Friday, 12 July 2013

The First Draft of History

Blogs are the first rough draft of history these days but a trip of this length will need some processing before any conclusions can be drawn. At this stage all you can do is capture the impressions that stand out from the crowd.

The fantastic roads: the Croatian coast, the gorges of Eastern Tibet, the dirt hairpins to Everest, the wide valleys of western Tibet.

The terrible roads: Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat, Albania, Chinese city traffic.

The challenges: Tibetan sand, Szechuan mud, Chinese floods, altitude, erratic sea crossings and jobs worth customs officials

The sights: The ruins of, Khiva, Hagia Sofia, Mt Everest, morning fog on the Bosphorus, the night sky in the Pamirs, remote Tibetan monasteries, balloons over Cappadocia

The people: Lunch with M and family in Turkmenistan, a christening in Tbilisi, tea and doughnuts in a yurt in Sary Tash, Szechuan Opera in Chengdu, a truck driver offering a watermelon by the roadside, coffee with a Turkish Islamist and again with a Greek priest, a guitarist in Dubrovnik.

The food: deep fried scorpion, yak burger, hot pot, meat-on-a-stick, plov, salt baked fish, boil-in-the-bag breakfasts.

The company: Tintin, "The Prof", Papa Love, the irrepressible Peter M, Brad, Uncle Mel and all the team who worked together to get us all to the end.

Each of these elements can be described, photographed, talked about, exaggerated and remembered, but the nature of this sort of trip is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The totality of the experience, the emotion, the "feel" is difficult to describe to those who haven't been there. The author hopes that this blog has presented the pearls and some of the thread that joins them.

If you have been, thank you for reading this far.

Day 76 - Katie Lied

There aren't nine million bicycles in Beijing. Nine million cars perhaps but the humble bicycle has been left behind in the rush to modernisation.

Though better than other cities in many ways, Chinese driving and road design have not developed to meet the challenges of a modern city.

The "Yellow Box" junction is unheard of with the result that all cars simply enter the junction and block each other. The traffic lights are a law unto themselves which normally doesn't matter as many drivers (and all bicycles and scooters) simply ignore them. Our taxi back from the train station was sat at a red light for 40 minutes while the other three roads kept moving. Eventually we walked.

Our hotel, Raffles Beijing, was built in 1917 as the best European hotel in the capital. Still swanky after all these years with prices to match, but a wonderful haven of peace to reflect and prepare for the journey home. Less then 16 hours airborne (less seven time zones) to get back to where we started 11 weeks ago.

Tonight we are out for a final dinner (Peking Duck of course) and then Deefor leaves for the airport and a flight home via Brussels.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Day 75 - The End

A final 150km from Beijing to the docks at Tianjin. No dramas on the road but an end of term feel to the ride. A couple of bikes limped the last bit - Deefor's clutch is cooked - so it is good that this is the last day.

If tou have anything that has been made in China then there is a good chance it was shipped through Tianjin. It is vast and encapsulates today's China. The area of the port we went to, one of many, was over 10km long and built on reclaimed land. The warehouses stretched back from the waterfront as far as the eye could see. Some blocks were still vacant, others were stacked high with brand new containers waiting to carry goods to the West.

We left the bikes at a warehouse to be loaded into a container and shipped home. The next time we see them will be the end of August.

So it is goodbye to the GS for now. It has been a fantastic machine. 20,900kms through sand, mud, gravel and flood. Across oceans, up mountains, along autoroutes, dirt tracks, city streets and peat bogs. All it has needed is a change of oil and air filters, some new tyres and a but of fettling when it was crashed.

We travelled back to Beijing on the high speed train. 290km/h in air conditioned comfort from one modern station to another. Why didn't we do the whole trip like this?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

China and Motorcycles

It is strange riding a motorbike in China. There is simply no culture or understanding of large bikes. There are lots of small bikes - scooters and 125s - but nothing like a 1200GS. There are some odd consequences...

1. Every time you stop you are surrounded by curious onlookers. Where are you from? How old are you? How much does this motorbike cost?

2. Motorbikes are not allowed in the centre of big cities. They are seen as a traffic problem (which they are) so are banned. Where they are allowed, the roads have an extra lane for cycles which motorbikes share.

3. Motorbikes are not allowed on motorways. Presumably they don't want lots of slow bikes on a high speed road, but a GS can do 120km/h all day long.

4. Motorbikes can not fill up at the petrol pump. They have to park away from the pumps and are topped up using watering cans. This is meant to be for safety but seems arbitrary. This rule is enforced strongly in Tibet and not at all in Beijing.

Day 74 - To Beijing

150km along the expressway into Beijing. Like yesterday it was wet but the road is elevated so not flooded.

Five riders from BMW met us in the outskirts and guided us in to the dealership. We were met various family members (Hi Cindy, Isabella, Linda, Ting Ting, Leanne!) for an emotional end to the ride. Sometimes you don't realise how much pressure you are under 'til it's gone.

