Translated by: Pál Capewell
We’ve never been to a marsh park. Even the name doesn’t ring promising, what could one expect? It became a trend that if we sleep in a big town, we spend the mornings taking care of things. Another city tour, grocery shopping or just packing slower than usual, taking our sweet time. Around 40km from the city, we began to look for a place to stay before the darkness fell upon us. Like any other time, this time wasn’t a walk in the park either. The road? Two lanes, relatively busy traffic, agricultural lands left and right and our biggest sworn enemy: fences. Scratching our heads, Balazs and I were clueless as to what now, until we spotted a “Wetland Park” sign. So, having no other alternatives at that point, we decided to give it a go. To our surprise, the view was breathtakingly beautiful.
There are two large lakes to the South of Kunming - we chose to ride on the S102 route, so we biked along DianChi Lake. It turned out by research later on that there are a number of wetland parks in that region, all gaining their water from DianChi Lake. It’s mostly asphalt roads nearby, but upon leaving those, one can find wooden paths and bridges as well. The spot was really just perfect from numerous perspectives, so we quickly decided to set up our tent in the parking lot.
The next day we made steady progress, arriving in the city of Yuxi by early evening. Dinner time was fast approaching and, due to the nature of the region, we ended up settling down in a park again. This was a city version, we quietly pushed our bikes in and made ourselves comfortable on a bench that had roof over it. Tried to not get noticed, we cooked our rice right then and there like the most normal thing in the world. All the while keeping an eye out, but luckily for us we realized there is no guard or authority personnel even as the evening turned darker. After the usual Chinese evening dance finished, we got to enjoy the performance of a not-so-talented but all the more enthusiastic KTV singer, over ninety minutes. Then it turned quiet all the sudden and we did our best to make ourselves comfortable in the shades of the bench. Going to sleep while on a constant look-out wasn’t the most relaxing rest, though. Is someone going to notice us? How about our stuff, bikes, are they safe? And then, that night, happened the unprecedented, the one we feared the most: we awoke with glaring lights in our faces, pouring from flashlights. Two men approached, investigating us, our modest belongings, and the bikes. (All that without my contact lenses, not seeing anything was just the cherry on my sundae.) As it turned out, the park WAS under surveillance and the two army-like authority figures kicked us out of the park. So we gathered the mats, the sleeping bags, and set off for the Yuxi night with half-closed eyes in the middle of the night. We made it to a suburban playground and passed out within minutes. This time though we made sure to wake up on time to avoid attracting too much attention.
The weather turned hotter and more humid over the next days, and Balazs and I were making our way towards the border. Our path turned enticing with bountiful forests with smaller mountain ranges and quaint little villages. It was quite interesting to see how deciduous trees, evergreen trees and bamboo get along so well in the same area. Large lands were dedicated to agriculture, and mounds were decorated with smaller terraces where locals grew different vegetables. Mostly banana, mandarin and corn plantations were spreading along but we even saw coffee plantations as well! Most places had thick condensation, fog in the morning which only subdued by ten or eleven and then the temperature turned as high as thirty degrees. The air was dense, clothes glued on our skin and our skin became annoyingly sticky. The road, ascending rather high, was made of asphalt but was frequently under red mud and dust. By the end of the day, Balazs and I were filthy dirty but our sole solution was the wet-wipes in our bags.
One day, as luck would have it, we crossed paths with the couple we chatted for a few minutes in our Kunming hostel. Geneva a violinist, and John a trumpeter, are from York and are traveling from England to Indonesia. They left England over a year ago, and their destination is Surabaya, where they will start work as teachers in a music school.
The four of us spent one night at an old village house what we named “Thief HQ”, where we ran to seek refuge from pouring rain. That day was John’s 40th birthday, and for that occasion, we surprised him with a small cake. Then came music, out came the violin, the trumpet and Balazs’ ukulele. This ad hoc band gave quite an unprecedented performance, and they even sang “In a Jail’s Window”, spiced up with some jazz.
Our British friends were even more short of time than we were and traveled on despite the heavy rain. The two of us only continued onwards the next afternoon, towards XiShangBan. The weather was still gloomy, and yes, there were still days when we got soaking wet. Never ending rice fields spanned wherever we looked. The natural wonders broke off every now and then to give room for villages, but those consisted of 3-4-5 houses tops. Their room starts just a little over a meter away from the dusty road. Their facade is polluted by piles of trash on top of which chickens and roosters busy themselves. Bored, skinny dogs are kept on short leashes. (Why do they even keep them?) These properties begin and end with one one pile of trash. If we were lucky, they were set on fire and we covered nose and mouth till we pushed on. Awful sewage smell lingers between many trash piles in little villages. That smell can’t be ignored and no tricks were good enough to mask it all. Some houses even keep pigs, which spice the aforementioned stink.
Balazs and I spent endless days on these curvy roads, sometimes ascending, sometimes rolling downwards. After a while the road that was occupied by farmers grew into a respectable motorway, with banana plantations on the sides. We arrived to the Pu’er region.
