Friday, 12 July 2013

The First Draft of History

Blogs are the first rough draft of history these days but a trip of this length will need some processing before any conclusions can be drawn. At this stage all you can do is capture the impressions that stand out from the crowd.

The fantastic roads: the Croatian coast, the gorges of Eastern Tibet, the dirt hairpins to Everest, the wide valleys of western Tibet.

The terrible roads: Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat, Albania, Chinese city traffic.

The challenges: Tibetan sand, Szechuan mud, Chinese floods, altitude, erratic sea crossings and jobs worth customs officials

The sights: The ruins of, Khiva, Hagia Sofia, Mt Everest, morning fog on the Bosphorus, the night sky in the Pamirs, remote Tibetan monasteries, balloons over Cappadocia

The people: Lunch with M and family in Turkmenistan, a christening in Tbilisi, tea and doughnuts in a yurt in Sary Tash, Szechuan Opera in Chengdu, a truck driver offering a watermelon by the roadside, coffee with a Turkish Islamist and again with a Greek priest, a guitarist in Dubrovnik.

The food: deep fried scorpion, yak burger, hot pot, meat-on-a-stick, plov, salt baked fish, boil-in-the-bag breakfasts.

The company: Tintin, "The Prof", Papa Love, the irrepressible Peter M, Brad, Uncle Mel and all the team who worked together to get us all to the end.

Each of these elements can be described, photographed, talked about, exaggerated and remembered, but the nature of this sort of trip is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The totality of the experience, the emotion, the "feel" is difficult to describe to those who haven't been there. The author hopes that this blog has presented the pearls and some of the thread that joins them.

If you have been, thank you for reading this far.

Day 76 - Katie Lied

There aren't nine million bicycles in Beijing. Nine million cars perhaps but the humble bicycle has been left behind in the rush to modernisation.

Though better than other cities in many ways, Chinese driving and road design have not developed to meet the challenges of a modern city.

The "Yellow Box" junction is unheard of with the result that all cars simply enter the junction and block each other. The traffic lights are a law unto themselves which normally doesn't matter as many drivers (and all bicycles and scooters) simply ignore them. Our taxi back from the train station was sat at a red light for 40 minutes while the other three roads kept moving. Eventually we walked.

Our hotel, Raffles Beijing, was built in 1917 as the best European hotel in the capital. Still swanky after all these years with prices to match, but a wonderful haven of peace to reflect and prepare for the journey home. Less then 16 hours airborne (less seven time zones) to get back to where we started 11 weeks ago.

Tonight we are out for a final dinner (Peking Duck of course) and then Deefor leaves for the airport and a flight home via Brussels.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Day 75 - The End

A final 150km from Beijing to the docks at Tianjin. No dramas on the road but an end of term feel to the ride. A couple of bikes limped the last bit - Deefor's clutch is cooked - so it is good that this is the last day.

If tou have anything that has been made in China then there is a good chance it was shipped through Tianjin. It is vast and encapsulates today's China. The area of the port we went to, one of many, was over 10km long and built on reclaimed land. The warehouses stretched back from the waterfront as far as the eye could see. Some blocks were still vacant, others were stacked high with brand new containers waiting to carry goods to the West.

We left the bikes at a warehouse to be loaded into a container and shipped home. The next time we see them will be the end of August.

So it is goodbye to the GS for now. It has been a fantastic machine. 20,900kms through sand, mud, gravel and flood. Across oceans, up mountains, along autoroutes, dirt tracks, city streets and peat bogs. All it has needed is a change of oil and air filters, some new tyres and a but of fettling when it was crashed.

We travelled back to Beijing on the high speed train. 290km/h in air conditioned comfort from one modern station to another. Why didn't we do the whole trip like this?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

China and Motorcycles

It is strange riding a motorbike in China. There is simply no culture or understanding of large bikes. There are lots of small bikes - scooters and 125s - but nothing like a 1200GS. There are some odd consequences...

1. Every time you stop you are surrounded by curious onlookers. Where are you from? How old are you? How much does this motorbike cost?

2. Motorbikes are not allowed in the centre of big cities. They are seen as a traffic problem (which they are) so are banned. Where they are allowed, the roads have an extra lane for cycles which motorbikes share.

3. Motorbikes are not allowed on motorways. Presumably they don't want lots of slow bikes on a high speed road, but a GS can do 120km/h all day long.

4. Motorbikes can not fill up at the petrol pump. They have to park away from the pumps and are topped up using watering cans. This is meant to be for safety but seems arbitrary. This rule is enforced strongly in Tibet and not at all in Beijing.

Day 74 - To Beijing

150km along the expressway into Beijing. Like yesterday it was wet but the road is elevated so not flooded.

Five riders from BMW met us in the outskirts and guided us in to the dealership. We were met various family members (Hi Cindy, Isabella, Linda, Ting Ting, Leanne!) for an emotional end to the ride. Sometimes you don't realise how much pressure you are under 'til it's gone.

A great welcome from the team at BMW - beer and food and a few speeches - then in a bus to our hotel.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Day 73 - Noyes Flude

Today it rained. To be accurate it actually started yesterday evening, rained all night and continued all day. Not just a gentle shower, full tropical rain. And not your usual July weather in Central China. It rained so much that it was on the news. Bridges washed away, roads flooded, the lot.

