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.