Ali sporting his new cycle gear on R213.

I achieved an ambition-of-sorts this weekend - to cycle the 58km stretch of Route 213, between Pu'er [the old one] and Simao. Route 213 runs nearly 3000km from the northern city of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, to Mohan on Yunnan's southern border with Laos. In between, it passes through many places we've visited in our China travels: Langmusi and Songpan (on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau), Wenchuan (famous for its 2008 earthquake), Chengdu and Kunming.

The main obstacle in the past has been the lack of a decent bike with gears. These days we've just been waiting for a window of reasonably dry weather. As it happens the extra preparation time has allowed a few more gadget developments - cycle gloves, woven panniers attached with meat hooks and, the piece de resistance, a foldaway umbrella hat. Testing out my new "san mao" was the main reason for this ride...with overhead midday sun for most of the year an umbrella hat is definitely a useful addition to the Tropical Cycle Tourer's kit. Not so handy on the high-speed descents though!

The route itself was fairly uneventful. Starting in the rain at Pu'er bus station (km marker 2640) I had to rope in some Middle School kids into helping me extract the bike from the bus roof rack. The weather soon improved and it was a pleasant ride down the "old road" to Tongxin (the epicentre of our own earthquake back in 2007) and the crossing of the main road. Lots of muddy surface here due to the construction of the new expressway.

Here four generations of road are squeezed into a strategic pass. The ancient tea horse trail (cha ma gu dao) is barely visible, a narrow flagstoned path which climbs steeply to the high forested ridges. Next, the "old road", the one I am travelling, ancient tarmac, hugging the contours of the hills and climbing to a high pass surrounded by tea fields. Then the current Route 213, all cuttings, embankments, and rather elegant stone and concrete arched bridges - soon to be superseded. And finally the brash new expressway. Mountains have literally been moved to create this monster, with its enormous cuttings, stilted carriageway, bridges and, rather poignantly I thought, a tunnel straight through the hill which the cha ma gu dao winds its way over. There was much to ruminate on as I slipped down into first gear, put on my san mao, and wound my way up into the long and beautiful wooded valley which the "old road" utilises in it's ascent to the pass at Zhala Yakou.

The effort was worth it and in another hour I was back home in Simao (km marker 2698).

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