Sunday, 24 February 2013

Lost In Yunnan - 2011

This idea was initiated some 2 years ago. A little hiccups here and there and it finally materialised. That 2 years of planning paid off when all the pieces came together for a much anticipated overland trip to Yunnan Province, China. 7th Dec 2011, all 5 riders set to go and will be joined by 2 pillions in Chiangmai, Thailand. Managed to get a Chinese tour agent amongst a few which is mandatory by Chinese regulations if you're travelling with own vehicles in Chinese territories. Our agent, a 58 year old ex goverment officer based in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, well he's a very difficult man to reach over emails. I was very anxious and worried about his possible no show at the custom border as he didn't demand for any deposits unlike all other agents that i had contacted. Nevertheless, he was there at Mohan border and all went well from start till the end. From riding on ice in Shangrila, mindblowing sceneries, extreme sub zero temperature, worst that you can imagine public toilet experience, the long wait at international border crossings, taking the less travelled back roads and the flood evacuation exercise warning in Hatyai, every moment was priceless and will be difficult to forget. Following images summarized our 28 days of journey covering from Singapore - Malaysia - Thailand - Northern Laos - China.

Day 1- 4
Singapore - Hatyai - Bangkok - Chiangmai - Phu Chi Fa - Chiang Khong

After almost 10 hours cruising Malaysian NS Highway, we arrived Dannok and headed straight for Hatyai Junction Railway Station.

Train left at 1810hrs same day, managed to get 2 1st class tickets and 2nd class sleeper for the rest. Few hours spent on massages, some others making purchases for Thai prepaid card while waiting for the train.

1st class still looks cramped with all the luggages squeezed in. And woke up to the sight of recent Bangkok floods.

Arrived Hua Lamphong and purchased the next train to Chiangmai the same day. Some 9 hours later, we're in Chiangmai train station. All this arrangements allows us to save an extra day and your train ticket and cargo fees covers your hotel, petrol and mileage.

Called up Phillip Gibbins, owner of Rider's Inn and he's left with only one room which can accomodate 3. So we had to source for 2other rooms where 2 pillions will fly in from Singapore the same night. Nevertheless, we dropped in Rider's Inn.

And caught up with Round the World Rider's, Alex and Andre from Germany.

In the meantime, Umar and Hus tagged Phil, who's hosting few friends up to Doi Ithanon where they met fellow Singapore rider, Deen who is on a solo trip with his wife.
I managed to get a decent room few soi away for 400 baht. Bike week was going on coincidentally so most rooms were full.

It was my 5th visit to Chiangmai but this was my 2nd time staying there. The rest of the time were a touch and go affair. So a couple of us walked quite a bit around time before me and Kaz head for the airport for our passengers.

Next morning, had breakfast at Phil's who has been helpful in giving us route suggestions for day's trip to Chiang Khong. He called it fun route. He even downloaded the routes into our GPS.

Here's Dave from the US. He's doing some charity ride soon in Cambodia

All set to go

We made our way to Chiang Khong via Phu Chi Fa

Arrived Chiang Khong late.

Day 5
Chiang Khong - Boten

Distance covered: 269km

Left early morning hoping to catch the 1st barge to Huayxai, Laos. 1st barge only available at 10am. Barge costs 500 baht and purchased Laos insurance for 200 baht which covers for 7 days.

Insurance and ferry ticket booth

Doesn't take long to cross and once we're in, took us almost 2 hours to settle all our necessary personal and vehicle documentations.

A couple of stretch with road works going on but other than that it was a super road.

Sue handing out candies

Until we've reached Boten Custom House

Rode further in to find a ghost town

Checked into Royal Hotel run by Chinese. Room cost 150 Yuan.

Called our Chinese agent later the night to arrange for timing at the border. At this point, I knew he will show up.

Day 6

Boten - Mohan - Mengla - Jinhong

Distance covered: 170km
Found the actual Boten Immigration Checkpoint few kilometers up. The guard was crossed we didn't stop at the stop sign and demanded that we turn back to that stop sign and instructed the pillions to walk. Apologized profusely before he gave us the nod to get our paperwork done. Costs 10,000 kips to process our passport and they didn't even ask for our import papers.

A couple of minutes later, we arrived here.

After a couple of pictures, we proceeded into arrival lobby to get our passport stamped. Being Singaporeans, any visit into China below 14 days are exempted from visa application. How convenient. What is more impressive is that we did not even need to fill in an arrival card. A booth where you just need to scan your passport and the arrival card is automatically generated. Super.

