On arrival in Kunming, we had three very important missions: replace three of our tyres, arrange Vietnamese tourist visas and watch the Rugby World Cup final. A quick visit to Xiong Brothers bike shop near Yunnan University solved the tyre problem on Saturday. On Sunday the All Blacks scraped together a victory against France while we watched from bar stools amongst a crowd of New Zealanders, who all appeared to speak fluent Mandarin. Finally we handed in our visa applications to the Vietnamese Consulate early on Monday morning, arranging to pick them up two days later. With nothing much sparking our interest in terms of tourist sites, we spent a few days doing not much at all in the garden of Camilla Hostel.
When we first arrived in town we had bumped into a familiar face – a cyclist from Switzerland travelling on an old single speed Swiss Army bicycle. We had last seen Remo at the top of a pass in Mongolia, and had barely exchanged pleasantries before a fast approaching storm had given us reason to head quickly in opposite directions. In Kunming, we met up with him a few times for dinner, swapping inner tubes and advice.
Our trip to the border followed a 450km route described on GoKunming which looked like it would lead us straight out of the city. Following a basic city map, we took a wrong turn and ended up cycling through an enormous empty suburban area. The apartment towers were still under-construction or so new that there weren’t even any restaurants to feed the multitudes of construction workers. It was eerie, made more so with the light traffic and lack of road signs anywhere. Eventually we popped out on the small road we should have followed, having no idea how we had gone wrong, what we had cycled through or how we had found our way out again.
The route followed intensely farmed land for the first few days. We cycled till early evening, stopping at the first reasonably sized town for lodging and food. One day we passed mosques and headscarf-clad woman, again impressed at the multitude of cultures squished into China. Water was everywhere, and we cycled alongside lakes, rivers and man-made irrigation systems. Hills too were a feature of most days, the biggest being a 35km climb to 1970m followed by a blissful 40km downhill which took us to just 200m above sea level.
As we descended it got rapidly warmer. Judging by the giant bamboo, banana trees and large number of unidentifiable green leaved plants we’d hit the tropics. We stopped frequently to point out weird plants and spiders, tracing lines of rice terraces far into the hills around us. That afternoon in the low-lying town of Yuanyang we sat out a fierce tropical thunderstorm and decided that we wouldn’t cycle another 30km up into the hills behind the town to have a look at the tourist attraction of the region – more rice fields.
The road to the border town of Hekou was undulating, with the road sandwiched between the river and a motorway carrying the bulk of traffic. Our road was incredibly quiet, though it seemed it was market day in every town we went through with village roads invariably clogged up. We saw trains of pack horses returning from markets with empty baskets, usually four or five led by one driver. Bananas were being harvested everywhere as well, with many left on the tree with bright blue bags covering them and others being boxed up into traditional ‘banana boxes’.
Splitting the last 160km into a two day ride, we rolled into Hekou in the early afternoon, cycling first to the border crossing at the far end of town to have a glimpse of Vietnam before heading to a hotel. The footbridge we would cross was used solely by people with bicycles and handcarts, though most had loads which would be better suited to carriage by lorries. We were a little puzzled as to what goods were being traded between the countries.
Despite the usual grim reputations of border towns we found Hekou agreeable enough, spending an afternoon wandering along the waterfront and watching people sitting in the shady parks with views across the water to Vietnam. Seated at a riverside cafe with cold drinks in hand, we noticed a huge change in temperament. People didn’t seem rushed and weren’t particularly hard at work – plenty were just relaxing in the warm afternoon sun. Outside tourist-centric towns, this was the first place we’d really seen Chinese people chilling out.