Still in Xi and as a result of longer discussions Martina writes an email to the Chinese travel company to see if we could reduce the pace a little and maybe spend a few extra days in China so we do not have to run around like headless chickens all the time and after all we do want to have some fun at the end of the day too and at least enough time for taking a few pictures . We should really be in Chengdu in 2 days but it’s more than 900 km from here - this will be difficult to impossible. So were up at 6 o’clock and load our bikes - we need to use the highway to drive around Xi an. Actually, we are not really allowed do that but today is a public holiday in China and it is hard to get through anywhere as the place will be heaving. .
Of course we get lost again and then we all need to fill up on petrol and just as we are about to set off again Johan notices that
the petrol is running out of Anders’ bike seemingly from the new pump. To even be able to find the place where it is leaking the freshly filled tank needs to be emptied again. We gather all the
reserve canisters and find a tube thin and long enough and then siphon the tank empty enough to be able to take the petrol pump out. The
action is thank goodness successful, but takes its time so all in all already 2 hours of our day stint are over, without even having left the city and we still are not making any headway because
everywhere is jammed up.
The Number One of Chinese guides with his high-tech navigation system gives us every day several extra laps in circles and if he finds the right way then there are road works forcing us to either a long wait or to drive long diversion. This time it is a river bridge under reconstruction. They have laid a pipe in the river and poured earth on it and then made a track over the lot. It’s not wide enough for big traffic and now a truck and a bus have met in the middle and no one gets through. So we stand there and watch the dance of avoidance in small steps. Eventually, the two have actually managed somehow to get past one another and finally things are moving. The motorcycles had enough space on the old bridge and have been able to drive across but the Toyota and we are stuck in the queue which slowly creeps up and down the steep muddy bank until a car in front of us gets stuck . In Mongolia, now a lot of people would have stepped in and helped push but here no one comes and then the guy tortures his clutch and starts rocking and then rolling back but since he has not much room here he can’t get a lot of momentum either - eventually he finds some grip and so we all get up and across - even we !
Shortly after this bridge the road begins to wind up a mountain and also the traffic thins down slowly and there are no more trucks. The scenery is breathtaking. We are in Foping Valley, a nature reserve and there are only small villages. A river has carved deep valleys into the rock and after each hairpin, we have to take pictures ( so we still make no good time here ) We are by now hopelessly behind schedule and who wants to be constantly rushing about anyway? We have not just come here to get out again as fast as possible . We have paid a lot of money for this trip and now we are rushing from one tourist trap to the next. So if nothing is going wrong even under perfect circumstances with no one breaking down or whatever we can ride a maximum of 400 km per day – we are just never lucky enough to catch normal circumstances.
In the evening, Martina finds us a great place to camp - behind a road maintenance building is a large lawn, a car park and even a public toilet (although you have to get over the initial shock first before using it – it’s better than crouching on the lawn anyway) The stand-up-loos here in China are a class of their own and every morning after I have struggled with my osteoarthritis to get out of the bed or the sleeping bag I wonder how all the old Chinese cope day in day out although I must confess however that the people in this country seem to be very agile right up to old age ( when they reach it at all). For us the stand-up-loos are nothing new anymore, they were to be found everywhere since Ukraine, but the gutters, with the turds in them that are flushed from time to time with a hose or bucket are then yet again another story.
We are now in the province of Sichuan - Kevin was looking forwards to getting here for quite a long time as this area is known for its extra- spicy food - the reputation is not unfounded – but it also is very tasty. Sometimes it will burn at least 3 times screws your blood pressure to dizzying heights and at least for me it makes sure that my digestion is rather active so I do not care what the toilets look like.
We wind up and down through the mountains and small villages. They do not dry the corn here on the road, as everywhere before, but tie the cobs in beautiful elongated bunches of grapes that are hung under the roof along the house. I keep wondering why they actually grow so much corn here - you very rarely actually get any food that contains maize or corn flour (but lots of produce made with wheat flour still I have not seen one single field of wheat growing anywhere in the whole 33 days of riding through China). My explanation (which, however, does not necessarily have to be right) is that the corn is probably used mainly as animal feed. This makes sense as it is extremely rare to see a strip of land which is not used for agricultural cultivation of grain and vegetables. The corn is grown on terraces which cling to the hillsides as far as possible and what is left is mostly covered in trees and the few fields are certainly not enough to feed the animals for a nation with such a big population.
