Most of the group have met a few days before the border and on the morning of our entry Micha and Martina arrive too and away we go .
The departure from Mongolia is slightly chaotic, we got exact instructions of Paul from Chinaoverland as to what kind of documents we will need to be given at the Mongolian side of the border – only - the Mongols seem to have no idea what we want and so it takes forever until that is sorted. Then they try to charge the passengers 1000 Turic for the exit stamp but we have no more Mongolian money and also don’t see why we should pay this. Eventually they get tired of discussing the matter and (bloody) wave us through.
We finally have everything together and are facing the Chinese border. What a difference! Everything is clean, clear and orderly. We are asked to leave the vehicles at one side and are herded into the building for the passport control. You could get lost in the vast arrivals hall which could easily cope with cross-border traffic as exists between Mexico and the USA but the ratio of passport control officer to arriver is 1 to 1. Here Frank awaits us (I 'm sure he has a different name but the Chinese who are dealing with foreigners choose Western names for themselves. Either sounding similar to their real name or just one they like. How this is with Frank I have never found out). He takes care of all immigration formalities. Most of it he has probably sorted prior to our arrival. They take pictures of the drivers and already we have the first problem: on the Mongolian border Kevin was cited as the vehicle owner in the export form the vehicle registration certificate is stating me as owner though . The first small problem and Frank is acting already slightly miffed but he can somehow sort it and we get waved through. Now follows the customs check. The bikes are seemingly of little interest but Martina’s car is being scrutinized. One finds a map of China and there is a big fuss because Taiwan is on it. They want to confiscate the map but Martina solves the problem by snatching a pair of scissors and cutting out Taiwan - the pages in her Lonely Planet which report on Taiwan she has to tear out too. We find all this a bit ridiculous but rules are rules and then we wait until we can finally leave the border. We are required by the new regulations to stay in a particular hotel for foreigners - our vehicles are not yet released for China and we also still need our Chinese license plates and driver's licenses.
The hotel is part of the customs authority – now make of this what you like!
Well the room costs 20 € for the night and we even allegedly have Internet access in the rooms (just not a working one)
We’re all hungry now and our guide takes us to a street vendor of delicious pies . The poor guy is now trying to satisfy 9 people with different desires, wishes and priorities. We are still hungry, Martina seeks an internet cafe, Johan a phone card and Petra an I-phone-shop and so on and so on. At 6 pm the guy with the license plates and driver's licenses arrives - what a pity there are only laminated cards that we should carry with us - and I thought we get a real license plate! Well never mind at least everyone gets their own Chinese driver's license.
In the evening we try Chinese street food for the first time – it’s still sheep but definitely with Asian spices and we are all very happy ( all my dreams - spun in the Kazakh desert come true: delicious China food) - you can even drink their Tsingtao beer (brewed to German recipe). And after dinner the first fireworks - another prejudice come true: the Chinese really love their fireworks and on our long journey we will see quite a few of them. Erenhot is a fairly new city -very clean and modern. I am taken by the transport bikes and am immediately making plans on how I can get one through the German MOT. I have already some good ideas about what I'm going to do with it .... but that would now go too far.
throws us a little off track (remember, we all just came from Mongolia) is the crossing of roads. Everywhere are scooters, motorcycles and bicycles with all sorts of trailers and they all have an
electric motor - you cannot hear them and they appear seemingly out of nowhere . Our guide clucks like a hen he 's got to protect nine individualists
from the consequences of their curiosity and we are like a bag of fleas with each moving in a different directions and he can not quite believe that
we could somehow possibly cope without the translator. Well - we will teach him that one soon enough.
We spend more than half of the next day in Erenhot waiting for the deposit for our vehicles to be paid and then we get the permission to start our journey. Finally all formalities are sorted and off we go. We are still in the Chinese part of the Gobi. It is rather flat and not many people live here. Along the road they have put up hundreds of plastic dinosaurs and we only make just about a hundred kilometers until we have to stop because it’s getting dark. We find a large open field along the road where we can set up camp and Frank our guide prophesies us that from here on we will only rarely find a space to camp from now on because there are just too many people out there in China.
