Sometimes it's just not easy to get off the beaten track. It has, in places, become so wide that there's nowhere left to roam. South east Asia is becoming such a place. Wherever I end up there is usually a guest house or hotel where I can lay my head, although they can be hard to find at times.
I brought my tent intending to get so far off the beaten track that it would just be me, the bike and the wilderness. China is finally providing such solitude. If only I had not been so stubborn I would have popped that cherry by now.
left Dali heading south then west, instead of north as previously intended. I was doing a circuit of the mountains that lie to the west of Dali, taking a route suggested to me by one of the bike shop owners. A scenic route that they use on their own tours. At first I couldn't understand why. A narrow valley with nothing except the road, a new expressway on the other side of the river and industrial outlets. It wasn't until I turned out of this valley and headed north that I understood.
As I rode further up the valley the scenery became better, the road quieter and the peace more encompassing. It was a long climb before I could relax though. Not very steep, but definitely long.
As I rode I gauged the distances between shops and eateries. This was becoming an extremely rural area with little or no shopping opportunities. Making sure I had enough food inside me and enough water to see me through was more to the front of my mind than it has been at any time in this trip. Filling up before I became hungry or thirsty is the only way to be sure of making it to the next pit stop. Needless to say I made the most of every opportunity to stop and fill up.
The first stop was in a small town having its market day. Everyone was out in force buying and selling. People were loading sacks of grain or rice onto the back of scooters with the pillion sitting on the top of it in some cases. Pigs were being led along the street, perhaps looking for a buyer. A lovely bowl of noodle soup that cost less than 60 pence filled the hole for a while.
Later in the day I was looking at the riverbed that the road had followed for most of the way up the valley and considering camping for the night. I haven't actually wild camped on this trip, but this area was providing some beautiful riverside camping spots. All I needed was some food before I settled down for the night. Pulling into a small town on the side of the road I disturbed a class of children dancing outside the police station. It was their twice weekly dance excersize, led by one of the local kindergarden teachers. I hadn't meant to disrupt the class but a westerner rolling into town on a bicycle probably won't happen again for many years and the children were practicing the only English word that most of them knew. Hello.
The class was soon over and one of the women watching turned out to be a teacher who spoke good English. Asking her for somewhere to eat she motioned to the woman taking the dancing class. Her sister owns the local guest house/restaurant so it felt only right to follow her there. Dismissing her sister, the dancing teacher made me a lovey meal and insisted that I was a guest and therefore not allowed to pay. My interpreter told me that she also wanted to show me her parents farm just a few minutes walk away where I could pick fruit straight off the trees. As I had been shown such generosity it seemed only right to take a short walk with the two women. One pointing, one interpreting. When we got to the farm I was introduced to the parents of the dancing teacher and shown around the farm house and courtyard. I'm not sure about the custom in this country, but after feeding me, showing me her home and introducing me to her parents I may now be engaged to be married !
Considering the free meal and fruit I felt bound to forgo the camping and to take up the offer of a bed for the night in the guest house. A huge room with two double beds, bathroom, TV, dining table and chairs etc for just £4. Not too shabby.
The next morning I continued along the valley gaining height slowly but surely with scenery that was even better than the day before. An amazing omelette for lunch and I began the climb that would take me over the mountain. Or it would have if it didn't drop down to the river again first before resuming its long ascent. I had been told that the road was half tarmac and half stone but I was beginning to doubt this as the only sections of stone were about 20 metres long compared to 4 to 5 kilometres of tarmac between them. It was only as the sun was nearing the horizon that the stones took over for good and I began wondering about stopping for the night.
I had been passing plenty of camping spots along the roadside but decided to press on to the summit. It's nicer to start the day from a high point but the sun was setting and the darkness was soon going to be a problem. At 9pm and 3000 metres it was still warm enough to be wearing just shorts and t-shirt and I was wondering how much further I would have to go before reaching the top. At this point a Chinese couple with a pick up truck came up the mountain and pulled over about 100 metres ahead of me. They both got out and beckoned me to stop. Neither of us spoke a language the other could understand so it was with hand gestures and smiles that they pointed out the ominously dark clouds and the long distance left to the top. I didn't mind too much as I had been looking forward to a night in the tent on the mountain but the wind had also been picking up and I have learned to trust this as a good sign of rain to come, so it was with a mixture of gratitude and resignation that I accepted their lift. I thought they were going to drop me at the top of the mountain which would have taken me more than another hour to reach but continued down the other side which was also a stone track but much worse than the one I had been climbing.
Reaching the bottom of the mountain again we turned left which I knew to be the wrong way for me. Insisting that I should stay with them they continued on to a village a few kilometres ahead which I assumed was where they lived, but no they were just checking the lambs in the back of the pickup that had been moved to accommodate my bike. It was at this point that I began to wonder where we were going. My map showed us heading north west where I in fact wanted to head east. Don't worry were the signals I was getting. Luckily there was a new expressway that my map didn't show, and in fact didn't look as if it were finished yet. We drove down that and came to a junction about 20 km from Shaxi, the town that I told them I was heading for. A circuitous route but one that no doubt missed a lot of climbing and turns. The time was now 11.30 and I had been in the van for about two and a half hours. Pointing me in the direction of Shaxi they drove off waving and smiling, as I did the same on my bike heading the opposite direction from them. I didn't have to go far before I found a suitable place to plant my tent and settled down to what I thought would be a good nights sleep. Unfortunately I had chosen to camp alongside the access road to the local brick factory which begin work at about 5 am. So much for my stubbornness to keep going to the top of the mountain. The clouds had cleared and the sky was lit with a million stars (not that I counted them all). If only I had pitched my tent sooner I could be on the mountain instead of alongside a factory access road and with nothing around me but peace and quiet. I was kicking myself all night for not turning down the offer of a ride.
May as well get up early then and ride to Shaxi I thought. As I got to the town there was a weekly market in full swing. There didn't seem much to the town to recommend it though. Admittedly the market was big and interesting, spreading along 4 or 5 streets as well as filling two squares but I still couldn't figure out how this was on the tourist trail. It wasn't until I turned down a side street lined with trees and a stream that I could see what people come here for.
As well as a market there was also a festival going on. It was a childrens festival and all of the children were dressed and made up to dance. The girls outnumbered the boys by about 4 : 1 and were split into four groups each dressed differently. Unfortunately my camera battery chose that moment to run down so I couldn't get many pictures of them dancing. Everybody was having fun though so I just watched from the sidelines and put up with the parents taking photos of me as well as their children. As it was such a nice day and the town had such a nice atmosphere I decided to stay overnight and chose a hostel to stay in where I met a Chinese student who spoke good English and three of his female friends who I nicknamed Pinky, Lily and Hippy. We all ate together with the family who ran the hostel which is a common occurrence here, one that I particularly enjoyed because it meant that I didn't have to try and order for myself. Not something that I am very good at here in China. Retracing my route for 20 kms the next morning and continued my way towards Lijiang, a sister tourist town to Dali that is recommended by the tourist guides.
My stubbornness may have cost me the opportunity to camp on the mountain but then again, if I did camp on the mountain I wouldn't have made it to Shaxi in time for the market or to see the childrens festival. There are going to be plenty more opportunities to camp on mountains in the next few weeks though so it's not too much of a loss. And those mountains are starting to look very big too. Looks like there is going to be snow involved. Can't wait to see some alpine style meadows.

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