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

Lao He and his cool motorcycle
Lao He and his cool motorcycle

It’s only 9pm and the Chinese are already on my nerves. I’m sitting at a communal tofu grill, shovelling down a quick bowl of mixian. Around me, it’s raining prejudice. I’ve never heard a Chinese person say anything bad about me or other foreigners, mind, even if they’re unaware of the fact that I can understand them. But the prejudice is just outrageous. “Oooh don’t put peppers, they don’t eat peppers,” a woman next to me says to the cook. “Woah, this one can use chopsticks,” says another. A passer-by urges her kids to say “hello” to the foreigner. And then there’s always know-all who feels the need to explain to the whole group that we only eat bread and steak.

I finish my bowl, pay the bill and tell them in my best Yunnan dialect that we eat rice every day – and meat only on holidays. A blatant lie, but that’ll teach him to be a wise guy. It has no effect: “ooooh this one speaks Chinese. Exchange student, right?” I grunt a goodbye and make for the town gate.

Highways above, business continues below
Highways above, business continues below

My bad mood has less to do with them – it’s a daily routine – than with my sore legs. The clicking in my leg has stopped, but I’m not convinced the injury has healed. I abandon my plan to ride up to Ma’andi 马鞍底 (“horse saddle end”) and head for Hekou 河口 (“river mouth”) instead. That’s a pity, because I’d heard many good things about Ma’andi and the weather looks promising. Perhaps there will be a chance on the way back.

My bottom’s also sore. I need to get out of the saddle every few minutes to alleviate the pain. I really miss my Orbea bike with the Selle saddle. I don’t remember having a sore anything on that bike, no matter how long I rode. While I’m pondering about this, a motorcycle pulls up beside me. Lao He 老何, a young Chinese guy from Guangxi province is doing a Guizhou-Yunnan tour on his Honda. We exchange a few tips, admire each other’s gear and take pictures. It’s good to meet a fellow traveller, and it reminds me that I haven’t seen a foreign face in the 8 days since I left Kunming.

Banana horses are parked a bit further
Banana horses are parked a bit further

I don’t apply any sunscreen. It’s winter, it’s hazy, there’s ample shade from the trees and I’m below 100m above sea level now. It’s hot indeed, but I won’t get sunburnt. The little sun that comes through in the beginning is pleasant and I’m trying my best to enjoy. After all, this section was my very first ride in China, almost three years ago now. The memories really start coming back at Xinjie 新街 (“new street”) or Lianhuatan 莲花滩 (“Lotus Beach”). Note there’s nothing new about the street and there is no beach, let alone lotuses.

Lianhuatan was my first stop. I remember reaching it after a sultry summer day of riding. I was unable to understand Chinese, I couldn’t read it, I couldn’t read the map I’d bought, I didn’t even know where I was going, I felt uncomfortable with how people were staring at me, I couldn’t use my bank card anywhere, I had the shits and I thought everything was extremely filthy and chaotic around me. The police who were at the checkpoint then were able to speak some English and told me my target of Yuanyang was too far for the day and showed me an acceptable hotel. I ate what I brought from Vietnam in my room that night. After I’d looked past the chaotic interior, I realised it was actually rather clean inside.

The new bridge to Ma'andi
The new bridge to Ma’andi

Now, three years later, everything is a lot different. I still don’t like being stared at, but I can engage in conversation if I want, I know what food to expect and how to eat it, I can read signs and I’m entirely used to seeing villages like Lianhuatan – basically a few houses and a shop lining a road full of trucks and motorcycles. I try to find the hotel where I spent the night but I’m hesitating which one it was. The border police, an important orientation point for my memories, have gone. I give the town a miss, leaving it for the chaotic shithole it still is.

Also at Lianhuatan, I get another tempting opportunity to get back to my initial plan. A bridge would bring me to the other side, where I can connect to Mengqiao 猛桥 which then leads to Ma’andi. After hearing that the road will be 20km of cobblestone, however, I think better of it and head down the Red River road. It’s not so bad, after all!

Truck with gravel almost tipping over
Truck with gravel almost tipping over
Until a dozer comes to the rescue
Until a dozer comes to the rescue

I especially like how this entire road weaves in and out the highway built on top of it. When I arrived in June 2011, construction had just been finished and many towns, including Lianhuatan, had been left the shade of its large support pillars. Whatever you may think of that, it means a lot of shade on this hot road, and less traffic as everyone with half a brain chooses the highway. After Lotus Beach, however, traffic picks up. Is it just the time of the day or do a lot of cars need to go here? Whichever it is, riding becomes a lot less fun from this point.

To get a piss-sour Sander, all you need to do is add in the increasingly sad state of the road and the monotonous views around it (all you see is bananas left and rubber right). Good news from an elderly lady: from January 2014, the road is going to be repaved. Just 300m further, I saw a measure of road engineers on a prospecting mission. It’s probably a good thing to stay away from this road for a while. The other uplifting thing is that someone shouted “ni hao” at me. You need to be on the road for a week to get your first spontaneous greeting in Chinese!

Overloaded Vietnamese truck
Vietnamese trucks, experts at overloading

Where the Red River becomes the natural border between Vietnam and China, fate tempts me one more time. A new bridge is being built that connects to the dirt road to Ma’andi. The bridge is far from ready, but there’s a workers’ bridge that I could fairly easily cross with my bicycle. The other side looks inviting. But then I recall the wise words of mentor Selman: “it’s brutal to lay low, but it’s better than having to stop altogether.” It’ll be better for my body if I just go rest a few days.

At the village of Basa 坝洒 (“dam spill”), I’m haunted by another memory: the place I ate my first real meal at in China! I remember it being very tasty and there was an old man sharing his bottle of apple milk with me. I love flashbacks, they can make me all gooey and I can grow fond of the biggest dump. Somewhere between here and Hekou is also the place where I first fell over into a drinks stand because the sweat was pouring into my eyes.

Restaurant at Basa
The first real meal I had in China at Basa

Later in the afternoon, I start seeing the first Vietnamese trucks. The Vietnamese haven’t changed a thing and are still the most enthusiastic of drivers. Doesn’t matter that they’re steering dangerously overloaded behemoths, upon seeing me, they’ll still jump up and down in their cabin and honk like there’s no tomorrow. Speaking of Vietnamese, I haven’t seen many bilingual signs this time. I clearly remember all signs being in both Vietnamese and Chinese all the way up to Lianhuatan. Do cooler diplomatic relations have something to do with it?

When I finally reach Hekou, it’s already 4:30. I head to the visa office first. They want to know if I have a girlfriend first. It’s too late to get the visa (they walk across the border to get one) and because no-one works on the weekend, I’ll have to wait until Monday. Just my luck. Hekou isn’t a particularly entertaining town if prostitutes and gambling aren’t your idea of amusement. To make matters worse, my favourite juice place has changed ownership and they don’t do Vietnamese ice coffee any more, and the hotel I wanted to check into has been levelled.

Banana trees growing on a bridge
This is what happens when you don’t sweep often enough

Better news is that there’s now a woman selling Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes). They’re of questionable quality. I do meet two fellow bikers from France there, though. They seem to be in the same situation as me and we decide to meet up the next day for a chat. I check in at the Tan Tam Hotel 三晋宾馆 for 70 RMB/night and then go for a Hanoi beer at Vietnam street and a few drinks around town.

Vietnam street at Hekou
Vietnam street 越南街 in Hekou. Try Vietnamese delicacies. The staff sleeps above the diners.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *