A Travellerspoint blog

That Strange Place Called Home

KM 10,856, Bierbeek, Belgium

rain 11 °C

It was quite an emotional shock for us to realize that our trip is over. It was a long, hard, jouyous, beautiful journey... one of the best years of our life. And ending it was harder than beginning it... somehow. I guess you could say that we're all torn up and conflicted inside about going home, in a way that you may not be able to understand. But the tickets are payed for and we're really excited to see everyone again... and a bit scared. Surely though, some good chocolate and a few cold pintjes will ease the transition.

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Here are some answers to all those questions that you've been asking yourself:

  • How much did you really bike?

    Over the course of 10 months we covered a total of 10,850 km over land by bicycle. From the 305 days away from home, we spent 177 days (58%) on the bike. On an average biking day we spent 4 hours and 18 minutes on the bike, and covered 61 km at 14.2 km/h, which resulted in a total of 763 hours of butt pain for Wim. Our longest distance in a day was 115 km, while 8 hours 7 minutes was the longest time on the saddle.

  • Did you have any problems with your bikes?

    We expected to be expert bike mechanics by the end of our trip. But our bikes turned out to be unstoppable. Often we'd dive head on into potholes and drive over vast fields of shattered glass... but nothing could stop them. In the end we only had to repair 3 flats (not a single one in Asia), and oil our chain from time to time. We checked the spokes and all the bolts in the beginning, but then quit out of boredom. Our tires look like new and nothing has worn out except for Amy's handlebars. I guess she holds on too tight. Want a bike like ours? Check out <www.avaghon.nl>.

  • What were the best parts of your trip?

    The oasis loop through the Egyptian Sahara was great. It was so peaceful, open and beautiful. But it was a close call with the Himalayas in Yunnan, China. Those are some really gorgeous, dramatic mountains!

  • How much did it all cost?

    In Europe we camped all the time and cooked our own food, and we spent an average of 42 Euros per day. In Asia we got to enjoy hotel rooms and eating out three times a day, but our costs went down to 26 Euros per day. The Middle east was a mixture of both, and cost us 33 Euros per day. This all added up to 9,929 Euros for the whole 10 months (only excluding plane tickets).

  • What did you miss most?

    We didn't miss what we thought that we would miss. In the beginning, we missed the luxury and cleanliness. Wim was always getting frustrated at the lack of efficiency everywhere. At night he would use our chain oil to grease the creaking doors and rusty locks of the hotel room. And I had a meltdown somewhere in Turkey when the shower apparatus broke off the wall and crashed down onto my head. But shortly after something clicked in our brains, we started to accept things the way they were, and we began to appreciate other things instead. Now we have to say that we only really miss our family and friends!

  • After spending so much time together, did you run out of things to say?

    No. Wim has a big list of subjects. Throughout our trip I learned about the physical properties of steal, the building logistics of large structures, the nature of electromagnetic waves, and the positioning of satellites in space... Between the two of us, we had a good balance between nerdy and entertaining topics.

  • What was your biggest mistake?

    We were sometimes so focussed on getting somewhere, that we turned down invitations from friendly locals. We also carried our heavy tent, pans, cooking stove, sleeping bags, chairs and pillows all the way through Asia, and only used them once. We kept thinking that we'd need them later.

  • What will you do now?

    We are going to spend a month in Belgium loading up on chocolate, alcohol and medical care. Then we are off to live New Mexico (hopefully), where Wim can finally live somewhere with a fair justice system, advanced healthcare, and of course, what he's always wanted... Freedom.

  • Where will you bike next?

    Ulaan Bataar to Calcutta! We can hardly wait! But first, we need to save up some money and energy.

  • Will you continue to write entertaining blogs?

    Of course! Stay tuned for our next blog, "Wim mows the lawn"
    (for obvious reasons the unsubscribe button has been disabled)

Posted by amyandwim 01:19 Archived in Belgium Comments (6)

One Last Green Tea

DAY 305, KM 10850, Liuku, Yunnan

sunny 26 °C

In the last ten months we've covered 10,850 km of land by bike. During that time we've eaten too many ice creams on the Rein, gotten drunk with old Serbians, drunken fresh milk from Romanian cows, browned our teeth with the Turkish, ran from stone throwing kids in Jordan, argued with Egyptians, gotten laughed at by the Indonesians, saw weird festivals in Malaysia, smiled a lot in Thailand, ate too many noodle soups in Cambodia, scared people all over Laos, and learned to love the Chinese. After all this, we've decided that there is really nothing that we would appreciate more than a clean shower and a freshly made bed at home. But before we could stop ourselves....

