Essential maintenance

Wednesday, 8th July: This morning I had intended to do a little maintenance on the bike and clean out the air filter. However, after discussion the highly technical issue of air filters with Darran, one of the Globebusters guys, I decided not to. My K & N air filter needs to have oil added to it, and don’t have any with my, well, not the right type of oil anyway, still it saves me an hour and stops me getting oily fingers.

I went shopping instead for a new camera to replace the one that got nicked in Almaty. I found the model that I wanted but it was 30% more than I can get it online. Now call me tight-fisted, but I’m not paying that so I will wait, either until Beijing or until I get home and buy one there.

As the temperatures are unlikely to drop significantly from now on, I then took the opportunity to post some thermal clothing back home, thereby losing some excess weight from the bike. It also makes some space for the spare parts that have, apparently arrived. This is good news as it is liklely I will need to change the brake pads at some point before getting home and the thought of having to send off for another set of pads had irritated me, just a little. It was galling to think that Brigid had sent them in plenty of time to collect them from the company on the way through Chengdu but that the system had contrived to produce them after we had left there. Consequently, I won’t get them until after the bike has been shipped to the border with Mongolia and I will have to change them some time after that even though I had set aside time to do them in Beijing.

Bugger!

Xian

En route to Xian 3Tuesday, 7th July: Another beautiful ride through great mountain scenery and twisty roads at the start, spoilt only by a stupid error in not parking the bike on the right slope at a view point. The result was that as I started to get off, the bike decided it didn’t like where I parked it so it fell over. Bloody temperamental bugger! Fortunately, no damage, the panniers came to the rescue again.

Glad the timbers on this bridge were newThe nearer we got to Xian, the more the traffic built up and the more road works were going on … and the warmer it got. It was very humid and the only way to cool down was to ride bit quicker, making sure the ventilation zips were undone. Nevertheless, by the time we arrived at the beautiful hotel in Xian on Monday evening, we needed a couple of cold beers to cool us down!

No Al not a good lookThere is a very good street market in the Muslim quarter, only a couple of hundred yards from the hotel and after dinner we took the opportunity to look around it. Despite it being after 9 pm and dark, it was a hive of activity. Presumably the heat of the day discourages people from going out until the cooler evening arrives. That said, cool is relative, especially around this part of China. It was still warm enough to walk around with shorts and still feel hot.

Xian Bell TowerTuesday morning most of us took up the option of a trip to see the Terracotta Army, a couple of hours drive away by coach. The guide, through her heavily accented English, explained the background to the discovery and the reasons the locals set alight to the excavations. It turned out the the government started taxing the locals to pay for the excavations and they didn’t like it so they took action!

It's bigDespite the fascination of the 2000 year old clay soldiers, 4 hours was really more than we needed. It was probably just as well that beer wasn’t available, or we would have needed a few pit stops on the way back to the hotel!

“Offa” a Franco / Irsaeli living in South Africa (and I though I was mixed up!) found a very nice Italian restaurant for the evening as a break from the Chinese food that we would probably be eating over the next few days and the Lasagne and Chianti went down very nicely, thank you.

Onwards and upwards

Monday, 6th July: Having made the decision to ship the bike by train to Irkutsk, I needed to get a crate made – and, for that, I needed to take the bike back to Andre’s warehouse. A frequent criticism from John is that I never have to find my own way anywhere, as I’m always following him. It isn’t quite true, but he has a point. I’ve never liked or trusted GPS and haven’t, up until now, had to use my new unit. But how hard could it be?

Not at all hard, as it happened. In fact, I arrived early, on the basis that I needed to visit a bank. I asked Andre if there was one nearby. Andre speaks no English, but he understood my lousy Russian well enough. Unfortunately, here’s where I have a problem with these audio learn-any-language-in-a-matter-of-hours-type courses, they never, ever, give you anything like enough practice with comprehension. So, although there might, very possibly, have been a bank within walking distance of Andre’s warehouse, I would never have understood Andre’s directions to find it. Lack of communication is a dispiriting experience and, in the case of Russian, one that I hope to remedy.

