‘If this doesn’t work we’ll use our last ¥30 to buy rice and ride to Pu’er’ (pronounced Pooer). That as a worst case didn’t seem so bad. 300km with a lot of climbing would be harder than normal if we did it hungry, but we were ready. Our last idea was trying Western Union but nobody at the banks had heard of it. None of our cards had worked, and while people pointed us to another ATM or tried the card themselves, we settled on the new plan. At the last bank a jolly security guard with a 5 foot baton and black helmet chuckled and grinned, loving the novelty and following us around while different staff tried our cards with us at different cash machines. There was one teller with some English, a bulky, helpful man, whose suit looked like it still had the hanger inside. We’d resigned ourselves but he persisted. He led us outside and suggested we take a bus and it seemed like another situation where even the basics weren’t understood. ‘No bus, we have only ¥30.’ Jorja and I stood with him on the footpath waiting for the right moment to say goodbye, having thanked him a few times already, but he didn’t want to go. He looked at us both, up and down the footpath nervously, took out his wallet, and handed Jorja 2 red 100 Yuan notes. This guy wasn’t a rich banker, he was a clerk in a poor town. I imagine he lived in one of the apartments with rusted bars over the windows and washing hanging off them, and probably parents and children to look after. Taking money from someone to further our holiday didn’t feel right. We quit jobs to do this, we were just too daft to have enough cash and now he’d be out of pocket. He refused to give his details so we could pay him back. His only words were, “It’s for the memories.” We shook hands and thanked him, he smiled warmly and walked back into the bank. It wasn’t as though we’d been sobbing in the corner wailing about our starvation and asking passing strangers for coins; we were just in a jam that sucked but could get out of. We hadn’t asked! That man handing us ¥200 hit hard. He was another person kind enough to care about two strangers, we both fought back tears and I think he saw it. The night before a family put us up in their hotel for free and fed us in the morning when our cards didn’t work and we conveyed that we had no money. The Chinese were being too good to us, better than we deserved.
From Luchun to Pu’er loads more people helped us along, even if it was a honk and thumbs up out a passing car, or a car full of teenagers leaning out their windows pounding on their doors, waving us forward.
I keep thinking this so I’m going to type it out: there are people watching their families slowly starve to death, people being tortured for telling the truth, and thousands drowning in rickety boats with their children trying to escape war, those people are suffering. I don’t want to get in the habit of writing about how difficult this holiday of ours is without acknowledging that it’s chosen hardness and that we try to fight away thoughts of self-pity knowing we put ourselves up for what we’re complaining about or ‘suffering’ through. Suffering like every other human experience is on a scale, and however bad our legs might hurt or hungry we are we can opt out, which a hell of a lot more people who are suffering impossible things can’t. If there’s a description of a hard time just imagine – *relatively, for us – before it and know we’re trying not to be whiney douchebags.
Feeling drained at 3 o’clock when Pu’er was a day off, a climb started and we set off at our own pace. I turned a corner where the incline sharpened and there was a family: wife, husband, and little boy, under a canopy selling oranges. They waved me over and I figured it was a good idea since my water had run out. The husband dropped 5 in my basket and I got out my wallet thinking they’d be a couple Yuan. The pay-no pay battle ended with him scrunching up my notes and shoving them into my pocket. He did this while smiling and afterwards his wife and little boy both sat nodding in agreement behind him. They seemed to be nodding both: ‘it’s OK’, and ‘we knew you’d lose that’. 15 minutes later I was winded ripping into orange skins with my teeth while trying to keep at a good pace with orange juice dribbling down my beard. A truck/tractor (one of these) was groaning up the hill behind me, they can only do 30kph uphill but that’s double what I can. I caught hold as he came beside me and yelled out a ‘YEEEEEEEOW!’, he YEEEEEOW’d back and we rumbled along together. I’d let go and try to overtake him and he’d go open-throttle, catching me easily. I’d feign total exhaustion, grab back on, and he’d laugh at me and I’d let out another big yell of satisfaction and he’d mimic it.
