A trip through China’s backyard

People oftern ask me which way I came and when I tell the full story, they ask why I couldn’t ride through China the second time. To explain that, I usually have to go back to the first ride through China. I have told this story countless times and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no good way of telling it. This is more or less how I remember it happening.

In this post, I won’t tell about the great roadside food we had in Xinjiang, I won’t tell about the amazing Jiaohe ruins we visited, I won’t tell about the beauties we missed because of the dust storm that enveloped us for three days, I won’t tell about the motocross race departure we watched where the pilots wanted pictures with us, I won’t tell about our guide Benny making us take boring highways and not letting us camp. No, those stories I may tell later or I may even leave their fate to oral tradition. I won’t tell all those stories now because there’s another story I need to tell. Because I let someone ruin my Chinese riding experience. Doubly so. Yes, I am talking about you Robin L. I don’t hold a grudge against you, I’ve learnt from the experience and hopefully I won’t let it happen to me again (not holding a grudge doesn’t mean I don’t blame you for what happened later). I learned I have to screen more thoroughly the people I travel with, I learned to distrust overly enthusiast people, I learned to not feel responsible for other people’s stupidity.

Some people go to China as they go to their city’s Chinatown, feeling that they can impose their rules on the behemoth that is the Chinese bureaucracy and that they can go against the more than 5000 years of uninterrupted unique cultural evolution that China has on its back. So, aside from the great memories I’ll keep of us drinking from the beer penguins in the night market or eating freshly made noodles by the roadside, or the sad ones like Lyn having to abandon us halfway to go back to Australia to take care of her dying father, my most patent memory from China is from this dude wandering off with his wife on a road that we had been told not to take, camping out instead of coming to town, and, the crown jewel of his shameful ignorance and closed-mindedness, insulting our guide and calling him a f*cking liar and a d*ckhead in front of the whole group thus causing him to lose face in front of us and with it the last trace of sympathy he could have had for this group of foreigners. That happened in Turpan, on the 6th or 7th day of our Chinese voyage together. It wasn’t the first incident and it wasn’t the last. Well done, now the guy that has to write a report on us that will probably influence the approval of our second crossing of China is mad at “us”.

With this incident in mind, on our last day, in the quaint little town of Qinghe (or Qinggil), the one thing we hadn’t dared to put into our Big Brother analogy back when we were about to enter China happened: we held a Tribal Council, Survivor-style. During that meeting, Richard stated that he wouldn’t be joining the second part of the trip if the rogue couple (him and wife) was joining, I stated that I needed them to be there in order to reduce the cost of the trip but wouldn’t be enjoying their company, I was also accused of being a mellow person while all the British bunch mellowly told him that he could maybe think about possibly reviewing his attitude before the second part of the trip, if he pleased to join us again. Sorry guys if you don’t remember it this way, I do and this blog’s written from MY memory. There were some more insults from the accused (or is it accursed) and they finally told us that they wouldn’t be joining the second part. Pity, it could have been fun to see him go to prison for whatever other outrage he might still have had in stock for the second part.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s sad that this is my strongest memory from this part of trip. It is. I needed to tell this story because it’s also part of the experience. I felt betrayed in my confidence because when you enter China as a self-driving group, you are bound by the same destiny and you implicitly trust your travel companions to be as respectful, obedient and open-minded as yourself. They weren’t and we all paid the price.

On a happier note, here’s a little video of the noodles we had just before crossing the border at Takeshikenzhen and a photo of some bum we ran into at the border.

Border bum sleeping
Border bum sleeping

Another view of the tramp who stole my riding jacket
Another view of the tramp who stole my riding jacket

Salta, Municipio de Salta, Argentina

Big Brother is watching

I’ve been holding back on the posts from China and they’ve been holding me back. While riding, I often think about how to put in writing all the strong emotions that China provokes on the traveller. On bike or on foot, open-minded or not, China doesn’t leave you indifferent. China travel companions also bring up strong emotions. Here’s the first post.

As the date of our entrance to China approached, there was one thing that turned in my mind. How would it be to travel with 9 other people? I had shared the road with some of the others a couple of times already and it went ok. Uzbekistan with Neil and then also with Chris, Charyn canyon with Iain, that crazy Kyrgyz mountain trail with Richard, Iain, Chris and Neil, all turned out to be cool experiences but 40 or more days with the same 9 people, that had to be different.