Cling Film CocoonAndre sighed and pointed to a couple of wooden pallets that had been fixed together to make a bike-sized platform. A hole had been cut in the top to hold the front wheel. Andre motioned for me to ride the bike onto it. Apart from removing the panniers, that was the end of my input. Within minutes, his team had strapped the bike down and removed the windscreen and mirrors. The panniers and tent were wedged in place beside the bike, and a couple of unsuccessful attempts were made to syphon the remaining fuel from the tank. Then the entire bike was wrapped in several layers of cling film, giving the appearance that it had been trapped in a cocoon by some monstrous alien being. The crate itself was then built around the bike using lengths of timber around the sides and two more joined pallets for the top. Then more cling film.

LoadingWith immaculate timing, Maxim arrived with his truck just as the crate was being finished. It was loaded on board and we took it straight to the freight depot … via a bank!

I changed the last of our Euros, giving me 20,300 Roubles which, on the basis that the bike freight, passenger ticket and motel would all be paid for by credit card, and allowing for the money I owed Andre for the crate, should have given me plenty of cash to see me to Ulaanbaatar. Should have.

We arranged for the bike to leave on Thursday, with a scheduled arrival in Irkutsk on Monday 13th. The plan was that I should leave on Tuesday and take a couple of days break somewhere along the way.

The bike was unloaded from the truck and weighed and then ‘inspected’ for any signs of fuel in the tank. If there had been any doubt as to the integrity of Andre’s crate, now would have been the acid test. One railway worker jumped on top of the crate and put his ear to the cover, while two or three others rocked the crate back and forth in the expectation of being able to hear any fuel slopping about. Nothing. So a hole was punched in the outer wrapping so that they could tap on the fuel tank. Zilch. There had, in fact, been too little fuel left in the bike to syphon – a tiny quantity that I illustrated to Maxim between my thumb and index finger. “Don’t show me your fingers,” he said quietly, “I don’t want to be here all afternoon!”

Forms were filled and a (discounted) price was agreed: 20,200 Roubles. I reached for my credit card. Nope. They don’t take credit cards … So I handed over the cash and was back to square one. The whole transaction was friendly and helpful and was wound up by the clerk writing the address and telephone number of the receiving depot in Irkutsk on a Post-It note, which she handed to me with a business card. This brings me onto another issue I have with audio-only language courses. How the Hell are you supposed to find your way about or order from a menu, if you can’t read the language?

In fact, I don’t have a problem with printed text or signage, as I taught myself to pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet back in 2011, on our first trip to Moscow – and many words, even if you can’t speak Russian, are so close in their pronunciation that you can often hazard a guess at their meaning. However, the railway clerk’s hand-written note posed a new problem. Russian print and Russian handwriting bear very little resemblance to one another!

With my onward travel plans quickly beginning to crystalise, I needed to buy myself a passenger ticket and do a bit of shopping. Maxim dropped me off at Yaroslavskaya station and left me to my own devices.

I cashed some money at the ATM by the entrance and bought a mobile SIM from the Megafon kiosk in the main hall. Then I joined the queue for tickets.

Russians don’t do queues; not as we British know them anyway. There were only two people in front of me when I arrived, but as the ticket-issuing process dragged on, more people crowded in to see what was causing the delay. Short of whacking the lot of them on the back of the legs with my stick, there was very little I could do about it. Eventually, three or four people were served ahead of me and then, just as I arrived at the window, the cashier signalled that he was off for his tea break. I cursed under my breath and moved to the next window, where the routine began again.

Every ticket took about 15 minutes to issue so, unsurprisingly, everyone in the queue was impatient. At last, the old man in front of me reached the cashier. He explained what he wanted and presented his passport and money. The cashier reached for it, only to be interrupted by a young woman who had pushed in from the left. She bellowed at the cashier, and shoved her money and documentation under the screen. The old man complained feebly and grabbed his money and passport back. The cashier was unmoved by the girl’s lack of manners and dealt with her ticket with the same lack of urgency with which she dealt with everyone else’s.

