This section from Mengla to Jinping is the sixth 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.

Mengla 猛拉 on the Jinshuihe River 金水河
Mengla 猛拉 on the Jinshuihe River 金水河

 Good morning! Could’ve done with better sleep, but such are banana towns: it’s never really quiet anywhere. Even the air-con talked to me all night. Thanks to that same air-con, though, my clothes are almost entirely dry. I washed them yesterday because they were stained with salt and sweat. A quick peek through the broken hotel window reveals that tonight I’ll be doing the same thing.

Beautiful weather! And the forecast said rain! I pack up and get on the bike, stop for a morning rice noodle and then set all sails for the Vietnamese border. There’s an official border crossing there, but it’s not open to third-country underlings. My reason for going is that there’s a tiny tiny road that runs all along the border, looping around a few mountains before reaching today’s destination of Jinping 金平 (“golden peace”). While planning, I’d peeked at the satellite image and the road gleamed like it’s a concrete road, a cyclist’s dream. Even if it’s dirt, it surely beats riding on the new road. Or does it?

Riding out in the mild morning sun is what I like best about the tropics
Riding out in the mild morning sun is what I like best about the tropics

Riding out is great, with the mild morning sun on my face and the humid smell of the tropics around. I forget about the pain in my knees, feet and buttocks. At a village clinic, two women clutching mobile drips gaze at the colourful apparition that comes giggling by. I quickly reach the crossroad where I need to decide to go for the short pain (35 km to Jinping on a newly constructed second-tier road) or for the long beauty (65 km via the Vietnamese border). I opt for the latter and ride down to Jinshuihe 金水河 (“golden water river”).

Jinshuihe is also called Nafa 那发 and forms the border with Vietnam. The crossing is only half finished, like so many on my ride along the border in Wenshan earlier this year. I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to ride the road of my choice yet, but I’ll soon find out. After a visit to the border gate toilet and a salute to a badly photoshopped sign featuring Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao, I head to the actual gate. My arrival elicits enthusiastic reactions from the guards.

Ho Chi Minh and Mao Ze Dong
Communist love: Mao and Uncle Ho brotherly together. Today, the Mao-faced Yuan overtook the Euro as second most traded currency.

An older guard in a darker costume and more stars is summoned to demonstrate his English. It’s better than his teeth. The gist is that it’s OK to go, but I’ll be wanting to turn back: the road’s too bad! A bedazzling lady in uniform also joins the gathering. I melt a bit. I decide to go and not turn around, if only to impress her.

I quickly regret my decision: the road is in horrible disrepair indeed. In fact, it’s hardly a road at all. Everywhere are pointy rocks, making my bicycle shudder and veer. I ride 10 km/h on flats and 6 when I’m going up. Every now and then, I have to unclip to push the bike or to avoid a deep muddy puddle.

The bane of my butt's existence
The bane of my butt’s existence

On the bright side, I see only three cars and a few motorcycles all day. The only people I see are Yao women, wearing their beautiful black hats with red fringes and picking bananas, and their presumed husbands, driving them around. On the Vietnamese side of the valley snakes an exact copy of the road I’m on. A cheery lad in decided non-Chinese clothing shouts my first Xin Chao (“hello”). That’s uplifting!

There are many forks on the way and I have to carefully study the map on my phone not to go up a dead end. Halfway a long climb sits a sphinx in the shadow. I call him the sphinx because his behaviour is a little mysterious. Why is he out here in the middle of nowhere? “You speak our language,” he pontificates, “but judging from your face, you’re not from here!”. I keep a snarky comment involving a famed detective to myself. “You’re going to Jinping,” he continues. “Yes you can go, but you cannot cross the mountain on this side! You need to turn back and take that bridge over there!” I was going to ignore the man, but a quick glance at my GPS reveals that I’ve indeed gone wrong. Thank god I’ve encountered the sphinx! As I thank the sphinx and bid him good-bye, its stone face crumbles and the Chinese man inside offers me a smoke.

Washing, weighing and packing bananas under a tarp in the hot sun
Washing, weighing and packing bananas under a tarp in the hot sun

The way becomes narrower and narrower. At some point, only an adventurous motorcyclist would get through. Then it widens again. I slog on until I make it to the base of the hill I’m about to climb. 10 km at this pace, and on this road? I’ve run out of water and haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Not very clever, as it doesn’t seem I’ll be able to eat or buy anything for another 30 km. But there’s only one way to go and that’s forward.

After several breaks in the shade, I reach a small village. There’s a shop in it! I must’ve looked exhausted because the owner offers to cook me food. I decline, but settle for water, a large bag of cookies and some instant noodles. She pours in some stir-fried meat she’d just made for her children anyway. A chat reveals that they’re Miao, plant mostly pig food, plantains, bananas and sugarcane and that they don’t trust the Hani people too much, but they’re alright friends with the Yao.

This guy sang a beautiful song for me
This guy sang a beautiful song for me

Refilled, I continue my slow ride towards the top. My buttocks are mushy from the continued shaking. I wish my shock breakers would work, but somehow they don’t seem to budge at all. Now they’re just a fancy weight. In the shop everything always works, until you take it outside. Further up the hill there are several other villages with shops. I was originally going to take the way over Baimahe 白马河 (“white horse river”), but when I reach the intersection, I find out that it’s paved with pointy cobblestone, the only thing worse than dirt. “No thanks,” I mumble, and keep going straight.

I rocket down the bumpy path, standing up to prevent the saddle from destroying my painful behind. The sun’s already behind the mountains so I don’t stop to take any pictures. Upon reaching Jinping, I check into the cushiest hotel I can find, shower, wash my clothes and go for dinner. The owner and his friends are loudly dining and invite me over. It’s a funny gathering: a Hui muslim, a Xinjiang muslim who looks like John Cleese, two Hani guys, two Han and a Hani from Myanmar. They urge me to stay another day for their new year tomorrow and put their numbers in my phone. Their corn liquor gets me so drunk that I’m not sure if I’m still welcome. Peace out.

Xinjiang John Cleese
Xinjiang John Cleese

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