July 9 – A postscript from Los Angeles – Dave

It’s 5:30 AM Pacific Time and I’m back at my desk in Los Angeles, reflecting on the Great Silk Ride.

I had set off hoping that, in addition to relishing the stimuli of new places and cultures, I would enjoy that sustained in-the-momentness that long journeys can bring – the confusions of past and future pushed aside by the intensity of the present.  I’m happy to report that that’s exactly that happened for me, and, I believe, for my four traveling companions.  But for that to be achieved depended on the love, friendship and support of many people whom I now need to thank.

Most importantly, thank you to my family for your support – Mum, Alan, Barbara, Scott, Kristen, Kelly, Jessica, Dylan (who never complained about me going away), Susan and, of course, most importantly, Karen.  Knowing that you were behind me, despite any concerns, inconveniences and fears you might have had, was all-important to my enjoyment of the moment(s).

And thank you to my traveling companions – John, SImon, Richard, Nick and all those of you who joined us along the way.  I was fortunate to have spent time with you.

A few particular words of thanks to…

John – despite all the pressures in your life, you stuck to a crazy, in vino promise we made each other a long time ago.  Thank you for that.  Not many people would have done it.  One of the pleasures of the trip was to see you relaxing into life on the road and just being one of the boys.

Nick – I’m so glad you decided to come.  The journey would not have been half as much fun without you.  Your modest, unflappable nature added essential balance to the team.  You are a multi-talented dark horse and it’s been a joy spending time with you.

Richard – John always says the trip would never have happened without your commitment, energy and organizational skills and he’s right.  I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to make it happen.  One benefit of my poor memory is that I’ll enjoy hearing your jokes again on our future trips – which I look forward to keenly.

Simon – What a star.  I can’t think of anyone who would have played that role with such intelligence, energy, humor and grace.  You and Richard made it all happen.  Thank you.  (And, by the way, thank you for reminding me by example, of the importance of energy and drama in writing).

And, Ben, thanks again for providing this forum.

So, until the next time…

Best to you all and love to my family,

Dave

 

Saturday July 7th- Congresbury -Simon

Back to where we started! It is almost hard to believe that it ever happened. Five old men, their bikes and a white van. I got back to Bristol without a hitch just in time to enjoy the wettest day in the UK for years, watch Miss Williams win Wimbledon for the 5th time and all the Formula One boys have a terrible day at Silverstone trying to drive in the rain. Poor old Jensen Button not even qualifying.

It was good to hear that Karen, Dave, Rosita, Nick and their son David got home safely. Tim leaves Beijing today and Susan is off to Korea tomorrow. Wisdom Valley must seem very quiet.

Beijing was hot and humid but we did get in some very interesting sight seeing before returning once again to the cool of Wisdom Valley to pack up the bikes and the van for Paul Shi so that he could start shipping them home on 9th .

I thought it would be good to let the blog wind down slowly; Madge and my mother Jane have mentioned that they miss it already. There is in fact more to do. The bikes have all got to be serviced once back and the van sorted ready for sale. They will all pop out of their container after it has been delivered to John Rose’s house in Devon in about 2 months time. Hopefully we will be able to sell the van with all its spares to someone like Globebusters who make this trip every 2 years.

There were some poignant images on our departure; and Susan managed to get a great shot for my “veiled woman collection” ( remember the money lender from Uzbekistan?!)

Temple of Passion Cleaning lady

I wish I had used a mask more -I seem to have coughed up half Beijing on the flight home.

There are many odd things to note about China, one of the things that struck me was the apparent lack of older buildings. They were there in the form of “Hutongs”- small collections of bungalows which house nearly 1 million people within the city. The Reform and Post Reform periods have resulted in so much modern building replacement that when you do see the old and new together there is always a stark contrast.

Beijing Brutalism

The old temples all seem to have beautifully intertwined doulongs, a wooden matrix holding up the eves

The other 4 guys managed to survive nearly 12,000 butt wrecking miles on their BMW bikes which have looked after them so well. Not a single puncture or technical breakdown. We thought Susan had gone significantly over the top when she brought out to Istanbul an emergency supply of botty cream when we radioed for help concerning John’s arse which began to fall apart in the Dardeneelles . She utilised a considerable portion of her baggage allowance from London to Thessalonika by airlifting out nearly one gallon of “Sudocream” ( a sort of grown up nappy rash ointment) we did in fact use quite a lot but Richard still has a few tubs left and they should last him the rest of his biking career.

Our women have contributed a very great deal to this trip, sorting out all the hassles we left behind us at home, reassuring and caring for our worried mothers and fathers; and when they could, flying out for the longer stop overs. Susan and Karen joined us for the last two weeks of the trip through North East China and by driving and riding in the van got a very good idea of how the rougher moments went. I was particularly grateful for it gave me the chance to ride John’s bike the last 1000 kilometres through some the roughest and wettest roads. I learnt how to ride in slippery mud and diesel and water soaked roads and as a result feel a much better biker, much further on than when I broke my ankle in Morocco two years ago. It was also very good to have Tim come out to join us from Tuijan onwards.