After yesterday's suffocating heat many of saw this as light relief and set off without waterproofs, the better to get the cooling effect. By lunchtime we were wet and starting to feel chilly.

By lunchtime (a lovely KFC!) we had cracked the day and only had 150km to go. And that's when China threw one more challenge at us. Floods.

The first one was 400m wide and 50cm deep. Cars were stopped in the deep parts but the trucks were getting through, so in we went. Three bikes didn't make it and were pushed to dry land. Out came the plug spanners and WD40 and soon we were moving again.

The second flood was harder. The road surface was broken beneath the waves and finding a passable route was difficult. Some went left, some right. Nigel tried the edge and found the drainage ditch (see photo). When we dragged his bike out it wasn't flooded and started at the first attempt. Quick thinking by Nigel, to turn the engine off as it went in, had saved the day.

The third flood caught two of us out. The wake of the big lorries was so high it was higher than the exhaust pipe and flooded the engines. By now the fix - remove spark plugs, turn it over, spray with WD40, reassemble and fire up - was routine and we were soon back on the road.

Our quick afternoon ride had become a dramatic hurdle and we rolled in at 19:00 to a very welcome beer and a good hotel room to dry out our kit.

Tomorrow is our last 150km to Beijing. What more can we expect? Plagues of locusts or Godzilla.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Day 72 - Grand Theft Auto 7 - Ride China

"Congratulations Player 1, you have completed level 5 of GTA. You are now entering Level 6.

In the last level we threw everything at you; tuck tucks, scooters, lorries and the feared Land Cruisers. Then we tried to get you by changing the road surface; ditches, sand, mud and even cobbles. You overcame them all.

Today we give you Level 6. We start off by completely closing the road giving no diversion signs and deliberately hiding the point where you pick it up again. Then we route through a major city where we have dug up every road to build a three level viaduct interchange in the middle of downtown. We double the number of suicidal scooters and reduce the attention spam of all car drivers Finally we set a course of 400km and turn the heat up to 40C."

We all made it in the end but there were some tired looking people by 8:00PM when the last one arrived.

We are now one full day away from Beijing.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Day 71 - Shaanxi's Peony

400 km today from Xi'an (the capital of Shaanxi region) to Louyang (the peony capital of China).

The 310 shadows the motorway and the high speed train line (see photo) passing through a string of cities - Weinan and Sanmenxia, to name two. The remarkable thing is that most people will never of heard of Louyang or the other two but the have populations of 6m, 5m and 2m respectively and they are expanding before our eyes with vast new business districts being laid out and new apartments shooting up.

Currently China has 160 cities with populations over 1m. The UK has 5. The sheer scale of this country is gobsmacking.

The ride itself was OK. Very hot at over 35C but without too much traffic. We are one day nearer Beijing. Three days to go!

PS - I would like to dedicate the pun in the title to my Grandpa Boli who I hope would have appreciated it.

Star Gazing

Despite the smog this enterprising chap was making 20Yuan a pop to let you see Saturn through his amazing, rickshaw mounted telescope.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Day 70 - Xi'an Again

Yesterday's trips out in the city ended with a rather wonderful dinner of dumplings and soup. Everyone had had a great couple of lazy days and with a week to go, conversation turned to "best meal of the trip", "worst meal of the trip" etc. It is starting to feel like the beginning of the end.

Still plenty to do though! Tintin and Deefor recced the cycling options yesterday and today at crack of dawn, nine of us were down at the South Gate for a ride.

The walls of the inner city date back to the 1300's and tower 40m over the buildings. The top is 15m wide and makes a perfect cycle track right round the heart of town. Hiring a mountain bike for 100 minutes just gives you time to do one lap of the 14km wall (or two of you are Chris ...) but you have to crack on if you take too many photo stops. (Thanks for the picture Nigel).

Xi'an is the Chinese end of the Silk Road and it was a moment to reflect as we stopped at the west gate and looked at the road down which so many caravans must have gone.

We were all glad to have started early. By 10:00 the sun was beating down and with high humidity 36C felt really hot. A quick visit to the Backpackers Hostel for fresh orange juice and milkshakes soon got us back in shape.

After lunch, a trip to the Muslim Quarter. With so much trade to the west there has been a local Muslim population here for centuries and the mosque was busy for midday prayers. It is a wonderful mixture of Islamic and Taoist temple design. The buildings are arranged along a centre line like a Chinese temple and have curved eaves and painted wood decoration but without any images of animals. Minarets are disguised as small pagodas but still blast out the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Chinese characters are replaced by cartouches in Arabic script and the last "temple" is a prayer hall facing west toward Mecca.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Day 69 - Xi'an

There is so much to see in Xi'an it is hard to fit it all on in a couple of days. The city (previously called Chang'an) was the first capital of China and is full of imperial graves etc.

