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The Hard Road

Monday, January 20, 2014

Leaving behind the warmth and comfort of a hostel (or kind host) is often done with a feeling of ‘it’s been good to rest, but now I’m looking forward to hitting the road again.’ This hasn’t been the case in China, as the cycling has been very sobering and at times, very frightening. The friendly staff at the hostel suggested I take the G108 to Kunming, reasoning it would be a better bet than through the mountains further east on the S212/S310. I’m unconvinced it is any easier after taking eight days to cycle the 606 km to get here and the stats back me up on this: 31,700 meters (104,002 feet ) of climbing and 31,313 meters (102,733 feet) of descent.

Looking back after 3 hours of hard climbing.

That’s almost 4,000 meters a day, which is simply too much. The thing about the climbs is they go on forever, because once you climb the main pass the route usually then traverses the mountains, with almost no relief. The longest climb was a staggering 48 km and this was not up-and-down, it was constant climbing, mostly in my granny ring (lowest gear).

The Chinese may be renowned for building roads, but I have yet to ride (or see) one that has been finished! The G108 started out pretty rough and slow going for the first 60 km as they had scraped the top surface and then just left it. Thereafter it became a mixture of rough track and then thankfully, good tarmac.

This road surface became hard work.

I’m trying not to be over negative here, but the truth is cycling in China (for me) has been the most horrendous experience. I have witnessed seven serious accidents (two of which had fatalities) and been run off the road several times, as well as being hit by a moped which resulted in my front pannier being damaged and me having to cobble together a temporary repair (I’ve since learned I can pick up Ortlieb spares in Malaysia, so I’ll fix it properly there). Put all this together with the constant filth and dust from the convoys of trucks and it’s not a cycling friendly country at all.

It’s not all bad though, there are some amazing sights and if you were just visiting I imaging the experience would be much different. I’ve also met some wonderful characters, including a photographer in Xichang who shared his pictures with me, took me for a haircut and washed my bike!

Skye, a very charming and interesting character!

Back to the journey here and the landscape was a little more interesting at times, changing from the uninspiring grey of the north to a more noticeable green and pastel brown. It’s not getting warmer though as in the mountains it generally snowed overnight and more than once I awoke to find myself deep in snow. If anyone thinks I have it easy staying in hostels you should realise that is just my rest and clean up period, 99% of the time I’m camping in the wilds.

Cold during the night, I awoke to find the reason why!

A few highlights included seeing the Chinese version of wind-farms and being caught up in the traffic on market day in one of the villages, although the majority of my photography has been on the climbs as that is where I’ve spent most of my time and it’s a good excuse to get off the bike and take a breather!

It took time before the cloud cleared.

Down in the valleys the sun came out and it warmed up a little, though it probably never got much above freezing ’till late afternoon due to a cold wind.

Windfarm, Chinese style (many more in the valley).

The log-jam went on for about 3 kilometers.

Then all too soon it was back to climbing.

Just one of the many viewing platforms on the climb.

Another shot of the view.

After cycling through the small village of Dapingzi I came to the Yangtze river and my first ferry crossing in China, which was free. On the other side I was in for a treat (not!) as this was the start of a marathon two day climb.

Climbing up from the Yangtze river, ferry in the distance.

Further up the monster climb.

It snowed again overnight.

If I’m honest I’m a little sad that with the cycling being so hard (and taking more time than I expected) I have not had time to venture off the beaten track and see more sights, but at this time of year I think China is a difficult problem to solve for a cyclist. I would have liked to have visited the jungle of Xishuangbana given more time, instead I’ve chosen the rice terraces of Yuanyang as it’s closer to my border crossing into Vietnam and I don’t want to risk overstaying my visa here. Talking of Vietnam, I applied for my visa this morning, a 30 day multiple entry which I pick up on Wednesday. Once again I’ll put the details on my The Visa Jungle page for other travellers.

The hostel (Upland International Youth Hostel) is pretty dire IMHO, wifi is a non-starter (I’m sat in a nearby cafe posting this) and even email is difficult to get working, so forget about uploading pictures. It’s freezing cold with no heating, so much so I spend time in bed during the day trying to stay warm. I’ve wandered around a little, Green Lake Park is just around the corner and good for people watching, with the locals spending time feeding the large seagull population. I’ll probably post a few more pictures of Kunming in my next update.

Green Lake Park, Kunming

That’s it for now, next stop will be a stone’s throw from the Vietnam border, in the pretty area of rice terraces of Yuanyang. If I can get internet, more soon…