Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Final Thoughts

The journey back on the plane seems like a good time reflect on what I have gained from the trip as a whole. I feel I have learnt a lot. Firstly I have learnt a great deal about China. I had already spent a reasonable amount of time in this baffling country, and was beginning to feel that I knew my way around and that I was getting close to understanding what it was that made the place what it was. However, I had, apart from a few notable exceptions, spent most of my time in the cities of China’s Han heartland. Spending time here does teach you a lot about China, but only seeing these areas is like listening to a song through only one headphone, you get a pretty good idea of what’s going on but you miss out on the full vibrancy and intricacy of the song.
It would be an utter lie to say that I now understand China, but I do feel that my understanding has at least been improved a little. I now understand, more than ever, what the statistics can only hint at about the diversity of China ethnically, religiously and economically. If one spends long enough in the large cities of Beijing and Shanghai, among others, one can come close to believing that China is approaching a level of development that one might find in the West. However, you do not have to stray far from the beaten track to realise that the vast majority of China’s population live in essentially third world conditions. Therefore, when China’s leaders say that China is still a developing nation, they are right, even though the fact that they have put an astronaught into space may make this statement hard to believe. The ethnic diversity of the place also beggars belief. Having lived in London all my life I am no stranger to diversity, however what surprised me about China is how little integration there is between ethnicities. One is either in a Han area, a Tibetan area or a Uigher area and there is very little cross over. Different ethnicities emerge like oases in the desert only to disappear as quickly as they arrived. I guess that this should come as no surprise, a combination of poverty and the hugely oppressive ‘Hukou’ household registration system means that geographical mobility within China is not as easy as it might be. This added to the fact that China is one of the biggest countries in the world, means that different regions of China often feel like different countries.
I also feel that my grasp of the Chinese language has improved. When I left Beijing my Chinese was not in any way bad, and it is not that I learnt much new vocabulary along the way, apart from perhaps the word for ‘engine oil’, it is more that I have become more accustomed to simply chatting with people in Chinese, and to the assumptions that they are likely to make behind any language that is actually spoken. I have also learnt to understand a number of, sometimes rather tricky, regional accents that make Beijing’s ‘er hua’ sound like standard Mandarin.
I have also made a fantastic and life-long friend in Pryd. Throughout the 22 days of riding we never had an argument and I feel we supported each other throughout the trip. Having contrasting but complimentary skill sets may have helped quite a bit, one thing that became abundantly clear early on in the trip was that neither of us could have done this alone and that we needed each other a great deal.
China, as everybody now knows, will be one of the defining forces of this century. Although this in itself is a reason to visit China, it is not the only one. It is a fantastically interesting place historically, politically, religiously and ethnically. However, I would make one suggestion for those travelling to China, one visit is certainly not enough to see it all, I’m not sure a lifetime of travel and study would be.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Xinjiang - Control

Seeing as I was unable to post any blog entries for Xinjiang while actually in the province, it seems more sensible to relate our experiences there in a more thematic way than the chronological format of the blog has previously allowed. If the theme of the previous entry might loosely be called ‘roads’, the theme of this could potentially be outlined as ‘control’.
As soon as one enters Xinjiang, particularly given recent events in the province, you are left in no doubt whatsoever who is in control. Driving in and out of every town you are confronted by checkpoints where one must present one’s identity papers, even the smallest of towns houses a vast police station and is regularly patrolled by police as well as PLA (People’s Liberation Army) convoys, and everywhere there are billboards and signs proclaiming the need to build a ‘harmonious society’ and to ‘confront criminality’.
This feeling of almost being besieged is multiplied hundreds of times over when you realise that the province, for all intents and purposes, actually IS under siege. In Xinjiang at the moment there is no internet, there are no international phone calls out of the province, there are no text messages except the propaganda messages the government sends you, and there are no phone calls to mobile phones outside of the province. Xinjiang is, in terms of communications at least, largely cut off from the rest of the world. This is justified by claiming that much of the unrest was instigated from abroad, but a more likely explanation would seem to be that they are in place to try and prevent the news of the Chinese government crackdown reaching the outside world. It is also, I believe, a kind of punishment for bad behaviour not dissimilar to those tactics used all over the world by parents when faced with misbehaving children: ‘behave or I’ll turn off your internet’. It may seem a little far-fetched to present the hugely powerful Chinese state in this way but they do much the same in the rest of China, all be it in a watered down way. Look up something on Google which the Chinese government doesn’t like and that search will be blocked, you will also be prevented from using Google for ten minutes, a cyber slap-on-the-wrist.
