Detour to Yangon

Despite a 5a.m. wake-up, we pulled out of our host Yun's place a little bit later than we'd hoped. He kindly accompanied us to the border to send us off and watched our bikes and bags as we attempted in vain to figure out how to secure a re-entry permit on our single-entry Thai visa.

  About to enter Myanmar via the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Mae Sot (photo by Yun)

As Canadians entering Thailand via a land border we would only be granted a 14-day visa on arrival, definitely not enough time for us to cycle to Malaysia. We were trying to avoid having to apply for a new visa and it seemed like it was a pretty straightforward procedure for us to get a permit that would allow us to re-enter the country on our current 60-day visa. We showed up at the Thai Immigration at Mae Sot with our duly completed forms (downloaded from the Immigration Bureau of Thailand website).

It became clear pretty quickly that nobody knew what to do with our forms. Despite what we thought was a pretty obvious heading, written in both Thai and English, “Application permit for re-entry into the Kingdom”. After being shuffled from window to the next, someone grudgingly filled out forms for us (20 baht/each). They turned out to be vehicle permits, which we're pretty sure we didn't need. Our completely ignored re-entry application forms were shoved back through the window at us, along with the vehicle permits. The confused immigration officers responded to our enquiries by repeating that we would get 14-day visas upon returning to Thailand, so we didn't have to worry. So we exited Thailand without the re-entry permit that we needed and concluded that we'd have to make our way to the Thai consulate in Yangon and apply for a new visa.

Going to Yangon had not been part of our original plan, so we had to regroup and figure out what we would be doing in the country. By the time we actually entered the border town of Myawaddy it was late morning, quashing our half-hearted hopes of cycling over the mountains of Kayin State to it's capital Hpa-An 150km away. It was a two day ride that we had thought we might be able to manage in one day with an early enough start and an after-dark finish. We decided to take a bus, at least part of the way.   Loading our bicycles on to the bus at the Myawaddy bus terminal

By the time our bus cleared the mountains, there were about three hours of daylight left and over 100km to Hpa-an. The mountain road was a one-lane, pothole ridden disaster with switchbacks that often required our bus to make multiple three-point turns to clear. Kind of scary and definitely uncomfortable. There were several checkpoints where copies of our passport were handed out and we were even once photographed. The road has only recently been opened to foreign tourists, with the area under cease-fire after years of devastating civil war.   View from the bus of a traffic jam that took us almost an hour to clear, just outside Hpa-an

  Smiles of Kayin State

We hadn't been told that our bus wasn't actually Hpa-an bound. We were dropped off at an intersection about 10km out of the city. It was nearing dark and as we disembarked we realised that the bus was probably headed to Yangon. Rather than attempting to load our bicycles onto a new bus the next day we decided to continue on. It would be another seven hours before we arrived in Yangon, at 1a.m., at the bus terminal 30km out of the city. We had called a few hotels from a pay phone at our dinner stop but hadn't found any with vacancies. We found a taxi driver willing to drive us around until we found a cheap hotel.

It was almost 3 a.m. by the time we found a room. It was a windowless mildew-box on the fifth floor of a downtown hotel, the last one in the entire place. The last one in Yangon as far as we could tell (although we did reject our taxi driver's first pick that appeared to have several prostitutes waiting in the lobby).

To add to the terribleness of the situation we had picked up a third-wheel at the Yangon bus station. A solo traveller who didn't have a damn clue what was going on. He was in the country attempting to get a long-term Thai visa so that he could continue to live there with his wife. It seemed highly suspicious to us that anyone would marry this guy. We had agreed to let him share our taxi, forcing us to share a single seat in the back, with our bikes and bags piled on top of us, while he sat in the front. And in a moment of even more perplexing sympathy we agreed to let him share our tiny double room. It was, after all, the middle of the night and we didn't have the heart to send him on the continued search for a room (we had tried four hotels before finding this one). We weren't able to get rid of him until three days later, when we basically got on our bikes and rode away. We did however, kick him out of our room after the first night (incredibly, he resisted).   View from the roof of our downtown Yangon hotel

