Batang to Kangding

Thoughtful parking by tthe car driverTuesday, 30th June: The ride today was from Batang to Kangding, a ride of some 442 kms. By all accounts, 2 years ago there were a lot of roadworks so, hopefully, not too many bad sections.

We left at 8am and it must be said the initial climb was spoilt by my bike’s ignition light coming on near the bottom of the steep gradient. I was hoping that it was just a faulty switch, as Kevin, Alan and Darran were busy changing Wayne’s rear tyre, which was flat this morning, and they would have therefore taken a while getting to me in the case of a more serious problem.

By the time I neared the top of the mountain my bike had given up the ghost, and I ground to a halt on a rock strewn slope with little to go and examine while I awaited the cavalry. I confess I know little about motorcycle electrics that was likely to be of any use. I was fearing the worst, envisaging the alternator or regulator needing replacing, or burned out wiring requiring some major part to be shipped out and involving substantial work.

Sometimes, making silly assumptions like that can make us (me) look so stupid! In due course, Alan rode up a stopped by my bike. After explaining what happened he immediately said “It sounds like the battery connection”. “I haven’t heard of that coming loose on a ride before” I said, “Ah, but you haven’t done one of these rides before have you!”. Sure enough, Alan was spot on, the negative lead to the battery was very loose and explains why the horn was sounding a bit weird the day before, Lord knows how long it had been like that. A few short seconds later with the short bolt fastened again the bike roared into life and I must confess I planted a smacker in Alan’s cheek!

I was soon revelling in the Tiger’s power again, as it gobbled up mile after mile at over 4,000 metres like the real thing – closing in on a kill after days with no food in it’s belly! It felt so good having gone from near despair at the possible consequences of mechanical breakdown, to sheer joy at it being no problem at all, then ecstasy at the beautiful scenery whilst eating up the miles of long straights and slow curves. Perfect biking roads, fantastic!

That feeling though soon came to an end as we passed our third Chinese Army convoy and neared our destination, only to find that the road was, yet again, under repair. Having had three sections of the pannier carrier welded and the sump guard being held on by zip ties, I am nursing the bike along such sections of road as it sounds somewhere between a rusty bed spring and a metal ball bearing rattling in a tin can. It is a bit frustrating. However, we eventually entered the town, only to find the road down to our hotel was changed to a one way street, the wrong way. Just imagine then, my horror when Garmin told me that it would take another 184 kms to get to the hotel, rather than the 4 kms it should have!

Needless to say, Garmin was wrong. Again. A little bit of creativity, a little bit of riding on the foot pegs, and a little more than the original 4 kilometres, but we arrived. Kangding is virtually two towns in one. We have to ride through the newer part to get to our hotel, which was in the older quarter, fortunately. The new town seems a bit soulless whilst the old quarter is lively with restaurants and nice shops and lots of character.

Sun ripened …

Monday, 29th June: In terms of distance, today was a shortish ride at only 258 kms (about 150 miles). However, there were four different mountain passes, so we had a lot of fun climbing and descending the countless hairpin bends. What was alarming to most of the guys, was that in many places there seemed to be no barrier between the side of the road and the seemingly endless drop into either the Mekong or the Yangze rivers, both of which we crossed today. I did find myself being occasionally worried about the steep drop, but just slowed down until I regained my concentration. Fortunately, we didn’t lose anyone over the side of the road!

Despite the high passes, we are now gradually coming down from the Tibetan plateau and with that comes the warmer weather. For warmer, read hot and sticky! There were three main checkpoints today as we officially left Tibet and entered Sichuan Province. That meant a lot of hanging around while the border officials checked and re-checked our paperwork at every checkpoint.

The end result was that by the time we reached the hotel in Batang, I was ripe for a shower, and I use the term ripe deliberately! However, Murphy’s Law kicked in again and there was a power cut at the hotel when we arrived. Now that in itself wouldn’t have mattered too much had we not been allocated rooms on the 6th floor and the power cut meant no lifts! Consequently a few of us went on strike and cooled down in the lobby over a few cold beers until the power was restored … fortunately before anyone though to call for the fumigation squad to search for the bad smell.

 

Mountain twisties

Beautiful mountain scenerySunday, 28th June: It was a long, hard day’s ride today, to Zougong, with lots of stretches of road under repair. That means lots of dust, detours over rocky roads and avoiding the countless convoys of Chinese Army trucks. I really don’t think there is any significance to the number of convoys, they just like to keep the young “squaddies” busy and it seems nearly every town in Tibet has an army base. I think they use the Army to build the roads in addition to the guys operating the bulldozers and diggers. Hey ho!

After yesterday’s excursion into the mud, Chris Biggs and Throttle John took pity on me and I rode with them. They showed great patience as I took my time over the sections of road with the worst of the surfaces. I am currently still nursing my pannier carriers and my metal sump guard. The latter is being held on by only one of the four brackets and two lengths of zip ties. It has worked for me since Uzbekistan but I need to find something a little more resilient … anyone got a metal coat hanger I could have?!