The old man was next and then, at last, it was my turn. I took a deep breath and prepared to explain myself. A young man who had been bobbing about impatiently to my right looked as if he were about to wet himself. Though my left leg was now beginning to ache from standing, he clearly considered that his time was more valuable than mine. I asked, in my best Russian, whether he thought was likely to be quicker than me – which, of course, he did. So I said “Pashalsta” and waved him through. Some gangly-looking Herbert at the back of the queue decided he might also try his luck, but he got a swift, and rather fierce, “Niet!”

However, it seems, although I didn’t intend it that way, that one good turn really does deserve another. So, having failed to impress the cashier with Google Translate on my phone, an English-speaking student came to my rescue. In surprisingly short order, I was leaving the station with a one-way ticket to Omsk, a destination picked at random for no better reason than it was approximately half-way to Irkutsk.

Biblio GlobusThe complete train journey to Irkutsk was going to take four days, even without the two nights in Omsk, and I was going to need something to occupy me. Here was a God-given opportunity to learn Russian handwriting. So I caught the Metro to Lubyanka station, where I found Biblio-Globus, one of Moscow’s biggest bookstores, and bought myself a child’s handwriting primer and Petrov’s Basic Training Course; Russian in 16 Lessons.

Back at the motel, I repacked my bags ready for the following morning and, having had a bit of a snooze, ventured out for dinner at the Honky Tonk bar. I hadn’t intended to stay out late, as I hadn’t been sleeping very well, but I was joined first by Dmitry Khitrov, then by a Spanish rider, Ricardo, and lastly by Maxim, who all took great delight in teasing me for my choice of Omsk as a staging post. Ricardo regaled us with stories from previous rides and amused Dmitry and Maxim with his rendition of a Georgian folk song which, though his seeming fluency in Russian impressed me, was apparently delivered with a thick Spanish accent! Fuelled by nothing more potent than tea and hot fruit cordials, we chatted and laughed until well after midnight.

Childhood revisited

ATVLessonSunday, 5th July: Knowing I would otherwise be alone in Moscow for the weekend, Maxim very kindly invited me to spend it with his family at his dacha. I’ll admit I was a bit worried, as his English is good but, as far as I knew, his wife and children have none at all – so I would be hard work for Maxim and probably a bit of a nuisance to everyone else. But he assured me it would be fine and, anyway, he had bought himself a fishing boat and could do with some help.

Perhaps I should say something about “dachas” before continuing. The dacha is a uniquely Russian concept. You often hear about Russian politicians escaping to their dachas for the summer, so you might be inclined to think that I had been invited to some sort of luxury country pad. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This article explains that, during the 60’s, the government allowed every Russian to claim a small plot of land and build a ‘summer house’, for leisure and/or for raising their own fruit and vegetables.

A taxi collected me from the motel on Saturday morning and I arrived at Maxim’s Moscow home to find him hooking up the “fishing boat” to his 6-wheel V8 Ford truck, onto which he had already loaded an appropriately muscular-looking ATV quad bike. His wife, Valeria, and children, Max2 and Dascha, and their Yorkie dog, occupied the bone-jarring back seat, leaving me the (infinitely) more comfortable front passenger seat. I didn’t argue. We stopped to pick up food and fuel and were quickly on our way.

Maxim’s dacha, on the banks of the Volga River, about 100 miles north of Moscow, doesn’t quite measure up to the picture-postcard image from the article. Bought over an internet auction, it comprises about a hectare of land in the middle of a forest, on which stand the dilapidated remains of a railway workers’ holiday resort. Our journey was slightly delayed by traffic to Russia’s answer to the Glastonbury Festival. Traffic stopped while hordes of pedestrians, already in varying states of intoxication and undress, trooped to and from the car park, blocking the route to the ferry.

Once over the river, the tarmac ran out and the road became sand until we suddenly turned off into a field, where the only evidence of traffic was a pair of ATV tracks disappearing into a thick wood – and we were in a vast SUV-type truck, towing a 20’ boat! We had to wind the windows up to stop the tree branches slapping us in the face and populating the cab with bugs and spiders! The trail passed two or three ramshackle flat-roofed buildings. Maxim smiled and said “This is where you are sleeping.” I nodded and smiled back. “You think I am joking”, he said, and paused before adding, still smiling, “I’m not.”

