China: to Dali

From steamed bun to steamed bun: our first week in China

24/04/19 - 03/05/19
Distance travelled: 9890km

Travelling is not all sparkling, Buddhist temples, tasty, filled baguettes and wondrous elephant-parades. Sometimes it's yesterday: a twelve-hour bus journey complete with corrupt, bribing and chain-smoking bus-drivers, spit-buckets and trough toilets, so much for "comfort break". Until yesterday, which, in the cloudy-light of our first day out of the tropics since arriving in Thailand two months ago, I'm trying to tell myself was an anomaly, I was having a love affair with China. We crossed into the People's Republic from Laos just over a week ago and I'm hoping that writing this post will remind me of how enamoured I was by the world's most populous country and rekindle my excitement for cycling here.

Before the bus

Perhaps I just need a steamed bun.

Crossing the border from Boten to Mohan in China was like falling down the rabbit hole. We left the muddy road and ghost town behind and emerged in a wonderland of smooth roads and skyscrapers. (Admittedly, Boten did have a few of those, but they were eerily empty or incomplete.) We had Mengla in our sites and cycled 50km to reach it. It was a good ride, undulating in a good way: the challenge of short climbs and then the fun of freewheeling descents.

Our eyes were a-gog taking in all of the new sights, sounds and smells. There remained lots of helmet-less scooter riders, rural traffic and big trucks and added to the mix was a relentless cacophony of horn honking. In lieu of using mirrors or any kind of highway code in China, you honk your horn. Whomever honks loudest gets there quickest. It's quite terrifying! Sometimes it makes sense (big trucks hurtling round blind corners), oftentimes it makes no sense at all and just a lot of noise.

The evening market at Mengla

For a few days we cycled along the G213, or, as I have renamed it, "The Butterfly Road", for there were so many fluttering butterflies dancing from flower to flower all along the road. The road wound through jungle and small settlements and the red and gold arches denoting each little village were fun to spot, and the blue roofs of the houses a pretty sight. Although China was immediately and evidently wealthier than Laos, there have been lots of small, dark, squat houses similar to those in Laos. Chickens continue to peck, peck at the ground everywhere we go too.

Closing in on Mengla, we paused for a break to relieve our sore bottoms and grumbling stomachs. We pulled up at a little cafe and set about spending our first Yuan. Olly had an iced-coffee and I've no real idea what I had: mystical purple powder, little round jellies that were a surprise to suck up through the straw and potentially some milky tea. I've tried to buy it again since as it was delicious, but when I point to it on the poster (purple with jellies) I get a nut, raisin, jelly, milky tea combo. It's not unpleasant, actually it's quite nice, but there's none of the mystical purple powder. The quest continues.

Olly had also spotted a steamed bun shop a few doors down and for one Yuan (10/11p) he bought the most delicious little bun. We broke it in half and gobbled it up. It was so warm and fluffy. I tried to go and get another, but the tall tower of metal steamers had been packed away and we were out of luck. And that was the start of our steamed bun addiction. Since then we've had spiralled steamed buns, filled sweet buns and filled savoury buns. That first one was the best, though, and I actually think we might be on the brink of over-doing it. Too much of a good thing...

We made it to Mengla and Olly had booked us into a hotel for our first night using one of his new China Apps: The hotel was cheap, but one of our more expensive stays so far. Our cheapest hotel to date cost £6 for the night and our most expensive, £14. So far in China, we've been staying almost exclusively in hotels, occasionally hostels too, and each night we have to be registered with the police. In most cases this means the hotel take copies of our passports, but in Dadugang I was about to hop in the shower when Olly told me I had to go back down to reception to have my photo taken by a policewoman. I grinned like the Cheshire cat which tickled a Chinese lady who was also checking in!

Our hotel in Mengyuan - £6 for the night

We've been stopped by the police once when cycling and just hung out by the side of the road for about five minutes whilst they wandered off with our passports. On the bus journey from Pu'er to Dali, everyone had to get off the bus at a police checkpoint. All of the Chinese people had their ID cards taken from them and the policeman carefully studied mine and Olly's passports. We then had an impromptu break whilst the ID cards were scrutinised. One man then forget to collect his ID card resulting in an emergency stop and a lot of shouting from one bus driver, and a lot of laughing from the other, a few km down the road.

