All Good Things Come to an End: Bikepacking in Yunnan

The Vitals

Dates: Nov. 6 – 16, 2018

Location: Jinangcheng to Mengla, China

Distance: ~455 km in 8 riding days

Photos by Brittany

Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.

The Trip

Brittany and I are sitting in the city of Mengla, one short day from the border with Laos. The China leg of our trip is essentially over and that is probably a good thing. Last time I couldn’t stop gushing about how great the touring is in Yunnan province but frustrations have mounted in the past few days as roads routinely turn into bogs and the truck traffic has picked up. The pleasant heat and humidity has grown to be oppressive at midday but mornings and evenings are cool and the roads mostly shaded so there is some relief.

This guy was showing me music videos on his portable TV

Things have also gotten much flatter here in the far south. I loved the long, smooth climbs in the first week of Yunnan but the accumulated fatigue was getting a bit much. The section from Jiancheng to Menglun included a big climb to the town of Yiwu – the birthplace of pu’er tea and an important point on the Tea Horse Road. At this point my body wasn’t the only thing suffering; my rear hub was also pinging and cracking just 600 km after being serviced in Kunming.

The big descent from Yiwu brought us into a valley on the way to Jinghong – the seat of the “Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture”. There is a large ethnic minority population in Yunnan and especially in the south of the province. Some of these people are collectively referred to as “Dai” and a number of villages dot the landscape, hallmarked by airy homes on stilts and ornamental temples. Typically, visible manifestations of religion in China are less pronounced.

Let’s go swimming…somewhere else

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We took a rest day in Menglun where a huge botanical garden plays host to many international PhDs and candidates studying plant life. Brittany spent the day at the garden and saw beetles as large as her palm and giant lily pads that can purportedly support up to 70 kg. I was busy drinking a beer and watching basketball – a sport I don’t even care about. I was just tired enough to feign an interest as an excuse not to move.

Brittany after biking is done for the day. This is why hotels and showers are nice.

After the rest day, we had 70 km to get to Jinghong where Brittany had arranged a Warm Showers host. We entertained the plan of getting there in one day, but after 30 km we began passing through a series of Dai villages. When we saw a crowd of people we stopped and pushed our bikes over to see what was up. We were just in time to see a tourist version of a “water-splashing ceremony”. In the middle of the town was a pond and fountain with elephant statues. Local Dai people sang and danced in a circle around the fountain before using buckets to fling water on each other and the watching crowd. Kids were encouraged to get in the water too and the town center was packed with spectators. After the show, the crowd dispersed and we watched some Asian elephants at work lifting tourists for photos while dressed up in gold and tassels.

In the Dai villages

It was early still so we decided to stay in the town for the night and got a really nice hotel room with a breezy balcony. By 5:00 the tourist buses had left to return to the city and the town got very quiet. When we returned to the town center on an evening walk, we saw the elephants were now allowed to roam a bit and didn’t have to wear the costumes any more. We don’t know the origin of the elephants (bred/captured/rescued) but the whole practice had an air of exploitation. On a happier note, the pond that had been the site of the water-splashing ceremony was now host to all of the local boys. They arrived by bike and were swimming in the pool and climbing on the fountain. The relative calm of evening suited me much better than the bustle of midday and I was glad to have seen both sides.

Start of the water-splashing ceremony

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Duck to go

In the morning we headed to Jinghong for a few days with Colin and Jin, our hosts. We met Colin at the English school he owns and then ate Dai BBQ for dinner with the couple. BBQ is a super popular evening activity. As it starts to get dark, charcoal barbecues start popping up around town with skewers of fish, meat, tofu, and maybe some vegetables. You just pick up a bunch of things to try and give it to the lady (usually) running the stand. You can buy beer at the convenience store to accompany your meal.

Our first day in Jinghong, Colin brought us to a Specialized bike store to get service done. The tech disassembled my rear hub and found two mangled ball bearings and also found that the tech in Kunming had mixed sizes of bearings during his service. This tech cleaned and regreased everything but I had to twist his arm to reinstall the hub properly. When he first reassembled everything I could still grab the rear wheel and rock it left and right. It’s not supposed to do that! He said (through Google translate) “It’s 90% good”. I said 90% is no good. He had to remove the wheel two more times and tighten it slightly before it seemed acceptable. It’s been 200 more kilometers without a problem but my faith in Chinese bike mechanics is shaken. He was also unwilling to try and fix Brittany’s bent derailleur hanger so her shifting continues to be suboptimal.