The next day we head towards Beijing slowly it is starting to get hilly and somewhat Chinese looking. For the first time we get lost in a huge construction site which has thrown Frank as it was not here the last time when he went this way. All around us are new high-rise blocks all identical with apartments for a hundred thousand people - all empty and a new road network under construction, We all squeeze through a gap in a pile of soil that is dumped on the new road ( Holfords of course, are the only ones who get stuck here) and find around the next corner the ramp that leads on the right road.
After a while we need to refuel for the first time and are very surprised to find out that we are not allowed to drive directly to the pump – they want us to fill our tanks with small jugs (Hello! Our tank holds 45 L, and the pot 5 ). Supposedly there is a law banning motorcycles to refuel directly at the pumps as Chinese bikes have a tendency to spontaneously burst into flames - but they don’t have as big tanks as we have and after some discussions, they ask Martina to take her Toyota and park it in front of the camera while we refuel , so the gas station owners won’t get in trouble if he allows us to fill up at the pump ..... We find the whole thing quite amusing .
day is intended to make miles and we keep riding until the evening and it's getting dark again before we stop somewhere in the evening to discuss
whether we are looking for a hotel, or a spot to camp. The area is completely built up but Frank insists that his boss has told him we can camp here - unfortunately by now it’s completely dark
and we can see nothing anymore and so we stand by the roadside and discuss whether we drive back through the traffic chaos of the last city or not when a guy asks us what problem we have. He
finally offers us to set up our tents on a construction site where he is a night watchman.
It comes to the first expressions of discontent . Some ( early risers ) would rather be on the road for 6 am already so we can stop earlier in the evening , others find it hard enough at 8o’ clock to be not only awake but also packed and ready to ride (with brushed teeth and at least one cup of coffee before taking down the tent, etc.) and because we have more slow starters than early risers in the group 8 clock is the really earliest compromise that we all can agree to - quite frankly I cannot see myself doing an early shift for the next 30 days ..... . We also define that the latest time to stop should be 6 pm so that we can still put up our tents in the light.
Our third day takes us to the Great Wall and Beijing. Martina asks cautiously if we cannot go to another place on the Great Wall which is not quite as touristy and crowded, but Frank dismisses this idea immediately because this would be too far from our route and the itinerary would be jeopardized. So we resign to take our obligatory photos on the wall - along with thousands of Chinese and other tourists. The view is quite limited and Beijing seems to be in a bubble of haze- even though our guide assures us that there is no smog here this time of year ........ hmm the vapor cloud will probably be a mirage - finally, the Gobi desert is not so far from here.
After ticking off the Wall we head for Beijing . We are only allowed to use the outermost 5 of 10 ring roads with the bikes and the skies open up to a rain shower and within a very short time almost all of us are drenched right down to the underwear ( we definitely were because for a couple of weeks the zippers of our two motorcycle jackets do not close anymore) after reaching the fifth ring road. Here we have to leave the highway and it is once again very late and already dark and it turns out that our guide has no idea where we are going to stay. So far, the devil has indeed not killed him - he always had some excuse but when he is asked about shortcomings he gets defensive and tries to tell us that we should be happy that we have him , after all he is the best guide in all China and we would be completely lost without him .... I wonder if he has an idea of how you can travel through some of the largest countries in the world and still although they all use strange languages and scripts find the way without a babysitter.
- we find a hotel and Frank disappears to our relief in his room. We decide to try the restaurant next door. It is a difficult task but we get a menu
with pictures to help with choosing the foods. When the meals are brought to the table some get not what they ordered and so we try to sort out what
went wrong - the restaurant owners get Frank from the hotel to clarify the misunderstandings with the longnoses and we learn Martina got a different soup, because this one tastes better than the
one she ordered and Kevin's dish is another because he wanted to eat something that is too spicy for him in the staff 's view !
The next day we go sightseeing in the city by metro - first to the Summer Palace ,then Tian Amen Square with the Forbidden City and the Huton , one of the oldest quarters in the city and in the end to the night market where the Chinese have made a great effort to present the most exotic food and to serve all the prejudices of tourists - there is everything from starfish to sea horse to silkworm, spider and scorpion and the reproductive organs of various animal species, everything but normal food - Kev of course, is making a joke of it to shock delicate minds so he eats a fried spider ( the thing is really neither nutritious nor large enough to justify the high price of 10 € , but I suppose it was worth it to him ) Men just have to play the big bad macho every now and then!.
