What lazy days after cycling for seven days without rest. These last days we have spent at the large Erhai lake at the foot of a 3000 meter high mountain range. We are relaxing in a small hostel at the lakefront, in the heart of Yunnan. The lake is a very popular getaway for Chinese and occasionally western tourists. Nonetheless we are the only guests at this hostel and most likely no new guests will arrive any time soon either. Why? The government has decided to close all hotels and guesthouses along this strip, leaving behind families whose source of income has been shut in front of their faces. I guess that's China. After 3 weeks of cycling in this country, not something I would describe as surprising. Top down decisions are normal and the people affected have few to none possibilities to defend themselves.
So how did we get here? On the east side of the lake, we were told in Dali, we would find a small climbing crag. Even though the climbers from Dali who set up the routes have left, we still decided to go check it out. We left Dali in the morning and had actually initially planned to take a ferry across, to change mode of transportation for once. But after arriving at the pier, the confused employees didn't understand what we wanted. They sent us from one place to another, probably in hope of not having to deal with us themselves. In the end it turned out, that the boats were not actually ferries but cruise ships offering a trip around the whole lake. So we hopped on the bicycles again and started cycling. Looking back, there might be a ferry leaving somewhere in this area as well, but we couldn't read the signs, nor did the Chinese understand us.
As its summer, the lake is visited by many Chinese who are not only looking for a nice place to relax but also good photo and selfie spots. Dozens of couples in their wedding robes pose in front of the water, along the shore or in flower gardens specially planted for taking photos. I guess its the Chinese way of making nature more beautiful. Speaking of beauty, what did surprise us was the clear water of the lake. A few people even went for a swim!
When we arrived at the small town underneath the crag and wanted to find a place to stay, it struck us odd that all the hotels were empty. Right now should be high season and there are definitely enough tourists around, why close the hotels? We stopped in front of a smaller guesthouse, where we saw some people inside. A young Chinese man with his dog greeted us in English but with unease. "All the hotels here have been closed by the government. We are not allowed to receive guests anymore." Bewilderment on our side. Why would the government close all hotels during the most touristic months?
The mans wife appeared with a small baby in her arm and started to talk with her husband in Chinese. After a couple of minutes they invited us in and showed us a room."you can stay", said the man, "because I like bicycle touring. I cycled to Lhassa in Tibet myself a few years ago."
What a surprise, not only is he a Chinese person that speaks English and is willing to break the strict government rules, but he is also a bicycle tourer! Of course we gladly accepted. Over a communal dinner, they had invited us as the restaurants were also closed, they told us about the Erhai lake. A few months ago Xi Jinping, the Chinese head of state, had visited the region and was concerned about the increasing pollution in the lake, such as untreated sewage and large amounts of manure from livestock. He ordered for the lake to receive better protection, banned all cattle from the surroundings and closed the businesses without sewage treatment.
What a dilemma, I thought to myself, in Switzerland most lakes face similar problems due to high nutrient inputs and in my previous job I worked at such a lake. Some lakes are only clean because oxygen is pumped into them, a costly and short-sighted measure. Sewage treatment has reduced the problem there, but reducing the number of livestock is necessary even though its unpopular with politicians who fear losing the next election. In China, the totalitarian government can easily make unpopular decisions, ones that ignore its citizens welfare, without fearing any consequences. In this case the environment benefits, but seeing this young family left with such an unsure future pains me as well.
The next day the owner takes us to the crag and his grudge against the Chinese government becomes even more evident. It is underlined by him wearing a Google t-shirt. At least he has kept his sense of humor!
The climbing is fun, but we fear of getting the family into trouble if we stay much longer. The next day we already pack our stuff and continue toward Lijiang, a UNESCO world heritage town. As we wave goodbye to the family and cycle off, we spot bulldozers and construction being done on the road. New pipes lay ready for being put into the ground and it looks like the sewage treatment will be installed soon. We hope the construction won't take too long, but are confident that the little guesthouse will open its doors soon again.
After cycling along the lake for about 30 minutes, we turn right and up a small hill. For today we chose not to take the main road, S221, to Lijiang, but one that's a bit smaller. It is a slight detour but the scenery along this way makes up for it. A lot less traffic too.
The landscape is dry and we hear Eurasian cuckoos, different bulbuls and many other unidentified song birds. However we do not spot a single raptor the whole day. In fact, since we have entered China we have seen many more birds than in South East Asia, but the large birds of prey are absent almost completely. Maybe something else the government should look into?
In the afternoon we cycle past a gigantic mine and trucks loaded with gravel pass us constantly. Yunnan is rich in minerals and open mines rip large holes jnto the landscape. It's the other side of the coin of economic growth and technological advancements.
For us its getting late and we need to find a place to sleep. But the road ahead of us is all uphill and we make slow progress. We reach a small village, but there is no guesthouse. So we fill up our water sack and continue. The sack holds ten liters and has a shower cap attached allowing us to shower before crawling into the tent. It also means carrying ten kilos extra, so we hope to find a camping spot soon. 30 minutes later, the sun is already setting, we reach a pine forest. After another 20 minutes of searching we finally find a flat area hidden among the trees, where we have just enough space to pitch our tent. It was yet another long day with sun, wind and more than 1000m uphill cycling.