Despite the oppressive humidity and our equally oppressive side-kick, we managed to get out and explore the fantastic bustle of downtown Yangon, get our Thai visas and squeeze in a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the country's holiest Buddhist pilgrimage site). We were pretty mesmerized by Yangon. We stayed in an area with a large concentration of hotels but we found that everything, including the traffic, seemed to be indifferent to the presence of tourists. Although we did get a lot of huge beautiful smiles!   Afternoon commute, downtown Yangon

  Evening at Shwedagon Pagoda

After two days in the city we secured onward bus tickets to Mandalay. It was a pain finding a company that would agree to transport our bicycles for a not outrageous fee. While the seat prices were all in the same standard range, there was some serious price-gouging on the excess baggage fees. We eventually had our hotel staff reserve tickets for us (at the price that we had balked at before trying to negotiate the fees ourselves). We cycled out to the bus station, even though we had read that bicycles and motorcycles were banned from Yangon streets. The downtown riding was perfectly fine, but as we exited the city it became an increasingly hair-raising ride. We ended up on a busy, undivided, highway jockeying for space on the narrow shoulder with hundreds of pedestrians, rickshaws and bicycles in complete darkness.

At the bus station, our "friend" was waiting for us. When we had told him that we were going to Mandalay, he announced that he would be coming with us. The three of us arrived in Mandalay before sunrise after an 8 hour, largely sleepless bus ride. We weren't exactly in cycling condition, but we had already resigned ourselves to the fact that the only way to free ourselves would be to start riding, which is what we did.
Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Across Northern Thailand's Highway 12

Our border crossing into Thailand over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was totally smooth. In about twenty minutes we had cleared Thai customs with the two month entry-stamp that we were hoping for. We easily reached Udon Thani, where we ended up for three days trying to find a solution to our wheel problem. Despite our hopes to the contrary, Udon Thani's bike shops had even less selection than Vientiane's. After briefly considering sending Yann to Bangkok for a few days to shop for wheels, we settled on a used one that is now on my bicycle. The wheel's bearings are completely shot making for a very “crunchy” ride (that's the opposite of smooth). But if it lasts us the 2,000km of riding separating us from the Bangkok bike shops then it will have been 25$ well spent.   Goodbye Mavic EX721, you didn't really cut it

Udon Thani is an unremarkable place. It was the location of a US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, so many locals made money and learned English, making it a prosperous city Thai standards. The city has a large expat community but virtually no independent tourists. The only thing we did in Udon Thani, between changing bicycle wheels and mailing packages home, was eating. After having spent a month in Laos where the food was expensive and limited, we were pretty excited by the abundance of cheap, delicious food. So despite the lack of tourist attractions, our three days in the city were rather pleasant, albeit gluttonous.

From Udon Thani we had 600km of riding to the Burmese border at Mae Sot. Our first day was an ambitious 144km ride south to the town of Chum Phae. Here, our rural 3-digit highway intersected the the larger Highway 12 which we would follow until the border. Despite the easy flat terrain, we were wiped when we pulled in to Chum Phae at nightfall. The next two days of riding were brutal. We completely underestimated the difficulty of the route. We climbed twice as many metres as we had calculated with all the ups and downs. With the grades of some of the climbs at over 25% we crawled on the ups, and reached speeds of over 55km/hr on the downs. We've mastered keeping our balance while maintaining a speed of 3km/hr, so at least we didn't have to resort to pushing our bikes. (Yann has insisted that I include the following statement: Yann has never ridden a bicycle under the speed of 4.5km/hr and he will not have the above speed attributed to his riding.)

Our first day on Highway 12 was the toughest. We hadn't realised that for most of the day the highway ran through Nam Nao National Park, home to several wild elephants. We concluded, after riding over a lot of elephant poop, that these elephants must make regular appearances on the highway. The road, though beautiful, was virtually deserted and eerily quiet, making every rustling leaf a potential angry elephant. We felt vulnerable, especially at the speed we were going on the climbs. I spent the day constantly reevaluating our strategic position, how far were we from a downhill getaway? We could outpace an elephant on a downhill, but every downhill was followed immediately by an insane uphill. I pictured us trapped in a crevasse, between two climbs, surrounded by elephants.
Other than our constant worrying about elephant attacks, the day's ride was uneventful, the highlight of which was getting Google street mapped (GPS coordinates: N16.76218°, E101.51997°) on this entirely empty stretch of highway!

