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

 

Housekeeping in Yangxian

no wi fi in Yangxian but they are  fine spending Saturday cleaning shopping and sorting things out- probably much as the rest of us. John left today and some of us are joining them later this week so a real turnaround and a real feel  that the triumphant end is nearly insight.Yangxian is famous for the crested ibis- unfortunately not the European Ibis; their hotel is dreadful.   More posts are promised for tomorrow as they will be arriving in  XI’AN!

A crested ibis

 

Steppeing out

Text 1a.m.

Typical Tibetan supper, yak stew and the waitresses dressed in traditional garb

Then they sang some beautiful Tibetan songs

We replied with Men of Harlech and Jerusalem

Then it got serious and the lads from the village and the girls got us to join in with Tibetan country dancing. I think alcohol and the 12,000ft may have had something to do with it. All very fine.

The night porter escorted us back to our yurts for 8 hours of psychotic dreams and headaches.

Typical Tibetan folk dancing

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