diverse Yunnan

Zhaotong Travel Blog

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The lakes before Kunming

The mountains remained gentle and instead of the grey cliffs that had surrounded us on the climb we found ourselves in a fertile high valley with deep purple-red coloured earth. Onions, cabbages and wheat grew on terraces and it was like entering a huge beautifull garden. The villages consisted of small farms and there were hey stacks, donkeys and piles of manure everywhere. Small horses dragged wodden carts loaded with greens and farmers herded tired karaboos home from ploughing. That night we camped on the hill side just below the round graves of ancestors. Here they are not layed to rest in grave yards but always on the hill sides and due to the heavy farming we often camp amongst them, as they have the only unploughed spaces. But on their hills, the ancestors are amongst the living and, according to chinese beliefs, the wind will carry away any evil spirits that may have lingered, so we both feel quite happy with it.

The road into kinming

The next day an enormous grey wall appeared in the distance. On our map the it was indicated by a 'small town' dot but what we could see were the ghettos of a large city. Apparently China is full of these places, unknown to almost everyone bar the inhabitants and the people who by the cement, steel or coal or whatever else is produced there. As we came closer and descended into the smog the ghetto became invisible and all that was left of evidence of the city was the industry, the thick dust and filthy fields of the outskirts that we rode through.

Around us everything was busy: factorys droned, steadily phusing filth and dust into the air, heavy trucs bumped over the dirt road, reving their engines through deep potholes and people were pushing carts with anything moveable on them, in all directions.

Another nice valley.
Inbetween the mechanics and welders that occupied most of the roadside shops we found an incredibly filthy noodle shop were we had our lunch break. Here, the guy who cleared his throat and lungs in the doorway offended no one and neither did the guy who spat his chewey meat on the floor .But my noodles that got tangled in my bracelets raised eyebrows and I felt disapproving eyes burning on my back. Doing an extra loud slurp seemed to satisfy people and they returned to their own dishes... Because unless something is really spectacular the chinese will not pay attention to it.

As we ate, we watched the people around us. Most people in the countryside had been quite poor and inspite of Chinas beauty life looks harsh. Everybody works hard: The men clearing the roads after landslides, smashing up rocks with sledge hammers, the people shifting mountains in the quarries and farmers farming without any modern machinery. The women work like the men: In the south we saw women in tribal dress hammering the rocks of the road back into place and further north, on the many building sites they would carry bricks, cement and rocks in baskets over their shoulders, they would load trucks and they would dig deep trenches for pipes with spades. Sometimes we'd overtake old people carrying baskets towering half a meter over their head, loaded with greens or firewood. We can hear people wince under their loads but just as they do not offer attention to anything unspectacular or let anything unspectacular interrupt their work they do also not complain openly. This could be related to the currious mixture of communism, with its incredibly powerfull wall of beurocrats and officials, its endless permits and  no questioning, and along side it the booming capitalst buisnesses, that seem to bribe their way through any concerns there may have been for saftey or wellfare. Or it could just be the Chinese way, the way it may have been for ever...  

Nevertheless the end effect is that we were allowed to pass through daily lifes of the chinese without being turned into a circus. The Chinese in Yunnan, inspite of Mao for years having thought them to 'support everything that the enemy dislikes' were very friendly: They would be mostly calm, polite and reserved. They'd love to talk to us but would never crowd us. In this way, we were able to sit in the small village shops and restaurants and watch life go by unchanged by our presence. This would change as we got further into the mountains, onto small tracks were westerners generally don't go, but for the time being we loved our invisibility.

The city seemed to mark a changing point. Damed rivers, artificial growing spaces and poly tunnels put an end to small hold farming. People seemed to be working in groups spraying and tending, cutting and packing like the machines they didn't have. All the produce lay like walls along the roads, waiting to be picked up and brought either to bigger companies or government places....

I suspect these farmers were at the bottom of the financial food chain, supplying the world with cheap chinese food. I thought of the cement factories hidden in the dust around us, the mines that continuously collapse because saftey is not a priority and my favorite jumper thats 'made in china'... China is the fastest growing economy in the world but looking over these fields I couldn't help but think that the corrupt and overpowering political climate, the poverty and the strong companies and officials were all the right ingredients too turn these people into slaves to their economy, their government and the worlds unsatiable demand for cheap goods.