Continuing along Highway 12, we spent the next two days on the stretch of the road known as the Green Route. Apparently this title has made the area extremely popular. The road was empty on the previous day and all of a sudden the road widened and tons of Thai tourists appeared. The climbs were just as steep, but with lots of access to food and water and with no threat of wild elephants, the riding seemed a lot easier.
We took a nice long break in Sukhothai, where we joined the hundreds of other tourists visiting its historic old city on rental bicycles. The bicycle is by far the most popular way to explore the temples and it makes for a really pleasant, uncrowded atmosphere. At some of the more remote temples we were the only people there.

Our ride from Sukhothai to the border stretched from our planned two days into five days when Yann got pretty sick fifty kilometres from our destination. We were on our final day of riding, just a few dozen metres short of the first of two passes for the day when we pulled over at a roadside market to rest. Yann lay on the pavement for over an hour, consumed several electrolyte drinks but was completely out. There was no way he was going to make it up another climb. We turned back down the road where we had spotted a small agro-tourism resort on the side of the mountain. It was a pretty nice place to be stuck, the weather was mercifully cool as Yann battled a fever for two days. I walked up to the market every day to buy our meals and emptied the few shops of their electrolyte drinks. After three nights Yann wasn't entirely better but he was feeling strong enough to leave.
A few kilometres out of Mae Sot we spotted another cyclist coming from the other direction, or rather he spotted us. On a fully-loaded touring bike, we thought he was a tourist, but he was actually a local cycling enthusiast coming to meet us! After receiving a call from a friend who spotted us on the road, he had rode out to intercept us. After brief introductions we were instructed to follow him to his place where he showed us to our own room in his home. Our host, Yun, then led us around town. First treating us to two plates each of noodles for lunch, then bringing us to his shop at the border market where we we met his wife and daughter. On the way to the market, we picked up two American cyclists who had just arrived in town and were looking for a place to stay. There were now five of us, parading around town with our touring bikes.
Yun and his family exhibited much of the same traits as our past cycling hosts: boundless energy and incredible generosity. We were fed and lodged and when we woke up at 5am the next morning, we found that everyone was already awake preparing a hearty breakfast for our send-off, including cheese and an assortment of speciality coffees! We were made to promise that we would visit again on our return from Myanmar, this wasn't a particularly difficult promise to make.

Stats for Vientiane (Laos) to Mae Sot (Thailand):

Days of cycling: 8
Days of rest: lots
Kilometres cycled: 749
Metres climbed: 5938

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Over the Mountains of Northern Laos

After the festival in Luang Prabang, I got sick ( a few too many fruit shakes perhaps). After spending two days cooped up in our room waiting for me to not require proximity to the toilet we decided to hit the road. Even though I wasn't completely recuperated, we were were bored and wanted to move on. After a few kilometres of pained riding on flat terrain, it was obvious that I wouldn't have the energy for a full day on the bike. At lunch, after having ridden only 25km we stopped in the small village of Xiang Ngeun, home to the last guesthouses before the road climbed into the mountains.   Rain all day on the climb to Kiewkacham

We left Xiang Ngeun in the pouring rain, which continued until we pulled into the mountain village of Kiewkacham well after sunset. The day was difficult, with two major climbs and a downhill made extremely uncomfortable by the fact that we were freezing and soaking wet. For the first time, we were anxious for the climbing to start up again. If we weren't pedalling, we were shivering. The scenery was probably great, but we couldn't see anything through the rain and fog. By mid-afternoon, Yann was suffering from his recurring stomach cramps. Our last 400m of climbing dragged out for hours because we had to keep stopping so that Yann could bend over and try to relieve the pain. I can tell when Yann isn't feeling well because I can keep up with him, which was the case for most of the day.