The pillions continued to the other side while the riders went back to push the bikes forward to the inspection booth.

I'm one happy man.

Throughout my emails with the Chinese agent, Mr Wang insisted that to save costs, he doesn't mind sitting on our bikes as pillions. Most of other operators "claimed" that a 4WD escort is a must. Mr Wang has proven that this is not true. His only request was that we provide a riding helmet for him. Plus Mr Wang was very transparent about his prices. No hidden costs and he provided with all the breakdowns. I didn't get such from other operators. In the end, we ended up paying around $USD70 lesser than the original costs. The only small problem i had with him wass his response time when replying to emails. But he does this for a living and as we get to know him further, he's always away from home in the deserts or his specialized Silk Road for tours.

After all the necessary documentations and inspection done at the border, we head 60km up to the town of Mengla to get our provisional Chinese driving license and further inspection on our bikes. Everyone was smiling ear to ear while cruising the Chinese highway.

Arrived Mengla Traffic Police Station exactly 11am.

Unfortunately, they closed for lunch at 1130am, so they couldn't process our application on time. And re-opened at 3pm.

So we walked around Meng la town to find lunch.

Omar getting his boots shined.

The start of my many horrifying toilet experience.

School children having recess

We went back to have a chat with Mr Wang. I must say he's holding my most ideal job.

Bikes lining up for inspection. Here they checked our chassis number against vehicle registration details and making sure all our lights and signals are working.

At 6pm, we were still in the application office as they were having problems with printers. We were the last to leave the office.

And finally, our temporary Chinese driving license.

Next, 120km ride to Jinhong town.

Checked into Home Inn, 120 yuan ($S24)

Being resourceful, Mr Wang managed to find Muslim restaurant in any towns we stopped in. And he insisted that we eat in a Muslim restaurant.

It was an early night after dinner and nobody anticipated the gruelling ride we had to go through for the next day.

Day 7
Jinhong - Pu'er - Ning'er

Distance covered: 180km

Early morning route discussions

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Chinese petrol costs about $S1.30.

At this point, we were denied entry into Chinese highway. It's Chinese law stating that motorcycles are not allowed on motorways. We had to take the back roads. Mr Wang mentioned this ruling is not really enforced in other province.

So it's either turn back to the entrance of the back roads or take a short cut.

And were rewarded with some nice greeneries of Xishuangbanna's mountains and tea plantation.

Stopped over in Pu'er for lunch

And proceeded further to Ning'er after lunch.

Everyone with Omar's trademark pose.

Arrived Ning'er after a total of 7 hours which covered only 180km. Checked into Ding Hao Hotel. Ride was restricted to endless twisties and hairpin corners, elevations, slippery and narrow road.

Early dinner and ventured a little bit into the town. The cold started to seep in.

Day 8

Ning' er - Lincang - Yunxian

Distance covered: 320km
Another long ride but the scenery got better and better each day. Temperature was 10 degrees C when we moved off.

The cold was unbearable especially every morning. Here we stopped by a local shop asking for hot water. Mr Wang reminded that it's going be much worse in Shangrila.

The bridge across Lan Tao river not laid yet. Had to detour about 10km of dirt road.

Checked in Long Stay Hotel for 220 yuan. Managed to enjoy some colors downtown and a warm foot massage.

Day 9
Yunxian - Dali - Lijiang

Distance covered: 390km
Left early morning to a temperature of 6.5 degrees C. Best ride in China. View along the way was simply breathtaking.

In Dali by noon for lunch.

The road from Dali to Lijiang offers stunning views most that I've only seen on television. The feeling was magic.

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang Old Town

Checked in Yong Ji Commercial Hotel for 100 yuan.

The preservation of this site is simply stunning. The atmosphere around the place very enticing. Did some shopping to prep us for the cold up North and next day's visit to Yulong Snow Mountain.

Day 10
Yulong Snow Mountain, Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

Today it's ride free day. We purchased tickets for visit to Yulong Snow Capped Mountain or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain known to the locals. Tickets cost 400 Yuan. Includes entrance fees, conservation fees, bus and cable rides. GOing to be my first encounter with snow.

Spent a couple of hours before we head back down to Lijiang Old Town for lunch and decided that the base of the mountain provides great opportunity for photography. We didn't waste much time to suit up and ride 15km back to the mountain.


Very satisfying indeed. Didn't know China offers great photography opportunities. Don't need to go far, it's right under my nose.

