China Part 7: Cock-fighting in Dulong Valley (13/02/16-25/02/16 Judianzhen to Lincang)

The last blog ended by the Yangtze river. From there I turned west to climb over the last mountains separating me from Dulong valley. I was advised not to take the road by the family I stayed with but as usual that just made me more keen to try it out. I guess that’s become a recurring theme in this story…

Judianzhen to Lincang route
Judianzhen to Lincang route

The road snaked up the mountains over an awful rocky road. I camped a little over 3,000m – just before the first patches of snow started to appear. I’d not been able to find anywhere to pitch so I just slept next to the road. Not a single car passed me.

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Leaving Judianzhen and heading for the mountains
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Camping next to the road on my way up to the pass

It had been a cold night again. The ride to the top in the morning was nippy and I had to ride slowly across the sheets of ice. Surely this was the last snow I’d have to deal with? It was definitely the last riding over 3,000m.

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Back in the snow once again…
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The very last 3,000m+ pass!
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Passing a small village in the mountains

I stopped in a small town called Weixi. It was time for a much-needed shower. At the first hotel I stopped at I was rejected with the all too familiar ‘mei you’, as the receptionist waved her ID at me to show that no foreigners were allowed. That hadn’t happened for ages now and I’d forgotten how infuriating it is. There are still plenty of things that drive me crazy in this country and I’m glad I only need to pop into a hotel once a week for a shower. Down the road I found another place where I was allowed to sleep. I wasn’t officially allowed to stay there (you always know when they don’t ask for the passport) but like most places around here they didn’t care.  

The next day I reached the Mekong river. As I mentioned in the previous blog, the Dulong Valley through which it runs was described as the ‘most remote’ valley in China. That was the only sentence I needed to read before deciding to go ride it. I’ve seen the Mekong in a bunch of places in South East Asia but it looks very different up here in its infancy. Still huge.

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Hilly Weixi

A young guy on a dusty Honda motorbike stopped to say hello. He was wearing clean white shoes and a shiny fake Armani leather jacket. We had a quick chat – his English was pretty ropey but good enough to explain that he was at university in Kunming but back home over the holidays. Clearly this is the demographic group who will finally allow me to some precious insight into rural China. Village kids who aspire to life in the big city but only realise how special their own roots are once they get there.

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‘Bob’ on the bike

His English name was Bob. When the Chinese study they give themselves English names that sound similar to their Chinese ones as they know no foreigners can remember the Chinese ones. That’s a problem both ways. I’ve been given a bunch of Chinese names over the last three months but I’ve forgotten all of them (highlighting the problem for me at least).

He invited me to his village up the mountain side but warned me that it was a ‘little steep’. Some people completely underestimate what I’m capable of on my bicycle, others completely overestimate. Bob fell into the latter group. We zig-zagged all the way down to the river, across a wobbly suspension bridge and then began one of the hardest climbs of my tour so far to his village. Even with most of my bags strapped onto his motorbike I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath and curse myself for agreeing to this stupid detour.

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Bob’s village overlooking the Mekong river

At the top they congratulated me on being the first person ever to cycle up to the village. I will almost certainly be the last, too. It was a Lisu village, yet another ethnic group to remember. The Lisu share the valley with the Dulong people, a smaller group who are only really based along the river. It was a beautiful location overlooking the valley and its residents were lovely. I was only going to stay for lunch but by the time I got there it didn’t seem worth leaving to go all the way down so soon.

For lunch we ate gooey fried ‘rice bread’ which was new to me, along with sir chai (the Tibetan’s favourite salty tea drink). They had the same Tibetan wooden contraption used to make the brew – clearly there’s still plenty of influence from their high-mountain neighbours. 

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Crossing the Mekong

We walked around the surrounding hills and Bob showed me a cleared area where they were relocating the village we passed down by the river. I learnt (and saw for myself over the next few days) that the Chinese are in the process of building a series of dams along the valley, wiping out many of the lower settlements.