Mid-morning milk tea and steamed bun stop: en route to Menglun

We've had a fairly consistent quality of hotel in China. Often the room has two big beds and I keep getting lucky and picking the one with the soft mattress. In one hotel I kept waking up in the night because part of me had gone numb due to how hard the mattress was. Olly contemplated inflating his Therm-a-rest. We've been incredibly well-connected since arriving in China too and in all of our hotels our room has had it's own router for Wi-Fi. A final similarity has been the funky smelling drains in the bathrooms. We've had leaking toilets, regurgitating sinks and blocked plug-holes. The two times we've had squat toilets, there has actually been far less of a stench.

Our hotel in Dadugang

We arrived in Mengla and rode into town feeling like royalty thanks to a dedicated cycle lane. It was then that we had to start "symbol spotting" in order to locate our hotel. The Chinese language is phenomenal! Absolutely incomprehensible and so fascinating. We're getting a lot better at "symbol spotting" and I even now know a couple (literally two) of the sounds the symbols make. As to what they mean, or how to translate them, well, that is completely beyond me! Having spent five years putting children in detention for using Google Translate for their homework, I now use it, and rely on it, every day. Each night I try to write down the name of the town we are staying in in Chinese and I have given little nicknames to many of the symbols in a bid to better remember them. There's the one that looks like a match that means 'prohibited'; one that looks like a pot on the fire which I'm sure actually does have something to do with food; and there's the wonky, three-tiered beehive with a stick leaning against it and two flying bees that means 'er'. I have very definitely put Mandarin on my 'languages to learn' list, and I'm determined to do it (to a very basic level of proficiency at least).

We found the hotel and just outside of it were some very tiny tables and even tinier stools. Sitting at one of the tiny tables were three people very happily slurping some noodles. We decided to get involved. As many before us have done, and many after us will do, when you have no idea what is really going on, you pick places to eat that are popular with the locals. A lady in a little stand was making the noodles and I did some of my best pointing and head-shaking (to indicate I didn't want the meat bits adding) before sitting down on a little stool where Olly was already sat waiting with chopsticks! Despite also miming "un poco" by putting my index finger and thumb very close together, the noodle dish set our mouths on fire! It was tasty, but quite impossible to eat. The lady pitied us and kept running back and forth with spoonfuls of sugar and a bottle of soy sauce to try and take some of the heat out of our food. Crying and sweating, we said xiexie and rolled our bikes over to the hotel. The whole experience had been good fun and also very cheap, costing just £1 for both of us.

A huge electric storm lit up the sky that night, just as it had the night before on our final night in Laos. We watched the lightning streak across the sky and reflected upon the fact that now, just 70km further down the road, it seemed there was no chance of the power going off as Mengla was ablaze with electric, city lights. After a bit of down time that afternoon, we had wandered about 200m up and 200m down the street we were staying on and had found everything we needed. We bought supplies from a supermarket, bartered for bananas being sold from a wagon and learned that buying a Chinese SIM card was not going to be straightforward because we don't have Chinese ID. That night, we ate at our first 'pick and mix' restaurant. We had chosen the restaurant because it was popular and were handed a bowl filled with rice and then instructed to pick four main dishes to accompany it: you get a spoonful of each. 'Pick and mix' restaurants make it very easy to be a vegetarian and are also considerate to our wallets. Our Chinese feast that night cost just £1.50.

