Tea for Two: Bikepacking in Yunnan

The Vitals

Dates: October 23 – November 4, 2018

Location: Kunming, China to Jiangcheng, China

Distance: ~615 km cycled (8 cycling days)

Partners: Brittany

Activities: Cycle touring/bikepacking

Photos by Brittany

Downloadable GPS tracks and interactive maps for each day are at the bottom of the post.

The Trip

I’m sure you’ve heard of a “Chinatown” before, but did you know there’s an entire country like that? A place where the traffic rules are impenetrable to the freshly arrived, the food is incredibly flavourful for the traveller weary of bread and plov, and where more people than you expect cannot comprehend that you don’t know even a little bit of the language. Not even if it’s rephrased. Or written down. Or repeated numerous times.

Modern Kunming

China has been a treat to arrive in after two and a half months in Central Asia. Our 60-day visas were an object of envy from several European cyclists we met through our warm showers host in Kunming, even though we will probably only use around 25 of the days. I had thought that the rough roads and relatively low population densities of the Central Asian nations were the only way to ensure quiet roads for touring but it also meant a paucity of nutritious food and plenty of dust-baths. The enormity of the mountains was an incredible firsthand experience, but we were ready for a change.

Upon landing in Kunming, we assembled our bikes just outside of the terminal. I wondered what we would do with the giant boxes since it seems unkind to just dump them. This concern was hilariously unfounded. Before the bikes were even unpacked, an old lady showed a lot of interest in the cardboard boxes. She put them aside while she swept and we performed the assembly. A little while later, an old man also took an interest. This started an argument between the old lady and the old man over who would actually get to keep them. The old man won in the end by virtue of picking up the boxes and walking away under, what seemed like, a barrage of insults.

Bricks of tea

A 40ish km cycle brought us into the city on beautiful separated bike lanes where we only witnessed one head-on collision between bicycle and scooter. We spent four nights with Vera, a Dutch ex-pat host, in her spare bedroom while we wrapped our heads around our new reality and got some necessary maintenance done on our bicycles.

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Our first day out of the city, we started to cycle down the east shore of the lake south of Kunming but, due to a late start, we were looking to camp after 50 km. Vera had told us there was a pay campground in the area so we did some sleuthing and found the wetland park camping resort. It is accessed through the parking lot of, and in the shadow of, an amusement park with giant ferris wheel, roller coasters, and fake mountains shaped like elephants and wolves. We fell asleep to the soundtrack of RollerCoaster Tycoon.

What are you going to be?

After 30 or so kilometers the next day we finally got to turn off the busy roads and onto a minor highway through the hills of Yunnan Province. The weather had been (and continues to be) very humid but the first couple of days were also pretty cold and with proper rain at night. This is a good explanation for the extreme density of plant life covering the steep hills and the size (physical and quantity) of the insect population.

Spiders everywhere

At 4:00 pm we had our first major mechanical of the trip when Brittany shifted to her lowest gear and the chain fell off the cassette into the spokes. It took us more than an hour to extricate the chain (getting filthy in the process). We were not yet in a rhythm in China and decided to camp immediately. You may be surprised to learn that many people live in China and, as far as we can tell, there had been no break in habitations since we left the city. We poked down some side tracks off the road which are just used to service the innumerable tiny plots of crops but the aforementioned thick greenery meant any attempt to get offroad was a nonstarter. Eventually we found a little bit of land that had been cleared but not yet planted, and set up camp for the night. With no water source available, we were low on fluids and our grease-covered hands remained that way.

Every gray morning

The humidity meant a sopping wet tent inside and out in the morning. We also discovered that either the flight to China or the incident the day before had left Brittany with a bent derailleur hanger. No amount of fiddling with cables was going to fix her shifting properly (a problem that persists). Somewhat discouraged, we made the best fix we could and started riding anew.

Up our first Chinese switchbacks.

This was the day when we started to get the flow of travel in China. We rolled through the mountains, tackled a 2.3 km tunnel, and finished the day with a 500 meter climb up switchbacks. We decided to relent and get a hotel, expecting a price of 100 – 150 yuan after being primed by Vera. When the price was 40 (about $8 Canadian) we didn’t even bother to haggle. At these prices we haven’t camped since.

