Thursday 21st June . More from Xi’an – Simon

We have had a very pleasant three days rest at the Sofitel Hotel in Xi’an and we are coming to the last phase of the journey. John has gone home and Christina, Matilda and Bob have joined us from Hong Kong plus Susan and Karen are arriving this afternoon on the flights from Beijing. Last night we were royally treated to dinner at Mr Xei’s restaurant the “ Edelweiss” , shoals of sturgeon and rainbow trout swimming in tanks in the foyer. It was Richard’s 62nd birthday celebration and once again his Chinese friends of longstanding treated us so generously.

Richard contemplating getting to 62!

There is no doubt for me that things are changing. We still have some tough riding ahead and getting to Beijing without some sort of collision is going to be the challenge. Navigational and hotel arrangements all being taken up by Paul Shi and his team from Chinaoverland. As we sit down for an extended breakfast to wait for the flights to come we start to mull over where we have got to and how we are going to get all the kit home.

Paul as always checking everyone has everything

I have been staggered how few people from Europe we have met on the road. Nathan of course we delight in continually bumping into and there have been a handful of other pedal cyclists, plus powered two wheelers-Ernst the cabinet maker from Zurich on a Honda 90 , a single Italian guy at the Uzbek/ Kazak border on a Triumph and there was one other group we flashed past on big bikes somewhere in Central Asia. We have seen no one else on the road. It is “day rigger” to stop whenever you do see someone even if the closing speeds might be over 100mph, the protocol is to stop and for the tail marker to turn round and go and chat to the other party, then call back the rest of the troupe if the other team has also stopped. We only had one flyby with another group and we were so surprised we never turned back. Since then we have always stopped and chatted. At first I was a bit reticent to stop because we had such distance to cover. But John was right – it is important to engage fellow travelers and hear their stories and their problems, There maybe some news about problems ahead or there may some way we can help each other. Nowadays we always stop and chat if we can even if it means veering off into the rough at short notice and hoping the guy behind is awake. There was one other group doing a bike loop from Thailand on monster KTMs and GS Adventures like ours. We didnt have much time to chat however because they had to snake back to the province capital because of Visa problems. But we did see their troop of bikes

Thai Brigade

There are several  reasons why so very few people make this trip overland from London to Beijing everyday; for a start you cannot drive a foreign vehicle in China without a guide with you at all times and it has to be on a preplanned route that has been submitted in advance and cleared by MR Sun ( you remember him from Xining)and his team at Beijing Central Tourist Department. In fact Mr Sun wanted to meet us having read Paul Shi’s application for our trip- he was responsible for signing it off. The fact that he brought his own press team with him and had us being formally welcomed on entry into Xining clearly had more to do with the promotion of his politcal standing, but I enjoyed the gesture anyway. Being photographed having a garland put round my neck by beautifil girls singing a Tibetan welcome songs is OK by me!

Nick takes tea

Also coming through by vehicle you have to enter China on a “group” visa and that vehicle has to be re registered temporarily. And each driver or rider issued with a temporary Chinese Driving Licence.You cannot enter “singly” with your vehicle .This is a pain because invariably after such a trip the group has different exit plans and the visas all have to unpicked and reapplied for individually. Despite doing all this John texted us from Beijing Airport to report that he had had trouble getting out due to some visa irregularity; However I don’t know what the Chinese exit authorities thought they might do with him if they wouldn’t let him out. Best plan in my book is to play dumb and they eventually let you go because they cant think of anything else to do with you ( This rather obvious strategy worked well when we got into China via the Tour U Ghat Pass and had inadvertently and very unwisely given the last and very unpleasant armed Kyrg border guard our group visa copy – there was no way I was driving back to get it and anyway the Korgies wouldn’t have let me back in.

Paul Chi meets us at the top of Tour U Ghat Pass ( 13200 feet)

Another important reason why we never see anyone traveling on the road is because without a local agent one could not get an economic rate at the hotels. Adhoc single hotel bookings seem to start at about $300 per night for even a fairly shoddy unclean room with dysfunctional aircon. We have been paying about one tenth of that because Paul has bashed the price down and got he and his brother Gerry in free most of the time.