From Mengla we headed to Mengyuan and then Menglun. The two days cycling through Xishuangbanna region were brilliant. The jungle-type feel of the rolling hills on the G213 was a great way to segue into China from South-East Asia. Children waved as we passed, chickens still pecked relentlessly at the sides of the roads, but now, there were steamed buns to spot for a mid-morning snack too. On our way to Mengla, cycling up a big, old hill, a man on a scooter in a pink helmet waved at, and started talking to me. His first words were actually "catch up to me", which was far easier said than done on an incline that I'd been slowly winding up for about an hour! I pedalled like mad and said "ni hao" and then understood that the man was trying to tell me that he had also seen Olly further down the road: "your husband, your wife". We pulled over and the man gave me a bottle of coke that he had clearly just bought as it was icy cold. I had tried to decline his offer by taking the two steamed buns I was hording in my handlebar bag out to explain that I had some snacks. The man smiled and shook his head and said, "no, thank you". In an instant, I felt relived and then very guilty! The man in the pink helmet had just really kindly given me a cold bottle of coca cola, which we would really enjoy, and I was feeling relieved that he hadn't taken one of my precious steamed buns that he had thought I was trying to share with him. A lesson learnt in that moment! He told me he would wait for us at the top of the hill, which he assured me was only 500m away, and scooted off. Olly caught up and we shared the cold coke and it was delicious. We set off and up around the final bend and there was the man waving at us enthusiastically. Also at the top of the hill were a couple of ladies selling fresh fruit and the man bought us plums and oranges. It was such a warm welcome to China and after a few photos, we said goodbye and sped down the other side of the hill.

I had been really quite apprehensive about entering China and the night before we did so went to bed feeling a lot more anxious than I let on to Olly. I was anxious about not being able to use the Internet (sad, but true) and also about very heavy scrutiny and surveillance. I also wondered what would happen if we were simply told 'no, you cannot enter', despite the visas that were safely stuck in our passports which we had secured before leaving the UK (just!). I don't think Olly shared any of my nerves, but he was a bit tense at the border crossing, constantly repeating lines he had read from other cycle-tourists' accounts. You can't help but feel guilty in some situations and even though we had absolutely no reason to feel that way, we were keen to cross into China and pedal away from the officials! It was really nice, then, when so many people were smiling and welcoming. China is a country like any other in the sense that the majority of people just want to happily, comfortably and with the least stress possible live their lives.

Photos from Menglun

In the tiny town of Mengyuan we had our first "noodle bowl" tea and as was the case the previous night, our meal for two cost £1.50. We chose the little restaurant because of the tower of dumpling steamers on a table by the entrance. However, upon explaining that we were vegetarian, the owners showed us noodles and we nodded happily: we have yet to find vegetarian dumplings, but we are determined to do so as they just look so good! A hot bowl of noodles (with egg; the owner kept repeating "egg") was placed on a table of condiments and we had to flavour our food using the various bowls. We added garlic, ginger, soy sauce and chilli and other small amounts of things we weren't entirely sure of. It was a delicious and cheap tea, albeit slightly lacking in vegetables and strongly resembling the instant noodles we had had for lunch a few hours before. There was no comparison when it came to the taste though!

In much bigger Menglun, we had "fridge tea", picking ingredients out of the fridge and then smiling hopefully at the owners as they take them away to prepare and cook them. What usually happens is that you pick the ingredients and then explain or discuss how you want them cooking. However, we lack any such skill and it's quite fun just hoping for the best. It's always a surprise when the dish is brought out. On this occasion the tofu had unfortunately been cooked with pork, which we overlooked and ate around, another time the tofu was prepared with spinach in a soup! It's great! This is the most common type of Chinese restaurant we have come across so far and nothing at all like the Chinese takeaways we have had at home. A shame, I think. The "fridge restaurants" are such fun, mostly guarantee that we can eat meat-free and they are not too expensive either, perhaps £4 for the whole meal.

From Menglun we cycled to Jinghong, our first big city in China, though by Chinese standards it's really very small with a population of around 300,000. The ride into Jinghong was the first unpleasant cycling we had done in China. For about 30km we pedalled along a very mildly undulating, six-lane motorway of a road. There was very little traffic on the road and there was also a good hard-shoulder. For the first five kilometers, we relished the straight, flat road. Then it got a bit dull. The road followed the river, but was so far above it and it cut right through the countryside. Another huge road was being built above it!

The Dai Gardens on the way to Jinghong

Overtaking a truck on the way into Jinghong

We had booked to stay in a hostel for two-nights in Jinghong, but extended our stay by a night. Cycling into the city was exciting as skyscrapers, with sweeping, Chinese roofs soared above us. In a dedicated bike and scooter lane, we crossed the Mekong on an awesome bridge and rode towards our hostel. "Joy" was the name of our hostel and it was nestled into a courtyard on the super straight Zhuanghong Lu, or Jade Street. It was a great spot for exploring the lively city which is the capital of the Xishuangbanna prefecture and considered very relaxed in comparison to other cities even within Yunnan.

