25th June- The Horrible Hotel somewhere unexpected to Pingyao by Simon

We have  new members to the band- Susan driving the van, Karen on photography, but as usual Crazy Gerry on “point” in the pickup at the front with Paul, plus Richard, Nick, Dave and myself on the iron horses behind, and finally Tim landing in Taiyuan to meet us in Pingyao if we get there!

Having just about recovered from being  entertained by the authorities for taking an alternative route yesterday, Paul has flexed us into a hotel smelling like an old ash tray in Xing Godknosewhere 150 kms short of our original target for the day. This means a big bike ride today to catch up. We schedule a 0645 “van doors opening” to throw in kit, an 0700 breakfast for an 0800 lift off. Paul and Gerry had set up “coffee camp” in the corner of the breakfast room and predictably we were offered yesterdays’ dumplings and bean sprouts with vinegar. Thank God they also had the hard boiled eggs on offer . This has become the bikers staple , two hardboiled eggs squashed between two slices of Paul’s yellow and  sweet Brioche- washed down with Paul’s great coffee . Shame two of  the  waiters appeared to be having a domestic dispute and I have to shout to stop another  trying  to hit a dog with a basket ball.  .

We hit the barriers of the hotel at 0810- literally because would you believe it they happen to be managed by the police who decide to close them until they have  extracted a large parking fee from Paul for all our vehicles. He resisted initially but being a wise man knew that this was not a battle worth fighting,  and indeed the fact all the bikes were still there that morning was something, it was a rough area.   So he gave in, paid the sum and we were off.

 

waiting for Paul to negotiate another barrier

Paul has selected about 150 kilometres of winding and  hilly terrain for us for the first section. We have told him that endless dual carriageway isn’t the best way to see China and he has come up trumps. Despite an early rain shower which halts the group for the adornment of waterproofs, the damp clears and we enter a long section of green hills with intensively farmed terraces and thankfully a rapidly drying road. Because of the ever present haze which may be meteorological but is most probably pollution, you don’t get a clear sense of the height of the hills . We go up and down endlessly. I am not  suprised that the altimeter on Richard’s bike shows that we have oscillated from 500 to 1800 metres altitude every hour. This is the same as driving from Geneva to Val D’Isere and back  but you wouldn’t know it .

Goats in the rain

Paul leads the way for Susan in the van and we follow. The next three hours is some of the best motorcycling I have ever done. I have been driving the Transit now for two and half months and it has been great – I have got through the entire works of Patrick O’Brian  and a load of other stuff on the van stereo system. It has been great fun to drive and especially “off piste” when required despite the fact it is not specifically designed for it. But having a few days on John’s bike has been wonderful despite the pollution and crazy Chinese driving  ( ABCD-Absolutely Bonker Chinese Driving)

apples grown in filter bags all along the roadsides

 

No way ahead

 

Eventually we came down out of the hills once again to have lunch at the the Hukou Falls on the the Yellow River. The falls drop about 40 meters in a tangled fury of brown water full of silt. Below the drop and before the silt sediments ( the loess) out and a series of dredging canoes hoover up the water and pump into great sand castles, The water drains out leaving piles of very consistent sand.

pumping loess

 

 

 

 

 

The Falls

 

After lunch we traverse one of

 

 

 

Downstream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

great times!

China’s major coal mining areas. Everything is coated with coal dust; even  the local street dogs standing around in the rain have sodden pelts which have become impregnated  with it. The streets of every village are festooned with coal trucks. For reasons we have not quite figured out the coal trucks appear to be painted red and the cement carriers blue. Is this part of a centralist policy? It is not to do with ownership because many business are privately owned;  Richard tells us 100 miners die every week on average in China.

We climb out of the coal valley onto a road choked  by trucks. The surface is wet and has patches of diesel. A lethal combination. Everyone slows to a bare minimum and every now again  one of the bikes twitches as the back wheel slides out. However thankfully the patches are small and the tyres stick and we all avoid a painful bum slide.

Tim has arrived with his fishbowl lens!

