Saturday, 22 June 2013

Yunnan Province, China 21.01.13–30.01.13



[The road to Lijiang]

Yunnan is a remarkable place. Sharing borders with Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Tibet, a region comparable in size to Germany is drained by six major rivers including the Yangtze and Mekong. In the north, Yunnan’s snowy mountain peaks reach almost 7,000 metres. In the south the Tropic of Cancer runs across dense tropical terrain. One day you could struggle for breath visiting a Tibetan monastery at altitude; the next, take an elephant ride through the jungle. What is more, 50 per cent of China’s bird and mammal species are found in Yunnan and is, apparently, home to more flowering plant diversity than the rest of the northern hemisphere put together. Of China’s 30,000 varieties of higher plants, 17,000 are found in Yunnan; and let’s not forget the fungi – Yunnan boasts 800 varieties of wild mushroom. The ethnic makeup of the province is just as diverse: Of China’s 56 recognised ethnic minorities, 25 are found in Yunnan including the Yi (former slave owners) The Wa (former head hunters), Tibetan, Hui (practitioners of Islam), Musuo of Lugu Lake (a matriarchal society) and Naxi (users of the Dongba script; the only pictograph script in use in the world today). Languages spoken are categorized into four groups: Tibeto-Burman languages; Tai languages; Tai Nua or northern Lao dialect; and Hmong-mien languages. Rice, Tea, tobacco, coffee, corn, barley, wheat, rapeseed, soy beans, sweet potato, sugar cane, cotton, and bananas are all cultivated in the region. Of all provinces in China, Yunnan has the largest reserves of zinc, lead, tin, cadmium, indium, thallium, and crocidolite. With an economic growth rate of 13.7 per cent in 2011 it is still considered one of China’s least developed regions with relatively high rates of poverty, and is presently considered the main source of plague in China. What is most remarkable of all however, is Wikipedia’s ability to make it look like I have done my research.

I had crossed into Yunnan at Lake Lugu which straddles the border with neighbouring Sichuan; staying at Lugu for a couple of nights before facing the mountain roads between here and my next destination to the south, the old town of Lijiang. I had cycled by myself since abandoning Neil in Xian and was excited to see two bicycles by the side of the road with rucksacks strapped over the back wheels. Their owners were drinking tea which they kindly shared with me along with a fire-baked potato. They invited me to ride with them. I accepted but conveyed in mime and minimal English that with more luggage will be slower.

Luckily the Chinese are not, as a rule, the most sporty of nations. These two, students from Chengdu, on a bike tour during a break in study, are slow. One has a GIANT bike with derailleur gears but the other, Feng Wen, tells me when he heard his friends were going on a cycle trip he rushed out and picked up a 300 Quai bicycle. And a thirty quid bike is what he got. One brake lever has already fallen off during the trip, and when he changes into certain gears his bike sounds like a wind chime. His gear ratios are rubbish and when we begin a hard climb and I pull away with his friend on the GIANT bike we can hear him scream with effort and frustration at every downward stroke.


[Lake Lugu]


[Climbing away from Lake Lugu]

I can’t help showing off, clicking effortlessly through my Rohloff gears as the incline increases. With little mechanical understanding of bikes, it has taken me until now to truly appreciate my machine.

They stop occasionally to phone a friend they have lost, apparently he went off to clean his bike at a garage. Clean bike? What?


[Cobs of corn drying under the eaves]

As the sun sets we begin looking for a place to camp. This I find interesting, and let them scout places to sleep. We stop by some fields with a small stream running through. One dismounts and tests the water and shakes his head. I ask Feng Wen what is wrong. “We cannot wash our faces in the water; it is not pure.” Wash face? What?


[Feng Wen trails behind]

We find an abandoned building and they set up their tent. I role out my sleeping bag and climb in with a book. Looking at me they ask if I have a tent. Yes, but we’re indoors and my sleeping bag is good. “I believe you,” the GIANT boss says uncertainly.

