Crossing the border into China turned out somewhat more complicated than expected. I guess we shouldn't have picked this small border crossing, where every half year a foreigner makes the attempt to enter China. Nonetheless we made it! But only after spending several hours of interrogation, having dinner with the border guards and then sleeping in a hotel while our passports where held at the border. One day later, the guards let us pass and with a new stamp in our passports, we set off.
The Yunnan Province greeted us with two days of long climbs, from roughly 400 m.a.s.l to 2000 m.a.s.l., in the rain. We pedaled past small villages of Hani and possibly Miao ethnic minorities, and ate warm and hearty noodle soups at the markets. The higher we cycled, the cooler it got. The decrease in temperature was a wonderful relief after sweating continuously in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia, even if it was accompanied by almost continuous rain showers. To our delight, we also heard many birds singing in the forests and the large fields. What a difference to Vietnam!
Our first large Chinese city was Wenshan, just a small dot on our maps, but a large bustling city with high-rises and a main shopping street with international brands. How again do you write Hotel in Chinese? Cycling out of Wenshan on our third day, the clouds opened and the sun started to come through. We cycled along a main road which was undergoing construction and had literally turned into a river of mud. “Just don't fall or put your foot down!” I thought to myself as we were fighting through the mud with cars and trucks driving past us and splashing mud on us from the side. In the evening we reached a town with a large Muslim population, something that had come as a surprise. We saw several mosques and halal food was served in most restaurants. We enjoyed some barbecue and a type of pita bread on the street before heading back to our the hotel.
We were almost ready for bed, when we heard a loud knock on the door. As Sera opened the door, he found himself looking into the faces of six police officers. They had taken a local school teacher along, who was the designated translator. Our pictures were taken and we were asked about our travel plans and why we were here. After 15 minutes of questioning, they wished us good night and headed off. Sera and I looked at each other uneasy, would these police contacts accompany us throughout our journey in China? What will happen if the hotels do not accept us, as they fear the contact with the police? And would we even be able to camp without fearing the police? Camping was something I was especially looking forward to, even though it is technically forbidden to just pitch your tent anywhere.
It turned out that the south-east of Yunnan is very rarely visited by foreigners and our round eyes and long noses must have aroused some suspicion among the local authorities. The Lonely Planet guidebook basically does not have any information on this area and judging from the people's surprised faces, few travelers actually ever come here.
Our general direction was Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Looking at the map now, we definitely did not chose the most direct way to get there. As we avoided highways and large busy roads, we zig-zagged through valleys and over mountain passes, along rivers and lakes. The landscape turned quite dry and the soil a deep red.
With the smell of conifers and often eucalyptus, my mind took me to the mediterranean landscape of Spain. Very ironic, as the eucalyptus is not native to the mediterranean either. In fact its considered a very invasive tree species which is causing severe damage to environments outside of Australia. China has the second largest eucalyptus plantation outside of Australia, the first being in Brazil.
What startled us in this first week, was the large discrepancy between rural and urban Chinese. While the cities are modern and its inhabitants relatively wealthy, the countryside is extremely under developed and poor. Some villagers might use a motorcycle or tractor for transportation, but we also often saw oxen carts or people walking along the roads. The work in the fields is largely done by hand and only a few people can afford a tractor to plow the land. We saw an old man plowing a field with a cow, unable to stand upright after a lifetime of hard labor.
Now with a little bit of haste (we had contacted Michael over warmshowers.org and didn't want to let him wait too long for us), we continued cycling and in the evening arrived at the beautiful Fuxian Lake. It is the second deepest lake in China and a popular destination for swimming and diving. Being a very important fresh water source, it is kept surprisingly clean and boating is restricted. Even camping is restricted, so after Sera took a quick swim in the cold water, we headed to a small guesthouse along the shore. The owners' son spoke English and it was great to have a real conversation with a Chinese person.
The next morning, as we were ready to mount our bicycles, we found Sera's front tire was flat. Not what we needed this morning, as we had a 100km stretch to Kunming and had promised Michael to arrive this evening. Furthermore, it had started to rain again, so ten minutes after actually leaving we made our first stop to eat the typical noodle soup for breakfast. Although these delays weren't good for our time schedule, they did prolong our actual start and the rain had stopped when we finally set off. The first 15 km along the lake were easy on a new road with little traffic – a tranquility we would not encounter again until after Kunming.
For lunch we sat down in front of a small store to eat some cereal. As we unpacked our things, a small crowd of children started to form around us. Soon we were surrounded by 20 children, watching us with great curiosity as we ate our strange lunch. I guess it wasn't the smartest thing to choose a supermarket right across an elementary school during lunch break.
As we continued, a Chinese female cyclist came in our direction, waving and stopping to talk to us. She was touring on a small fold-up bicycle with just a small backpack strapped to the rear rack. She told us she just finished cycling solo through Sri Lanka and Yunnan, but soon had to return to her hometown Chengdu. We were so amazed to meet a Chinese girl cycling alone on a cruddy fold bike and couldn't stop asking her questions and taking pictures. She was also the first touring cyclist we had met since Laos and it was fun to exchange some experiences. After she continued, we realized she had not even taken a single photo of us, while we had at least ten of her and her bicycle. So much for Chinese people always taking photos of everything...
The last 20 km we cycled through Kunming, in a rush to meet Michael at 7pm in front of his apartment. Kunming has cycling lanes, but we arrived at rush hour and they are mostly used by electro scooters, quite a stressful combination.
After a race past hundreds of high-rise buildings and dozens of close calls with scooters or pedestrians, we finally met Michael at 7:15pm. We had cycled eight days non-stop, each day with hundreds of meters in elevation, through rain and against strong head-winds. For the next few days we would leave our bicycles locked up and just relax, sipping good coffee, eating tasty new foods and enjoying Michael's stories about China.