After several hours of nail biting banking and breaking we get out of  the hills and have only the Utterly Crazy Bonkers Chinese driving to contend with as we skirt Taiyuan and coast into Pingyao. This is a delightful ancient walled city,  a Unesco heritage site  with original buildings and tiny streets . We are booked into a small family hotel and have to leave our bikes outside the walls, We are ferried in a convoy of three wheel Tuk Tuks to the hotel . Ducking and diving through the ancient streets lit by swaying red  and gold lanterns the city is enchanting with glimpses of courtyards  and alleys. We expect to see an opium den any moment  but the hotel does not disappoint and there is Tim waiting for us. He is completely drenched having been caught in a downpour while out exploring the city.

 

 

June 24th Xi’an to somewhere unexpected whose name we never knew by David

We’d had a great week in Xi’an, but it’s good to be back on the road.  We miss John, but Simon’s happy to have taken over his bike for the final run into Beijing while Susan drives the van and Karen rides shotgun.

 

Richard’s local friends gathered at the hotel to see us off and organized another police escort, so Susan’s first experience of Chinese driving involved following an overexcited motorcycle cop at breakneck speed through city traffic – which she handled with impressive skill and calm.

Susan's first taste of driving

 

 

 

Unimpressed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

great a gap we can squeeze into

 

 

 

 

 

After twenty minutes or so we were out of the Xi’an and into … HELL … i.e. industrial China – massive power plants, roads awash with coal dust, a sun barely visible at the best of times, impoverished old towns, soulless new ones….  A ghastly glimpse of an industrial revolution on an unimaginable scale.  A world overrun and destroyed by humankind.  Gaia in gagging retreat.

Oh Gaia

After a few miserable hours of this, we climbed into the mountains and our depression was lifted by the return of nature.  The mountains were not high, but they were spectacular – covered with the darkest green bushes and trees, except where dramatic sandstone cliffs and gorges showed through.

 

It was a wonderful few hours riding…across fertile, heavily-farmed plateaus with sandstone ravines dropping away on both sides, then down through endless hairpin turns into verdant valleys and back up through more hairpins onto the next plateau…

 

Fertile valleys

We stopped for a roadside lunch and Susan and Karen were introduced to Paul’s unnaturally yellow bread, meat-like-substance and slices of so-called cheese.  Thankfully, Richard conjured up a fine salad out of whatever he could find in the van.

 

Then we rode on through the mountains, until…

 

…Paul decided it was time for a break and pulled his pick-up off the road into a wide gravel driveway.   Susan followed with the van and we riders were just about to join them when Paul spotted a soldier emerging through high gates at the end of the drive and realized that he had mistakenly led us onto the driveway to an army base!  He promptly gestured we should leave and was back in his vehicle and accelerating away before the rest of us had figured out what was going on.  But as we started after him, the soldier stepped in front of the van and signaled to Susan she’d better stay exactly where she was.   Tempted though she was, Susan wisely chose not to trigger an international incident by driving over him.

 

As we riders circled back and re-joined Susan and Karen, a squad of uniformed soldiers (whose badges showed they were attached to a missile unit) emerged through the gates at the double and encircled us.  Then they stared at us a while.  And, as the elite nature of our team dawned on them, they summoned reinforcements with riot shields and heavy batons (I kid you not), deployed squads to blockade the road ahead and behind us to eliminate any Great Escape maneuvers and stared at us some more.

 

It was unsettling, but let’s face it, if a group of Chinese bikers pulled up outside a missile base in the Scottish Highlands, there’s a good chance they’d be detained and questioned, right?  And they’d clearly never seen anyone like us before (“Who has?” I hear you ask) – four senior citizens of an ethnicity they’ve only ever seen on TV, riding impossibly huge motor bikes, accompanied a van driven by a woman a head taller than any of them.  To them we were aliens.

 

So they stared at us…and we waited…and they stared some more…and we waited some more…

 

Two locals watch our encirclement by army with interest before having their cameras wiped and being sent packing. Photo taken " accidentally" by a blackberry

…until a group of police cars with flashing lights thundered down the road and screeched to a dusty stop around us.  Police officers climbed out and joined in the staring.  And we waited.  And they stared.  Until, finally, words were exchanged between soldiers and cops and we were turned over into police custody and told we had to accompany them to the nearest police station.