Sometimes China feels like a country stuck in the awkward ages of puberty – that’s the best way I can describe it. Changing so rapidly it struggles to figure out its own identity. Dulong valley was only accessed by road in the late 90’s but now they’re building a new asphalt road halfway up the mountainside while they submerge the old road and many of these old isolated settlements. Within the space of 20 years you have the first through-road access to flooding it under water for a new hydro-damning network. I wished I could have come here 15 years ago but I’m also glad I’ve arrived now – in 5 years my roads and campsites will be underwater and forgotten forever.

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Lunch in the Lisu village

I asked Bob how the people felt about this forced relocation but he just shrugged and told me that they needed to – it was for the good of the country. I couldn’t help but compare that sentiment to all the Heathrow runway hullabaloo in England. We are two very different countries.

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One of the dams being built along the Mekong

A few days later I bumped into the first foreign cyclists I’d seen in 3 months – a Belarusian/German pair who spoke Mandarin. We talked a little about the dams and the relocations and they’d asked some people in one of the towns next to the river. These people have been living in these places for generations and generations but none seemed bitter about the forced move. They heard things like ‘the government is great’, ‘it’s our duty’ and ‘our country needs us to do this’. If the Chinese government have done one thing very well, it’s creating a state of total faith in their people. Pretty impressive considering the leaderships very major cockups in China’s recent history.

Back in the Lisu village I was paraded around to visit all the neighbours. Everyone wanted to have a bite to eat and a drink with the foreign visitor – needless to say I was the first to have ever visited. It was a great afternoon: my two favourite hobbies aside from being a cycling culture vulture are eating and drinking.

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My home for the night

Even in the most primitive houses there’ll still be a fancy TV hanging up on the wall. You can’t get cars all the way up to the village so TVs are the next best status symbol. I thought TV culture was exaggerated in the UK but our TV watching is nothing compared to the rest of the world where they’re on 24/7 in the centre of every home. It never occurred to me how closer they bring the world together. You don’t need to travel to see the world: just spend some time in front of the telly. The grandad next door had never seen a westerner before, but with a big smile told me (through Bob) that we looked the same as we do on TV. I think he was disappointed.

We ate dinner with the neighbours – the usual boney meat to spit on the floor. After dinner the men all had a cigarette and can you guess where they end up? Yep – the living room floor is the ashtray here…

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Hanging out with Mao

We had a good old fashioned beer session in the evening. Bob rode to the next village to get a crate and ‘all the lads’ came round for a pissup. There were orange and walnut trees growing around the village so we had healthy bar snacks as well as a sea of sunflower seeds. When I finally went to bed I had to crunch my way out of the room across a sea of discarded seed shells.

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A small corner of the sunflower seed shrapnel

I’d arrived at a good time. In the morning it was Tuesday’s cock fighting session and I was invited to join on my way back to the river. I thought it would be a fun thing to see. Interesting, yes. Fun? Not really my thing…

In a clearing in the woods people from the local villages had gathered. The men were crowded around a makeshift fighting ring while the women sat around drinking tea and playing cards trying to ignore their kids asking for more sugar cane.

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Cock-fighting in Dulong valley

I’ve never heard so much cockadoodledooing in my life. More than a dozen roosters were tied up by their ankles, waiting until their turn to fight. I wasn’t on a high enough moral platform to not attend, but I declined from betting. The people here are not rich but I saw a bunch of pink 100RMB (£10) notes floating around as the men gambled away. The rooster fighting was really violent, feathers flying around all over the place. One of the guys asked me if we have cockfighting in England. I said no, ‘football’ and he laughed. Watching a bunch of spoilt millionaires running around kicking a ball about is pretty stupid but not nearly as stupid as forcing those poor chickens to fight each other.

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Community gathering for the cock-fight

The Dulong valley is part of the ‘Three Parallel Rivers’ that run straight down along the Burmese border. They’re a Unesco World Heritage site. A thin range of steep mountains separates Mekong from the Nujiang valley, and there another range marks the border. The Nujiang sounds more remote on paper – it’s a dead end road on an eight hour bus north from it’s bottom entry. But it’s got a couple of towns that attract the odd tourist, whereas as the Dulong certainly doesn’t.

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Cycling China’s ‘most remote valley’

I followed the old road close to the river. It was was beautiful but strange ride. Many of the villages had already been abandoned and there were only a few people knocking around. The old road had been totally neglected. At one point I had to haul the bike over a precarious landslide and drag it across flooded sections. When a rock came tumbling down the mountain side narrowly missing my head I finally accepted defeat and climbed back up to the new road.

