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CHINA: EPISODE III - WITH TIME TO SPARE

January 30th, 2017 on Don Det, Laos

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After almost three months and a whopping 5 200 km, we've now left China behind. The country has, just like we said when we entered, in every way been a chapter in its own. It's been new, different and overwhelming. We had many preconceptions and prejudices when we entered…and unfortunately some many of them are still there… But we'll get to that. Let's pick up where we left off. 

Reaching Chengdu, after weeks on the plateau, we were filled with the feeling that we had made it. Arriving in Chengdu, almost two weeks ahead of schedule, we knew that exiting China in the allotted time wasn't going to be a problem (as long as we could extend our visas once). And with that came the realisation that nothing was now likely to stop us from reaching our goal. We're no longer trying to cycle to Singapore; we're simply doing it. 

We stayed in Chengdu almost for a week, doing the usual things we do when we get to a city after a long time on the road... binging coffee and good food. But Chengdu had one thing we had yet to come across on this trip - IKEA! 

At IKEA, China didn't feel like China. It didn't really feel like IKEA back home either but it was close enough. We got Swedish meatballs, cinnamon buns and lingonberry soda. But most importantly, we bought glögg (Swedish mulled wine), lösgodis (candy by the kg), Kalles Kaviar (not really caviar) and gingerbread cookies. We would save the glögg and gingerbread cookies for Christmas though. 

While in Chengdu, we also went to the Panda breeding research base (which just looks like any other zoo) as well as had dinner with some other cyclists that had stopped in Chengdu. Some, like us, that were only there for a couple of days and others that been there for a whole year teaching English. Throughout all of this, more than anything else, we enjoyed not freezing anymore. 

Feeling sort of done with Chengdu (although we could have brought the coffee shops with us) we headed south once again. We only had two days of riding though before we reached Leshan, one of the the best and easiest places to extend Chinese visas. 

The extension process took 24 hours so the next day Ida took a train back to Chengdu to collect a package from home (Thanks SQ and everyone involved) while Robin stayed put and finalised our Australian visa application (it never ends!). 

And not to forget, we also visited the big Buddha (like always in China, there were way too many people around). 

Two days south of Leshan we had a choice to make. If we continued on the road we knew was good (but marked Aliens not allowed) we risked getting stopped by police who we had heard insisted on giving cyclist a lift through this region. If we turned off onto a smaller road we risked mud and steep climbs as we knew almost nothing about the path other than that four years ago it had been absolutely terrible. With fingers crossed we went with the unknown…  

… only to find out that nothing had been done to fix the road over those four years. So once again we were plowing our way through mud... So much mud! But almost worse, was that close to the first pass (of three, we would later find out) there was snow. Climbing down from the plateau we thought we were through with snow, done with the cold, left Elsa behind, but apparently not…

The rest of the way to Kunming, the biggest city in Yunnan, went smoothly with the exception of finding camping spots. Once we got back onto the main road, there were people just about everywhere. Sometimes houses would line the road for almost the entire day and we would only have the occasional glimpse of the landscape that lay behind. But these days we're quite comfortable pitching our tent more or less anywhere, even if we prefer the more private locations with beautiful scenery. 

As soon as we got to Kunming we parked our bikes and jumped on a train to Dali. As we were ahead of schedule we suddenly had time to make a longer stop. So we thought we would meet up with Bob again and try to learn some Kung Fu!

We stayed a week at the Shaolin monastery of Wu Wei. As men and women were not allowed to sleep in the same room, Robin was put in a room by himself, while Ida shared a room with Conny from Germany. Conny was funny enough also a cyclist and partially responsible for the creation of the WhatsApp group we've come to depend so heavily on in China. 

At 5.30 the next day we were woken up by a loud BOING. That was the sound of the monastery gong signaling the start of morning prayer. 

The morning prayer worked as an alarm getting us up for our seven o'clock morning run and first hour of training before breakfast was served at 8.00.

The food at the monastery was strictly vegetarian (or maybe even vegan) served with a side of rules to follow:

  • No one is allowed to eat or plate food before Grand Master Sifo does so. 
  • No talking while seated at the table. 
  • You must finish everything (down to the last grain of rice) that's put in your bowl.
  • Before taking any food for yourself you must ask and serve everyone else at your table. 
  • If you drop any food, on the table or on the floor, you must pick it up and eat it. 
  • Always hold your bowl of food while eating. 

