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 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

 

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