Photos photos photos

Have you checked the picture gallery recently? I’ve been trying to catch up with the pictures lately and I’ve uploaded 3 new albums: Thailand 1, Cambodia and Laos. Thailand 2 is nearly ready but not quite. Now there are pictures up to December 1st, 2012, back when I was entering Thailand for the second time. Check them out! There’s a lot of beautiful sunsets, strange people, crazy travellers and of course, the temples of Angkor!

 

Thailand first pass

Cambodia

Laos

Fátima, Buenos Aires, 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

What would the king do?

In Thailand, never criticise the king or the royal family. The Lonely Planet says so and every traveller you meet agrees that it’s a bad idea to get into that subject. The Thai truly love him and it would be ill-advised to say bad things about him.

When you are in Thailand, there are pictures of him and members of his family almost everywhere you look, from the more formal ones with his royal attire to more informal ones doing day-to-day things or activities related to the place that you are visiting. They even have comic books about his life and works!

Royal comics
Royal comic book
Notice the smiley faces in the crowd behind him :).

But it goes deeper than that, in times of struggle, the Thai turn to their beloved Rama IX for counsel. It is a well-known fact that if there is a coup, the government will only be overthrown if the coup has the king’s blessing. Otherwise, it will fail.

That is all and well but what if I have more mundane problems and I want to know what would the king do? Let’s say I want to buy a camera and I’m undecided about which brand or model is the best. I may think “Gee! What camera would King Bhumibol recommend?”.

The king's advice
It’s canon-ical

Datacom Data Centre, Melbourne, City of Melbourne, Australia

Dolphin spotting

Cruising through Cambodia along my favorite river ever, the Mekong, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kratie. It was going to be only one night but life by the Mekong is so peaceful that you always want to stay one more night. It turns out that in this part of the Mekong river live 75 Irrawady dolphins. Only 75 live between Kratie and the Lao border, it is an endangered species. There are more in other countries but only these in Cambodia.

Fifteen km North of Kratie is where you have to go and everybody tells you so, from to the Lonely Planet to the guesthouse manager. I am always a bit wary of this animal spotting tours/expeditions because either you don’t get to see the beast or it’s crowded with other tourists snapping photos just like you. None of that happened. Since I’m of the late-sleeper chronotype, I didn’t go at sunrise but at around 2PM, when it’s hottest. Best ever, I was almost the only tourist dolphin spotting at the time and I saw loads of them.

At first it’s a bit strange, you don’t know what to look for and the boat driver shoos you to show you where the dolphins are but of course, when you have turned in his direction and then to the direction he’s pointing at, they are gone. But then you start hearing it, when they come out to breath. The sound of them exhaling is what you should be listening for. Looking is almost useless because you don’t know where they are going to surface.

And the water comes alive with dolphins around you everywhere, they are pretty shy and don’t come close to the boat when the engine is on but the boat driver turns it of and goes on with the oar. At some point there was dolphins on either side of the boat and I didn’t know which way to look. I was in awe, it was absolutely beautiful.

Dolphin
Irrawady fresh water dolphin
Irrawady fresh water dolphin
Dolphin
And I will leave you with a book recommendation: Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardines’s Last chance to see.

Oh, and they say also that Kratie has some of the most beautiful Mekong sunsets. I let you be the judge of that.

Mekong sunset
Sunset over the Mekong
Orange boat
Orange boat
 

 

Muang Khong, Khong District, Laos

The Almaty run

Richard
This V-Strom flagged me and stopped
And after a day’s rest at Bishkek’s Sakura guesthouse, where it’s cozy and warm, I was ready for the Almaty run. Now that we were going to Mongolia, we all needed visas. Neil and Chris had decided that they would try to get into Kazakhstan with their Kyrgyz visas and they left early with a shared taxi but for me it was out of the question to leave my bike behind when I could ride there and so at 8:15am, I was on the road to Almaty. There was no news from Iain or Robin and Keely so I figured they had their own plans for getting a visa.

