Yangtze River Dolphin (November 17th – 24th)

Loads more towns, great dumplings, live chickens getting weighed on a stick, getting our ears blasted by truck horns, and some interesting riverside camping spots and many days later we found ourselves at a bit of crossroad in terms of which route to take. Chris’ visa was about to run out in 5 days so he had to get to the next big city quick. We decided that a more direct approach following small roads along a river might be a better approach then cycle the 600 odd km along the better paved but probably more stressful main road. We cycled down the only road in the valley we had seen and then it started to climb suddenly. A pylon installer shook his finger at us as if to say ‘nah, wrong way lads’. Nevertheless we climbed about 150metres to a vantage point but something didn’t feel quite right. We wondered if we were the only westerners to have ever come down this road. Across on the other side of the valley we saw the real road we should be on. And so with 45minutes wasted we made our way to the other side of the valley, the pylon guy having a good laugh at us as we cycled past.

According to the map the road on the other side was a C road, but when we got there it was more like a D or probably an E – literally a grubby dirt lane fit only for motorbike, small truck, or tractor. We plodded along at an average speed of maybe 5kph. By now it was starting to get late. We picked up some beers from a roadside seller so that we would have an extra jacket that evening. The dirt track was fairly hard work. If no westerners had ever wondered down the other road then they definitely hadn’t gone down this one (yes, I know, they probably have). In the evening light the valley looked magical and was beckoning us to go down there and see where it led. Shortly after we picked up the beers some locals stopped us and said ‘No no, you canne go down der with dem bikes’. We tried ascertaining whether it was possible to get to Puge that way and they said no and seemed to be communicating that there was some kind of impasse down there. Perhaps they just didn’t want us on their turf, but from their sign language it seemed more to be a case of it was not possible to bike it down that track, but supposedly it was possible on foot. Chris didn’t have a good feeling about it and was seriously tempted to turn back at that point. We figured that if you can go somewhere on foot then pretty much you can do it by bike too. It wasn’t like we were trying to cross a mountain range or anything. Well, not directly over the top of it anyway. Also, we thought that they probably weren’t sure what we can do with our bikes e.g. take all the panniers off if necessary. We took another look at the map and unless it was wrong then the river would indeed lead to Puge in 60 or 70km. So despite their warning we decided to carry on. We weren’t sure what lay ahead. Cool, finally some genuine adventure cycle touring. What could go wrong?

That night Chris was torn whether or not to carry on down this mystery valley or play it safe and head back to the main road and up and over the pass to Xinjiang. We used every bit of info we had at our disposal to try to come a rational decision of what to do next – GPS, Nelles map of South China, and even a map from those master cartographers at Lonely Planet were all consulted. He deferred his decision until the following morning. It was really freezing that night. The temperature dropped to -5°C according to Chris’ thermometer. We built a fire to keep warm. Lying awake in bed, I was convinced Chris would decide to head to Xinjiang (that’s what I would have done). Meanwhile I had had enough of main roads and big cities and decided that I would continue alone down the valley if the weather was good, but would go back to the main road if it was bad (in wet conditions the dirt track just wouldn’t have been cool).

The next morning we awoke to a clear sky and to my surprise Chris decided he wanted to continue down the valley. It all hung on the fact we had a GPS reading that a real road began in 20+km time. Way to kill the adventure. Well 20km felt doable… 4 hours of effort and then around lunchtime we would hit the road and fly the rest of the way down the valley road…

I scraped the ice and frost of my tent, packed up and we got to it. We cycled through a village of about 30 people which was filthy. It’s funny – you might think that in a community of just 30 people, people might come to a group decision to keep the place clean or introduce some kind of waste disposal site. But no, rubbish (including plastics) was thrown out the front door and left to rot. Some villagers smiled as we cycled through, others looked at us like we were nutters. After about a kilometre the track got a lot more tricky to navigate. Large rocks made life difficult for Chris with his lowrider front rack and large panniers. He said he would give it another 5km and then if the situation didn’t improve then he would return to the main road. Maybe two kilometres later we reached the bit the villagers had warned us about – a river. Chris was hesitant and wasn’t sure it was a good idea. It was the point of no return. He spotted a bus on a road on up on the other side and that convinced him this was a path worth pursuing. Actually, the bit we had to cross wasn’t that bad at all. It was a tributary to the main river of the valley and there were even stepping stones albeit slippery ones. It was no bigger than 6metres across. We unhooked the panniers and carried our kit over bit by bit. No worries…

The road climbed out of the valley and offered some amazing views with waterfalls, before taking us right back down to the valley floor. Definitely one of the most enjoyable rides of this trip so far. That day it felt like we shifted into a warmer climate – despite the freezing cold temperatures the previous night, it climbed to around 25°C the same afternoon. The pressure was still on and we had to push hard to make it all the way to Puge.