There was a long downhill late one morning, we were picking racing lines going as fast as we could, flying down into a deep valley where there was a town and an early lunch calling us. A bend appeared and a motorbike on the other side of the road came roaring around it, a thin line of shade from a power pole or tree was cast across the road. The scooter strangely slowed way down, almost to a stop as I came toward him, I had 1 second to think, look down at the line of shade, see the almost square speed bump, and then SLAMMED into. It felt like I barely got over it because it was so high and I barely stayed upright. As I slowed to a stop I heard an awful thick metal clinking noise in my front wheel. Directly across from the bump a crowd of 10 people were sitting in the shade of a mechanics shop enjoying the entertainment. A metal hook that keeps the bottom of our swift panniers attached to our racks had come loose, gotten into the spokes and wrapped itself around the hub like a string on a spool. Staring at it dumbly I thought the wheel would be ruined but Jorja calmly pulled up beside me, slowly rolled the bike backwards and it unwound til it came loose. No broken spokes, magically no puncture, and the guys in the mechanics shop helped me bend the metal back straight. We were riding away 5 minutes later like nothing had happened.
One afternoon we passed through a 30 second town but got the hunger fear, turned around, and started hunting. The only fridge, pan, and bench, restaurant was abandoned so we kept looking and wound up under a huge walless barn with a blue roof and about 300 people wolfing down lunch together, all sitting at tables in their families. We assumed it was some sort of festival day, ‘maybe its Saturday?’ Jorja said. Everyone was laughing at us, waving at us, asking us to sit at their tables, they cleared a table for us and we sat down but was asked to stand up immediately and we were to follow a lady. She led us away through the crowd and up among the houses on a hill across the road. There was bunting running over a couple dozen people mid-meal, grannies and grampas, kids and their chasing parents, cooks and servers who’d sit back down with the rest, young guys smoking, amused about us turning up, ladies with plastic bags of cooked rice, (pretty sure everyone brought their own to the dinner) and a few fidgety groomsmen. We were sat down with a group of women in their 30s near a pig pen, we could hear it snorting and see it’s big snout squirming over the wooden gate, going wild with all the food smells. A cute young girl spoke english and sorted us out and told everyone around about us. The bride appeared out of a dark doorway, chin high, strong but thin, sparkly white dress, playing self-consciously with a child. We’d finally realised we had crashed a wedding. If I was her I’d be wondering who the hell we were and how we wound up sitting in front of her but she just smiled and posed for a couple photos. We stuffed ourselves with 5 bowls of tofu, rice, and chilli sauce and made a move when it seemed like the ceremony was about to start. When we had gotten our bikes down to the road our interpreter girl was waiting with two women and a bag of tea.
We only saw 3 other cyclists during those 5 days to Pu’er, a trio of chubby dudes in lycra riding mountain bikes back into a town. They stopped us for photos and gave us lots of back pats and thumbs up. On the 3rd day the pavement changed to yellow dust and rocks. Jorja’s knee played up as the bumpy climbs went on and on. The knee pain comes and goes variably but basically steep long days equal pain. That pain is added to what are already much harder days for her. It’s sucks and it’s not fair. It’d be so much better if I was the one with the wonky knee or bad allergies or something and we evened out. There was a day we’d spent hours walking up stony roads to give Jorj’s knee a break. I was dreaming of sprinklers on lawns to stand over or a big shady tree with a rope swings onto a deep cool river or the big waves at Yallingup. An hour later Jorja saw a stream. She laid down fully clothes in the shallow stream letting the water run over her eyes, the closest thing to a shower we had had in many days, and I joined her. It was like ice cubes were dripping onto my brain, in a good way. Sitting there dripping, tent drying on the side of the road, drinking our sanitised but foul water we watched cows clop down the road to us with their grumpy lady herder failing at steering them using grunts and whistles. Calves that we’re too slow, zig-zagging across the road with big trucks slamming on their brakes to avoid, she lobbed stones or stick at, they’d look at her offended and run off to catch up.
(I sat in a ditch and Jorja went by twice to get this casual shot)
We have been in Pu’er for 5 days resting, which has felt more like 5 hours. Jorja came down sick with a stomach bug leaving her groaning in bed for a few days unable to refuel like we intended to. So we are staying a little longer before making the ride to the Laos border, while Jorja lays in bed watching G.I Jane and The Princess Diaries 1 and 2 on Youtube, I venture out to find a KFC for some fries.