I wasn’t the only one thinking about that. One evening, as we were about to go to sleep in one of those ghastly rooms I shared with Chris (sorry, can’t remember if it was the one in Almaty or the one in Naryn, they were both equally disgusting). It wasn’t Osh, I remember, although the room was almost as dirty), the subject came up and we sort of concluded that it would be an experience close to those Big Brother reality shows. Ten people locked up together in a small apartment. Only our small apartment was actually China, slightly bigger but just as crowded and no one was to be nominated or ejected. Or so we thought.

Once the analogy was established, we didn’t want to dig much deeper into who would be the troublesome character and other disagreeable details. We did conclude though that, easy-going as we both were, it would be a pain for the group if we just kept saying: “I’m alright with whatever the group decides”. We left it at that.

We didn’t have to wait long to know who the troublesome character would be but I’m getting ahead of myself. On a brighter note, let’s take it where I last left this chronicle. I was crossing the Chinese border or more precisely, the Kyrgyz border with China. Once you cross that border, you are almost in China, the no man’s land starts. And what a no man’s land!

Now, you will have to take my word on this because I didn’t take any picture. Ever since that border in Georgia with the “delayte picture” guy, I’ve been keeping the camera safely tucked in its bag.

It is simply breathtaking. After getting the passport stamped out by the Kyrgyz customs, you have to go up to the actual border line where a lone Chinese soldier waves you through. No he doesn’t, says the Lonely Planet but in our case he did. At this moment, I don’t know if it was the cold, the fatigue, the breathtaking scenery, or the simple fact that I was finally entering China with my bike but I cried. Of joy. Most people don’t know but this trip started not as a Round the World trip but as a trip to China so you can imagine how important a milestone this border crossing was.

Up we went, waved we were and down we went, only to find ourselves face to face with a small barking Yorkshire Terrier. Wait, no, it was a Chinese soldier but by the way fidgety way in which he was barking at us, I couldn’t see a difference. The fact that he was quite short didn’t help. “What are you doing here?”, “Where is your guide?”, “Go back up to the pass!”.

See, the Torugart border is only open to locals and groups with a guide and even when you have a guide, you are supposed to wait for confirmation that he’s down there at the top of the pass. We didn’t know this and obviously the guy that waved us through didn’t know it either. And to top it all, our guide wasn’t there. Finally, Neil started exercising his Chinese skills and convinced him that there was no need for us to go back up and that we could wait for our guide down here. But where was he anyway?

More than one hour we waited for Big Brother’s agent until he finally deigned to arrive. Benny, our guide for the ten days to follow. The fact that he is our guide doesn’t mean that he will explain anything to us about our surroundings. He’s just there to make sure we take the roads the government wants us to take and that we stay in the cities and hotels that the government wants us to stay in. Big Brother is not only watching us but he’s sent one of his minions to make sure we do his bidding. And we are paying of course!

Once Benny is with us, the border crossing goes smoothly. We get through the military checkpoint with minimal searching and start on the 110km to the civilian border crossing, where all travellers entering via either Torugart or Irkeshtam are checked. On the way we see some more of the good old breathtaking valleys and mountains (it is really very beautiful), pass through some Uighur (they look Kyrgyz to me) towns with Uighur people (still looking Kyrgyz). At the civilian border crossing we are fumigated, searched and stamped. The duty free only takes Chinese RMB and doesn’t take credit cards, pretty smart move considering that we’ve just entered the country. I wonder if they know why their sales are so low… Worth noting are also the electronic passport reading kiosks. I inserted my French passport, it started speaking French to me and finally printed an immigration slip with all the data read from my passport, no need to fill any forms. So this electronic passport thingies are actually useful sometimes, huh? 😉

Villarrica, Provincia de Cautín, Chile

Happy Chinese New Year!

And to celebrate, I have finally uploaded my pictures of China. I mean the ones from the second part of China, when I left the bike in storage in Ulan Baatar and went across China as a backpacker. Here they are!

Beijing Revisited

Shanghai

Hangzhou

Guiyang and Guizhou

The end, Chongqing

The first set, as a biker, in Xinjiang has already been up for some time, here they are again.

