Yúnnán Province

Back in Chengdu we once again entrusted our bikes to the care of China’s cargo train company to send them to Kūnmíng, known as the “City of eternal Spring” for its equable climate and our base in the Yúnnán Province!

Chinese Lantern

In the meantime we shipped ourselves to Lìjiāng, a truly time-locked little village in  the province’s northwest. The traditional old town is a maze of cobbled streets between rickety wooden buildings and is dissected by a web of gushing canals that once brought the city’s drinking water and are now the source for a gaudily colored flowerage. Besides the five millions of tourists that are flooding the town every year, the town is mainly inhabited by the Naxi ethnic minority, an ancient nomad tribe that had developed its own pictographic writing 1000 years ago, which is still in use for some traditional literature. We will keep Lìjiāng in good memory for the hearty welcome we got at the lovely family-run hostel we stayed in, and the boozy, plum-schnaps soaked evening we spend with the whole family.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

At the Edge

Close to Lìjiāng lies the Tiger Leaping Gorge. With 16km length and a giddy 3900m from the waters of the Jīnshā River to the snow-capped mountains of Hābā Shān it’s one of the world’s deepest gorges and another highlight on our China top sight list. So we packed our imaginary backpack and were setting off for a multi-day hike on a narrow trail, rock-hewn between steep, black cliffs and lofty crags with the raging stream a thousand meters down.

Hänschen klein..

According to the legend a tiger once jumped across this rippling waters to escape an imperial hunting group, hard to believe since the stream is 50m wide with a current so strong, that it killed most of the heroes who ever tried to defeat it with a boat. Sculptured by the blind forces of nature over thousands of years, the scenery is truly magnificent and we were feeling utterly exhilarated while enjoying a well-earned beer at the terrace of the Half-Way Hut, watching the fading sunrays dancing between rock needles veiled in clouds, bearing resemblance to gigantic broken teeth.

On the Way to Laos

Nearly tropical Vegetation

While we were enjoying some of China’s nature treasures, our bikes had safely arrived in Kunming. And after some serious (but ephemeral) cleaning, we were ready to finally set off on our bikes again, heading south to tackle the last 700km to Laos! The road lead us through soft valleys along the vast tea and banana plantations around Pu’er, a region with nearly tropical vegetation and extremely humid weather conditions that lead to a thick fog cloud that is enshrouding the world every morning, leaving a fine film of dew on literally everything. But therefor it provides the ideal climate for the famous Pu’er tea, which we – being old tea freaks – of course tasted thoroughly. Unfortunately our laptop didn’t like the tea sample Gui was feeding him with. Typical Chinese style, our first requests for help were vehemently “Meo Meo!” rejected, but by plain luck we eventually got help by some young backyard tinkerers who replaced the keyboard, even if it meant that we had to saw out some parts ^^ It’s thanks to them that we are now able to write you these lines 🙂

Sichuān Province

Long LakeOne of Sichuān’s star attractions is the stunning World Heritage Site of Jiŭzhàigou National Park. Admittedly the countless bluer-than-blue lakes its rushing waterfalls paired with the blazing autumn colors contrasting with the turquoise waters backed by snowy mountains make the scenery of this valley outstanding.

But with more than 2 Million visitors per year swarming along the well-maintained boardwalk trails, hundreds of tour buses that line up all the way up to the peak and a village that has more resemblance with Las Vegas than the region’s original nine Tibetan villages it’s named after, it feels more like Disney Land than a nature preserve. Along with the horrendous entry fee and the exorbitant price for a bed in a smelly, overfilled dormitory that is so humid that socks don’t even dry over night, our stay at the Jiŭzhàigou National Park was overshadowed by the extreme commercialization of this precious nature site. Exploitation of this kind is unfortunately seen all over China… But by climbing over some barriers that block abandoned boardwalks you can find some peaceful remote trails even at the most crowded places 🙂

Chengdu

After the Jiŭzhàigou valley, the land is descending into a wide, far warmer, basin around Sichuān’s capital, Chengdu. Thanks to Lukas, a bike follower we had met at the Pamir Highway, we had the contact of some Europeans sharing a flat here, who were hosting us in their glass winter garden on the roof top at the 7th floor, awesome view and entertaining evenings included 🙂

Bamboo BattleChengdu is famous for its Giant Panda Breeding Station where you can catch a glimpse of nearly 50 laid-back giant pandas and their far more active relatives, red pandas, in their spacious, carefully designed enclosures. It’s a real miracle how these lazy and clumsy creatures survive in free nature while spending most of their days masticating bamboo, of what they can only digest 17% !!

