The return journey to Kangding (from Leshan) wasn't quite as pleasant an experience as we'd hoped for! An expected 8 hour bus journey ended up taking a bum-numbing 14 hours due to the number of traffic jams we encountered along the way (most of which could have been avoided if drivers here simply learnt to stay on the correct side of the road!). We arrived at our ominously locked-up-for-the-night-looking hostel in Kangding shortly before midnight. We were very apologetic to the staff who had to be roused from sleep to let us in!
One more day of rest culminated in us drinking beer and eating a delicious yak meat pizza and chatting with one of the receptionists at the hostel. It was interesting to hear how Tibetan culture differed from our own. She described how she was determined to get a good education in order to secure a well paid job that would help her to provide financial support to her parents and siblings. However, her parents weren't willing to support her quest for knowledge but had expected her to follow a more conventional Tibetan path (predominantly farming). Tellingly, they whole-heartedly supported her brother's (monk) and sister's (nun) more 'virtuous' career choices! It was very humbling to hear from someone who was so desperate to simply gain a decent education and had to fight so hard to get it. We have it so good in the UK.
Virtually as soon as we left Kangding, we were plunged into a deliciously hot, sweaty and humid climate zone with more exotic banana plants, bamboo, rice fields, bougainvillea, and a whole host of brightly coloured flowers. The air was full of the sweet scent of Jasmine and it felt incredibly exciting to be entering a seemingly different world after spending over two months in a relatively similar landscape dominated by mountains and open plains (which, whilst stunning in its own right, was starting to wear a little thin with the constant, energy-sapping ascents over mountain passes!). We are now in a malaria risk zone and have started taking Doxycycline...aside from the increased photo sensitivity, we don't appear to be suffering from any side effects which is a relief because we have three more months of taking the stuff!! The insect population (of the flying variety) has increased massively and at the end of a dusty day, my face often resembles a car wind-screen after a long motorway journey...one day I got bored after counting no fewer than twenty dead flies stuck to my sweaty face...nice!
The 9 days that we spent cycling to Kunming were arguably the highlight of our trip so far. The scenery rarely failed to captivate us and the cycling was thoroughly enjoyable. That's not to say we didn't endure some tough days: a soul-destroying 51km constant climb out of Shimian on day 2 was memorable! It took six and a quarter hours to complete...by which time we had gained a whopping 1,700m in altitude...and we still had a further three and a quarter hours to cycle to reach our intended destination! We have also crossed the Yangtze River on a small passenger ferry (the main ferry didn't appear to be running, perhaps because it was a weekend?) It was very exciting to see such an iconic river that up until now had simply been something I learnt about in Geography lessons! After donning our bright orange life vests (health and safety...in China?!?!) we sped across to the opposite shore. The climb out of the steeply sided valley was long but fun and the views were far-reaching and magnificent!
For the time being, we have decided to ditch the idea of camping (where possible). Hotels are very cheap: we are able to stay in very comfortable, mid-range hotels for anything between £5-15 (for the room). A comfortable bed, hot shower and air conditioning waiting for us at the end of the day has been a massive motivating factor. Besides which, the area that we have been cycling through is so intensively farmed that camping would be pretty hard...and unpleasant (given the humidity!).
Finding a hotel in China isn't always as easy as you'd hope. Tourists are only supposed to stay in 'foreigner approved hotels' (often the more expensive ones!) and we are well accustomed to being turned away at the whim of the owner. It's especially true in the smaller cities which are (perhaps) less used to foreign travellers. On one occasion in Huili, having already been refused at two hotels, we successfully paid for a room at hotel number three (although we had to complete the check in process using some kind Chinese man's ID card as our passports weren't deemed acceptable forms of identification?!). All the luggage was unloaded all from our bikes and we were about to start taking stuff up to our room, when we were promptly told that actually we weren't able to stay here after all...I had to bite my tongue very hard as I could feel the anger rising in my blood!! I fully accept that we aren't able to stay in certain hotels, but like to be told straight so that we can just move on and try the next one. I don't like to be messed about, especially when I'm exhausted and just want somewhere to simply shower and sleep.
On the flip side, we had a wonderful experience in Dechang. We were just heading out into the city to grab some dinner and I wanted to check with reception whether breakfast was included, so I'd painstakingly copied the Chinese word for breakfast onto a piece of paper and presented this to the receptionist, hoping my query would be understood...it wasn't! After a confused, but very smiley, conversation (me in English, her in Mandarin), Ash and I were ushered over to the sofas where we waited while she 'phoned a friend' to come and translate for us! We didn't want to cause too much of an inconvenience, but obviously didn't know how to effectively communicate this, so simply sat on the sofa waiting...
The receptionist had phoned her sister-in-law (Zheng Mi) to come and speak to us. When she arrived, we chatted about our trip and what our plans were for the evening: eat dumplings and sleep! She suggested that we join her and her husband's family for dinner...sounded good! First we were taken to a small cafe so that we could eat the dumplings we craved (Zheng Mi insisted on paying, saying that this evening was her treat!); we then went to her family's cafe to drink lemon water and wait for her husband to arrive, before being whisked away to a lovely restaurant in the middle of a bamboo grove where we joined a dozen of her extended family members for a feast of local cuisine. It was an amazing evening and both the food and company was wonderful! A million toasts were said (I think more as an excuse to drink red wine than anything!) and we even ate deep fried grubs (kind of like an inch-long maggot...weirdly tasty...I ate six!). After dinner, Zheng Mi and her husband gave Ash and I a brief guided tour of the city before we said our "goodbyes"! It was yet another wonderful example of the wondrous generosity and hospitality that we have been shown by strangers who have welcomed us into their world for brief moments and treated us like best friends.
We are now in Kunming in the province of Yunnan. It's a vibrant, modern city with a positive, progressive feel to it (I think there is a real desire to modernise all cities in China...so much so that it's often a tough challenge to find traditional, old buildings!). We've secured our Thai visa and bought new tyres for our bikes (unable to find Schwalbe, but ended up with CST...not sure how good they are, but we had little choice!).
We have approximately 8 more days in China before we cross into Laos...hopefully the monsoon season finishes a bit early this year?! Despite, at times, frustrating the hell out of me, I have a grown very fond of China and have enjoyed the majority of the two months that we've spent here very much. The cultural differences have been fascinating and I'll especially miss the food, which is awesome and really varied...I haven't had the courage to try chicken's feet however!
Exciting times lie ahead as we cycle towards South East Asia. It's a wonderful relief to look at the map of Laos and see the mountains getting smaller and smaller....if I ever say that the flatness of the Mekong Delta is boring, punch me....really hard!
Love and hugs. X