In the morning I awoke to the call of nature and scrambled off to find some lonely bushes.  When I returned they were packing up the tent. I ate biscuits and apricot cakes as I packed my bike. Were they going to eat before setting off? No - and within thirty minutes their pace was slacking. You’ve got to eat before you start cycling lads. I suppose I could have offered them some biscuits…

Anyway, after a late breakfast, we begin climbing again, Feng Wen alternately screaming on the pedals or pushing his bike way behind us.

We come across a Japanese sports car on it’s side that’s rolled tackling a bend on the mountain road.  The wealthy young couple have been very lucky to avoided injury. As if part of their holiday’s itinerary the women was calmly taking pictures of the car with her iPhone. An expensive SLR camera hung idle around her neck like a piece of digital jewelry.

The boss on the GIANT flags down a truck with labourers riding in the back who help us right the car.


[Boss, left, bossing]

I liked cycling with these guys; they tried to not let a thing like a language barrier get in the way of taking the piss.

Feng Wen to me: “How often do you wash? Once a week?”

Boss: “Once a month?"

Feng Wen: “Once a year?” Followed by laughter from both of them.

At one point on the climb Feng Wen managed to catch us up. “Welcome back” I said. HIs friends laughed. He looked pissed off.

We stopped to buy drinks in a village shop. Sitting outside we watched a pig sniffing about. Feng Wen offered me 100 quai if I could catch it. He then suggested I kiss it. I told him I had kissed worse.

I take back what I said about Chinese athleticism, partially at least. Feng Wen had guts, and with a better bike he would have been dust.


[Feng Wen, left; boss, middle; must clean bike, right]

That second day to Lijiang was hard: one mountain climb had more switchbacks than a cat has nipples.


[According to google, a cat has eight nipples in 2 rows of 4]

We entered Lijiang at dusk, and not a moment too soon – I had been in a ‘God I hope this ends soon’ mood for several kilometres. Lijiang is in a wide open valley surrounded by lowish yellow and grey mountains. The sun was setting as we approached the old town. As host, Feng Wen put a positive spin on our late arrival saying we had arrived at the perfect time, motioning to the sun setting behind a mountain. The boys were heading to a friends, I to Mamma Naxi’s guesthouse. We exchanged emails and went our separate ways. Feng Wen has recently informed me by email he has bought a new bicycle.

As I dragged my bike through Mama Naxi’s front door a Korean traveller named JJ asked for a picture. JJ was dating a local Naxi girl and I jokingly asked if she had a sister. Humour doesn’t always translate, and a few days later there she was. An American teacher came up to me after the Naxi sisters had left: “Oh man, that was awesome. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion.”

Lijiang is a tourist trap. There is no ‘old town’ as such; from what I could gather they knocked that down and replaced it with shops selling dried yak meat and African drums - in fact there are dozens of drum shops, with a listless shop assistant pretending to drum along to the same backing track in every one. The main square has two McDonalds and a KFC. But, at night the houses of the old town are lit up and the houses on the side of a small hill look wonderful. Sometimes during the day you can escape the crowds and find yourself on a quiet, cobbled alleyway between one storey Chinese houses with wooden beams and round doors, with maybe a canal the size of a small stream running gently by the side of the cobbled path.


[Lijiang. Photograph stolen from]

The Lonely Planet says, to paraphrase, “Mama Naxi thinks she knows the needs of backpackers.” I turn up and this diminutive matriarch gives me  complimentary bananas and bread rolls and rushes off to the kitchen to fry me some rice. She knows exactly what we want Lonely Planet. If Mama knew you was dissin’ her…

Mama Naxi serves a family dinner everyday at 7pm. It is very popular. It is an opportunity to eat as much as you can of her delicious home made food for a very reasonable price. Pork and cashews, shredded beef, fried beans, deep fried cheese, lotus stem, lake fish and as much rice and tea as you can get down yer gob. Mamma Naxi's husband, cottoned on quickly to my gluttony and started piling up unwanted food from other tables in front of me. I wanted to adopt him.

Mama Naxi has several small dogs. One, a lapdog is old, blind and suffering from dementia. It totters endlessly in a small circle in the courtyard. I was mesmorized by this sad performance and wondered whether this dog would die during my stay. It didn’t, but it got me thinking about my own mortality and the futility of existence – aren’t we all just demented old Chinese lapdogs doing circuits in the courtyard of life?