Besides of the pandas, Chengdu has not so much to offer except of dozens of flashy shopping malls and one of China’s only Decathlon outdoor shops. No question that we spent half a day there to get a much longed-for replacement for Martina’s multi-patched pants that were slowly falling into pieces. In one of those numerous malls we run into Marianne and Tom, a Swiss couple we had last seen in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, thousands of kilometers from here! The world is so small 🙂

Lèshan

72m TallFor us, Chengdu was a base for forays into China’s southwest. Equipped with borrowed backpacks our first trip destination was Lèshan, home of the serene, 1200-year old Grand Buddha, carved into a red sandstone cliff, overlooking the river and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. At 71m tall with 8.5m long toes, he’s definitely big enough to give you a Lilliputian feeling! And as big was the crowd queuing up for the steep, winding stairway that leads from its imposing head all the way down along his body’s giant magnitude.

(Traveller tip: Lèshan is the easiest place for extending your China visa. They issue it in two days, time enough for a visit of the Grand Buddha. Make sure to check-in at a hotel before heading to the Public Security Office)

Émei Shān

Green BridgeClose to Lèshan lies Émei Shān, one of China’s four most famous Buddhist mountains. There we found fabulous forested mountain scenery dotted with ramshackle wooden temples and hordes of greedy macaque monkeys demanding tribute for safe passage. As we were hiking along pathways lined with fir, pine and cedar trees and were climbing thousands of stone steps along lofty crags and mist-shrouded precipices, we were truly feeling like in one of those mystic black ink drawing that we all associate with ancient China.

StoicismUnfortunately also this once so holy place couldn’t escape the omnipresent commercialization and when we were stopping at dusk at one of the monasteries – freezing and completely soaked by the constant rain – they refused to let us sleep together with all the other Chinese hikers in one of the dormitories (“for security reason”). Instead the ripped us off by forcing us to pay the triple normal price for a moldy, drafty double room.

Sometimes we really have the feeling for most of the Chinese we are not much more than walking dollar bills. Together with the fact that the Chinese truly don’t share the same common sense with us, this turns our journey in China into a real test for our patience. To give you a little sample: We walked into a train ticket shop. This is a little booth that is solely selling train tickets. We showed the guy behind the desk a paper with our destination written in Chinese, the train number and the departure time and still it’s impossible to purchase two train tickets. He was simply putting us off by either pretending to don’t understand – what else could we possibly want than buying a train ticket?! – or by shouting “Meo, Meo!” (meaning something like “we don’t have” or more likely “F*** Off”), a phrase we’ve definitely heard too often so far. This game continued until we finally found a translator who does nothing else than showing him the same paper but out of a sudden he is willing to cooperate!

But at least our night in the Buddhist monastery found a happy end due to the electric heating blankets they have here everywhere instead of a proper heating or an isolation, that turned the clammy bed into an oasis of soothing warmth for our tired limbs.

Bonus Material

Greedy monkeys are suddenly no more cute when they hear the rustling of a plastic bag…


Xīnjiāng and Gansu Province

Wood CarverSituated at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar has been a major Silk Road hub bristling with activity for more than 2000 years and is still a center of regional trade and cultural exchange in China’s westernmost Xīnjiāng province. Central Asian culture is still very much alive in this Uighur homeland, from the irresistible smell of lamb kebab to the sound of the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, in “China’s Turkestan” craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel in the small alleys, traders haggle over deals in the boisterous bazaars and donkey carts still trundle their way through the crowds.

