April 13th – 20th 519km
Right then. Back into China and time to tackle the mountains of Yunnan. We hadn’t exactly been looking forward to this leg of the trip but, one week in, it’s been amazing! We’d been expecting the climbs and the roadworks, of which we’ve had plenty, but even so, we’ve had some of the best days of the trip so far. We enjoyed our previous two legs in China, but the days could be long and monotonous, with little reward for our hard work other than seeing the distance on the speedo at the end of the day. Here in Yunnan, we are cycling harder and climbing higher than we have before, but the landscape is so beautiful and the people so friendly that we finish each day exhausted, but smiling. The past week has felt like a real adventure, giving us a taste for much more to come.
For the first two days riding away from the border, the smooth tarmac and gentle gradient lured us onto the expressway, ignoring the ‘no bicycles’ signs, getting us as far as Menglun. Looking across at the alternative, the small G213 road, and seeing dirt and climbs, we were happy with our choice to get some easy kilometers in before the expressway became a toll road. We still had some ups and some downs, but tunnels and bridges generally smoothed out the gradient. The air was still pretty hazy, the dust and exhaust fumes were the penalty we paid for taking the easy road.
At Menglun, we stayed right next to the river and a large botanical garden, which we thought we’d go and check out as it was a sunny afternoon. Once we got down there, we were reminded we were back in China as the entrance fee was 105 yuan each, over a tenner. No thanks, we sat by the river watching the sunset with a couple of beers instead. It was only afterwards that we realised that the river was actually our old friend the Mekong, and that would be our last time next to it after many a sunset beer in three different countries!
Leaving Menglun, we were forced off the expressway by the first toll gate, so we had no choice but to join the G213. Initially it was all good, following the course of the expressway through a wide valley before it started to climb and we hit the first patch of roadworks. I say roadworks, but for the majority of this road, there isn’t much work going on. It’s just been stripped back to gravel, to be resurfaced sometime in the future. We shouldn’t complain though, as we had dry sunny days. In the rain, and resulting mud, it would be a nightmare to ride.
We went past signs advertising ‘Elephant Valley’ a couple of kilometres ahead. Apparently there are wild elephants in these hills, but I’m sure not many. Far easier to just pay an entrance fee and line up for a guaranteed sighting. Not our cup of tea, but the many tour buses blocking the road and causing tailbacks suggest it’s a popular tourist attraction. Luckily we were able to skip up the outside of the buses, joined by a couple of motorcyclists from Russia, to continue up the valley away from the tourists. We found a guesthouse a little further on, nestled between the hills in a tea plantation, where we stopped for the evening.
The following day, we had a longer day planned, over 100km to get us into Pu’er, the heart of tea growing country. Continuing on G213, we climbed for the first 30km of the day. We were stopped early on at a checkpoint where a couple of soldiers wanted to check our passports. All in order though, visas and entrance stamps legit so they let us go on our way with a thumbs up. We were surrounded by terraced tea plantations throughout the day, a beautiful backdrop even with the haze. We had a nice downhill section before we stopped for lunch at 65km, but then we were straight back into a climb. There came a point when we realised that we weren’t going to be rewarded with another downhill, we were going to be climbing for the rest of the afternoon. Pu’er is quite a large city, sitting up on a high plateau at 1,300 metres. We rolled in after 104km and quickly found a hotel, then a Bank of China to top up our cash supplies. It was a nice city, we wished we had more time to stick around. We had a quick wander around in the evening and found a big shopping centre with a Walmart where we splashed out on a few imported treats.
Leaving the next day, the sun was high in the sky and the haze from the previous days had lifted. Again, we were straight into another climb. It wasn’t too long, but took us to 1,700 metres and onto a ridgeline above a big valley. A nice long downhill followed, with amazing views of the valley and the added bonus of a smooth road, a rare treat on the G213. From the valley floor, we crossed the Kunming expressway, then started to climb again. We finished the day at the top of the climb, at Ning’er, another town sat high on a plateau surrounded by mountains.
After a short flat section heading out of town, we were climbing over those mountains to start the next day, on our way to Tongguan. From the ridge that we reached after about 20km, we were looking down into a deep and spectacular valley. The road wound its way down, all the way down, into a deep river gully, which it followed downstream, losing altitude all the way. We bottomed out at 700 metres, where we crossed over on the river bed as the bridge was being repaired. From there on, we were climbing again. Initially on a very steep rocky section that looked like I had been carved out from a rockface. The gradient eased after the first few kilometers and we started the many switchbacks that slowly gained us back the altitude we’d just lost. All the time, we could see the expressway on the other side of the valley, cruising along in straight line on a nice easy gradient.
