We’re here; we made it, the big daddy, the second leg: China. At 5,000 kilometers and after a crazy 12 days of riding since Hanoi, we’ve hit the next of the big cities on our route – Kunming, China. Population: 6 million. Neon lights, friendly people, bike lanes and eerily quiet electric scooters everywhere. Silent killers, those things. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
It was time to leave Hanoi. We’d been there 10 days, recovering, waiting for visas, repairing bikes. More to the point, it was time to leave Southeast Asia. We’d gone an additional 2 weeks and 1,000km beyond our original route and now were behind schedule. We picked a route out of Hanoi that took us north alongside Vietnam’s highest mountains and through a town called Sapa. By going north we knowingly shirked one of the biggest tourist draws in Asia and a World Heritage Site, Halong Bay. We skipped a maybe-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a day’s ride away, because why? Because it was time to go; the road beckoned with promises of grand unpredictability.
Not ten kilometers out of the city center we were already getting excited stares and friendly smiles. We weren’t even out of Hanoi and already we were in no-man’s land, where no other tourist would ever have a reason to be. It’s the rare foreigner that ever exits Hanoi in human form – it’s always done in a bubble of some sort, or with a motor at the least. Hitting the road, we’ve realized, means getting off the track; the ‘tourist track’, which is really more a sparsely dotted map of collection points for foreign travelers. Traveling by bike reminds you that the most important experiences are not actually found at the points, on the track, but during the in-betweens. This is why we won’t likely regret our decision to leave Halong Bay behind, for another time or another life.
The ride to Sapa started out beautiful, and became even more so every day we biked. The riding was tough, but toughness usually has a parallel relationship to beauty, and it balances out. Every day had its lulls, capped by flashes of euphoria -those inexplicable goose bumps you get when you come over a hill to a scene that has you shaking your head and shaking inside, with the feeling that this is it… this is why we’re here.
We crested passes and descended into valleys that were almost painfully gorgeous. The dramatic colors and contours of rice terraces extend all the way to mountain-tops. In that part of the world it is clear that hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years of careful cultivation and human habitation have made the landscape more beautiful than if it hadn’t been farmed at all. This is in stark contrast to the feeling we get when we see most agricultural landscapes back home. The terraces here are perfect, and in seeing them you can feel the heavy hand of man, but they leave you with the notion that humanity in its element is a beautiful thing. And whether I come at this with a bias or not, I’ll suggest that these valleys, left to wild, would not be special, or remarkable, or even especially beautiful.
On the fifth day we climbed Tram Ton Pass – the highest in Vietnam at about 1,900m – and it finally felt like we were in the mountains. High winds and cold rain, hell yes. Dramatic cliffs and tall mountains, we felt like we were closer to the landscapes of home. It’s amazing what the simple sight and smell of a stand of conifers on a mountain can do to your emotions when you’re northern-bred, escaping the tropics of Southeast Asia. If home is where the heart is (which it is), then evidently northern Vietnam can trick the heart.
We descended from the pass, wet and wind-burned, into Sapa, and our happiness died quickly. Some towns give you the feeling that, objectively speaking, the place is a shithole. Sapa was one of those towns at first. We had biked through amazing, desolate H’mong villages for five days to get to this place that was supposed to be a beautiful tourist mecca, so in some ways we expected it to be even better than what we’d seen. But it appeared that tourism had completely eliminated the town’s charm. We were instantly swarmed by H’mong women selling treks to their villages (who on the road had been too shy or angry or something to talk to us) and commission-scammers. People that had abandoned their villages to make a buck off the tourism market of Sapa. And there were westerners, tons of them, feeding the bullshit and making it grow.
A book could be written about the Disneyfication of towns that sell ‘ethnic minority tourism’ and it wouldn’t be a happy one. But we settled into the mountain weather anyway and took a rest day. Met good people, ate good food, and started to wonder whether it was actually the tourists like us that were the ones ruined by the experience of Sapa, and not the other way around.
We stocked back up on the cold weather gear that we’d impulsively sent home on a hot day in Bangkok, a month earlier. The cold surprised us. No matter how long you’ve been uncomfortably hot – months in our case – it only takes a minute to be uncomfortably cold again. But it felt good and we agreed that it was a better state of being, so stocked and fed, we headed for the border. The promised land: real cold, real mountains, really real mountains, a huge country with one language that we could actually have time to learn! Ni Hao…
And then, we were in China. Every first day in a new country is crazy, and China was intimidating on top of it. New foreign characters, everything everywhere new and different, again. A country of 1.3 billion people – a massive scale change. And no English to boot. We biked past the border, into the country, and the things we saw started to confuse us. And as we biked further our confusion grew. We’d be biking through nothing but banana plantations, and then a mini-metropolis would emerge out of the woods, packed with traffic and markets and people. Huge buildings going up that were sure to be quickly filled with thousands more people. We’d roll into these towns dazed. Whaah? Why is this here? Who are these people and where did they come from? What could they possibly do in this place? Why are there so many other residential towers being built and why would that many people move here? Why is it sooo ugly? Northern Vietnam had been a landscape architect’s wet dream, but these towns made the designers in us cringe. The scale of development here is like nothing we’ve ever seen. We passed cities that were constructing enough high rises to fit Berkeley’s entire population. We often heard about China’s rapid growth; that whole cities are being built from the ground up. But there’s no way to feel this kind of immensity without seeing it firsthand.
