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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Thursday, June 14 – Sichuan Province – Dave

We left our small hotel and rode through a rural China that looked the same as it must have looked hundreds of years ago…men and women laboring in the fields with simple tools…

…water buffalo (favored, in areas like this despite their legendary stubbornness, because they can work in swampy land)…

…and workers still shifting heavy loads in yoked buckets.

It was a journey back in time and, after the hard riding of recent days, a gentle one.

Paul seldom tells us what he has in store for the day ahead, so we were surprised when this temple suddenly came into view and we stopped to look around.  (I am embarrassed to confess that I have mislaid the name of it, but will edit this entry in due course so I don’t look too stupid).

It comprised a spectacularly beautiful series of buildings, courtyards and gardens and is dedicated to a local physician of such kindness and skill that he was venerated in his lifetime and has been worshipped since his death.  And who wouldn’t want a doctor who looked like this?

I have to confess to huge and mounting confusion regarding Chinese religions – ancestor worship such as this, Confucianism , Buddhism etc. etc.   I gamely persist in asking questions intended to help me untangle the threads, but the answers just confuse me more.  In this regard I could use the help of this scary-looking god dude whose role, we were told, is to help scholars with their studies.

For 20 Yuan I purchased 10  inches of red ribbon with a Chinese inscription on it expressing hope for the health of a loved one and with small brass bells at each end.  I wrote the name of my loved on on it (in this case my daughter-in-law, Kristen) and, as instructed, hurled it into a tree festooned with similar ribbons where it now hangs, doing its bit to aid Kristen’s recovery.

We left the temple and rode on along the ridge of beautiful mountains where the locals have found it hard to reconcile their love of trees with traffic safety…

…and paused by the side of the road…

…before finally arriving in Guangyuang, where traffic was stopped every few hundred yards to give priority to police-escorted, fast-moving buses transporting proud workers to FACTORY 821 – China’s largest plutonium-processessing facility.  Unfortunately curtains in the expensive new buses prevented me from seeing how badly mutated the passengers were.  It was a hell of a contrast with the pastoral and spiritual lands we had passed through this morning – but then that’s today’s China.