Beaten, broken and violated in Er Hai, Dali.
Tired to the bone, Gary and I pulled up our bikes on the side of the road, around 40km into our first day of cycling around Er Hai, the lake beside Dali in Yunnan, China. Panting and groaning we grabbed desperately for our water bottles and started to plonk down on the dusty bank when we both stopped dead, opening and closing our mouths silently and pointing like kids who had just found Santa dozing underneath their Christmas tree.
We had heard that the cycle route was beautiful and it was this, combined with an urgent need to escape Dali before we became alcoholic hippies, that had convinced us to undertake a 150km trip on banjaxed bikes in the first place. Beautiful we had expected, mind blowingly serene we hadn’t. Before us spread a vibrant patchwork of terraced rice fields, snaking down the hill to the lake which was sparkling in the dusky pink glow of the evening.
Over the day we had been forcefully violated by our saddles, harassed by a fish-wielding old woman, blared off the road by hundreds of buses and trucks and, as we would later discover, burned by the sun and wind so badly that we would blister and peel three times over the following two weeks. Tomorrow our feet, legs, bums, faces and arms would be so sore that we would have to double back on the 50km we had already completed rather than labour through the rest of the scenic route.
As we stood and watched the last of the day’s workers pack up their harvested rice and conical hats however, none of that mattered. We were in a postcard – in one of those painfully beautiful moments that you think only Lonely Planet writers and professional photographers ever get to experience. It was hardly a snapshot from a rural town only a few hours outside of Dali with all of its neon signs and western bars.
The rest of the day had its moments too – weaving through Bai villages past traditionally dressed women with their babies tied to their backs; kids screaming “Hello! I love you!” at us and chasing our bikes laughing hysterically; slowing down to watch fishermen on bamboo boats casting their excessively long wooden rods with a dramatic flourish; working our way through Shaping market between rows of knock-off Nike runners and dentists practicing ad hoc surgery on unwitting patients who sat on wooden chairs placed firmly in the mud. Even our fish-head stew, which we had ordered by urgently pointing at our bellies and at a nearby table scattered with leftovers, had been an experience.
Sadly we only made it as far as the Double Corridor Village before we fell into bed in an old hotel and bathed our wounds. The last 10km had spanned the most horrendous road we had ever seen – the kind of road that lists ‘pothole’ as one of its more positive attributes. We had been overtaken by old women pedalling tonnes of hay up a steep hill, tuk tuk drivers talking on their phones and man driving a horse and cart. Tired, dehydrated and full to bursting point with self-pity, we called it a day and dreamed of the floating pavillion, mud streaked villages and glorious paddy fields that the next day would bring. Unfortunately all we got was kilometers of dual carraigeways, an almighty headwind and third degree burns. No regrets though, Er Hai is a slice of China that is absolutely worth a visit – whatever the cost.
More pictures from our cycle in Dali are available in the gallery