By Mick McDonald
We have forgotten what week it is as we farewelled the wonderful Laos, the 3 hour ride to the border, with the obligatory flat tyre, was a fitting way to end our time in Laos as it was yet another scenic overload over the final mountain ranges into China
The border itself was an absolute classic, a confusing mess of dirt tracks choked with lumbering trucks, confused car drivers and not a sign anywhere as to where the border actually was; China are frantically building something, though we couldn’t work out what, hence we jockeyed with at least 50 dump trucks, earthmoving equipment and work site vehicles as they charged around turning the dust laden skies into something akin to Apocalypse Now!!
It must be said we harboured a few anxieties about the legendary difficulties on getting your own vehicle into China where in actual fact it was a relatively painless process, made all that easier by our contracted Chinese guide, the effervescent Bing.
Riding away from the border, into China, was a special moment but we had some more silliness to attend to in the next town; we had to get a Chinese driver’s licence and Chinese plates for the car. First stop was the local health authority where one must get a certificate declaring that you are fit enough to drive the car, they must have thought Sarah & I looked fit enough and gave us the required certificate without any health checks, in fact they barely raised their eyebrows from behind their desks. Next health check was for the car at the Traffic Police Vehicle Inspection Centre. The car was brake tested, where a local jumped in, floored the accelerator raced along for 20ft then slammed on the brakes, brake test done! A quick headlight check and it was announced our vehicle had passed. Bing collected our pre made licenses and plate number and the silliness ended there, we were free to drive off and explore China.
China is without doubt one of the construction powerhouses of the world, yet we were determined to get off the beaten track, away from the construction boom and into the Chinese backcountry. We quickly found some stunning narrow backroads that wound their way through ancient tea trees along an equally ancient route known as the Tea Horse Route, as important as the Silk Road but virtually unknown. We were in minority country and the people were simply amazing. We sipped 12-year-old tea plucked from 1000-year-old tea trees in a tiny homemade restaurant where all the ladies wished to do was to enthusiastically educate us about the different types of teas they had produced, refusing to take a yuan for the tea they plied us with. Restaurateurs apologised that they had no chicken on the menu because they couldn’t catch the chicken that day and ladies sorting tea at a tea factory invited us in for a drink, we got the feeling they didn’t see too many foreigners out that way.
We ended an amazing first full day in China watching a local dance group in front of the Jaincheng Museum as the sun went down, locals kids posed for photos with us and the restaurant owner, where we had dinner, only charged us half price, day 1 in China had been astounding & a total revelation, we were salivating for what lay ahead.
The following day saw us cross more very remote mountain ranges on single lane roads that seem as far away from the construction boom as is the moon, it’s been a long time since any graders of repair crews had ventured this far off the freeways!! We arrived at the UNESCO listed Yuanjang Rice Terraces, a breathtaking landscape of water and rice filled terraces stacked on top of each other as they towered into the mountains that stood all around. The traditional Hani peoples have farmed this area continuously for 1400 years! We could not think of a more epic Chinese sight and the setting sun reflecting off some of the terraces only added to what had been an amazing day.
Crossing the Tropic of Cancer, at Mojiang, a city that has the curious reputation of having more twins being born there than anywhere else in China, we continued onto the ancient city of Lijiang. We spent the evening exploring this astounding ancient city, as it is known throughout China, laden with centuries old buildings, tight laneways, beautiful canals and iconic Chinese buildings, it really was a sight that was almost impossible to take in, simply stunning and justifies the decision to spend 2 nights there on the 2020 Asian Overland Expedition.
Our final day this week brings to an end of our first week in China, we dragged ourselves away from Lijiang and the Panda channel on TV in our hotel, you guessed it 24/7 non stop Panda bear TV, nothing but pandas, no commentary, no David Attenborough quality documentaries just Pandas, it was strangely fixating.
We quickly started to ascend and it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves riding though a narrow fissure of rock known as Tiger Leaping Gorge, China’s deepest gorge, and an utterly breathtaking sight. We rode the 20ks along a narrow winding pass with the river roaring below and the canyon walls towering above, it was simply astounding, and it remained that way for the remainder of the day as we crossed pass after pass with towering snow-capped peaks looming high about as we reached our destination of Shangri – La at 3400mt
What a week this has been, our first in China, we can’t wait for the next 4 weeks in China if the first one was anything to go by. All preconceptions had been blown out the window, China truly defies any reasonable attempts to describe it.
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