When we pulled into Kiewkacham it was dark and the fog was so thick that we could only see a few metres ahead of us. As we entered the town centre, a cluster of a few buildings, we were enthusiastically greeted by a trio of men waving us down and calling us over. They were clearly wet and freezing and draped in blankets and towels wearing nothing but their boxers. They were so excited to see us, we soon guessed that they too had to be cyclists (cyclists with only one change of clothing). We settled into the same very basic (but better of Kiewkacham's only two guesthouses) where we were immediately asked by our new Thai friends to ride with them the next day. By their lack of warm clothes, we knew that they were travelling light. When we explained that we were probably too slow for them, the oldest of the three replied “I'm an old man! We ride together!”.
  Wisit and Anosorn showing-off their "Robocop" cardboard body armour

We left Kiewkacham early, avoiding our previous day's mistake of a late departure that had us riding in the dark. The toughest climbing was behind us, but we still wouldn't completely get over the mountains for another day and a half. After the cold of the previous day, the five of us set out wearing lots of clothing. Our friends took apart cardboard boxes and layered them under their cycling jerseys for warmth. But without the previous day's rain, the layers were stripped off quickly as we began the morning with a climb.
  Leaving Kiewkacham in the early morning

After lunch, we parted ways with our companions, who, travelling with less than 5kg each were much faster than we were (especially on the climbs). They were extremely good about waiting for us, but we knew it would be more pleasant for them to ride at their own pace, so we sent them off. Rather than ride to the larger town of Kasi where they were heading, we chose to stop about 20km earlier at a “Hot Springs Resort” outside a tiny village along the highway. Neither was it a resort, neither were the springs hot.   The spectacular scenery between Kiewkacham and Kasi

We spent a few nights in Vang Vieng, a once popular riverside party destination. Earlier this year, Lao authorities finally cracked down on the town's more Darwinist activities (after hundreds of deaths of drunken foreigners). Drugs are no longer sold openly, Tarzan ropes, “death swings” have been removed from the banks of the river and most of the riverside bars shut down. We had read reports that referred to Vang Vieng as a ghost town and we had spoken to some travellers who said it was a lot nicer and quieter than it used to be. We felt there were still a lot of tourists despite the relative “quietness”. But without the partying, the town seems yet to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. Uncontrolled and unsustainable riverside development has rendered the main strip an unsightly mess. We found that locals involved in the tourist industry were for the most part neither friendly nor welcoming. Vang Vieng needs a make-over, there are far nicer places to visit in Laos and we were happy to leave (although we had a nice float down the river for old times' sake).
  Then and now: seven years between tubing trips in Vang Vieng, Yann is as sexy as ever!

Leaving Vang Vieng we discovered our first real bike problem: Yann's back rim was cracked! This wasn't all that surprising. After purchasing the rims we had read several reports of the same thing happening to other cyclists who used this downhill rim for touring. We hoped that high-end spokes and our religiously keeping the tire pressure under it's maximum recommended psi would keep us immune to rim failure. But Yann had been carrying a lot of weight, especially in his back panniers (sometimes even strapping my bags to his back rack). We hypothesized that the pothole-filled downhill between Oudom Xay and Pak Mong had probably done us in.   Yann's cracked back rim

About to hit the flats, we chanced that the wheel would last the 160km to Vientiane, which it did. On our first day in the city we hit all of its bike shops to look for a solution. With very few bike shops catering to a higher end cycle market (and a virtually non-existent cycle-touring market), we came away with few options. One option was to buy an average-quality wheel-set. But we wanted to salvage the hub and in order to do this, there was one rim available in the city but no spokes to go with it. The store mechanic eyeballed Yann's wheel and without taking any measurements told us that we could re-use its spokes. Luckily we knew the new rim's specifications and we knew that the old spokes wouldn't fit it, losing all faith in the mechanic's ability to build us a new wheel. So we decided that we would ride on to Thailand, with a big city less than a hundred kilometres across the border.