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Walking the bike over a precarious landslide. Don’t slip now!
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And pushing through streams…

Camping was fun again. For so many months it had just been a practical end to my day but now I could enjoy myself. The days were almost as long as the nights now. I stopped early when I found somewhere pretty and used the extra time to cook up a feast. Recently it had been so cold that any fresh unpackaged food would freeze solid but now I could carry a bag of veggies to play with.

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The prefect pitch!
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Perfecting the morning brew
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Breakfast in the sun!

I was starting to stress about money. Getting cash is (just like everything in this country) complicated. I can only use my travelling debit card in the major bank branches in big towns. Even if those same banks have ATMs in smaller towns they usually won’t accept my card. In Weixi I’d not been able to get any cash and I still hadn’t passed anywhere where I could. So, when I spotted a 100RMB note flapping around the side of the road on the way into a tunnel I felt like lucky man indeed. I lived of that £10 for 3-4 days. Life is cheap here.

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Absolutely gorgeous roads along Dulong valley

After a few days cycling down the valley I was out the other side. Time to move eastwards. The people were back to their miserable Chinese-selves. When I tried to say hello to people I was met by blank faces and the stares had as much emotion in them as those I get from the cows I pass.

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One of the wider points in the valley, where you could see the snow-capped peaks dividing the Nujiang river
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Looking down into a small village
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Following the old road through rapeseed fields

I stopped in a small town’s supermarket to get some stuff. A kid spotted me and yelled out to his mum pointing at me. She got all embarrassed but I smiled – it’s funny when the kids do it. It’s not funny when the old bloke follows me around the shop dragging on his cigarette trying to get a good less-than-discreet look in at me.
At the counter a guy walked straight up passed me, asked the cashier how much some nail clippers cost and then started counting out his 1RMB notes to pay for it. I’ve written before about how I can’t stand the inability to queue in this country. Stuff like this has happens so often and I usually try to pretend I haven’t noticed it but on this occasion I wasn’t in the mood. China was tiring me again. ‘Are you having a fucking laugh mate?’ I had about three items to buy – hardly a monster weekly food shop. He laughed and acted like he didn’t understand in order not to lose face, but of course he understood. Some people in this country are infuriating.

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Another beautiful morning view
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Celebrating having hit the 20,000km mark!

I passed another small town called Chanjie where some guys invited me over. They bought me lunch and convinced me to join in a few glasses of baiju. They said something about ‘money, money!’ with a thumbs up,  which I assumed to be one of those casual ‘you have so much money, lucky you!’ comments. I’m often quite defensive about the money thing. Perhaps it’s just a ‘white middle class’ privilege guilt. I just like people to understand that I live far cheaper than they do (almost all of the time) and on this occasion I genuinely had about £2 left to my name.

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Making new friends over a glass (or three) of baiju

I showed them pictures (as I often do) of how I sleep in my tent, cook my own food and proudly told them ‘no money!’. I clearly got my point across a little too well as the guy suddenly started waving about 300RMB (£30) in my face trying to donate to my trip! I had to vehemently refuse the offer. I might be cashless at the moment but I’d pass a big town within the next couple of days where I could stock up again. I do have money.

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Are any of the roads not amazing in Yunnan?
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Breakfast at JKB’s

I cycled off very touched by the gesture. Even before I’d left the town I was invited to drink tea with another guy. That very morning I’d decided that I hated China again and now I loved it as I cycled up the next mountain pass. It swings in roundabouts here. Very big roundabouts.

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First day cycling in a t-shirt! That long winter is finally over…
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Everything is starting to feel a little more ‘South East Asian’ somehow…

The road climbed back up into the mountains before zig zagging across the Mekong a couple more times. I reached Changjing and finally got some money out. Things were starting to get more and more tropical but I was back on the main road and I didn’t like having to share with the Chinese drivers.