Rickshaw ride in the Hutongs

Central Asia seems a long way away now . I don’t think we will be rushing back to Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan , two police states where their dictators and policemen make the lives of their very tolerant and friendly people unnecessarily harsh. We would go back to Kyrgyzstan -a beautifully varied and colourful country and we still remember Georgia especially its capital Treblisi with fondness.

China has really dominated the trip for me . I am so glad that we took Richard’s advice and gave it the extra time. If we had taken the rhumb line from Kashghar to Beijing and rushed through in two weeks we would have missed crossing the Talimakan Desert and the Tibetan plateau and meeting and seeing some of it’s colourful people. It has been difficult to understand the effects of the Cultural Revolution in the context of the places we visited and the people and customs we have tried to understand. Richard’s knowledge and tactful accounts have been key to understanding the many contradictions. Although their recent key historical figure Chairman Mao has been rehabilitated and his portrait is seen everywhere it is clear that people feel that some very sad things have happened in the not so distant past.

Mao

The images of old temples and silver domes seem at first incongruous but that is China.

Susan, Dave and Karen wall climbing

Back from the U-Town Plaza Hotel to Wisdom Valley for the final pack up. Richard and Christina’s yard is strewn with our rubbish.

We sort out all the kit and find that John has managed to purchase half Asia and is bringing it home in a Transit which is designed to just fit in a container ;so we take off the roof rack and stuff it all inside.

All that is left are three bikes without their panniers.

three bikes ready for home

They will be crated and taken on a flat bed truck with the van to Tianjin (the big sea port about 2 hours from Beijing) by Paul Shi , our Chinese agent who has been with us every step of the way from the Kyrgyzstan border to Beijing. I have to include another snap of Paul with us at Wisdom Valley before he whizzed back to sort out final visa and passport problems for us

We finished the packing early and had an extra day to chill out in Christina and Richard’s wonderfully comfortable mansion in the mountains

So its good bye from me for a while and thanks Dave for writing the blog with me. Our different voices fed off each others and I am certain that my growing aspiration to try and write with at least half your clarity and fluidity was a great stimulus to me . Apart from being with a great bunch of people the writing of the blog with you gave me very great pleasure. Thanks mate; here’s looking at you

Transcontinental white van driver

And thanks to all of you who supported Dave and I by reading the blog and also Ben thank you so much for launching it and both you and Susan keeping the content and the  mechanics of it going when we went off air.

Best wishes to you all

Simon

19,200 kilometers = 11,930.3269 miles

A poignant vibe hung over breakfast this morning – our last on-the-road breakfast together.  Our journey finishes this evening at Richard’s place in Wisdom Valley, just outside Beijing.

It was raining hard, so we shrugged into our wet weather gear in the lobby, went outside and set out on the last leg.  This little girl watched us go.

We started by weaving our way through small rain-drenched towns…

…but soon we were climbing into the mountains on terrible roads that had been made even worse by reconstruction work, rain and landslides…

There was hardly any local traffic – the roads were too difficult even for them.  And it was clear that this – the last day – was shaping up to be one of the most challenging and dangerous days of the whole trip.

And as we got higher into the mountains we found ourselves on treacherous, muddy tracks beside huge drops…

…and by now even the usually serene Paul was looking anxious and questioning whether he had made a dangerous route choice.

The bikes are so heavy and have such enormous momentum, that a slight mistake when descending on a muddy trail could have sent us sliding over the edge.  So we picked our way carefully through the slime, alongside vertiginous drops and round hairpins.

When we pulled in to a scenic spot for lunch we were already exhausted.

But the beauty of the spot and some decent food restored our spirits.

We pushed on, only to find conditions getting worse as mist drifted in around the mountains…

 

This went on for hours as we picked our way towards the end of the mountains and the final approach to Greater Beijing.  It took all our energy to maintain concentration and avoid the one small slip that might send us plummeting into one of the deep ravines.

I had never believed I would be happy to see Chinese traffic again, but as the first trucks and cars began to appear we knew we were nearly out of the mountains and relief began to nudge aside the anxiety.

Finally we emerged from the mountains and found ourselves on the outermost ring road of Beijing.  From there it was an easy couple of hours around the city and then up onto the beautiful and much less dangerous mountain road that leads to Wisdom Valley.

By now Richard could smell home and was in the lead – sweeping round the bends until we passed through the village close to where he lives and onto a driveway where Christina was waiting for us waving.  We paused to savor the moment…

And then we rode on for a few more minutes and arrived at Richard and Christina’s gorgeous country home and THE END OF THE 19,200 KM TRAIL!!!!!!

