining new cities growing or expanding like weeds, leave their villages and older generations behind.
We crossed many villages with no life, all stores closed, a few old souls getting together in what used to be a shop to play cards or dominos. Few are still working really hard in numerous small fields leased for free from the government knowing that any time it can be seized to build a huge Hwy, a fast train track or a new city.
We have the feeling that human beings and nature have no consideration from the decisions of leaders. What has to be done will be done, no matter what. There is a cost for everything and collateral damages are part of the cost.
We cannot avoid seeing major speculations in many aspects and the fundamental fragility of such speculations that can have huge implications at every level. But we are just modest wanderers, seeing and translating with our senses what is around us. In 2 generations China may show us that it was the way to go but for now what we have seen along the road was deprivation in the quality of lives for many people. And that has been true during the 2 months cycling through the Chinese country sides.
Weather did not add any bright light on our route. Mainly overcast, with drizzly conditions that progressively will become constant torrential rain. We arrived in Leshan after a long 130km ride. Longer than we thought because of the unexpected detours and road conditions. A very awful end of the day. With our headlamps, on a very misty late afternoon, rainy early evening and through endless road construction creating a huge traffic jams we cycled. Fighting for our space on the now muddy, very muddy road (or what remains from the original one) there is no way we can stop. Soon we have a place among the trucks and other motorized vehicles honking to signal their presence we better keep at it. Screaming over my shoulder but keeping an eye on the potholes I make sure Sylvia is still behind me and alive. Between nervous honking I can vaguely hear something like “WTF are we doing here?” that I translate into “all is ok, I am handling it, how fun is this!". If I decide to stop for more info on her condition we would lose our place in the moving train and not be able to jump in again. She is alive and knows we are getting close to shelter.
The shelter is a nice IBIS hotel we decided to stay at, using information from an out-of-date offline application we find while resting curb side when the road finally got wider and allowed us to regroup. Reasonable rates, close to the side of the city we came in on. Within a few more minutes we are in a warm shower, bikes out of the rain. High five. Tonight we are celebrating with fried rice and eggs!
A couple of days off the bikes to visit the biggest Buddha in the world. 70 meters tall, carved in a red sandstone cliff where 3 major rivers merged.
The giant Buddha project started under the Tang Dynasty. It took about 100 years from 703AD to 803AD to finish the project that a Monk started by himself with the hope that in the future the Buddha will reduce flooding problems and calm the turbulent water threatening vessels. Actually, sediment and rock waste accumulations from the carving during the 100 years helped immensely but the success is still today attributed to the Giant Buddha... And another tourist attraction is born. I must say a very interesting one and impressive. But like in many other touristic places you are constantly being asked to contribute not only once at the main entrance but very often more times when you are inside the site. The general admittance is not always full admittance.
Buddha has been nice with us and offered us few hours of sunny warm conditions...just for the time of the visit.
Back under heavy rain we biked to Emeishan. We know we will be soaked but it is only 30km to reach another high tourist destination. High in elevation and high in tourist interest the “attraction” is a gold temple perched at 4000m. Accessed only by buses from the little Emi town after a 2h drive one way. That by itself multiplies the opportunities to charge more tourists.
Totally drenched we ended up in one of the first hotels on the street. The Main Street of Emi is a juxtaposition of hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. The first pick is basic but good enough. The hotel is dark, room smells of moisture and an AC on the ceiling tries to hide its age with a lot of duct tape. We gained some elevation since Chengdu but are definitely still in a humid subtropical climate. We asked the AC device to change its attitude for a brief moment. We are cold enough, a little bit of heat would be appreciated and would allow us to dry our gears.
A quick look at the weather forecast and satellite photo, it is going to rain for few days. Webcams of the peak attraction show nothing but clouds with no hope of a change anytime soon.
A quick check with a very casual internet connection and the decision is taken to jump on a train to the very next and closest destination showing sun on the weather forecast.
Xichang or Liangshan, according to your generation, arrival time scheduled for 11:30PM, departing at 3pm...We left the hotel, trying to bike between the rain drops to go for what we thought was a train station. Classic useless explanation of our goal to a counter agent to be told it was not a train station but a high speed bus station. The rail track can be seen from outside the building, though. Back on the bikes we headed back on the road we came in on the day before to go to another train station.... the good one. We gave up the stupid idea of trying to stay as dry as possible. The rain is torrential. Back to scratch with explanations.
The translator app tries to help us but does not seem to do a good job. Short sentences, easy wording,... in response we have only long silences, laughs and definitely incomprehension. There is always ONE person somewhere who is keen to help us either with few words in English, better skill at using the translator app, or by using a little bit of common sense. When you find one person with one of these specifications, you grab him/her and you don’t let it go. The hunt for that rare pearl was on.
Took us about another 2 hours to finalize the project “train to the sun”, a lot of sweat and self control but 2 hours later the bikes were registered for another train 2 days later (ah, yes why would we still expect anything easier?) and we just had to wait a couple more hours in the waiting room. Stress and pressure fading out, we could then enjoy outside a now cleared up sky (no kidding!). The train station doors are only opened 2hours prior the train schedule. Well at least that gave us time and chance to finish drying our still wet clothes.
Xichang where we get off the train, Panzhihua, Yongren are “classic” Chinese cities of different sizes, different interests, differently pleasant (or not) on our itinerary. A route that will constantly be re-evaluated on the way to Kunming. A few sections have been very fun to ride, a few climbs have been challenging with very nice rewards at the top but to summarize we did not enjoy it that much.
The scenery offers some really nice spots but separated by long dusty polluted and busy section that have undermined the enjoyment to be back in the mountains. Camping is very difficult if not impossible (a couple of times we pitched the tent in old mountain graveyards),
industrialization of the valleys producing dust and heavy traffic, agriculture on any square meter of soil reducing access to more quiet areas or camping options, in some places the feelings of not being welcomed to say the least, have not contributed to making that section as pleasant as we were expecting. Not pleasant but very educating and that is what a bike trip is about as well.
We have not seen more than maybe 20 Caucasians since Lanzhou, about 2300km to the North in the Gansu province. We can document about how fast China is changing and at what cost. Human cost and financial cost. The feeling that such fast development makes everything fragile, precarious. Maintenance of infrastructures is not a priority and when they are falling apart they are demolished and rebuilt ...bigger.
In Kunming, one of the most pleasant cities along with Panzhihua and Xichang on our route, we witnessed activities in parks that could be seen as fun moments for the locals but we can not avoid perceiving some sort of sadness hidden behind.
Chinese people have been through a lot for generations and you can feel it.
We met people on the road, we spent time with few of them, different generations, same comments shyly or prudently expressed. Fatigue and desire for more from life.
It is hard to answer questions when you know the answers may hurt their own life reality. Those questions are legitimate. Sometimes the answers are only confirming what they know. They are followed by a silence of deep thought. You can feel it, you can see it in their eyes. Those kinds of conversations never last long either out of fear to be heard by someone or because they won’t change their daily lives anyway. Internet is used by the young generation with VPN to go through banned info and websites. They find there all answers to their questions. Our answers, when we can not avoid the subject, are only confirming what they found on the web. Quickly, the desire of enjoying the moment is leading our new friends and hosts of the day to the Karaoke club where cigarettes and beers help to end the day with an insouciant mood.
We can confirm our singing skills are no where near as good compared to theirs.
Wrapping now our bikes to fly out of Kunming and for the first time heading West.
Bangladesh next stop.