[Mama Naxi’s]

On this trip I have met many travellers far smarter than I am. And I have hated everyone of them for it. William was no exception. As far as I could tell his Chinese was excellent. Studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies with a year in Beijing, his intensive course required he learn to write in both traditional and modern Mandarin. I put my personal feelings regarding his intellect and work effort aside and recruited him as my unpaid translator, China expert, and orderer of food. Thanks Will.

Bored of Lijiang and encouraged by an excitable Mexican I floated the idea of heading north to Zongdian to Will. “I’ll go if you go” was his response. I said we had to wait for a friend from Chengdu, Denise; an English teacher from Sunderland who had celebrated her birthday at Sim's Cosy hostel during my stay there. As is Chinese tradition Denise had ended up with a face full of birthday cake. I remember she was still trying to remove bits of sponge and icing from her hair and tiara in the taxi to the club. Chengdu will be a dreary place when Denise leaves.

The night of Denise’s arrival there was trouble in the house of Mama Naxi. A fuse had blown in one of the dorms and now the electric blankets were not working. Queue a 30 minute rant in the dining room in Chinese and broken English about starting fires and the police turning up. Mama had been in the kitchen, her foot tall chefs hat pushing her height to an imposing 5 feet; and wearing a surgeons mask Mamma looked capable of anything. In her blind rage Mama turned on entirely guilt free Denise, who had only just turned up. Backpackers hanging around after dinner tried unsuccessfully to hold back laughter.

Denise quickly picked up Will was a linguistic gold mine and we both swam comfortably in his slip stream for a few days. Think of it as good practice Will.


[Passing Tiger Leaping Gorge on the bus to Zongdian]


[Moon rise, Zongdian]

To get the punters in, Zongdian is touted as Shangri-la, no one telling Chinese tourism the place doesn’t actually exist. Will was adamant it should be called Zongdian.

This area of Yunnan borders Tibet; one minute we were in China then we reached a tree-less plateau dotted with Buddhist stupas and sturdy looking, what I can only assume to be, Tibetan style houses.

And Will was off – he bought a map of the town stuck his nose in it and marched off in the direction of the bus stop with the hiking boots tied to his backpack clunking against each other at every stride. “He’s a man on a mission”, Denise would whisper to me as we tried to keep up with him.

We jumped off the bus at the old (read: tourist) part of town, passed a youth hostel, and went round in circles looking for one that didn’t exist for about an hour before turning back and checking into the first one we had passed.


[Gentleman, scholar, poor reader of maps]

The tourist area of town was quiet; we assumed most people were put off by the cold, but it wasn’t that bad. Denise kept warm by dancing with the locals who had formed a large circle in the main square. The circle slowly revolving as the dancers – old and young, wearing their every day clothes -  performed graceful moves in unison to music played on loud speakers. I happily watched Denise get stuck in from the sidelines, too self-conscious to join in myself.

After the dancing we went to a Tibetan bar and drank tea and beer, whilst one of the barmaids fought feedback on the PA system as her friend placed several long white scarves around her neck. They then played Gangnam Style 5 times in a row.

I hate this song. It has traveled with me for almost a year now. It’s global popularity is an unwelcome reminder the world has become a suburb, as veteran BBC war correspondent John Simpson once wrote in his book, Why do I keep doing this and How the hell am I still alive? Or it may have been called A mad world, my masters, I’m not sure. Good read.

The next day we moved to a Guesthouse run by a Tibetan women who treated us to a traditional - for the tourists - Tibetan breakfast of Tsampa bread (made from Barley) and Yak Butter tea. She also made us these little balls of Barley dough that had bits of fried Yaks cheese in them. I loved the tea: it reminded me of the stuff in the Wakhan. I found it makes your lips greasy.


And then the obligatory monastery visit. This Tibetan monastery was big – housing 700 monks, it was a little town in it’s own right, and at over 3,380m the steps to the main hall left me short of breath. Building started in 1679 under the patronage of the Chinese Emperor, bombed by the Communists in 1959 during their invasion of Tibet, with restoration beginning in 1981 - a lot of the interior wooden structures and murals looked new, but the drawings I thought were beautiful; complex narratives of what I can only assume the horrible consequences of straying from ‘the way’ and a lot of many headed and armed deities Hindu style.