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We decided to do one last good-bye stretch. So we chose to bike down a 340km river gorge. But this wasn't just any old river gorge. It was a special Chinese one. What made it so special and so Chinese was the river that dug it out. The Nujiang river is a huge, wild, twisty monster of a waterway. If you fell in, which seemed pretty easy to do as we biked along the steep path next to it, you would instantaneously be gulped down into the depths of it's madness. A big bummer for you. And there is no escape, the mountains rise up thousands of meters on each side, giving a very narrow and ruggedly beautiful view throughout the day.

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Despite the inhospitable surroundings, people live and farm is this gorge. Farmers, with goat-like balance, scale the mountainside to plant corn and beans. If they need to get to the other side of the river, they just attach themselves to a cable and come flying over to the other side. Wim was so enthusiastic about this concept, that some guy took pity on him and offered to help him over the river. It was a childhood dream come true!

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The people here have only just recently gotten a paved road. So it will surprise you to find out that it takes you 8 hours to cover the 340km by bus. And that is with a fast, out of control bus driver. So, ten years ago, this was all walking, horse riding territory. And in all of that remoteness, a big variety of cultures and languages developed. From village to village you see all different types of faces, customs, religions and food. There is also 25 percent of all of china's wildlife living along this river. Many a time I had to swerve for gigantic, weird looking caterpillars. We also saw big, colorful butterflies that flit around us throughout the day and heard strange bird calls ringing from the trees.

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The downside to this region though, is that people do not eat their dogs. That meant that instead of lying peacefully on the dinner table where they belong, the dogs were out chasing us in packs. In each village the lead dog would spot us coming and egg on the others. Before we knew it, we would be surrounded by snarling, growling little monsters. However, after ten months of target practice, revenge was ours. We would just reach into our stash of big sharp rocks, and start bombarding them. And with immense satisfaction we would watch them whimper off towards home.

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Why do dogs like to chase bikers? It is because these dogs live by the law of the Chinese road. That is, whoever is bigger has the right of way. So, if you are a truck, it is without saying that you go through villages at 80km per hour. If a dog or pedestrian gets in your way, all you have to do is honk. If you come to a red light... no problem, you are the biggest, so you just pass through with a loud honk. If you are backing up you don't even have to look behind you. Because of this, there are a lot of dog pancakes in China. So, when these dogs spot us, they are just venting anger for all of their squished relatives. It's quite sad really.

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You may now be wondering where bikers fit into Chinese road rules. We were wondering that too when we first got here. When we were in a city, we would swerve for pedestrians, trying to miss them... as we would do in Belgium. But, here, the pedestrians would also try to swerve, trying to get out of our way. That often resulted in a near collision and a lot of trauma for the Chinese person that was almost run over by a big nosed, yellow haired biker. We therefore concluded that we were above pedestrians on the food chain. So now, when we see a pedestrian, we tighten our grip and head straight for them. If they still don't move, we have a 120 decibel horn to help them on their way. In doing things the Chinese way, everything runs a lot smoother.

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To celebrate and to recover from the moldy trucker 'hotels' of the last few weeks, we wanted to treat ourselves to something clean and fancy. So, at the end of the valley, we parked in front of a big high rise hotel with lots of SUV's parked in front. Pretty people stood all around, and I trudged in, full of sweat stains and grease, to ask for their executive room. Behind me, Wim was pushing our muddy bikes through the reception. After checking in, we shot up to our rooms to get cleaned up. Then we went downstairs to the reception to strut around in front of the reception ladies. We wanted them to know that we don't always stink.

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Now, we are getting to know Liuku and it's residence in our last few days. As we walk through the streets, locals practice their one word of English... "hello", and then laugh shyly. At night, we join the rest of the city on the 2km pedestrian loop around the river, which is decorated with waterfalls and gardens. People stand around grilling yummies, groups of people dance to music, and whole extended families wander around together enjoying each others company. I guess you could say that we're really taken with the whole Chineseness of it all.

And now, we're off once again to Kunming for the last leg of our journey.

Posted by amyandwim 02:36 Archived in China Comments (4)

The Dark Side of China

DAY 294, KM 10,456, Kunming, Yunnan, China

sunny 24 °C

Our dream having been squashed by closed areas and tragedies, we had to think up a new route. So, we decided to head for Kunming. We were leaving the Himalayas with sadness and regret. No more beautiful high peaks for us. Only flatness. Or so we thought.

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It turns out though, that China is not only really big, it is also one huge range of mountains. So, there will be no mercy for our scrawny little legs as we continue on our journey.