He wasn’t. The place did, in fact, have windows at the front, but no electricity or running water and consisted of two rooms with several beds in each. Maxim’s family took one room and I got the huge ‘kitchen’ and a choice of 6 single day beds/sofas.

But, first things first, the most important thing was to get the boat in the water. There were a few other families with boats at the river bank, so there were plenty of men around, only too pleased to help launch Maxim’s shiny new speed boat. No matter that no one seemed to have the first clue what they were doing. As with everything this weekend, it was all good humoured and there was a lot of laughter. Despite having been brought up around power boats, sailing dinghies are more my thing recently but, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King!

One of the guys pushed us off the shore and threw the painter rope back into the boat, while Maxim tried to start it. He looked to the crew, but I couldn’t help. We drifted out. The other men started shouting instructions from the shore. A phone call was made to the previous owner and, after a couple of minutes, the engine burbled to life. With no further ado, Maxim opened the throttle and we sped off up river for a few practice runs before coming back to collect the family. Valeria and Dascha didn’t seem wild about the boat to start with, but Max2 loved it, “Buistra, Papa! Buistra!”

I don’t think I’ve been in a powerboat of any kind since long before my father died in 1982. The boat, thumping across the slightly choppy water at speed, brought back so many happy memories. I wondered whether the fact that I was a) used to the motion of a powerboat, and b) clearly enjoying it, helped Valeria relax a bit … even if Dascha continued to cling to her like a limpet!

We stopped to let the children play on a little artificial island that was being used commercially for the extraction of sand. It wasn’t hard to imagine the excitement for a small boy, arriving by boat on the shores of a giant sandcastle. All he needed was a cutlass and a Jolly Roger flag! I had completely lost track of time, but was vaguely aware of lengthening shadows. I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it had already gone 7pm. Valeria signalled that it was time to light the barbeque back at base.

Railway ResortThis was my first proper look at our accommodation. Behind the featureless backs of the ramshackle buildings we had seen on the way to the riverbank, there were a dozen or so other small wooden houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Bembridge Forelands. They were rather charming in a dilapidated sort of a way, but terribly overgrown with nettles, shrubs and small saplings. There were also some rusty children’s swings and a little playground roundabout. When Maxim bought the land, he understood that the buildings had been abandoned for about 10 years but, in fact, there were three or four other families using them. He greeted everyone like an old friend, but confessed he hadn’t a clue who most of them were.

A rusty metal box on wobbly legs was retrieved from the undergrowth and filled with charcoal, twigs, broken roof shingles, and any other combustible material, onto which barbeque fuel was liberally sprinkled, creating a reasonably-sized inferno. We applied mosquito repellent and opened some slightly warm bottled beer and white wine and waited for the charcoal to reach cooking temperature. Dinner consisted of barbequed marinated chicken pieces, ‘cakes’, bread, tomatoes and cheese, and the obligatory cold tea. By 10pm, we were all exhausted and I retired to my dormitory room, where I chose one of two beds that appeared to have been made up with sheets and a blanket. It had a thin, slightly hollow, mattress, and I slept like a log.

On Sunday morning, I was woken at 6.30am by movements in the room next door, which sounded as if some sort of breakfast was being prepared. I don’t know Maxim terribly well, and had no idea whether they might be early risers. In any event, I didn’t want to be the annoying guest who one is forever having to wait for, so I thought I’d better get up. I gave myself a bit of a wash with baby wipes and got dressed. I was well and truly awake by the time I realised that there was another family in the adjoining part of the building. Maxim and his family were still fast asleep and the other buildings were quiet, so I took advantage of my solitude to visit the outhouse. Mercifully, faced with a smelly, dark, spider-infested ‘dunny’, my normally all-too-regular plumbing had gone into emergency shut-down mode, and I could only manage a pee.

Breakfast consisted of tea or coffee, croissants, small doughnut-like cakes, and the leftover sausages from last night’s dinner. We didn’t waste much time on it, as there were more important things to do. Max2 was clearly wanting a ride on the ATV, so it was unloaded from the truck. He’s too young to use it on his own, of course, but that doesn’t prevent him sitting astride it twisting the handlebars and making revving noises – much as you would expect from any small boy.