On our first night in Jinghong, after an early-evening stroll around the Peacock Lake Park where many groups were gathered to play Mahjong, we started scouting out some dinner. A lot of people were huddled around a hole in the wall and so we wondered over to see what was going on there. It was a tiny noodle bar restaurant! Unfortunately, though, after explaining that we were vegetarian, the owner, a young man slightly flustered from so much business, said that all of his broths contained meat. I think this is probably always the case, but we are rarely so explicitly told! We thanked him and wondered on. Just up the road we struck gold! We found a steamed bun and dumpling shop. Hopeful for vegetarian dumplings, instead we got two, huge vegetarian steamed buns and a little potato salad accompaniment. Olly initially picked bits of pork out of one of his steamed buns and we felt a bit sad that something had got lost in translation, especially as the first steamed bun had been filled with vegetables and vermicelli noodles. Upon closer inspection (read: prodding with my chopstick), I realised it wasn't pork, but tofu. Olly had wolfed his remnants down before I had even finished my poking! Perhaps not the most filling or nutritious, but certainly delicious. I used Google Translate to say "see you tomorrow" and we smiled and waved to the owners as we left to walk 'home'.


The following morning we met Colin, a WarmShowers host who couldn't host us during our stay in Jinghong, but who wanted to show us around the city he calls home. We went for a bike ride around town, anxiously following Colin as he confidently weaved through cars, scooters and stalls and down one-way streets against the traffic flow. We paused to admire a temple that was just five years old and also toured a couple of pretty, narrow side streets. We had a break at a cafe by the Mekong and Colin took out his map of Yunnan. It blows my mind knowing that 45 million people live in this province alone. We will be spending the vast majority of our time in China in Yunnan, something many people have said is a good thing. There is a great documentary on the BBC called 'Wild China' and we recently watched the episode called 'Shangri-La' which is where we'll be heading in a week or so's time. It was so motivating and exciting to watch red pandas, snubbed-nose monkeys and tiny bee-bats. Less so to see the snakes... Yunnan is both tropical and mountainous, both wild and urban, and both mainstream and alive with minority group culture. Jin, Colin's wife, is half Dai.  The Dai people are closely related to Lao and Thai people and share the water festival, New Year celebrations, for example.

We met Jin, who teaches English, in the evening as we took a stroll along the Mekong. The riverside walkway was alive and buzzing as people jogged; walked and waved their arms around, stretching; friends ambled and chatted; a group performed a dance routine; and the dog-walkers of Jinghong assembled en masse to watch their pooches play. At 8pm there was a spectacular water fountain and laser light display. Me and Olly were completely absorbed in it as music blasted out at full volume and the water and lights danced and flashed in unison. Colin said it happens every evening! We couldn't believe it! It was incredible!

We should have been setting off on the road north the following morning, but we had decided to stay an extra day in Jinghong. At the beginning of the trip, staying for three nights in one place felt impossibly extravagant. Now, we're a lot happier to stay another day, though I do think the more time I have off the bike, the harder it is to get back on again. Similarly, if we've been cycling for five days in a row, the thought of taking a rest day seems foolish.

In the morning we met Colin for coffee (I continued on my quest for purple, jelly, milk tea) and then followed his directions to a vegetarian buffet restaurant on the other side of town. It was nice to walk along the streets of Jinghong, past the parents waiting on scooters outside of the primary school; past the college bursting with students making their way to the adjacent noodle bars; past the tropical gardens with countless coaches in the carpark.

We arrived at the location Colin had described to us, but initially weren't sure we were in the right place as there was obvious hint of a restaurant from the outside. It was bustling with people though and we decided to poke our noses into the dark room. We were welcomed smilingly in and handed a bowl. The building opened up and we saw, with hungry eyes, the buffet spread out before us. Colin had advised us to arrive as promptly as possible as by 12.30 many of the buffet dishes are gone, or are going cold. At midday, the place was teeming with people chatting between mouthfuls of food transported on chopsticks. We followed the instructions not to talk whilst dishing the food onto our plates and then found a place to sit outside and around the back of the building. We had plates piled high with incredible, vegetarian food. There was rice and noodles, crispy rolls, steamed buns, tofu, mushroom, greens, pumpkin and an unusual translucent jelly-like vegetable that Jin later explained was made from the powder of a root vegetable that isn't easy to digest in its original form. We both went back for seconds, thirds if you include the steamed buns I hid in my backpack. (I was encouraged to take them!)

