Hustle and bustle

Women in local dressThursday, 25th June: Wednesday morning was a bike morning, and that meant the usual checks on the oil, water, tyres and anything else we were worried about concerning our bikes. In my case, that meant checking the pannier mounts again. I have been checking them virtually every day and it’s a case of so-far-so-good. Replacing the quick release fasteners with nuts and bolts seems to have done the trick. A couple of small open back vans also arrived to take away the 4 bikes belonging to those going home.

Yesterday afternoon and this morning were spent wandering around the shops. This afternoon I unloaded my pannier containing my tools to check the inside where I had the oil leak. Alas, the tool roll was still seeping oil and there was a small pool sitting in the bottom of the pannier. There was nothing for it but to empty out the tools from the roll, clean them all and transfer them to the medium-size bum bag I had bought earlier. The oil soaked tool roll was only fit for the bin. A reorganisation of my luggage should mean that I can put the bag that usually sits on my back seat into the support van.

Lhasa street market 1But what of Lhasa itself? It is the administrative capital of Tibet and, like many old cities, has an old quarter, in which there is large market and hundreds of very small shops selling just about everything. There is a great deal of hustle and bustle about the place, and a lot of random riding of electric scooters (“silent killers” as Kevin calls them), and cycle-powered rickshaws means you have to have eyes in the back of your head to avoid them.

Lhasa street market 2The more modern part of the city has plenty of smart shops but, sadly, what seems to be lacking here is the tourists to buy the goods. The few who do come seem to be barely sufficient to enable them to stay afloat. Certainly, looking around a big department store with Graham, another one of our group, almost had the shop to ourselves. It’s a pity I didn’t find what I was looking for, I could have had great fun playing one supplier off against another!

 

 

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The Dalai Lama’s Palace

The Dalai Lama Palace 1Tuesday, 23rd June: The morning was spent playing blog catch-up, as is usual on arrival in the nicer venues. The conditions at the “home-stays” aren’t really conducive the creative thinking, and I need all the help I can get.

Just after 1pm, we arrived at the square below the imposing Dalai Lama’s Palace and were given a run down on the history by our local Tibetan guide, Bobo. It’s fair to say that it’s a very sensitive subject in Tibet and it would be interesting to hear the Chinese version of the Buddhist history. That said, the Palace is a huge building with 999 rooms. There were supposed to be 1001, but the person bringing the plans back from the original designer lost a small sheet containing 2 rooms, hence the slightly smaller building.

Bearing in mind that Lhasa is 3,600 metres (11811 feet) above sea level, the thought of climbing to the top of the Palace didn’t exactly appeal. However, as I am most unlikely to ever pass this way again, I’m glad I made the effort. A few of us started to count the steps up, but quickly ran out of breath to bother. Suffice it to say that the view from the top was quite something, as was the inside of the Palace. There were many rooms that we were not allowed to see. Most of them, in fact. We probably didn’t miss much, as the ones we did see were quite similar and the ones we couldn’t contained property of the Dalai Lama himself, who had to leave in a hurry in 1959 … The rooms are therefore more or less how he left them, but it’s forbidden to show any of the rooms containing his property.

If this blog post doesn’t appear to do Llasa justice, it’s not that I am not interested in The Dalai Lama and his history. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t work in China and the Wiki page of the Dalai Lama doesn’t seem to load to double check the facts ….. Can’t think why!

Nothing much else got done on Tuesday as we recovered from the climb up and down from the Palace!

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Lhasa

Buddhist Monestary 3Monday, 22nd June: Due to the change in overnight venue, the ride into Lhasa was short at about 270 kms, and it also meant that we would be there for 4 nights rather then the planned 3. Accordingly, we started the morning with a visit to the local Buddhist Monastery. As with all of the monasteries, you are not allowed to take photographs inside. It must be said that one looks very much like another, that’s not to say they aren’t historic and picturesque, etc., but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most of them …

Catepillar snacks - yum yumOn the way back to last night’s hotel to change and collect the bikes, we wandered past the shops and took a look at some of the more interesting ones, offering such bizarre produce such as dead caterpillars in star shapes, wrapped in pretty boxes. I have to say that, although the thought of eating caterpillars didn’t appeal to me, they would have taken too much space in my luggage to buy as presents, so you can all breathe easier!