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No more yak about. Lots of goats around and the odd cow
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Another night camping by the Mekong. You can see where the water levels have been changing

I had a realisation with the South East Asia visas. I won’t bore you with the details but I now discovered that I didn’t need to collect any in advance which meant I didn’t need to pass any cities for nearly 2 months. If I don’t need to pass a city I won’t. But I’d just finished my gas canister leaving me with just a couple weeks worth of gas if I didn’t want to detour to Hano or Vientiane. The next town I’d pass Lincang was my only chance. It was the regional capital and a big town, so my only chance of sourcing any canisters.

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Everyone in this region insist on wearing camo gear all the time. Makes it very hard to tell who’s actually military personnel!
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Living the dream!

With my new ‘Qunar’ app I managed to find a bed in a super swanky hotel for £5. Accommodation is so much cheaper than it was up north. I wish it had been the other way around.

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More great ’emergency shelter’ signs in Lincang. I’ve seen so many in China and I still haven’t got a clue what they’re for…

The hunt was fruitless. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, no one could help from reading my translated message (to be fair, unless you happen to like camping you’d have no reason to know if there was a camping store around) and the other people just ran away when I tried to ask them something. I gave up. In a bad mood I wandered into Dico’s, the Chinese equivalent of KFC. There’s normally one in every big town. I only ever go into one if I think I deserve some comfort food, but I can almost always find a reason to need comfort food in this country. I walked in thinking: ‘if only there was a foreigner around who I could just ask’. Lo and behold, two minutes later a white guy walks in.

‘Hello foreigner!’, ‘do you speak English?, ‘do you live here?’ The English speaking foreigner who did live here was Monty, an American guy who lived with his family at a farm 20km down the road. He told me it was unlikely I’d find any gas but that if there was any outdoors-type shop it would be along this road or the one running parallel. We got chatting about the farm and he invited me to come and visit on my way out of town.

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Many of the homes in China are decorated by beautiful artwork. This painting was on the wall of a very simply village home

I had one last little look along the next road and bingo! An outdoor shop had some dodgy looking gas canisters. I bought a couple and returned to my swanky hotel room.

The next morning I rode over to Monty’s farm. He lived there with his wife and no less than 5 kids.

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The Americans’ farm

They were a really lovely bunch, and couldn’t have arrived a better time for me. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever make it out this country. I’d been cycling in constant mountains ever since I left Chengdu and they were taking their toll. It was impossible to cover much distance and I was merely inching my way across the China map.

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Posing with the farm kids

They’d been living in China for eight years. The farm was principally for dairy (the Chinese aren’t into dairy but it turns out there’s enough of a demand for fresh milk and you can sell it for good money) but they were also growing tea and other stuff on the terraces around the house. The local people who worked there were Wa – one of the few ethnic groups I remember anything about thanks to their reputation as headhunters. They’re the guys who control large parts of the rebel areas in northern Myanmar.

The farm was trying to be an ethical leaning community project – helping locals grow new crops or tapping into different markets. The government still controls a large percentage of what people can grow but this is often limiting for people, rather than beneficial.

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Windy roads

Stepping into Monty’s home was like stepping into another world. A very American world, I suppose. We had fajitas for dinner, with fresh lemonade and home-made brownies for dessert. I was given my own room in the guesthouse and could clean all my clothes in a proper washing machine (they even had a drier! You won’t see many of those in China).

I’ve gotten used to not talking for large sections of time in China. I don’t get lonely much anymore, so the solitude isn’t a problem. But there are still plenty of the creature comforts I miss and having a proper coffee with real milk and toast with butter for breakfast made me realise that. I don’t want to cycle forever. I’m tired of using milk powder and searching forever for a bit of bread for lunch. The bigger Chinese towns have a bakery where you can get sliced bread but there’s a reason the Chinese aren’t famous for their baking skills and it’s impossible to get bread that isn’t horribly sweet.

The Americans sent me off with a packed lunch containing a peanut butter and jam sandwich (first time I’ve had one of those – and I’ll be having one again), a slab of delicious apple cake and a extra brownie. I filled up my long empty bottle of extra virgin olive oil and was given a jar of peanut butter.

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Leaving Monty’s farm

Most importantly I left with a big smile on my face. I wish I met more people like that but then again, it would be too easy cycling around the world if I did.

Vietnam was beckoning. A few more mountains to cross and I’d finally be out of here…

 

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