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Nr.31 – China – Yunnan – The Gate to Southeast Asia

Dec 7, 2014 | Asia, Blog, China

Although the road was exhaustingly strenuous due to the endless steep hills,
the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The mountains were blanketed lavishly with
green vegetation and the fields spread across the landscape in a myriad of lovely colors.
Perfectly integrated into the checkered landscape were tiny adorable villages. People were
working in the fields, in the courtyards and on the streets. They were bringing in the harvest
from the fields, preparing it or taking it to the market; there was untold life in the narrow streets.

The temperature was perfect – the first time in ages.

I arrived at a barrier on the road, the gate to a temple complex – Shibaoshan – and spent
the night in the cashier’s hut. Unfortunately, I was unable to cheat my way past the entrance fee.

The next morning was wonderfully cool, and the landscape was draped with curtains of fog.
The forest was delightfully enchanting and I had it all for myself. Some of the temple facilities
were located deep in the forest. I took the time to spend several hours in the complex which
was widely branched and met a Swiss couple as well as 2 German backpackers around midday.
Together we walked cross-country to Shaxi.

Shaxi was a village like many others; at least, that’s how I would describe this little settlement.

It is mentioned in the guide book “lonely planet” and, because of that, it had more western
tourists than I had seen somewhere else in China up to now. For me it was a wonderful
opportunity to engage in conversation, even though I wasn’t able to find anything very
special in the village itself.

I felt sorry for the residents of the village, because there was lodging, cafes and souvenir
stands everywhere; it was no comparison with Lijiang, but regardless, it had become far too
much of a tourist town. I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of the old people, who grew up
there and would also die there. Yes, the times are changing, but somehow it must have been
a shock for the people who live there when the town was suddenly overrun with so many westerners.

It is a problem that I have fought with for many years, because even I leave my footprints
behind me and, with them, I change cultures by visiting the world and satisfying my own curiosity.

Slowly but surely, I rolled further southwards. The prices became gradually cheaper.
I could often stay overnight extremely inexpensively and the rooms were considerably
more comfortable than those in the provinces that lay behind me. Suddenly, I could sleep
anywhere and no one said “mei you” at the hotel doors. The toilets were now integrated into
the hotel complex, sometimes even in the rooms, and I finally had hot showers. They still had
key problem though.
Camping became more and more difficult in the very populated areas.

On the other hand, the food became increasingly worse. In the entire Yunnan Province,
when I entered a restaurant, I was taken to the fridge where I pointed at what I wanted.
When I selected several different kinds of vegetables, they would tell me that it doesn’t
go together, but I was never offered alternative suggestions. With that, the culinary part
of the trip through China was somehow at an end, because usually, the same things were offered.

I got either fried eggplant or tomatoes with eggs, and together with that, always rice. But I could
always have as much rice as I wanted. Now I had to spice my own noodle soup for breakfast;
but since I didn’t recognize the spices, and always tried to avoid glutamates, almost nothing
tasted good anymore. That was sad. I’ll not forget the delicious Chinese food in the other
provinces very quickly.

From then on, the people drank a lot of green hot tea instead of only hot water. Frequently, it was
very strong and extremely bitter. Sugar was never served with it.

I saw sweet desserts for the first time in a marketplace; even if you could buy cake or pastries
somewhere, the Chinese didn’t really consider desserts to be of any value. The chocolate
and ice cream in China taste so bad that they are nearly inedible. Sweet anything seems to
have no place of significance for the Chinese palate.

Dali – a well-known city in the heart of Yunnan. The masses of Chinese tourists there were
absolutely unbelievable and, for that reason I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. I simply took
a break there and the reason was that I met two cyclists there – Sebastian from Germany
and Felipe from Brazil. We had a lot to tell each other because they had cycled some of the
same routes as I. I need to mention that both of these guys started in the Spring of this year
– a year later than I.
Felipe often took the bus and the train and Sebastian selected a significantly shorter route
than I had taken. Also, in Turkey, they had a really good experience. It seems that all male
cyclists are enthusiastic about Turkey, but Felipe asked me right away how I felt about that
country, because he figured it must be very difficult for a solo female cyclist. Sebastian was
on his way to Hanoi, while Felipe and I rode together toward Laos. His end goal would be
East Timor, although both he and I were already thinking about extending our trips.

