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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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).
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 ,