We had been toying with the idea of trying to ride overland into Burma. With our wheel problems forcing us into Thailand, we reluctantly concluded that we would skip cycling in Southern Laos and make our way across Northern Thailand to the border at Mae Sot.

Stats for Luang Prabang to Vientiane:

Days of cycling: 5.5
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 397
Metres climbed: 4683
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 7

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

The Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang

We left Nong Khiaw a few days earlier than we would have liked because we decided to wanted to be in Luang Prabang for Boun Lay Hua Fai (the festival of floating boats of light downstream). The festival coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent and is celebrated in many riverside towns across Laos (including in Nong Khiaw while we were there). In many of the villages we passed on the way to Luang Prabang colourful bamboo boats were on display in front of shops and homes. But the country's biggest Lay Hua Fai celebration is in its most popular tourist destination, Luang Prabang. Sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers the city is an obvious choice for floating boats of light downstream.

We were in Luang Prabang seven years earlier and had been overwhelmed and a little bit disappointed by how touristy it was. We came to the festival without any expectations, guessing that tourists might very well outnumber the locals participating in the event. Nothing much has changed, except maybe us. We were definitely more at ease with the comforts that we had previously snubbed. We still sought out budget options, but eating chicken sandwiches and drinking fruit shakes every meal didn't really faze us. We even bought a 5$ jar of peanut butter.
  Luang Prabang, an charming city even with all the tourists

We arrived the day before the festival and the whole city was in preparation mode. Colourful paper lanterns were being strung on shops and in temple courtyards, finishing touches were being made to the large dragon boat floats that would be paraded through the city, banana leaf candle boats were being meticulously assembled in every household.
  Festival decorations at Wat That

  This young monk took a break from stringing lanterns to pose for a photo

On the actual day of the festival the decorating-pace accelerated. As the darkness fell, the hundreds of lanterns hanging throughout the city were individually lit. The streets began to fill with procession spectators and participants. Shopkeepers and residents began lining the sidewalks with candles and lanterns. 
  Festival decorations at Wat Maysouvanhnaphoumaram

  Lighting lanterns at Wat Maysouvanhnaphoumaram

  Lighting candles outside the family store

We waited anxiously with the crowds for the festival's main event, the procession of the boats of light. Different villages and temples build their own bamboo boats, each carefully decorated and adorned with candles. The boats were paraded down Luang Prabang's main street. Each boat-procession was led by village representatives, often traditionally dressed carrying lanterns. The boat was accompanied by minders who made sure that it wheeled along correctly, that the candles stayed lit and that the float didn't catch fire. Tailing each float were the rest of the village representatives who sang and danced and celebrated their creation. 

Loud-speakers introduced every village as it passed describing each float. The English announcement for every float began with "the boat is made out of bamboo and is in the shape of a Naga". This was true. Every boat was made of bamboo and every boat took the shape of a Naga (a Buddhist serpent-dragon). But each was unique! One breathed fire, one flapped his wings, each one carefully assembled only to be lowered into the Mekong River and set adrift.

Once the procession ended, tourists and locals alike made their way to the Mekong River. Thousands of small candle boats were lit and sent down river. At the same time, sky lanterns (hot-air lanterns) were sent into the sky. It didn't matter how many tourists were around. No one seemed to notice the crowds around them, they focused on being with their families and friends, lighting their boats and their lanterns together.

Stats for Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang:

Days of cycling: 1.5
Days of rest: 4 (in Luang Prabang)
Kilometres cycled: 143
Metres climbed: 1017
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Rest and Relaxation in Laos

What a difference between China and Laos. In Laos the village homes are mostly small bamboo structures with thatched roofs, the rolling hills stripped by logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. The roadside shops are poorly stocked, the markets sparse and the prices higher than in China. But we felt a calmness and tranquillity that was somewhat non-existent in China. Instead of the blank stares that we had gotten used to, we were greeted by bright smiles and cries of sabaidee (hello) from almost everyone we passed. Every time we rode by a village, small children would stop what they were doing to greet us with uncontrolled enthusiasm.   Greeters in the small village of Nateuy