Beijing however is for everyone in the group a pleasant surprise : we all thought it would be much more intrusive , with lots of traffic , dirt and noise - but somehow it turns out that we have landed in a very modern metropolitan city that is used to tourists and radiates a sense of calm and stress-free space. We walk through the city center can easily cross large intersections and the driving is really orderly when compared to even some German cities I recall.
The next day we have for us - no guide, no program - cool. Johan wants a tattoo as a lasting memory of this trip, I would like to buy a new camera because I have realized that while I cannot break my camera it also does not really take great pictures of our adventure either (only sometimes with a stroke of luck ) . So we mutually decide to go into town and just to try achieve these goals .
The subway system is just awesome and you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to understand it. We look at a few tattoo studios on the internet and it's no problem to find our way here with the help of smart phone and the underground. We take the city by the horns and even if the first address is a failure we still find just the right place and spontaneously I decide that I will also leave Beijing with a permanent souvenir. Of course, the whole process takes again a lot longer than expected after hours of masochistic torture ( in which I am reminded painfully why I actually never wanted to have another tattoo ) it has become night when we are done and there is no will left to do anything not to seek for cameras or anything else so we just catch the subway back to the hotel and it turns out it was the last one anyway. But now the last restaurant has just been shut and we have to fall into bed hungry ..... after all ..... I was tattooed in the same place as Nicolas Cage by the boss herself – not many people can say that (except Johan, who was needled by the master of the art who also colored Mr. Cage) ?
The next day we leave Beijing and would have been leaving it relatively quickly behind us was it not for the fact that I realize after one kilometer, that my camera is gone. I get the whole party to stop, go back to the hotel. I turn the place on its head - to no avail. We drive on I cannot make any more pictures, even though we are now riding under blue skies and sunshine in the mountains and are able to enjoy magnificent sandstone landscape. It looks gorgeous here, with Chinese pagodas strewn about picturesquely. After a photo stop our Liza will not start and it seems as if the battery is empty - we push start her which works for a few miles and then suddenly nothing works anymore .... Alternator problems! With the car we load the battery for a while this gives us enough juice for about 30 km and we try to find a workshop on the way. The motorcycle garages along the road are quite useless they know what to do with the local small 2 stroke bikes and so we eventually end up being towed to the provincial capital – the only good thing this day is that Kev finds our camera in his trouser pocket ! Yes he survived it but only because I have other concerns at the moment.
The next day we reach the city, ask at various workshops for help, until we find a kind of Chinese Bosch service and with the local expertise and some help from the workshop manual the error is found - a break in the wiring of the rotor and is soldered - it costs us 80 yuan (10, - € ) and now the alternator produces a charging current , just not enough to drive with lights on - but at least when we drive without it everything works alright. But this we only find out when we have an empty battery again after having driven with our lights on.
The mountains through which we drive consist of either very loose sand stone or relatively firm mud ( all depends on how you look at it ) and we pass through villages where the houses are dug into the ground - guess this is a super insulation both in summer and in winter.
Our next destination is the historic city of Pingyao . The old town is surrounded by a high city wall and even though it’s quite touristy it is also very beautiful and full of historic buildings. We stay in a guest house in the old town . Tourists here are only allowed stay in certain hotels - for their safety we are being told because supposedly once an American has taken her own life in a ( cheap ) hotel just outside the old town. I do not understand the logic in this, unless one has staffed the accommodations of the old town with especially psychiatrically trained personnel ? The next day we may explore the city on your own and are delighted .
