Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hong Kong

By the end of the bike ride, we were keen to see something a little different from rural southern China. Hong Kong certainly provided that!

The coast is lined with high-rise towers, with endless posh shopping malls connected by a web of subway passages. Further inland, the maze of tiny streets is crammed with tiny shops and illuminated by bright neon signs. It's a great mix of interesting Asian sights, smells and tastes; but with the cleanliness, infrastructure and familiarity of a Western city. At this stage of the trip, those Western elements are particularly welcome!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Journey to Hong Kong

We didn't stick around in Hekou for very long, and after a late night disassembling the tandem into a few holdalls, by 10am the next morning we were on a long distance to bus to Kunming. After 5 weeks watching endless crazy bus drivers squeeze past us in their beat up vehicles on narrow roads, we were a little nervous about what the next 10 hours might have in store. It turned out, however, that our bus was modern and clean, the driver suitably cautious and the whole journey was a remarkably civilised affair.

From Kunming, we took an overnight train to Guangzhou. After our adventures on the bike, the 32 hour train ride was a much less daunting experience than it had seemed on our way to Beijing. It too passed without incident, and after some rather drawn out immigration procedures, we were on the fast train across the border and into the heart of Hong Kong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Phase two complete

We've made it to the Vietnamese border and the biking is done. On route we've ...

  • cycled for 35 days
  • covered 4022km
  • crossed through 5 provinces
  • averaged 8.99km/h on our slowest day
  • peaked at an altitude of 4481m
  • suffered only 1 puncture
  • had our passports checked about 1800 times
  • had a maximum of 26 police officers at our hotel room door
  • eaten fried egg and tomato for dinner 25 times
  • had countless locals wave and shout 'hello'

Bike route final update

The final section of our bike route -

Hong Kong here we come!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Biking complete

Today we finally made it to our objective for the bike leg of the trip: the Vietnamese border at Hekou. To be frank, it's quite a relief! We never really recovered from being ill a week ago, and the heat and terrain have made the final few days quite a struggle. If we had had much further to go, Steve might just have wasted away!

However, our final day was kind to us, with lots of downhill and plenty of shade. All day, the road wound its way through continuous banana plantations and there was activity everywhere. All around us, endless bananas were being picked, washed, transported on donkeys, boxed and loaded onto huge trucks. Everything was done by hand and the manpower involved was remarkable.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Last hill

Today was the penultimate day of the bike leg and we knew it would be a tough one. We're now officially in the tropics and the heat is intense, so we set off at dawn to get some miles in before the temperature soared. The morning was relatively easy going, but progress was slowed by a two hour wait to get through a construction zone clearing yet another land slip. All day, the final 40km, the last major climb of the trip, loomed large in our minds.

Our strategy was to leave the climb until the last few hours of daylight, so after a siesta in the shade in a hospital car park watching the coming and going, we set off. Unfortunately we wildly under-estimated just how broken the last week has left us, and our pace up the hill fell well short of our usual mark. We eventually crawled into Pingbian an hour and a half after sunset, both completely spent.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

New roads

They say that a road map of China is out of date before it leaves the printing press, and given all the road construction we've seen, we can certainly believe it. We have three different sources of map information and they rarely agree. As a consequence, every route plan is a bit of a gamble.

Today, however, we won. What we had expected to be a very minor road had been replaced with a new smooth and well-graded highway, seemingly for our exclusive use!

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Today we continued through the same lush valley, though the road involved plenty of ups and downs considering we're following a river. The vegetation continues to get increasingly tropical, and the temperature peaked at 35 degrees in the blazing afternoon sun. It's hard to believe that we were shivering in the mountains only three weeks ago.

We're back in the kind of tiny settlements where a brief stop in the shade at the side of the road attracts all of the kids in the village.

