Coming full circle in Kunming

There’s nothing like a nature trail to put everything in perspective. I’m walking under serene pine trees on what I think is a Buddhist kora — a circuit around a sacred site — on a mountain by Caoxi Temple (草席), a short walk from my hotel. I indulged myself by staying at Jinfang Forest Spa Resort in Anning (安宁) — a short drive west of Kunming — to conclude my motorbike trip that started nearly three weeks ago in Kunming. In that span, I covered over 1,500km of good (and terrible) road, mingled with friendly foreigners and locals, ate and slept on the cheap, and experienced sensory overload. Thus I needed peace so I splurged on my last night at Jinfang (it’s the low season so I negotiated for a 650元 king-size mountain view room with private hot spring pool).

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After the Water Splashing Festival, I rode G213, which is the old highway that runs parallel to the Kunming-Mohan Expressway, north out of Jinghong (景洪). Pu’er tea trees and banana plants dominate, and to a lesser extent, a patchwork of colorful orchards, blooming flowers, and other cash crops (watermelon, dragon fruit, sugarcane, maize, coffee, etc. ) appear. Be aware that G213 is currently under varying stages of improvements so dump trucks, potholes, and dust are the norm.  The nearly 100km-stretch from Ning’er to Mojiang almost drove me to madness, and makes it difficult to appreciate the views.

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I decided to take a detour on S218. My sanity and bike thanked me. The section from Mojiang to where the two-lane sealed road meets S306 at the Lishe River was one of the best overall routes (great road condition, light traffic, and splendid scenry). S218 meanders up and down mountains, passing rice terraces before it drops into a river valley full of bananas. On a Tuesday afternoon, all I usually saw on the scenic byway were motorbikes, motor plows, farmers, cattle, water buffaloes, and chickens trying to get out of my way.

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Of course, everything wasn’t dandy — vast tracts of mountainsides were striped of forest to make way for more crops. And I had to make haste to beat a coming thunderstorm. I was thinking,

“No, no, please wait, please wait!”

The rain didn’t wait, and I ended up getting doused, but not nearly as wet as I did at the festival. I sought shelter at a crossroads truck stop where S218 meets S306. The storm knocked out the electricity, so I had a not-so-romantic, candlelit dinner with five local men. It was comical as one man repeatedly tried to speak to me in his local language. Upon failing to communicate, he invariably resorted to “hello” when he wanted me to drink bijiu (白酒) or eat.

Dry and refreshed (albeit surprising so, considering the state of the bare-bones, 30元-room at the truck stop), I took S306 back to G213 and spent the next night at Eshan. To find the Chinese hotels I stayed at in Pu’er (普洱), Ning’er (宁洱), Mojiang (墨江), and Eshan (峨山), look for neon lights or ask bystanders to point the way to a hotel (jiu dian 酒店). The rooms averaged 100元, and twin bed rooms were cheaper for some reason. The four-laned S213 then quickly took me higher and higher until I was on the high plateau that Kunming and Anning rest on.

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(SIDENOTE: Despite driving an unregistered bike with no Chinese license, I didn’t have any problems with the authorities. I passed through a few security checkpoints (and bypassed one), but I was only stopped once for passport verification. However, if you decide to ride a bike in Yunnan, drive safely with a good helmet, use common sense, smile, and enjoy the ride.)

Ringing in the New Year, Dai-style

Guns are loaded. Battle cries fill the air. Chaos ensues. This is not a war zone, but rather Poshuijie (泼水节) — the Dai people’s annual New Year’s celebration. Known as the Water Splashing Festival, locals and tourists alike flocked to the main square of Jinghong — the capital of Xishuangbana, Yunnan — on Friday the 15th to cap off the three-day festival with wild, wet revelry.

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The Dai sprinkle water on people to bring the recipients good fortune. During the festival, the wetter you get, the more luck you get, and anyone and everyone is fair game. As a foreigner, be prepared to get an extra dousing. Just to get to the square, my group — armed with water guns, bags of water balloons, and plastic pots — had to pass through a gauntlet of water hurlers. Teams on each side of the street would challenge you to get through. Impossible. Water attacks also come from rear ambushes and above from balconies. I was drenched in no time, and I quickly learned the importance of a plastic pot — you use it to shield your face. High-pressure water guns (think Super Soaker 1000) hurt!

My sanctuary and base of operations was Caffy’s Guesthouse (Mengzhe Road No. 20), where I stayed for the three days of the festival. Normally 30元 for a dorm bed, prices were three-fold for the festival period. Caffy made it worthwhile as a most gracious hostess, making you feel at home, and making a terrific cup of Yunnan coffee. She threw a party the night before and lobbed the first water balloon at midnight. Her staff and guests (mostly Chinese, as was the festival in general) quickly joined in the fun or ran for cover.

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Earlier in the day, I unsuccessfully searched for the festive parade of locals in colorful, traditional dresses so I relaxed at Manting Park before a sunset at Xishuangbana Bridge, which crosses the Lancang River (Mekong). For souvenirs, go to Ganlanba, the site of a giant golden tower and a huge night market.

The festival officially kicked off on the 13th with dragon boat races on the Lancang. The countdown to the new year occurred at 8pm on the banks of the river with Buddhist monks chanting scriptures, and people setting off river lanterns and paper lanterns that filled the sky. New year’s wishes are written on the lanterns before they float away. The sheer spectacle of light, fire, and chanting was mesmerizing.

