The Yunnan is also China's most culturally diverse province with populations of about 25 ethnic minorities, many of them categorized as hill tribes. Many of the ethnicities share lots of commonalities with their counterparts in other South East Asian countries since their traditional territories, movements, and interactions were not correlated with, nor restrained by, present-day international borders.
When we realized that our pace would not allow us to see all the major attractions the Yunnan has to offer, we decided to prioritize a place with "before it's gone" status, knowing that it could easily be a case of "now or never" in this rapidly developing country. We plotted our course for the out-of-the-way Nujiang Valley, running along the border with Burma, and experience a cross-section of "everyday Yunnan" along the way. Most of our time was spent simply getting to where we were going, but there were inevitably a few noteworthy events and memorable aspects of each day.
Our first day heading north from the border became an ongoing lesson on the workings of natural rubber harvesting. We were continually being passed by motorbikes laden with several grotty plastic containers filled with milky latex. After tapping the trees, the workers brought the product to local collection stations, where the liquid was weighed, strained, and pumped into a big truck, presumably headed to regional sellers and manufacturers. A few trucks passed us with what we thought was incredibly rotten garbage, but then we recognized the rancid odor as we passed by a shed with dirty-looking rubber mats piled in front of it. We tried not to gag as we peered in to watch workers feeder them through machines that chewed them into textured elongated pieces. For what purpose, we have no idea.
Amidst the endless groves of rubber trees, we bumped in to Rocio of Wabisabi Cycling, a Spanish woman with an optimistic spirit and a fascinating perspective on longterm bicycle travel, viewing it as an experiment to capture the Japanese concept of "wabisabi". As I always complain, we meet the amazing people going the opposite way. Then again, it's much more difficult to cross paths with someone when you are both headed in the same direction.
Rocio recommended camping in the rubber tree plantations, but some horribly persistent biting flies began attacking us at dusk so we opted to push on to the next town instead. Coming down a winding descent on a backroad, we hesitated to stop and dig out our bike lights since we were suddenly flying through the mesmerizing twinkles of countless fireflies. Through the fading light, I made out a quickly approaching and abrupt change in the road surface and yelled back to Matt, "Dirt!" while braking hard in anticipation of bumps, gravel, and potholes. Before I knew what was happening, I flew through the air and slid across the ground like a baseball player headed for home base. Upon coming to a stop, I braced for pain from everywhere to set in, but confusingly felt nothing. I mumbled to myself, "Oh, not dirt. Mud. Lots of mud." as Matt arrived on the scene. Having watched the whole thing play out right in front of him, he was much more traumatized than me. I got up and tried to convince him that my only injury was a quarter-sized scrape on my left elbow. We extracted my bike from the slippery clay pit while a motorbike waited to cross it, then assessed the situation. Amazingly, my bike and gear were as undamaged as me, although we both had mud in places it definitely shouldn't be. Nonetheless, it was an effective reminder not to be lazy about taking precautions for riding at night. Although I was too distracted to look for clues at the time, thinking back on it I imagine that the spontaneous mud field must have been caused by a rice paddy that burst its earthen dam and flooded across the road.
Arriving to a random town late that night, we expected that no receptionist in their right mind would let me check in to their hotel, so I strategically hid out of sight until Matt secured a room. When I apologetically tiptoed across the lobby, the staff certainly stared, but didn't say anything. I went straight for the shower without undressing, accompanied by my waterproof Ortlieb panniers. The bike would have to wait until the next morning.
For the next few days, the scenery largely alternated between interesting agricultural landscapes of rice, bananas, tea, and tobacco, and villages of the Dai ethnic group. We often detoured into the quiet villages for a little more perspective in passing, admiring the peacock-adorned gables of rooftops accented with spear-like finials. Their Theravada Buddhist temples illustrated how they are closely related to Lao and Thai peoples as well.
Even while always choosing the back roads, we frequently rode through massive construction sites. A few were future superhighways, but most were the usual collection skyscrapers we have come to expect on the outskirts of every minor city. We often felt like we were riding through a life size Lego city.
