This section from Honghe to Lüchun is the third 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.

I awake to the sound of people playing with my bike horn downstairs. I roll around in bed for a while but then get up, realising that it’s going to be a long day, whichever road I decide to take up to Lüchun 绿春 (“green spring”). There are plenty of options: several old roads connecting ‘directly’, and one that requires a 50 km plod to Yuanyang’s Nansha 南沙, where a new road has been built last year. My friend Frank at Zouba Travel recommends one of the older roads and I’m tempted too.

Coming down from Honghe
Coming down from Honghe

While wolfing down an again humongous bowl of wheat noodles with 15 complementary steamed buns, I learn from the shop owner that that’s a bad idea. It’s paved half-way, he says, but then turns into a dirt road. I eye the rain drops turning Honghe’s streets into a muddy sludge and decide that a detour over Nansha is inevitable. The distance, at 140-150 km, will be about the same anyway and I have fairly good memories of that new road. I rode it with Frank after it had just been built (and after part of it collapsed, killing two).

Still remembering yesterday’s sunshine, I had dressed for warm riding, but I quickly realise there’s going to be none of that today. Before the long slope that brings me from fortress-like Honghe to the red river again, I put on my fleece. The following fifteen minutes are a game of screeching brakes and shivering limbs. I’m happy when I finally reach the altitude of 200 m. The weather is no better, but at least it’s not cold. I set course for Yuanyang 元阳.

On the second-class road towards Yuanyang
On the second-class road towards Yuanyang

Although traffic on this road is sparse, it’s not a very pleasant ride. All kinds of mining activities have destroyed whatever forest was left on the opposite side and riding on a road this wide makes you feel slow. I realise I don’t only feel slow, but I am actually slow. I really need to change these tyres for something thinner and less knobby. I’m not used to crawling at speeds of 12km/h, not even uphill. Luckily enough, the boys at the bike shop forgot to set my speedometer and it indicates a speed about 1.5 times as high as my actual speed. Kind of uplifting.

The most beautiful spot (it has a special viewing spot with a parking facility) is where the Red River makes a horseshoe bend. The river, connecting the Yunnan city of Dali with Vietnam’s capital Hanoi before plunging into the South-China Sea, gets its colour from the red soil it carries down from the Yunnan plateau.

Horseshoe bend in the Red River
Horseshoe bend in the Red River, again trying hard to justify its name

The kilometres pass very slowly and that turn-off to Lüchun seems to be forever far away. Bored as I get, I start loudly singing every Beatles song I can remember. A terrible medley of unfinished lyrics and refrains that repeat themselves forever. I start thinking that it may be better to stay in Yuanyang’s county seat Nansha tonight as I may not make it to Lüchun this way. As always when biking, you need to set yourself some targets. I promise that I’ll go on if I make it to the turn-off before noon. I curse my judgment when I reach it with four minutes to spare.

On I go then, evading some woahs and ho-hos emerging from Chinese tourists snacking at the intersection. I’m not buying supplies here for you all to gaze at, I think, and begin the 30km ascent to Hell. After a while, my tummy feels empty and I regret not buying snacks. Drinking won’t be a problem, there are 3 litres in the canteen on my back, but food may be. I spot two chit-chatting Dai women selling sweet bananas. I get a bunch for 2 RMB. I know they’re overcharging, but 15 delicious bananas are really worth the € 0,25. I eat ten. Despite my protesting that I can’t carry that much, they sell me another bunch. They also try to sell me a fruit that looks like an oversized mango. I get the hell out of there.

Two Dai women selling bananas and a large fruit
Two Dai women selling bananas and a large fruit

Two kilometres up the road, I spot another food opportunity. I know food is rare on this road so I decide to get in what I can. In addition to the bananas, lunch is fried wheat noodles and a beer with a dead spider dangling off its side. The restaurant has a nice outside seating area made with bamboo, but it’s too cold.

This road certainly has changed since I rode it for the first time in July 2012. Where last year, I found only a makeshift tent making some instant noodles with an egg in it, there are now several truck stops with full restaurant options. The Chongqing engineers that came to investigate the collapsed road are gone and have been replaced by local ones. Despite going through some of the roughest terrain in Honghe, China Unicom has provided a constant mobile signal along the way, and of course traffic has become a lot more intense. Annoying even, because it’s now full of rich tourists in BMWs from Kunming or SUVs from Mengzi, and the inevitable dirty diesel trucks.