Chinese Fondue

After the Pamir Highway with all its deprivations, Kashgar seemed for us like a food paradise 🙂 We spend several days strolling through its overflowing night market offering numerous types of kebab, fried dumplings, bubbling vats of goat’s head soup and all different kind of spicy noodles.

Lanzhou and Bingling Si

As we have only one month visa for China (with the hope for getting a one month extension) we chose to don’t cross the vast desert, but instead sending our bikes via cargo train to Lanzhou, Gansu’s province capital and around 3000 km away. (Shipping the bikes was an unexpected convenient procedure since they came with a big van to our hostel to pick up the bikes). Unfortunately we couldn’t ship ourselves with the train as well and therefore had to take a bus which took – thanks to China’s Golden Week holiday where whole China is on travel – believe it or not 72 hours!

Praying ZoneAfter spending some recreation days here to recover from the nightmare bus trip, enjoying a walk along the famous Yellow River and strolling in the park watching locals having dance classes, as well as visiting our first “real” Chinese temple, we were finally setting off with our bikes southwards direction Chengdu. And to give you an idea about China’s dimension, simply leaving Lanzhou, which is a rather small city with a population of only 2.17 Million, it took us more than half a day of fighting our way outwards through 35km of confusing suburbs and endless industrial areas before we eventually let “civilization” behind us and started slowly making our way up the spurs of the East Tibetan high plateau.

Potato terraces

Already at our first night in the wild we got a foretaste of how difficult communicating with locals gonna be as we, despite our Point it picture dictionary and smartphone translator, completely failed to make a family in a small village understand that we would like to pitch our tent in their garden. In the absence of any alternative we spent a lousy night right next to the street and the next morning welcomed us with the next pleasant surprise when ten Chinese were staring at us as we opened tour tent. They were just sitting around our tent without uttering a peep, simply watching us having breakfast, packing our tent and getting ready for the day. And this incident shouldn’t be the last on of this kind on our journey through China…

Bingling Si Big BuddhaBiking up and downhill through vast potato terraces, we reached the Bingling Si Buddha caves, our first stop on our Gansu highlight tour, a collection of more than 180 sculptures and niches carved by sculptors dangling from ropes into the porous rock of steep canyon walls, surrounded by the waters of the Yellow River reservoir and hemmed in by a ring of dramatic rock citadels.

Labrang

Gold-Roofed Temples

150km further south and deep inside the bleak landscapes of the high plateau, the next highlight was waiting for us: the Labrang monastery! The Tibetan monastery is a broad complex of golden-roofed temple halls housing dozens of extensively decorated golden Buddha statues illuminated in a yellow glow by strong-smelling yak-butter lamps, hundreds of living quarters for about 1800 monks and an endless line of squeaking prayer wheels (3km in total length) with an omnipresent deep throb of the Tibetan trumpets resonating from the surrounding hills. And as we were wandering in the endless maze of the the mud-packed walls, sharing the holy kora path with dozens of Tibetan pilgrims, listening to the throaty sound of sutras being chanted behind wooden doors, we were really soaking up the esoteric atmosphere of this mystique place.

Langmusi

Enjoying his VillageRight at the border between Gansu and Sichuan province, high on the East Tibetan plateau, we spend some days in the small village of Langmusi. Nestled among steep grassy meadows covered with praying slips, crumbling stupas, piles of mani stones and snow-clad peaks, the village is home to hundreds of young monk students who fill the alleys with robes in all different kind of dark red. Countless red and white monastery buildings, golden-roofed temples and multicolored praying flags flapping in the wind are spread al over the village. And the mesmerizing sound of chanting monks is ever-present, especially when they are all gathering at twilight in the big temple hall to pray together with the numerous Tibetan pilgrims.

High PlateauThe climate at this high plateau is hard and winter is coming early as we experienced firsthand. As soon as the sun sinks, temperatures are dropping significantly. Already in October nights are freezing cold, leaving the golden rolling hills (and our tent) with a sparkling cover of frosty rime in the next morning. Together with most of the local nomads who were folding up their yurts and herding their cattle to warmer regions, we were therefore heading further south, direction Sichuan and Jiŭzhàigōu, China’s most famous national park!