Leaving a city behind is always a joy no matter how much I have enjoyed it. So it was with Kunming. When I enter a city it's hard to decide which road to follow and where to head for. At least when I am out in the country I just have to follow my nose and keep pedaling. An occasional road junction means at worst that I have to get my phone out and look at the map. Often the direction is signposted, although that doesn't necessarily mean that I can read them all. The road out of Kunming was a strange one as it started out as a wide tree lined avenue that turned into a two lane road and then into a track through a building site. No sooner had I left the city than I was on a road that was to all intents and purposes still under construction. After completing its network of new motorways China seems to be upgrading its other roads too.
The first days riding took me to Lefung which was another of those towns that are far larger on the ground than they are on the map. Just before I got there I came across the biggest traffic jam I have ever seen. Five roads full of lorries, buses and cars converging on the one single lane access road to the expressway (a one way street) with traffic coming the other way! Luckily it was just wide enough for vehicles to pass but what a nightmare. I only managed to get into the town of Lefung itself as the upper section of dirtroad that I was on was so bad that I decided to give the lower section of the road a try. It was just at that point that the roadways split. If I had continued on the upper section I would soon be across the other side of the river and would have had to turn back once I realised I had gone too far. Riding into town with two other cyclists out for an afternoons ride I was led to a hotel that provided the first room in China with internet access via a computer in my room. Or it would have if the internet had been working that day. It also provided me with my biggest meal to date. I was led to a chiller cabinet and asked to choose. Having fallen prey to this before I pointed to a few things and tried to motion that I wanted only a small dinner. Out came five dishes, soup and rice. The room cost me about £5.50, the meal £4.40. It's a good job that I was hungrier than I first realised.
That night it rained heavier than normal and I thought that I may have to stay an extra night if it continued, but come the morning all that was left of it was a few very large puddles. I immediately had to ask for directions as there were two roads both heading in the same direction. It turns out that this was a dual carriageway. It's easy to get confused though as the roads were on opposite sides of a river and for a short while on opposite sides of a mountain.
The road was a beauty though. The surface was not good but it felt so nice in the valley looking across the river and up at the mountains that I had to keep stopping to take photos. I had set off later than usual that morning so by lunchtime I thought that I would have to put the camera away if I were to make my destination that day. Luckily for me the road began descending soon after and I reached the city of Chuxion in plenty of time to meet my host for the next two nights, Matthew, an American helping out at the university. Matthew very kindly showed me around a few places in the town as well as introducing me to some of his friends. We did the normal thing I expect young-ish Americans to do, hang out at a coffee shop, as well as teaching Matthew how to play Cribbage. They were convinced that it was an old mans game and should be played in a country pub sitting around the fire with half pint glasses. Funny that.
One of the areas we looked around was a modern outdoor shopping centre modeled on a minority tribal village where we found a grotto of sorts complete with plaster figures, pictures below.
On a more traditional note Chuxiong was the first city where I saw what I consider to be a real pagoda, complete with Buddhas on all seven floors, as well as a huge bell on the top floor which you can swing the suspended wooden hammer at if you pay an extra fee. It seems that everything here has a fee attached. They may not be large but they all add up. The area around the pagoda included a circular Chinese zodiac calendar, more Buddhas and prayer flag trees. It's a modern pagoda and grounds, laid out to great effect.
After two nights in Chuxiong it was time to move on again. A later start than normal. On the road I met a Chinese cyclist riding to Shangrila on a folding bike with what looked like 14 or 15 inch wheels and a massive rucksack on his back, which I swear weighed more than my bike and luggage together. And with only nine gears I'm surprised he wasn't pushing the bike more than the couple of times that he was forced to do by the gradient. Being unable to pronounce his Chinese name he told me his 'English' name, King Six, or Six to his friends. One good thing about meeting Six apart from having company on the road was the fact that he was able to order food for us both. Over the next couple of days I had some of the best dishes that I have had in China. Lunch for the Chinese is a large affair, normally with between three and five dishes together with rice and soup. Needless to say I was stuffed and barely able to ride up the mountain afterwards. We also picked up another Chinese cyclist for a few hours called Yow before he decided to stop for the day and find a camping spot. Six and I pushed on to the next town to find a hotel for the night, again a lot easier when you have someone who speaks the language.
One more day riding brought us to Dali new town where we decided to end our day early due to the rain. Not heavy but persistent enough to make us want to take shelter. Another hearty meal ordered by Six although I had to ask him to limit it to just three dishes and rice. Being a Muslim run restaurant we were lucky to have mutton on the menu instead of the usual pork, yum yum. Unfortunately I had been having a bit of a dodgy stomach the last few days and that night it came to a head, and a bottom. I spent most of the night in the bathroom and in the morning was so weak and dehydrated that Six insisted that I go to the hospital to see a doctor. Unsure of what time the doctors would be available he first went out to find a pharmacist and came back with four different medicines for upset stomach. Once we had chosen which one to take he called a taxi and took me to the hospital and translated everything to the doctor who decided to put me on four different drips for the next three hours or so. With me lying on the hospital bed, Six took up position in the bedside chair and oversaw my treatment, calling the nurse each time the drip bottle was nearing empty. And all of this while I caught up on the sleep that I had missed the night before. Once discharged it was another taxi ride back to the hotel where I once again took up my position in my bed. Lots of fluid and rest did the trick and the next morning I was back to normal, or as normal as I ever am.