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is another good read. Just thought I’d mention it.

At the far end of the main hall were several giant Buddhas with huge yak butter candles in front of them. One Buddha looked down at me with angry, accusing eyes. I gave a little donation in front of that one.


[Giant Buddha statues viewed from mezzanine]


[Scene from mural]

Can’t get my head round what I was seeing: some scenes depicted violence some sex, one both. Will and I stopped and looked at a mural showing a couple making the beast with two backs, the man (or deity) thrusting a knife into the back of his lover. Graphic and violent. Not really what I was expecting from a Buddhist monastery.










Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge wasn’t all that appealing after cycling up mountains for the past few weeks, but as it was on the way back to Lijiang - where I had left the bike -  I thought, why not. Denise wasn’t so sure; she had come to Yunnan to see the elephants at Xishuangbanna [pronounced Xis-huang-banna]. I had to give her quite a severe Chinese burn to change her mind.

The gorge is about halfway between Zongdian and Lijiang. We said goodbye to Will as he was heading back to Lijiang - fed up with being exploited as our unpaid translator, and failing to give his map reading skills the respect they deserved.

We only walked a bit of the Gorge the first day as we had arrived in the afternoon and so stopped at the first guesthouse. When you enter the gorge you are met by a row of jagged mountain peaks like a row of dogs teeth on the opposite side of the gorge. It was from behind these a full moon rose brilliant that night as Denise and I sat on the terrace of the hostel. Why is it that only a full moon rises?


[Entrance to the gorge]

The walk is ideal: not to short, not too long; hard, but not too hard. It was also surprisingly quiet; we met only a handful of other walkers, all except one being western. The Chinese, preferring to take a tour bus to the gorge, climbing a short ways down to the river and then taking a pony back to the top. Makes sense really: you’re on holiday why would you want to get all sweaty and tired?

The hardest part is the twenty-eight bends – the small path snakes up the side of the gorge for about a kilometre; an old lady with a small shop at the beginning sells red bull and marijuana ‘to help tackle the 28 bends.’ Denise said I could go off at my own pace and so as a true gentlemen, I took her for her word, and off I went. I would wait for her though, getting plenty of reading done.

At the halfway point we stayed at the Half Way Guesthouse, the name practically invites you to stop there. It advertises the following on a rock face by the path:


[Yes, the last line does say ‘scenic toilet view’]

I think this is the hostel that very nice man Michael Palin stayed at. You can see his documentary on this area of China here. I had better weather. There were a few of us that night in the hostel, mostly ex-pat English teachers and foreign students from Beijing or Shanghai escaping the cold and pollution.


[The scenic toilet view]


[Denise visibly upset with me for leaving her behind]


I had left my head torch in the first guesthouse: I decided to go back for it. I love that head torch; it is one of the few pieces of equipment that hasn’t broken on me and I have only changed the batteries once in a years’ use.

The lady selling red bull and marijuana at the 28 bends was surprised to see me, even more so when I passed her a third time on my way back to Denise, and was incredulous when I refused any herbal stimulant. I caught Denise on the way down to the river where legend has it a tiger leaped the gorge to escape a hunter. Impressive leap.

Denise was hanging with a bunch of Chinese tourists. She told me one girl had attempted the walk down to the river in heels, which would have been bone breakingly impossible. She swapped them for a pair of plimpsols provided by one of the locals selling snacks and cans of red bull – the latter seemed very popular with the wheezing, sweating mass of Chinese tourists; there was a huge midden of empty cans where we had stopped. Denise said this girl was almost in tears at having to part with her fancy shoes.

“You have to pay to climb onto the rock where the tiger jumped from.” Denise said, but I had already paid twice to get this far.

“Bullshit.” I said. The group of assembled Chinese tourists sniggered.



You can take the ‘sky ladder’ down to the river -  bolted to the cliff face and about 20 metres long. I felt a bit nervous doing it; at the top the ladder leans out from the cliff. Fun though. Not sure it would have passed EU health and safety.