Friday, October 19, 2012


With our digestive function back to normal, today we finally left the hills we've been in since Dali. A 30km downhill dropped us 1500m to the bottom of a deep valley and the vegetation changed immediately. The road now winds its way through dense, lush forest, that looks almost like jungle and hints that the Vietnamese border is not far away.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Food hygiene

Something tells us that the food hygiene at the restaurant we ate at the other night wasn't up to scratch. Today we aborted the ride early and sought out a hotel with a Western toilet.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


We left Dali under more clear blue skies, and by the time we'd climbed over the first set of hills, the sun was fierce. Steph enjoyed the shade under her new homemade 'peasant helmet'.

Very soon we left the city and its tourists behind us. Our lunchtime noodles were a far cry from Dali's trendy cafes, but it was good to be back in the real countryside.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Our route so far ...

An update on our route so far -

3000km done, only 1000km to go!


Dali was another tourist hotspot and has a reputation as a trendy hangout for Westerners. After a month on the road, we took full advantage of the Western comfort food on offer.

Indeed the burgers, salads and pizzas seemed to appeal as much to the Chinese tourists, looking for a taste of the West in rural Yunnan Province, as they did to the homesick German backpackers. We particularly enjoyed the irony of one cafe's advertisement for Twinnings tea, imported directly from London.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Slow going

Leaving Shaxi saw one of the last big climbs of the trip. We chose the minor road over the hills, and minor it certainly was. The cobblestones soon gave way to a rough dirt road, and it was the first time things felt truly remote since the Tibetan plateau. It was a technical ascent (for the tandem!) and Steve loved it. The descent, however, was less fun, as we bumped our way down at walking pace. We finally got down to the main road at 2pm, with a long way still to go.

Even the main road did its best to slow us down: we certainly never imagined we'd encounter traffic jams on these rural roads. With the usual stream of trucks, plus all manner of farm vehicles, several market towns were almost gridlocked, with queues of traffic stretching for miles.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Blue skies and sunshine

This morning, for the first time in a very long time, we woke to clear blue skies and sunshine. Much to our surprise, there was a huge snowy mountain peak towering over the town, which we'd failed to see before.

Friday, October 12, 2012


For the past two nights we were based in Lijiang, a tourist Mecca quite unlike anything we've seen thus far. The old town's narrow streets are crammed with wealthy Goretex-clad, camera-wielding Chinese tourists, browsing artsy shops and drinking in trendy cafes.

To the city-dwelling tourists, Lijiang is the epitome of a traditional town in rural western China. However, to us, the place had a rather Disney World feel to it: conspicuously clean throughout, nobody picking through the litter bins, no filthy truck repair joints and too few aggressive dogs with a leg missing. Perhaps closer to its visitors' romantic notion of what rural China should look like, than to the reality we've seen over the past 3000km.


They say China is a place of extreme contrast, and we see this especially in the cities we visit. It is not uncommon to find ramshackle shanty towns, immaculate government buildings and modern high rise tower block complexes (often still being completed) all within the city limits.  The centre of town, where we tend to base ourselves for the night, is typically a chaotic place, where the traffic follows few rules and a walk down the sidewalk is an obstacle course over and around bits under construction and bits needing construction. It is often easy to long to be back in the countryside, but there are gems in the dust... like the ballroom dancing that goes on in public spaces come dark.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

When travelling on the tandem, the experience is much more about the journey than any particular destination. Today though, we took a day off riding to be regular tourists for a change, and visited Tiger Leaping Gorge, rated the number four attraction in China by Lonely Planet. It turned out, however, that the day was as dominated by the journey as ever: a slow, bumpy bus ride, vulnerable negotiations with taxi drivers, official entrance fees, unofficial entrance fees and a terrifying minibus ride on a road hugging the sheer gorge walls.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed hiking down into the huge gorge and scrambling above the roaring river.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Today we were back in the mountains, on route to Lijiang, with great views from both this morning's descent and this afternoon's monster climb.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Day one heading west from Panzhihua: dirty, smelly, polluted, industrial, rutted roads and endless trucks.

Day two on the same road: peaceful, smooth roads, rural and impressive views.


