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

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

 

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