  Rice terraces outside Luang Namtha

  A village along the highway between Oudom Xay and Pak Mong

Rather than head directly south from the border, we decided to take a short (40km) detour to the town of Luang Namtha, the main base for trekking in Northern Laos. We had no intention of trekking, but we knew we would find guesthouses, restaurants and other travellers' amenities that we had longed for since leaving Dali in China. Despite the fairly easy terrain, by our eleventh consecutive day of cycling we were really moving slowly and our legs were in pretty desperate need for rest. So we spent four great days in Luang Namtha doing very little. We met lots of cyclists and travellers, ate every night at the night market, went to the herbal sauna and watched lots of Star Trek.

Our only Luang Namtha (mis)adventure was stumbling in on a cooking class where we were invited to partake in the post-class meal. We were basically roped in by the two foreign tourists who were clearly too nervous to eat their creations alone: steamed bat and squirrel stew. The stew was palatable, but the bat, steamed whole in a banana leaf was a little bit difficult to handle. Attempting (probably quite poorly) to hide our discomfort, we gnawed away at it's tiny body, trying to get the little meat that there was. Yann was completely convinced we would get sick because the bats were steamed with none of their organs removed. Not recommended.   At the Oudom Xay market

From Luang Namtha we rode to Oudom Xay, the largest town in Northern Laos and a major trading point for Chinese goods entering the country. Subsequently it is Chinese-style ugly. We had fond memories of the city from our time there seven years earlier, so we were eager to see if the town had changed much. We had put a lot of hope into eating pancakes from a street stall where we had eaten every night on our last visit to the city. We roamed around in the evening, where our vendor used to set up, and we were very disappointed to find that he was no longer there. For years we had referred to the Oudom Xay pancakes as the best pancakes we'd ever eaten. We realised that those fried pancakes, smothered in condensed milk were the only real reason why we wanted to re-visit the city.

Our route continued south along National Highway 13 with the 80km from Oudom Xay to our next destination Pak Mong rumoured to be its worst section in terms of road conditions. We can confirm those rumours.   Can you spot Yann?

  The worst stretch of National Highway 13

After our intense riding in Yunnan, we tried to slow our pace in Laos. We planned to detour from the main highway again to spend a few days in the small river-side town of Nong Khiaw. What a great decision! We checked into a beautiful (inexpensive) lodge on the western bank of the river, away from the tourist ghetto on the eastern bank. Right up the street from our hotel was a small family-run restaurant with fantastic, (inexpensive) food. Everything on our side of the river basically shut down by night fall, which is pretty early in October. All we could do was sit and admire the incredible mountain scenery that surrounds the village over a cold Beer Lao.   The Nam Ou River through Nong Khiaw

  View from our room at the Nam Ou River Lodge

  Menu at the Nong Khiaw Family Restaurant where we ate every day

Stats for Mohan to Nong Khiaw:

Days of cycling: 3 full-days, 2 half-days
Days of rest: 5 full-days, 1 half-day
Kilometres cycled: 296
Metres climbed: 3249
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 6

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Cycling Yunnan: Kunming to Laos via Dali

With only 25 days on our Chinese visa, we did this trip way faster than we wanted to, and were probably a little bit too ambitious about the distance we wanted to cover. We ended up cycling 20 days, including a consecutive 11-day stretch. There isn't a flat kilometre in the province, but we were rewarded with empty highways, good quality roads and unbelievable scenery (for the most part). Here's our summary with some additional info at the end.

Part 1 (Kunming to Old Dali – Highway G320)

Had we done a little bit more planning ahead of time, we might have cut south towards Laos directly from Kunming allowing for a more leisurely pace. But we were keen on cycling the western part of the province and we thought we might enjoy a break in Old Dali. The G320 highway runs roughly parallel to the expressway that absorbs most of the traffic heading west from Kunming. We shared the road with locals who were avoiding the expressway tolls or moving between villages. We hoped to complete this ride in four days, but with all the climbing it took us five. This road is probably the busiest and the least scenic of the highways we rode in Yunnan. The cities which seem to be plopped down in the middle of nowhere were truly uninspiring. Luckily, most of the ride was through rural countryside which was far more picturesque, although not immune to the plague of Chinese urban development.