Once again a day ends in chaos. After having so much fun on the roads here we stop in the evening to discuss whether we camp or start looking for a hotel. Johan disappears in a corn field
because the hot food leaves him no choice, Martina and we continue in the hope of finding a suitable area for pitching tents as it won’t be too long until it gets dark. After 15 km we stop to
wait for the others and Johan is already right behind us. Frantically he shouts: “Do you have my motorcycle jacket?” which he has thrown on our kitchen box at the back in his haste without us
having noticed something of it and it now of course no longer is there. The entire group turns over every stone of each meter of distance traveled but the jacket is gone and what is worse ,
Johan's passport, wallet and I-Phone were in it . We ask every person we see along the way using Frank as an interpreter but in the end we have to get the police involved so that the loss of the passport is on record. While Johan and Frank spend hours with the police the rest of the troop sits on a porch on small stools.
It has started pouring with rain so we huddle under the roof of the farmhouse and the nice residents fill us up with hot tea and take advantage of
the chance to take a closer look at those magnificent men and their flying machines. We are utterly destroyed but we really did not know that the jacket was on our bike – everyone broods over
would have and should have but if it is of no use. We almost fall asleep on our stools when Frank and Johan finally come back and now we start
looking for the next hotel.
Will this strain of bad luck never stop? I'm beginning to wonder if and how we ever come to Laos and wish every now and again we were already there.
The next day we have our difficulties to enjoy the scenery. Frank is on the phone with his boss who seems to be constantly on the go somewhere and at the end it looks as if Johan has to fly back to Beijing to apply for a new passport and visa there. Micha agrees to ride Johans motorcycle (how good that he is an experienced rider) until Johan rejoins us – this way at least he will not have to argue with Frank over the matter who is when allowed to sit in the front of the car for this time which has hitherto been a constant topic of arguments.
We cannot make it to Chengdu today and just before we reach our destination for the day and of course, on a twisty mountain pass suddenly our replacement spring from Ulaan Bataar on the throttle cable breaks again and with a screaming engine we finally stop on a parking lot.
Fortunately we have fished several springs out of the barrel at the time and carry them around with us since then. Of course we have to unload everything to get in the rear box with our tools and it takes a while until everything is taken apart and then it is a fiddly job to get the spring to just the right length and shape and refitted . In between Frank keeps asking how long the repair will take us and whether we can continue soon - until I eventually blows my top – the pressure has been building up inside me so much that I yell at him and ask if he thinks actually that we are doing all this for the fun of it - the man’s got to hear that this engine screaming is neither normal nor desirable has he not !
After a while she purrs again and the last 30 km are no longer a problem. Frank organizes us rooms at supposedly the best hotel in town and I have to admit that the hut is classy and it even has a clean bathroom with sit-on-toilet.
Surely we have by now had enough bad luck : alternator , wheel bearings in the sidecar , again alternator or at least electrics and short circuit somewhere and then again the return
spring from the throttle cable and we were also each time involved in some way when something got lost or stolen from Johan - the chaosteam strikes
The next day we finally make the remaining 180 km to Chengdu where we want to visit the Panda Research Center. It is foggy and the road is predominantly multi-track and we only have a few hold- ups on the way . Frank our guide only sends us one or two times in the wrong direction but nothing dramatic, a few short stops for refueling and once because a chain guard is bent and then again because it starts to rain so all struggle into their full-body condoms and then we are there, Kev and I are soaking when we arrive at the Panda Center and the others also prefer to find a hotel first. We are successful on this quest and find a place just 200 meters down the road which costs just 68 yuan per room (about 10 $). This is the cheapest place so far. The rooms are simple but in the entrance hall there is wifi and I took a shower in the exclusive hotel just yesterday so I don’t need to use the admittedly somewhat shabby bathroom only to pee on the stand- over loo. We throw ourselves in dry clothes and trot together with Johan to the Panda Park. It’s great but I do not quite believe the Chinese that not a single panda mother should be able to raise their young themselves and therefore they need to be pampered and cared for in kennel by people behind windows. (It’s too convenient for visitors for my liking) But it seems that the remaining numbers of this species are so small that human intervention is necessary to prevent interbreeding and the cute bears are also really too cuddly – even hardened bearded bikers go all soppy.
