Sunday, July 19, 2015

Yin and Yang

IChinese philosophyyin and yang (also, yin-yang or yin yang) describes how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Many tangible dualities (such as light and dark, fire and water, expanding and contracting) are thought of as physical manifestations of the duality symbolized by yin and yang.  And such were the last two riding days of the trip.  

The ride from Lanzhou to Pingliang would be our last opportunity for traveling off of the designated route and we were looking forward to do so.  We were also getting well into loess terrain and would be riding through the Loess Plateau which I was particularly excited about and hoping to explore as much as possible.  A small group of us headed off to the North on a road that on the map looked interesting enough.  Finally getting out of the city and into the country side the road started to deteriorate to a point where we stopped and questioned going any further.  The consensus decision had us turning around and heading back to the main road where the conditions changed but were just as bad, only in a different way.  While some abandoned the adventure making a bee line to the expressway, myself and an other headed off to the South in search of whatever.  After about 100 miles or so heading South East we turned North and spent the rest of the day riding up and over and down and through and around terraced farm plots that covered almost every inch of ground on the flat valley bottoms and the surrounding hillsides.

That was a great day.

The last riding day from Pingliang to Xi'an was to be short and easy with a planned meet up early afternoon at the hotel to go and get the bikes washed before packing them into the containers.  The day started out well enough and we were making good time on the express way, at least until we were stopped by the Chinese traffic policeman who escorted us off the expressway.  Turns out that just as the signs have said all along, motorcycles really aren't allowed on the expressways in China.  Guess things are a little less laissez faire the farther East you travel - this is not necessarily only a Chinese affliction.  When I asked why we couldn't proceed on the expressway I was told it was too dangerous for motorcycles and that we would be much safer on the two lane national road.   I questioned the policeman's danger level acumen having likely never driven in Detroit - I don't think he understood the reference as he just smiled and pointed towards the exit behind us.  Sure enough within minutes of being escorted onto the national road we were faced with trucks traveling towards us at high speed in our lane around blind corners... this is what safety looks like on a Chinese road.   I made another attempt to get on the expressway a little farther down the road and was unceremoniously escorted off again.

At some point I entered into a small city and was vigorously waved away by a very determined Chinese traffic policewoman from continuing down my intended route.  Quickly checking the GPS I didn't think this would matter as there appeared to be ways back on the highway on the other side of the city.  Turns out there weren't so I headed up a steep switched back road that headed in the general direction I needed to go.  Up on the plateau the fog and drizzle moved in and I slowly poked my way around roads that did not exist on the GPS trying to maintain a trajectory back towards the route track.  As I approached the "black line" I felt better and figured I would be back on track soon, until the GPS showed me crossing over and passing the route and realized it was in a tunnel somewhere below me.  After backtracking down the off the plateau and through the city, this time ignoring the vigorously waving determined Chinese policewoman I was back on the right road, but now in jeopardy of missing the 3PM meet up time at the hotel in Xi'an for getting the bikes washed.

The fog and drizzle had followed me down from the plateau and the drizzle quickly turned to increasingly heavy rain.  With a now perceived race against the clock and the lousy weather I found little patience for slow moving traffic and proceeded to pass pretty much everything on the road.  As I was passing a slow moving bus a small dog was racing across the road in front of us.   On my re-entering the lane in front of the bus, the bus driver honked his horn which stopped the little dog cold in his tracks then turned and ran right into my path.  I looked back in my mirror and saw he wasn't moving.  I had a quick thought of stopping but it was mostly to give the bus driver a kick in the ass for honking his horn more than anything else.

The remainder of the ride was mostly spent figuring out how to navigate into and through the city of Xi'an with some extra time spent circling in a few round-a-bouts trying to figure out exactly which road was the right road to take.  If the waypoint in the GPS had been anywhere near correct I might have made it to the hotel before the 3PM meet up time, but as it wasn't and I arrived closer to 4.  In the end it didn't matter as the plans had changed (this is China after all), and the bikes would be washed on the way to the container the next day.

That was not a great day.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gas, Food and Lodging

Just as in North America along the highways in China the services available at the next service area are clearly displayed on signs as you approach.  The problem is that whoever is responsible for making and putting up the signs is way ahead of whoever is responsible for building out the service areas.  Often and usually as the gas in the tank was running low we would come across one of these phantom service areas where there might be an exit ramp but the buildings were non-existent or in some stage of being built.  While a minor inconvenience it did promote getting off the dreaded highway and onto the roads and into the villages where the real China was to be found.   All in search of gas and food of course.