At 9.00 it was time for training again. This time for three hours. We say training but a lot of that time was spent stretching, something neither of us have ever been very good at. 

After lunch we had quite a long break (usually about 3,5 hours) before the next training session. With the monastery being quite isolated from the rest of the world these hours were often passed reading or just hanging out with the other people there to train (there was about ten of us in total). 

At 16.00 we finished our day with another two hours of training before it was time for dinner, followed by evening prayer. We should probably point out that both morning and evening prayer was, for the monks, by the monks, even though we were free to join in if we wanted to. 

Since the monastery didn't have electricity outside of the kitchen it was time to go to bed shortly after the sun set. 

The next day this was all repeated all over again, as well as the following day and day after that, until a whole week (six days) had passed. 

After a goodbye-night-out in Dali with the people from the monastery we returned to Kunming (and our bikes) a day before Christmas to apply for our Vietnamese visas. 

In Kunming we met up with Will and Ed, aka Supercyclingman and Unicycle Kid mentioned in episode II. Together we celebrated Christmas twice! First on Christmas Eve (as you should) and then on Christmas Day (as a Brit). But before we met up with Will and Ed we had a little Swedish Christmas of our own with “Donald Duck's Christmas” , Elf and glögg with blue cheese on gingerbread!

Once we recovered from the festivities, we picked up our Vietnamese visas and headed towards the border. Our journey to the border was sort of uneventful. We peddled during the day and camped out in the fields at night. The closer we got to the border, the more “Vietnamese” the scenery around us got.

A couple of days in, we got stopped by Zuo, a man from Wenshan (about a day and a half further towards Vietnam), who filled our bags with fruit and cookies. As if that wasn't enough, he insisted on taking us out for dinner when we got to Wenshan. We gladly accepted his offer, pleased to finally get to spend some proper time with the Chinese locals (they all love to stare and point at us but with the language barrier being what it is, not a lot of them have actually wanted to spend any significant time with us).

When we arrived in Wenshan the next day, Zuo and his sister (who came along to translate) took us around the city. It felt really good to end our time in China on such a friendly and hospitable note. Sort of the opposite of our experience in Turkey where, if you recall, the last province ruined our, otherwise positive, impression of the rest of the country. 

On New Year's Eve we had planned for an early stop to prepare a fancy three-course dinner (well, as fancy as it gets on a Trangia kitchen). Unfortunately we had steep edges on both sides of the road for most of the day and ended up having to wait for dusk before we could pitch our tent in another field. It might have been for the best though as a late start with dinner help us stay up for the new year (we usually go to bed around seven or eight these days). 

The last day was mostly downhill with nothing extraordinary happening. The landscape had now truly gone tropical and at times it felt like we were peddling around Isla Nublar. 

So, what's the final verdict on this trilogy of China? Well, it's definitely an interesting country to cycle through and we really did enjoy it (at times), but sadly, we can't say we've fallen in love with China. There has just been too many culture clashes and more than anything else, so loud! The never ending car honking, the loud heavy truck engines, the speakers blasting out different music or offers just beside each other, people constantly using their phones in speaker-mode… We couldn't for the life of us understand how people didn't go crazy. We almost daily dreamt about being able to put everything on mute. 

In a way, China fell into what we would come to call a cultural Uncanny Valley

In Central Asia it was easy to accept and respect the differences between us and the people we met even if we didn't always agree with them. The differences might have been distinct and obvious (both culturally and economically), but at the same time, it was hard to see ourselves living any other way if we were born into those circumstances. 

China doesn't have that. China is (in most) a well developed country with infrastructure, smartphones and everything you expect from a modern society… and yet, far too often, we would have someone (almost) spit on our feet, take a dump at the side of the road or have their child taking a piss in the middle of the street. It's a strange mix of ensuring products are clean by packaging them in two or three layers of plastic but at the same refusing to provide toilet paper, soap or sometimes even water in public bathrooms. We simply don't feel that we would behave as they do, even if we were born here...

In many ways life in China is very similar to the life we're used to back home, and yet it feels so very distant… but judging by that blank stare we always got from the locals whenever they did something (in our minds) obviously wrong, they probably think we are the weird ones...

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