Kashgar

To Turpan

Jiaohe Ruins

Leaving China

First times

The first time something was stolen from my bike? Kashgar, China. Some fcuker decided he needed my AirHawk more than I needed it and took it from the bike while it was parked at the hotel.

The first time a cop clearly asked for a bribe (and got it)? Bangkok, Thailand. This bastard was standing under the bridge in Phloen Chit, where Rama I becomes Sukhumvit. He took my International Driver’s Licence and wouldn’t give it back until I gave him 300 baht (7.5 euro). That was yesterday. Today, somewhere else, another cop tried it. I put first gear and went away.

Two sad stories that blemish two great countries.

Haad Tha Nam, Trat Province, Thailand

Deja vu

“It’s funny, I’ve just had the exact same conversation two blocks ago with a girl that, in a way, looks exactly like you*”. It’s like when they make a change in the Matrix and you see the cat walk past by the brick wall twice.

Every time I sneak away from a scam, I am left with a question: What was it this time? Many times I have let them talk some more just to see where it goes but today I am walking around with my passport, all my credit cards and 3000 yuan that an ATM has kindly agreed to give me. It is out of the question that I pursue any conversation with scammers with pockets full of *goodies*. It’s no use taking risks so I told her that I wanted to walk alone, twice and then she said “Oh! No me?” and went on to deliver her payload in a last, desperate attempt to not lose the opportunity. “Do you want massage?”. There you are! I should have thanked her for taking away my doubts but she had already stayed behind. I could only hear her congratulating me for my good looks or maybe something else, I don’t know, it was in Chinese.

I was also accosted twice by girls that asked me to take a picture of them together and claimed to be tourists from other parts of China headed for a traditional tea house and “would you like to join us?”. My short answer is a clear NO but I could also go on about how I grew up in Argentina and this kind of thing is every day life in Buenos Aires and even locals are targets of scams like this one. This one in particular, I had seen it in Argentina already but in the form of a guy that offers you a free or very cheap ticket to enter a very exclusive bar or strip club. You sort of develop a sixth sense for these things growing up in BA.


* Moderately good-looking Chinese girl elegantly dressed in 100% Western clothes (nothing looks Chinese except of course her) speaking quite good English but not so perfect that you would be suspicious

dianping.com, Changning, Changning District, PRC

My Mongolian bike

Today I finally got the two accessories I wanted the most for my bike. The first one I have wanted it ever since I got my first scooter back in 2006, a sound system. It turns out that it’s a very popular accessory here in Mongolia so it was very easy to get a couple of 10W speakers that connect to the battery and can read SD cards.

The second one is something I have lusted for ever since I entered Xinjiang and saw that everyone had beautiful saddle covers for their bikes. They also have them here in Mongolia and today I finally found a couple of shops that sold them in the black market of Ulan Baatar. I and another rider I met here (Léo from vamosprimo.tumblr.com) bought one each, a bit unsure if they would fit my Tenere and his Africa Twin. They did. I’m so happy! Incidentally, now my bike is properly Mongolian with the speakers and the rug 😉

My panda/cow saddle rug
I got the one with the little cow and the big panda

 

Saddle rug
Léo got the blue one with super cow

New plan

Since the China part 2 plan has gone down the drain for mysterious reasons, I had to do a bit of brainstorming to get my act together and keep going the way I want and the way that brings me more satisfaction. I don’t want to take a plane during this trip unless I really have to. This is not one of those times.

Today, I went down to the train station and bought myself a train ticket to Beijing. So there is a bonus in all this, I get to travel on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, part of the same network as the Trans-Siberian. Meanwhile, my dear Z will be shipped straight to Bangkok and will be waiting for me there until I arrive. From now on and until I get to Bangkok, I will be on foot. It will be a new experience but I have high hopes for this new part of the trip. It will be something different being back to depending on other people to get from one place to the next one.

Ulan Baatar
The roundabout near the hostel

After I got the train ticket, I went for a walk in the town center, checked rucksacks at the camping store (too expensive) and then at the black market (too cheap). Since I will only need this rucksack for a couple of weeks, I will go for the too cheap one and bring my straps, bungees and cable ties with me into China in case it needs “roadside maintenance”. Finally, I went for lunch inside the black market. I had already had lunch there yesterday with David and really enjoyed it: good cheap food, who could say no to that?