Chinese hospitality knows few boundaries. Six paid for all of the medicines, hospital fees, taxis and even the food and water he brought me while in the hospital. Refusing all attempts to repay him or to even find out the cost I was able to get in first when we had dinner that evening by insisting on paying the bill before the food was served. The restaurant owner thought I was very strange, but it was the only way that I could pay Six back without him insisting that I was his guest and he pays the bill.
Just a short ride the next morning brought us to Dali old town, ancient but new, as it was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1999. More about that in the next post.
After our brush with the law it was time for a split again. Grace and David were taking the more direct route to Kunming whereas I was heading for the town of Shilin and the stone forest that is supposed to be one of the sights to see in this region. We rode for about an hour before coming to what must be one of the most industrialised towns in all of China. It was here that our paths split and I continued on my solo odyssey once more, agreeing to keep in touch and meet up again in Kunming.
Not far up the road I decided to stop for an early lunch as I was not sure where I would eat again otherwise. unlike S E Asia, China does not have people selling food on every street corner. In fact with greater distances between towns there were hardly any corners to speak of. I found a likely looking place and was led over to a chilled cabinet and asked to point out what I wanted. I pointed to a fish and the rice heater before sitting down to wait. I had made sure that they understood it was just me, a small portion was all I wanted. At least I thought I had. Out came the whole fish with a mound of rice so big it could feed a family. I protested that I didn't want it all but my words fell on deaf ears. No matter how much I gesticulated there was no way that I was going to be able to make them take any of it back, so I got stuck in. At the end of the meal I was presented with the bill. Just over three pounds. It seemed pointless arguing about the fact that the meal was obviously too much for one person and for such a small amount so I just put the remaining fish and rice into a plastic container and took it with me. If I hadn't previously known where my next meal was coming from, I did now.
Pressing on up the hill I climbed for about 45 minutes and came out onto a plateau that was littered with upright stones. These are no standing stones such as at Stonehenge or other neolithic sites, these were naturally occurring. I was heading for Shilin to see them in a parkland landscape but this was surely just as impressive given that the farmers were planting their crops all around the stones and even curving their rows in between formations. The plateau rose and fell for miles. It felt completely different to any other landscape that I have come across in Asia. In fact China has a completely different feel in every way to S E Asia. Being such a vast country and having about a quarter of the worlds population with hundreds of tribal communities, most of which are here in the South West, diversity is the norm. Having a tail wind on the plateau certainly helped me that day as I decided to push on to the next large town. It came as a bit of a surprise when compared to the map. Perhaps Google needs to update their maps a bit more regularly, but even if they do I doubt that they could keep pace with the rate of building being undertaken in China. It has to be the worlds biggest building site. As you enter a city the road goes from two lanes to six, the two carriageways separated by tree lined reservations as well as separate cycle lanes on both sides of the road.
The first things that struck me as I entered the city of Mile apart from the new wide tree lined boulevards are the number of new blocks of flats that are being built and the number of electric scooters. The flats are dominating the skies, but the scooters have definitely taken over the ground. Passing me almost silently apart from the gently whirr from the engine and the soft rumble from the tyres I was startled more than once while riding along the cycle lanes. Riding into the centre of the older part of the city is a different world. It’s larger than it first appears with a bustling market, shopping centres and street life that we can only dream of in the UK. Turned away from the first guest house I tried as they weren't allowed to take foreigners I was befriended by a young guy who took it upon himself to find me a place for the night and hailed a taxi. Giving him a list of three guest houses and hotels he told me that I would have to give the driver 10 RMB, about one pound ten pence, and to follow him. One of them would take me I was assured. It sounded ripe for a con but I have found that the people in China are some of the most helpful and welcoming I have met so off I went following the taxi back towards the centre of the city. If the first place wouldn't take me the second was more accommodating (pun intended). When I asked at reception whether they had wifi I was told with a laugh “no, this is only a small city”. It must be the size of Stroud and all of its valleys put together, yet there were no internet cafes, nor did I see any signs on cafes or bars declaring wifi here. Not to be put off I found the largest mobile phone suppliers shop and asked in there. When they saw the notebook they immediately gave me the password, a chair and a glass of water so that I could spend the next hour or so catching up with emails etc. Nothing comes free though. I had to interrupt my surfing occasionaly as people came over and asked if they could have their photo taken with me!