After dinner, me and wifey enjoyed brilliant display of colours in Lijiang Old Town.Sitting atop of an elevation of 2600m, Lijiang is everybody's favourite stopover in Yunnan.

Day 11
Lijiang - Shangrila (Zhongdian)

Distance supposedly to cover: 180km

It's freezing cold when we set off. I have never been to any place under a temperature of 10 degrees C.

Omar, the leader of the pack with Mr Wang was nowhere to be seen. 60km into the ride, i stop by this location as my fingers have taken its toll. None of our bikes were equipped with heated grips or mittens. You dont need those in South East Asia. On top of that the bike had been skidding very often on wet patches. Noticed, snow flakes on the side of the road as well. There's a weird symbol which blinked repeatedly on my instrument panel. One time, the temperature hit - 3.5 degrees C when we were passing through a mountain.

When the rest of the pack caught up, I was informed that one rider skidded and suffered a minor fall. He said he was allright and mentioned about slippery road surface. We moved forward and there Omar was shivering when speaking. We decided to settle in a nearby stall for hot drinks. Later do we learnt that those wet patches on the road are called black ice. Being dumb Asian who enjoys tropical climate all year round, that's the first time i heard of black ice. And that weird symbol on my panel represent snow. Dumbfounded, we had to make a long and hard decision that our ride cannot go further.

Mr Wang suggested we move 20km further to Shangrila scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge town.

Slight road rash. Rider and passenger still in high spirit.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a canyon on the Yangtze River. It is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas World Heritage Site.

We headed down to Tiger Leaping Gorge town for lunch.

Mr Wang suggested that we should proceed to Shangrila nevertheless, but by public. So he sourced for a motel which could accommodate our bikes safely. Parking fees costs 400 Yuan.

After unloading, we waited for a bus to Shangrila.

Checked in Qilin Business Hotel for 100 Yuan a night. Mr Wang sure knows where to find good and cheap hotels.

Comes with heated mattress.

That's our dinner

Shangrila carries a lot of Tibet culture. This restaurant owner has a distinctive Tibetan warrior outlook.

Shangrila during winter is normally quiet with few visitors. Walked a bit around town and witnessed local fire dance.

Didn't spent much time outdoor as temperature was hitting - 15 degrees C. The heated mattress was my best companion for the night.

Day 12
Songzanlin Monastery, Shangrila, Yunnan Province, China
It was difficult to get off those warm and comfortable bed. Early morning we visited Yunnan's biggest Tibetan monastery, Songzanlin Monastery. The name was given by the fifth Dalai Lama. It was first constructed in 1679. Paid entrance fee of 85 Yuan.

Back in Shangrila town for a quick lunch.

Common sight in most meat restaurants.

Natural freezing.

After which, we proceeded to Shu Du Lake, 43 km away from town center. Being the largest lake in Shangrila, it sits on an altitude of around 3700m above sea level.

Parts of the lake frozen.

Loads of yaks grazing by the grassland.

Day 13
Shangrila - Tiger Leaping Gorge Town - Lijiang - Kunming
Mr Wang had already purchased bus ticket to Tiger Leaping Gorge town the day earlier. We decided that our pillions continued in the bus to Lijiang while the riders will retrieve the bikes and ride 80km to Lijiang. The bikes will then be transported back to Jinhong by lorry while we take a night train to Kunming to visit another UNESCO site, Xilin Stone Forest.

Our morning breakfast at bus station.

Common set up of China's public toilet. Note there's no flushing system and NO DOORS!!!

Even the temperature inside the bus is below 0.

The riders bidding farewell to the pillions.

Talking about security at its best.

Back in Lijiang Old Town soon after.

Mr Wang managed to find a lorry which coincidentally was unloading goods in front of the hotel. After some negotiations, the driver agreed for a total fee of 6000 Yuan to transport the bike 2000km South. That is a good deal.

Mr Wang followed the lorry to Jinhong where it will arrive 1 day earlier than us. On top of that he will have to provide a lodging for the driver in Jinhong. We offered him money for accommodation for him and the driver. He refused saying that is his problem. He had booked a night train from Lijiang to Kunming for us and informed us of the necessary arrangements when we arrived Kunming.

Lijiang Train Station.

Sleeper train

Day 14

Kunming - Xilin Stone Forest - Kunming - Jinhong

Arrived Kunming early morning to the presence of touts and scheming looking tour agents.

A replacement for public toilet. See if you can spot a figure within the bushes.