At 12 noon we left for Lhasa and arrived in dribs and drabs as some stopped to take photos at tourist attractions like The Dalai Lama’s Palace, sitting high above the city. Pleased to say that we were in another nice hotel with working facilities and a good car park, which helped us relax a bit, especially as we have now left the rough “home-stay” hostels behind us. I wonder if Kevin hasn’t got something up his sleeve to shake us out of our complacency though?!

It must also be said that our numbers have now begun to reduce as Misha, our Russian rider, left very early on Tuesday morning, by arrangement, having paid for our evening meal. Thanks Misha, it’s been fun. More of the group are also leaving during the week.

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Base Camp

Sunday, 21st June: This was the day we were to have gone to the Dingri, the Base Camp on the north side of Mount Everest, otherwise known as ‘Baiba’. However, the recent earthquakes in Nepal made our planned trip to the Base Camp impossible. I certainly have no complaint whatsoever. People’s lives are far more important than the satisfaction of a few tourists. That’s not to say that I don’t feel sad at not being able to go, because I do – but I’ll get over it. The families of those who have died or been seriously injured may never get over it …

All that said, our alternative route was a 450 km jaunt with tantalising glimpses of the Himalayas in the distance, hidden by the closer foothills. There were views of other mountain ranges some distance away, arguably just as stunning, but not the ones I really wanted to see. All around us was desert terrain, just as it had been since Volgograd for me, apart from a few areas around Almaty and in Kyrgyzstan.

The Tibetan houses seemed to take on more permanent forms than further north and I began to notice that the land was beginning to support more grazing and now even the cultivation of trees and rice fields, albeit small. These latter were assisted by a rudimentary irrigation system from a nearby river.

Proper bathroom 2Our arrival at the hotel in Shigatse made the whole day worthwhile. It was smart, modern and functioning. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a major western city. The showers worked and they had hot water. There was even internet access. However, at this point Murphy’s Law took a hand and contrived to reconfigure my notebook network adaptor incorrectly – at least, according to the troubleshooting service provided by Microsoft! So here’s a question of Microsoft: if your program is so clever that it recognises that my network adaptor is incorrectly configured, why the Hell can’t it correct it? BUGGER!

 

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Classics of the Wild West

Saturday, 20th June: It was a cold morning and we had 485 kms to go today. I made the decision to break out my Keis heated vest. I hadn’t felt the need until Wednesday, but I didn’t want to repeat that experience. The temperature as we left was 0.5 C and I set my vest to hot. It should be remembered that riding at 80 or 90 kph makes the cold weather a lot colder and really Minding the baby and the Yaksdoes give a boost to the windchill effect. Initially, I had my mobile phone charging and my heated grips on, so I didn’t get the full effect of the vest but I was, nevertheless, fairly comfortable. However, having taken the phone off charge a bit later on, I felt the full effect, and it’s fair to say that I was roasting! I quickly stopped and turned the setting down to medium … and was surprised to hear some of the other guys saying how cold it was at our lunchtime stop. That’s a big tick for the Keis X10 bodywarmer then!

Spinning his yarnApart from the vest, it was an interesting day’s ride, with a few chances to photograph some Tibetans minding their animals, at the same time spinning yarn or minding their children. It was a long day, but the ride itself was pleasant enough, albeit with the chance of coming across the odd sand dune creeping across the road around a bend. Fortunately, having been warned of the possibility, a bit of heavy braking brought the trusty steed to a slow enough pace to safely negotiate the runaway dune!

The Saga Hotel, in Saga, was another classic for Western China – not even close enough for a lit match, leave alone a cigar! When we arrived there was no water at all. Cold water came on at 6pm followed eventually by hot water, which lasted until midnight, and was then turned on again at 7am. The lid of Nice shower Notthe lavatory cistern was broken, and the shower leaked so that what small amount of water did reach the shower head, escaped out of the side before reaching the jets. As for the general finish of the bathroom the grouting and sealant looked like the work of an 18 month old child – and that’s probably doing the child a disservice. I strongly suspect that the sticky bedroom carpet had never been cleaned. Frankly, we would have been more comfortable in almost any of the home-stays.

 

 

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Ride logo ‘win’!