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As we go more east, the Chinese people get more and more curious. Each night during our evening walks, eyes follow us down the streets, people in restaurants stop chewing, and babies point in disbelief. When we glance into shop windows, curious about what they might sell, we only see dozens of eyes staring out at us. Apparently, privacy is not a very popular concept in China. Everything is to be shared including personal emails, toilet breaks, and baggage contents. The curious must lead a rich and rewarding existence in this country. Ironically though, this does not give us much in the way of cultural exchange, being that we don't speak Chinese. They just stare at us, we just stare at them, and we are all generally amused.

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Often we take walks at night to try and find the city park for some good people watching action (yes, we do like to stare at them too). Parks are the place to be to watch Chinese people having fun. They are always busy with hundreds of activities. Old people are singing and flying kites, children are driving carts around and roller skating, and teenagers are standing around looking at each others crazy hairdos. But our favorite part of the day is when the dancing begins. There are always a few people that bring an old ghetto blaster and set themselves up on an empty spot in the park. And then a crowd draws, the music begins, and everyone breaks out in synchronized moves. One tape player will be blasting loud techno music for the teenie boppers and three meters away you have old people getting down to beat-heavy traditional music.

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One night, two girls ask us to join in and so we timidly did, knowing that all eyes would be on us. As expected a huge crowd drew to watch the big white people dance. It was great fun, and we were sort of able to follow. After the dancing was over the huge crowd surrounded us to ask us questions. The old men had many questions that our translator refused to ask us. But they did luckily get to enquire about Wim's large nose. They also wanted to know why I had yellow hair. I thought that this was a joke until I saw that everyone was patiently waiting for an explanation. As we were leaving, a few teenage boys with sticking up hair gave us their email. They wanted a picture of our yellow hair.

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The next day we were flagged down by an English teacher at the local high school. Her colleagues had bet her 100 Yuan (10 Euro's) that she would not come talk to us. So she did and then she invited us to her class. Our mission was to convince her 75 students (who were soon to finish school and become farmers) that they should stop playing video games and dating and concentrate solely on studying English. So I made a long speech which no one understood and then the teacher made me sing for everyone. After our mission was over, class was dismissed and we all went our own way. The students and teachers sleep at the school, however during the night, everyone does their own thing. There is no one there to supervise the kids. So, we went out drinking with the teachers, which was great because we got to ask a whole lot of questions about China. And they got to learn about the West. They were particularly excited to find out that the government pays us for each extra kid that we have, whereas in China you have to pay a heavy fine and you might loose your job if you have more than one child.

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In one of the last stretches we did on our way to Kunming, we went through our first ugly part of China. From the beautiful mountains, we descended into the dark side of China, a sweltering hot coal mining/burning valley. Trucks coming out of the mines passed us every few minutes and coal burning chimneys could be seen through the thick haze. By the end of the day, we looked like two miners, our faces and boogers black like the night (and our lungs?). The city that we slept in that night was covered in a layer of soot and a putrid burning stench hung in the air.

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Wim holding onto a truck to cheat his way up a hill.

Luckily though, this was but for a stretch. And we are now once again basking in the startled stares and fresh air of the Yunnanese hills.

Posted by amyandwim 01:52 Archived in China Comments (3)

A lucky turn

DAY 282, KM 10,151, Lijiang, Yunnan, China

semi-overcast 20 °C

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We had been biking for days over hills waiting for the first snowy peaks of the Himalayas to appear before us in all their glory. Yet as we reached the top of each big hill, another big snowless , unimpressive hill would present itself. So, that's when we pulled out our map of China. "Let's see how far we've come!" We suspected that we were probably half way across China. What we found though, as we viewed our map, was shocking. Our line through China was not even a centimeter long! It turns out that China is really, really big.

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That's when the suppressed tiredness that had been in our bones through the last months of travel became not so suppressed anymore. I fell on the bed and gave a dramatic grunt, proclaiming that it was all too much, the stinking toilets, the stomach problems, the general discomfort of not being at home... And suddenly Wim began drooping as well. We began dreaming of stability and all the lovely things of home that you all are taking for granted this very minute. That's when we rushed out with glee to the Internet cafe to write Wim's mom that we were coming home and we started to search for plane tickets. We even went out clothes shopping, and bought 5 kilos of cheap Chinese shirts and pants. It was great fun and we were in a relaxed state of mind, with the idea that we wouldn't have to pedal up any more of those cobblestone hills. After the initial enthusiasm though, we began to think of how sad it would be to leave this great country with all of it's gorgeous scenery and mind blowing food. And of course the Chinese people who are incredibly friendly, sociable, and intelligent. It's not that we don't like you guys, it's just... you really can't compare to these lovely Chinese people.

