Firing on all cylinders goes the saying, that’s the G8 today as we push off from Menghun to Zhanglang in the first of the mountain stages of the Tour de Yunnan. Well all except for Andy who’s still refining his target practice at toilet time; all of the time. With the sprint stages done for now it’s time to separate the men from the boys, the ladies from the girls in the hills, the glamour boys and girls need to step grudgingly from the spotlight as only the prima-donnas can which means it’s bad luck for Guy as he flicks his hair in a huff and sashays to his tent. Morning noodles go down a treat and warm up goes as well as can be expected with the naughty girl of the classroom Janno a bit too full of sugar for the task.
The endless rice paddies we were surrounded by yesterday are our scenery for today as we roll out of town to fat ribbons of cloud highlighting rather than obscuring the mountain peaks that hang clear above. A gentle glow enlightens our shadowless world through a cloudy filter which promises a long needed reprieve to the sapping heat, a good day for mountains. The ribbon of riders slowly stretches as the G8 spreads its wings along this grand open plain of rice paddies and endless space that so aptly reflects this nation of immensity. In no time the string of bikes that is the G8 separates leaving us largely free to the meditation of cycling. Minds draw inward given this time of no interruption, repetitive motion and gentle scenery so full of pacifying green tones that spread around us before the mountain climb 19km away, 19km of meditation.
The gears slowly ebb up as I greedily hoard every scrap of momentum I can grab searching for a peaceful mind. Shoulders drawn back, arms held rigid and forehead dipped to the world searching for motionless I let go of my rigid pose and finally like a house of cards after the last one is placed it stands on its own no longer needing consideration. Gears continue to gain resistance as the pedalling continues to become easier, effortless on a continuous roll of relaxed legs which replaces the rhythmic pushing of hard working limbs. Like a hypnotist calling myself to sleep there are no higher gears yet I’m on an exercise bike with no tension rocketing through the countryside with a bullet straight line that my forehead follows unerringly.
The kilometres peel away like wax paper off butter on thoughts from home. I name all the plants in our garden, compose words, ponder politics, humanity, myself and think about matters so trivial I forget them even as they pass through my mind like a speeding car through a tiny town unnamed on a map. I solve the worlds problems and think of flitting whims simultaneously as the wheels sing on taken flight. There’s riding a bike and there’s cycling; I have little cycling skill and even still I feel the uplift of moving with fluidity and locking in all momentum I gather like a scrooge gathers coins. In the blink of a wandering mind the road ascends, I’m at the mountain and 19km feels like a dreamy float to the letterbox. The hypnotist clicks fingers as I slow to a crawl looking for a safe place to stop and wait for the team only to hear Echo and Wendy arrive with perfect timing.
‘Finally we caught you’ comes the cry from Echo ‘the others are back that way’. There’s a change, another turnoff was needed that wasn’t on our map clearly which has sent me the wrong way. ‘How far’? I ask: ‘The town’ comes the reply through the noise of traffic I hear now for the first time. The town is 11km back. With fury coursing my legs now in place of the weightless glide of before I blast my way back probably even faster than I made it out here. An extra 22km for nothing takes the high of the best cycling I’ve done and replaces it with angst as I pull up to the team all waiting at the base of the other hill, I take a rest as most of the group pushes off.
Brought down from my high the mountain begins with leaden feet, a clear mind is beyond me for now as I try to settle into better form to make it up the 9km incline. Alternatively I could just skeet it, I grab hold of a heavily laden truck crawling slowly up the hill and sit in for the ride; my legs could use the break. Not only less taxing this is great fun as I zoom past each one of the team in turn as they amazingly hold back their tirades I’m sure they’d like to throw at me. I borrow about 3km with little effort spent but most importantly my mind is clear and thinking positively, I smash the hill in no time closely followed by each of the G8 victoriously cresting the final rise. We declare a team victory before it’s off to the restaurant for lunch. We find ourselves facing a government notice that this restaurant has the lowest hygiene rating on offer; in China where ‘good’ hygiene absolutely needs the air quotes this is a bit frightening but after what we’ve put in our bodies this trip already it can’t be that much worse, we dig in.
A short skip to our home-stay takes place via a temple, box ticked, let’s relax. In a village without a concrete house we are finally in a more true version of regional China ex the new money style crime; it’s very basic, fairly clean and sits with a commanding view over the mountains and beyond. In a strange twist it has less comfort than other places we’ve stayed but lacks the offensive culture train smash we’ve seen in other places to leave us calm and appreciative. I sit down to some typing with my tea overlooked by a local disabled boy beaming a smile of innocent wonder all the while in this setting that could be everything we hoped to find. I’ll just ignore the big Mao portrait up in the lounge room.
Dinner is one of the best we’ve had; still it’s the huge array of dishes that we all fall on like Chinese at a baggage carousel and all of it’s delicious rather than just most of it. The beers are out, Andy is looking a little better, Robbie and Janno still haven’t drawn breath from day-1 like schoolgirls still and all under the eyes of Big Brother, Mao watches on in austerity. It blows me away that all portraits of this monster haven’t been burnt but such is the delusional propaganda machine of this country that many Chinese genuinely have little true idea of the man or this time of their own history.
Landing in China set in motion for me a question on whether it’s still Mao’s China. Sadly on many observations I’d have to say absolutely yes. Our hostess sings to us in Mandarin and we all loudly toast her to great frivolity and celebration for something other than ‘the party’, something that in Mao’s time would be heavily shunned if not nearly unheard of. Tonight we are living proof of his slipping grip: simple jovial fun at the G8’s mountainous victory flourishes as Mao’s China takes a back seat for the remainder of this night.