DAY 282, KM 10,151, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Tuesday 20 May 2008 20 °C
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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!
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!