Valeria wanted mushrooms, so the two Maxims were delegated to collect them. I haven’t yet mentioned that I am still using a stick, as walking any distance is still a bit of an effort. Maxim asked me whether I could ride the ATV. “Err, no”, I said. “There is first time”, he said, to which I couldn’t argue, and he gave me a 30-second run-down of the controls. Max2 gleefully jumped aboard and pushed the starting button, at which point I suggested to Maxim that maybe taking his son and heir for a ride on my first attempt might not be altogether safe. He agreed and asked Max2 to get down.

At this point, I really must mention that Max2 is one of the nicest, most unselfish, children I’ve ever met. There had been absolutely no doubt that what he wanted, more than anything else, was for Papa to give him a ride on the ATV – and, once it was unloaded from the truck, he must have been sure that he was going to get one. In my limited experience, almost any other child his age would have gone into meltdown, but not Max2. He and Maxim set off down the track on foot, while I took a first test run to the riverbank on the ATV.

On my way back, Maxim directed me to turn left onto an almost invisible trail through thick woodland and told me to follow it to the creek. Well, I’m guessing that most people would learn to handle an ATV riding in circles, graduating to figures-of-eight, in a safe open space. Not me. I found myself riding up and down steep dips and ducking under branches, and having to reverse every now and again to manoeuvre around fallen branches and other obstacles. I quickly got used to the machine, but not without a few ‘oh shit’ moments! The small bridge over the creek was broken so we made our way back to the trail, coming across a patch of tiny wild strawberries on our way. We collected as many as we could find and I was dispatched back to base with the haul, while the two Maxims went to find some mushrooms for Mama.

Actually, the strawberries weren’t quite sweet enough to appeal to the children, leaving all the more for the grown-ups, but the mushrooms were spectacular in anyone’s book.

Initially, the children hadn’t known quite what to make of me – this strange foreign woman who doesn’t understand anything! Dascha was overcome with shyness at any hint of eye contact, but Max2 seemed relatively at ease with the whole idea … until I tried out my three or four Russian words, which completely threw him! My saving grace was my folding walking stick, which Max2 found a dozen uses for: Jedi light sabre, Pirate’s cutlass, Samurai sword, Gondolier’s oar… Maxim said, rather apologetically, that Max2 was a “very active” boy, but I didn’t find him abnormally so. He’s a polite and thoughtful child, and always gave my stick straight back if I asked. He took a shine to my camera too, so I let him try it out.

Later, Maxim asked me if I had a shortened ‘familiar’ version of my name and suggested “Biddy”. I had to laugh. I don’t think he could have possibly known how appropriate a nickname that would have been, given that most ‘old biddies’ in the UK have flowery folding walking sticks, just like mine. Maxim explained that Max2 wanted to call me “Aunt Biddy”. Old biddy or not, I couldn’t have been more flattered.

Gone fishinWe took the boat to a local restaurant for lunch, after which I was expecting that we would drive back to Moscow. Instead, we went back to our riverbank, where the children learned to swim in their life jackets. Max2 did, anyway. Dascha was true to type. Papa led her into the shallow water, where she splashed about a bit until she decided it was too cold. Then she ran back to the safety of Mama. Maxim then waded out to supervise Max2’s swimming lesson, only for Dascha to race back into the water shouting “Papa, Papa!” So Maxim would leave Max2 and offer his hand to Dascha, who would then scream “Niet, Niet!” and rush back to Mama. I’m sure parents everywhere will recognise this routine.

Eventually, it was time to pack up and head back to the City … or so I thought. For it was now about 5pm, well after lunchtime, and I was aware that drive back into Moscow would be particularly dire with thousands of festival goers adding to the normal weight of Sunday traffic. But no, another picnic was laid out: more bread and cakes and the reheated remains of last night’s barbequed chicken. Then we cleared away the debris, packed up our things and prepared to lock up the house. But there was one important thing left to do. Before he loaded the ATV back into the truck, Maxim took Max2 for a quick spin around the woods.

Both children slept soundly in the back seat of the truck all the way back to Moscow. The weekend had been a magical experience for me, like taking a step back 40 years into my childhood. I really can’t thank Maxim and his family enough for making me feel so welcome.