As with our first time in China, our presence often took people by surprise. Their reactions varied so widely, that Matt kept a list titled "What people do when they see us." It read: yell "hello?" sounding like a question, drop-jaw stares, a double/triple/quadruple take, tell their kid to look, grab their friend like they just saw a celebrity, giggle, ignore us (mostly police), beckon us over to come eat at their shop, stop what ever it is they at doing and just watch us pass, almost crash as they go by on their motorscooter, kids chase us on their bikes, give a thumbs up (sometimes two), honk, smile (hugely), take a picture (or twenty). I am sure there's a few more we forgot, too.
Also like before, we consistently felt welcomed by the various people we met, a feeling reinforced by the spontaneous gifts they pushed upon us. An old man we merely said hello to pulled four peaches out of a bag; staff from the hotel sent us off with locally-grown tea; a man sat down with us at dinner and poured us shots of a harsh liquor, although that may have just been his strategic way of taking our photo. While we were waiting out an outburst of heavy rain, an old woman invited us in to her home for tea, but we left with a bag of tiny tart plums. I once thought a shopkeeper was gifting me an extra beer, but it turned out that I had won a free one from the sweepstakes running on the brand's bottle caps. Even Chinese corporations wanted to give us gifts! One night, the chef-owner of a little restaurant kept bringing out delicious dishes beyond what we ordered, assuring us there was no charge for them. Then he refused to take any payment at all, claiming "first time customers eat for free!"
While the generous chef made dinner easy for us one time, it took a while to adjust to the most prevalent format of restaurants in the Yunnan. We dubbed them "Choose Your Own Adventure" restaurants. Upon entering, we were invited to gaze upon a large display refrigerator where we were expected to point to the meats and vegetable we desired to eat. Some were neatly organized and others required sliding the glass over and digging through the chaos, much like searching out forgotten leftovers from the back of a personal fridge. In theory, this should have been our traveler's dream in China as we could control the exact ingredients of meal, as opposed to other commonly necessary strategies such as randomly picking something on a menu filled with mysterious characters, bringing the wait staff over to another table and pointing to what others are eating, or boldly poking around the kitchen to see what the options are. However, it took a few tries to get the hang of the ubiquitous CYOA.
The first time, we kept pointing at vegetable after vegetable at the encouragement of the attending proprietor, assuming we would be getting one stir-fry dish of mixed vegetables. Instead, we got a huge platter of sautéed bok choy, a tremendous pile of corn kernels mixed with soy beans, and a sizable serving of scrambled egg with tomato, even though we never pointed to any eggs. It was triple the amount of food we needed and triple the price we were hoping to pay!
The next time, we went to great lengths to clarify the number of dishes we wanted, and I chose eggplant and mushroom. The cook deemed the combination unacceptable. Matt simply pointed to some snap peas, but she refused the request, making gestures that conveyed she was certain he would not like it. She counter-offered with cucumbers, which we declined, thinking a plate of hot cucumber didn't seem so appealing. We gave up and just ordered the safe choice of scrambled egg with tomato, but she decided that wasn't enough food and cooked up the cucumbers anyway, then charged us for them!
Once we had established a mostly functioning system of communication through trial and error, we were then limited by our own lack of creativity and unwillingness to choose the weirder vegetables. The meats were generally too scary and unappetizing to point at, so we ate a ridiculous amount of egg and tomato for a protein source. Apparently, this is the signature dish of the Yunnan. It was consistently the first suggestion staff would made when we stared blankly at the refrigerator. One time a woman greeted us with an egg in one hand and tomato in the other before we had even set foot in her restaurant!
As illustrated by our dining adventures, simple things can easily turn into a process when traveling independently in China. It can become draining just to figure out the basics of food, shelter, route finding, and sometimes what the heck is going on in general. But with the right mindset and the energy to match it, the challenge of being innovative and adaptable is also part of the fun.