The next day I arrived at Shilin having spent a few hours riding through miles of standing stones. I found the park and was told it was over six pounds to enter the Geology museum. Preferring to walk around the park I asked if I had to pay for that. The walk takes between one and two hours and costs 20 pounds. I thought I must have misheard and as fingers are used a lot to express numbers here I assumed that there had been a mistake and the guide had mistakenly multiplied the price by 10. Two pounds would be about right for an attraction such as this so I offered that. No, it was definitely 20 pounds. Needless to say after riding through stone formations for the last day and a half I wasn’t going to pay 20 pounds to walk around some more no matter how nice the park looked. Setting off on my bike I headed for Yiliang to find a bed for the night.
After Mile I wasn’t expecting every hotel to take me but one would have been nice. I found a guest house. “Sorry, we can’t take foreigners”. The manager decided to walk around the corner with me to another guest house, but I got the same story there. What followed was an hour of us walking around from hotel to hotel with me waiting outside while he went in and did all of the talking. Still no luck. We eventually went to the local police station where I sat patiently for about 20 minutes while he explained what we had been doing. After photocopying my passport and having me sign it the officer in charge made a phone call to the last hotel that we had tried and told them to take me. There was obviously some hesitation on the other end of the line as only registered hotels can take foreigners, although how the hostels seem to get around this I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a matter of registering to take foreigners, but as I now had a bed for the night I wasn’t too bothered at the time. When I got there they told me that the price was 120RMB which is about thirteen pounds. A lot by Asian standards for a simple hotel room. There was a lower price on the board of 50 RMB, about 6 pounds. I pointed and asked for that. Not possible was the reply, "that is an O’clock room" What on earth is an O’clock room ? Then I twigged. It’s a hotel where you can rent the room by the hour. This was further evidenced by the supply of condoms in the room next to the pamphlets containing phone numbers of ‘companions’. I’ve heard that some travelers unplug the phones at night to prevent the midnight call asking if they were looking for some company.
Just 80km the next day brought me to Kunming where I was to spend the next four nights sleeping in a bike shop. I had made contact with Hue through the warm showers network, like couch surfers but exclusively for touring cyclists. I was shown a place where I could put my bags and then shown the shower and toilet. Thinking that I would wait til later and have a shower in more privacy I was told that after 8pm I would have all the privacy I wanted. Just pull the shutters down over the windows and make yourself at home I was told. Not sure what this meant I asked for clarification. Put your bedding down here and make yourself at home. Seriously ? You’re going home and leaving me alone in your bike shop with lots of quality bikes, parts, accessories, clothing, computer etc and the keys to come and go as I please? Apparently that is how they roll here. Initially only intending to stay a couple of nights I ended up staying four, meeting up again with Grace and David as well as Paulo who I rode with in Laos.
Trying to find something to do to make myself useful while hanging out at the shop Hue suggested that I make up some flags for the rear of the bikes the next day. When I asked him what they were for he told me of a local enterprise that were going to pay about 55 pounds for every cyclist that completes a 35 km ride. What else could I do ? The money was going towards funding poor local schools. I couldn’t leave without doing a bit of fund raising for deprived kids. The next morning I left the shop with about a dozen other riders. At 55 pounds per head it wasn’t going to fund much but every little helps. We rode for about twenty minutes and rounded a corner to see over a thousand other cyclists massed around signing-in tables. This was going to be huge. As everyone elbowed their way to the tables I got separated, and without an interpreter I was lost as to what was needed. It was then that I looked up and saw myself on the big screen. The only westerner in the group, I had already been picked out by some of the press and publicity photographers but video ? I was dreading being asked for an interview but it was then that my chaparone found me again and got me through the signing in process. Off we set for an enjoyable and mostly flat 35km ride. That’s got to be one of the easiest 55 pounds I have earned, even though it wasn’t going into my pocket.
If the photographers were thick on the ground at the start then they were literally carpeting the floor at the end. As I came into the funneling tape that took me to the finish I had to ride so slowly that I almost fell off at one point. Not just ‘proper’ photographers but other cyclists were taking a picture of the westerner. I crossed the line, got off my bike, and had to pose for about three or four minutes for everyone to get a picture of, and with, me. Finding the group from the bike shop again we went to the food stand and collected our noodle buckets. Have you ever had people ask to have their photo taken with you when you are trying to eat ? At least it gave the noodles time to cool down, and even then people were still plonking themselves down beside me as I was eating. Looking up there were cameras and phones pointing my way, and me with a pile of noodles half way to my mouth. Back to the shop after that and a lovely meal with Hue, his Mother, girlfriend, and her sister at Hues flat. Hospitality is big in China. Allowing me to sleep in his shop was not enough, Hue wanted to make sure that I ate well before heading off in the morning. A late start on the road as I had to wait until 10 o'clock before Hue opened up and I was able to leave him the spare set of keys. All in all an enjoyable stay and catch up with other friends. Kunming is a large and growing city and although I enjoyed my time there it was nice to be back on the road again. The next major stop would be Dali, of which I have heard many positive things. Let's hope it can deliver.
