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

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.

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

 

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