In order to reclaim my torch I had essentially walked the length of the gorge twice. Consequently I was shagged. I crawled back to the top of the gorge to our last hostel. Denise had sensibly ridden a pony back to the top. I drank a beer, had some rice and went to bed early.







Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Xian to Lugu Lake, China 16.12.12–21.01.13



[Muslim Quarter, Xian]


[Sydney Harbour Bridge]

To say Chinese hospitality is generous would be like saying Pandas enjoy bamboo as a light starter. Now and again. If the mood takes them. Not everyday though, obviously; you want a bit of variety in your diet. Lazy bloody Pandas.

Cycling through the city of Hanzhong between Xian and Chengdu late one afternoon looking for a reasonably priced place to stay, a guy pulls up alongside on a moped and invites me back to his place.

I give him the once over, decide he doesn’t want to drug me and farm my organs and agree. He raises his head to the sky and thanks God. Surely it should be me offering up thanks to the almighty.

I am the proverbial kitten that keeps landing on nimble little paws: Guo is the owner of a hotpot restaurant, and shortly after meeting I have a beer in front of me and a bubbling pot of spicey broth that I am timidly throwing bits of meat and vegetable into.

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Chinglish is my new favourite language: I talked to Guo via a translation app on his phone. At one point in our electronically translated conversation he asks if I want to ‘wash and gargle’. I agree and we head to the public baths, as most residential high-rises in the city don’t have their own showers.

After showering together Guo offers up half of his double bed (whoa, where’s this going Guo?) I accept and enjoy a sound night’s sleep. He probably didn’t - I snore like a bastard.

Onto a good thing I decide to stay another night. Guo’s friends invite me to walk in the hills near the city and I agree; tired, but too polite to say no.

At the top two students from the nearby university are resting after the climb. “Hey, my friend want to talk to you.”

“About what?”


Her friend Nancy was from Chongqing and in her fourth and final year studying English, looking for work as an interpreter. I thought I was onto a winner when she said she liked war movies but when she spelt out ‘warm’ I was a little discouraged.


In bed with Guo the next morning; he, sat up smoking a cigarette, his eyes cast upwards in thought, declares: “You should be in Chengdu for Christmas.”

It was Christmas Eve and Chengdu – home of the culinary adventurous panda – was 450 kilometres away. I’d given up being anywhere specific for Christmas.

“How, Guo?”

“You take bus.”

“And my bike.”

“Put on bus.”



Guo has an ever so slight and quite appealing lisp.

A short walk to the bus stop, 100 yuan to put my bike in the baggage hold and I am saying goodbye to Guo. He showers me with packets of double happiness cigarettes as a parting gift.

Remember what I said about being a nimble little kitten?

Arriving at Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel in Chengdu, I was invited by the receptionist to a free Christmas Eve Dinner. Raising my head to the heavens I thanked my Guo for putting me on that bus.

I sat down for Christmas dinner with two Canadians, Fahad and John. The talk in the hostel’s bar, where we ate our dinner – I resisted complaining to the hard pressed Christmas dinner cooks about a lack of gravy and sprouts – was of heading to ‘CC Club’ that night where there would be free drinks!

A Finnish man in a suit, his tieless shirt buttoned up to the neck comes up to me and delivers what I think is the strangest opener I have ever heard: “Are we still alive?” I believe he had been drinking. Only realised later he was referring to the Mayan calender and it’s predicted end of the world.

I say I’m not going. Out of a sense of loyalty to their British overlord, F and J say they’re not bothered about going either, but as the bar empties of high spirited travellers and a fair portion of the Chinese staff I can see these colonials want to party.

We jump into a taxi with the Finnish doomsayer, Remi, who by happy chance is near fluent in Chinese and directs the driver to our destination – their conversation is punctuated with barks, mostly from Remi. He turns to us in the back and explains this is how they communicate and demonstrates by giving a non-sequitar bark to the unfazed taximan.

After what seems like a drink-less eternity I go to the bar and ask for a beer. 80 quai. Sod that, I take a walk around the shopping complex the Club is in and get taken on an impromptu guided tour of a high end restaurant by the owner. He proudly shows me a private room, everything gilded with gold leaf, even the adjoining toilet.