This control of the communications’ network is, as mentioned above, coupled with very real control on the ground. Conveys of PLA trucks make routine drives around the city. In each truck there are approximately forty soldiers dressed in riot gear. Most hold batons and riot shields, but in every truck there is at least one soldier with a machine gun and another with a grenade launcher. A GRENADE LAUNCHER? What are they expecting? If there is another riot will they use grenade launchers on crowds of their own citizens? I’m not sure I want to hear the answer to that question. Much of this must simply be a show of force, but if this is true then the show has a very specific audience, the soldiers certainly did not take kindly to us taking photographs of them.
It is also certainly not all for show. We met a guy who had been held by the Chinese for a week following the riots. They let him sleep for one night in the week and for the rest they kept him up for the whole night asking the same question. Seeing he was a tour guide, they were worried that he had told the French people he was showing around the city what was going on. He was understandably more than a little bitter about the whole affair.
We had not been held in a Chinese prison for a week but by the end of our time in Xinjiang, and after a number of encounters with the ‘powers-that-be’, we were beginning to become extremely frustrated with the amount of control the Chinese authorities believed it was legitimate to have over our lives.
The first such encounter we had was during one of the first nights we spent in Xinjiang. We arrived in a small town and went up to the first hotel we saw and checked in, the room was fine and the owners of the hotel were absolutely delightful. However, we arrived back to the hotel that night to find an off duty police officer in the lobby buying a drink. The owner’s face sank and the, rather surprised looking, policeman asked us if we were staying there. We said we were. “I’m afraid, I will have to ask you to come with me to another hotel for your own safety.” Well, we felt perfectly safe there, and we made this point clear with the policeman. There was, however, no arguing with him, it seems that once again there was only one hotel in town in which foreigners were allowed to stay. It also seemed that normally this rule is not that stringently adhered to but, as the owner of our hotel explained, the police department and the hotel into which we were being moved were ‘linked’, I will leave you to interpret from that what you will.
Needless to say we were less than happy at being turfed out of our room at 10.30 at night ‘for our own safety’. So we resolved to make this policeman’s night as difficult as possible. First we brought down all our things from our room one at a time, including single shoes. That took half an hour. Then it occurred to me that we had never actually seen any official identification from this so-called police officer. It turned out he didn’t have it on him. He insisted that it was fine, but we likewise insisted that ‘for our safety’ we could not leave with someone if we did not know who they were. He rang the police department but no one was available to bring it over, so he had to go back and fetch it, to the poorly suppressed joy of the hotel staff. Upon his return we had just loaded our things into his van, one at a time, when he said that we needed to bring the bikes. In which case, we added, ‘for our safety’ we had to put on all our gear. I could feel the frustration welling up inside him as we put on trousers, jackets, gloves, boots and helmets. Just when we had put all our kit on, Pryd had a stroke of genius: we couldn’t ride the bikes as we had been drinking. The policeman insisted that this was ok as it was such a short distance, but we likewise insisted that ‘for our safety’ we could not drive. “Alright,” he said “I’ll ring up the police station and get some guys to drive them over to the hotel.” That wouldn’t do either, what would our insurance companies say if the bikes were involved in a crash and we weren’t driving? In the end two police officers had to come and push them the kilometre and a half to the new hotel. We had managed to string the whole event out for more than two and half hours.
Such behaviour in many ways seems inordinately petty, but when you consider that very few Chinese citizens would dare do such a thing for fear of the repercussions, both official and unofficial, it seems worth it. It seems worth showing these policemen the expectations that a genuine human rights culture involves, and to show them that they are not, in fact, kings of the universe.
This is not, it must be admitted however, the most effective way of dealing with the security apparatus in China. It is fun, but it does not often get achieved what one wants to get achieved, as we found out when we were in Kashgar and trying to get to Karakul Lake near the border with Pakistan. There are a number of checkpoints on the way, as one might expect when heading towards an area which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but none of the officials there care much about what you do as long as you have your passport and the right documentation. That is, except for the woman on the checkpoint immediately out of Kashgar who seems to think that she is protecting a Chinese state secret. She would not let us pass.