We knew that Old Dali would be busy and probably disappointing. But we planned to stop there any ways to enjoy the comforts of our last major tourist destination in China. This basically meant eating hamburgers and having an internet connection with a functioning VPN. We had visited Old Dali seven years earlier, and we found the city to be completely transformed. It was overrun with tour groups and expanded with horrible Chinese construction. In our opinion, Old Dali can be skipped, although it's a good place to do laundry, eat western food and get your internet fix (see notes on internet below).

Part 2 (Old Dali to Nanjian – Highway S224)
We only spent a day and a half on this secondary road before rejoining the national highway at Nanjian. We chose the route so that we could stop in the town of Weishan, which we had read was worth a visit. Signs advertised it as “Weishan Ancient Cultural & Historical Town” which we assumed would mean that it was a tourist trap. We were pleasantly surprised to find it unaffected by its designation. It has a quiet, charming old quarter which we wandered through all afternoon without seeing more than 2 or 3 tourists.
Part 3 (Nanjian to Lincang – Highway G214)

We spent three and a half days on this highway complete with several full-day climbs. Although the traffic was fairly sparse, the trucks struggled up the hills and blew lots of thick exhaust at us. We also had to cycle through a fair number of long, unlit or dimly lit tunnels which were slightly unnerving. The positive aspect of them being dark was that the drivers seemed to be as nervous about being in them as we did and drove really slowly.

The cities we passed through continued to be uninteresting, but the sections of raised highway through the mountain were epic, especially when we were on a descent. We spent a rest day in Lincang, not because it was a nice place to stay, but because we were exhausted from all the climbing.

Part 4 (Lincang to Ning'er – Highway G323)

Instead of following the G214 we decided to cut east across central Yunnan in order to shave a few hundred kilometres and a few days off our ride. We ended up on a beautiful quasi-abandoned stretch of highway that was free of truck traffic, tunnels and ugly big cities.

From Lincang we had one of our most epic descents, over 1000 metres to the Lancang (Mekong) River, with spectacular views of the river gorge cutting through the mountains. We slept in a quiet motel and watched the morning mist rising from motel balcony. Other nights along this highway were spent in pretty basic truck stops, where the dark quiet nights in the mountains were enough to compensate for the mouse poop in the sheets.

Part 5 (Ning'er to Mohan – Highway G213)

When we joined up with the G213 we expected the worse in terms of traffic. We figured that the main route connecting Simao to Jinghong would be the busiest stretch of our ride. We didn't think the national highways could get any quieter than the G323, but we were wrong! Again, the parallel expressway absorbed almost all of the traffic and we rode alongside the few motorcycles making their way between villages and rubber plantations (it was rubber harvest season in the area, which was interesting but extremely stinky)

Much of the G213 highway runs through the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve where the jungle is left untouched. Tree-cover shielded us from the sun, although the humidity was a lot higher than further north in the province. The climbs were much shorter though, which was a relief because we were starting to feel the effects of cycling for over a week without a break.

Other Information
We didn't camp at all in Yunnan. Any flat ground that we spotted was usually occupied by rice, corn or tobacco. In many areas, the highway climbed through the mountains, with steep cliffs on either side of the road. Probably the only camping option would have been to ask villagers to sleep on their land. In Xishuangbanna there were a few more suitable looking camp sites.

Truck stops
Other than highway G213 (where we slept in the towns), there were truck stops in even the smallest villages. They are usually unsigned, but you can easily distinguish them from village homes, they are long one-storey buildings with several side-by-side rooms. They come with shared bathroom facilities and very basic rooms, but usually a hot, solar-powered shower.