Getting gas on a motorcycle in China was sometimes an experience and a half.  In north west China the gas stations were all barricaded up behind barbed wire fence and manned gates.  The story we were given is that gas stations had been targets of Uighur islamic extremists and this was to protect against any further action.  A further complication was that motorcycles were not actually allowed to fill up at the gas pump.  There was a designated parking area where all motorcycles were to park and then a teapot was used to transport the gas from the pump to the motorcycle.  Now this might be fine for the local small motorcycles where not much more than a single teapot was needed to fill a tank but even the smallest tank of our group was going to require several trips to fill.  Not to mention the inevitable spillage out of the teapot while it was being walked across the parking lot and then poured into the gas tank on the bike.  But in China this was the way it was done because this was the "safe" way.  The only explanation I heard that made sense was the history of the local 2-stroke motorcycles blowing up while being filled at a gas pump.  Regardless this really didn't go over all that well with our group and there were several minor confrontations at gas stations that usually ended with us filling up at the pump.  One of techniques used successfully was to spill an excessive amount of gas out of the teapot as it was being walked over to the bike and as the bike was being filled.  It helped to make lots of explosion sounds and wave your arms around like a big mushroom cloud rising up into the sky.  Another technique that worked was to pay for each teapot with a 100 Yuan note and just smile as the gas station attendant had to provide another 93 Yuan in change.   They got tired of playing that game pretty quick.

After Jiayuguan our next extended stop was Lanzhou where we found ourselves in the middle of a huge modern Chinese city.  Even with all the modern conveniences and shopping malls there was still a night market where the streets packed up and the sights and sounds were endless.

There is even an attempt to retain some of the old.  You can visit a still functioning waterwheel and try crossing the river on an inflated sheepskin raft.

But mostly in China its bulldoze the old and build the new.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is It The End... Or Is It Just The Beginning?

When you check into a hotel in North West China at 2AM in the morning you have to wake the desk staff.  Fortunately they are probably all sleeping on mattresses on the floor at reception.  It also means you probably sleep in and miss the morning tour which included a rice whiskey factory and camel rides through the sand dunes.

Our next stop was Jiayuguan where depending on your perspective the Great Wall ends or begins.  There is a well preserved/reconstructed fortress complex along with the wall.

There is no single Great Wall out at this end of the Hexi Corridor.  There are bits of wall that have been reconstructed and surrounded with gift kiosks.  There are also miles and miles of wall that just sit derelict and rotting away.  Large sections have been removed for roads, ever expanding towns and Great Wall souvenirs.   It was along a bit of this original wall where we continued the GlobeRiders penchant for burying things around the world.  A geocache was created which included a copy of the Chinese Rules Of The Road, a knife and fork, and one of the last Brian medallions.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Sh!t Happens.

The police at the Chinese checkpoints along the highways never really knew what do with a bunch of foreign tourists on big foreign registered motorcycles.  Often times they were conveniently busy and just waved us through.  Sometimes we conveniently didn't see them waving us down and just kept on going.   When we were stopped the first order of business was to collect up all the passports.  There was one time when the very young policeman was so nervous he kept dropping the passports from his hands shaking so much.  Once the passports were all collected the next order of business was a phone call to find out what the next order of business should be.   The usual response was to take pictures of all the passports and email them on to someone else.  After the immediate situation was no longer the direct responsibility for any of the police officers there at the moment the atmosphere lightened up and we were soon on our way - but not before for some more pictures were taken.