Xiang Xiong HotelFriday, 19th June: It was a short ride on Thursday, only 224 kms into Ali (also known as Ger or Gar). On Kevin’s previous trip here it was 50% dirt and 50% tarmac hence the short day. Fortunately, the 50% dirt had been tarmacked and that made it a short day. We arrived at the Xiang Xiong Hotel and I have to say that it really did look like a building site. There was dust and cardboard on the floor and inside the lifts, little evidence of any cleaning having been done and sounds of heavy drilling coming from the top floor. I felt hungry and needed to eat. With hindsight, I think I was suffering a little from Altitude sickness, which can have the same symptoms. Nevertheless I trudged slowly into town, about 1.5 kms away, and found somewhere that had pictures of what the food should have looked like. I pointed to a likely looking meal which, inevitably, looked very little like the picture when it arrived, though mainly because the red onions in the picture were exchanged for white ones. Never mind it tasted OK and that was fair enough. I then walked up a few more yards looking for some energy-giving chocolate, a feature in China due to the low protein (read ‘meat content’) meals.

Now, it was reasonably warm and I was wearing one of my “Inagh to China” T shirts. I went into a shop bought a couple of bottles of water, but they didn’t have anything that was vaguely recognisable as chocolate. As I approached the man at the till, he looked at my T shirt, and excitedly wrote out two Chinese characters: the Fu symbol for ‘good fortune’ that my daughter, Ree, had appliqued on the quilt she made for Brigid’s 50th birthday and that, subsequently, Brigid used (in rondal format) as the basis for our ride logo.

I gave him the thumbs up, with a big grin and shook his hand. Well done Ree and Brigid, your designs were recognised for what they were meant to be in China!

For the evening meal they tried to serve us up some left over food from a party upstairs. Needless to say, we immediately left and walked up the road to find a proper restaurant. Our experiences of hotels in Western China, have not been good, so far.

Mount KailashAnother short ride, again all tarmac – we are being spoilt, on Friday took us past Mount Kailash, which is sacred to Hindus and to Buddhists. The former believe that Lord Shiva is on the top of the mountain, and the latter believe that it is Budda Demchook (apologies for any incorrect spellings here). We were fortunately to get a photograph of the top of the mountain which is a rarity, at least on Kevin’s rides!

Lake ManasarovarWe arrived at Lake Manasarovar in plenty of time for some of the guys to go for a short walk to a Tibetan Monastery on the hill near where we stay. I decided instead to go for a walk around a small part of the lake, which is also regarded as holy as some of Ghandi’s ashes were scattered on it. It is a beautiful place and the mountains on the other side were quite breathtaking. I tried to take some photos that might do it justice, but struggling as I am with my phone camera I doubt I have succeeded, which is a pity. The place we stayed was a newly built place, but without running water. However, at least the squat toilets had concrete floors … unlike the ones at Xadi where Bevan nearly fell through the flimsy wooden ones – they certainly weren’t built for man of his stature!

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Cold …

Chicken Curry for dinner

Chicken dinner, anyone?

Wednesday, 17th June: Up, breakfasted and ready ride by 9am, we quickly realised it was colder this morning. Within minutes of setting off, I was certainly wishing I had worn my Keis vest. The only reason I didn’t is that, with all the changing around of my clothes and other stuff, I had forgotten where it actually was. It was an error I really do wish I hadn’t made. It was only 48 kms or 30 miles to the first high mountain pass. By the time I had got down the other side I was frozen. I pulled over to get out my winter gloves and rode on for a way, but I was getting colder, so much so that my blood started draining from my extremities and, Yes it was coldcritically, my head. I started getting woozy, but was still alert enough to realise. As soon as we descended from the next climb, I stopped and took my gloves off and had a drink of water. Just then the support van arrived and the advice came that “you should never put cold hand in cold gloves, warm your hand first”. I took the advice and warmed them up on the hot heated grips, which were on maximum. Another drink of water and I was off again. I did feel better and shortly afterwards I started to actually feel the heat from the grips. The effect was amazingly quick, although it was still cold I felt much, much better and much more alert.

The lunchtime stop where we were supposed to fuel, had no fuel. This was a problem. Although we had filled up the night before, it was touch and go whether we would have enough to reach our overnight stop. However, we rode on knowing that the support vehicle had emergency supplies if we ran out. I reached a small village and saw one of the guys waiting by the side of the road. He only had about 17 miles worth of fuel left. It had been really cold all day, and we had had a couple of small flurries of snow just before, but the weather was closing in so we decided to wait and fill up from the support vehicle.