When we want to go to dinner in the evening I have a key experience that I have to tell, even if this blog once again threatens to grow into an epic: I 'm on my way to the staircase as I meet a young Chinese couple in the hallway. Both very elegant and stylish – she with manicured long nails and make-up he in a trendy suit so all in all very Western and modern. I reach the staircase first and start going down in front of them as I hear a noise behind me which has almost become normal after 2 weeks in China: every droplet of mucus from the deepest depths of the lungs is being pulled up and this in a volume a worker in the Glasgow docks would be proud of achieving. Anyone who has been familiar with China for a long time warns about this but also claims that it has gotten already much better and downright rare with the younger Chinese but this has shocked me now. I turn around so I can throw a disgusted look at the young man and see in fact the young lady spitting in the corner! Apart from a pub where the men have spat on a piece of cling film under the table I have not been so shocked by this habit that much yet!
We want to eat something in the restaurant next door and the landlord and his wife are really nice and trying very hard to understand us but to order is always a bit of Russian roulette. The funniest thing though, is to try a conversation and so I shine with my 3 chunks of Chinese and explain the astonished restaurant owners who comes from what country. Now it's a coincidence that both Martina and I wear a nose stud and so the Chinese woman points at both of us and then taps on her nose and asks: Deguo ren ? I agree with her but to now explain to her that yes , we are both German but it is pure coincidence that we both wear nose studs is out of my translating league - so there is now a handful of Chinese in Chengdu, who are spreading the rumor that German women can be recognized by the nose stud.
The next day, Johan flies to Beijing to get his papers and we get back to the way which continues through the mountains. Slowly but surely they are getting higher and the views are impossible to describe. Even though we have to stop and change a burst tire on the Toyota which is no big deal because the car carries enough spare wheels so that with all men helping the damage is fixed quickly. The roads here are sometimes quite adventurous. I remember that I have heard of severe earthquakes in this region at the beginning of the year and the type of damage appears to come from this event - again and again parts of the surface are broken and fallen away on some bends. Often it is cracked and the lining is pushed up while in other places the tar looks like a spider web where the center has fallen down. In this area live the most diverse ethnic minorities recognizable by the different headgear of women. Whenever we stop we are surrounded by crowds of people and we have the opportunity to admire some very beautiful and colorful costumes. Frank once again slumps in our estimation thanks to his remarks that Han Chinese do not speak with these people because they are dirty ( of course he is Han Chinese ) and : "No Frank , the people are poor - not dirty " Moreover, they are also very friendly. We stop in a village and drop on very lucky because there is just a market being held and so we leave the guide sat in the car and dive into the fascinating market turmoil. There are the most curious things being fried in hot oil or grilled, live chickens hung upside down on hand scales and sold and it’s the first time we see the woven bags in which piglets are sold and transported home on the luggage rack of the bikes. We all taste the exotic dishes and the cameras are running hot.
Our next goal is Lugu Lake . According to Frank there lives an ethnic minority here that is matriarchal - so the women wear the trousers here! Allegedly the women come at night to the men they like who just have to leave the door open and – no getting married here. Because our men are almost all taken we get no proof for this tradition but we have to pay the high price of 80 yuan per person to just be allowed to drive to the lake. However, it has paid off with once again really picturesque surroundings.
Slowly we come towards the Tibetan border mountains and climb up on passes towards Lijian We now got the offer of Paul to extend our stay by 4 days which would cost us an additional 800 yuan that is 100 € divided by 9 people . We discuss the matter and eventually arrive at a majority decision that we will accept this offer. From Lijiang there are still 1500 km to travel until we get to Laos and we just about getting tired of the rush, also we are now in Yunnan - the most beautiful province in China (according to Lonely Planet) ! Lijian is located on a high plateau at 2400 m above sea level from which one can already see the snowy peaks of the White Mountain and here the foothills of the Himalayas really begin.