Civilisation!

Guangyuan hotelSaturday, 5th July: Our stay in Chengdu came to an end with a 360 kilometre ride to Guangyuan, the majority of which had to be done on the one tank of fuel. It was doable, but a bit of a worry nonetheless. The countryside is much greener now and the roads still have a few high areas with some good bends on the hills and mountains. That said, there will be more and more built up areas the nearer we get to Beijing. It makes the riding less enjoyable and we certainly have to keep our wits about us with some of the other road users seemingly suicidal, and I certainly include the pedestrians in that comment!

We arrived at the hotel around the 5pm mark. It was another very smart and comfortable hotel, and I could certainly get used to this comfort. It seems the “homestays” are now far behind us but the memory of them makes us appreciate the better hotels even more. We were left with time for a shower and a brief wander around town before our 7pm daily briefing on tomorrow’s ride. It was then time for a bit to eat and an early night for another 350 kilometre ride on Saturday.

Despite dire warnings from Kevin on the humidity and heat, we have been lucky so far. It hasn’t really got too hot yet, but I am sure it won’t last. Sunday’s ride was another mix of mountain twisty roads and built up areas. We made good progress until we were stopped by some local police with warnings about roadworks on a bridge ahead. The only alternative route was via an Expressway, or motorway, but motorcycles are not allowed on them. We took our chances and, after 10 minutes or so, found the bridge, which had been newly laid with a dry concrete mix and had been covered with some cloth coverings to protect it. That, however, wasn’t the problem. It appears that a lorry driver delivering a load of girders and metal slabs for the bridge had got fed up waiting and just tipped them all over the road, blocking it completely. A team of workers were being very industrious in trying to clear them up, but they were heavy and had to be moved in a logical order to avoid a collapse of the “higgledy piggledy” pile. Fortunately motorcycles don’t need much space to get through, but it was still an hour or so before enough space was created for us to escape the log-jam. The roads either side of the blockage were very sandy with recent rains bringing a lot of sand down from the surrounding hills. The roads were also wet with rain and drizzle while we road along, so great care was needed to avoid coming off.

Selecting my meal from this tank in Guangyuan did not appealThe hotel, in Fo Ping, was comfortable enough – although not up to the standard of the previous day or so and internet access was even worse than usual. The Chinese authorities are well known for blocking certain websites and their electronic censorship has the effect of slowing everything down to a rate which makes practical use of the internet very difficult. We ate in Chinese restaurant next to hotel being the apparent best option in a small town.

On the road again

Friday, 3rd July: Ok. It’s about time I started my own version of events. I arrived back in Moscow on Thursday, with the intention of leaving on my own Trans-Siberian adventure on Saturday.

A taxi arrived on Friday morning to reunite me with my bike, which has been stored in a warehouse on the East side of town. I arrived to find that Andre had already rolled it outside and it was waiting there, with the keys in the ignition, ready for me to ride away. Or not, as it turned out.

Somehow, over the 9 weeks or so that it has been in Moscow, the battery had run completely flat. There wasn’t even enough charge left to illuminate the instruments. Nothing. Nada. We lifted the tank and tried to jump start the bike, but the Odyssey battery didn’t want to know. Mercifully, at this point, the cavalry arrived in the form of Maxim, who made a quick phone call and, 10 minutes later, Denis arrived.

After unsuccessfully trying to jump start the bike himself, Denis declared the battery unsalvageable and said that there really was nothing else for it but to buy a new one. Seeing that everything was now in hand, Maxim left to attend to a licensing issue at the Police station, while Denis and I went to find a suitable battery.

The new battery was a traditional wet cell type, requiring the addition of electrolyte to start the chemical reaction. Denis didn’t have any … but he knew a man who did. So we waited outside on the street for another knight in shining armour to arrive – this time on an earsplittingly-loud Harley Davidson chopper. A suspicious brown-looking liquid was produced from a pannier. Denis sniffed it. After a brief discussion, this new hero was sent on his way to buy a new bottle, while Denis and I made small talk in a halting combination of English and Russian, aided by my (woefully inadequate) beginners’ dictionary.

