19 – 25 April 2016
I got up at 5.30, had breakfast and packed the last things, and then a short ride to the bus station. Nothing worked out as I had planned/hoped for, when I went to see the bus some days earlier. The trunk was smaller so I had to take the bike apart – saddle and wheels off as well as undo the derailleur. I had some cardboard to put in between the parts because I knew it would be a bumpy and curvy road. The seat/bed I had picked did not have the extra length as the bus I had seen, but the ticket guy was kind to give the middle bed in rear where I could stretch my legs into the isle as there was no bed pole (read: metal separator). My reason for not picking that bed in the first place was, that it’s much more bumpy in the back, I would have two (or more) bed-buddies on each side and five people from the top beds stepping on my feet. However, with the alternative being a bed of 160 cm times 50 cm for 24 hours, it seemed the best of two evils.
We left on time at 7am and for 2½ hours it was a terribly bumpy road. Afterwards the road was mostly new and good – I guess, built by the Chinese to get easy access to their many power projects in Laos (Mekong dams). As expected very hazy, curvy and hilly - though it surprised me that there were few double-digit hills and they were mostly fairly short. The first 6 hours I had the rear 5-bed to myself and the following 2 hours to the border only one other guy. The border took two long hours equally distributed leaving Laos and entering China – why it took an hour leaving Laos I don’t know; maybe because everybody else was a non-westerner? Just after the border, the bus filled up – for 10 minutes we were 6 in the bed until I finally managed to convince the extra guy to take a vacant bed. In China, the roads were generally good except for a few very big bumps here and there. All 24 hours, we stopped every ½-1 hour for a 5-10 minute-break and everybody but me wanted to get out every time. Why, I don’t know because only a few smoked. This meant hardly any sleep because of the 4 people next to me and 5 on top getting in and out all the time – exactly as predicted. On top of that the 4 people next to me knew each other and talked (or shouted as the Chinese do) over my head and two of them spoke loudly on their mobiles every 10-15 minutes. On the positive side, it was nothing like previous experiences on Chinese sleeper buses where everybody smoked, all kinds of things ended in the isle (including the notorious spitting and cigarette butts) and cargo went in/out of the rear windows the whole way (boxes, chickens, vegetables, etc).
We arrived in Kunming 45 minutes early at 5.15, so I had to re-assemble the bike in the dark – the chain had somehow turned in the derailleur, so it took a moment before I figured out how to get it right. Despite the bumpy and curvy road, luckily nothing was damaged. Fifteen people standing around watching (and commenting on) this “da bizi” (meaning “big nose” – the Chinese saying for foreigners) working; in China all Caucasians attract attention and curiosity wherever they go, do, say, etc. While waiting for sunrise, I ate my last bread and bananas for breakfast. I had read stories about bicyclists having their phones blocked (for unknown reasons) and gps’ not working, so it was long 6-7 minutes before the gps finally registered. I didn’t know where I was and had no address for the hostel (only a dot as destination on my offline map), so it would have been a big challenge had the gps not worked. It was a 15k ride into town and I quickly learned to pay attention after almost being hit 3 times within the first 10 minutes - nobody orients themselves and honking gives you the right of way; even going against the traffic! On top of that, all scooters are electrical which is nice for the environment but if they don’t honk there is no warning who’s overtaking (on the inside or outside). It’s remarkable that a country with so many rules and people to supervise compliance, seem to have no traffic rules - or if they do, nobody seems to care and the ever present traffic police is indifferent. I think it takes a serious accident to get attention and a fine here.
I easily found the hostel Lost Garden – a really nice small family-like place built as you would your own home and with an incredibly friendly and helpful staff particularly Philip and Allison; no wonder it’s by far the highest ranked hostel in Kunming. While waiting for the dorm to be ready, I had the staff help with Chinese notes for the practical things I needed to do – bus ticket to Xi’an, maps, local phone number, etc. I had to call Philip and Allison several times when I had language problems at the bus station and phone companies. After riding 15k to the bus station it turned out, I couldn’t buy the Xi’an bus ticket more than two days in advance and they couldn’t provide information about the bike, except it should be okay to bring it – though the final decision is the driver’s including the likely extra fee. I went back and got the ticket two days later. At China Mobile, it was a hassle explaining my simple needs and after calling Philip for help and paying, it turned out the sim card didn’t work in my phone. Despite more notes, the same procedure occurred at Unicom the next day and again I had to call Philip for help – and this time the card fortunately worked. I visited several bookstores, but none had maps for other provinces except huge China atlases (in Chinese) which I didn’t want.
In the evening, I walked around the neighbourhood and got a little lost in the dark, so I turned on the gps but it didn’t register – 5-10-15 minutes - nothing. I found the hostel but I was very concerned – no gps would make it incredibly difficult riding China, because maps are hard to find and always in Chinese. I spent the whole evening researching the problem but as always with the internet, the challenge is a lot people have an opinion without any knowledge on the subject. My (conspiracy) assumption was that my local sim card had somehow blocked my offline map app because it thought it was google related (everything google is blocked in China). However, I finally found an article where a guy in Beijing praised the same offline maps so it couldn’t be the problem though he also wrote that bad reception is common even (or maybe specifically) in big Chinese cities because of smog, tall buildings, etc. Kunming is surrounded by mountains (though a bit far away), the hostel 25 metres down a hill and the lake I had been walking around at night another 15 metres down, but in both cases the gps had worked these places when I first arrived in Kunming? In the morning, I walked 200 metres up to a main road with a big open park and 30 seconds later the gps registered so the problem was as simple as first time registration (after changing sim cards) - talk about happy! And talking about internet it seems so random. A page can’t be shown but if you try enough times (sometimes 25-30) it will eventually almost always pop up (except google and some other blocked sites). I never used the internet explorer and was close to uninstalling it at some point, but I’m happy I kept it now that google doesn’t work. A lot of people living in China buy a foreign VPN to circumvent the problem.
I got to see a lot of Kunming doing the practicalities and a lot more just riding around town looking without doing any tourist stuff (done last time). Kunming was a positive surprise and much better than I remembered. For a big Chinese city the air was surprisingly fresh, there was hardly any garbage lying around in the streets, and I saw fairly few poor people. The city is so modern that it could be anywhere in the western world was it not for the different looking people and signs – a pity they they lose their culture in the pursuit of material wealth. The humidity was low and the temperature was mid twenties (77F) no matter if it was sunny or overcast (about 20 in the evening and 15 in the early morning) – such a pleasant change from Laos.
I’ve gained over 5 kg during the last 10 days in Vientiane and Kunming, which is about time as it will be a big challenge getting sufficient and filling food here in China. I love Chinese food outside China, but here I often don’t know what I order because nothing in the menu looks like the dictionary. And whatever arrives is often less appealing (too fat, too sweet, too spicy or not spicy at all, strange taste, etc.) – I will of course eat it but not because I enjoy it.
The bus to Xi’an was at noon, so I took my time and arrived at the station at 10.45. Security (luckily) didn’t want all my luggage through the scanner and after asking 5 people I found the bus. Unfortunately, it was cancelled because there were too few passenger – how can they know an hour before? We were 15 people at noon (of 40) with an opportunity to pick up more along the way, so I suspect there was another reason. Anyway, I bought a ticket for the following day and biked back to town and since Lost Garden was full I found another hostel. From 2 people in a 3-dorm small family-like place to a full 8-dorm in a 500 people party hostel was horrible, but it would have to do for one night.