Lunch
Yesterday’s yummy lunch

 

I sat at a random food stall and ordered a random dish from the menu around 4000 tugrugs. I have no idea what I ordered but a couple of minutes later I had in front of me a sort of prison tray with a full meal on it: soup, fried noodles with meat, Russian salad, two other kinds of salad and a strange but not completely disgusting hot white drink.

Menu
I ordered one of those, the third one after the red line

 

After that royal lunch, I was going to check the auto parts market for a couple of tools I am still missing and a 13 spanner for Lorraine who had asked me to kindly buy it for her but a sudden dust storm and the menace of rain convinced me to stick my hand out at the side of the road to go back home. In no time, a random local had lowered his window and was asking me where I wanted to go, I hopped on and went back to the hostel to finish repairing the bike.

Of course you don’t know what was wrong with the bike because I haven’t told that story yet but the rest of the afternoon was very productive: I put a new chain that Richard kindly agreed to sell me, I put the missing bolt in the pannier rack and finally I hammered my panniers back into shape, they are waterproof again. Actually, I didn’t hammer them myself, the hostel’s watchman saw me doing it and obviously thought that I was using the hammer like a little girl because he took the hammer off my hands and did it himself.

When I had finished with all my repairs and maintenance for the day, it was already time to go for dinner with the group. Today is the last night we are all together, from now on we more or less all go our separate ways. Neil is flying to Hong Kong, Iain is flying to Bangkok, Lorraine may be flying to Korea, David is driving back to the UK through Russia (I hope he doesn’t freeze!), Richard still doesn’t know and Chris is taking the same train as I am but will be crossing China a bit faster than what I have planned to. The group was created with the sole purpose of crossing China together on our bikes (+David’s car), now that we are not allowed to do that anymore, it makes no sense to stick together any longer. We all have different plans for the future and have already set them in motion but meanwhile, we absolutely had to find that English pub with the funny name that we had spotted a couple of days ago.

Unfortunately it was closed to the general public tonight (on a Saturday night!)

 

PS: Since my bike and I are going to be parted for some time, I have set up a new wallpaper on my computer, something to remember her by.

My memento of Z until we are back together

Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

My Chinese bike

When I was planning this trip and I thought I wouldn’t be able to come to China, I thought of leaving my own bike for some time in India and buying a Chinese bike to go around China. The most likely candidate was a Shineray 150 Sport, a military-green beauty with pannier racks and handguards.
I saw one at a shop in Turpan the other day and thought I might still do it one day…

image

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Tarkshken, Qinghe County, PRC

China and Mongolia

I interrupt the continuity of this tale to do a little update on the China situation and the changes on my plan.

It seems that the Chinese government has decided to promote overland tourism in Mongolia. In a convoluted way, as usual with them bureaucrats. The Chinese government has decided that whoever enters China on his own vehicle via Xinjiang cannot transit into the rest of China and has to exit Xinjiang into one of the neighboring countries, that is: Mongolia, Kazakhstan (visa expired), Tajikistan (closed to tourists for now) or Pakistan (I don’t have the right carnet for the bike).

That leaves only Mongolia and that’s what we have decided to do. Enter Xingjiang, exit into Mongolia, ride Mongolia (I’m a bit nervous about this but we are a group and have a support car), try to get a new Chinese visa in Ulan-Bataar and then enter China again via Erenhot into Inner Mongolia. It’s going to cost us a lot more money and time but hopefully we will be in Laos by mid-October.

Now, I am in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and hopefully will enter China tomorrow. I have just come back to civilization from the most trying days of this trip so far: the worst mountain road I have ever ridden, including many river crossings and camping at 2761m altitude with my summer sleeping bag and my tent being wet from the storm the previous day. I am back safe now and looking back it was a lot of fun. I will tell the full story and post pictures later. Now, I have to go and get ready to ride to China. I hope there is heated rooms near the border because I don’t want to camp at 3500m. See you on the other side of the looking glass… if I have access to the blog of course!

Трудоустройство, Naryn, Naryn Region, Kyrgyzstan