I had a great time with Felipe. He was only 23, but that didn’t matter. He was super nice, witty,
and most of all, not negative; we took a break whenever possible and simply enjoyed being
on the road. We talked about everything imaginable and it was never boring being together
with him.
Now and then, we would allow trucks to pull us uphill to make the endless mountains
easier to cross. Regardless of everything, we were frequently able to cycle more than
1000 meters in altitude every day.

We rode southward through Weishan, a nice little village south of Dali. Wherever it was possible,
we avoided the main highways.

Nearly every evening we had a personal visit by the police and they checked our passports
directly in our hotel rooms. Initially, they were always very stiff and military like, but they often
became very tame quickly when we put them in their place.

Alcohol began to play a more important role. The people were drinking everywhere and
most people were also smoking continuously – sometimes, they even smoked water pipes.
Felipe was invited frequently to smoke a cigarette or to drink alcohol, but I never was.
Most likely, it is because Chinese women neither smoke nor drink. The difference in how
the men approached Felipe was immense. With me they were always very shy, but with
Felipe they were usually very open and even a bit too pushy, so that it almost got on ones nerves.

Felipe had studied 2 years in Germany, and besides that he had complained about the
German food, we talked for a while about how he had observed that there was so much
distance between the members of German families.
He said “I found it strange that my friends were greeted with the same handshake from
their parents when they entered the house as I was as a stranger.” “I also found odd
that the children wanted to leave their parent’s home as soon as they could. In Brazil,
the children all want to stay with their parents as long as possible – even when they can
afford to move out. In Germany, the emotional warmth, the love and the togetherness
in the family are lacking.”

I thought a long time about what Felipe had said, because what he said was basically true.
When I think about many other cultures where the family plays such an important role,
in our society we are comparatively very cold emotionally in our families. The question
I have is “why is that true?” Is our love to our family members less or do we simply have
more inhibitions in demonstrating it.

Cultural exchange is always an interesting topic and it often motivates me to think.
During my trip, again and again I try to understand, to question why I do this and attempt
to listen to my inner self – to adjust to the surrounding environment, to adapt to new behavioral
patterns or to see things from another perspective.

This trip has been a continual learning process and, although it is impossible to find many
answers to the questions that face me, such a trip is far more educational than sitting on a
chair for 20 years in a school. You learn about others, but also a lot about yourself – not to
mention what you learn about history, politics, geography, biology, languages and much much
more, which is automatically gleaned in new knowledge  without having to leaf wearily through
school books and having to learn something by memory that you didn’t want to learn at all.
This is especially true when you can learn something by traveling through completely different
cultural circles and are able to compare everything with everything else that you have encountered.

To some degree, the daily pedaling is also similar to meditation, but also a daily routine
and, of course, it has a certain rhythm – like the daily trip to the office; the only difference is
that every day you don’t plan to do the same thing.
Instead, you are always moving into new territory.

Sometimes, people ask me how I can tackle this kind of life – how I find my way,
how I communicate, how I can struggle through the day, but especially how I can motivate
myself to continue. I’ve thought about what drives me many times. It’s clearly the curiosity,
the fascination, the feeling of freedom. I have to do it without a few luxuries, but in return I
receive a lot, so it is easy for me to gladly do without some things.

And now I can sarcastically ask the same question to others who are stuck in their daily routines.
“What motivates you to go to the same office day in and day out? To be under pressure to be
productive and then be rewarded with a nice home, to sit in front of the TV with your family
and be able to drive once each year to Italy in an expensive car?”