Crossing into Yunnan Province on another heavily trucked road. The gateway features a heartening Ming Dynasty proverb, He who endures the crappy road will enjoy especially delicious egg and tomato for dinner.

Monday, October 8, 2012


This went on for thirty very bumpy, very slow kilometres.


As we creep southwards, slowly leaving the mountains behind us, we've noticed a few changes.

  • The landscape is getting greener. There's more farming, and things look a lot more like the stereotypical Chinese countryside.
  • Yesterday we passed a chemical plant, the first sign of industry since the far north. That means the return of trucks and trains too.
  • While the small towns remain poor, the larger ones seem to be getting more affluent. They're cleaner, we see the occasional western brand, and today we found ice cream for the first time since Beijing.
  • It's getting a lot warmer. Yesterday was the first time for two weeks that we weren't cold at any point during the day, and today we were baking in the sun.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Today we continued south through hilly Sichuan Province. One problem with negotiating a country of this size (particularly with our rather poor maps) is that what appear to be relatively minor features can turn out to be rather large. We spent much of the day following another river downhill, but a climb over some unnamed hills ended up involving 1750m of ascent.

As ever, our minor road was accompanied by a monstrous shiny new motorway. At times it looked like a huge rollercoaster twisting through the hills, and seemed particularly out of place against the ramshackle buildings and run-down villages on the old road.


Food, both quality and quantity, is always very important on tandem trips, and we began this trip with more than a little trepidation. We were most concerned about having to eat odd parts of animals, but this has turned out to be relatively easy to avoid (though we did find unexpected chicken feet in one dish!).

For the first few days, we would try to find restaurants with picture menus, but soon discovered that these bear little or no relation to what's actually on offer. We're now becoming a little more adventurous, and have a few tried and tested dining strategies. Sometimes, we search out restaurants that only serve one dish, which certainly keeps things simple. We've also identified a few staple menu items offered almost everywhere, which we can order by their main ingredients with the aid of our phrasebook. Of course the best results are obtained when we get invited into the kitchen to see the ingredients on offer and select by pointing and nodding.

With a few notable exceptions, we've done pretty well, and have enjoyed some really tasty (and very spicy!) food. Most importantly, we've learnt that the quality of our dining experience depends primarily on the friendliness of the staff and their willingness to work with us!

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Today we took a day off in Guzanzhen and the bike received some much needed attention. We even invested 20p in a pair of used mudguards from the local bike shop's scrap pile.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Minor road

We chose to take the minor road south from Danba, as we thought it would be quiet and peaceful. How wrong we were.

A combination of local road works, land slips, and works depots for the motorway being built through the valley, meant that we cycled for 10 hours through what was effectively 108km of construction site. It was a very bumpy, muddy and slow ride!

We spent much of the day looking up at the monstrous tunnels and bridges being built for the new motorway. Towards the end, however, we found ourselves riding through a maze of new tunnels, with numerous branches to serve the various project sites. The scale of the operation was immense. With flashing red Chinese signage, deafening construction traffic, steep gradients both up and down, and the biggest dump trucks we've ever seen, cycling through was a surreal experience.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Our route so far ...

A number of people have asked us about our route.  For a map of where we have been so far go to:

We're just a few km shy of the 2000 km mark!


Today we cashed in on all of yesterday's climbing as we rolled downhill beside a roaring river under blue skies. This is a national holiday week and once again there were hoardes of waving Chinese cyclists on the road.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Mt. Four Sisters

Today was the big climb up and over Mt. Four Sisters. After seeing almost no sign of outdoor recreation, let alone cyclists, for the past 1000 miles, we were stunned to find ourselves part of a steady stream of cyclists tackling the climb. The tandem was a big hit, particularly with the cycling clubs from the nearby cities, and we were cajoled into many group photos with their team banners.

Part way up the long climb, the clouds parted and we had some stunning views of the jagged peaks around us. By the time we reached the top (4481m, another new tandem record!), however, it was wet and nasty, and we couldn't descend fast enough to the warmer, drier and more oxygenated air in the valley.