A great welcome from the team at BMW - beer and food and a few speeches - then in a bus to our hotel.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Day 73 - Noyes Flude

Today it rained. To be accurate it actually started yesterday evening, rained all night and continued all day. Not just a gentle shower, full tropical rain. And not your usual July weather in Central China. It rained so much that it was on the news. Bridges washed away, roads flooded, the lot.

After yesterday's suffocating heat many of saw this as light relief and set off without waterproofs, the better to get the cooling effect. By lunchtime we were wet and starting to feel chilly.

By lunchtime (a lovely KFC!) we had cracked the day and only had 150km to go. And that's when China threw one more challenge at us. Floods.

The first one was 400m wide and 50cm deep. Cars were stopped in the deep parts but the trucks were getting through, so in we went. Three bikes didn't make it and were pushed to dry land. Out came the plug spanners and WD40 and soon we were moving again.

The second flood was harder. The road surface was broken beneath the waves and finding a passable route was difficult. Some went left, some right. Nigel tried the edge and found the drainage ditch (see photo). When we dragged his bike out it wasn't flooded and started at the first attempt. Quick thinking by Nigel, to turn the engine off as it went in, had saved the day.

The third flood caught two of us out. The wake of the big lorries was so high it was higher than the exhaust pipe and flooded the engines. By now the fix - remove spark plugs, turn it over, spray with WD40, reassemble and fire up - was routine and we were soon back on the road.

Our quick afternoon ride had become a dramatic hurdle and we rolled in at 19:00 to a very welcome beer and a good hotel room to dry out our kit.

Tomorrow is our last 150km to Beijing. What more can we expect? Plagues of locusts or Godzilla.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Day 72 - Grand Theft Auto 7 - Ride China

"Congratulations Player 1, you have completed level 5 of GTA. You are now entering Level 6.

In the last level we threw everything at you; tuck tucks, scooters, lorries and the feared Land Cruisers. Then we tried to get you by changing the road surface; ditches, sand, mud and even cobbles. You overcame them all.

Today we give you Level 6. We start off by completely closing the road giving no diversion signs and deliberately hiding the point where you pick it up again. Then we route through a major city where we have dug up every road to build a three level viaduct interchange in the middle of downtown. We double the number of suicidal scooters and reduce the attention spam of all car drivers Finally we set a course of 400km and turn the heat up to 40C."

We all made it in the end but there were some tired looking people by 8:00PM when the last one arrived.

We are now one full day away from Beijing.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Day 71 - Shaanxi's Peony

400 km today from Xi'an (the capital of Shaanxi region) to Louyang (the peony capital of China).

The 310 shadows the motorway and the high speed train line (see photo) passing through a string of cities - Weinan and Sanmenxia, to name two. The remarkable thing is that most people will never of heard of Louyang or the other two but the have populations of 6m, 5m and 2m respectively and they are expanding before our eyes with vast new business districts being laid out and new apartments shooting up.

Currently China has 160 cities with populations over 1m. The UK has 5. The sheer scale of this country is gobsmacking.

The ride itself was OK. Very hot at over 35C but without too much traffic. We are one day nearer Beijing. Three days to go!

PS - I would like to dedicate the pun in the title to my Grandpa Boli who I hope would have appreciated it.

Star Gazing

Despite the smog this enterprising chap was making 20Yuan a pop to let you see Saturn through his amazing, rickshaw mounted telescope.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Day 70 - Xi'an Again

Yesterday's trips out in the city ended with a rather wonderful dinner of dumplings and soup. Everyone had had a great couple of lazy days and with a week to go, conversation turned to "best meal of the trip", "worst meal of the trip" etc. It is starting to feel like the beginning of the end.

Still plenty to do though! Tintin and Deefor recced the cycling options yesterday and today at crack of dawn, nine of us were down at the South Gate for a ride.

The walls of the inner city date back to the 1300's and tower 40m over the buildings. The top is 15m wide and makes a perfect cycle track right round the heart of town. Hiring a mountain bike for 100 minutes just gives you time to do one lap of the 14km wall (or two of you are Chris ...) but you have to crack on if you take too many photo stops. (Thanks for the picture Nigel).

Xi'an is the Chinese end of the Silk Road and it was a moment to reflect as we stopped at the west gate and looked at the road down which so many caravans must have gone.

We were all glad to have started early. By 10:00 the sun was beating down and with high humidity 36C felt really hot. A quick visit to the Backpackers Hostel for fresh orange juice and milkshakes soon got us back in shape.

After lunch, a trip to the Muslim Quarter. With so much trade to the west there has been a local Muslim population here for centuries and the mosque was busy for midday prayers. It is a wonderful mixture of Islamic and Taoist temple design. The buildings are arranged along a centre line like a Chinese temple and have curved eaves and painted wood decoration but without any images of animals. Minarets are disguised as small pagodas but still blast out the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Chinese characters are replaced by cartouches in Arabic script and the last "temple" is a prayer hall facing west toward Mecca.