Duoma homestayFuelled up, with petrol in the bike’s tank (and soup in our own tank) we eventually reached the overnight stop at Duoma at about 4400 metres elevation. Thankfully, the sun had come out and it was nice and warm – time to change and catch up with the blog before dinner. Chicken curry …!

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Reed Willow “Beach”?

Tuesday, 16th June: Today we had 240 kms to travel, plus the 78 kms we didn’t do yesterday, and we had a military checkpoint first thing. We queued up in order of our appearance on Kevin’s lists, which had been provided for convenience. There was an A list and a B list. The A list consisted of everyone flying out from Beijing, wherever they happen to be finishing the ride (some were finishing early). The B list was for those leaving China from elsewhere. In other words, me. I will be travelling from Beijing to Mongolia. The upshot was that, for the second day running, I was playing catchup with the rest of the riders. (Alan in the support vehicle doesn’t really count as he has to travel last anyway.)

The day was cool, but not too cold and the road was mostly tarmac until I eventually I caught up with the riders at the rear of the stretched out convoy. After about 50 kms or so we started climbing until we reached the pass at the top at 4,991 m (16,374 feet). There was a bit of snow and evidence of some ice, but I stuck to the snow and rode slowly through it without any problem.

We reached Mazar, where we were due to stay the previous night, and could see no evidence of  bulldozers or rubble. It was certainly very ramshackle in appearance and I think we got the benefit of stopping where we did! When we rode on, I made a point of starting earlier than some, thereby avoiding becoming tail-end-charlie again.

No one inside fortunatelyA while later,  we started climbing again and now it was getting noticeably colder. On the way down, I was surprised to see Kevin Sanders, waving in the middle of the road. I stopped and he pointed out a patch of snow a little way in front, with two wet-looking tracks running through the middle. In fact, the tracks had been made by big lorries and they weren’t wet – they were sheet ice! Forewarned, I carefully picked my way across to the middle section of snow and gingerly rode down, againNot much fun to ride in without mishap. I must confess that was purely down to Kevin, for which a BIG thanks. Without his help, I’m sure at least one of us would have gone down, but fortunately there were no problems. A little way on we were flagged down again – by Darren this time – directing us around another stretch of ice. Thanks again guys!

Although the mileage, or maybe I should say kilometreage, was fairly short, the stop in Mazar and the stretches of ice made it a fairly full day, but we had reached our planned stop for that night at the curiously-named “Reed Willow Beach”. It was near a military base, of there seem to be many, but at least it gives the locals some income and amusement serving food and beer to the “squaddies”. It’s a bit of the shame that the place we stayed, a “home stay” also seemed to serve food, and was one of the local haunts for the Mahjong players. It was always a vociferous game with much banging of the table, which resulted in a short and rather disturbed night’s sleep.

John and Darran replacing the fasteners with boltsTwo doors down was a garage which seemed to deal with trucks. At Darren’s suggestion, I got our Chinese guide, Andy, to ask them if they did welding.  They did and, dealing with trucks, they were likely to be better than the mechanics in Kashgar. I dismantled the right hand pannier mount and it was duly whisked away and returned in double quick time. Darren then helped sort out a sufficient number of nuts and bolts to replace ALL of the fasteners. I was taking no risk of further problems with my luggage. It was just as well I did, as the remaining three QR (“quick release”) fasteners EACH had one pin missing from them! These pins were crucial to the fastener remaining in place and were in imminent peril of giving up completely. Having the carriers in place with nuts and bolts, the whole system felt much more secure. Let’s hope it proves to be so. I’ll let you know!

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Lost and found

Nice roadsMonday, 15th June: We were up, breakfasted and out of the hotel just after 9am. I was worried about my pannier carriers but, as most of the route was tarmac, I wasn’t expecting too many problems. Sadly, this turned out to be a little optimistic. We fuelled up about 250 kilometres down the road in Yencheng, and someone noticed that my right hand pannier seemed to be loose. A quick examination revealed that the quick release fastener was missing and that the rear bracket had broken. Even the diagonal that had been added was broken!

Missing Pannier fastenerThe support vehicle caught me up, so I offloaded the loose pannier and secured the broken frame with a zip tie. We then set off together towards Mazar, before which we would have a Military checkpoint on the route to Tibet. Consequently, I was keeping half an eye on Garmin, bless her, and half on Alan behind me in the support vehicle. I noticed after 15 minutes or so he had disappeared, having been only 50 yards or so behind me. I double checked Garmin, only to find it had frozen. I pulled over and restarted it, but it just went through a number of cycles of starting and stopping continuously.