I return to the club and the mood has changed: free drinks have arrived. Farhad screams “ITS ONNNNNN!!!!” or words to that effect and begins mixing whiskey and sweat cold tea.

Many theories abound as to why we are drinking for free: the esteem the club receives from having smelly western backpackers in the club; it’s Christmas; or they are not free and we would have to do a runner at some point.

My favourite explanation, given to me by an American student from Beijing, is that we are ‘the bait’: Western men attract Chinese women, who in turn attract Chinese men. It seemed like a reasonable deal.

My memories of the club are vague, but I remember at one point a Chinese boy band dressed as SWAT police dancing on a stage with Kalashnikovs aping some sort of military drill followed by a singer in a multi-coloured bikini climbing across the bar smiling and singing sweetly as she groped her way round bottles of knock jack Daniels and Jim Bean.


Lots of ex-pats in China, most head to the same bars and clubs. A fuzzy haired young Frenchmen lifted the lady -who took the above photo - with a group of us outside the club. Probably the drunkest person I have ever seen; he was miraculously still standing. Just – he was staggering around as if on the deck of a ship caught in a cyclone whilst a giant invisible hand pulled him back and forth. I could have watched him for days.


Now I am not saying I don’t like pandas, but to be honest I really don’t see the point of them. What about Chinese tigers? Surely they are a lot more interesting. They actually hunt for food and mate without human assistance. Most people come to Chengdu to see the Pandas that do…pretty much nothing. They eat bamboo, a food source so lacking in nutrients they spend their waking lives eating the stuff, leaving little time to do anything else.

But the panda is smarter than we give them credit. And this is why I am a little weary of them too. They have evolved into cuddly, affable, bumbling creatures so a more intelligent animal – us - with a weakness for cute and fury monochrome freeloaders will feed and help them with the chore of reproducing.

The panda is also caught up in international politics, much to it’s discredit. Call me paranoid, but I think the conspiracy leads back to the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party who happily loan the panda to foreign zoos to help with their own breeding programmes. Soon the Panda will be everywhere. Waiting for the signal from Beijing to launch a black and white insurgency from within. The Panda will head for the power stations, water supplies, communication hubs, airports, and possibly garden centres for a nibble on a bit of bamboo. Their under-developed non-dexterous bamboo striping thumb is literally on the red button.


A good crowd for Christmas dinner, including Farhad and John; Henry (also cycling the world); Reimi; five Belgium girls - whose lively orbit snared many a man-traveller; and Neil - who had inexcusably caught the train from Xian. Street kitchen food is excellent in China.


Neil told the girls from Belgium I looked like the drummer from pre-pubescent muck peddlers Hanson. They thought this was bloody hilarious and began belting out mmm-bop. I looked at Neil and caught that malignant twinkle in his eye. The fires of hell burned a little beyond. I hate you Neil.

The festivities continued into the New Year. All this partying was tiring me out. I  headed south and visited the giant Buddha of Leshan.


The Buddha was the idea of a monk who thought it’s presence would calm the river it silently watches. It worked: rock and soil excavated during the work was dumped in the river, choking it’s flow. The Buddha is the largest in the world since the Talib blew the one up in Bamiyan. Another Panda intrigue, probably.

I was joined by Amanda, an American working as a business teacher in nearby Mingyang.


After a lot of talking as we walked round the Buddha and it’s monasteries we went to Yang’s Restaurant in downtown Leshan.

Richard Yang’s life story is typical of the educated during the cultural revolution. Fluent in English – taught as a boy by missionaries in Leshan during the twenties – at university he studied Russian and then geology, but fear and suspicion on the part of the communist party forced the intelligentsia to work in fields and factories as part of an ill conceived and wasteful re-education programme. Richard spent two years on a farm.

As he served us food cooked by his wife – the aubergine was excellent -  and he unraveled his life story I was struck by his serenity. Any trace of bitterness, at how his life had been disrupted I could not detect.

As we ate, a boy sat at another table silently studying English under Mr Yang’s tutelage.

From Leshan I cycled the short distance to Emei Shan, a mountain I had developed an inexplicable desire to climb.

