The Very Long Way Round
Juang Ha Hotel, Simao. Yunnan Province. China
12 June, 2006
China it seems, has been sent to test us. The last two days have been, to put it mildly, challenging. When we left Laos we felt sure that we had just conquered the worst roads we would encounter in our entire tukathon. The gleaming tarmac of the last 10 km to the Chinese border seemed an omen of things to come. How wrong we were. As soon as we were over the border the roads once again deteriorated, this time there was a total absence of solid surface and what was supposed to be a road was in fact a filthy quagmire.
We were scheduled to drive 200 km that night to Jinghong, but instead we only made it 60 km to Mengla. Yesterday (Sunday 11th) was even worse. The 140 km to Jinhong took us an excruciating six hours. By lunchtime Sam, our guide, a non-smoker for the last three years, was cracking into a packet of cigarettes. By mid afternoon the packet was nearly empty and a stream of English expletives was emerging from his normally clean mouth.
Its hard to describe how bad the roads are in Yunnan. They make Laos’ Rte 13 seem like the M25. Not only that but we have had to fight with literally hundreds of vast construction lorries, all of us after the narrow sliver of passable road on each stretch. I was so frustrated yesterday I wanted to jump out and pummel the potholes with my bare fists in fury, shout, scream and stamp my feet. Not that this would have achieved anything...but it might have made us feel better. By the time we arrived in Jinghong last night we were filthy, tired, hungry and in need of a mechanic. Ting Tong’s leaking front suspension had got significantly worse and Anuwat had advised us to go and get the front shocks replaced.
So rather than having the relaxed evening we were desperately in need of, we spent SEVEN hours sitting on the pavement outside a mechanic, Ting Tong resting her muddy haunches on jacks, whilst five men battled with fitting her new suspension. At 1.30 a.m they finally won the battle and we tukked back to our hotel, safe in the knowledge that this morning we would be cruising along the expressway to Kunming.
But oh no, such was not to be. Our arrival at the shiny new toll gates of the Kunming expressway was met with shaking heads and a flurry of men in uniform. We were ordered to turn round and go to the police station, where no end of persuading, pleading and stubbornness could change their minds. Three-wheelers and the Chinese expressways are mutually exclusive concepts and it seems nothing we could say was going to change that. Dejectedly, we turned round and turned onto the old road. What should have taken us one hour today took us six.
The implications of not being allowed on the expressway are massive. We have 28 days to travel 4000 miles across China, and our $9, 600 itinerary was arranged by the CSITS on the premise that we would be speeding along throughout on these perfect new roads. The alternatives are old, disused, windy mountain roads, littered with rocks and potholes. Enough to make any tuk tuk turn a funny shade of green. Of course we are not going to accept this without a fight and we are trying to mobilize the powers that be to give us special dispensation. But China is the worst place in which to attempt any bending of beurocracy and we could be facing up to double our planned tuk across China. Unbelievable. This makes both our Kazakh and Russian visas invalid and causes a whole host of problems. Jo and I have both been devising plans to give Ting Tong an extra wheel.
Sam is now not only smoking but has developed a gall bladder problem and a total loss of appetite. But then again, we never thought this would be a glitch free adventure, and Jo and I are both determined to succeed. The more challenges we face, the more determined we become.
Just to top it off our satellite modem refuses to work, as does our mobile phone. But at least Sam is a total dude and China an endlessly fascinating, utterly weird place.
Over to Jo…
Despite the hardship of the last few days I really do love China. The people are friendly, the food is good and the scenery that we have got to appreciate at about 5mph has been spectacular. In my mind I had an image of China and our experiences so far have been that image to a T. Terraced paddy fields and vast tea plantations, punctuated by rolling green hills. One advantage of the roads we have been forced to travel down is that we are going the scenic route and I have learnt to appreciate this from my childhood. If given a choice, Dad would always choose the scenic route. Nevermind that it takes 5 hours longer than it should have and leaves us two days behind schedule. At this rate we will be driving through China for at least the next year and should be fluent in Mandarin and about $120,000 in debt.
I am a strange creature, because if something small happens I will go off the handle e.g. I lose my cigarette lighter or miss a programme on TV. However, if something big happens then I tend to be far more calm and rational e.g. this whole China business. I tend to compare a big situation in my life to a big situation in someone else’s life who is less fortunate than myself e.g. people in the world who are hungry because they don’t have enough money to eat. Yes, our current situation is very frustrating but we are alive and well and it is not the end of the world. We will still make it back to Brighton and raise £50,000 for Mind and this slight delay will not affect that outcome. Anyway, Ants is on the case with her contacts
and we may yet get to drive down the glistening, smooth, beautiful black tarmac.
I honestly didn’t believe that the roads could be worse than Laos, but they are. At one point today I really wasn’t sure if we could make it through a particularly rough patch of rocks (we have upgraded from stones to full on rocks). What made it even more irritating was that our route ran right next to the Expressway; you could almost smell the smooth tarmac. This form of torture happened intermittently throughout our 6 hour drive, as we would often cross or drive next to the Expressway. Still, if you don’t laugh you cry and we certainly had a few laughs along the way. PMA (positive mental attitude)!
Yunnan Province in southern China (where we currently are) is very beautiful, but is also blessed with the worst roads in the whole country. We have been assured that the roads will improve as we head north and we can only hope that this is true. Thank goodness for the presence and company of our guide Sam, who is an absolute legend. He has been very patient, level headed and constructive since we met him, as well as being a really nice person who it is very easy to spend time with. I only hope that this trip is not causing him too much stress, although his smoking and lack of appetite seem to suggest that he is feeling the strain a bit. He has
assured us that this will be the first and last time a tuk tuk travels through China driven by foreigners.
As I previously mentioned we are now two days behind schedule and tomorrow we need to try and cover 566km north to Kunming, capital of Yunnan. This would be possible on the Expressway, but on our proposed route I think it is about as likely as me physically sprouting whiskers.
Last night was an interesting test of endurance, as we watched the wonderfully persistent motorcycle mechanics struggle with TT’s front shocks. I now understand more fully why every time we go over a really big bump my stomach ends up in my diaphragm. The mechanics’ comments were that she has been built really well of strong material. We know and are so glad, but last night I had visions of Anuwat having to fly to China and sort out TT himself. Those mechanics were such cool guys and they tried so hard to fix her. I suppose persistence pays off in the end and I am so full of respect for them. TT now has her new shocks and springs and is no longer leaking hydraulic fluid. As we were driving today the new springs made us
bounce around the driving seat like we were sitting on a pogo stick, which looked very amusing from the back seat.
An interesting and surprising fact that I gleaned today is that in hotels in China men are phoned up in their hotel rooms and asked if they want a special massage. My mouth dropped to the floor when I found out exactly what a special massage involves. Personally I think it is a bit sexist, but we now unplug our phone every night, so that we are not awoken from our much needed beauty sleep and offered the special treatment.