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.
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.
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…
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…
…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.
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,