This section from Tonghai to Shiping is the first 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.

Today’s the big day. I haven’t noticed. With every tour I do, I grow more and more lax with the planning and I’m more and more confident in myself. This is going to end badly some day. Until then, I’ll just be blissfully happy.

My body thinks differently about it, though. Knowing that something was up today, it woke me up at 6am despite having been drinking until 2am. I snoozed another hour until I really couldn’t stand the alarm sound coming from my oh-so-unreachable desk and got on my feet. Switching off the main breaker, I left my building and headed for the train station, where I hoped to catch a ride on the new line to Tonghai 通海 (“linking lakes”).

Why not ride from Kunming? Several reasons, all vying for the pussy Oscar. First is, it’s bloody cold today. 3 degrees, it’s unusual for the spring city. But at 1900 m above sea-level, all you need is a few cloudy days to be freezing cold. Second is, I’ve hurt my Achilles’ tendon on a previous trip so I want to move to warmer regions as soon as possible. Third, and really the most valid reason is that Kunming is an endless pain to ride out of, especially when heading south. Broken roads and massive traffic make even the most masochistic riders cry.

The station is as busy as it gets when you only have half an hour to catch a train. I take place in a massive file and watch the minutes tick by. At some point I contemplate running over to the front and abusing my foreigner-in-China privileges, but I don’t want to be that bastard that thinks he can come late and still get in first.

Bicycle in train
My bicycle, clumsily fitted in the smoking section between wagons.

The sales lady in at the far end of my line is still ages away when she suddenly drops a blind in front of the window, indicating that’s she’s taking a break. I turn around angrily, slap my forehead to the amusement of bystanders and head out. I’ll have to bike it anyway.

Upon asking, a friendly station official points me to the window for group purchases, where only one family is standing. It’s OK to buy there if your train is leaving shortly. I can’t believe it isn’t full of people abusing that, as they would elsewhere in China. I get my ticket 5 minutes before the gate closes and rush with my bike and luggage towards the platform. I’m just in time!

Tonghai station
Train leaving from Tonghai station to Mengzi.

On the train, I meet a creator of fake iPhones looking for business in Mengzi 蒙自, a dentist happy that people in Honghe 红河 prefecture smoke like factory stacks and a mouthy 29-year old who’s giving a 53-year old tin mine manager shit for his big talk. He allegedly has a daughter in America who makes 8 billion a month. It’s a fun ride and everyone’s cheery. Envious remarks come from everyone joining us though: “Did they let you take your bike on the train? You foreigners are too lucky, they let you get away with anything.” I guess I did hear people shouting “don’t go in with the bike”, but ignoring is bliss.

Tonghai station is really Xihe 西河 (“west river”), an insignificant place 10 km away from the actual city, and I’m peeved to find out the weather didn’t change. Several degrees colder than in Kunming, and a fog that forms little white patches on my fleece jumper. I don’t change into cycling gear and keep my two layers of Ice Breakers on.

Cabbage truck
Truck full of cabbage, the main staple.

I give the pedals a firm kick, and off we go. I’d actually been reluctant to leaving this time. I’d had lots of fun in Kunming recently, there had been a Christmassy mood in the air and working on this blog had been fun. But now that I find myself between the farms again, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling of bliss. I should’ve left ages ago.

I zigzag through a first rural traffic jam: a horse cart and several trucks and a tractor-cart vying to be the first to pass while a minivan tricycle laden with cabbage attempts a 10-point U-turn on the narrow street. Any remaining holes are filled with motorcycles and bicycles. No-one seems to care much. From the horse cart emerge several smiling faces exchanging the usual “哦哦哦老外!这个老外他克哪地呀” (dialectal “oooh, foreigner. Where’s that foreigner going”).

Orange trees
Orange trees

And then it rains halloos. Yes, halloos. The only English word most of them have learned, and inflected at the end as if they’ve all suffered a nasty brain injury. It sounds like mocking, but I know it’s because how they learn it. Transliterated as 哈喽 ha-lou, the latter character has the second tone, which is upwardly inflecting.

I pull into Tonghai proper and order a large bowl of a Yunnan delicacy called Noodles-that-crossed-the-bridge (过桥米线). They’re rice noodles you add raw condiments to, such as beef, eggs, veggies and whatnot, which are then cooked by the hot and oily clear broth you pour on top. They’re from an ancient legend about a wife who had to bring noodles to her nerdy husband, who was writing in an arbour somewhere in their domain. By the time she’d crossed the bridge, the noodles had gone cold, until she invented the oily layer to keep them hot. Large bowl is no exaggeration. I can fit my head in it, which helps awesomely with the slurping.

The weather still hasn’t changed and I realise I have miscalculated the distance to Shiping 石屏, which is suddenly 100 km away instead of 60. It’s almost 1 o’clock, so I’ll see how far I’ll get. There are two towns that should have accommodation on the way: Longpeng 龙朋 (“dragon friend”) and Xincheng 新城 (“new town”). I dodge inspecting looks and more halloos as I dash through the old town and leave on a minor artery towards an inviting-sounding Guniangcun 姑娘村 (“ladies’ village”). It’s a hole.

Lunan village
Lunan village. You can’t see the gas station behind me.

Much more beautiful is Lunan (路南 “south of the road”), a collection of adobe and brick houses, some adorned with white plaster, around a little pond. It’s the ultimate chinoiserie. Had there be any sun, it would’ve made a perfect picture spot.

The road goes up a bit before thundering down to 1400m. I get a sudden flashback! This is the same road I’d ridden three years ago, when I came in from Jianshui 建水. Flashbacks like that make me feel warm and I have to dash away a tear. I guess I’m getting old.

Up again now, and my poor legs battle up to roughly 2000m. The knobby tyres the bicycle shop insisted on replacing my old ones with, make for a much harder ride and however little 10 kgs of luggage may be, it still feels like I’m transporting a moderately important African despot on the back of my bike. Somewhere near the top, a motorbike cart with 10m long bamboo poles on either side almost knocks me off my bike.

Chinese manor
A pretty Chinese manor past Xincheng.

Before Xincheng there’s a 15km downhill. I’ve never hated going downhill so much. The fog clings to my face and clothes and the wind chills my bones through all the layers. My hands are too stiff to even honk my horn at any obstacles. Luckily, there are few. Never been so happy to go up again.

I roll into Shiping just before dark, loop through its pretty old town and find a hotel just outside. Haven’t been able to sweat today, so I skip a shower and head straight to eat Shiping Tofu, the local speciality, before dinner time is over. Shiping tofu is a so-called smelly tofu, which is fermented and yellowy. It comes in thick slices and and is then grilled over charcoal.

Bamboo on a motorcycle cart.
Motorcycle cart with large bamboo sticks.

What makes it great for lonely travellers, is that it’s served at a communal grill, surrounded by many other people engaged in small-talk. The owner will personally sit with you and turn the pieces until they’re ready, and then shift them your way. You then dip it in spicy sauce, take a bite, praise the owner for his skills, and raise your glass to everyone else. Instant fun.

At my table are a 40-year old sports medicine professor and his wife, two girls who just finished their work shift at the grill, and the owner, a chunky man with a movember moustache. Our professor orders bayberry wine and we all get merry and languid around the hot grill.

My company at the tofu grill
My company for the evening: the professor, his wife, two waitresses and the big boss.

They want to know how to say “I love you” in Dutch. “Ik hou van jou” sounds enough like 一个好朋友 “A good friend” and the couple repeats this mantra throughout the night. Dinner is paid for.

I don’t want to walk home into the cold night. A good friend.

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