“‘For your safety’ you need a guide.”
“But we’ve driven 6,000km from Beijing without a guide I don’t think we need one.”
She then proceeded to explain to us that we needed to go into town, find a guide and a car and then come back. We, however, really wanted to take the motorcycles, it seemed such a fitting end to the trip and a last hurrah for the bikes. Eventually she got annoyed with our arguing:
“Don’t you have travel agents in America?”
“We’re not from America.”
“Well, don’t you have travel agents in England then?”
“Yes, we have them, but we don’t have to use them to get around because we live in a free country.”
After that there was no chance of us getting through.
The next day when we came back with a guide and a car she wasn’t there and her replacement gave a cursory look at our passports, didn’t note down any details and didn’t even look at our guide’s credentials.
Such experiences forced me to remember that, however free, cosmopolitan and vibrant cities like Beiing and Shanghai may seem, China is still a one party state in the true sense of the word. The lack of trust China displays in its own people, as well as people of other countries, holds it back from becoming a truly modern state, a goal which it is so desperate to achieve.

Xinjiang - The Roads

Xinjiang in Chinese means ‘New Frontier’, and it feels like it. It is China’s biggest province, and yet barely feels like China at all. The language here is not simply a different dialect but is from a completely different linguistic family, the people look more Turkish or Central Asian than they do Chinese, and the food consists of lamb kebabs and bread rather than Kungpao Chicken and rice. It is also largely made up of vast amounts of desert.
This was, by our reckoning at least, supposed to be the hardest part of the trip. The distances involved were enormous, the areas through which we were travelling were extremely remote and we had heard that the roads were bad.
As it turned out, it was nowhere near as hard as Qinghai had been. The distances were indeed vast, it took us five days from our first stop in Xinjiang to reach Kashgar, however although much of what we drove through was extremely isolated there was always a convenient little oasis town which popped up at just in time for us to stay the night. Also, apart from some rather hairy roadworks some of which pushed the bikes (thankfully only temporarily) to breaking point, the roads were largely extremely good.
Actually, when I say the roads were good, I mean the road surface was good. After about an hour of ceaseless desert the scenery does become a little monotonous. Look left, endless sand. Look right, endless sand. This for hundreds of kilometres. The only rest bite from the monotony came from oases. One minute we would be surrounded by sand and rock and nothing else, and almost instantly the oasis would emerge and there would be green trees, crops and even people. The only life we ever saw in the desert proper consisted of lizards and, once, a herd of camels.
Another thing that was not good about these ‘good roads’ was the driving. The driving in China is universally poor, but there are varying degrees of poor. In fact the driving in Xinjiang would be better described as catastrophic. Out in the desert there were so few vehicles that this was largely not an issue. When, however, we hit those oasis towns the driving beggared belief. Herds of goats, cars, motorbikes, auto ricksaws, peddle bikes, lorries and pedestrians became a heaving mass of varying speeds and trajectories. Having someone try to kill you became a daily occurrence.
Having said this, it was my own stupidity that led to my only serious crash of the trip. In the monotony of the surroundings and the straightness of the road concentration did sometimes wonder. In such an unthinking moment I set off after a break with my side stand still down. Pryd noticed and pulled up beside me to make me aware of this fact. Instead of stopping, flicking the stand up and continuing I stupidly tried to put it up while driving. But it wouldn’t go. I looked down to see what was going on and took my eyes off the ball just long enough for the bike to have drifted right to the edge of the road. I lifted my gaze to see the drop down the embankment coming towards me extremely quickly. I jerked the bike back on course, but by this stage I was already on the gravel by the side of the road, and any quick movements on a motorbike on gravel are highly inadvisable. I swerved, fell and bike and I slid down the road for a number of metres.
Considering that I was travelling at about 60km/h it is remarkable that the bike and I escaped largely without a scratch. The bike had a few bent pieces here and there, but nothing serious, and I was completely fine, not a bruise and not a scratch. It just goes to show what a difference some good kit can make.
Needless to say, I will never underestimate my side stand again.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Good the Bad and the Goddamn Awful

After Wulan the map looked disconcertingly empty. There seemed to be no settlements of reasonable size for about 650km, so we prepared for at least a couple of nights camping.