So there we were, sitting in the back of the police van with our bikes loaded behind us. Pleading ignorance wouldn’t work this time. We were guilty and we knew it.
The previous day we had set out from the China/Vietnam border, amazed by the lack of air horns and traffic. The road meandered along the river undulating gently. The new expressway linking Kunming to the Vietnamese border town that leads to Hanoi was usually in our sight but elevated, bypassing the small towns and villages dotted along the old road. Initially we considered this a good thing. The road surface wasn’t great however and we soon realised that we weren’t making much headway. As the expressway was virtually deserted we decided to give it a try. We found a gap where we could lift the bikes over the barrier and were soon making good progress along a motorway that had so little traffic we were wondering why they had built it at all. We knew that we were not allowed to cycle on the expressway but with so few vehicles it seemed safer, more convenient and a lot faster than the old road. When we got to the toll booth at the exit junction we were waved through without comment making us think that no-one would mind if we used the expressway again.
We rolled down the last 3km to the town and found a place to stay. It was a one street town which was crammed with scooters and traders as well as a couple of lorries trying to push their way through the throng. I’m not sure about David but Grace didn’t take to the place at all. Rubbish was everywhere. The people looked very poor and the children were running around in grubby clothes and in some cases without shoes. It was a bit of a culture shock for Grace after the rest of S E Asia. Personally I didn’t feel affected by it. After all, I’ve been to the forest of Dean!
Deciding on an early start the next day we set our alarms and hit the sack. Even though we are further west than most of SE Asia we are now on Beijing time which is an hour ahead. China is one of those countries that span many time zones, but has standardised on just one, Beijing time. This means that even though we have headed north the sun rises and sets one hour later on the clock than it did in Vietnam. 6.30 was the time we decided to hit the road, the only variable was which way to start.The normal road climbed from the town over the mountains, whereas the expressway took a longer, less precipitous route. We could retrace our route for 3 km and try and get onto the expressway via the tollgate, which we weren’t confident of, or use the old road until we could find a way over the barrier and onto the expressway again. With 90 kms to ride and about 2300 metres to climb we decided to take try our luck at finding another sneaky way onto the expressway.
Having found an access to the expressway we were making good progress waiting for the point at which the real climb started. We stopped a couple of times to buy pineapples on the side of the motorway. The sellers waving us down as we approached. Juicy and delicious. Just what we needed in the sun. We knew it was going to be a long and slow day but were not sure exactly where the climb would begin. With such little traffic on the expressway it came as a bit of a shock and then relief to be passed by a police car. Soon after we were passed by a police transit van. Thinking that they may wait for us a couple of kilometres ahead at the next junction we agreed that ignorance would be our best defense. It was with a great sense of relief that we passed the off ramp and continued on our way. I turned to Grace and David and commented that considering we had been passed by two police vehicles who took no interest in us, we were probably going to be okay. It was just at that moment that a motorway maintenance crew pulled us up and told us that bicycles were not allowed on the expressway. What followed was an impressive display of negotiation and pleading on our behalf by David, especially as it was mostly done with hand gestures and phone translations.
Smiling as if we had met old friends for the first time in years we first claimed ignorance of anything they said as a matter of course. Next, amazement at the fact that bicycles were not allowed on the expressway, followed up with horror and dismay at the way one of the crew were pointing up the mountain. With so few words in common the normal thing that happens is everyone laughs as they recognise that they are speaking words that only they can understand. We showed them the maps on our phones and tried to explain that the local road did not go to Mengzi and that we were quite happy as we were thankyou. David and I decided that it would be best not to let him know that the phone had a translation package on it as it would give them more firepower. At that point the crew leader brought out his own phone and started translating to us what he was saying. ‘Not safe, tunnels, cycling on an expressway is against the law in China, too much traffic’. The traffic was not an issue. There was none. We then played upon the safety issue, claiming the road was great as it had a hard shoulder and virtually no traffic. The law was next. David typed in and translated ‘maybe you could turn a blind eye just this once?’ to which the crewleader just laughed. It was still all smiles and laughter as David decided to demonstrate how effective his rear light would be in a tunnel. As the four crew members stood with Grace and I, David cycled down the road. We looked at eachother and commented under our breath “I can’t see any light at all”. As David rode back up the road towards us he insisted that with such a good rear light the tunnels would be very safe and that we would be okay. At this point and to our complete amazement the crew leader then decided that he would let us continue on our way. It was only then that David realised that the rear light wasn't even switched on ! We were told not to ride too fast through the tunnels though as the police may be there and stop us for speeding. As it was going to be all uphill speeding would be the least of our problems.
