With China now a memory and with some dirt firmly embedded in my tyres I can comfortably say that it feels good to be back on dirt roads.
China ended as abruptly as it began. Once across into Laos the motivation to continue the sort of rampant cycling that brought me rapidly south evaporated in the midday heat. And now that I’m in a place where travel is not restricted to a date stamp in my passport I’m sticking two fingers up to the 6/7 hour 120km+ days and instead moseying along at whatever pace I feel like. So the next four months will be spent dawdling and taking the time to bump, rattle and push my way along all the classic dirt roads Laos and Cambodia have to offer.
South of Kunming a lovely couple deemed the slightly breezy conditions too treacherous for me to camp out in and bundled me into their store room. Where it was deemed that the floor was too dusty to sleep on so they went and fetched a door for me to sleep on instead.
In the morning the bike came out from overnight storage and we were back on our way. Off exploring the big wide world once again.
Unfortunately the big wide world didn’t turn up much of interest that day except for this conveniently placed hut. Which, once the resident rat was evicted, made for a cosy night’s sleep sheltered from the wind.
It even came with cycle storage adjacent.
Pushing my way deeper into Yunnan and a forgotten little corner of this country finally the roads quietened.
I had almost forgotten what it feels like to cycle along a really quiet road for more than a few hours. One where you can stop, have a snack, maybe a snooze and listen to the sounds of the place you’re travelling through – running water, birds, people working the fields, kids being kids, leaves rustling in the wind. It’s nice to have a little peace and quiet.
Yunnan is home to over 50% of China’s ethnic minorities and over every hill lies a different tribe. Each with their own unique dress and dialect. I tried to stop and have a wander through as many villages as I could.
Finding twisting staircases
and winding alleyways
leading past doorways to different worlds – some more believeable than others.
Chew and spit. At 10p for two feet sugar cane provides the perfect boost for the long climbs in these parts.
Even better than sugar cane though are Li and his friend. We leapfrogged each other as they went about their morning errands delivering soft drinks to the local shops. Each time we passed a new bottle was ejected from the driver seat window for me to fumble in to a pocket. After not too long I stopped to try to give them back and they invited me for lunch in a typical Chinese stuff everywhere not really sure how anything edible can be produced in here kind of place.
Nearly there. One last camp.
One last rummage for bits and bobs which might soon become scarce on the road ahead.
One last sordid hotel.
And I’m across the border into Laos. Welcome to the jungle…
Despite the gradual changes in China the differences are stark. Houses sit comfortably on spacious plots, villages are tidy and passing locals smile and wave with such regularity that ensuring everyone’s enthusiastic greetings are adequately returned soon becomes exhausting. Laos feels like a whole different world to that I just left.
Tropical flora lines the roads
and everything has an aesthetic worn in feel.
From Luang Namtha, a small town in the hills where I get my first taste of the South East Asian tourist trail, a dusty dirt road leads me to sleepy Xieng Kok and the Burmese border.
The mighty Mekong slips past town and is the principal trade conduit in and out of north western Laos. Cheap consumer goods make their way here from China and opium, heroine and amphetamines find their way out.
My road shrinks to a sandy motorcycle track which weaves its way through thick pristine jungle. Average traffic count, one or two scooters an hour.
It feels good to be back in a land of wonky telegraph poles.
Where obstacles lie in my path
and roadsigns are subject to interpretation regardless of whether you can read the local script or not.
In the muggy heat I ride not much faster than the Mekong’s surging waters on the other side of which lies Mayanmar.
Then the roads get a bit complicated.
“Where are you going?”
“You are going the wrong way!”
“Where are your friends?”
“Oh. Want to come fishing?”
Lin and Lat lead the way on their Chinese scooter. Once everybody is happy that the bikes are suitably well stashed we bound through fields
then into jungle
and down to the river.
We waded upstream and they cast their net, from time to time catching small white bait. “Five year’ ago there used t’ be more, but lot’ people use ‘lectric to catch fish now and people put dirt ‘n river so water dark.”
Lin carries a basket and pouch he made himself. Unlike many who forage in the jungles of Laos Lat and Lin do not need to do this. They do it simply because they enjoy their traditional crafts. In a world rife with conflict between tradition and modernity and where the latter usually wins out it’s beautiful to see these skills being proudly kept alive by the younger generation. The cast net took three weeks to make.
Lin spots some wild veggies on the river banks.
The river makes a welcome change to my usual path.
Once we’re done the day’s catch gets transformed into dinner on open fires at the local Police station (no photos allowed there unfortunately).
In the morning Lat sends me off on a dirt road shortcut back to the Mekong. As with all good shortcuts it quickly turns into a convoluted affair which doesn’t feel like much of a shortcut at all. Loose 20%+ climbs have me out the saddle, pedalling like crazy, gasping in the heat and more often walking.
And there are more river crossings than you can shake a stick of sugar cane at. Some are a fun splash across a stream whilst others require a more concerted effort to cross…
Finally I get back to the banks of the Mekong the sight of which makes me wish I’d packed a raft to drift lazily down to Luang Prabang in.
My guide to the Laoitian back roads is the GT Rider Map. By all accounts it’s the most accurate of the country (Google maps is woeful here) and can be picked up from most of the tourist traps. There’s also plenty of trip reports on the website so you can research road conditions before you get to the fork in the road. Suffice to say most of what I’ve been riding is only accessible during the dry season – November to April.