Paul Shi, our guide and director Chinaoverland

Another difficulty is the fairly frequent absence of food in some of the hotels in the wilder places. And if they did have food it seems that the Chinese are quite happy to eat bean sprouts, noodles with chile sauce for breakfast. I have not quite mastered this reversal of my daytime palate. But the absence of food is nothing to Paul he simply commandeers the hotel kitchen and brews up the very best fresh coffee in his two turkish percolators. He always has a ready supply of bread, spam and jam! This may sound unappetising but with 450 Kms of drizzle and high altitude riding ahead it gets washed down very easily with the fresh coffee. Paul has a couple of days’ off now in Xian and as he rather quaintly remarked , he is usually the one to tell the group that they have some free sight seeing days in one place rather his clients giving him time off. No doubt he is working hard on his mobile at the  next trip while his brother Gerry wanders around chatting up the girls and indulging in a bit of retails therapy ( Gerry has one of the world’s greatest collections of sport and T shirts).

Gerry

Once at Beijing Paul will help us dismantle our huge van roof rack, box up the bikes and get them to the main port near Beijing and into a container. Sometime in the late August 10,000 Kilogrammes of equipment and vehicles will arrive in Southampton and we then have to get it down to John Rose’s big barn to sort it all out.

Tomorrow we are going to have a crack at the Terracotta Warriors and the Great Goose Pagoda and then back on the road again. Susan driving and Karen riding shotgun in the van, Tim arriving in 25th June and hopefully some really good action photo opportunities on the final assault on Beijing and wisdom Valley.

Susan had a trying time flying into Xi’an; got within 20 minutes of landing and got turned back to Beijing. After refueling and feeding everyone they had another more successful try and landed at about 9pm. Susan  got into the hotel for about 10.pm happy enough but pretty shattered

all the best ,

Simon

Wednesday, June 20 – Xi’an – Dave

Richard is using the trip as an opportunity to raise funds for a couple of his favorite charities, one of which is ‘Half the Sky’ and today we visited an orphanage assisted by this wonderful organization.

In brief, H.T.S.’s mission is to ensure that abandoned/orphaned children in China receive the love of a surrogate family to supplement the essentials that are provided by the state and other charities.  For more details, visit their website…

http://www.halfthesky.org/en

Having seen their work firsthand, I encourage you to donate if you can.

Here’s the orphanage we visited…

It houses kids of any age from birth through 18 and provides not just a home, but also medical and remedial treatments where necessary and possible and pre-schooling for the younger children.

Most of the kids are either physically or mentally handicapped; some are both.  Tragically, many people n China still consider such handicaps as shameful, and this, combined with the one-child-per-family law, accounts for why many of these children were abandoned.

We were greeted by a representative of Half The Sky and the orphanage’s director and some of her staff, then we toured the rooms where the kids spend most of their weekdays – kindergarten rooms where most kids are prepared for school and therapy rooms for the kids that need special attention for ailments such as cerebral palsy.

Three things stuck us immediately – (1) the good ratio of skilled adults to kids, (2) the positive and constructive atmosphere in all rooms and (3) how well-behaved the kids were despite their challenges.

Half the Sky provides many of the trained helpers who supplement and assist the teachers and therapists, thereby ensuring that the kids get plenty of individual attention.

This kid wanted to go sailing with Simon…

…and for this young guy the walk across the room was a MAJOR challenge that he proudly accomplished thanks to the therapy he has received.

But, for me, the most positive aspect of the orphanage – and the one introduced and financially supported by Half the Sky – is  the innovative approach to the kid’s living quarters.

They live in a large, well-maintained apartment building, each floor of which is divided into several apartments and in each apartment is a ‘family’ comprising a husband and wife (recruited for their caring natures) and four or five of the kids.  The husband typically goes out to work, while the wife stays home to look after the kids, prepare their evening meals etc.  On the wall of each apartment is a ‘family photograph’ of them all grinning happily at the camera.

We visited at lunchtime and, as you can see below, the kids were loving it and interacting just like any other family.

I am sure the system has its own challenges and imperfections, but I am also sure that it is a hell of an improvement over more traditional, dormitory-style, institutions.

We left – impressed and hugely moved by what we’d seen.  And I commend Richard for identifying and supporting this charity.

And speaking of Richard, today was his birthday and his Chinese friends (whom you’ve met in the last couple of blog entries) joined us all for a banquet thrown for him by Mr. Sei  in a private room at Edelweiss, the restaurant he established.  The food included pheasant soup and roasted hare using pheasants and hares shot by Mr. Sei himself (doubtless while dancing through the hills to the sound of music).

Mr. Sei is on the left.  (And for those of you who haven’t seen Simon in a while, he’s on the right).

Best wishes to you all and love to my family,

Dave

 

Tuesday 19th – Xi’an – Simon.