Getting close to Tongguan we reached a big tailback. Again we were able to ride up the outside until we reached a truck that was turned 90 degrees to the road. I have no idea how it got into that position, or how it was getting out, but it was causing a big delay. We edged around the back of it, and were able to continue, past the line of waiting vehicles coming the other way.
Soon after this, we passed 9,000km for the trip, another milestone, but the next one will be a big one. It was another afternoon when we realised that we weren’t getting another downhill. The dirt road wound its way up into Tongguan where there was more traffic chaos. In our experience, Chinese drivers are terrible when it comes to waiting patiently. If there’s a blockage, they’ll drive right up to it, using all the lanes, stopping any vehicles coming the other way and generally making any delay much worse. Here, we were able to snake a path through the gridlocked town centre, finding a hotel just as a thunderstorm hits. For the past few nights, we’ve had rain and thunder in the late afternoon, which usually clears quite quickly leaving a nice evening sky.
From a high point of about 1,800 metres just after Tongguan, we had a long downhill into the next valley to start the next day. But this was all on a very sandy and dusty road which made handling the bikes very difficult on a downhill. Our tyres wallowed around as we cornered making it very tricky keeping control if we picked up any speed. Our hands were aching from gripping the brakes for a couple of hours solid downhill to 700 metres. Then we were back into a climb, right back up to 1,700 metres, on gravel most of the way. Again, the hard work on the arms and legs was more than rewarded by the views we had all around us. The mountains are getting taller and more spectacular the further north we go.
We do have a final downhill stretch today, into Mojiang. Just outside of town, we are held up in another tailback from a stretch of roadworks. A single digger is levelling out a lane from the pile of dirt that completely covers the road. There’s no way through until he flattens out an area enough for us to pass. In typical Chinese fashion, the longer we wait, the more vehicles join the line blocking the entire road, making it impassable for anyone coming the other way. It’s great to be on a bike so we can skip past these snarl ups.
In Mojiang we have a day off. There’s not much in town, we’d just done nine days straight cycling, so fancied a day off the bikes. There is a big park and observation area, built exactly on the line of the Tropic of Cancer, which passes through Mojiang. Of course, there’s an entrance fee, so we go and have a look from the outside, and have hours (ok, seconds) of fun stepping into and out of the Tropics.
On our second night in Mojiang, there was another big thunderstorm. But this one brought a lot more rain and lasted for longer than the normal early evening storms. We didn’t sleep too well as we could hear the rain pouring down outside, worried about the state the dirt roads would be in come the morning. Leaving the following day, we had to try and find our waterproof jackets, they haven’t been used for a long time. It’s the first time we’ve cycled in the rain since we were last in China in December. Luckily though, after we set off at 8am, we were only going for about 20 minutes before the rain started to ease off. From here on, the ride to Moshazhen was probably the best day of our trip so far.
We turned off the G213 as we left Mojiang, joining the S218, a more minor road. We were worried what the road surface would be like but, compared to the 213, it was perfect. No roadworks, no dirt, and no traffic! As the sky cleared through the morning, we climbed our way out of town. After about 10km, we rounded a corner and found ourselves high up above a valley, with rice terraces stretching hundreds of metres below us all the way down the mountainsides. The road stayed high and worked its way around the ridges, giving us amazing views in all directions We stopped for loads of photos and then a tea break sitting on a road barrier overlooking the valley. After feeling a bit crap setting off in the rain in the morning, we were both on such a high for the whole day. This is the reason why we wanted to do a trip like this.
We found a little restaurant where we stopped for lunch, then the road started to climb again. This pass took us up over 2,000 metres and into a high valley, full of vibrant green paddy fields and bright white flowers. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we reached the rollover on the road, and started downhill. All the way down, losing 1,400 metres over 30 amazing, effortless kilometres.
After descending off the ridgeline, we were into a new valley, and the landscape felt a little different. The mountains on this side looked rockier and bigger than on the other side of the ridge we’d just crossed. As we continue north, we’ll be getting into some serious mountains, this is just the start. We coasted into Moshazhen, not much of a town but a good place to stop after 82km.
By chance, today also happens to be exactly 3 years on from when we first picked up our bikes. Happy birthday bikeys! What a great day it was. Here’s our route from Mengla to Moshazhen: