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

 

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 26 – Pingyao to Taiyuan – Dave

We spent the morning sightseeing in Pingyao.  This walled city is an odd mix of narrow, traffic-free streets that charm because they’ve not changed in a hundred years, and the crassest tourist trap we’ve seen in China (which, as our readers will know, is really saying something).

Susan had, as usual, done her homework (as you can see, Tim was impressed) and had learned that Pingyao’s ‘must sees’ comprised a couple of museums and a Daoist temple.  So off we went – Susan, Simon, Tim, Karen and me.

The first stop was The Museum of Banking which our guide Paul had said was particularly worth a visit because of the city’s history as a banking center.  So we paid and stepped into a modest building comprising a couple of courtyards surrounded by rooms identified as ‘Banking Hall’, ‘Cashier’s Room’, ‘Message Chamber’ etc. etc. each of which contained a few pieces of cheap repro furniture and a sign that said something like ‘In this room cashiers did important cashier’s work’ or ‘This is the Message Room where important Messages came and went’.  Even Susan struggled to find anything interesting here, so, in search of enlightenment, we moved on to the Daoist Temple.

As you can see, we threw ourselves into this one in the hope of experiencing the harmony that results from perfect naturalness…

..but I suspect the Daoist brothers recently consulted with McKinsey or Bain on ‘streamlining unit throughput’ and ‘maximizing economic gain per unit’.  One monk thrust incense sticks into our hands and barked at us to light them from a candle.  I moved at a pace I felt appropriate to the spiritual setting and to the possibility of achieving a state of Te, so the monk grabbed my incense sticks, lit them, pushed them back into my hands and forced me to my knees on a cushion before the altar.

I tried to clear my mind of the poor chap’s agitated state so I could contemplate wu-wei and the ‘three treasures’, but he shouted at me to bow three times to the altar, then dragged me to my feet and hurried me across the room to where his colleague sat at a desk waiting to tell my fortune (you can see him in the above photo waiting at his desk positioned by the exit  – a sound piece of process  engineering).  This second monk, who was even less patient than the first, thrust a small book into my hand and gestured that I should open it at any page.  I did so and found a single word – CONTENTMENT.

I was contemplating my good fortune when he grabbed the book back and demonstrated that had I selected the page before or the page after ‘CONTENTMENT’ I would have chosen ‘ANGUISH’ or ‘POOR HEALTH’.  I was just thinking how truly fortunate I’d been when I noticed that the pages in his book were alternately smaller and larger.  OH MY GOD!!!  My brother Pete had tricked me this way when I was about five!!!!  Surely it couldn’t be that these holy men who’d dedicated their lives to the Dao were swindling tourists with such shoddy conjuring…?  But he already had an exercise book open in front of me showing how much money the tourist units who had preceded me had donated after having had their fortunes told.  I couldn’t believe it… “Bruce from Sydney , Australia, 600 Yuan” (that’s about $100), “Bob from Seattle, USA 900 Yuan”…  The monk was staring at me expectantly.  I slowly wrote down my name and home city…  He smiled encouragingly.  My pen was hovering over the donation space when  I noticed that all these donors had printed their names and donations in strikingly similar handwriting on a page that was now full.  I had a clean page…a page that could be ripped out if my donation wasn’t sufficient to encourage those who followed.  I met his eyes and grinned “You old Daoist rogue”.  He regarded me blankly and waited.  So I tossed down 10 Yuan for the performance and left.  When I glanced back the holy man was scowling  furiously at me.

So it was on to the third and final ‘must see’ – the promising ‘Museum of Bodyguards’.  In a country that gave birth to so many of the martial arts this had to be fantastic, right?

We paid and stepped into a modest building comprising a couple of courtyards surrounded by rooms containing a few pieces of cheap repro furniture …

Wait  This all looked so familiar…  Somehow we’d doubled back to the Museum of Banking…  I checked.  But no, this was definitely the Museum of Bodyguards and now the rooms were called ‘Important Meeting Room’ and ‘Chamber of Bodyguards Conferencing’ and contained helpful explanatory signs like ‘This is the room where important meetings were taken place’ and ‘Here bodyguards conferenced’.

There was however one cool feature of this museum – a courtyard where, for a modest fee of 20 Yuan (doubtless recommended by Bain consultants in accordance with a pricing optimization model) we could fire arrows at targets.  This was the most fun we had had all morning.

We rejoined the rest of the team for lunch at our hotel and then rode a relatively short distance to Taiyuan.  On the way, Karen amused herself by photographing dangerously overloaded trucks

    

Taiyuan is home to the famously beautiful Jinsi Temple. Karen, Susan and Tim went to see it and took the following lovely photos.  The rest of us caught up on emails and blog writing in our hotel – a huge, luxurious, modern conference center.

And, over dinner, they told us how wonderful the temple was and how we should have seen it.

The end is in sight – and the prospect of it feels very bittersweet.

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