There were other navigational decisions that were determined by the time factor of Chris’ visa. The idea of following the river all the way to the Yangtze was by far the most appealing. Loads of up, and loads of down finally brought us to this beast of a watercourse. We stopped on the bridge and soaked up the magic from a sighting of the revered Yangtze River dolphin took some photos. We dried our tents on the other side of the river – bit of a hassle in these more humid conditions having to put up the tent and take it down twice a day to dry and sleep in. Loads of little biting flies confirmed the fact this we were entering a more temperate zone.

Loads of climb along a main road where people were driving stupidly would take us closer to our end goal of Kunming. We witnessed the aftermath of many accidents. You know I can understand someone in a real hotrod of a car overtaking on a corner if you see there’s nothing coming, but by and large it is fully laden truck drivers who try this on roads here in China. I have heard from a few people that truck drivers get paid here not by the day or by the hour, but by the number of deliveries, and this is the reason they drive like maniacs. I heard from Nino whilst back in Osh that the husband of German couple cycling through China had been killed by one of the truck drivers. It just goes to show that the dangers of cycling on the roads here are very real.

It was anything but. The penultimate night it was roasting hot and I could sleep in shorts and T-shirt for the first time in months. So strange to be scraping ice of your tent one day, and then two days later, wake up in hot sunshine. We slowly made our way to the G213 which was supposed to be a good road. It was anything but. It was a race to Kunming to sort Chris’ visa out in time…

The final night on the road to Kunming we slept in a half-finished house jammed between the old main road and the Express Way. It was already nearly dark and we thought sleeping there would save us the hassle of putting up our tents and buy us a bit of time the following morning. It was a strange place – no south facing windows. One dodgy socket was live so we took the opportunity to recharge our electronix. After over 1000m climb during the 25°C day and not far off 100km we were pretty crackered and so turned in for the night around 9ish. I put my ear plugs in to drown out the rumble of the HGVs on the motorway just 40metres away, and my eyemask on to avoid the glare from their headlights. I had moved from alpha waves through theta was just about entering the delta wave stage of sleep when suddenly I got woken up. ‘Talan! Talan! I think they want us to leave!’ I slowly removed my earplugs and removed my eyemask to find two torches shining in my face. Behind them were the silhouettes of a woman who was going ballistic, and her partner who seemed pretty relaxed. Of course we couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but the tone was pretty hard to get wrong. We tried communicating to them ‘look we’re just chilling here one night, then we’re off to Kunming tomorrow’. They seemed to get what we meant, observed that we weren’t damaging the property, and then thankfully left us in peace. Ahhh, now what was I dreaming about again? Ah yes, those beautiful river dolphins we saw…

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn. We still had around 90km left and didn’t fancy arriving in this city of 3.5million in the evening traffic. Matey from the previous night actually came to greet us by day light and shook our hands and said goodbye. It was disappointingly cold and a bit gloomy. Contrary to the quality of the majority of roads I had seen in China, this one was truly atrocious and, unbelievably, actually worse than anything we had cycled in the mountains. In the afternoon the sun finally came out.

Entering Kunming was a nightmare. We cycled down the side of a 10km traffic jam which was pumping out fumes by the kiloton. Trucks here in China are second only to Iran in terms of pollution. I know people joke about China being a big building site , but really the whole of the city was a big building site. Well the outskirts at least. A few more kilometres towards the centre and we cycled past The Kunming Museum of Urban Planning. What a slap in the face. Surely you have to learn how to design a city before you build a museum about it.. Thankfully the situation improved when we got a few more kilometres towards the centre. It was well exciting finally arriving at the hostel and putting an end to a tour record 10days without a shower..!

So. Tonight in a few hours I am jumping on a sleeper train to go see what all the fuss is about Tiger Leaping Gorge. I could have cycled there if I looked at the map earlier, but Kunming (capital of Yunan province, population 3.5million) is a good place to be situated while I figure out what’s next. In a few days I will return ‘ere to Cloudland hostel and make plans to travel East out to Yangshuo. I can’t say yet if I will cycle or train/bus it. Thing is my visa runs out in less than two weeks and so, as ever, this restricts my options. Naja. Mal sehen. Another update after the gorge then I suppose…

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1 Response to Yangtze River Dolphin (November 17th – 24th)

  1. Odile says:

    Talan, je pense souvent au plaisir que maman aurait eu à écouter le récit de tes aventures et comment elle aurait rêvé dans sa tête en te suivant sur la carte du monde, elle était forte en géographie. Malou est au Folgoët ce week-end, papa aussi est très fier de raconter tes exploits et Jean et Maria demandent souvent de tes nouvelles. Bon, Paris est un peu gris aujourd’hui, mélange de brumes et de pollution, je t’embrasse, take care. Odile

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