one, it is hard to be in such a large group all the time and we are not necessarily friends of travelling to a program and our Chinese guide, who
tells us constantly that he is the best guide in all of China is starting to go on our nerves - we have found that he actually is only good for translating and even that is difficult because he
often does not understand what we say to him (which he justifies by having learned American English and we talk English English and too fast) he has
very little to say when we ask him questions on buildings , customs or historical events . In the coming days while we head in the direction of
Xi an we also have to realize to our displeasure, that Frank is totally useless with his navigation system, and we get lost again and again thanks to
this fact. Once this proves to be our good fortune though as we are on the main road through one of the Chinese industrial areas and the place lookes
worse than London in its worst days of industrial revolution and coal fires. Everything is clogged with trucks, we are progressing slowly and the air
is full of coal dust that settles everywhere. If the visors are down, we see almost nothing because the dust has crept between the two layers of the
visor when it is open , we are black within a very short time and cough lungs out. Overtaking is difficult, we have too many vehicles in order to
stay together in the dense traffic. Then Frank gets tangled up with his navigation system and we find ourselves on a little-traveled curvy side track which runs through the most beautiful and
most of all cleanest landscape - up and down mountain passes we thank God for the first time for making our Guide a technical illiterate .
He is also not very good at handling criticism (though I must be fair and admit that he also had to listen to quite a lot of this before) and it comes to a big dispute at the end in which Frank almost throws the towel - he threatens to leave us and take the bus to go home - after a few telephone calls with his boss , who tells him that he does not need to count on being paid in this case he considers the matter again and decides that he will stay after all - we do not quite know whether we should be happy about this or not. If he actually is right, and he is the best guide what would we get in his stead? I suspect that he is not so very wrong, because there is not yet very many translators in China and the few that have more about them have better jobs than playing tourist sitter for 30 days at a time. So we all try to pull ourselves together and make the best of the situation .
In the next two days we are on the way to Xi an.. Again and again and each day a different problem but what can you expect ? We all have come to this place covering vast distances with our vehicles and this partly on tracks that definitely don’t deserve to be called a road.... So one bike starts having problems with the fuel injection and therefore battles with a sudden loss of engine power when overtaking. We have to nurse the bike to Xi an as it cannot be repaired before and we have found with horror that we can only go without light because the alternator does not produce enough electric to charge the battery and also the wheel bearings on the sidecar have started to make a terrible noise.
We want to visit the Yangtze river waterfalls along the way, ride in circles for hours on diversions until we finally arrive at a road block and decide to give up on the waterfalls and just drive in the most direct way to Xi an ( that is if Frank's problems with the navigation do not persist) . Of course, we do not need to wait long for the next problem. We come to a bridge with height and width restriction. .Martina’s Toyota just fits as regards to the width but for the height we have to go and get everything down from the roof rack - drive the car through the barrier, repack it on the other side , drive 200 meters across the bridge to the next barrier, unload everything again , squeeze through and put it all back on the roof securely again on the other side. The action costs us 2.5 hours.and Johans helmet, which someone has liberated while waiting in the traffic jam we caused - probably as a reward for being so patient.
Johan has to ride without helmet and just now we are again in an area with coal dust everywhere which is caused by endless rows of trucks. Fortunately, we soon find a new helmet for him - in the case of cases it won’t be much use but it keeps at least the dirt from his eyes.
We are all quite happy when finally we arrive at Xi an. But we are now just behind schedule and slowly it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be hard to catch up again as even in the few days , in which nothing happened we only manage with blood and sweat to do 250 Km in a day and then really everything has to be plain sailing. Our schedule however still has quite a few more days with 300 and more kms in it! We barely have time to even make a photo stop and our rather annoying guide is permanently driving us on to get back on schedule. He also has neither a driver's license nor any idea of driving and traffic regulations but it is determined to catch up.
However, we have to stay in Xi an until all motorcycles are repaired, which nevertheless takes 2 days to complete. Fortunately, the wheel bearings present no problem and are both quickly found and changed and so at least we have enough time to look at the famous terracotta army at the incredible tomb of China's first Emperor, built in 210 BC! All statues have different faces and they are probably real images of every soldier of the Emperor. It’s actually quite a miracle that I did not take pictures of every single one of them because I treated myself to a new camera here. I have been toying with the idea of a new camera for a while, in order to be able to document this great adventure of ours accordingly so with the help of Johan's haggling abilities in action I get the coveted model almost € 100 cheaper than at home. And now I’m just snapping everything that does not fight back .
Xi an is located on the Chinese equivalent of the German white sausage equator or in England Watford Gap an imaginary line defining the South and North of China which makes it a great place for me to split my blog into two parts – it’s already quite a thing to ask of any reader of this blog to have to work through all this at once....
So I’ll see you again – south of Xi an.