China | Kunming - Zhaotong - Leshan - Chengdu | 24th August to 3rd September 2015 | 12692km
Kunming was to be the change over point where we adapted the bikes and kit to suit the impending cold months in Central Asia. The Mum's had bought out a few bits from home (cheers Cam, though not for the mirror) and we'd collected the box of stuff we’d sent on to Hugo. Most fortunately, we had the loaned kit we'd happily agreed to ride back to Joe and Carmen (we owe you guys a beer!) - rack top bag, two goose down sleeping bags, full length roll mats and a down jackets. We spent a day fettling the bikes, which were a state from when we’d rolled into Kunming nearly three weeks previously and tried to pack our new collation of feather filled, weather proofed gear into increasingly space starved panniers. Both bikes had their second chain and cassette of the tour and now both sported the knobbly half used Marathon Mondial tyres left behind by some Germans in Bangkok. We acquired two more at ‘you’re in need of these tyres and not in a country that imports them’ prices. Added a 50 lux Busch and Muller dynamo light to Luke’s front end as we’re expecting fewer day light hours, blizzards and tunnels. It's easy to get worked up planning and planning, think of stuff you might need for every eventuality, but there is only so much you can do before you just need to get on with it. Time to go.
Clomping around in our new walking boots and saying final goodbyes, we were more nervous than when we’d originally set off. We decided to ride another 10 days north to Chengdu before getting a train out to the northwest of China, but in hindsight we should have gone directly from Kunming, both feeling ready for the 'next phase'. As is guaranteed after lovingly cleaning everything, as soon as we left it pissed down. China wielded it’s moral bashing hammer and summoned thick gloopy mud, disappearing roads and a succession of the greyest, grimmest towns we’ve been through yet. The local drivers welcomed us back into the fray with a cacophony of blaring horns - impatience is a virtue for Chinese drivers. We were just thinking about how... ‘BEEP BEEEP’. We wanted to say th... 'BEEEEEP'. To say... 'BE BEEEP'. We... 'BEEEEEEEEEEPPP'. Oh bugger it.
A slow 60km clearing Kunming and we were firmly back down to earth after the time spent with friends and family, morale was low. At a small road side shop we stopped for a drink and for a few minutes of being started at. Having finished, we motioned looking for a bin, to which the owner lady looked ambivalent, reluctantly took both bottles and lobbed them in the ditch beside her shop. Luke fell ill after a second day and could barely leave bed for the next 48 hours. We’ve no idea what caused this particular bout of internal pyrotechnics but he was glad to be somewhere with a reasonable toilet. At the risk of mentioning the loos too frequently, the ones Flora braved at Zhaotong bus station do deserve a mention. With no doors and only waist high walls designating which part of the communal defecating channel to take aim at, Flora became acutely aware how well hydrated the lady to her left (upstream) was that day.
We limped another 100km further north, now behind schedule to a point we were getting uncomfortable about visas running out. We needed to take some public transport, which as we’ve said before is unenviable with touring bikes, let alone in China. The language barrier means we are essentially big useless babies trying to communicate that we need two tickets to X and that we need to take those two huge bicycles on your overcrowded bus/train/truck. It can depend on who you’re dealing with but if it's the type that isn't keen on hand signals either, it can be impossible! The nearest bus station was on the other side of at 2300m pass but happily, after an hour grinding away in the morning, a ute stopped and the two chirpy blokes inside were happy to take us up and over. Luke hadn’t eaten in 3 days (yes, same person), it was raining and the road looked to be losing it's battle with landslides, so we were chuffed. After 10 minutes, we'd been through all the Premiership footballers the chirpy blokes could think of, and established that there were no working seat belts in the back. Throwing the truck into a hairpin the chain-smoking driver almost lost it on the mud slicked tarmac. In the few seconds of silence that followed, whilst the driver searched for his dropped cigarette, a loud crack told us the car behind hadn’t faired so well, spinning off into the low wall. This broke the silence as they thought it was hilarious. A few more seconds later, post hysterics, the driver put his, working, seat belt on.
We did make it to Zhaotong in one piece and the first unenviable task was to brave the local train ticketing office. The Chinese are numerous and mobile - you have to book tickets on popular routes very early. With the help of a translator who we called with the phone of a lady in the queue with us, we came away triumphantly with the next available tickets from Chengdu to Urmuqi in just over a weeks time. Through a series of fortunate encounters with English speaking locals, including one extremely helpful policeman named Allen, we also made it onto a bus headed to Leshan the following day - another fine achievement! The bus stopped for less than a minute on the side of the freeway and was mercifully big enough for the bikes to be crammed in underneath with minimal hassle. In Leshan, known as the place for 24hr visa renewals, we had to stay in a hotel legitimate (expensive) enough to register us with the PSB. A day before expiry we were stamped in for another 30 days to a country we were quite keen to leave asap.
Luckily, Leshan’s star attraction, The Big Buddha, was awesome. We paid the tiny entrance fee, climbed the steps and were almost the only people there, gazing down on the 233ft stone carving from the Tang Dynasty. Did we bush. It was a public holiday and we’d been warned not to go near the place, so we looked it up on google. No we didn’t because you can’t use google. In the end we made do with a fine impression from a local. From there it was a long, flat 170km days ride into Chengdu, Sichuan province, home of spicy foods, a few days ahead of our train.