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 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.

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