I didn’t get lost while leaving the city this time. I had carefully studied the way out because I had no time to lose. I knew also that at some point on the way I would run into Richard, another I still hadn’t met of the China group. And I did.

The road was long and mostly straight, which that particular day was a good thing because I could ride fast but I did spend around 20 minutes talking to Richard, changing my Som for his Tenge and accepting the Kazakh SIM card he kindly gave me. It was very nice but it proved to be fatal to my tight schedule.

Off-road to Mongolia(n consulate)
The “track” to the consulate
When I arrived to Almaty the traffic was, of course, hectic. How could I forget to account for that? Well, my Parisian training always proves useful in these situations and I managed to skip most of it despite the big panniers on the back of my bike. Soon I was cruising on the high-speed lane of Sain Street towards the Mongolian consulate but alas, yet another obstacle was on my way. You see, Mongolia has almost no paved roads, it makes sense that the way to the consulate takes you off-road in the middle of the city. Wait, what? Yes, Sain street is in works right north of the street I was looking for so I had to make a big detour, get into some small neighborhood street where I wasn’t even sure which way I was supposed to go (thanks to Richard’s SIM, I had a working Google Maps) until I found it: the off-road track of course. Take it and you’ll get there! And get there I did and at the entrance I found Neil, Chris, and Iain. So much for the mystery of how he was going to get his visa. They were all waiting outside because they had been told that they could get the visa on the same day so I went to the door and begged to be received. When the guy said it was closed, I pointed to my watch and showed him that we still had more than 5 minutes to go before actual closing time and he was nice enough to let me in and apply but of course I wouldn’t get it on the same day (even when I begged). No biggie, I can come tomorrow, pick up the visa, then go to the bikers shop to try to get new riding pants and then leave to Charyn canyon without having to spend 2 nights at the awful but not quite the worst I’ve seen Djetisu hotel where they have cheap shared rooms only if you ask for “hostel”.

En 4L
En 4L sur la route de la soie

So in the evening I went for some Turkish kebab (it’d been a long time since Turkey and I was already missing it), had a walk through town, bought a replacement for my cigar lighter USB charger and had a drink with Iain and his new French friends, the guys from En 4L sur la route de la soie.

The visa was there, so much that the guy came out of the door with my passport ready when I rang the bell. Was I the only customer today? Did they have a camera? I didn’t ask. Next mission, the biker’s shop and my potential new pants. Except for the humongous traffic jam I got into where I was invited to lunch by some random car driver and his friends. I played dumb because I was sort of in a hurry and went my way amazed at the possibility of being invited to lunch by a random group of strangers. They didn’t have my size. How did I know they didn’t have it? Well, I tried ones that looked pretty cool and the sales lady said “Sexy!”. That’s how I knew it wasn’t my size, that and the fact that I had to struggle and remove the internal liner to get them on. Oh well, I would have to get my sewing kit out… On my way to Charyn canyon!

For a preview of Charyn canyon, here’s a video from a couple of guys who’ve been there before. If it doesn’t go automatically, you should advance to the 35m20s mark.

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

F**k the Chinese government

We have just received an email from our Chinese tour company announcing that our tour is cancelled, we can’t drive through China. This is very sad news and also a major turnoff. Our permit to transit through China in our own vehicles has been refused. We are now getting drunk with Chinggis Vodka here in Ulan Baatar while we consider the alternatives. A couple of ideas had been thrown on the table:

  • Get very good winter gear and ride to Vladivostok, then take a boat to Korea and from there somewhere else
  • Same but take a boat to Canada and forsake South East Asia
  • Ship the bike to Thailand and fly to Thailand
  • Same but backpack across China
  • Same but buy my Chinese bike, maybe I’ll finally get that Shineray 😉

Meanwhile, just a thought about abusive governments.

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…

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Tarkshken, Qinghe County, PRC