When Colin and Jin arrived a little later we sat and talked with them whilst they ate, sipping weak tea. Jing told us that the meal was free, and I said we would happily pay, even more so as it was a donation that you made towards the meal. However, Jin explained that a regular, vegetarian-buffet-restaurant-goer was celebrating his 90th birthday and so had paid for everybody's lunch! I couldn't believe it! How kind! Colin explained that such acts of generosity help the donor to accrue 'merit', or 'good karma'. I sent all my most positive wishes his way! After all of the plates had been cleared, Colin asked the owners if we could sample some Pu'er tea. Pu'er is a city north of Jinghong from where we caught a bus to Dali. Pu'er is famous for its tea, which is actually grown on the hillsides in the Xishuangbanna region. There are, I think, six 'tea mountains'. Cycling from Jinghong to Pu'er we passed many tea plantations as they made for really scenic landscapes.

The tea ceremony was wonderful and I genuinely lost count of how many different teas we tried. Leaves were pulled from bags or off compacted 'cakes' and put into small bowls and then rinsed with boiling water. Fresh water was then added to the leaves which sat for just the right amount of time before being strained and then poured into our tiny cups. Black tea, red tea, yellow tea. All were smelt and discussed in our hybrid Google Translate Chinese/English. Many of the teas were incredibly expensive, some as much as £200/kg (if we understood correctly. A quick Google search suggests this isn't an unfounded claim!).

We then spotted the musical instruments dotted around the room and had a go on all of them. Olly was so drawn to the steel tongue drum and had a quick go, casting a magical, oriental sound around the room. Perhaps noticing our delight, the owner and his brother (who had since joined us) took out their 'four treasures': brush, ink, paper and ink stone. We had a go at writing four symbols off the back of a book grabbed from a nearby shelf; the owner then showed us how it was done. We learned that you always work top to bottom, left to right. My effort looks positively literal, whilst Olly's is more artistic and cursive. I was praised for one of my symbols though!

Filled with tea, and with a few tea cakes and tea dragon-balls to take with us too, we left the wonderful restaurant, shop and tea house and walked back to the hostel. At 6 o'clock we walked out of it again and the short distance to Coin's English language school in order to participate in a Year 9 class. Admittedly, we had both had our own reasons for wanting to stay at the hostel for the rest of the evening, but we are incredibly glad that didn't. The class was so much fun as we were interrogated on various aspects of our lives by the eight pupils, split into two groups of four. We bounced the questions back, encouraging the pupils to talk in English. We had both had to lie in one of our answers: Olly said he had swum across the Mekong that morning and I said I ate snake for dinner every Sunday, as was tradition in the UK. I was a little ashamed at how quickly and readily the children believed both of us! As soon as Colin explained we had lied about something, they were calling us out on everything! And apparently, in China, the old wives' tale goes that eating snake is good for your skin. It's not something I'll be trying out any time soon, regardless! We had a lot of fun and the experience got us both thinking...



The following morning we left Jinghong and spent two days cycling to the city of Pu'er. I was sad to leave, I'd really enjoyed our time in the city. Tucked in my handlebar bag for a mid-morning snack was a brown-sugar steamed bun. Just outside of the hostel, every morning and evening, a man with the tallest tower of steamers we had yet seen set up shop and hordes of people on scooters pulled up to buy this staple of Chinese cuisine. Everyone paid using a QR code linked to WeChat, and although I knew this was how the majority of payments were handled in China - from pop-up steamed bun stalls to the supermarket - I've been amazed by its efficacy. Only we, it seems, pay in cash. We haven't seen that many other westerners on our rambles so far in China; a couple in Dali and a couple more where I am writing from now, the beautiful, charming Sideng village in Shaxi.