Richard has been many times to Xi’an , both on working trips for Roll Royce but also with Christina his partner just to visit this one time capitol of China. Our stay here has been augmented greatly by meeting some of their Chinese friends who have lived in the city for many years and indeed held senior positions here in Government and business. Having been guided out of the Qin Ling mountains by them, gone out to dinner with them and today Mr Sei has kindly offered to take a few of us to a beautiful local park about an hour back into the mountains. We are met at the front door of the hotel and whisked off in his V8 Range rover. No one wants to squeeze into my hire car for the day  and by the way I took the white one today.

Price tag about 3 X European due to import tax.(2M)

Mr Sei dusts out his new car

On climbing up out Xi’an on an empty motorway we enter an 18 kilometre tunnel, brand new and every 8 K ms there is a widened section which is flood lit and contain plastic shrubs and palm trees!

Keep awake sections with plastic shrubs and trees

Mr Sei is a senior member of the Xi’an police authority and drove us very safely at vast speeds . His wife and he love the musical “the Sound of Music!” so much so that he opened a now well known Xi’an restaurant and called it “Edelweiss”!! He is also a passionate fan of Julie Andrews plus he has a Chinese version of the musical on his sound system in the car . We were given a rare treat of listening to him belt out the tracks singing along the lyrics, having developed a great tenor voice while serving in the Chinese army!

We arrive at the park and after a rather inauspicious start up a a concrete track we enter a 10 k ms canyon. It is possible to get right to the top and look out over Xi’an; we made it to the Bridge half way up.

.

 

The canyon had been refashioned with bridges , stepping stone and a number of small glades which were beginning to encourage the original Fauna and flora back

A set of rather unsettling stepping stones guided you through a narrow part of the gorge.

At the halfway point the ravine is crossed by a cats cradle of bridge and platforms.

As we descend a few more people have arrived to try out the white water rafting- not exactly “ River Wild” scary film with Meryl Streep ? Anyway they all seemed to be enjoying it.

After being treated to lunch at a local restaurant by the river we speed back to Xi’an- this time I got to sit in the front of this vast silent tank while Mr S gave some more renderings of SOM.

In the evening we walked out into the Islamic quarter for an alcohol free supper and took in the street markets. Some strange sights. A small dog talking to to two camels

some beautifully lit pagoda styled building in the old city -all the best

Simon

And finally a guy on a motorized tricycle with about 5000 eggs on Board

-all the best

Simon

Monday, June 18 – Xi’an – Dave

A couple of days to unwind in the luxurious lap of the Sofitel before Karen, Susan and Tim arrive and the sightseeing tempo picks up again.  Strangely, although this is all one mega vacation, we never seem to have time to ourselves when we can just loaf around, read etc. and I , for one, hadn’t realized how much I needed it.

Our Hotel

So today – after we’d all breakfasted together – I had settled down in my room with a book on China, when a squeaky noise made me turn (don’t worry, Janet, no rat this time) …

Window Cleaner - Sofitel, Xi'an

…and I was reminded that I was in a world demanding to be seen.  So I went out and wandered the streets, people watching.

Xi’an has grown, and is still growing, like crazy, with massive apartment buildings sprouting like weeds to accommodate the flood of young people pouring in from rural China to find jobs that pay as much in a month as they could earn in a year of farm work.

To stand on a street corner in Xi’an and watch the insane Brownian motion as everyone scuttles to meet market needs, is to be forced to recognize that there is no way any centrally planned economy – no matter how brilliant and assiduous the planners – could ever meet material needs as efficiently as the Invisible Hand of capitalism – particularly not on this scale.  I know that one might experience a similar feeling in most major cities, but what is different here is that so much has been accomplished in just a few decades – hundreds of millions of people tugged out of poverty by that Invisible Hand.

But witnessing the exhaustion on the faces of older people struggling to earn money to compensate for the diminishing purchasing power of state pensions, or seeing sick people, who you know will never receive adequate medical attention from a weakening state sector, is a reminder of the cruelty of unfettered capitalism.

I know it is neither profound nor original to suggest that the best we can hope for is to bounce forever between the extremes of capitalism and statism, but my point is just that the streets of modern China make that truth so blindingly obvious.

Brownian Motion on the Streets of Xi'an

I loved this street vendor – offering a view of Saturn – a need you never knew you had until the Invisible Hand offered it up.

See Saturn for $1

In the evening we dined in a private dining room with Richard’s Chinese friends – the ones who pulled strings to get us the police escort (indeed to get us permission to bring our bikes into the center of Xi’an from which such terrifying monsters are banned).  Suffice it to say that whoever believe that the Chinese are inscrutable has obviously never met many of them.  These dudes can party.