The priorities are different, but it is basically the same. Everyone plugs ahead as best he
or she can. I would say that the demands required of everyone in our society today,
for example, the necessity to earn money every day to enjoy a certain degree of luxury,
to be accepted socially, and so on, are really no easier than the obstacles I have to
overcome each day. The difference is that I find my daily “struggle for survival” far more
exciting and, above all, it is laden with far less stress.
Because of that, I guess it is much healthier in the long run.

I began to hear a new word more frequently. Instead of “mei you” it was often
“ting bu dong” (I don’t understand anything). It became so bad that when we would walk
into a shop, before we said anything at all, we would hear “ting bu dong.” Again and again,
now it was “ting bu dong.” Basically it was the same as before with “mei you.” The people
didn’t feel like dealing with us and many of them were also very shy. Although, once the ice
was broken, they even wanted to help.
But China has a long way to go before it could be described as a hospitable country.

We turned onto small roads that were far off the main highways and the route was indescribably
beautiful. The fog hung on the mountainsides until late in the morning and there were tea plantations
as far as the eye could see. There were little villages everywhere and we rode up and down and
up and down. We had landed on a rollercoaster route with unending curves. But it was heavenly
and worth every drop of perspiration

Felipe decided to cycle the direct route on the G213 in the direction of Laos, but I wanted to
continue on the back roads, so with that, we separated after spending an entire week together.

Even though it was brutally exhausting, the road was also magnificent. From a lofty 1800 meters,
it dropped in a single downhill ride to 500 meters only to climb back up again in miserable
heat to 1500 meters. The roads – or should I call them trails? – branched off again and again,
and once more I had difficulty attempting to figure out on my map which road I should take.
As always, asking others didn’t help at all and the question about whether it is
going up or down was something they didn’t seem to understand at all.
Everything was “ting bu dong“.
The asphalt changed to gravel and mud, and the tea plantations were
transformed into jungle. There were small homes standing alone on the
side of the road, chickens squawking und chirping crickets.
It was hot and humid, but somehow, it was wonderfully beautiful.

Suddenly, my foot began to hurt. Although riding the bike was still possible, I could barely walk.
With that development, I decided to take a day off in a larger town hoping the pain might subside.
It was overstressed; at least I couldn’t seem to explain it any other way.  But it was no surprise,
after all the thousands of kilometers I had come over sticks and rocks and through endless
mountain chains. Without a doubt it had truly been an experience, but there had been nothing
easy about it at all.

One thing that irritated me no end was the incessant laughing of the people. One person would
greet me with “Hello“ and the entire village would laugh. I would go into a shop and attempt
to explain something and what did the people do? They laughed. Everywhere, the people
were laughing about me or the situation I was in. Sometimes, I would laugh with them,
but sometimes I would provoke them and laugh at them as well, and sometimes I would
simply ignore them. It often depended on my mood at the time, of course it is not everyday just

I arrived in a small village and was totally exhausted after a long strenuous day. It was already
dark and I was hungry as a bear. I tried to find an inexpensive place to stay and went from
one hotel to the next. But the hotel owners had spoken to each other across the road
so that no one was willing to offer me a lower price. Eventually, I checked into a little hotel
and was suddenly surrounded with umpteen people, loudly babbling and asking endless
questions that I couldn’t understand.

Of course, there was no way for the people to know that I had spent the day riding my bike
in sweltering heat and had not had anything to eat yet, but it is the way they are that makes
everything so stressful. So, as always, the people would chip away at me, laughing,
“you’re not allowed to do that”, and “that doesn’t work”, and so on ad infinitum.
It was impossible for me even to find time to go to the toilet without a dozen people
wanting something from me, or staring at me or the police wanting to see my passport.
The entire village was in brouhaha and I was in the middle. I was photographed often,
with the daughter, with mom, with the son, the girlfriend and dozens of others. But to my
great amazement, I was offered supper free of charge.  Wow, that was something really
special in China. That was as rare as finding a 4-leaf clover.