Denis bought some sausage rolls and water for lunch, and the day wore on as we waited, first for the electrolyte, and then for the battery to cool and the volatile gases to dissipate.

At last, the battery was fitted and the bike started. This was my moment of truth. Despite confidently assuring everyone that I was perfectly fine to ride the bike, I was all too aware that I was taking a bit of a gamble as I manoeuvred out of the warehouse and onto the Moscow streets.

It was now about 5pm and I still had to get the new set of Heidenau tyres fitted. On any other day of the week, I would not have bothered. There was a fair amount of tread left in the Tourances and our original intention was that John and I would change our tyres in Astrakhan. However, what with one thing and another, I simply didn’t want to be carrying the new tyres with me across Siberia and, given the sort of roads that John encountered on his ride south to Kazakhstan, the Heidenaus seemed a better choice for Siberia than part-worn street tyres.

By the time I got back to the motel, it was 7pm. I was hot and exhausted, and it was more or less a foregone conclusion that I wouldn’t be going anywhere on Saturday. I texted Maxim to let him know where I was and to say that I was now open to the idea of shipping the “Yellow Submarine” by train. It transpired that Maxim had spent an equally frustrating day at the cop shop and his reply – not aimed at me – contained some impressive usage of English vernacular! We agreed to meet up later at the Night Train to make a plan.

Giant (and not so giant) Pandas!

Fully grownFriday, 3rd July: Thursday morning was a bit of a lie in for me and then looking after laundry and sundry other boring stuff. The afternoon gave us an opportunity to have a quick look around the city and have a bite to eat before heading to a Chinese Opera, the highlight of which was a very clever part of the show whereby the characters, who were wearing facemasks, contrived to change from one mask to another instantaneously. Although we think we guessed how it was done it was nonetheless a very clever show, but one and a half hours was definitely long enough.

New baby PandaFriday morning we had an excursion to see the Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Research Centre, and were fortunate to see one tiny Panda that was less than 1 month old and so had not developed his black patches. He was being looked after in an incubator and was really sweet. The others were active enough despite the heavy rain and I certainly enjoyed the experience.

The afternoon was taken up preparing our bikes, and in my case my Garmin, for more miles tomorrow. I can do without getting lost again tomorrow, well, not lost exactly as we knew where we were, we just couldn’t find the right way to get to the hotel! In defence of Norman and myself, Chengdu is China’s 8th biggest city with a population of 14 million, so taking a little longer than planned to find the hotel wasn’t so bad, and at least I wasn’t last. Sorry Norman!

Chengdu

Wednesday, 1st July: Today we were due to go to Mount Emie, a World Heritage Site and a sacred Buddhist site. However, following a tunnel collapse, the route to get there was a lot longer than it should have been and the decision was made to go straight to Chengdu, where we were due to stay for two nights from Thursday. The result was a longer day’s ride than we should have had, but an extra day’s stop in Chengdu.

Due to the collapsed tunnel our route, of necessity, took us south before swinging North East to Chengdu. I left our overnight stop first, with Norman, and despite yet more road works and diversions, made good progress. Initially. I took it easy over a mountain roads covered with uneven concrete, taking care of my pannier mounts. All was going well and we were scheduled to arrive at the hotel in Chengdu around 6pm.

Chengdu CityHowever, on approaching the city, Norman and I compared notes as to the routes our Garmins had suggested. Despite feeding in exactly the same co-ordinates, the routes and distances were completely different, mine being half as long again as Norman’s. We therefore decided to follow his. Suffice it to say it took hours to actually get the 12 miles or so to the hotel and very near the end Norman and I somehow got separated, so I arrived 5 minutes or so ahead of him after over 12 hours riding – two hours longer than it should have taken.

Bar area downtown ChengduThe rest of the guys, Kevin and Darran excepted, had gone into town to the Irish Pub called the Shamrock. A quick shower and change saw the three of us following suit, while Norman chose to chill out in the hotel. Needless to say, my arrival in the pub brought a huge, good natured, ironic cheer from the gang. I coped with a couple of Guinnesses but it can’t compete with the quality of Guinness at home and, in order to preserve my taste buds, switched beers.

All in all a frustrating day, but if everything went smoothly it wouldn’t be an adventure would it?