This is where we met our coolest host as well. Balazs and I were just in the middle of looking for a place to stay. We came across an old, shabby looking house, where we spotted this guy at the side of a banana plantation. Upon asking whether we can stay, he began a long explanation, going on about Lord knows what. We learned over the weeks that whenever you tell a Chinese person you don’t understand what they are saying, they begin talking with even more vigor and speed. While he was busy rambling, we got bored and decided to look for another place. But a guy didn’t give up. Did he want us to go with him? Well, having nothing to lose and still having an hour till sundown, we agreed. He smiled - the first smile since we met him. The old man led us to a village we couldn’t see from the road, took us in and gave us a separate room. Like before, Balazs and I became the newest attraction for neighbors and villagers, checking out our bikes and us two of course. The locals were kind, smiling, curious, and seemed overall happy. After we put down our cargo, our friend pushed us toward the bathroom. Lord oh lord did that shower feel magical! Then came the dinner and some local rice wine. We so did NOT expect such a treat! Our host treated us for rice, bacon, tofu, egg and some sauer vegetables.
Biz Jin Tian, our kind host, is 80 years of age, muscular, good looking, fit and always had a smile for us. The neighbor gals (all over 60, by the way) came over for the evening and a sensational game night began. It was a priceless experience to sit beside them and see their (loving) arguments, card throwing, and frequent laughter, making them fall off their seats. In the morning, kind Biz Jin Tian packed us from the sauer veggies we enjoyed so much the night before. He even gave us sugar, pu’er tea in large portions. In return we gave him the coffee we had left, as he said he loves it so.
Two days later we slept in XiShuangBan already, where music proved yet again how it can bring people together.
We checked out a Buddhist temple which was very different than the ones we saw thus far. The style, decoration and rules were all different. Shoes must be taken off, for example, before entering. On the other hand, picture-taking was allowed. (On the Tibetan Plateau it was the exact opposite.)
Breathtaking Buddhist temples decorate this region.
Time was tight, less than a week was left till visa expiry. We had to depart after our short rest. Oh how many times have we said that three months is not enough for even half of China! Balazs and I chose a wild, adventurous path going forward. About 150 km left till the border, spiced with quite a lot of hiking. Fully aware that it’s not going to be a walk in the park, we departed - only to turn back 3km in.
XiShuangBan lays in a valley, and the less picturesque path was a curvy road by the foot of the mountain. We ascended, then by dusk we were heading towards South. Unfortunately though, that road was a highway where agricultural vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles are prohibited. Looking at the locals speeding along on their bikes, we followed their example, and with much respect, decided to ignore the sign. Off we went.
Balazs and I biked a respectable amount then even found a decent place to sleep, in a ran-down, out of service restaurant.
This path was superb. Like a baby’s bum so smooth, with wide passes and tunnels. Compared to our first choice, this road posed almost no difficulty as to ascending. Quite a few police officers were on the road, but nobody said a thing, instead they just smiled and waved. There was a moment where we got scared a bit though. The traffic was redirected through a gas station where the army was doing security checks. It went rather smooth: the soldiers smiled and asked in perfect English where we came from and what is that large, bulky item on Balazs’ back. (This ukulele again!) The soldiers checked our passports and wished us a pleasant journey. Phew, this was close!
We arrived to the town of Mengla with the idea of checking our e-mails, as we had to know if we have a place to stay upon arrival in Luang Namtha. Sadly, despite a week having passed, there was no response from our chosen Warmshowers guy. But how did we get internet? Actually, from a furniture store, the first store in town. The owner even offered tea, and as we spent quite the time, his wife invited us for dinner! Moments like these are always a tad emotional... Over time, we got rid of our shyness and accepted the invitation gladly.
Balazs and I spent the night not far from the store, in a somewhat protected corner. The next morning, in the very spot, was some kind of architectural hand over. Wow, lucky we cleared out so early! Our quota for the day was 50km, and we completed that safe and sound, arriving into Mohan.
We learned new life lessons again. Like all over the world, prices are spiked around the borders. This affected us when we had to buy lunch. Prices were twice the normal Chinese prices, but after endless searches, our hunger forced us into a hole in a wall family restaurant. And low and behold, a group of around eight people just stood up to leave, having left plenty of food on their plates. There was no time to ponder, Balazs stepped over to the approaching waitress and asked if we could eat the leftovers. She froze at the idea, basically. Then, after the initial shock, she smiled and assisted to move over the leftovers. (Note: in China, groups order at least 5, 6 dishes to share, place it in the middle of the table and everyone takes bit by bit into their own small bowl. It’s customary to over order, as it is a sign of status. “I can afford to purchase more than needed, even if there is leftover”.) By the time our miantiao arrived, Balazs and I cleared off all the leftovers.
Later on we got internet in the neighboring game room, and buddied up with the owner’s brother, Ma Jia Hao. The three of us spent the whole evening together basically, talking about China, the Chinese language (which I grew quite fond of overtime), and an average youngster’s chances in the country. Around nine in the evening the chef from next door brought over two large portions of noodle-soup. How hospitable and considerate!
Our last night in China was in an all open little building made of bamboo, right across from the game hall. Then, the next day we comfortably rolled over to the Mohan-Boten border, crossing into another new country.