Motels/Budget Hotels
These are a step up from the truck stop in that they have private bathrooms. We had great, clean budget hotels with hot showers for most of our trip, usually for around 60 yuan a night (about $10). We could often roll the bicycle right into the room fully-loaded which was great for quick morning starts. In mid-sized towns, the hotels in our budget price-range tended to be a little bit crustier, but for the price we were completely satisfied.
Apart from the major tourist centres of Dali and Kunming, if you aren't a Chinese National, surfing at an internet cafe has become nearly impossible. Chinese ID cards are now equipped with an RF-ID so that they can be scanned right into the system at every internet cafe. The cafes are totally depressing, filled with mindless automatons smoking for hours on end while playing video games. The connections are terrible because no one is actually surfing, they're all just battling each other in locally networked video games.

Only at a few places were we given permission to use the computer, but we felt uncomfortable surfing because we didn't want to get the cafe owners in trouble. At one place, the employee hovered around Yann as he was reading the news. Using an online translator, he managed to transmit the three-word message “few pieces opinions”. Ok, we understand.

There are restaurants everywhere in China. We tried to seek out refrigerated food display cases where all the available food items are on display. The fridges are perfect for ordering if you don't speak Mandarin because you just point at what you want. We tried a huge variety of vegetable dishes, almost all of them spicy. We usually paid 10 yuan for vegetable dishes and 20-30 for meat dishes. But we didn't really bargain.

In bigger towns, breakfast stalls selling steamed buns and/or dumplings lined the streets and set up very early. But elsewhere we had to plan for breakfast the night before by stocking up on fruits and store bought cakes. We would advise against buying the popular “French bread” unless you are looking for something that is very much not French bread. The best cakes we found we found were the “Daliyuan European-style cakes”, available at most mid-sized road-side shops. Even better were the homemade peanut cakes or date bread that we found a few times in local markets.

Once we discovered the Yunnanese noodles with self-serve toppings we ate them almost every day. Unfortunately the noodle vendors tended to close up shop pretty early, often before lunch time.

Border Crossing
We changed money on the Chinese side at a large money exchange building. We got an amazing rate, actually better than the official rate, which was perplexing enough that we thought we were being cheated. We avoided the numerous money changers hovering around the border.

On the Chinese side, in order to get our bicycles across the border we had to first pass customs (leaving our bicycles outside). Once we were stamped out, we could exit through the vehicle lane after showing the border guards our passports.

Similarly on the Lao side we had to leave our bicycles outside, go through customs, then exit through the vehicle lane. We advise not riding your bicycle through the vehicle lane, you have to walk it through unless you want a stern talking to.

Kilometre Breakdown
Here's how we broke up the trip to try to spread out the climbing and kilometrage as evenly as possible:
Day 1 – Kunming to Lufeng (104km, 703m)
Day 2 – Lufeng to Chuxiong Yi “Minority Village” (85km, 595m)
Day 3 – Chuxiong to Tianshentang Village (75km, 940m)
Day 4 – Tianshentang Village to Xiang Yun (70km, 665m)
Day 5 – Xiang Yun to Old Dali (84km, 878m)
Day 6 – Old Dali to Weishan (70km, 504m)
Day 7 – Weishan to Gonglang (85km, 612m)
Day 8 – Gonglang to Yunxian (73km, 959m)
Day 9 – Yunxian to Lincang (79km, 942m)
Day 10 – Lincang to the Mekong River bridge (68km, 578m)
Day 11 – Mekong River bridge to Chahe Village (68km, 1010m)
Day 12 – Chahe Village to Truckstop on the G323 (72km, 922m)
Day 13 – Truckstop on the G323 to Ning'er (58km, 752m)
Day 14 – Ning'er to Simao (50km, 689m)
Day 15 – Simao to Dadugang (74km, 799m)
Day 16 – Dadugang to Meng Kuan (83km, 836m)
Day 17 – Meng Kuan to Meng Yuan (77km, 899m)
Day 18 – Meng Yuan to Mengla (46km, 721m)
Day 19 – Mengla to Mohan (57km, 532m)

Stats for Kunming to Mohan:
Days of cycling: 19
Days of rest: 3
Kilometres cycled: 1 378 km
Metres climbed: 14 536 m
Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support