Hotels in China are some of the cheapest and most widely available of any country we have visited on this trip. This combined with shorter daylight hours as we head southwards and the densely populated countryside, has seen us spending an increasing number of nights indoors. In fact our route from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Kunming saw us only camp out for a single night in ten days on the road.
From Tiger Leaping Gorge we had 28 days remaining on our Chinese visa and for the first time in China we felt like we had a deadline to meet. That evening during a thunderstorm that cut the power to our hostel we watched in delighted terror as the canyon walls were lit by brilliant bursts of lightning while thunder echoed from all directions. It wasn’t such a problem to be spending a night in a hostel room rather than the tent we decided.
The next morning all was peaceful and we headed out of the gorge past gushing waterfalls on almost empty roads until just a few kilometres before the main road. Here the tourist bus traffic picks up as tourists head only a short distance into the gorge to snap some photos and take a quick glimpse of the gorge. We are secretly pleased that the buses don’t intrude too far leaving the bulk of the gorge feeling more off the beaten path.
Back on a busy main road, our first in many weeks, the kilometres flow easily by as we pass a market in full swing. The brightly coloured traditional dress of the shoppers mixes with those of the produce on display to create a sight we can’t ignore. The road winds alongside the Yangtze river before climbing sharply away leaving us with a final glimpse of the snow capped peaks behind.
We decide to loop away from the main road to visit the small traditional village of Shaxi. From here, according to our map, we can follow a minor road across a mountain range and continue on to Dali. We arrive in the town to find a market so busy with people and goods we can barely push our bikes along the crowded streets. The minor road on our map turns out to be a small track that after passing the live-stock section of the market (where we consider swapping bikes for mules), deteriorates from cobbles to gravel and finally to loose rocks as we climb high above the valley.
The views from the top make the climb almost worthwhile although finding a rip in my front tyre I am not so sure. The rip is fixed with a temporary patch made from a biscuit wrapper and putting in a big 80km afternoon we reach the old town of Dali and check-in to a guesthouse arranging to meet up with Kate and Jason (two cyclists we met in Shangri-La) for a day of walking the next morning.
Kate and Jason are off to Laos the next day so we say our final goodbyes with a vegetarian buffet dinner perfect for hungry cyclists. We spend a further day in Dali managing to get directions to a bike shop in nearby Xiaguan from the guys at Climb Dali, where we replace Justin’s damaged tyre. Leaving town the weather begins to deteriorate and the rain looks to be settling in leaving the countryside blanketed in mist.
The road to Dali had been a mish-mash of tiny tuktuks and bicycles competing against trucks and larger vehicles for space as they raced to bring in the rice harvest. The fields all around were busy from dawn to dusk as workers cut, dried, sifted and sorted the various crops. Continuing on the scenery remains largely similar although now the workers are battling the weather as they carry heavy loads from field to road through thick mud.
The cycling between Dali and Kunming is a mix of rain, roadworks and nights in a stream of hotels situated in towns so small there is little more than a handful of shops and nothing much to hold our attention. With no streetlights, once it is dark we retreat to our hotel room and watch a stream of television shows.
Few people venture from their fields or houses to talk to us but the cycling is peaceful with the bulk of traffic avoiding our poorly surfaced road. The conversion of every inch of available space into rice fields makes camping impossible. Where there is a patch of empty space the ground has been turned to mud by the persistent rain. Two of the four cycling days are particularly bad with the damaged road surface slowing our progress to a crawl and clogging up the bikes.
Our arrival into Kunming sees the end of the bad weather with a glimpse of blue sky through the clouds above. With our bikes coated with a thick layer of grime we find a room in a hostel with plenty of outdoor space where we can change tyres and give our bikes some much needed love and attention.