So we found ourselves with our second police escort of the day!! Two cop cars at the front, lights flashing, and one behind to make sure we didn’t make a break for it.  As we rode into town it may have looked similar to this morning’s convoy, but, to us, it felt VERY different.

At the police station we waited in a courtyard while Paul went through our papers with a stern officer and explained to him who we are and how we came to be there.  He also pointed out that there had been no signs to warn us that we were close to a military base.  Not one.

Our passports were taken off us by the stern officer, who drove away with them.  Paul told us not to worry, but we ignored him and worried anyway.  Then we and our bikes had our mugshots taken.

Finally, mercifully, our passports were returned and we were released (which was a good thing as Susan and Karen had taken a look at the toilets).  The stern police officer, now all smiles and handshakes, offered to lead us out of the town, which he did, with flashing lights.  So we had our third police escort of the day!!  Then, on the edge of town, he waved us all a friendly goodbye.

We knew we were innocent of any wrongdoing and the soldiers and police officers had never been anything other than professional towards us, but we’d spent an uncomfortable few hours detained by the Chinese Army and police.

After a 100 KM detour to avoid any more military installations we arrived, exhausted, at a shitty hotel in yet another shitty town of half a million inhabitants that has appeared from nowhere in the last few years.  And, after a mediocre meal in a grubby restaurant we called it a night.

 

The 200th massive construction project seen today!

So Susan and Karen have experienced first-hand a typical day for us on the road in China.

 

Best to all and love to my family,

 

Dave

 

Friday, June 22 – Xi’an – Dave

Our more eagle-eyed readers will spot that this entry is out of sequence.  Simon, quite rightly, got fed up with waiting for me and already posted Saturday’s entry – I hope that doesn’t confuse anyone.

Anyway, ‘today’ was the day for the the Terracota Warriors – the “8th Wonder of the World”.  (Karen and I calculated it’s the tenth 8th. W.O.T.W. we’ve seen) .

Well they are damned impressive.  As most of you doubtless know, these thousands of warriors, horses and chariots were buried with Emperor Qin (pronounced as in double chin) in the 3rd. century BC and re-discovered by some local farmers digging a well in 1974.  But what many of you may not know (and I certainly didn’t) is that when they were found, they were all in thousands of little pieces, having been smashed by early Milwall supporters and the collapse of the pit roofs.  Only one – yes ONLY ONE – of the warriors was found intact.

So all these thousands of warriors are being painstakingly reassembled by a team of very patient, keen-eyed archaeologists – like the world-s largest 3D jigsaw.  (We did come up with the cool idea that rather than selling just reproductions of the warriors, the gift shop should also offer boxes of smashed up ones as puzzles for Madge and her friends).

Even with the (sadly predictable) square miles of concrete around the site covered with retail opportunities and all the guides screaming through amplifiers, the first glimpse of the warriors takes your breath away.  And, as you absorb the monumental scale of Qin’s vanity, the significance of the fact that each one is unique slowly dawns on you: this was not just some Henry Ford operation Qin had going here, it was a colossal community of artists and craftsmen.

 

The scope of it took me back to our stop in Ashkabat in Turkmenistan – an entire modern city built to satisfy the vanity of one man, the Turkmenbashi, current holder of the World’s Nuttiest Ruler title.  Maybe some day visitors will flock there to marvel at the magnificent madness of it all?

And speaking of magnificent madness, we found this remarkable likeness of Simon among the warriors…

And we couldn’t resist this ‘end-of-the-pier’ photo op….

So, after the warriors it was on to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda that was built in the 7th century (we’re talking old here) to house the Buddhist sutras brought back to India by Xuanzang.  Had there been BMW 1200s in those days he would doubtless have ridden one to and from India and become the God of Grey Silk Riders. 

Susan kept asking our guide Sarah “Why did Xuanzang bring dog trees back from India,?”until she figured out that Sarah was saying ‘doctrines’.

For my part, I was most impressed with this Swiss Army Knife Buddha.  This is a god worth worshipping…

And we climbed hundreds of pagoda stairs to get a better view of the smog…

In the evening we returned to the hustle-bustle world of the Muslim sector where Richard’s pal Ching-Ann took us to one of his favorite restaurants – a noisy Dickensian chaos, famous for its steamed dumplings.

