Somewhere, in western Yunnan… It’s eight o’clock in the morning and we are already walking our way on the dark bitumen of the road. Where are we going? South. Always south. Following that dear travel mate of ours we call the Mekong.
On the road in Yunnan
We are walking above a deep brown gorge, festooned with adorable tiny villages, on the new two-months-old road. Are we the first hikers to set foot on it? We couldn’t say. Nowadays, when you think to be the first doing something, it’s always to find out moments later that you are only walking in the footsteps of someone else. There are so many silent wanderers in this world…
Today, like yesterday and the day before, a blazing sun is leading the way. The temperature has arisen at least to 35°C. Fortunately for us, a nice breeze always rushes in the gorge, drying nearly instantly the drops of sweat running on our foreheads. The Mekong flows at high speed between razor sharp banks, like a long river of melted chocolate. Vision of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. But where are the sympathetic Hoompa Loompas?
It’s been three day since we left Cizhong and the wonderful Tibetan farm where we had such a great time. Since, the Mekong offers us the hospitality of its banks every night. One evening we pitched the tent in an old stone-pit, one evening on a small deserted beach… We wash our painful feet and salty faces in its icy cold waters. Delicious feeling… This ritual is soon followed by another: the Streching Time! We wouldn’t go far without this half an hour of daily stetching.
Yesterday evening, the rude hard rocky terrain didn’t allow us to camp anywhere. Luckily, further up the path was an isolated tiny house. We asked to its old owner the permission to set our tent nearby, on a deliciously flat bed of gravels.
- You want a sleep on that pile of stones? What a silly idea… How weird those foreigners are! She laughed. Why not sleeping on my terrace? (Approximate translation from the authors…)
Why not, indeed? And here she comes now with two fresh cups of tea, then she offers us a sumptuous dinner! No, really, we can’t accept, it’s too much… We are delighted of course, but so embarrassed. We thank her a thousand times. After dinner, we are invited to watch the inevitable evening movie. Tonight it’s an american crap with a very original scenario. We start drowsing in the couch as a group of actors-bodybuilders, horribly dubbed in Chinese, braves a gang of ravenous white sharks in a gloomy underground car park invaded by the sea.
The generosity of the people of the area is incredible. Before Cizhong already, an old Tibetan farmer offered us a solid dinner and the floor of his house to spend the night. And everyday, several cars stop spontaneously to offer us a ride. We don’t accept every time, but sometimes it is quite nice to watch kilometers pass by without any effort. Anytime we accept a ride, the drivers are quite incredulous and laugh a great deal as we explain our trip.
- But, why do you have to walk? Why don’t you take the bus? You should buy yourself a motorbike, you would go faster! Or a bicycle! What? You like walking? Oh but those foreigners are totally nuts really! (Or so we understood)
Despite those unmerited mockery (considering we are unquestionably sane and well, everybody knows that), these hitchhiking periods became truly invaluable for us to improve our poor Chinese and to meet all kind of adorable and funny people. One time, two young men took us aboard, offered us a lot of Chinese yogurt (delicious) and even made a detour to show us an ancient traditional village owned by the Lisu ethnic group, which we would have undoubtedly missed if we didn’t chance-encountered them. Another time, we took a ride in a truck with a couple in its mid-forties carrying a massive pink pig. They had the most fantastic sense of humor. Even if it was hard to understand everything, we spend all the trip cracking up.
But, why walking?
They are right, all those Chinese, to ask this question… After all, why walking? What bizarre power fuels us everyday when we decide to walk our daily 30 kilometers (or so)? Because we don’t walk by love of physical effort. No sport challenge in our approach of the trip. Why, then?
It’s hard to explain. Maybe we want to act in the exact opposite way of our crazy rushing World, maybe we just want to be different and to simply appreciate LIFE as it slowly passes by… But no. To be fair, walking is a very personal choice. We are not walking in order to judge anyone or anything. It’s just that we discovered that walking was changing us, day after day, and was straightening the bond between us. Walking makes us feel better, happier and even more in love (More? Is it possible?).
Walking makes time slows down, and nearly stops. The landscapes we cross are printed more deeply in our eyes and in our hearts. We pay more attention to details we would have missed otherwise: the goats bleating, the tinkling of cowbells, the smells of harvest, the tunes of the loud music coming from the speakers at the back of the motorbikes, the pastoral beauty of the little villages, the warmth of the smiles encountered on the way… We are filled with a new strength and an incredible « joie de vivre »! A day passes by, then two, and three… We stop counting, we just enjoy life as it comes. We dream listening to the echo of our footsteps, we sing (Mariette is an awesome little radio), we joke, we imagine new travel projects, talk about the future and the past or just appreciate the present time in silence.
The gorge and the river get wider the more we go south. The arid mountains transform into green hills and more and more rice fields tend to appear on the way. The whole landscape becomes more and more tropical. And suddenly: « A buffalo!! » We shout. « Mooooo », it answers ( unfortunately, a buffalo doesn’t have much conversation). It feels like it was only yesterday that we left the Tibetan herds of yacks of North Yunnan. And today here we are, facing the monstrous horns of a somewhat placid and muddy buffalo! Yunnan is really so incredibly rich and diverse! The more we see of it, the more it fascinates us! The architecture is also quite different now, the style is traditional of the main ethnic group of the area: the Bai. The lovely blue tiled houses are all painted white and covered with delicate painted Chinese sceneries and scriptures, bringing a cosy and charming atmosphere to the villages.
As we walk, getting more and more tired as the day goes by, we start thinking about the act of walking itself. What is the best way to walk? Should we better stamp our feet on the ground or gently unfold the foot arch, cushion the shock and bounce forward with the toes? And what about the walking stick? Should we keep our arms straight at a 90° angle at all time or should we keep a slack flexible wrist? And let’s not forget the backpacks!! Should we let it rest more on our hips or on our shoulders? Should we walk straight as a stick or lean forward? Oh no, now it’s starting to rain…
Q : Yeah, not surprising. The weather is quite menacing since the showers of yesterday…
M : I am starting to be very tired… I think it’s more than time for a Survival Snickers!
Q : Glutton you! There’s only two left!! Well, for now we’ve got more important matters: where are we going to sleep tonight??
Indeed, twilight will fall on us soon and, as far as we can see, there is not a single little space that could be suitable for pitching a tent anywhere. We have no other choice than to keep walking, hoping for the best. Soon, as we reach our twenty fifth kilometer of the day, we discover an impressive dam on the river. The hydroelectric company had the good idea to built ten kilometers of fence upstream and downstream, to calm down its paranoid fear of activists-ecologists. We are trapped in a long corridor. No choice but to keep going, even if we feel very exhausted and quite wet too. And we should better not linger here anyway: Quentin has noticed a car with dark tinted windows passing by us slowly several times. Is it watching us or are we becoming paranoid too?
We finally manage to reach a dorm-town hosting the employees of the hydroelectric company and find a room in a small hotel-restaurant. A group of young engineers is already sitting there waiting for dinner. They invite us to join them for a jolly party! One of them is speaking English and translates everything. They feed us and get us numerous beers and also made us try this very strong and bizarre (disgusting) Chinese rice alcohol called baijio. They will even pay for everything despite our loud protestations! We really spent an incredibly funny evening, and discovered new interesting people. We enjoyed it so much and it was so far from french clichés! China will always find a way to surprise us! The more we stay, the more we love it!
See you soon!
M. & Mme Shoes