Laughing as we went I boiled the situation down. “He just let us go because you told him that we would be safe to ride in the tunnels by demonstrating that your rear light doesn’t work. With bargaining skills like that you should become a lawyer”. We were just getting over the situation when we heard a van slow down alongside us. A police van. We tried to explain that the last group told us it would be okay to ride this road. This time, although smiling and friendly, they were adamant that we weren’t allowed on the expressway. Telling them we wanted to go to Mengzi and that this was the only road available one of them made a phone call and passed the phone to me. Whoever I spoke to told me that we had to go with the police. This didn't sound at all good. Were we being arrested ? I doubted it, everyone has seemed so helpful so far and an arrest of riding on the motorway seemed a bit too drastic. “What about the bikes?” I asked. “Take them too, in the back of the van.” When we asked where we were going to be taken, I was told “Mengzi”.
I told the others what had been said. After looking at eachother for a second we began to grin. Were they really going to give us a lift to Mengzi ? Clearing space in the van for the bikes we were finding it hard to believe that we would be given a free ride up a very long hill (about 50km or more). With the bikes loaded and us settled into the rear seats we set off up the road. Almost immediately we began the climb, and continued climbing for the next 45 minutes or more. Reaching Mengzi we had a round of photographs taken with the policemen and our bikes in the back of the van. We were then pointed down the road and with a last round of waves, thank yous and goodbyes we set off once again, grinning and thankful for the lift and to have reached our destination without even breaking into a sweat. What had initially promised to be a long and hard days riding turned into one of the easiest any of us has had on our respective journeys.
If only all hills were that easy.
Hanging around in Hanoi for 5 days waiting for my visa to China seemed a waste so I booked an overnight stay on a boat in Halong bay, the legendary Karst formations that create thousands of island over a 1500 square kilometre area east of Hanoi. There was just one problem that I could foresee and that would be my lack of passport. Every place that I have stayed in Vietnam has required that I produce my passport and in some cases hold it overnight until I leave. As my passport was at the Chinese embassy awaiting a visa I made sure that I had a photocopy of the information page as well as a photocopy of the Vietnam visa. I was assured at the time of booking that this would be okay so I turned up the next morning and awaited the bus. I had been told to be at the tour office between 8 and 8.30, so I turned up at 8 and waited for the bus which failed to turn up. Things were not getting off to a good start. At 8.35, after a phone call from the tour operator the bus arrived with one seat left. Apparently they had not been told to pick up from the office as most people had asked to be picked up from their hotels instead. Oh well, at last we were on our way. It was a three and a half hour bus ride to the boat dock so we had a rest stop at a conveniently placed souvenir site. There's a surprise. Finally reaching the boat we clambered aboard and were sat straight down to a great lunch with dishes galore, many from the sea.
Once out in the harbour we headed for an island with a cave full of stalagmites and stalagtites. If it hadn't been for the fact that I had visited two spectacular caves a week earlier then I may have appreciated them a bit more. However, there were four boats full of tourists all elbowing their way along the narrow, and in places slippery, walkway so it was a bit of a relief to exit the cave again. Back on the boat we then made our way to a mooring point where we were able to take to the water in kayaks. Dinner followed our return to the boat which was again a large, multi-dish affair. The offer of cake sounded good but as we had to pay an extra two pounds a slice no-one bit (sorry I couldn't resist that one). As the sun went down the rooms were allocated and we all settled down for the night. That is until we heard a loud scream followed closely by slamming of doors, some shouting and pounding of feet. Apparently one of the seven young ladies that I had been left with had seen a very large cockroach in her room. It took a while for her to calm down once the crew had managed to catch it and throw it over board but no doubt there were many more on the boat that we would be unaware of.
Once back in Hanoi I caught up once again with Grace and David and listened to their plans for the next few months. David has arranged to meet his sister in Chengdu in a couple of weeks time which means that they will be catching a train from Kunming, whereas I want to head into the hills and then the mountains and experience the Himalayan meadows that I have been hearing so much about. From Chengdu Grace and David plan to ride north and then west to Urumqi in far West China and then cross the border into Kazakhstan. From there it's a matter of catching a train in order to get through the country in the allotted one week that the Kazak visa allows. Then fimd a boat to take them down the Caspian sea and across land into Turkey and then Greece where David is meeting his Father in August. When I said that it sounded a great route they began making suggestions about accompanying them. The time scale is right for me but I am not sure if it is possible in that time. Especially as Grace is talking about stopping for up to a month and making a film along the way. It's something I am going to have to think about over the coming weeks.