If the map looked empty that was nothing compared to the place itself. I have never been to such a desolate place in all my life, I have never seen so much nothing. There seemed not to be a living thing for hundreds of miles, it was disconcerting and more than a little dull. Miles and miles of mud dunes gave way to miles and miles of pebble desert which faded once again into mud dunes in a seemingly unbreakable cycle. A stark contrast to the beauty and variety we had come to expect from Eastern Qinghai.
Given the bleak nature of our surroundings, it is not altogether surprising that the campsites we found for our two nights on this Martian landscape did not quite live up to those of previous evenings. On the first night we became worried that the wind had picked up and what seemed to be a dust storm was approaching. We stopped by the side of the road in the most sheltered area we could find and started to pitch our tents. It took us an hour of battling with inners, outers, poles and pegs in the ever-strengthening wind and the ever-thickening dust to put up our tents. Then, as the wind died down and the dust settled later that night, the rain came.
Luckily the tents stood firm and we were afforded a half-decent night’s sleep. The next morning however, we discovered that the rain had brought out the mosquitoes and, as the wind had changed, a hideous smell of rotting flesh had settled over our campsite. We had inadvertently pitched camp close to two rotting animal carcasses. So being bitten all over by mosquitoes, and with the stench of decaying animal carcasses in our nostrils, we struck camp.
Surely the next day could not be any worse? At this point is where I need to confess to a pathological desire to kill horribly and brutally the maker of our map. As far as we were concerned we wanted to follow the G315 which would eventually take us the 2500km to Kashgar. This was totally correct, except that our map showed us the route of the old G315. As such, it unnecessarily subjected us to the worst road I have ever driven on, and hopefully ever will drive on. Sand, rocks and gravel combined to create a motorcyclists’ hell.
Our slow progress was made even more painful by the fact that my chain kept falling off, so every couple of kilometres we had to stop to place it back in its appropriate place, rather than dragging along the floor. Eventually, and bizarrely, in this landscape replete with nothingness we saw a streak of light shoot across the sky ahead of us, swiftly followed by another. I am no weapons expert, but I have seen enough films, and enough ‘action news’ bulletins to know that these were missiles. It seems that this old road was still somewhat in use as a route to a small, but none the less imposing, army base.
When we reached the entrance to the base we came across a very surprised looking soldier, and two very surprised looking oil workers. Normally in such a situation I try and hurry on as quickly as possible, it is usually best to avoid giving the Chinese authorities any excuse to make one’s life difficult, as they will invariably take such an opportunity and run with it as far as they can. However, my chain was becoming so infuriating that I simply had to ask whether they had a spanner of the particular size that we needed, which it turned out the oil workers did. While the chain was being tightened we tried to ascertain where exactly we were. It was at this point that we found out that we were on the old G315, which had been abandoned for many years, and that we had three choices. To turn back and drive 100km to the turning on to the new G315, continue 120km on the road on which we were currently, but which would get considerably worse, or finally sit down where we were and cry our eyes out. As tempting as the third option seemed it was not, in the end, particularly useful and one can’t cry in front of a soldier anyway, so after much deliberation we decided that, although the road ahead may be bad, it did at least head in the right direction. So we continued. The road did, indeed get worse. Bones were rattled, arses were bruised and falls were made. It was a truly horrific experience. I’d like to say, in that favourite phrase of British public schools, that the experience was ‘character building’, but I’m not so sure. We drove for nine hours and covered 176km.
After this ordeal tarmac felt like a river of silk, it was an absolute joy to ride upon. However, after such an ordeal we were in desperate need of a good night’s sleep. We pitched camp in a desolate spot by a lake and began to feel a little bit better about ourselves. Until, that is, the wind began to pick up and on the horizon we could see a black cloud approaching at some speed. We just managed to finish dinner and pack things up before our second dust storm hit. This one was far more ferocious than the one the previous night, and it felt for a while, as tent poles bent and buckled under the strain of the wind, that the tents might not last.
Thankfully the tents did hold and the wind eventually died down enough for us to sleep, a fitting end to a truly despicable day.
The next day was to be our last day in Qinghai, a diverse and simultaneously beautiful and bleak province which, to be honest, we were delighted to leave. Our last night was spent in a hotel which was under construction in a desolate oil town on the Qinghai border, which felt like paradise compared to a tent in a dust storm.