The roads felt different to those that had carried us to Jinghong. We were leaving the Xishuangbanna region and entering Pu'er. Highlights of the two day cycle include riding through the Wild Elephant Valley and then through hillside tea plantations. We didn't see any wild elephants, but it is in this region that the 400 remaining wild, Asian elephants in China live. According to the guidebook, dawn is the best chance you have for spotting a pachyderm. This didn't put off the numerous visitors parked along the roadside as the visitor centre carpark was filled with coaches. It made us question quite how wild the wild elephants were. Still, anything to guarantee their protection. The tea plantations were so neat and orderly, it was hard to associate them with the little bags that I'm happily addicted to and use to celebrate, commiserate and everything in-between. During the tea tasting ceremony, we had been told that tea in China is Art. The owner of the restaurant had explained that tea is also grown in Laos, but purely for economic reasons, and not because tea is integral to their culture and history.

Tea plantations en route to Pu'er

Pu'er was a calm, quiet and quite plain town. We had an enforced rest their day as no buses were leaving on the day we had planned to as it was Labour Day. We cycled around the city and found a huge Walmart where we replenished several of our dwindling supplies. Olly didn't buy coffee and then had a difficult few days without a morning caffeine fix! It was an incredible supermarket: we found items from Asda and even Whittaker's chocolate. On our way to Pu'er, we stopped for a night at Dadugang and enjoyed eating an ice-cream sat opposite our hotel and watching the owner and several of his friends playing "the claw game" for cigarettes. They were as giddy as a group of teenagers might be on their first holiday without their parents at a seaside arcade after a sneaky Smirnoff Ice.



In Pu'er we caught the infamous bus to Dali. We had quickly and easily secured our bus tickets and had shown the ladies a photograph of us with our bikes to explain they would be coming along too! They had told us, "no problem". With a stash of steamed buns, we arrived at the bus station about 45 minutes early in the hope of securing smooth access onto the bus for our bikes. No such luck. The bus arrived ten minutes before departure and the bus driver took one look at us and started miming 'money'. We tried to refuse; to haggle, but to no avail. And if we refused neither our bikes nor us would be in Dali for about a week. We paid the bus driver an extra 100 yuan each for our bikes, £20. My rose-tinted spectacles fell of my face and onto the floor as a kind, English-speaking lady shrugged and told me, "this is China". She trod on them as she walked away and onto her bus. The driver pocketed the money and then hauled our bikes into the hold. I've thought about these "foreigner fares" a lot in recent months, having never really experienced them before. I know it happens and I can understand why it does too, but it immediately makes me feel uncomfortable and different. Chrisso B summarised it well when she said, "cycling is pretty wholesome and I want it to be as impact-free as possible, certainly without perpetuating corruption". I don't want to be 'different'. I innocently and ideologically believe we are all people, regardless of race, colour or creed, and kindness and empathy are the most wonderful gifts we have been given both on the road and at home, and the best gifts we too can give. I don't have an issue with a 'luggage fee', especially when you have as much of it as we do, but I wish we had had to pay it at the same time as buying our tickets, thus officially, and not in the face of an angry man, ten minutes before our bus was due to depart and with the other passengers all impatiently stood watching. The coach carried not more than ten passengers and there was ample room ON it for each passenger to be bringing a bicycle with them.

The journey itself was then torturous. The two drivers chained-smoked despite the no-smoking sign stuck above their heads; the horn was blasted every few minutes as we recklessly overtook trucks on blind bends; and the "comfort breaks" took the form of putrid, trough toilets and even recalling them makes me gag. Olly saw three men squatting and pooping! On top of it all, we had chosen steamed buns as our snack of choice and now we're finding it hard to stomach them. Not the steamed buns! Take our money, but at least leave us the steamed buns! It was a twelve-hour journey set to a soundtrack of spitting: blue buckets had been placed strategically along the aisle. I was so glad to get off the bus in Xiaguan and we were relieved to see that our bikes had survived the journey. The earrings I had bought in Cambodia and my necklace did not. It was clearly just 'one of those days'. We had a short cycle to a hotel where we were simply resting our heads before cycling 20km to Dali Old Town the next morning. When the hotel owner helped carry our panniers up to the fourth floor I was reminded of the kindness of folk and looked forward to the dawning of a new day.

Snacks for the bus (check out  the lady who served me)