There is a large park within the city which is dedicated primarily to the memory of the great man himself, Ho Chi Minh. Despite wanting nothing fancier than a simple cremation Ho was embalmed and his body is on show in a huge marble mausoleum within the park. It's frequented by thousands of people every day coming to pay their respects. As the sight of a body in a glass case is not high on the list of sights to see I declined to pay a visit myself, but did go to the Ho Chi Minh museum, another huge soviet style concrete building. It's full of memorabilia regarding different aspects of 'the life of the founder of modern Vietnam, and the onward march of revolutionary socialism' (Lonely Planet). It's heavy on abstract ideas and has a lot of modern conceptual displays which are hard to decipher. Unfortunately there are not many descriptions in English so I was left wondering what a lot of it was about. Apparently the Ford Edsel car (a commercial failure) bursting through the wall is supposed to signify Americas military failure. And if you managed to decipher that one without help there are many more similar displays to confuse and confound you. One thing that baffled me most of all was the background music that filled the museum. I knew the music but I couldn't place if for a couple of minutes until I realised it was the backing track to the Carpenters song "We've only just begun". Perhaps it signifies the ongoing struggle to promote the aforementioned onward march of revolutionary socialism.
One last thing to do in Hanoi is to collect my passport with my visa for China. I duly went along and collected it and then with a grin as wide as the road I made my way to the international post office to see if there was a package to collect for David. We had visited the post office the day before but it had not arrived and as they were heading towards China that day I said that I would make one last try the next day before I too set off north. Striclty speaking it is only the addressee that is allowed to collect post restante packages but the woman there agreed that because David was with me and told her I could collect the package if it turned I could produce a copy of his passport and take it away. Unfortunately she was not on duty the next morning when lo and behold the package arrived. Trying to convince someone that holding a photocopy of someone elses passport allows you to collect their mail when neither of you speaks the others language is not the easiest task I have ever undertaken. Eventually one of the backroom staff who spoke English intervened and suggested I came back in the afternoon when the only remaining woman not working at that moment would be back on duty. So, with a couple of hours to while away I took one last ride around the city and found a few more sights previously hidden to me.
Returning to the post office after lunch I eventually found the woman that I had spoken with the day previously who confirmed that David had given me permission to collect his mail. Ok, I thought, let's get it and head north. There was one last problem though. The woman in charge had to make a point that normally this would not be allowed and that registered mail had to be collected by the person it is addressed to. Only once I had gone and photocopied my own passport would she let me have the package. It was 2 o'clock before I was able to set off, straight into the heat of the day.
As I found my way out of the city I had a huge grin on my face though. CHINA. I've always wanted to go there and now with a visa in my passport I was finally on my way. Just a few more days riding and the border would be in sight. Vietnam had got off to a very shaky start at the hotel on the first night, was not helped with the constant assault on my eardrums while on the road but for all that it was starting to redeem itself. The Ho Chi Minh highway was a wonderful road to ride, some of the places I have visited have been among the best of the trip and now I had a visa for China. All in all it's been an experience. Let's hope that China lives up to my admittedly high expectations.
The brief but enjoyable stretch of Ho Chi Minh highway is coming to an end. I haven't run out of road yet, but I'm conscious of nearing Hanoi.
Many of the towns that I have passed through in the last week have been nothing more than a string of buildings along the roadside, with a few having a couple of side streets. Sometimes though I reach a town that on the map looks nothing more than a couple of streets but in reality turn out to be quite a regional metropolis. There are times when I have had to check the map to confirm I am at the town I thought I would be at. Tonights town is one of those that spring out of nowhere. A simple crossroads, yet a major hub in an otherwise sparsely populated area. That means a choice of guest houses, restaurant or street food vendors, mini markets and fruit sellers. The choice can be overwhelming at times. Most other times it's a matter of taking whatever is on offer.
Remember - you can click on the pictures to enlarge them for better viewing.
The road is getting busier and the horns are starting to be heard again. It's just 140 kilometres to Hanoi now and a visit to the Chinese embassy where I hope to get a visa.
The problem with a Chinese visa is that you need to apply in your home country. Once obtained it is valid for three months from date of issue, which means that it would have expired by the time I reached the Chinese border. The only alternative is to apply elsewhere. China is notorious for being a difficult country to enter when not applying from your home country, but I have a few choices. Grace and David obtained their visa without problems in HCMC, others I have spoken to have found it easy enough in Vientiane, Laos or Chiang Mai, Thailand. For some reason though Hanoi has a reputation as being a difficult place to obtain a Chinese visa. All embassies and consulates are supposed to follow the same guidelines or rules so there is no reason why one place should be seen as difficult or easy. With all of this playing on my mind I rode towards Hanoi searching for back roads to avoid the main highway as much as possible. This produced some more strange new sights.
