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Kunming to Laos by bike: Part II

By in Travel on

Editor's note: Belgian transplant to Kunming Sander van de Moortel had been studying Chinese for five months when Spring Festival rolled around this year. With 45 days off from school he decided to cycle from Kunming to Bangkok with the intention of staying fit, getting a tan and visiting old friends met during a previous bike trip through Vietnam and Yunnan.

Van de Moortel decided to avoid highways and instead made his way south on small back roads and paths. Below is part two of a condensed four part travel diary he wrote while traveling through Yunnan toward the Lao border. Please see the first post, which covered Yuxi to Daqiao and Daqiao to Nansha.

His entire blog of the journey can be viewed on the website crazyguyonabike.

Nansha (南沙) to Laomeng (老勐): 83 kilometers, 15.8km per hour, 5 hours

I was out the door by 7am and tried to get some noodles from a startled lady. She had just opened so I had to wait a bit. After the noodles and a bit of chocolate I left for the hills.

And the hills, they started right there in Nansha. In fact, I was already on one. I carefully navigated through a minefield of free-roaming and bite-happy dogs and started the uncompromisingly steep 29 kilometer ascent to Xinjie (新街).

Xinjie had the same old traffic congestion as the year before. I wondered if anyone had moved since then. The traffic jam was several kilometers long and showcased China's entire vehicle arsenal. I decided to give the town another pass and continued ten kilometers to the top of the mountain.

Halfway through I realized I had forgotten the most essential things about Xinjie: it had the only ATM around that accepted foreign cards. I knew I would pay dearly for my stubbornness, but I couldn't and wouldn't turn around.

It was winter and the rice terraces were flooded, making the hills a photographer's dream. The Chinese have understood the potential of this area becoming another Yuanyang and were building a visitor center and a massive parking lot. I was happy to still be able to pass the place without paying.

It was lonely at the top so I rolled down immediately. A fierce headwind, some nasty potholes and the sight of gorgeous terraces tempered my speed. The paddies gradually ceded to banana plantations populated by tiny, young sunburnt people on motorcycles.

Just as I arrived in Laomeng, one of my saddle rails snapped. I pulled up at a tofu grill, joined a gang of drunken local workers, ate and asked them where I could have my bike fixed.

Luck was with me — less than ten meters down the road a motorbike repairman quickly welded the bars back together. With an apologetic chabuduo (差不多) he told me it was free. Mechanic heaven.

I got a cheap hotel room for 40 yuan with a hologram of a naked woman on the wall and then strolled around town. I asked where to find the bank and was promptly picked up by a motorcyclist.

He charged me ten yuan for a 30-second ride and I reprimanded him for ripping me off but coughed up the dough anyway; my fault for not checking. The bank was of course out of money.

Laomeng is made up of only a few streets. I scouted around, bought a pair of socks to replace the threadbare ones on my feet and inquired around about my options to cycle an alternative route to Laos.

I sat down for some more tofu and mixian and the boys I had joined payed for my meal in return for some banter. Despite the free meal, my money was getting dangerously low. I would have to spend my remaining 298 yuan carefully as I was unlikely to get cash before Jiangcheng (江城).

Laomeng (老勐) to Lüchun (绿春): 72 kilometers, 13.7km per hour, 5 hours 15 minutes

I had slept well, despite the early Spring Festival fireworks. I made another attempt at getting money from the only bank in town but the terminal gave me a code 40 — the banking equivalent of the finger. I blamed my stubbornness and went in search of food.

Food came in the form of mixian (hooray!) and fried sticky rice pyramids. I watched an old French war-comedy on tv while I ate. Even though I found myself snorting with laughter at times, it didn't seem to elicit much reaction from the other patrons. Hitler had just picked up a liking for Jewish music when the owner switched channels to something with more guns.

On the bike it was chilly and I already had a cold but was too lazy to unpack my pullover. I continued in my t-shirt and hoped the sun would soon crawl over the hilltops. The first ten kilometers were undulating road with no major obstacles. Then things turned nasty. A steep climb tested my already sour muscles and a fierce headwind tried to blow me back down the hill.

Happy that I hadn't attempted to extend yesterday's ride all the way to Lüchun, I pushed on, frequently taking breaks to stretch or sunbathe.

The sweat on my forehead mixed with the dust becoming crystalline and I considered selling my skin as sandpaper for some cash. Halfway to my goal I joined a communal mixian table and made a vain attempt at small talk. I wondered whether the other patrons were shy, uninterested or if they deemed their own Mandarin insufficient.

Just before another village, a kid rolled my way on a self-made skateboard — four pieces of wood and a couple of metal rings that served as wheels. After 50 kilometers of climbing, I reached the top at 1,960 meters. That was followed by a short but welcome six kilometer downhill into Lüchun.

No ATM accepted my foreign VISA card and one even swallowed my card out of spite. I had also lost my Belgian flag and a piece of my sunglasses. My Kindle wouldn't work and my phone was starting to play up too. I tried to lift my low spirits with food and found yet another communal tofu grill.

The girl grilling the tofu was a beautiful ball of energy. She yapped away in an incomprehensible language at her family and friends, laughed a crisp cackle and smiled a charming smile. Towards me however, she was rather quiet.

I couldn't help but find the people there a lot less inviting than elsewhere. Compared with crazy Laomeng, they were also more traditional: only one hairdo per person.

No-one invited me over or offered to share a drink. Elsewhere I'd consider this normal, but here in China I almost took offence. Nevertheless, people stared as if I was from another world, which is why I started making extra-terrestrial noises at some kids.

I checked into a recommended hotel, paid 60 yuan and took a shower. The rooms were nice and the views a dream, but I still had that nagging money question on my mind. At the bus station, the clerk seemed more interested in reading a sales catalogue than providing solutions. Apparently I could go to Jiangcheng, Pu'er or Xinjie but not come back the same day.