I fell in step with a student on her first trip alone and we climbed to the top together.

Our climb passed an area called ‘Joking Monkey Zone’, but ‘Thieving Monkey Zone’ would have been more accurate. One simian snatched Wu Lang Fang’s water bottle and scurried up a nearby tree trunk before it could be retrieved.

Another snatched my bottle of Cola and bit me on the calf when I tried to claim it back. Git.


It would take two days to reach the top so we slept in a freezing monastery at the half way point. I hit my head on an ancient temple bell hanging from the ceiling, only to repeat the act half an hour later.


The snow thickened the higher we climbed – the mountain is over 3,000 metres  and as we reached the summit the wind picked up making the ascent chilly to say the least. I lent Wu Lang Fang my spare pair of gloves.



At the summit, above the clouds, is the the Buddhist icon Samantabhadra, an enlightened being.

Emei Shan is one of China’s four holy mountains, itself a bodhimaṇḍa, or place of enlightenment.

The summit was busy with people who had taken the bus two-thirds of the way up, then a cable car, leaving an ascent of under 500m.

Those who had taken the spiritual short cut could buy jade Buddha's in the souvenir shop, or stay at a hotel  to catch the sun rise above the clouds.


We both decided the hotel was too expensive and took the cable car and then the bus back to the bottom.

A few days later I was climbing again, this time by bicycle, between the towns of Ebian and Meigu in Sichuan Province. I had to change my route at Ebian, a quiet - for Chinese standards – little town on the banks of the Dadu river, as my route to Lake Lugu and Yunnan province was blocked by the Chinese Army. The alternative road would be longer, Higher and colder.


I started late on the hardest day’s climb through a mountain valley after spending the whole morning trying to fix punctures; breaking two inner tubes in the process – worryingly, I now had no spares.

The deteriorating road that clung to the side of the valley was covered in a layer of fresh snow. As I got higher, snow clouds descended and I could no longer see the other side of the valley or the pass above that would get me out.


It was getting dark when the snow began to fall. The pass was nowhere in sight. I was desperate for the climb to end and the descent to start, but I knew with the snow building up, the ride downhill would not be it’s usual fun.

In darkness I reached the top. The road had been cut through the end of the valley at it’s highest point. Weirdly, I salaamed the sign that announced you had reached the top. Out of respect possibly.

With both hands on the breaks and one foot on the ground to slow my speed, I started my descent. Going 10kph I skidded and fell, ripping my trousers and cutting my knee. The bike had fallen on me and I lay on my back in the dark watching large snowflakes silently fall.

What the hell am I doing? I thought, and began laughing out loud. I decided it would be safer to push my bike.

An hour later I came to the first village this side of the mountain. I was greeted by the challenge of a guard dog, his fluorescent green eyes lit up in my torchlight. Soon every dog in the village was barking.

A man and his young son came out to see what was what. I asked if there was a guesthouse nearby and with a downward slicing motion of a hand indicated there were none. His son threw a stone at me as I headed off.

Out of the village, an old lady with a whicker basket appeared from nowhere. Recovering, in Chinese I said ‘Hello, I am from England.’ I heard her cackle behind me as we passed.

I pushed on, not sure what to do. I came across a small unused building by the roadside and decided to call it a day.


Inside there was just enough room for me and my bike; the dirt floor covered in litter. I went to sleep happy.


Later I showed the above picture to someone who told me the Chinese symbols written in red said, ‘please put rubbish here.’

Several villagers poked their head through the open window as I packed to leave in the morning.

I took pictures of the locals wearing their blue, tasseled capes outside a building with the Chinese flag flapping in the wind upside down. A small act of defiance or ignorance? I couldn’t decide. This village was friendlier and I warmed my hands on a wood fire outside the local shop.

The old lady owner smoked: first time I had seen a women smoke in a long time. A group gathered to inspect me and my bike and I mimed yesterday’s adventure, showing them my cut knee to gain some sympathy. These people were not Han Chinese, they were the Yi People, an ethnic minority of Tibetan origin, the hills and mountains of Sichuan province they had made their home.


