A Sudden Wide Clearing: The Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride

A Sudden Wide Clearing

A Sudden Wide Clearing

豁然开朗 (huò rán kāi lǎng)
“A sudden wide clearing”

豁 (huò): spacious
然 (rán): sudden
开 (kāi): short for 开阔 (kāikuò), which means broad
朗 (lǎng): bright

The liberating feeling you get when you see a beautiful, open expanse; or a metaphor for everything becoming clear at once.

The Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride

Kunming-Baise MapOn Sunday morning, January 29th, 2006, the first day of the Chinese New Year,  two friends and I set off from Kunming, Yunnan, on a bicycle ride to Baise in Guangxi province.

We had no planned route, very little gear, and no clue what we were getting into. Two of us (me, mostly) were also severely overweight and out of shape.

Kunming-Baise Map - TerrainWe had three basic route options to choose from and ended up choosing the route through a small town called Xilin. We did not know how far along the route we would get; Our only constraint was that we had to reach Nanning by the following Sunday; and be back in the office on Monday.

We ended up traveling a little over 600 Km in 6 days in what was mostly mountainous terrain.

Note: I actually kept a meticulous journal of all events, distance traveled, and money spent; it was stolen along with a camera full of pictures on a subsequent trip from Kunming to Chongqing. The following is written from memory.

Day 1: A fortuitous start.

Chinese New Year Celebrations, Kunming, 2006.

Chinese New Year Celebrations, Kunming, 2006.

As soon as we left Kunming we knew it would be trip to remember as we ran into a cheerful crowd celebrating the arrival of the new year. With anticipation we started cycling up the mountains to the east of Kunming. We passed through some small towns where people were smoking abnormally large pipes,

and tending to their livestock.

The ride was not too difficult and we managed to reach Shílín, the Stone Forest, which is roughly 90km away.

Day 2: The going gets tough.

As the hills around Kunming were changing into steeper mountains, we stopped to sample the local cuisine just before the climbing became really hard.

Towards the end of the day we stumbled across a picturesque little village tucked away between the mountains.

A few kilometers up the road, we spent the the night in a small town.

Day 3: Huò rán kāi lǎng – A sudden wide clearing.

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (16)The third day started late, slow, and under heavy fog. The going was as tough as the previous day and we were making progress at a mule’s pace. At one point we set off Chinese fire crackers to lighten the mood. We biked up and down one more dreary mountain and then — a sudden wide clearing.

A Sudden Wide Clearing

A Sudden Wide Clearing

Not only have we finally crossed the mountain range we were struggling to get through, the provincial highway abruptly ended and turned into a dirt road that was going around the mountains rather than through them:

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (20)Day 4: All downhill from here?

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (19)The next day we continued on what the maps still insisted was a highway. We suffered quite a few tire punctures (brought plenty of spares) but were going at an incredible speed. So fast in fact, that I had the time to stop and photograph this:

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (18)and these:

All was going well until the non-existent highway we were were riding on met a very existent river and the road came to an end.

There were a few tents by the river where construction workers were living, perhaps to work on that bridge that the map definitely said existed but was nowhere to be seen.

We were faced with a very real problem. It was late afternoon and turning back was not really an option. It took us two days of mostly downhill riding just to get here, it would take us at least double that to get back up the road. It looked like there was just no way we’ll make it to Nanning in time to catch our flights.

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (25)We sat down and had a meal with the construction workers in a tented canteen by the river, and went over our options as the local workforce took turns taking pictures with our bikes.

The options were few: 1. ask the workers to sleep in their camp for the night and hitch a ride with one of their trucks the next day; or 2. follow a small footpath down the edge of the river (that was too narrow to even bike on in most places) and hope it will lead us to a town downstream.

Both options were not really appetizing, and neither was the cabbage on rice we were eating as we contemplated them.

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (26)Just as we came to terms with having to spend the night in a tent on the river, we saw a small boat approaching slowly up the stream.

We hurriedly rushed to the point the skipper was disembarking and started an hour long discussion asking for a ride. The skipper was reluctant, stating something about the low tide or high current (or both), and it took some doing but we ended up hitching a ride to the next town down the stream on a tiny river boat barely large enough to house 3 bikes and their riders.

Day 5: An encounter with the law.

On the fifth day we started climbing the hills on the east bank of the river and enjoyed a day of beautiful scenery.

Yunnan-Guangxi Bike Ride (27)

The going was tough and the towns in this area were sparse. Just before nightfall we arrived at a one-horse town that had just one hotel with a single room in it priced at 5 RMB; no running water or a bathroom, of course. A bowl of cup noodles at the only store in town cost 4. This entire metropolis spanned a few dozen buildings or so.

Our problems began when the local constabulary decided to check our papers. The local police chief arrived ceremoniously at the hotel wearing, what must have been, the only pair of uniforms he had. He courteously asked for our 身份证 (Shēnfèn zhèng), the Chinese ID Card. When we explained to him that foreigners in China did not have Chinese ID cards but carry passports, he looked at us in disbelief. Our gracious host and hotel proprietor helped us convince him that what we were saying is true. When that 5 minute discussion was over, he relented and asked to see our passports instead. We handed over our passports for review, the man seemed perplexed:

“These are not in Chinese!”

The fact that the three passports were from three different countries, in three different colors, and one of them was being read from right to left, made things even worse. No amount of explaining seemed to be working and the officer was now insisting that we leave town. Under no circumstance can we spend the night under his jurisdiction.

The fact that it was already dark and the nearest town was at least 30 Km away up a small mountain path left him unhinged. It was at this point that the proprietor took the officer outside and had a lengthy discussion with him. A few minutes later he returned and said everything is fine. He apologized for his cousin’s rudeness and insisted that we stay in the hotel free of charge and join him and his wife for dinner. We did.

In the morning we found out it was the family matriarch, sitting outside the hotel, that ended the entire debate. Here she is having a morning smoke:

Day 6: Epilogue.

The rest of the trip was less eventful; we hooked up to a main road the next day and took a night bus to Nanning. We made it to the office on time.

Well… what about that enlightenment part of the metaphor? you may ask.

Well, roughly a week after the bike ride, and following the clarity that one gains after spending 8 hours a day on a bike thinking to one’s self, I decided to fire my boss.

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