Perhaps the bamboo bar across the road, manned by the gentleman who told us not to go that way, who tried to indicate that the mud would be up to our knees, perhaps that should have been enough of a warning. Or the next man, who drew Chinese symbols in the dirt and shook his head disparagingly at us should have clued us to what lay ahead. Or the driver of the minivan who stared out at us incredulously and adamantly waived his hands at us not to proceed.
But we are a stubborn pair.
How bad could it be? We were not opposed to having to push our bikes for a few kilometers. And, to be fair, any detour off our planned route would potentially add tens to hundreds of kilometers to our journey. And with both of us wishing to meet our respective parents on their arrival into Kunming the following week, the kilometers and days ahead had all been carefully accounted for.
The day had begun well enough, the sky overcast and the air mild, with none of the forecasted rain eventuating. After the blustery conditions we had arrived in the prior afternoon, we were delighted to find the morning had dawned still and calm. We followed the path of a calm turquoise river that snaked gently below us, its still waters reflecting the terraced green fields and majestic mountain peaks about us, still shrouded in the mist of morning. In due course our gentle river was swallowed into the impressive expanse of the mighty Yangsee, its vastness filling the valley, the steep sided walls adding to the drama and spectre of the surrounding landscape.
A short time later we turned up a side valley, quickly winding our way upwards, away from the expansive river and its valley to follow our planned route. But as we climbed the road began to deteriorate underneath us. Riding past the aforementioned warning signs, we continued to climb, and the road continued to fall apart. Before long we were pushing our bikes through calf deep ruts in thick oozing red mud. The further we went, the more difficult it became. The mud built up between the wheel and mud guard, so thick and coagulated it took all my weight to shift the bike forward. Eventually the mud relented for a section and using a stick I prided the bulk of it from Suzy as best I could. Tired and well behind our planned kilometer count, we leaned our bikes against a wall and requested hot water from a local family who were sat outside their front door around a bowl of warm ashes, watching the bustle of activity on their mud fest of, what had once been, a street. We plonked ourselves down on wooden stools beside them, munching on our emergency noodles as we contemplated our next move.
We decided to press on. We had come this far. Surely it couldn’t last much longer.
A short time later we are stopped by the driver of a huge lorry. He pulls his truck to the side of the road, (if we are game enough to call it that) and scurries over. No. He clearly indicates to us. You cannot keep going. Using an English translation app he finally outlines to us the situation ahead. And in no uncertain terms. Turn around. Go back. In as much as we could surmise, the roadworks continued in this fashion for another 50 to 80-kilometers. With 1000m to climb and a pace of 3-km/hr, it was no use. We finally did what we should have done much earlier. We turned back, sliding our way back downhill, past the knowing nods and smiles of all those who had tried to warn us.
And so, once again, I find myself facing the need for a Plan B. Once again, I find my neatly organized plans thrown into disarray. It seems to be a bit of a theme on this journey. We find a carwash to hose the mud from our bikes, panniers, shoes and shelves, before sitting outside a small convenience store to come up with a Plan B. The locals, bemused by the return of these two strange foreigners, soon grasp our dilemma, and before long we are being pointed in various different directions. Thankfully there appears to be one voice of reason amongst the din of the small crowd of locals that now surround us, and before long we have settled on a alternative route. Despite the lengthening shadows, we decide to keep riding, opting to get another 20-km under our belts in the last few hours of daylight. Tunnel after tunnel and smooth tarmac carry us gently alongside the expanse of the Yangsee, before suddenly, once again the road veers off up a valley.
This was not on the map.
We find ourselves on a detour. A bridge is out. Climbing up the steep little pitches that lead away from our newly planned route, we have no way of knowing how far this detour will take us. With all we have already faced that day, it takes all my mental strength to set aside my frustration at this little development. After an extra 5-km of, hilly detour that once again cloaks our bikes in mud, we are back on route.
As we approach the town we have aimed for, Rebecca is too far ahead. The bulk of the town lies up the steep slopes above us, and she bowls straight through the small section that signifies our arrival, expecting something larger. We are well through the little village and heading back into the countryside before I can get close enough to call out to her and highlight our error. We turn around and head back into the small town, beginning our search for a nights accommodation. Thankfully, we find a hotel almost immediately.
Later we discuss how some days it feels as though we step off our bikes and into the arms of a guardian angel. On this particular evening we are met by a kind woman who quickly ushers us into a clean guesthouse room, with two beds, a kettle, a heat pump, and a window that provides a stunning view out over the Yangsee. I have come to rank the guesthouse rooms we stay in by a simple system based on the provided amenities. One star for each. Heat pump. Hot water. Kettle. Towels. Soap. I award it seven stars out of five. A window AND a view. Those aren’t even on the list.
I soon up the star rating to eight. Our guardian angel indicates that she will take us to dinner, and having allowed us time to change, loads us both onto the back of her electric scooter and carts us up the steep streets into the centre of the township. We are introduced to her English speaking friend, a delightful young lady who is studying in Australia and is back home for the Christmas break. We are warmly welcomed and our food is ordered for us. The local police are brought to the restaurant to complete our guesthouse check in formalities. A full restaurant conference is held to discuss our route to Kunming and the best options forward. Before we leave we are handed a slip of paper with route suggestions. A short time later we are scooted back to our guesthouse to rest.
After a challenging day that left me tired and frustrated, these small acts of kindness mean so much. It is these moments, resting in the care and kindness of others that can help a heart so far from it’s own home feel warmed. That helps strengthen a weary touring soul and makes this journey so rich and rewarding.