And finally, maybe our bravest moment in the whole trip, a tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel with an insane driver through insane Xianian traffic…

Best to you all and love to my family,

Dave

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday 23rd June last day in Xi’an- Simon

I have been here 5 days , one of the oldest cities in China and once its capital. Today our last full day of sight seeing and we are going to visit the the City Walls , The Shaanxi Museum and finish off with the Mosque in the small Muslim Quarter. Nick has been laid low by a very debilitating virus . Susan, Karen and Christina are now part of the team. Qin An, Richard and Christina’s friend from way back is joining us for the day.

The Old City is surrounded by a 14 km city defence about 15 metres high. Qin An remembers climbing its near vertical wall as a child and playing with his friends on the unrestored mud summit.

Xi'an's City wall

 

Just outside the perimeter a phalanx of high rise flats and business blocks compete for the local Brutalism award ( ref Bishkek)

Xian Brutalism

On to the Shaanxi . This museum would be one of the wonders of the world if you cut the numbers of visitors down by a factor of about 4. but in fairness it is good to see throngs of Chinese school kids having a day out and enjoying the exhibits even if it is to take pictures of each other in front of an exhibit which has been beautifully presented in a well lit glass case and has a date tag of 13 cent BC.

Sarah our guide for the two days had been great but we are an unruly lot and she has trouble shepherding us through the rooms.

The Shaanxi has some important exhibits of early man

1.3 million years old

But the most impressive exhibits have been the bronze cauldrons cast 1000 BC at least. They must have used charcoal, bellows, great big crucibles and ceramic temperature resistant moulds to produce these three legged monster cauldrons weighing at 150 kg.

Not only that, the Chinese has developed Chromium plating at this time and were able to adhere protective layers of chromium onto metal less than two microns thick.

The Chinese written language has morphed considerably from 1200 BC to the present day but our guide Sarah could recognise some of the characters from the Sang Bowl inscriptions

 

 

There was one particularly fetching goblet which if tipped too far back for an over greedy gulp would result in a painful pinching of ones nostrils!

The only unfortunate part of our Xi’an sight seeing fest was our bus driver who managed to combine gross ineptitude with rudeness and sullenness. He didn’t get off to a good start yesterday by suddenly shooting off the main road to the warriors into a military camp just before a police roadblock . When asked the reason for the diversion he explained that his coach didn’t have the necessary papers to enter the Terracotta Warriors international UNESCO Site. Bit of pity since that was exactly what we had hired him for. . Richard who works and lives in China did not feel that getting arrested in a Chinese air force base without the appropriate clearance should be part of his retirement adventure holiday , and therefore made a formal complaint (and got some money knocked off the contract.)

Mr driver continued to be difficult all day , dropping us miles from our chosen sites and intimidating Sarah our guide.

Eventually he dropped us off in the Asian quarter where we combined a bit of hilarious retail therapy and a visit to the beautiful and undamaged (by the Cultural Revolution) Mosque. We bought a number of fake brand name T shirts and I managed to get two counterfeit Rolex wrists watches for 28 quid the pair. Dave says they will be taken off me at Heathrow- is this true?

The Mosque tucked in behind the Asian market was beautiful and quiet. A fusion of Chinese ancient architecture and Muslim prayer spaces.

The structures of these ancient Chinese buildings are often fabricated in wood and tiles alone. The joists and pillars all linked though a series of key way connections ( Doulongs)that locks them together. No nails or binding materials are used.

multiple dugoungs

7 days ago we visited the Manchung Temples and their key ways and pillars withstood the earthquake 4 years ago, not only were the key ways enabling the building to sway and retain their integrity but the juniper trees surrounding the temples have interlocking roots that reduced the fixatropic movement of the hill on which they stood and the site, despite being near the epicentre, was undamaged.

The prayer space was peaceful and carpeted in lines of blue prayers carpets.

A number of tall pines with camo bark protected the squares from the sun.

camo tree

Back on the road tomorrow. I am now riding a bike back to Beijing and Susan and Karen are in the van. Here a Terracotta biker

 

Motorbiking warrior

All the best

Simon