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.

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