We were provided a track for every day of the trip that marked the route in our GPS that we were to follow.  For the first few days through China the day's riding was done within 4 or 5 hours and a couple of times we ended up at the hotel before our rooms were ready.  Along with the monotony of the 4-line divided highways where the GPS directed us prompted some of the group to start extending the day on some adhoc detours.  The day we left Hami for Dunhuang was one such day for me and three others after reports of high mountain passes, Mongolian like grass lands and great roads were passed around from the day before.  It was always going to be a long day and there was conflicting information regarding whether or no there were actually any roads where we wanted to go but we headed out anyway - probably later than we should have but headed out we did.  The stories of the high mountain passes, Mongolian like grass lands and great roads turned from myth to truth and we had a great morning heading north and west, far away from our destination for the night.  As we continued along the conflicting information regarding the roads started to resolve itself from the facts on the ground and our route slowly turned east and south back towards our hotel for the night.  Around the middle of the afternoon one of us pulled off to the side of the road because the bike felt funny and he thought he might have a flat tire.  The tire was indeed low in air pressure but with no obvious punctures he got the air pressure back up to where it should be and we were on our way.  A short time later he pulled off but this time the tire was completely flat so we then started taking a closer look for the problem.  Eventually an incredibly small puncture in the tire was found and the appropriate steps were taken to repair it.  The problem with a puncture this small is that there really is no target for you to ream out and fill.  Most of the time you miss and create a bigger problem than what you started with.  After reinflating the tire it was obvious that the first patch had indeed missed the target and a second attempt to repair the tire was made.  The problem with trying to patch a patch is that the you will just make the hole bigger and you might as well call a tow truck and go home.  There are not a lot of tow trucks 30km from the Mongolian border in North West China so the fail safe method was chosen and a spare inner tube was put into the tire.  All of this tire repair work took time and it was now obvious that we would not be at the hotel before dinner time... actually it was probably obvious when we left the hotel that morning.  And we were still not sure that the road we were on would get us down to Dunhuang although the few people that we had stopped all nodded that this road would get us to Dunhuang - at least that's what we hoped we were asking.

With the tire repair all buttoned up we once again headed on down the road.  As the sun started to set the road taking us back to the main highway we had been expecting showed up and we let the trip leaders know that not only would we be missing dinner but that we would also not make it back before dark - again this was probably and easy conclusion that could have been made earlier that day as we were leaving.  At the on ramp to the main highway the bike with the repaired flat had yet another flat so we pulled off and got to work again - this time in the dark.

A couple of us were also terribly close to running out of gas so some syphoning was done to make sure everyone had enough to make the 35km to the next gas station.  With the tire repaired yet again and with enough gas to make it the four of us headed out again, making it all the way to the hotel to check in at 2AM in the morning.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Riding In China.

Whether its well earned or not the Chinese seem to have a reputation around the world as lousy drivers.  After riding a motorcycle across a substantial part of that country I think I have a better understanding and maybe a little insight into the Chinese drivers' mind.   Having survived Albania where they are just plain nuts and Iran where the rules of the road are nothing more than an often ignored suggestion, China is a different experience all together.  I don't think it is so much that the Chinese are bad drivers but that they have this amazing ability to completely subjugate their self-preservation gene the second they take a steering wheel or handle bar into their hands.  In Albania and Iran the drivers absolutely knew what was going on around them at all times - there is no other way for them to have made some of the moves they did to take advantage of the smallest openings in traffic.  In China they just go... without looking in any direction except straight ahead.  

I'm not really sure why but I didn't take a lot of pictures in North West China.  Maybe it was because everything was covered with a half-inch thick layer of dust.  Maybe it was because the riding was so uninspiring.  Maybe it was because after coming down from the Pamirs the trip had entered its denouement phase.  Or maybe because I didn't feel like a tourist here; the sights, sounds and smells were all strangely familiar.  

Eventually we made it to Turpan, one of the lowest places on earth at ~ -150m below sea level.  Remarkably not more than 7-days previously we were traveling over some of the highest navigable road passes in the world in excess of 4500m above sea level.  The population of the city pretty much disappears during the day due to the heat but they come out at night.

One of the unique things here is that during the summer most everyone sleeps on the roof.  Looking out the window of the hotel there are large 4-poster beds on every roof and in the morning you can literally watch the city wake up.  

On the morning of the rest day we had an opportunity to visit the ruins of the capital city of an ancient civilization and some buddhist caves on the outskirts of town.

I was running low of sunscreen and braved the mid-day heat after the morning tour to restock my supply.  I eventually found a supermarket that looked to have the right assortment of associated sundries so I made an enquiry as best I could to the shop girl.  I guess I managed to convey the right information as she happily dragged me to the correct shelf.  When I pulled out my depleted bottle of 60 SPF hoping to find something stronger than the 30 SPF on the shelf she disappeared around a corner, returning with a smile and an umbrella.