After driving a lot in the last few days here we have one of the rare days where we relax. We have time to ourselves. We have traveled to and through China at high speed and enjoy to have a lie-in but the bed is so hard that I 'm awake early and totally stiff and that although I have placed a soft blanket under my travel mat. Kevin and I have decided that we want to have this day just for us.
We are travelling already over 3 weeks with the group which is neither our usual way of exploring a country nor one we would choose in normal
circumstances and we feel we need some time without the others.
We make a coffee and stroll around until all our fellow travelers have disappeared in the city and after drying out our tend in the sunshine and checking on our washing which is nicely drying on the roof of the hotel we do likewise and explore the Old Town - it is quite big and full of tourists so the chance that we will meet one or more of our fellow travelers is very low. Lijian is one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is frequented especially by Chinese tourists but we see some long- noses too. The city is called the Chinese Venice by some guidebooks which seems slightly exaggerated but there are a lot of small canals everywhere in the city and although it has to struggle with the consequences of earthquakes time and again the place looks as if taken out of a picture book – a bit too nicey nice for our liking but hey – that doesn’t mean a thing – we are on an adventure here not a holiday.
The old town is bursting at the seams with tourists – one gift shop after another and most selling the same stuff but you can tell by the prices that this is not just a beautiful old town . There are picturesque corners everywhere and we stroll around and just enjoy watching people. We walk through many small lanes and try every now and again to find a quiet corner buy a few things and I'm slowly learning to barter a bit - so I buy a pair of pants and using a calculator on which the vendor types her price which I then erase and type in about half the amount this we both keep doing until we finally agree on the amount of 100 yuan (about 12,50 €) . A couple of times people in traditional costume come and offer to be photographed by us for a fee. Later we watch a group of women in various ethnic costumes of the province Yunnan dance on the square with the tourists and have the opportunity to take some pictures of them and take a good look at the Chinese tourists. It's funny - the young people are very attracted to the western styles but on the whole fashion seems to be what the individual likes.
The next morning we need to get going early. We set out to drive a couple of high passes before we make our way to the border. First it goes to Tiger-Leaping-Gorge. The Yangtze River has carved a deep valley in the mountains here and huge masses of water shoot down the narrow valley. We have to climb down the 591 steps to get a look at this spectacle - another unforgettable experience. By now we have decided to ignore Frank and his navigation system and to choose our routes ourselves. This works fine - and thanks to James’s GPS we find particularly good routes. We climb a pass of 3700 m and set up camp at 3200 m on a field with cows - our guide here has his problems , he is afraid of the curious cows which come to inspect what these strange structures their field are and whether you can probably eat them. Our next goal is Shangri la a city that used to be named Zhongdian until several years ago. The change of name and with this claiming to be a mystical place of peace and serenity was made in the hope to boost tourism and perhaps even outstrip Lijian but this has only partly worked . While Lijian has a lot of Chinese tourists here almost only foreigners are seen. All backpackers who cannot go to Tibet and all other Western tourists who fly to Kunming and we of course . I like it here much better than in Lijiam and the whole thing definitely has a lot of Tibetan flair about it but every effort like walking about in this height is really tiring and gets you very quickly out of breath .
From here we have - in contradiction to our guide - decided to take a different route to ride back . We have found a small back road that winds along the upper Yangtze River which here however still has another name : the river of golden sands. We take pictures like mad but you simply cannot capture the size and drama of this landscape. We find a really picturesque place for our camp right on the river and Martina and I have some fun to take the outfit to the next village where we want to try and find something meaty for a BBQ, a carton of beer and some cigarettes. In the meat department we are not successful - there are just a few pastries , and instant noodles , chips and stuff that we can not define in the little store and so we leave with only a carton of beer and 6 packets of cigarettes - all this we have clarified with the help of my little Chinese dictionary and on the way back we giggle over the faces of the men in the little shop and what they probably now make of the two women who drive up with this big strange vehicle and then only buy large quantities of smokes and beverages .