The most famous, the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty who united China, is protected by a vast army of life sized warriors made of terracotta. Deefor had seen the Terracotta Army on a previous boost so instead visited the excellent Shaanxi Historical Museum
and the Big Goose Pagoda. The museum is home the Freddy, the magnificent Tang Dynasty laughing camel who is the mascot of this blog.

Labours of Van Man #8 - Fire Starter

Local Dress #11 - Mao Cap

Next stop party membership.

Day 68 - To Xi'an

From Foping to Xi'an is only a short hop (190km) so the plan is to be there by lunchtime.

The first 100km is through the same mountainous gorges as yesterday (see photo). The views and road were stunning. Sadly the rain returned with a vengeance so the exhilaration was tempered by a desire not to crash in the last week.

Once out of he mountains it was a straight run into Xi'an. Well, as straight as you can go in the chaos of Chinese traffic.

Xi'an is the ancient capital of China and is home to the famous Terracotta Army amongst other sites. We are here for two days so more on the historic sites later. For now Deefor is off to Macky D's for lunch!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Traffic Quiz

You come round a corner and find a Land Cruiser coming toward you on your side of the road. He flashes his lights. Is he:

A. Making sure you have seen him.

B. Indicating that you should get out of the way as he is bigger than you.

C. Letting you know that your headlight is on.

D. Saying hello

E. All of the above.

Day 67 - It ain't over ...

Just when the trip was in danger of turning into a long, drawn out ride to Beijing you get a great day's ride.

Like yesterday, we followed the "old" main road, the 108. Like yesterday, the road is pretty much empty as the traffic is all on the motorway which soars above us on concrete stilts over 30m high.

Unlike yesterday, the road has not been dug up and it didn't rain.

A fast ride along a wide river valley and through a well signposted city. Then up a narrow gorge with green wooded hills on both sides past small farms.

Now we are in central China the agriculture has changed. Gone is the Barley of Eastern Tibet. Now farms are a mix of rice paddies and maze. Instead of yaks and pigs by the road now there are water buffalo with huge horns. Luckily these are all tied up safely. "W is for Water Buffalo" would be very messy.

All in all a much better day though it was HOT. 35C and humid. You need to keep moving to stay cool.

Our destination, Foping, is a small town set by a river among steep hills. The peak opposite the hotel is crowned by a tall pagoda. All very picturesque though only Stephan found the energy to climb up to see the view.

Down in the town there is a dead body on the steps of the electricity company. Apparently there is a dispute between the family and the company about who should pay for the funeral and the family have put the body on the steps outside reception until it is resolved. It has been there three days so far. Four police cars are in attendance but no one seems to be getting too upset yet.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Day 66 - Making Tracks

We are into the last stage of the trip now: Three days ride to Xi'an and then three more to Beijing.

Motorbikes are not allowed on the new motorways so we stay on the "old" main roads. This is a mixed blessing. For: The trucks and most of the cars are on the motorway, so they are quiet. Against: Bits of them have been dug up with little in the way of diversion signs

The first town we got to the road just stopped and we were diverted through 10 km of mud and gravel. Not hard but messy and slow.

Then a lovely sweeping road of motorway standard with no traffic took us to the next town where, again, the road stopped. The footpaths were still there though so up we hopped and followed them to the town centre.

The next section through a picturesque gorge and pass was all tarmac and featured some nice temples. It was somewhat spoiled by rain, low cloud and wet roads.

Eventually after nine hours in the saddle we made it to Guangyuan, our stop for the night, and 350km nearer to the end.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Day 65 - Chengdu

Deefor ducked out of the tour to see the Pandas. Instead he, Toni and Iain went for a wander.

First the Metro. They are building five lines though only two are finished so far. Dead easy to use. Signs in English, destinations picked out in LEDs in the carriages, clean and cheap.

Then tea in the Ming Teahouse and a visit to Wide and Narrow Alleys for some high-end tourist shopping and lunch (including gelato).

A visit to the Taoist Temple in the afternoon ("The Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao") and then home.

After all that sightseeing and culture - Pizza for dinner. Great!

Day 64 - It's An Adventure!

A day off in Chengdu today so some of us decided to have a small independent adventure.

About an hour from the city is the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. Built in 240BC to solve a problem with flooding, the works divert 40% of a major river into a series of channels that irrigate over 5000 square kilometres.

The local governor Li Bang organised the work using 10,000 artisans. They built a levee using bamboo and rock and then cut a channel through the mountain. All this with hand tools and without any explosives.

Getting there and back involved the local train service. John, our local guide, bought the tickets for us and then we were on our own.

The Chinese rail system is very efficient. The tickets show a train number, carriage and seat. The platform and carriage numbers are shown on electronic boards so it is easy to find the right place. Once on board the destination, expected arrival time and train speed are all show in each carriage.

The trains themselves run on raised tracks between vast modern stations. Our journey was just 40 minutes during which time we hit 200km/h.

John was quite worried about us wandering off on our own but we made it there and back.

In the evening we went to an evening of Szechuan opera. This included acrobatics, juggling, dance, music. It finished with an extraordinary act called "Changing Faces" in which the actors change their masks so quickly you can't see how it is done.

All topped off with a Hot Pot. Here John is putting the duck's tongues and lettuce into the sauce to cook.