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Cycling to the Yangtze River

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Sunset approaches over the Yangtze River
Sunset approaches over the Yangtze River

Editor's note: GoKunming recently cycled from Dongchuan to the confluence of the Xiaojiang (小江) and Yangtze (长江) rivers. This article is the third in a series of four about travelling in northeastern Yunnan. The first day's ride was through the Hongtudi Scenic Area, while on the second day we cycled near Jiaozi Snow Mountain.

The morning for us began just after daybreak with a walk to a local market for noodles and fried potatoes. The clouds and haze did little to cast Tangdan (汤丹) in a favorable light. We had hoped to see down into the gorge the city overlooked but with the fog it was impossible. Instead we continued to breakfast and on the way passed a small public square with three well-worn statues.

The first was a thin man carrying a fully-loaded woven basket on his back. He was followed by two high-stepping horses with similar baskets. Originally we thought the baskets must be loaded with coal, but a nearby placard stated it was copper — one of the more valuable and plentiful ores mined in the area.

Breakfast finished, our bike ride started in earnest with a climb. As if the statues from the square were a marker, we passed through an area wrecked by mining. Everything was grey and dreary, including the sunlight filtering through the morning fog.

We stopped on a bridge overlooking an empty riverbed. It was impossible to tell if the river had been diverted or had run dry with the season. A frontend loader labored to move huge rocks out of the gully where water should have been flowing. The only bright colors in sight were the piles of trash sloughing down into the ravine.

After crossing the bridge things began to get dirty. The road was covered with an ashy liquid mix created by dust from the surrounding mines and water from the brakes of massive transport trucks. It looked like we were cycling through a thin layer of fresh cement. Those of us without fenders were quickly covered in a gooey mess.

Passing through a small town one of our group sprinted up the road and flagged down a bus. He threw his bike onto the bus and two of us, like lemmings, followed suit. The second two bikes were too big to fit inside and the driver kindly hopped down from his seat and helped us secure our rides to the roof of the bus.

It was an in inglorious beginning to the morning but the 26 kilometer ascent in front of us climbed 1,250 meters without interruption. The bus soon passed our other two companions who had chosen to make the climb. We imagined a cartoon-like string of epithets chasing us and the bus up the hill.

The passengers on the bus were all middle school students. After about five minutes of whispered conversations and furtive glances in our direction, one of the more courageous kids turned around and spoke to us in impressive English. She was curious to know why where we were cycling and what we thought of the area.

It was a bit difficult to hold a conversation due to what was going on out the bus window. The driver, who probably made the drive at least once a day, was tearing up the hill. Of course there were no guard rails between the bus and a drop of hundreds of meters, but at least the views were splendid.

The bus came close to cresting the mountain at an intersection. The three of us arrived, through no effort of our own, at 2,800 meters. We relaxed for a bit, somewhat guiltily, and then headed toward the town of Tuobuka (拖布卡).

It was almost entirely downhill over smooth pavement. The landscape returned to the colors and scenes of two days earlier when we had ridden through the Hongtudi Scenic Area. We could also see evidence of mining everywhere. Operations of this sort were both big and small — some the work of large companies and others small family affairs.

On one particularly steep section of the road we gazed up at a tiny train preparing to take miners underground. The engine was the size of a large tea table and no more than meter high. Workers with bright blue helmets piled into open passenger cars and had to crouch forward, heads bowed, to fit inside the tunnel. Looking further down the mountain slope we could see an exposed section of railway track before it disappeared into another tiny tunnel.

Everyone met up in Tuobuka for a lazy lunch and a few beers. Our intrepid companion Li Chen, who had made the climb earlier in the day, decided it was time for him to head home to Dongchuan. He took a separate road that led down into the valley of the Xiaojiang River.

The rest of us continued toward Boka (播卡) and a road we had heard was cobbled. That road would take us to our endpoint for the day, Gele (格勒). The cobblestone road, when we reached it, was actually brick. Surprisingly the street was wide and smooth. Our concerns about riding dozens of kilometers over bumpy terrain had been unfounded.

The road undulated through the hills. At this point vehicle traffic had ceased altogether. A few times we had to share the road with dogs or cats, but otherwise we were completely alone.

Farmland in the area was plentiful. A cluster of five or six houses would often be ringed by concentric circles of large fields. We began to ride by a series of what appeared to be small hand-dug caves lining a hillside.

Caves used as cisterns
Caves used as cisterns

The entrances to some were covered with woven mats, others with doors made of sticks hammered crudely together. A man making his slow way up the hill stopped to explain the caves were used to store one of two things — grain for feeding livestock during the winter or water to get people and their animals through the dry season. How locals managed to fill these makeshift cisterns, unless arduously by hand, was beyond us.

The road crested a hill and over our left shoulders we caught our first glimpse of the Yangtze River as it flowed through the valley below. Then, through the haze, we could see Gele. The town sits on a slender finger of land that juts out into the confluence of the Xiaojiang and Yangtze rivers.

The town of Gele at the confluence of the Yangtze (left) and Xiaojiang (right) rivers
The town of Gele at the confluence of the Yangtze (left) and Xiaojiang (right) rivers

The only thing separating us from an end to our day was a series of switchbacks that wound madly down a hill to the peninsula. Our brakes strained with the effort as we rocketed through 1,100 meters of downhill elevation change.

One minute the road faced the barren hills along the Xiaojiang River and then would whip around a curve and point toward the forested slopes beside the Yangtze. Not only was the Yangtze canyon much prettier to look at but the river itself was a natural muddy brown. The Xiaojiang by contrast was running the color and consistency of white paint. Yum.

Barren hills lining the Xiaojiang River
Barren hills lining the Xiaojiang River

We cruised into town and marveled at how the elevation change had altered the landscape. Over the previous three days the scenery had been interspersed with young pine forests, tilled terraces and barren blasted mountainsides. Gele was dotted with deciduous trees, banana and palm trees and seemed lush even though it was early winter.

Just after entering town, we came across a hotel Li Chen had recommended. It had an open courtyard and rooms on the second floor overlooked the Yangtze River and the hills of Sichuan. Double rooms were only 20 yuan and so we splurged, each getting our own.

Images: Matthew Hartzell, Patrick Scally and Sander Van de Moortel
Map: Matthew Hartzell

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