This was a real problem. I knew roughly where we were going, but without Garmin I was stuffed. Eventually, Garmin settled down and I realised I had passed the turning. I doubled back and took the first turning in the correct direction that I could … but not the one that was on the map!  I zoomed out and quickly saw that I was to the west of the road I wanted. Having quickly remedied my error, I just hit the gas, expecting to meet the support vehicle at some point.

What I did meet, however, were two lorries (mercifully, not at the same time) both travelling on the wrong side of the road. The first came over the brow of a hill as I was approaching. The driver looked as if he was dreaming; he wasn’t even aware of where he was, leave alone that he was on the wrong side of the road! I had to swerve on to the gravel hard shoulder to avoid becoming little more than a bug on his bumper. Scary! The second at least had the good grace to move over in sufficient time to narrowly avoid any necessity of evasive action on my part. Having just about recovered from the shock of those two, I was just about to go over a bridge and saw a white van approaching from the other side. Just as we both got on to the bridge the van driver decided that the dark patch of road in front of him could be a pot-hole and swerved on to my side of the road. I moved to my right (in theory, they drive on the right side of the road here) but I could see that if he didn’t move back to his left I would be going for a swim. Fortunately, he did, but only just in time and we must have missed each other by inches. It must be said that I was now developing paranoia, being fairly stressed out in any event, being way behind everyone. All I knew was that we had to cross the border into Tibet as one group; anyone left behind would not get in!

I hit the gas and was making up ground as fast as I could until Garmin told me to turn left. Now that just didn’t seem right. I cancelled the route and set a waypoint for the restaurant where we were due to meet up. It was straight ahead, and only 13km further on down the road. When I arrived, the support vehicle was not there. Since I had not overtaken him, I must have taken the wrong route. The significance of this was that if I had had a problem with my bike, they would not have known where I was and I could not have told them. Not a good start to the day!

We had lunch and I continued to play catch-up, as most of the group left shortly after I arrived. However, at least I had fed in the right co-ordinates for the border crossing and the subsequent night’s stop. The road had been mostly good but there were a few stretches that were challenging, with stretches of hard packed sand and stone surfaces that were frequent pot holes had been created by lorries, leaving the remainder of the surface very uneven. It wouldn’t have been so bad had I not been worried about my weakened pannier carriers.

We met up at the border crossing point and had been there for some time, when Kevin announced that we were waiting for the Tibet guide, as we had to have a local guide in addition to our Chinese guide who will be with us for the whole trip. We were then informed that our planned night’s stop in Mazar was not possible, as a part of it had been bull-dozed. We had no idea why. Fortunately, the locals came to our rescue and impromptu accommodation and food was arranged in Xadi, otherwise known as Kudi. Kevin said it was probably better than we would have had in Mazar but, trust me, it’s not saying a lot!

"Throttle John" with cake and new hat!

“Throttle John” with cake and new hat!

Despite the sudden change of plans, Kevin still managed to arrange a birthday party and a cake for “Throttle John” and, as usual, a good time was had by all.

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Kashgar

Kashgar Hotel viewSunday arrived, the last full day in Kashgar, I had seen little of it, and today was going to be no different. I still felt rough and my priority was to try and rest and recover for the following day’s ride. I spent the day, mostly, in my room catching up with blogs and dosing, apart from having a quick walk around the block in the Muslim quarter looking for a cap. The Chinese Muslims are known a Uygurs, pronounced Weegers, and they produce a lot of different goods, from metalwork to silk products and had I felt better I would have enjoyed a slower stroll.

Back at the hotel, I got to thinking about the hotel itself. On the face of it it was a smart modern hotel with a large tiled lobby, air conditioning, a self serve bar in the room, large restaurant, in fact all mod. Cons. Sadly it is, as my Great Auntie Rachel used to say, “All fur coat and no knickers”. The air conditioning didn’t work, the hot water didn’t reach the 21st floor and if you ran the hot water in the shower to try and get some chill taken off the cold then you found the bathroom floor. So whilst the bed may have been comfortable, there was little else to commend it. A shame really as with a little effort it could be so much better.

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