I walked around in the hope of finding a bar or some place to sit down and maybe talk to people, but the only vibrant place seemed to be a multi-storied KTV. Back to the hotel then. I went to sleep early so I could catch the 6:30am bus to Xinjie. It was the shortest ride – four and a half hours — with the best chance of returning within one day.

Lüchun (绿春) to Pinghe (平河): 62.5 kilometers, 20.5km per hour, 3 hours

My money problems had been solved and I had returned to Lüchun to retrieve my bike. A mere six kilometers of uphill took me out of Lüchun and were followed by an icy descend in the shade of the mountain. The police at the checkpoint wanted to see my passport for the fourth time and finally waved me through. I took a right off Route 212 and onto an eerily quiet road.

The road was a cyclists dream: devoid of traffic, smooth, overall downhill and lined with forest. I took plenty of breaks to warm up, enjoy the scenery and fresh air and sample a bunch of divine-tasting bananas I'd bought earlier. I noticed I was sharing a bridge with an elderly woman and her great granddaughter, so I walked over to offer them some bananas. They wanted two. I feasted on the rest of the bunch.

Around 2pm I rolled into Pinghe. I greeted the stares with a cheery "yo!" and asked for directions in the one-street town. Where's a place to sleep? Down this road. Of course. I asked again a couple of meters later and a man assured me there weren't any hotels around.

I called his bluff by asking a passing girl who immediately pointed to the house in front of me. Ah. Forty yuan for a sober but functional room plus a bathroom with no sink.

A restaurant served me eggplant, fried peanuts and rice. I normally prefer to sit where I can watch everyone else — especially there, where the other table was packed with beautiful young women. But this part of Yunnan seemed to favor separating every table with little walls. After I finished eating, the owner asked me to sit down with her and her family. They were peeling peanuts so I offered a hand.

I was allowed to! Success! Passing men mocked me for doing ladies' work — my interpretation of their smiles — but I didn't care. The ladies quickly noticed that I could do better, though, and taught me how to peel peanuts efficiently. By the end of the bag I was a peanut-peeling machine.

Back at my hotel overlooking terraced rice paddies, a young lady addressed me in strong dialect. I wasn't in the mood and pulled the tingbudong card, but she was persistent and apparently the owner's daughter. She had fiery eyes and a direct attitude. A little later she called from the roof for me to join them for dinner. I was happy to.

The food was good and included all the pieces of chicken and duck you can imagine. My dear hosts — as custom commands — put the best bits in my bowl, which unfortunately meant hearts and livers and so on. Not wanting to offend, I ate it all.

When the rice came I was given a spoon. I was offended. I squinted my eyes, sized them up, put the spoon aside, and made a total fool of myself trying to eat rice the way they did, by basically drinking it from the bowl.

The mother had a laughing fit with every move I made while the daughter looked at me intensely in the eyes. I gasped. Am I married? Looking for a wife? The ever-recurring question in rural villages around Yunnan: to find out whether people can be coupled.

The mother asked me whether I'd be interested in her daughter - yessiam. But the daughter had already drawn her own conclusions: I'm older, mom, he doesn't want me. My Chinese did not suffice to set this straight, so I let it go.

After dinner she took me for a walk around the strangely lively town. Old men were playing croquet and everyone was outside chatting. We took in the rice paddies, a local farm, the mountains in Vietnam, and the Zhong-Yue (中越) market where people from Vietnam come to trade in the part of town inhabited by Yao minorities (瑶族).

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I've been reading these and you're a really good writer. I'm in Laos right now and thinking of hitch hiking back up to Kunming, how possible is this?

Man, you are very brave. Your trip is in my dreams but I am to "chicken" as they say here in Texas. (I will ask what is the word for chicken tomorrow with my friends in China town).

@russell, it's Ji. There's a much faster way of translating English to Chinese these days and requires no travel outside of your own home: it's called google translate.

Anyway, from this itinerary it looks like the writer is about to enter Vietnam before he enters Laos, unless he backtracks first. Normally to travel from Kunming to Laos one would pass through Yuxi, Yuanjiang, Simao (Pu'er), Jinghong (Xieng Hung or Chiang Rung), Mengla (Muang La) and finally Mohan before reaching Laos. Of course while you can't cycle on the expressway, I have seen western cyclists on the highway between Jinghong and the border (there is currently no expressway there).

Therefore taking the backroads between Kunming and Jinghong would be the fastest way, but this cyclist's itinerary sounds more interesting and passes a more beautiful region of Yunnan - I too was very impressed by Yuanyang (hence my GoKM username right hehe), not to mention Lvchun and the Vietnamese borderlands before reaching Hekou.

@pickley - hitchhiking is possible, but not really recommended due to the low cost of public transport and possible risk of things going wrong, though having said that hitchhiking is far safer in most parts of East Asia than in the USA for example. But you can still try anyway and it is surely a very interesting way of travelling.

I think Chinese truck drivers (starting in northern Laos, not far from the border) or Lao truck drivers (who wouldn't go much beyond Mengla) would help you cross the border, and then you could try flagging another vehicle to go further north. Alternatively, Chinese tourists driving themselves in southern Xishuangbanna or possibly in Laos itself might be willing to help you. It would be a good idea to offer some food, drinks or something for the ride and truck drivers often expect some payment anyway, but if you are nice and give them some food, cigarettes (if they smoke) or something else then that should make them happy enough without the need for monetary compensation. Every experience is different so you'll need to just try it out and see what happens.

Thanks JI. I will be in Kunming in March and I hope to get advice on travel to ShangriLa, lodging, etc. I am very pro Chinese people.

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