 

June 27th Taiyuan onwards -Simon and Susan with photos by Karen and Tim

Paul had found us a very comfortable conference centre near Taiyaun . I say near Taiyuan it took nearly three hours to get around this 6 million pop’n City and get back into our final hilly traverse towards Beijing. The hotel was set in beautiful grounds with lakes and fountains. As we buzzed around the van making final preparations we had no idea what was in store for at the end of the day. The morning started off gently -Karen got some great shots – Part of the colour coding for Chinese lorries

pink cement mixer

Then into the outskirts of Taiyuan which had a “Gothamesque” feel to it

Gotham city tower blocks

In one of the villages there was a shop selling blow up toys and bouncy castles

At lunch we have our usual official observers

 

 

Tim bravely ops for a pillion ride

Tim

Tim riding pillion

 

 

Back in the mountains for the afternoon section and a warning about rock falls.

rock fall warning

 

oh dear!

A few more villages and the bike stay in formation to deal with UBCCD

Formation flying

Comments from the cab
We left the mining villages behind, Paul confidently told us we had a mere 90 miles of easy driving up into the mountains ahead, no lorries and early supper and bed so we would be fresh for the last day.
My advanced Chinese driving test had begun!

School was out and the entire population  of the first small town  was out too on the main road on foot, bike, tribike, horse and cart, bus, lorry, school bus, tuk tuk, rickshaw, and pushchair, car and lorry. Barriers in the centre funnelled the traffic through the town but of course on both sides it flowed in either direction and  in the occasional gaps a sprinkling of policemen appeared to be stirring the melee and directing very small children into the path of the van. Keeping  up with the bikes was impossible as we were  increasingly slowed and  swamped by the mass of humanity pressing ever closer. The vast inflated yellow elephant billowing  into the middle of the town  was not helping either. Eventually a cheerful policeman pointed left and we dived thankfully up a side street. This was easy we had mastered ordinary  less dense urban driving by now, dodging  vehicles from all directions, asserting ourselves at junctions, tooting at everything that moved, veering widely to avoid potholes, sewers and suicidal dogs.
The mist clung to the steep wooded hillside as we left the town and  wound up and up on a blissfully clear road. Wonderful only 83 miles to go. we had time to notice the wild cosmos, hollyhocks and even  occasional lilies peeping out of the verges. Every terrace filled with maize. We were obviously following the route of the school bus as every few miles we saw children on the side of the road walking home in small groups. Some very,very young. Karen and I gasped as we saw a four year old helping a two year old walk along the drain inches from the van, no adult or house in sight.

Wild Cosmos

The road wound on further up, the evening light set in. Workers were now walking down the hill back to their homes some with hoes and spades, singly and in twos and threes.

In the villages small groups were sitting eating  and talking on their porches and watching the road and sometimes their children playing on it.  Apparently the one child policy is less enforced in the rural areas which is fortunate as it unclear how some make it to adult hood. Maybe, we speculate,  it’s a Spartan approach, only the ones with road sense survive thus fitting them for a lifetime of dodging traffic, because, although we have seen very  old and young women, whole families, children and men on foot and on every form of vehicle throw themselves into the path of the van, miraculously and thankfully we have yet to see anyone get hurt.

walking home

It grew darker, the road spiraled up  only 63 miles to go- we were watching the milometer like hawks we were already so tired.

Evening in the mountains

 

 

 

The light finally gave way to night and then  quite suddenly the road stopped too. In the headlights we could see only mud and in the distance the faint backlights of the bikes. Very slowly we edged forward picking out a path through the rubble  and the mud. Occasionally we  saw a stream or a precipitous fall at the side of the beam,  and occasionally the terrain opened out giving us a choice of route through the holes and  boulders the lights of the bikes like will o’wisps always ahead.  6 pairs of eyes staring ahead, two hands gripping the wheel we lurched on for 4 miles!  Mostly in second gear but dropping into first, we bottomed out several times and stalled too.

light failing

Thank goodness there was no traffic I said! Moments later  the mirrors flickered a blue flashing light! What the hell is that?
“Well” said Karen with that fantastic  calm that is no doubt what makes her a great Intensive care neonate nurse. “I don’t know but it is definitely gaining on us!”Over the next 10 minutes a police car chased us  and over took us at a breakneck 3 miles per hour- it careered crazily on for another few minutes  before turning left and drawing up outside a house. Home for supper at last?
We lumbered on and on,  more houses appeared and slowly  we saw there were other cars bumping and lurching across the muddy wastes, more houses emerged from the darkness and then we saw a great basin in the mud  filled with water. A whole family was camped out on the mound above watching and pointing as everyone  ground their way down and up the other side. Just as we  began our descent a couple of crazy dogs dived into the basin too- how we did not kill them I have no idea but I have seen more dead dogs  on the road side over the past four days than in my whole life.

Night Rider

At last some lights, we  turned left into  a garage forecourt, where did that come from and  then out again into more mud and two lorries; one stuck, one reversing into our path. But we were into true grit mode now, on we went squeezing through narrowly passing under some wires dangling across the road. the mud  also turned to grit and we got into  third gear, wow the excitement, and drove on through the outskirts of a town. The milometer said were should be there!

All headlights undipped

Then on our left we heard an enormous series of explosions, the sky filled with lights- a massive firework display!  I saw Paul’s tail lights at last  and we turned immediately left into  a hotel car park and stopped. I dimly remember a crazy hotel and a meal that featured chips baked with honey and then all my lights went out.