All that stuff the we consume has to be built somewhere!

After the austere beauty of the Tibetan Plateau, we thought the rest of China might turn into a big disappointment.   Not in the least.

How to enjoy cycling ANYWHERE!

Alright, the first few days out of Chengdu were a blur of smoke belching factories and a succession of grubby provincial towns filled with locals hacking and spitting as they went about their business. Even the rural areas lacked charm.   The countryside was mostly a foul smelling place of putrid pigsties and reeking public outhouses catering to the peasants working the fields.  Each day we were subjected to perhaps a thousand deafening horns as vehicles lumbered past.  They clouds hung heavy and the sun barely shone and we both started slipping into a vague depressive state.  But what could we do?  Hop on a bus?  No way!  Here’s what we did:

We held our breath a lot.  We listened to podcasts. We obsessed about our next meal.

It always gets better

And then, quite unexpectedly, it all changed.  The world was beautiful again.  We were pedaling alongside a narrow gorge on a minor road with minimal traffic. The trees were turning a lovely rust, bright orange and deep scarlet. We passed by the villages of the Yi people, one of China’s many fascinating minority groups.  Most women still sport their traditional dress and headgear and life appears not to have quite caught up with the modern era.

Bill Weir of Crazy Guy on a Bike fame had biked here back in 2008 and we were following his route, more or less.  The astonished looks and crowds we drew made us wonder whether any other foreigners had been through since Bill.  In one town the police escorted us right up to our hotel room and then drove us down to the station.  All the officers gathered round to check out the passports.  After spending some time pondering the pages and chattering excitedly, they finally asked where we were from.  Obviously foreign languages are not a high priority in the Chinese education system.

I’ll let the images tell the rest of the story…

Sichuan has lots of beautiful roads like this one–not a whole lot of traffic but lots and lots of ups and downs.
These are the Yi people. They live in mountainous parts of China, Vietnam and Thailand. China’s Yi population is estimated at around 8 million, making it the 7th largest of China’s 55 minority groups.
Use at your own risk. These types of rickety suspension bridges can be seen all over the Chinese countryside. Villagers often live high up on the hillsides in homes teetering precariously on the steep slopes.
This is your typical depressing Chinese village. Pigs roam about freely and chickens feed off the rubbish heap. Larger cities are quite the opposite: impeccably clean thanks to an army of full-time sweepers.
Billiard Boys! These outdoor pool halls are common in rural areas. Lots of fun for men and boys, girls get stuck helping with the cooking.
Life isn’t quite as sweet for these little fellas. They were very curious, coming over to stare at as for at least 10 minutes while I succumbed to a minor meltdown (nothing serious, just tired of the mud and muck and all those HILLS!).
This Yi girl is out fetching firewood. Most villagers in Yi communities can not afford gas for cooking or heating.
Babies are universally adored (and spoiled silly) in China. Doting grandparents can be seen cuddling the tiny tots and catering to their every whim. This child and his mother are part of the Yi minority.
We had some fabulous autumn cycling in Meigu County. Some climbs went up to around 3,000 meters and the air was more than crisp. This was a great stretch of rough road–we were lucky to be invited into the compound of a road maintenance crew to spend the night. We hit the switchbacks just as dusk was nearing and camping options were quite limited.
Autumn cycling is the best.

One stretch of road had been completely destroyed and was just one big mud bath on and off for around 100 kms. FRUSTRATING! I don’t know why the Chinese can’t rebuild their roads in small sections instead of tearing everything up. I know for a fact that this road used to be paved–Bill Weir wrote about it in his CGOAB diary. Oh, well…no use complaining. At least it wasn’t raining.
We got lucky that night and were invited to stay in a local school for Yi children, The teachers seemed very dedicated (2 were actually volunteers) but the school building was pathetic. The place was filthy and looked like a cyclone had hit it. Windows were broken, the roof leaked and we actually got hailed on during the night. Oh well…we were still happy to have shelter and good company for the evening. The teachers even spoke pretty good English so we were able to communicate.
The next morning we passed these Yi people making their way down the mountain. Luckily the mud was almost finished and the top of the pass just a few kilometers away.
Finally we made it to the big town of Jinyang and took the afternoon off. In the morning we discovered a flat–lots of onlookers enjoyed the repair show. People here are much different than in say, Indonesia. No one really tries to communicate with us or even offers to help. They just stare.
We continued with the big downhill all the way to around 500 meters. We hadn’t been that low since Chengdu. Now we were following the Yangtze through some incredibly narrow gorges. People actually live way up on the hillsides–we could see their homes. No roads though, just walking tracks. Definitely not an easy life.
This was the following day’s ride. Some real jaw-dropping scenery and the road mostly just for us.
It just doesn’t get much better than this!
This cycling paradise didn’t last forever. A few hours later we were in something close to hell, spinning our wheels through a 5 kilometer long unlit/unfinished tunnel with water dripping from the ceiling maneuvering our way around bulldozers and construction crews. It was the strangest tunnel I’ve ever encountered. It’s actually a maze of tunnels with roads branching off helter-skelter. It’s a wonder the whole mountain doesn’t collapse. Anyway, the Yangtze stretch was fabulous, so I choose to just block the tunnels from my memory.

For detailed info on the route, check out Bill Weir’s Crazy Guy on a Bike Journal.

Many thanks to Jonathan, Annie and their family for hosting us in Kunming–best place for rest and relaxation in all of China!  We are very grateful for all your help and wonderful hospitality.

The Yi and the Yangtze
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7 thoughts on “The Yi and the Yangtze

  • December 29, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    Beautifull pictures ! Tell me one thing : how do you manage to stay such a long time in China . It seems to me impossible to stay more than one month , with eventually one month extension .

    • December 30, 2014 at 2:56 AM

      Hi Jean-Marc,
      We were lucky enough to pick up 3 month China visas in Kuala Lumpur! I know other embassies are less generous and you have to get extensions which take a lot of time to apply for.

  • January 1, 2015 at 9:39 AM

    OK , very usefull info , thanks and happy new year

  • January 8, 2015 at 3:44 AM

    I wish you will have a great new year !
    Thanks again for showing wonderful pictures !!

    • January 8, 2015 at 7:13 AM

      Hey Garfunkel!
      A wonderful 2015 to you and your family! I hope the girls are still zipping around the neighborhood on their bikes.

      • January 9, 2015 at 4:28 AM

        Yes… They’re still enjoying riding, your adventure encourage them to enjoy riding !
        And two kids miss you so much. Specially Sally told me about you many times. ^^
        My family hope to see you in the future ….
        Have a great time ! Bless you and Eric !!!


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