On the way to Xilin Stone Forest, 70 km from Kunming.

The Magical Xilin Stone Forest known since the Ming Dynasty. Entrance fee, 85 Yuan.

By lunchtime, we're back in Kunming city center. Then it's off to some sightseeing around town while waiting for our night sleeper bus to Jinhong where Mr Wang's waiting.

Day 15
Jinhong - Mohan - Boten - Luang Namtha

Distance covered: 250km
Arrived Jinhong before sunrise. Mr Wang was waiting at Home Inn with the driver and we searched for a location where unloading of the bikes will be made easier.

The Pan European was having problems with side stand sensor. KaZ did a good job of doing a bypass.

Soon we're back on Chinese road.

Road construction ongoing in a tunnel, traffic halted.

Arriving Mohan border.

Group shot before departing.

Those money changer ladies tried to cheat Umar of his Yuan.

Camera shy Mr Wang. He's one hell of a guide. I mean it in a good way. This is his 1st time taking a motorcycle group. The furthest he's gone on a bike was 200m. Most of his organised trip were with 4WDs and caravans. His knowledge is very impressive and being resourceful, he comes up with a solution fast. Being Chinese running a business, it's very rare to find one of his character. He doesn't demand for deposit before entry and he only collected full amount when we left China. His reason, I don't like to hold too much money. Based in Urumqi, near Kazakhstan, he had to fork out USD$300 for 2 flights to Yunnan which came out from his own. Took him 2 days. We could have easily made a no show and he would have wasted that amount. I was lucky to find him. I hope he enjoyed his time with us. We hinted of another trip with him soon. His reply, 'send me an email'. Oh by the way, he spoke perfect English.

Waiting time again at the border as the re-opened at 3pm. Even so, the officer came almost an hour later to release us.

So long China, we wished we spent more time but i'm already planning for future entries.

Off to Boten immigration house of Laos.
After clearing Laos broder, Omar and Hus took off taking Northern Laos route down to OudomXai. The rest of us will cross HuayXai - Chiang Khong Mekong river to get back into Thailand. I have been planning to cover Nan and Loei loop of Thailand.

Sun's setting when we approached Luang Namtha

Checked into Manychan Guesthouse. Comes with free Wi-Fi. Something that we don't get in China.

Day 16
Luang Namtha - Chiang Khong - Chiang Rai

My easy meal in Laos, French baguette.

Arrived Chiangrai late due to long waiting time for barge at HuayXai border. The STX rider continued solo to ChiangMai.

Checked in Tin Inn for 600 baht.

Steamboat for dinner

And round up the night with a little souvenir shopping at a night bazaar.

Day 17
Chiang Rai - Chiang Mai
It's time to head back to ChiangMai ... The pillions had to catch an afternoon flight back home.

Back at Phil's. Met with Chris, who did a solo ride through Ho Chin Minh trail.

After sending off, we walked along huge night market in ChiangMai. Stayed the night at Phil's Rider's Inn.

Day 18

Chiang Mai - Nan
The bike felt so much lighter now with more than half of my luggage gone. As always Phil was always ready to give suggestions on routes.

Back in Phayao

Route 1148. They've got some nice bends there along with beautiful scenes. The tarmac was one of the best Thailand roads i've taken. Spectacular scenery with little vehicles along the way. The road itself is a major attraction. It was simply amazing.

Checked in Nan's Amazing Guesthouse for 300 baht.

Day 19
Nan - Phu Soi Dao National Park
There's a nice and warm feeling i got staying at Amazing Guesthouse. Christian and wife who helps to run the place did a good job creating that special atmosphere he maintains with his guests. We caught up with Colin aka Captain Slash who has done tremendous effort in his contributions on trip reports in motorcycle forums.

Christian and wife, they're a wonderful host.

The road ended suddenly and a lady asked where we're going. I said Loei and she signaled us to get on.

We were riding through the National Park and by the time it turned dark, we realised we haven't seen any vehicles for the last hour and we haven't got any phone connection on our mobiles. Found a lone army who directed us to the resort few kilometers up. We begged the lady at the reception to open up the kitchen as we're starving.

Checked into Phu Soi Dao National Park resort for 600 baht. With no TV in the room and no phone connection, we had little to do except planning on our next possible routes.

Day 20
Phu Soi Dao National Park - Loei

Very quiet along route 1268

Found a small town of Na Haeo for breakfast and petrol stop.

I enjoyed Loei. I find that it is unspoiled and that's what makes it beautiful. The back roads brought us to refreshing rural life.