There were villages where I would greet the people with a friendly “Ni hao” and no one would react.
They would look at me like some kind of alien, but no one would return the greeting. Then,
there were other villages where the people were suddenly very friendly and would say “Hello”
to me without my expecting it. Frequently, there were no more than 5 kilometers between them.
I found that somehow very strange.

One thing is for certain – in these backwoods areas, which I had been riding through most of the time,
the people are simply overwhelmed with my presence. Almost no foreigners pass through
these towns. Children are often afraid of me, which I find sad, because above all else,
I always find my encounters with children to be very meaningful.

More exotic fruits and vegetables I had never seen before and strange-looking pieces of meat
were to be found frequently now on the side of the road and in the small restaurants. But spiders
and snake meat or fried grasshoppers were not to be found. Although there was one time when
I saw the first maggots in a fridge and was asked if I wanted to order them.

One morning, a monstrous spider had parked on my hotel room window and sweetened my
view to the outside. I hate spiders – even three times worse when they are as large as my hand.
Often I would see maggots crawling around in the brown broth in the primitive squatting toilets
and I could watch wonderfully how everything below me was in constant motion. Encounters
with rats and mice became a daily experience. Pigs and water buffalos were taken for walks
in the streets, and to my surprise, I even saw many people driving goats before them.

Banana plantations altered the image of the landscape and also the architecture changed
radically from one kilometer to the next. The homes were now more than one level high
and made of wood, whereby the ground floor was often an open space where people stored
their things and sat during the midday heat in the shade. They were very beautiful and the
roof had tiny shingles, and it would reach far down almost to the ground. Corn cobs were
hanging out to dry on wooden beams. On the road, rice and tea were being dried.

The first Southeast Asian architectural influence became visible. Golden curved gates
beautified the entrance to the villages. It wasn’t much further now to Laos. The road I had
chosen paralleled the Laotian border. I could sometimes hear the sound of another language
and occasionally, I discovered pockets of people, who were beautifully dressed in
traditional clothing.

After leaving Shangri La, the gate to the Yunnan Province, I saw school children walking home
along the side of the road and realized for the first time that in all the thousands of kilometers
I had ridden through China, I had never seen a single school child.

The last few days before crossing the border, I was confronted every evening with
Karaoke yowling. Somewhere, someone was always singing who then stumbled afterwards
drunk as could be out of the Karaoke bar onto the street, frequently even before it had become dark.

Snakes crossed the trail in front of me again and again – in all colors and patterns.
Unfortunately, most of them had been flattened by the vehicles on the road and were sticking
to the asphalt, but sometimes I could watch in fascination as some of them disappeared
elegantly into the bushes.
There were butterflies as far as the eye could see. They glistened beautifully as they fluttered
through the sky in all different colors and sizes.

I saw a man in a wheelchair, which made it clear to me how few handicapped people I had
seen in China. I rarely saw sick people – only many old people.

My last evening in China. I found it somehow sad to have to leave this land,
although I knew the time had come.

I spent nearly 4 months, cycled 5,900 kilometers and climbed approximately 52,000 meters
of altitude in China. In reality, it was a very long time, but somehow much too short, because
regardless of everything I experienced there, I still don’t have the feeling that I truly
understood very much about the Chinese culture. It is very sad, above all because I had
many questions on my heart that I would have liked to ask, but couldn’t, simply because
it was impossible to communicate with the people.

The country itself was extremely exhausting, demanding, frustrating, but despite everything,
it was super exciting, glamorous and wonderfully beautiful at the same time. It was a
country like India, simply unique, and you either love it or you have tremendous difficulties
with it, but all in all it was something very special.

Unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered for me, as with many other countries
that I had visited previously on my journey.