The choices, should Hanoi fail to provide any joy are 1) to fly to HCMC and get one there, fly back to Hanoi to collect the bike and head north. 2) Ride to, or box the bike and fly to, Vientiane, Laos and try there. 3) Fly to Hong Kong with the bike and try there. I have been told that in HK I can get a three month Chinese visa the next day. That would be a good option as it would save me the hassle of extending a one month visa while in China, as it can only be done at certain places. Another option that I had been toying with since before I left the UK was to enter Vietnam and then fed-ex my passport home and have someone send it to the embassy in the UK, with an 8 or 9 day turnaround, and then have it fed-exed back to me somewhere in Vietnam. This would mean that I could get a three month visa but would be without a passport for about a month. As I have to produce my passport at every place I stay in Vietnam that would not have worked. I had considered applying in HCMC but for one reason then another I didn't get around to it. Not that it takes a lot of effort to be honest. A few forms, a couple of photocopies and a photographs is all that is supposedly all that is needed. The forms were easy enough to fill in but I also needed proof of transport into and out of the country as well as a confirmed booking for a hotel. Strictly speaking they only ask for proof of the first nights accommodation but I decided to take no chances. Even though I had a flight home from Beijing booked prior to setting off from home I booked a return flight from Hanoi into Guangzhou and a hotel room for the duration of my twenty five night stay. Both of these bookings were made on websites that allow you to cancel prior to use without any charge. Basically I booked them so that I could print out the confirmation emails and produce them at the embassy when I took my passport in. They were accepted without a problem and I was told to come back on Wednesday with a receipt for the $30 visa fee which had to be paid into their bank account down the road and I could collect my passport with a 30 day Chinese visa. Woohoo. The visa may only be good for 30 days but you are able to extend it for a small fee for 30 days at a time at least twice, and according to one rumour three or four times.
As well as having a reputation for being a hard place to obtain a Chinese visa, Hanoi is also known as an expensive place for backpackers. The first few hotels I tried all quoted me $15 dropping quickly to $10 - $12 but no lower. I tried a couple more and then saw a sign reading 'beds $3'. Checking it out I found a dorm room to share with a young Kiwi couple and an American. Air con, shower and wifi included ! Not bad at all, especially as the beds are comfy too. The backpacker area is centred around the old quarter of Hanoi which has a history dating back a thousand years. Luckily the buildings here appear a lot younger than that, but there is still some history on show in places. One such place is the Ngoc Son temple, sitting on a small island within the Hoan Kiem lake. Dedicated to the memory of General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongol army in the 13th Century. The most interesting artifact there though is a stuffed turtle in a glass case said to weigh over 250 kilograms. A more recent historical monument lies very close to the bridge to the pagoda and is the Martyrs monument.
Once I dropped off my passport at the Chinese embassy I was left with five days to waste away prior to collection. On returning to the hostel I met Sato, a Japanese cyclist who is riding to Hong Kong. As a Japanese passport holder he is allowed a free 14 day visa into China, which will give him enough time to get to HK where he can then get a three month visa that will allow him to see a lot more of the country. We were joined later that day by Alberto from Spain, another cyclist who is flying to Moscow in order to ride home to Spain for September. Grace and David also told me of a three Belgians that they met a few days ago who are heading to China too. they set off a couple of days ago, so there is a good chance that we may all join up at some point. It would be great to be a part of a large group for a little while at least. There are always lots of tales of life on the road to hear and tell so a couple of days or riding and chatting would be welcome.
Until then though I have a few days to fill so I decided to take a two day, one night trip to Halong bay, east of Hanoi to see the wonderous sight of thousands of Karst rock formations jutting out of the sea. It's the one major tourist attraction that is touted heavily in this reason so let's hope that it has more to offer me than Can Tho's floating market did.
Heading inland towards the hills is not only about climbing. Sometimes you have to descend. One way of doing this is to find some caves but heading this way is also giving me an opportunity to find out if the Ho Chi Minh highway is really as good for cycling as everyone says it is. Leaving Dong Hoi I never expected such a major difference in the highways but the traffic level dropped to almost nothing and the scenery became forest and mountains instead of buildings and rice paddies. I covered the 55 kilometres to Son Trach in what seemed like no time at all as I was enjoying it so much. I got passed by a couple of Basques on scooters that I had met the evening before in Dong Hoi. The shopkeeper probably couldn’t believe he had three westerners in his shop at the same time. We ate lunch at the ticket area of the cave system and were then joined by three Spaniards, two Americans and two Danes. As the conversation carried on through lunch I realised that I had better get onto a boat and head up to the cave soon or it would be too late. I joined a group of Vietnamese in the boat and had to endure the usual photography barrage. Now I know how the people dressed as the characters such as Mickey Mouse feel like in Disneyland. People (especially young girls) thrust their cameras into someones hands and tell them to take a picture of them with the westerner. Not asking if I mind at all they just jump into the space next to me and put their arms around me or make a peace sign and have a picture taken. An then they tell their friends to do the same. Although it can be amusing it’s also quite strange at times.