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So, in a changed state of mind, we wrote Wim's mom back to tell her just kidding, and (with the same enthusiasm as mentioned in the previous paragraph) we started to plan, "Wim and Amy's excellent Himalayan adventure."

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With renewed energy and 5 extra kilos of city clothes, we took on the ever growing hills to the north. The plan was to head up into the Himalayas, join up with the Sichuan-Tibetan highway and end up in Chengdu. Talk about an exciting emotional turn around! We were all aflutter as we strutted around town in our new long underwear, making predictions about how adventurous this last stretch of our trip was going to be. Things just couldn't get any better.

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But things seemed to just get better and better as we climbed in elevation. The mountains became of mammoth proportions, the ascents became day long undertakings, and the descents turned into finger-freezing, rim burning joy rides. These mountains were making Northern Laos look like an afternoon excursion for the elderly! Jagged snow covered peaks loomed up some 6000 meters above us, surrounding us and making us feel very small and insignificant. Our first nights above 3000 meters, we woke up intermittently gasping for breath, and then started the next day feeling exhausted from our own bodies' efforts to acclimatize. With each pass that we climbed, a stunning view came into sight of valleys, rivers and peaks that we had never seen before.

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At passes as high as 3700 meters, we would breathlessly put on every piece of warm clothing in our panniers and fly down the mountain, only to start the climbing process all over again. Just being in the midst of the gigantic mountains was so awe inspiring that we began to understand why many cultures attach religious significance to such high peaks. We didn't feel like we were so much conquering the mountains, as just lucky to be allowed to quietly crawl over them, awed by their presence.

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Climbing out of a near-vertical river gorge, we had to carry our bikes on our shoulders, and we hired a horse to carry our panniers.

We had finally reached the Yangtze river and just crossed the border with Sichuan. After a lot of climbing that day, we were rewarded with a 40km downhill. Hoping for a shower and a bed, we neared a checkpoint and asked where the nearest hotel was. A policeman pointed to a building across the street and then asked for our passport. Soon, a few military men came out to try on our helmet and fiddle with our gears. And then an important looking guy from the PSB (Public Security Bureau) came out, not looking happy to see us. And that's when it happened...

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He stuck out his pointer finger... direction Laos... where we had just come from. There was no doubting the authority of that finger, but there had to be some mistake. We were going to Sichuan, not Laos. For the next few minutes we stood there in a frenzy of pointing, not comprehending why he was pointing us in the wrong direction. (we really did know, but playing stupid usually works to our advantage.) After much frustration on the part of the PSB guy, he got someone who spoke good chinenglish to talk to us. "Sichuan, no Laowai (no foreigners)". Our stupidity trick wasn't working, so we asked to just be allowed to sleep in the hotel across the street. But this was too risky. So we asked to sleep with them in the police station. But no, that was definitely not possible. However, they did assure us that the hotel which we passed 20km before was only a quick 10km back up the hill.

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Why is Sichuan closed? The channel 9 news guy informed us that terrorists of the Dali Lama clan are trying to break Tibet's ancient ties with China. With a lack of appreciation for all that the Chinese government has provided them, they go on targeting innocent Han Chinese in Tibet and Sichuan, burning their stores, disrupting tourism... The one-sided reports reminded us a bit of how our media covers our terrorists.

After being turned away and returning our 20km that day, we checked into a truckers stop and got to use our first village toilet. Yes, that's right, a community toilet for the whoooole village. Not so bad until it becomes obvious that no one is in charge of its upkeep. And so it has been in all of the village toilets that we've met ever since.

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But luckily we had more to do that night than hang around the toilets. We had to decide where we would go next. We had met some bikers that were thinking of sneaking into Sichuan, past the checkpoint in the middle of the night. However, we both felt uncertain about that option after having seen a policeman enthusiastically beating a handcuffed guy at a previous checkpoint. Would they also beat us? We didn't really want to find out, so we decided to re-plan our route.

The next day, we decided to hitch a ride back to the previous city. But it seemed that no one, not even the public bus, wanted to stop long enough to load our bikes. We were going to have to climb all the way back out of the valley. However, Wim had the bright idea of waving a bright red 100 Yuan note (10 Euro's) in the air. Low and behold, the first truck came to a screeching halt. Before we knew it we were 100km back in Yunnan. That afternoon, a powerful earthquake magnitude 8.0 hit Sichuan, killing more than 40,000 people, leveling whole villages, and causing countless landslides on the steep mountain roads. Hundreds of kilometers away, on the roads leading out of Sichuan, we could still see the effects. The roads were littered with rocks, and all over the mountains you could see workers with brooms, sweeping small debris off the roads. You might say that we had just escaped the earthquake by a hair. Thank you PSB guy!