For example, the social position of women is not entirely clear to me. There are women in
every profession, including road building, as taxi drivers, in banks and, of course, in the fields
and in the household. Even men are responsible for taking care of the children, working in the
fields and cleaning in the restaurants. Despite everything, I have the impression that a woman
had to do more than the men, who often stood around and watched when his wife was working.
When I would ask women for directions, or the price of goods, they would often look ashamed,
turn to their partner, utter a nervous laugh and hope for support from their husbands.

The interaction between the sexes was never outwardly strange. Except for the loud taking
and continual shouting that I mentioned several times previously. Caresses are never
exchanged in public, at most the rich Han Chinese, whom I saw holding hands in Lijiang or Dali,
but in the villages I never saw people caressing each other.

I found the love the grandparents showed to their grandchildren to be extremely obvious.
Above all, I saw old men lovingly cuddling their grandchildren in their arms very often.

I also have the impression that little boys are extremely spoiled in comparison to the girls.
Often the boys would demand what they wanted, bossing their mothers around with kicking
and screaming whenever they could.

I also find the “one child” policy to be confusing because there seem to be so many exceptions
to the rule that I can’t detect any real concept about it. The minorities are partly excluded
from the ruling, but since the minorities in China have a poor standing, I find that to be
very contradictory.

Since I actually cycled only in sparsely populated areas, also in the poorer regions
of the country, of course I have no overall picture of the country that so many different
facets has to offer because of the extremely differing cultural groups. The rich East is
surely a very different world than the one I was able to experience.

I found it very enjoyable that I was never in a situation where I felt like I was in danger
because of the men. Also, with regards to safety, not one time did I have the feeling that I
might be mugged or that my things might be stolen. Often, I would park my bicycle somewhere
and never worried about it.

Interestingly, the Chinese don’t seem to trust each other at all, because they lock everything
up and bar the doors. Also, when you go shopping, you are watched carefully – even followed
through the aisles and additionally, you are controlled with installed cameras.

The Chinese are curious – very curious. When I was sitting somewhere, was making notes
or reading, or opened my bike bag or left the bicycle standing on the side of the road,
someone would come who curiously looked very carefully at everything to make sure
he or she didn’t miss anything.

In places other than Uyghur and Tibet I was never invited into someone’s home. One is simply
not invited here. And there was not a single time when someone asked me if they could give
me a ride, not even when I was sitting somewhere on the side of the road or out of breath
and gasping my way up a steep mountain – something that happened several times daily
on my trip in other countries.

All things said, I’m happy to say that I cycled the entire distance through the country,
unlike other cyclists who took a shortcut on the long stretches through the desert with a bus.
The landscapes and cultural groups were so immensely different, that it could hardly
have been more suspenseful, even when occasionally there were times when I was fed
up because the trail seemed to be endless. But somehow you simply get a different impression
of the vast distances when you have to conquer it all on your own.

If possible, I will attempt to get another visa to China and visit the eastern regions of the country.
Although, for now, I’ve had enough of the “mei you” culture and look forward to friendlier people in Laos.

Goodbye China! I hope we see each other again soon.


  1. Hi there! Thank you very much for taking the time to write about your trip and for putting up such beautiful pictures! I am planning on biking in China next summer and your blog is really helpful . I was just wondering what kind of map did you have and what was the highlight of your biking experience in China?

    • Hi Claudelle,
      I used Chinese paper maps, but your phone should do.
      My highlights? The mountain areas were the best I think….
      Read all my posts and I guess it will tell you where I liked it most.
      Best greetings Heike


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  1. Hi there! Thank you very much for taking the time to write about your trip and for putting up such beautiful pictures! I am planning on biking in China next summer and your blog is really helpful . I was just wondering what kind of map did you have and what was the highlight of your biking experience in China?

    • Hi Claudelle,
      I used Chinese paper maps, but your phone should do.
      My highlights? The mountain areas were the best I think….
      Read all my posts and I guess it will tell you where I liked it most.
      Best greetings Heike


Submit a Comment

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


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