Hani woman plodding away in her terraces
Hani woman plodding away in her terraces

From the side of the road the views are pretty, though. As you get higher and higher, the sheer depth of the valley becomes apparent and farmers are working in banana plantations and on rice terraces. If there had been some sun, this would’ve been quite an epic ride, as long as you ignore the traffic. Today, however, there is no sun. Every now and then I see its measly disc losing battles against masses of clouds. It’s pathetic.

I drudge away at an even more pathetic 10 km/h until I finally reach the turn-off to Xinjie 新街 (“new street”). This is the point where most of the traffic disappears, undoubtedly unloading its baijiu-swilling and sunflower seed-spitting load into a comfy hotel. There they will wait until sunrise to see the terraces glow, snap SD-cards full of pictures and go home to show their friends what everyone’s already seen. I am only hoping the traffic will die out past this point.

A new road makes it easier for tour buses to get to Xinjie, where the "official" rice terraces are.
A new road makes it easier for tour buses to get to Xinjie, where the “official” rice terraces are.

It does a bit. Another 10km later, I also reach the high point of this first climb. I’ve ascended almost 1300m in one haul and it’s time to lose all that well-deserved altitude. An extra fleece layer should keep me relatively warm in the following 17km descent. It doesn’t. When I reach the big U-shaped bridge that marks the next uncompromising 30km climb, I’m almost happy.

My happiness quickly cedes to anguish as I see I’ve only got three hours left before dark. I realise there’s no turning back now, so the last hour or so will be spent riding in utter darkness. Couldn’t I have gotten up an hour earlier? Can’t I ride a little faster? My left Achilles tendon, mushy with exertion, says no. I should really have a scan made.

Audi got off the road
After a day of noisy cars ruining the view and driving me off the road, this almost made me happy. Until I realised it was wrong and offered help.

The climb is so slow and horrible, I do anything to keep my mind from thinking it. Things like calculating how many miles I may have done, and how many minutes that would be at the average speed displayed on my speedometer, which is 1.5 times to high, and thus inferring how many minutes I’ve paused. I get different results every time so I go back to my Beatles medley.

After I don’t know how many kilometres, I reach Tuoniu 托牛, a village that is just being equipped with a new village gate. The engineers tell me it’s another 15 km to the next downhill. The skies are quickly getting darker and I hope they’re wrong.

Tuoniu village getting its village gate.
Tuoniu village getting its village gate.

They’re not wrong, they were less than right. It will take around 20 km to finally reach the mountain pass. I’m done for. The sun takes pity on me and ducks underneath the clouds to tickle my skin. It doesn’t warm me any more, but its rays do make for a fantastic spectacle in the now lonely mountains.

There’s not a car in sight and the haze paints the hillsides in all shades of blue and purple. The school at the last village before the hill has a performance on. I cannot see it, but creaky speakers pour cheery music into the valleys. It sounds like an old record. Being alone in the mountains after 6, it does have something magical.

Sunset over the Hani terraced mountains
Sunset over the Hani terraced mountains

Then, everything goes relatively quickly. I put on my head torch to avoid being hit by cars and to see what I’m doing. In the distance, I can see several the lights of several villages. The road pretty much follows the mountain ridge and an ice-cold wind batters me from each side. Eight kilometres later I find myself at a construction site in the middle of the road. There ought to be a tunnel here that will take me straight into Lüchun but it isn’t finished yet, very much like last year. The way around involves another 2 km climb in almost perfect darkness. If I hadn’t known about this, I’d despair.

When I finally reach the top, I know it’s all over. I just have to be a bit careful because the way in is treacherous and full of pits. Lose your concentration for one second and you’re going over the edge and down a very, very steep mountain. Lüchun, like Honghe, is built like a fortress on a mountain ridge. I make it to my favourite hotel, the Lüchun Impression, shop for kilos of treats, shower and get into bed.

Sunset over the Hani terraced mountains
The school at the last village

2 thoughts on “Slap the Belgian! Day 3: Hell’s not a Place Below”

  1. Well done, Sander! Great story. How’s the tendin now? Funny how Strava lists your ride’s stats 144k and 7780m elevation gain and then states: “there are no achievements on this ride.” Hahaha!

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