Yunnan is full of surprises!

In our first couple of weeks in China, we cycled from Hekou to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. From there, we made our way to Dali first and then the Tiger Leaping Gorge, through busy and beautiful rural areas. We took the back-road out of the Tiger Leaping Gorge passing Haba and the sinter terraces of Baishuitai, before making our way to Shangri-la.

We didn’t really know what to expect when we entered China. All we knew is that we wanted to go up the Tibetan plateau in NW Yunnan and Sichuan. Without any preconceived ideas and prejudices, we just absorbed everything that was going on around us, and, immediately, we were struck by the diversity in people, landscapes, food (lots of vegetarian food 🙂 ).

Already Hekou surprised us by not being one of those dodgy border towns. We had a good taste (literally!) for what we would have ahead of us, with steamed buns, fried potatoes with chilli (specialty from Yunnan), and dumplings. On the main square, few groups of people had formed to perform their dancing until the sun sets.

First day out of Hekou started with road works (we hoped this will not get a tradition for each new country we enter), but after only 15km the dust and bumps gave place to a completely brand new road which would lead us to Yuanyang (Nansha) along the Yuanjiang river. On some sections there was almost no traffic, and it felt like our own cycle path following the equally new and equally empty motorway (who are they building this for?…this question was very often in our minds).

I think I could write a whole page on the approach to Kunming alone, it was just one of the strangest things we cycled through so far. When we thought we reached the city, there was another 40 km of weirdness before we actually got there: clusters of huge buildings, either in construction or finished, but mostly empty, and the roads ranging from empty 100m large highways (again mostly unfinished and empty) to dirt tracks. Kunming itself is a huge modern city, with good bike paths, and lots of good food. We didn’t stay long, but in general we found it pretty relaxed and we had a good time chatting about cycling and Asia with Michael and Ruth, our Warmshower hosts (thanks again Michael for your hospitality!).

Kunming to Dali

From Kunming to Dali was really strong headwind and we struggled to enjoy the road, the section up to Lufeng was quite ugly anyway, with a lot of traffic and road works. But then we cycled through a beautiful valley and rural areas peppered with small villages. These were busy times in the fields, which was dotted with people harvesting and planting (mostly garlic and barley – all human powered, tractors and other machines were a very rare sight). The barley got spread on the road so the grains could be threshed by the wheels of passing vehicles. I guess we didn’t contribute that much with our two wheels, but it was still good fun!

We had a short rest in the old town of Dali, very pretty with some amazing architecture. But at the same time, it is booming with local tourism, with one souvenir shop after the other after. Once more, we realised that with our loaded bikes, we are a tourist attraction (and it is all about getting a good photo, right?!). As it was raining, we had a perfect excuse to be super lazy and didn’t do much, except for having a few beers in the evening with Davide, from Ticino and living in Dali, and his friend, who we don’t remember the name (sorry!) (Thanks for the evening, it was great meeting you!).

After a few more days on the road, we made it to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, apparently one of the deepest gorges in the world with a 3900 m drop from Mount Haba to the West and Yulong Xueshan to the East to the Jinsha River. We cycled all the way to the lower end of the gorge. Some sections were quite vertiginous and we were impressed (or scared? – we did both wear our helmets…) by the minimalistic rock fall protection. We didn’t have the best weather, but it was still stunning! We stayed a night in one of the guesthouses in the gorge, but we had to cancel our plan to do a short hike the next day due to heavy rain. So we decided to continue cycling instead (hoping for the sun to return soon), taking the alternative route through Haba and the Baishuitai sinter terraces.

This route offered us some of the best cycling so far: as we climbed towards Shangri-la slowly we saw the landscape changing…with grassing yaks replacing water buffalos, first appearances of prayer flags and white stupas, and small Tibetan villages with large fortress-like houses.

In Shangri-la (also named Zhongdian or Gyalthang in Tibetan), we start breathing the Tibetan world. A large part of the old town burned down a year ago, but the rebuilding seems to be quite fast, keeping the same type of wooden houses with beautifully adorned wooden window frames. We stayed a few days here to properly acclimatise and mentally prepare for the next leg of our journey that would lead us over many passes above 4500m to get to Litang.