On our first day we passed a French cyclist going the other way. He was on his way out after three months in China, so we tapped him for advice. He confirmed that Tibet, as we’d suspected, was not going to happen. All of the roads leading to that forbidden province are now stocked with checkpoints, and the guards that man them no longer sleep at night (until recently it had been semi-feasible for bike tourers to evade these checkpoints by biking through them during the night). He also confirmed that camping would be more possible here. It might be technically illegal, but the climate here is more forgiving. It’s also cheaper, more rewarding and much less of a hassle. He told us how he’d been kicked out of hotels that the police didn’t permit to accept foreigners. This sounded interesting, and kind of crazy, until we had the experience ourselves.
On our third day in China we set out for Gejiu, a town that in 2007 Lonely Planet had described as a ‘small alpine town’, listing the population at 35,000. We were surprised, then, to see the skyline of a rising metropolis when we neared. If Lonely Planet was at all right, then the town has literally grown by ten-fold or more in 5 years. As we biked toward town, the sprawling, urban ugliness got thicker and thicker. The streets became more and more clogged by huge and horrible trucks, carrying sand and stone and cement and steel into the city, and other debris – dirt, pig shit – out, while puking thick, black exhaust into our faces, temporarily deafening us with a noise that combined brakes, engines and honking into a screaming pitch as they rolled by. The motorbikes of Vietnam have been replaced by the trucks of China, and often these trucks produce traffic jams that even we, on bikes, can’t squeeze through.
We finally made it in, dazed again, and decided to look for a hotel. The first, no. The second, no again. An English speaker got on the phone and explained. “The police consider you special honored guests, and so would like to see you stay at a nicer hotel.” Amazing, we hardly expected this kind of hospitality. The third hotel looked promising, and then the clerk got on the phone, and that meant no. We finally found one, expensive, but by then it was too late to bike out of the city and find a camp spot.
In the morning we found ourselves sitting in front of a Walmart, happily eating a meager breakfast when a small protest, looking equally as nationalistic as it did subversive, strolled by. After taking some photos and sitting back down to eat, a police woman came up and asked for our passports. We explained our situation, where we were going on the bikes, and then she delivered the most perfect line either of us had ever heard, unwittingly giving us the title to our next blog post. With deep sincerity and nervousness she said, “Please go away; welcome to China.” Run out of town, then, but plenty happy to be heading into the woods.
The woods here are not the woods back home. Humanity is everywhere. Even Northern Vietnam produced a blend of human and non-human nature that for us was a beautiful expression of our place in the world. Here, so far, the opposite has been true. We’ve camped on a road, or in a eucalyptus grove/trash dump/toilet, and that’s the best we can do. We keep promising ourselves that the future will be grander. Less people, more ‘nature’, camping and mountain streams, snow capped peaks. And we’re still doing that today, still believing it to be true.
We arrived in Kunming with mild culture shock. Expecting the same China that we’d seen over the last week, we were surprised to find ourselves on a bike lane for the last 25km into the city with a friendly Chinese cyclist leading us to downtown. And then we were in it, and the city was quiet. Bike lanes, no honking signs, silent electric scooters and quiet buses. Sitting at a large intersection, we felt awkward if we spoke too loudly, even in the midst of heavy traffic. Weird. And then, after a week of being the only western people anywhere, we found our way to a hostel full of coffee and beer drinking ‘falangs’. We rolled our bikes in and walked, covered in dirt from head to toe, through a melee of western conversation. And that, believe it or not, was the biggest source of our culture shock.
We’ve found in Kunming a healthy expat community of climbers, bikers, skiers, IPA drinkers – in short, people like us – and a local population that is quickly evolving into their own blend of east-west sophistication. From what we’ve learned, Kunming is, dare we say it, livable. But we’ve seen two Chinas, two very different realities, and we expect those realities to multiply as we bike north. We’ve seen how massive, formulaic development meets motivated and well-meaning city leadership in an answer to rapid urbanization. Goods and bads, in our eyes, but the scale of it all defies judgment. I guess all we can expect from here on out is to have our minds blown. Just more of the same.