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Since Colin owns an English school, he asked if we could come to a few classes. Both evenings in Jinghong we went to school and had structured conversations. The students were given questions to ask and we would answer them. There was also opportunity for free-form conversation where it became apparent that kids in China desperately want to know if I like soccer, if I like basketball, and if I like video games (yes, no, no).

“Fridge Restaurants” as we call them. Just point out what you want but make sure to get su hong dou (酥红豆).

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To leave Jinghong without doubling back on the highway, Colin took us on the dirt road on the opposite shore of the Mekong river. It was okay. He warned us it might be a bit muddy but I don’t think we quite expected the squelchy pits we came across. There is quite a bit of construction happening on the road so fresh dirt being churned up by big trucks coupled with rain and humidity has turned some sections into complete bogs. I also flatted on some sharp rocks and had insufficient tubeless sealant in my tire. We had brought a bit extra we’ve been carrying around in small bottles so I dumped the contents in my tire but couldn’t get the tire reseated with my hand pump. I carefully poured the sealant out of my tire back into my bottle and put in the spare tube I hadn’t used yet. In the evening I found a tire shop with an air compressor and reset the tire as tubeless. The fresh sealant plugged the hole from earlier in the day and, more importantly, I have my spare tube back in case of irreparable damage to either tire.

First serious flat and my new Chinese haircut.

Before the end of the dirt road, Colin turned back home by way of a separate, unmarked road. We were on our own but his description guided us to the ferry across the Mekong back to the same Dai village with the water splashing ceremony. The crossing was quick as two ferries shuttled cars and two ferries shuttled foot passengers and scooters. The ferries are not long for this world, though. They ply their trade in the shadow of a nearly-completed cable-stayed bridge which will soon dry up demand for a boat crossing.

Soon to be deprecated ferry and its replacement behind.

From our second night in the Dai village we put in two big days to get to Mengla. The first day we followed Colin’s advice to take the dirt roads along the Mekong. These roads don’t all appear on the map and it’s sometimes hard to follow. The mud was also the worst yet. We pushed our bikes through sucking, squelching swamp on a road that was blocked from vehicle traffic by a landslide. At the end of this road Colin had told us there was a boatman who could take us across the river but in the year since Colin had been there, a bridge had been installed.

Let’s go bananas!

We crossed the new bridge but we were in for a boatload of suffering for the rest of the day. This area, while still remote from any towns, is heavily under construction as a new expressway is being blasted through the mountains. All along the road, construction work and rain have continued the theme of mud and muck. We rode through “towns” of temporary structures housing the construction workers and through worksites where tunnels are bored through the mountains and concrete pilings reach into the sky, bridging the valleys from tunnel to tunnel. The scale is insane and the cost to make the highway wide and flat by pushing through the natural topography must be astronomical. No photos due to frustrations with mud.

After a mountain pass on roads that don’t appear on our map, we reached a paved highway. Landslides and rain had covered the road and humidity and pavement block all paths by which the mud could dry. I don’t enjoy being coated with mud, so I crept along while Brittany just accepted the consequences of speed.

A paved highway but with a slick of mud. The water can’t drain so it just stays that way. So frustrating to ride on.

My motivation in the trip has really waned lately, exacerbated by a steep decline in riding quality, but sorting through the pictures to make this post has begun to highlight the good moments while allowing the frustrations to fade. We will rest one or two days in Mengla to recharge my mojo while checking out a pretty bumping town. Last night we walked through a huge (everything in China seems larger than life) open public space that was wall-to-wall people. The amazing thing in China is what people bring to the squares. They are the center of people’s social lives and come alive at night. Ladies bring speakers and blast music while dancing in choreographed lines. People play badminton without nets. People play cards and different table games. Stalls with games, food, trinkets, even photo printing (think like wedding photos) appear along with the crowds.

As we walked through the square last night, someone asked me for a picture. As he held up the phone, Brittany leaned in for the photo but he conspicuously angled the camera to cut her out. That’s the first time someone wanted a photo with me and not her and gave us a good laugh to finish our Chinese tour.


8 Days

Now I merge all tracks into one map. Much cleaner, no? Very hilly for the first few days and only one mountain pass in the second half. An accidental one when we lost our way and very steep!