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July 6th-8th: Kunming - The New China

Kunming is my first city stop in China, and not what I expect... Reflecting towers, a refreshing climate and definite order replace the humidity, heat and chaos of Hanoi. No mopeds to jostle with on the road, no buses blasting their horns, no ramshackle colonial architecture, just manicured lawns overlooked by towering department stores. It's early in the morning, and groups of older folk are gracefully practising their T'ai Chi.

I follow the cycle lanes of the big boulevards which sweep through the city to the imposing Camelia Hotel. Eyeing its austere reception area and doormen in peaked caps, I wonder if I might have misread the map. A crew of scruffy backpackers reassure me all is well. Indeed, we're soon syphoned off across a courtyard to less regal surroundings - section 3, floor 3, dorm room 9 of a building that smells like a dental surgery. We also share the floor with the Laotian consulate, while below pleasant cooking smells waft out from the quiet Burmese representatives. It's all just a little strange...

Everywhere in China, the scale is big. Giant billboards, neon lit messages, national banks in contemporary abstract buildings. It's a showcase city that's done away with the old for the new - yet Yunnan is the poorest province in China. Those riding on old Chinese bikes babble into their cellphones, and the old quarter has been levelled for the blue tinted structures that modern China seems to favour.

It really is a bicycle culture. The controlling whistles of the traffic policeman separate cars from bicycles from pedestrians. Caught in a throng of riders, I experience my first bicycle jam. A few of us ring our horns furiously, but most keep a respectful silence. Shrill whistles reprimand those who overstep the white line - riders and drivers dutifully shuffle back. Women with red flags wave riders on, Grand Prix style. I'm sure my friend Gillon, who delights in defying convention, would enjoy winding them up. One individual even approached Trystan and warned, 'You ride well. Very fast. But be careful of the police...' Bike parks are everywhere, and for next to nothing will look after your steed - the attendants even give the saddle a little wipe down if its been raining. As for breakdowns, a man sits on almost every street corner with a puncture repair kit and a few spares. The RAC of China.

It's hard to find much of the old wooden structured city around, as mentioned in the guide books, so I settle for exploring what food is on offer - along with Kevin, a fellow Brit traveller. 'Noodles over the Bridge' is a regional speciality, which we duly sample. Raw meat and vegetables are thrown into an enormous bowl of boiling noodle soup, and picked out with chopsticks a few minutes later. The liquid is then slurped straight from the bowl, as far as we can make out, and the taste is incredible. It's easy to over order in China, and the delicious sweet and sour pork almost tips us over the edge. All around people are tucking into steamed dumplings dipped into spicy chilli sauce, spitting bones onto the floor and skillfully flicking white rice into their mouths from bowls held right up to their faces. A couple of baltsas later -steamed bread with fillings - and we're struggling to move...

Though Kunming is a hyper modern city with trendy young Chinese on a permanent shopping mission, the older generation of Chinese carry themselves more traditionally. Dignified men stand with their hands behind their backs studying the newspapers attached to public noticeboards. Sometimes their silver beards are tapered to a point and their faces etched with a network of wrinkles. Traditional cap and blue workers suits complete the Mao effect. I wonder how they must be reacting to all the changes they must have seen in their lifetime, from the cultural revolution to China's new found commercialism.

The Internet, once closely monitored by the authorities, seems easy to access. The cafe I find is more of a games arcade, and plays a continual rock soundtrack. Emailing Rosal back in Hanoi, who is expertly co-ordinating matters from her laptop, I find out all is well - Trystan's acupuncture course is over, having culminated in 8cm needles slid between the fingers. He's now ready to ride again and is on his way from Hanoi by hard sleeper. The Internet's impact on 'independent' travel is phenomenal. The amount of on line computers has mushroomed, and it's now possible to arrange meet someone, whose exact location you don't even know, in a cafe in another country altogether, without picking up the phone.

Sure enough, after an exhausting marathon journey by train and bus, Mr T arrives at the designated time, sporting a new haircut and shades. And not a moment to lose, as my flight leaves that very afternoon - I'm Hong Kong bound, off to repair the Psion, extend the visas, replace my cracked rear wheel and visit a friend.

A week later I return and we meet 'Fat Tyres' bike club member, Joshui, at Kunming's only mountain bike shop. It's nestled in the back streets and overflows with Chinese export frames and antique Shimano XT (top of the range) parts. After whiling away a few hours adjusting the bikes, Joshui invites us over for supper at his house. Flying along the bicycle lanes, weaving in and out of the other cyclists, we carry the bikes up to his small apartment, where we are met by his mother and...another banquet. Joshui is studying English, and generously plies us with supplies for the road ahead and details of where to stop and what food to taste. He insists on giving me his seat post bottle rack, having noticed me looking at one in the shop. In return, I hand him a 'Wheelie Serious', bottle rack from London.

It's the first time I've been into someone's house in China - indeed it's not so often that you see any real homes whilst travelling - and its an insight beyond the hotel rooms. Like my experiences in Singapore and Malaysia, it's another example of the instant friendship of the biking fraternity.

Our next major stop (after the Hong Kong interlude) is Dali, another backpacker haven some 400 km west. Climbing aboard our steeds, once again burdened with panniers, a tent, sleeping bags, cooker and cold weather clothes for the high altitude months ahead, we bid a fond goodbye to Kunming and roll on once more.



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