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For most of the activities, I was joined by a rotating cast of good-natured Chinese and foreign hostel mates. We ate Dai food together (you must try the sticky rice with powdered seaweed, and the pineapple rice), enjoyed Yunnan’s exotic fruits, and washed everything down with Beerlao. I didn’t do any of Caffy’s recommended day-trips out of Jinghong as the overpowering heat discouraged activity. Plus, I didn’t feel the need to as I passed through minority villages and gorgeous countryside on the drive from Yuanyang to Jinghong. Rice terraces gave way to landscapes dominated by banana, rubber tree, and Pu’er tea plantations. I camped for two nights (once overlooking terraced tea trees near Luchen and another in a mountainside rubber tree clearing by Xishuangbana Tropical Botanical Garden) sandwiched around a hotel stay in Jiangcheng. It proved to be a wonderful stay as my bike received a repair and I was treated to dinner by the boss and his family.

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The road conditions often made for slow travel — S214 is a twisting, mountain-hugging affair with light motorbike traffic on the way to Luchen, and it becomes 20km of rocky, dirt road when it meets S218, north of Jiangcheng. Similarly, G213 — slicing through Xishuangbana National Nature Reserve on the way to Jinghong — is currently under construction so dump trucks, heavy machinery, and clouds of dust obstruct jungle scenery and stop traffic. Regardless, when you stop for a break, you get a glimpse of Yunnan daily life: farmers working their rice terraces, sugarcane being readied for market, roadside watermelon stands awaiting customers, dried tea leaves being sorted, a cobra snake being captured, local men lazily smoking cigarettes from a bong, female laborers lugging heavy, blue bags of bananas up mountains, fresh tea leaves being picked and put in woven baskets, and to cap it all — a wild water festival to wash away the old year.

From rice to riches: Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Birds chirp. A woman in dark blue and black garb works her field. A farmer leads his water buffalo. Just after sunrise, I’m sitting by a bubbling drainage ditch that is giving and taking water from flooded terraces as it makes it’s way to a fog-filled valley.

The otherworldly place is the Duoyishu rice terraces — one of many in the UNESCO-listed Honghe Hani Rice Terraces — roughly 365km south of Kunming, not far from the Vietnam border.

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It’s taken me five days to get here since I left Kunming by motorbike. It wasn’t easy to leave knowing full well what happened to my last bike (Click here). Once I got out of the city and on the open road though, thrill replaced paranoia. I used the side road (bikes aren’t allowed on toll roads) that cuts between Xishan Forest Park and Dianchi Lake. For outstanding panoramic views of Kunming, take a cable car (40元 one-way) across the lake to Xishan and hike past Buddhist and Taoist temples to Dragon’s Gate (Longmen admission 40元). If you’re interested in community living projects, drive 15km further south then turn right and follow big butterfly signposts to Spirit Tribe. I went there for their 3-day electronic music festival where I camped, met fun-loving people, and cavorted for the first two nights. The beautiful valley location, west of the city, is perfect for nature escapes.

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The natural scenery only got better as I continued south. I took S215 to Yuxi, passing fields of you-name-it (onions, potatoes, cabbage, etc.). I stopped for the night in Tonghai, 30km east of Yuxi on S304. I caught the tail end of a sunset at a hilltop pagoda in Xiushan Mountain Park. A clean, comfortable hotel will cost you around 90元. The hotel guard might even escort you two blocks to the best Chinese BBQ joint, like was done for me.

S214 can take you the rest of the way to Yuanyang. I shared the road, which mostly runs parallel with the toll road to Jianhui, with buses and transport trucks loaded to the brim with crops or construction supplies. I had to dodge fallen cabbage and stones occasionally. Though it became more difficult to focus on the road as dramatic scenery unfolded.  What started as a high plateau in Kunming, followed by spacious valleys, became ravines. The scenic route hugs mountains and overlooks a patchwork of various crops.  As you approach sleepy towns, the air’s a bit thicker from burning trash. Roadside trash dumps are a common sight, but Yunnan’s one-of-a-kind scenery blots out the blemishes.

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Jianshui, with restored classical architecture and famous roasted tofu, made for a relaxing break. I spent two nights at Typha Youth Hostel (60-80元 single room), very close to the oldest Confucius temple in southern China. It has a friendly staff, a rooftop patio with a great view, and comfortable rooms IF you use their mosquito coils. (I didn’t the first night and killed close to 20 blood-filled suckers!)

After a sunrise at Double Dragon Bridge, I slowly made my way on countless switchbacks. Factory towns gave way to villages that dotted the mountainsides. The last 30km before Yuanyang is a treacherous, yet stunning descent to the Red River (Honghe). Terraced rice fields come into view for the first time on the way down. Just pass through the nondescript town of Nansha (aka New Yuanyang) and go another 30km via the road to Xinjie (aka Old Yuanyang) where the spectacular terrace views begin.

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I went an extra 30km to the Duoyishu terraces in order to stay at Timeless Hostel, highly rated by Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor. The host, Richard from Fujian, is extremely helpful and full of knowledge. (He called me “a crazy man” when I told him my mode of transport. I have to agree.) And the hostel is located in the middle of a Hani village called Puogaolaozhai, overlooking the terraced valley. The Hani minority people (and later the Yi minority) have been carving out a livelihood from the steep contours of the land for at least 1,300 years. Their hard labour supports rice, beans, and corn. Coincidently, the local people created a thing of beauty in the process.  Let’s just hope the government — which has invested in new villages, schools, and roads — doesn’t build an airport nearby to make the attraction more convenient for mass tourism.