Tha Li border crossing into Laos.

Read that this border crosing is only accessible for locals.

Checked in RoyalInn Hotel for 300 baht.

Day 21
Loei - Chiang Khan - Khon Kaen

We left for Chiang Khan to check out another border crossing.

Chiang Khan border crossing, also for locals only.

Back to Route 12, the big boring highway. But actually it's not that bad.

Khon Kaen is one of a big city in Issan. Not a big fan of big cities.     

Day 22
Khon Kaen - Bangkok

Took Route 2 all the way to Bangkok. Checked in Asia Hotel, Ratchatewi area.

Day 23 - 24


Nothing to show. Everybody knows Bangkok. Massages. MBK. Wanted to check out Krong Thom but was closed for New Year. Big fireworks for New Year countdown. Left the camera in the hotel.

Day 25

Bangkok - Hatyai

Rail time. 2nd class sleeper this time. Many empty seats.

Day 26


Woke up to the sight of floods enroute to Hatyai.

Checked in New Season Hotel for a whooping 1150 baht. It's the long holiday season they claimed.

Hatyai was surprisingly not crowded as expected. There was a flood evacuation exercise a day earlier and the locals mentioned the flood around Hatyai reached 2 meters high.

Day 27

Hatyai - Singapore

Omar and Hus were in town waiting at the lobby. We left Hatyai together for lunch in Dannok, Sadao. They decided to stay one more night at the border town so we parted again after lunch.

Getting ready for another long and boring 800km ride along Malaysian North South Highway.

This Highway is the fastest way to get to Thailand from Singapore. Most of my ride here, I do it at night when there's fewer vehicles and the air is cooler.

Dinner in Seremban R&R Highway.

Day 28

Still along Malaysian Highway

After almost 11 hours, we arrived final pit stop before entering Singapore to enjoy my favourite drink.

The riders and companions

Umar. Route leader. Travel light. Positive attitude. Highly adventurous. Off road maniac.

Hus. Very disciplined rider. Gadget man. His V strom has been serving him well.

Zach. The "cool" dude. Long time riding buddy.

Kaz & Lynn. Very happy for them. This trip has brought multiple milestones they've achieved. Thanks for the company. The back roads of Thailand was one of the highlights of this trip for me.

Yem & Sue. Till our next adventure. Ride on.

I strongly believe China has a lot to offer. I know many were turned off by the high prices set by tour agents or 'fixers'. I think we paid a fair amount. Many of the prices and requirements set by most agents are not mandatory as explained by Mr Wang.

A fellow rider who has ridden some parts of China claimed, if you have traveled China, you have travel the world. I asked him why is that so. He said if you want grasslands, deserts, snow capped mountains, canyons, beautiful gorge, majestic rivers, beautiful lakes, relics, historical monuments, ruins, the famous Silk Road, varieties of interesting cultures, you can find it in China. I hope he's right.

One thing which I still couldn't understand is the set ups of their public toilet. To be honest, it's disgusting. Why do I have to pay usage fee to see people doing business openly. No doors, no flushing system, no nothing. I ended throwing up all my lunch after one visit. Oh, they do have one more bad habit, public spitting.

Apart from that, I do love their diversity and massive culture. It's really magical. The sceneries and landscapes offer stunning and mind-blowing views. Most of the time I felt so little. And Mr Wang mentioned that Yunnan province isn't China's best offer in terms of nature. So I can't imagine what's it's like to witness China's best.

The behaviours of their road users are more accommodating. You don't see vehicles going over speed limit on their highway. I think the presence of many speed cameras contributed to that. I've counted. I ran over more than 10 speed cameras flashes in total. Mr Wang assured me it will be OK. The Chinese government won't chase after foreign vehicles for summons.

The people in the rurals are a little apprehensive. They will just reply "I don't know" or will give the puzzled look.

Being Muslim, I'm surprised there's quite a big Muslim community in Yunnan province so food was never a problem. Not that we're particular but choices were made easier.

I've never been to any places with temperature below 10 degrees C. So to ride in sub zero conditions was excruciatingly torturing. The fingers suffered mostly. And I've learnt a new term, black ice.

The yak's meat tasted like beef for me. Not that I've taken a liking. Just wanted to try it out.

And the snow. Have always been wondering what its like to feel them. Come on guys. I live in a tropical country.

I must say it's another different country with different interesting cultures and a lifetime experience. A good one. Errr ... Just don't remind me of the public toilet.

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