As the landscapes changed around us, the social landscape followed suit: Instead of lively villages we now rode through small ghettos consisting of badly built, mouldy and incredibly dirty 1-2 storey terraced flats. The homebrew was flowing and people, even the very young, looked so worn out by their life. The guilt, the knowledge that I am a consumer and user of their labour is painfull...

We climbed again and it became dry. The dryness put an end to intensive farming and the large green fields were exchanged by vast grassy yellow hills with lonely pines sticking up here and there. Orange orchards added life and colour and we spent a long time sitting on a battered sofa in the shade of an orange stall eating fresh oranges. Gone were the sad sights of the city with their exhaust fumes and noise as we found ourselves amidst this dry mountainous landscape. Large lakes, framed with pink and lilac flowers stretched out through the valley, giving the area a distinct mediteranean feel.  But the few surrounding villages and a massive pile of fresh karaboo carcuses (?) reminded us that we were far from the mediteranean, in a place were life seemed to have not been taken over by politics, restrictions and money and remaned like it was : 

In the ancient centres tiny alley ways with open sewage systems formed a smelly labyrith between farms. Usually the two endwalls and the backwall of the main house would be solid, windowless mudbrick. The house front would be made of wood -a door with windows on each side. Over the door a second wodden floor with small windows or tiny doors leading onto it formed a small terrace. This area would be full of drying chilly and maze, of baskets and of straw for the animals. The roof would be tiled, showing distinct chinese features at each end where the ridges slope upwards. Thenre would be a couple of mudbrick outhouses and a tap or a well. If the village was small or the farm stood alone it would be built to form a closed courtyard and if the ancient gate hadn't been replaced it would allow for thoughts of times when warlords ruled and raided China.   

But that day there were no warlords and people invited us in to eat with them. It was one of the most beautifull and pleasant rides of whole trip so far.  Just one long flat road along the shore. Daren set out to find 'the perfect campspot' and we ended up high above the lake, almost too exhausted to appreciate the many tiny lights from the fishing boats on the lake.

As much as each valley had been different from the next, Kunming proved to to embody all the contrasts of its province; The outskirts were a krater, a series of swollen ghetto villages covered in cementdust. We were not allowed on the expressway and  were left a potholed road were trucs would emerge from clouds of dust and noise bringing even more dust and noise. We would race them, bumping over deep potholes to reach the next bit of tarmac, trying to avoid disappearing in their dust and become invisible to the next truc. I passed a lady riding her own heavy loaded bike. Her head was wrapped in scarfs and i wore a surgical face mask and sunglasses, and as complex and different as everything is over here, this was one of those moments where, inspite of all the differences, you can read each others mind and laugh at the same redicilous situation. Eventually the whole town became a building site and our road a network of sandtracs. As we  followed cardboard signs through a dusty windowless forrest of unfinished highrises, my thoughts drifted to the Dakhar ralley. But The sand slowed us down and we now had to leave the road for trucs.  No racing....We would have arrived a year after everyone else i suspect.

As we reached Kunming city we couldn't find the center, only rubbish and highrises. I was so disappointed as i had heard Kunming was cosmopolitan. But 3 hours later we found a hotel -expensive but indeed in a spotless center with neonlights and arcitecture worthy of a city with 4 million inhabitants. Daren, true to tradition, had to by a back wheel so i wandered the city alone. I got lost but found a high street better than most european highstreets with all the best shops. Unfortunately the only thing we needed was porridge and suncream. Then i found the old quarter; A world full of red garlands, ancient mudbrick shophopuses and old men playing domino, slotted in perfectly amongst the skyscrapers. I found the puppy market, other markets and eventually as the sun set, I even found my way home, in love with the city and happy with feelings of independence. Daren had found another wheel and also meet another cykeling internet aquintance -again by complete coincidence. We all went out that night, into the neonlights og Kunming and spent most of the time making fun of 'real, serious' cyklists. And the next day we started our 1000 km ride over the mountains too Chengdo and he set off up towards Dali and some major passes soon after.  

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The lakes before Kunming
The lakes before Kunming
The road into kinming
The road into kinming
Another nice valley.
Another nice valley.
Zhaotong
photo by: roadtrampz