Houses in villages are mostly one storey, the walls plastered white, the roofs covered with red tiles. Corn cobs hang under the eaves, and behind are wooden support beams carved like totem poles painted bright red and yellow.

As the women sit and rub dried corn cobs together to feed the animals and young boys tend flocks of small black and white goats, young men hang out at the local village shop playing pool, the baize faded in the sun. Groups of men sip beer from green bottles; the smashed empties I was continuously swerving to avoid.

The Yi people are animistic: between the river and road I saw a dead dog attached to a poll with rams horns scattered at the base together with bundles of dried grass. This ritual may have been the result of a death in a local family or possibly Yippey had humped too many people’s legs. I couldn’t be sure.


Chinese hospitality was kept apace in the small town of Zhaojue a town remarkable for being unremarkable where a traveling rabbit feed salesman helped me fix my bike and fed me.

The rabbit food seller pointed to a passing lorry full of sad looking dogs. Apparently eating dog meat keeps you warm in winter.

We took my tube to the wheel barrow repair man, who had a side venture in fixing bicycles; his open fronted shop cavernous and dark, with spare parts to the ceiling. I find watching a tradesman at work therapeutic. I once watched in a comfortable trance a deaf cobbler in Dushanbe sew and glue my boots back together. The competent actions borne from a million attempts assures me there are people in this world that know what they are doing, their limited sphere irrelevant.

I couldn’t pay for the repairs, both the rabbit food salesman and the owners nephew thrust money into the barrow man’s hand before I could put a hand to my own pocket.



I stayed two nights, I needed a rest. Rabbit feed seller was heading to the same city as I was; Xichang. Thirty kilometers out of the town having a break by the side of the road he pulls up on his motorbike and offers to tow me. I decline the offer saying it’s too dangerous and that I am scared. He then follows me for several kilometers matching my speed of around 15kph.

A climb appears ahead, and I float the question: “how would you tow me?” He pulls a 7 foot bungee cord out of a box and begins winding it up to reduce stretch. “I trust you”, I say without enthusiasm.


Going at 20kph he pulls me up the mountain, I peddle a bit to make myself feel less of a cheat, and in two hours we have climbed further than I would have in a day. I counted three police cars pass us, none taking the slightest notice.

We descend the other side of the mountain and the weather and landscape change – one side of the mountain is covered in brown grass and the weather is chilly but now the sun’s rays in a clear sky feel warm on my face and a beautiful pine forest stretches out below us. I hadn’t realized my spirits were low, what with the cold, but now they are soaring with the warmth.

Xichang is a beautiful little city, the locals call it ‘moon city’.

The full moon is up above the tall buildings of the city centre, all clad in large white marble tiles. RFS tells me the city is called ‘moon city’ and tells me a myth about the king of the sky giving a Princess a pill that transports her to the moon.

I pay for dinner that night, happy to have paid back some of the generosity I have received.

And then a two day ride through narrow gorges to the Alpine Lake Lugu. The weather is warm.

The houses are now all log cabins, naturally, as pine trees are in abundance here. I sleep behind an abandoned one by the side of the road. I fetch water to cook noodles from the river; clambering over several boulders to get close enough to a running source. On the opposite bank is a hill covered in trees. On top a young boy is singing - for my benefit or not I do not know. As a golden sun drops behind the mountain, I see the silhouette of a women I presume is his mum, eyeing me up, weighing whether I am a problem.






Sometimes, when I find the going tuff I gently encourage myself on, saying out loud, softly: “come on, come on”, but the last day to Lugu I was hoarse shouting at myself, cursing the road, the dust, my aching limbs, and the Lake that kept failing to appear around the next corner.

My anger had not gone when I got to a barrier across the road blocking the way to the lake. A group of men at the toll office squatted round a low table playing cards, briefly pausing to stiffly turn their fat necks towards me for a lazy up and down before returning to slap down a card. I’m paying so you can play cards? Sometimes China…


I drank long into the night with the owner of the guesthouse’s friend who ran a bar on the waterfront. He dressed me as Thor and showed me pictures of his cross-dressing brother, who had been turned down for a role in a popular Chinese comedy film because he refused to sleep with the director. It was a strange night. I left early the next morning for Lijiang.