After showering and just settling down for the evening, a knock at the door revealed the local police. They were just there to check in with the recently arrived foreigners, having been alerted to our presence by the hotel’s proprietor while performing the mandatory registration. The interaction was friendly and I showed a map of our route, but the omnipresent cameras and the visit itself just reaffirmed that privacy is less valued than in Canada.

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Now that we had the rhythm, we started to appreciate our surroundings and notice more of the little things.

The Traffic

The city traffic was bonkers, with scooters habitually running the wrong way in the separated lanes meant for bikes and scooters. But getting out of town was straightforward and we enjoyed separated lanes all of the way to our turnoff to the minor highway. Once we were assimilated with the traffic, we enjoyed several unexpected surprises. First, there just isn’t that much of it. Away from the expressways there is just a trickle of traffic. Much of the vehicles are trucks but they spew a lot less exhaust than their counterparts in Central Asia and people don’t honk nearly as much. Second, people don’t speed past you a hair’s breadth away. Instead, they show compassion for their fellow human and wait until it is safe to pass. It’s a huge stress-reliever to not worry about being a hit-and-run victim!

No traffic at 5:00 pm

The Crops

We have passed through different zones with a dominant crop. To begin with we saw a lot of corn. That gave way to rice terraces, which gave way to sugar cane, which gave way to bananas and finally, now that we’re in the Pu’er jurisdiction, tea bushes. The bananas are best because they are tall enough to provide some pleasant shade. We’ve also passed rubber plantations and they treat the latex in buckets at the side of the road. It smells horrendous. The sugar cane was fun to try, you just bite off a wad after the outside has been shorn off by oversized vegetable peelers. After chewing and sucking out the juice, you spit the woody fibres on the ground. Which brings us to…

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The Garbage

Along with sugar cane remainders, everything else also seems to end up on the ground. Tons of litter and ridiculous amounts of packaging. A ziplock plastic pouch reveals individually wrapped servings of candy. Another plastic pouch contains an unnecessary plastic tray to better display a small quantity of peanuts. All of this is given to you in another plastic bag, or maybe two. Why not?

The Food

Here’s the biggest reason I recently claimed China is my favourite place to tour. We eat oily noodles, noodles in soup, fried beans, steamed and stuffed buns (sweet or savoury), endless variations on spicy meats, and rice galore. After a subsistence diet in Central Asia, the boundless choice in China is a huge selling point. It definitely helps to have an open mind and an appetite for spice. Perhaps things aren’t as hot as in Sichuan, but Yunnan food is perfectly spicy for me and there is an abundance of spicy pickled vegetables for side dishes.

That’s the good stuff

On Being Obvious Tourists

Sticking out in China is fun! We’re in many people’s photographs (Brittany more than me) and people often do hilarious double-takes when they see us walk by or enter a store. One evening in Xinping I watched a woman stare at us open-mouthed while her oblivious companion continued to tell her something. Then the first woman started hitting the story-teller to draw her attention to us so they both could stare. Another night, two women working in a small store started giggling as soon as we walked in. The entire time from entering to leaving (without buying anything), one or the other was filming us or showing us the video they had just filmed and talking excitedly. Finally, Brittany gets a lot of, “You are so beautiful!” comments which are probably good for her ego. I’ve just had one, “You are sooooo…. tall!” which doesn’t seem true to me when walking around but then I see pictures of myself with a local and I believe.

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In a Nutshell

Yunnan has been an ideal cycle touring locale. Perfectly paved roads, low traffic, long ascents (one 1500 meter climb with no break), and surfy descents. It’s great. We will continue for another week towards Xishuangbanna and perhaps see some elephants before we need to decide if Yunnan deserves another loop before we head to Laos.

These flowers grow everywhere

GPS Tracks

Day 1 – flat riding to the edge of the city

Day 2 – finally getting into the rural country

Day 3 – lots of descent with a 2.3 km tunnel, then 500 m of switchbacks

Day 4 -mostly climbing until a big descent to the surprise city of Xinping

Day 5 – descend, descend, descend

Day 6 – climb, climb, climb. End in very cool Mojiang.

Day 7 – descend at river grade

Day 8 – descend at river grade for 50 km, big climb and lesser descent for 50 km.