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So, we are now sitting in a fancy (15 Euro's) hotel to celebrate the reaching of our 10,000th km. We went all out, bought our first bottle of wine in 9 months and played wild games of Tetris late into the night. It was fantastic!

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Posted by amyandwim 21:03 Archived in China Comments (3)

Land of Abundance, Home of the Panda

DAY 265, KM 9612, Dali, Yunnan, China

sunny 20 °C

Billions of squinty eyed little people pushing us, shoving us, and spitting their boogers on our toes. Unintelligible Chinese characters swarming around our heads. Hoards of onlookers laughing at us as we get charged insane tourist prices. Police watching our every move. "This city is closed, no pictures, we have to confiscate your camera!" Who can we ask, where do we go, how can we function in such an alien country? Dry cabbage and dog for breakfast, lunch and dinner, stinky hotels and community toilets. Wim and Amy... two little fish lost in a big scary Chinese pond. Or at least that is what we expected...

This is what we found:
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We had just stepped out of Laos, the land of sticky rice and bamboo huts, and we had stepped into a shocking world of stores that sell things, people with jobs, kids going to school, and shiney advertisments strewn along the street. Speechlessly, we wandered through the streets. Was all this extravagance good or did we miss the simplicity of life in Laos? We were torn... until we found the restaurants... and the adundant snack-cart ladies. Extravagance? No way, we deserved this! That night, despite our fatigue, Wim dragged me through the streets buying every snack available. Imagine all the modern conveniences and abundance of Germany... at a 95% discount. We were in the land of milk and honey!

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(pre-packaged chicken feet... a luxury you just can't find this in Laos!)

The Cities

China is developing at an amazing rate. While our countries slowly developed over four generations, China exploded into modernity over a period of only ten years. Many of the cities we visit have grown much faster than its inhabitants could cope with. Thus a walk through the city reveals a strange balance between old and new, rich and poor, traditional and modern:

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Western clothing, perfumes and the latest cellphones are all prettily displayed in store windows. Parks, fountains, and bike paths are all laid out to create a sense of order and calm that is missing in much of the world's big cities. On these same streets, women from the surrounding hills, dressed in colourful traditional clothing squat down next to their vegetables, hoping for a sale.

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Store owners wives are washing their clothes in buckets outside their fancy store fronts. Toddlers are taking care of thier morning business in the gutter. Distorted techno music blasts through store speakers and puppies play chicken with oncoming traffic. Giant internet cafes show off the newest hardware and the oldest plumbing (community toilets: a 4 meter long ditch, where you put one leg on each side, and squat together with 7 other "community members"). Throughout the day, people fill the streets, playing cards, eating, doing tai chi, pushing snack carts, walking their bird cages...

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The People

Everyone stares intently as we walk down the streets. They are probably thinking, "Wow, look at their big noses." But as soon as we sit down somewere, the astonishment is put aside and everyone is eager to help us. We point, do some quick gestures, and everyone knows exactly what we mean. These people are clever! They are also welcoming and quick to give us a big smile. Best of all, we don't have to share our friendly Chinese people with any other tourists!

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The Landscape

To our suprise, the hills of northern Laos didn't stop at the border. So, we have spent our last weeks biking up the even bigger hills of China, with varying road conditions along the way.

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Road construction is happening all over the place. For 200km, we biked along a closed section of unfinished highway that tunnels through the hills and bridges over wide canyons, all the while laughing at the thought of taking the old road that goes over the hills. The road workers didn't seem to mind that we were there and we even convinced a building team to let us through a 4km unfinished tunnel going through the heart of a gigantic mountian.

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The next 400km however, were cobblestone roads, landslides and headaches.

Through our last weeks, we've been enjoying the biking as much as we have the cities. As we bike through the countryside, we creep up hills at 5km per hour, urged on by the beautiful scenery and the thought of the nearing Himalayas. All the land around us (that is not vertical) is being worked by colourful farmers. Road workers wave and invite us for rice as we bike past, and truckers give us a thumbs up and a smile.

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We are now out to find ourselves some hairy yak clothes to keep us warm as we attempt to pedal ourselves over the Himalayas!

Posted by amyandwim 03:51 Archived in China Comments (11)

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