On small snaky side roads and contrary to the advice of our guide we are on our way back towards Dali and then to the border. We visit a nature park and stay overnight just pitching our tents in the thickets and visit a small town on the old Tea Horse Trail. (Here the Chinese used to exchange tea against the small but tough Tibetan horses for their cavalry) and stroll along the many alleys in the old part of the town all thankfully ignoring Frank's warnings that there is nothing to see here. Again he is proven wrong - to his credit I have to mention that he actually thanks us for this because he never had the idea before to venture away from the main road to find out if there is more to see here. The gap between us and our guide is getting bigger and I think now both he and we will be glad when we can say goodbye to each other soon.
The last stretch before Dali we drive through a valley where is the rice harvest is in full swing and once again I am amazed that the vast majority are working with such primitive methods in this country which is so advanced on one side. Machines here are expensive, hands available for work but in abundance and much cheaper. Skyscrapers are built with rickety bamboo scaffolding. The construction workers pull buckets of mortar to the top on a rope. They tear a house with a sledgehammer. In every city there are street cleaners who swipe the roadsides with a broom. Most of the field work is done with a hoe and watching the rice harvest the biggest technical aid was a box made of metal in which the bundles of rice are inserted upside down and then with a foot lever are tapped out . In 6100 Km I have only ever seen once one small harvester. However we have mainly driven through the mountains and all the fields were created in predominantly thin terraces larger machinery would not be of any use there.
Dali is bursting at the seams with tourists and we have no desire to plunge into this turmoil. So we just rest in the hostel, find some food around the corner and the next day we leave again and prefer to use the time left making sure to be at the border on time.
The landscape here is tropical and more often we get to banana and tea plantations and also there are huge gum tree forests We stop at the edge of a small village and set up camp on a large meadow. Residents have obviously never seen a foreigner and in the blink of an eye the whole village assembles to stare at this attraction. Immediately every vehicle and every tent is surrounded and I have a semi-circle of women and children gathered in front of me watching and giggling as I pump up our sleeping mats. I have grown used to being stared at and can ignore it in most situations, but this here is everything but pleasant. Again and again I look up and grin at my audience while I point at the mat and make a sleep suggestion which all the watchers seem to find quite funny again. The children prod the pump up bed every now and again and I can see on the tip of their noses that they would like to have a good old jump about on it but this I do not allow - after I'm done I quickly close up the tent. Of course the kids are soon climbing all over our Liza and only when I squeal because one has obviously pulled the clutch and the outfit begins to roll - someone chases them off. We have bought meat along the way and intend to have a BBQ and again I have an audience while I cut the meat into slices and do the seasoning. The villagers bring us firewood for barbecuing and then someone brings a bag full of live fish for our dinner which I then also have to bump off and gut - they taste delicious. The villagers leave at some point when it gets too dark. They go home and we are quite happy that we are now no longer being stared at.
From here to the border is supposed to be only a short hop but again we have to suffer a stroke of bad luck. James’s bike stops and refuses to start again. We spend hours to try and find the error but have to surrender in the end and take it to a workshop. They are quite useless in finding the fault too so now we have to find a way to transport the vehicle to the border and thanks to all this kafuffle we still need 1 ½ days until we finally reach Mohan. We use the chance of local internet to get the folks back home up to date one never knows how that will be in Laos – according to Frank it is very undeveloped (but then again – what does he know) one last time treat ourselves to a delicious Chinese meal. I have washed all my passport photos in Ulann Bataar so we do have to find a shop where we can have made new ones for the visa and manage to find one by asking a lot of people using hands and feet and drink our last Tsingtao and then look forward to a well deserved rest in Laos. It is the 6th October , we have been traveling three and a half months and 24,500 kilometers by now. This will be the 9th time to cross a border and we are ready for ....... Rest !
The next morning we push James to and across the border with the sidecar and our farewell to Frank runs quite cool and short.
China was an incredible experience that has confirmed as many prejudices as it has proven to be false.
We would love to travel this country more, but not like this - not in a big group and not with a too tight schedule leaving us very little time for anything and most certainly not with a tourist Sitter!