All except the first of these photographs are courtesy of Google
The cave at Phong Nha itself was amazing. The cave system is about 7.5 kilometres long although tourists are only allowed within the first 1500 metres of it. The boat passes through an immense entrance and winds through the most amazing collection of stalagmites and stalactites. A few coloured lights here and there add to the display. The boat pulls up on an inner beach where we were able to walk up a bank of sand and stone that rises about 30 metres above the water but still doesn’t come within 50 metres of the roof. A short walk around and back to the boat for the return journey. As the boats within the cave are manouvered without engines the whole experience is quite eerie despite having about 30 or 40 boats within the cave at any time. I have to admit that the cave is an amazing display of natural engineering. The other system called Paradise cave is about 20 kilometres further on up the road so that was the destination for the next day. It’s just a shame that the other cave system in the region, which is confirmed as the largest cave system in the world, is not open to the public.
The following photographs are courtesy of Google
Setting off early to arrive about the same time as a Canadian and a Spaniard that I had met the evening before who were riding scooters to the cave I was passed by so many coaches that I thought the cave would be full before we got there. We arrived at 8 o’clock and found the car park about half full. The Vietnamese like to get things done early and are usually up with the sun about 5 or 5.30. It’s not surprising then to find them queuing up for tickets before the ticket office is open. We needn’t have worried though. Paradise cave is immense. The entrance cavern drops sharply into the biggest cave I have seen. The walkway that has been built for visitors is 1.5 kilometres long and was almost full for its whole length with sightseers making the journey there and back. The stalagmites and stalactites in this cave made the previous days display look tame by comparison. Unfortunately my camera is not up to the task of capturing decent images in the dark so once again we thank Google for supplying us with the opportunity of stealing some.
The following images were all borrowed from Google. Don't worry though, I'll put them back again later.
Completely awed by another natural phenomenon I set off again to enjoy the rest of the days ride on the Ho Chi Minh highway. But first I had to ride another 12kms to get to it. Not wanting to rush things I decided to take a dip in the river. I found a spot where a pool had formed and jumped in. As it was nearly 2 o'clock the sun was fierce but luckily the pool had a shady side so I spent the next hour or so chilling out with a soak and a swim. Back on the bike again and down the valley to the Ho Chi Minh highway. What a road. Winding its way up a valley towards a stiff climb that then drops down into another valley, the scenery is fantastic. A beautiful road surface with almost no traffic but lots to see. How much better can it get ?
The one thing that is lacking along this road though is accommodation. Where highway one is a full on urbanised spread, the HCM highway is the complete opposite. With so few people living along this stretch of road there will always be a shortage of available rooms. There are still places to eat and drink but finding a town with a bed is not easy. I was lucky to find a place in a small village with no more than about thirty buildings. As it was dusk I asked a few people and eventually one decided to guide me there on his scooter. Basic but clean and tidy, it would be good for the night. As I had a shower I heard some scooters pulling up outside and saw half a dozen people turn up for a drink. Unfortunately they also decided to turn on the karaoke machine. What a racket. The Vietnamese must be the worst singers in the world, especially when drinking. Luckily for me they were only there for an after work drink and left within the hour. The rest of the evening was spent on the balcony eating iced lollies and gazing at the stars listening to my ipod. As I normally do when listening to my ipod I sang too, but at least I had the courtesy not to amplify it for others to hear.
It was a late start the next morning. 10.30 in fact due to a thunder storm. Every storm that I have experienced so far has been in the afternoon with a warning darkness descending well before time as the clouds thicken. When the wind picks up and a couple of spots of rain are felt there is time to find shelter before all hell breaks loose. The rain comes down in bucketfuls. Usually it lasts about 30 minutes and clears up very quickly with the sun coming out and drying the ground. This storm was the same but arrived in the morning. As soon as it cleared up I was on the road and grinning again due to the awesome beauty that surrounded me. Someone asked whether it really was this quiet or did I choose my time for the photos. Well, if choosing my time means riding on Monday then I chose my time. It really was this quiet.
It's so hard to believe that highway one is only about 30 kms away and running almost in the same direction.
The day was spent rolling along a gently undulating road that wound its way between Karst formations and along lush valleys. It felt just like a low alpine valley but with lush green semi-jungle around me most of the time. It's a spectacular road made even more so by the contrast with highway 1. The problem with accommodation didn't seem so bad today though when I stopped at a town and immediately saw the sign for a hotel. Just my luck that it was closed for renovation. I then had to continue for another hour to the next town and reached it just as it was getting dark. Son Pho is built around a crossroads and seems to provide everything that a town needs as long as it doesn't get too picky. Unfortunately the mangos weren't up to much at the market, a fact that has been repeated to me by Grace and David who are now in Hanoi. This is the end of the growing season for mangos so I hope that they have not all been taken away for export just yet. Bananas are few and far between also. I haven't even seen any for sale today. Not good at all especially when these two fruits are a part of my staple diet. I shall have to keep my eagle eyes open tomorrow while on the bike.
Maybe I will get lucky, but then again, being here would be lucky enough according to many people and I would have to agree with them. A case of having your mango and eating it, to paraphrase an old wives tale.