Dust, family reunion and beautiful landscapes of Northern Vietnam

From Laos, we cycled to Hanoi passing Mai Chau and Hoa Binh. After about 10 days of the saddle enjoying Hanoi and surroundings, we continued towards the Chinese border of Lao Cai, taking the longer route going through the Ha Giang province.

The first couple of days riding in Vietnam were rough, and if it wasn’t for meeting our family in Hanoi I would have turned around and go straight back to Laos…well I am glad we didn’t :).

Anyway, our journey in Vietnam started with 150 km of road works: that means dust, mud, so many trucks! I guess coming from Laos the heavy traffic came a bit as a shock, and we had to learn quickly that bicycles are at the bottom of the ‘transportation chain’ and that trucks would run us over without hesitating if we wouldn’t move out of their way. We hated it!! And we had to be so focused on the road that we couldn’t give much attention to the beautiful landscapes (lush green rice paddies) and people along the road harvesting bamboo. But we also experienced some amazing generosity, with people inviting us for tea, or offering us watermelon and super sour little red ‘berries’ dipped in chili salt (We haven’t found out what they are…at first I thought they were cherry tomatoes…).

After 2 days of ‘mud, sweat and tears’ (yes, I had my first meltdown), we finally rolled into Mai Chau. We cleaned the dirt from our bikes and panniers and bodies, and felt ready to forget all about the previous 2 days. On our way to Hanoi we also passed Hoa Binh, a little city that had a great vibe. In the late afternoon, when the temperatures cooled down a bit, the city really came alive with kids playing in the streets a crazy market alley with scooters and people everywhere. We also had our first Vietnamese coffee…I know you’ve heard me rave about Lao coffee before, but this coffee just enters a whole new level. It is thick and dark like oil (coffee and water close to a 1:1 ratio), impossible for us to drink without condensed milk…but it tastes like heaven!

We managed to cycle in (and later out again) Hanoi without too much difficulty, and we were quite impressed by everyone’s reflexes on the road.

We were super stoked to surprise our family (they were only expecting us the following days), which we hadn’t seen in more then 1 ½ year! After a few days in Hanoi living like queens and kings, Seba and I went on separate trips: he went to Halong Bay with his parents to relax on a boat and kayak around limestone cliffs peaking from the ocean, and I went with the Luxembourgish crew on a little tour south of Hanoi, as they had already visited Halong Bay. We walked through the rainforest of the Cuc Phuong National Park, and took a rowboat on the Ngo Dong River through karst caves in Tam Coc. We loved spending some time with our families, it gave us renewed energy and motivation to continue our trip.

We also applied for our Chinese visas, and decided to ask for a 2 months visa straight away even if we hadn’t heard about anyone getting more than 1 month at the embassy in Hanoi. Worst case they would only give us 1 month, right? (or could they have refused our application? We don’t know….) Anyway we were amazed to find out a week later that our plan worked out!

We liked the vibrant and chaotic city of Hanoi, but 10 days were enough and we were itching to get moving again. A few people told us that we couldn’t leave Vietnam without doing the road from Dong Van to Meo Vac in Northern Vietnam, apparently it is a must-do in SE Asia. It was a little bit out of our way, and we looked at all the different possibilities to go there with the few remaining days on our visa. Unfortunately, there was no way of making it without taking another mode of transportation. So we opted to cycle to Ha Giang, and from there did a 2-day loop with a scooter. If we should have any regrets on our route planning so far then it would be that we didn’t manage to cycle that road, because it truly offered some of the best landscapes we have seen so far (the photos don’t do it any justice at all). The Dong Van plateau is like travelling on a different planet, with black karst peaking (‘stone forest’) from a pastoral landscape, houses with mud walls, and beautiful folds in the limestone at the Ma Pi Leng pass (between Dong Van and Meo Vac), all that without the distractions of tour buses, travel groups or large hotels. A few ethnic minorities live in these mountainous regions. We timed our visit well, as we were there for the Sunday market. Women worn their very colourful traditional clothes, which reflect the customs of the local ethnic groups most of which have remained unchanged for centuries. Men were mostly in black (we saw the occasional beret, ‘souvenir’ of the French influence).

With the visa ticking we got back on our bicycles, and quickly made our way to Lao Cai, to cross into China, and of course getting scammed one last time at the border (like on so many occasions before…that is the only side of Vietnam I won’t miss).