This section from Shiping to Honghe is the second instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Shiping west gate
Shiping old town’s majestic West gate

I awake from a deep and long sleep with a little “woah” – first time I can remember me doing this, really. It isn’t painful, but I think this is what time travel should feel like. I feel fully recovered. Somewhere in another dimension, little blue beings with funny faces have restored my body. I mess around in my room for another hour or so because I’m sure outside it’s still grey. A mistake: when I open my curtains, a weak little disc makes respectable attempts at piercing through the thick layer of clouds.

Street full of craftsmen
Street full of craftsmen

Back on the bike, I decide to get some noodles and to explore Shiping a little more. Someone said they thought Shiping’s old town way more impressive than Jianshui‘s 建水, a city just 60 km east of here. He was right. Jianshui’s old town is very pretty, with shiny cobble stone and very artfully crafted old houses and lanterns that make the place very atmospheric at night. But it feels artificial, too good to be true, especially if you’ve kept your eyes peeled before reaching the old town: after two or three roads of old town, Jianshui gives up and turns into a thirteen-in-a-dozen Chinese city.

Not Shiping. Between the majestic west and south gates, the whole old town feels authentic and many of the old town’s buildings still house craftsmen. It’s a maze of small alleys and streets, lined with houses with wooden shutters and pointy roofs. There is no pretence that the town has become modern – blaring ads for paint or tractors adorn the old façades – but at least it feels alive. People live in it. There is an entire street full of metal workers, there’s a traffic jam near the vegetable market, there’s an entire alley with mixian (rice noodles) shops, and Shiping tofu is on every corner. I’m happy I cycled through.

Cyclist in shiping old town
Cyclist in Shiping old town

But enough sight-seeing. I may only have 75 km ahead of me, it could prove pretty difficult. Today’s goal is Honghe 红河 (“Red River”), a city so elusive I’ve never made it there, even though I’ve been to the Red River itself many times. I take the provincial road out of town. It’s under construction so I beaver away through the dirt until the I’m treated to some tarmac again. The road construction of course attracts a million inquisitive trucks that all want to contribute. Result: broken surfaces, wet asphalt from their water-cooled brakes, clouds of dust and endless honks. One of those days.

The sun is now decidedly peering through the clouds. I get an uphill and am sweating bullets, pretty much wearing the same gear I was yesterday. But I know there’s a long drop ahead so I decide to sweat it out until I’ve reached today’s low point at around 300m. It’s great to be in riding gear again, and I love that big Belgian flag that makes people think I’m German.

Lovely old buildings
Lovely old buildings

If you pretend the trucks aren’t there, today’s a beautiful ride. Large yellow flowers – I’m sure they have a name – are in bloom by the roadside and in the valleys and everything bathes in a their golden shine. A little river crawls through the landscape and it looks like I’ll be following it until it pours into the Red River.

At a truck stop, I get some food. Veggies and egg and soup. It’s not very delicious, but they have an outside area where I can rest and recover, legs in the sun. Truck after truck pulls over and has its brake fluid – water – refilled, some drivers give their beasts a little wash. After an hour or so, it’s time to push on: at 25 km, I’ve not done anything today. The wind is blowing through the valley, right in my face. A badly skewed tree suggests that’s what it always does.

view of the valley
View of the valley

After the truck stop, the road becomes noticeably quieter but also worse. Large patches of gravel release their eye-stinging clouds of sand every time a car or truck passes and I find myself covering my eyes more than once. Not so safe when riding down a hill. High on the opposite side of the river, carved out in the mountain face, runs what looks like a path or a road. I wonder if it may be a single-track rail, because someone has bothered to cut tunnels and build bridges for it. A wandering worker will later explain it’s a aqueduct constructed to channel water to the nearest hydropower plant.

Speaking of hydropower, the whole gorge I’m riding through, really reminds me of the Qinglongxia 青龙峡 (“Green dragon gorge”) between Fumin 富民 (“rich civilian”) and Anning 安宁 (“quiet peace”). There are the same small dams, small hydropower plants, roadside concrete cubes that will kill you so you don’t accidentally drive into the water, and the vegetation is just as varied. Really, make the trucks disappear and this is one of the most blissful in Yunnan.

Dredging on Red River
Dredging operations on the Red River – I see why they call it that.

It gets less blissful when I reach the Red River – which is almost brightly red today. A bridge takes me across and I suddenly find myself on a wide tarmac road battling a fierce headwind while going uphill. It’s not cool to bully riders at the end of their trip with 15 kms of steep slopes and wind, but such is life. I try my best not to lose heart while I’m being overtaken by all kinds of vehicles. I get a steady 8 km/h and have to stop regularly. In the last 10 km, I almost climb 700 m.

In Honghe, a town much less impressive than I’d thought it would be, I sit down at another communal tofu grill until I suddenly need to rush to the nearest hotel to empty my bowels – the spice is doing its job! Promising that I’d stay the night, the reception clerk opens her private office to me and I soil it badly. Good thing with squat toilets is that they’re as easy to clean as they are to get dirty. In my rush I fail to notice I’m renting across a KTV (karaoke).  Badly sung songs blare all night.

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