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?

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!