Speaking of mud, despite standing under the shower in my riding gear yesterday, I am still walking around with clouds of dust coming off my jacket, trousers, gloves and my Camel Pack which is a refillable water carrier. The bike seems to have suffered very little from the experience, although there are a few scratches that weren’t there yesterday morning. It is running very well and I am delighted with it. That said I will need to give it a good once over when we get a fully day’s rest in Chengdu.

More great roadsThe ride itself was along some wonderful mountain roads with real “twisties”, we just have to ride very carefully as, not only did we have to cope with the army convoys, but some rank dangerous driving by idiots in the seemingly endless convoys of white 4 wheel drive cars. Overtaking cyclists or other cars whilst approach blind bends seems almost obligatory to them. Consequently, the horn on my bike has been getting a lot of use and seems to have developed a sore throat! I might have to visit a “Tuk tuk” shop to get a new one! The Tuk Tuk is a curious vehicle which is best described as a cross between a small van and a lawn mower engine. They are slow but reliable and seem to be used for just about everything and the best bit about them is their loud horns.

The one bummer today was that my bullet cam seemed to have packed up and no matter what I couldn’t get it to work. During the day I didn’t have time to pull it to bits to try and sort it out. However, when I eventually did it turned out that the switch to chose either the quality of the video went from 1080p to 720p. Now I always leave it on 1080p as it is a higher quality, and the damned thing was working when I left the hotel in the morning and only stopped after that. However, when I put the switch back to 1080p the video started working again. Trust technology to let you down.

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Line dancing Chinese style in LinzhiSaturday, 27th June: On Friday, we rode from Lhasa to Linzhi, a ride of around 400 kms or 250 miles in old money! It was a nice warm day and the ride was a nice gentle one with beautiful scenery. For the first time in China I actually got stopped at a standard Police checkpoint and asked for my Driving Licence, Passport and vehicle Registration documents, the Chinese ones! It was all very friendly and having seen the documents the next question was “How much is the bike worth?”, in not so good English. The next one was, “Can we have a photo with you?” We do seem to be a bit of an attraction, as they don’t get too many European tourists in the this part of China.

The formalities dealt with, the ride into Linzhi was completed without problems. We had the usual meeting regarding tomorrow’s ride and then it was out for dinner, after which we saw a public Line Dance, Chinese style, before retiring to bed.

Great fun on the twistiesLinzhi itself is a pretty town nestled in the mountains which surround it on all sides. The route out on Saturday was therefore an uphill one and, despite Kevin’s comments about a mix of dirt and tarmac sections of road, it started off with nice tarmac and afforded an opportunity to get a photo of Linzhi from the mountains above. After that things took a downhill turn!

The sections of gravel were ok and good progress was made. However, the road then turned to mud. Now I had said that it was inevitable that I would at some point drop the bike. In fact, I am surprised that it took this long but, sure enough, quite suddenly, the thick mud that passed for mountain road, caught me out and I fell off –  the bike falling towards me. Fortunately, the Trax panniers came to my aid and stopped the bike falling on my leg. I picked myself up and Andre, a South African, who happened to be riding behind me, had virtually picked up my bike before I had put my camera away. I remounted and carried on with nothing worse than a bruised ego.

No not a new paint jobHowever, I wasn’t having a good day of it and a further “off” provided one of the trip’s standout comedy moments. I rode down a short slope toward a huge pool of liquid mud which was at least ankle deep. I took it carefully going down the slope and started across the pool, but had the misfortune to hit a hidden rock which again threw me off to the right. Again the panniers saved me and prevented any physical injury – apart from a stomach ache from laughing so much.

Monster from the muddy deepI was covered from head to foot in a grey / brownish clinging mud which even covered my helmet. This time Wayne was behind me and once we finished laughing we picked up the bike and Wayne took a photo, for posterity, and we carrried on, after using the last of my water in an attempt to clear my visor so I could see where I was going. At the next viewpoint, a number of the riders were already waiting there and I was greeted to howls of laughter, lots of pictures and general good natured mickey taking, after which there was a general inspection of my bike, which was now coated in a dried muddy brown mixture.

Thanks for the smilie ChrisThat said, it was clear that one of my panniers had suffered a split to the bottom, and an inspection revealed that the octane booster I had bought, in case of very poor fuel in remote areas, had suffered a puncture and the liquid had spilt inside the pannier. Murphy’s law dictated that it would be the same pannier that the oil had leaked in earlier in the ride ….. Bugger! With the help of a few baby wipes from Chris. I cleaned my visor sufficiently well to see where I was going.

Having got to Bomi, our destination for the day, we re-fuelled and whilst the others went to the hotel, I went back out of town the way we came in to get the bike jet washed to try and get the mud off. Later, back in the hotel, I came to the conclusion, too late in the day, that I should have been jet washed as well. The next best thing was to get into the shower with my jacket and trousers on and get the mud off as best as I could. It was far from perfect, but better than nothing. The cleaners will certainly have a full cleaning job on their hands when I vacate the room, the mud was drying and falling off everything, my boots, the tank bag, the zips of my jacket and trousers, and as for my merino T shirt base layer, it was caked. I have always believed that if you do something you should do it properly, well, I got properly muddy and didn’t get hurt.

Great stuff!

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!

 

 

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!

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.

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!

 

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.

 

 

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!