The next day it was on to Xinjiang, our destination province, and not a moment too soon.

Up down and round and round

Well, Xiahe was brilliantly interesting and surrounded by some stunning scenery. Upon departure we had a little difficulty finding the correct road out of the village, as it was only a small local road. I stopped to ask someone and we chatted a little. I told him that I thought his home was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. He said ‘Yes it is beautiful, but not free, but we get by.’ This was the first time I had encountered anyone in China being so politically open about such a sensitive issue, and I was quite taken aback. I have honed very well my diplomatic vocabulary for talking with Chinese people about such issues, saying that people around the world have different cultures and different political views, and other such meaningless drivel. When I was, however, finally given the opportunity to agree with someone and give them a little support, I was quite literally lost for words. All I could do was nod and ask the way again out of town. I felt so useless, and so helpless. I felt that he had reached out to me and that I had offered nothing in return. It is a moment I look back on with great regret.
This feeling was at least assuaged by the most stunning drive we have had so far. The green of the Ganjia grasslands is of a shade which I have never seen, so dark and rich that our own green and pleasant land pales into insignificance. And although there was much that was idyllic about this landscape, it was far too imposing to be called in anyway ‘pleasant’. The herds of yak and sheep made for a scene which I had almost forgotton still existed in China, having spent so long in the bright lights of Beijing. When this green was then complimented with the white caps of towering mountains in the near distance the tableau was well and truly complete. The monasteries, stupas and monks one passed on the road being the only real reminder of human presence in this wonderful landscape. It is at this point that one understands why the Tibetan culture is so esteemed by the West. It is hard to imagine a scene which stands in such stark contrast to the Western, and modern Chinese, ‘who dies with the most toys wins’ mentality. It was the sort of scenery I had only dreamed that we might encounter on this trip.
However, what made the day’s ride even more fascinating still was the diversity of scenery that was laid out for our enjoyment. Rolling green hills and white caps gave way to crimson rock gorges and turquoise lakes, which in turn faded into pine tree woods reminiscent of an alpine scene, which then in turn segued back into the rolling green hills which returned once and a while providing a light motif for the day, creating what was truly a symphony of landscape.
There was, however, only one thing that slightly detracted from our enjoyment of this wonderful scenery, and that was that we were making painfully slow time. Every time we took a winding road up into the hills our 150cc motorcycles, struggling under the weight of us and all our gear, rarely exceeded 40km/h. We spent much of the day in second and third gear, crawling.
We therefore failed to make our target of camping beside Qinghai lake, and as dusk descended we found a campsite next to a stream in a valley between rolling green hills. Just as we were about to pitch camp, however, we heard the unmistakeable calls of herdsmen as they, and their herd of yak, emerged over one of the hills. Our campsite was suddenly occupied. Rather sheepishly we asked the herdsmen if it was alright if we camped there. They said that this was, of course, fine and that they were moving on soon anyway. We took some photos of them and their yak, for which they very solemnly made sure they took their hats off, and also managed to get a demonstration of the use of one of their sling shots, the accuracy of which in a trained hand was quite remarkable.
As the day came to an end, frustration at not reaching our goal faded into satisfaction at what had been seen that day. In fact, so much had been seen that the morning felt as far in the past as the events of the previous week.
The next morning, perhaps feeling the effects of the cold night which had past, or perhaps struggling from the exertions of the previous day and the two crashes to which it had been subjected, Pryd’s bike would not start. We tried kick starting it, we tried pop starting it. Nothing worked, and at an altitude of around 3000m pushing a bike to try and pop start it is less than fun. Our exertions attracted the attention of two locals who were driving past on their motorcycles. They, like us, could not work out what was wrong, but they would not give up. Eventually, between the four of us, we managed to get the bike started again and they pointed us in the direction of a mechanic. We owe those two guys a great deal, and it is a shame that all we could really offer was ‘thank you’.
After a seeing over by the mechanic Pryd’s bike was once again in vague working order and it was time to make the assault on Qinghai Lake, China’s biggest lake. It is, in fact more of an inland sea, and is even big enough to be salty. The scenery was, once again, stunning, but I did not feel the same affinity with it that I had felt with that of the previous day. It is, perhaps, hard to have such a personal attachment to scenery that so many others are also experiencing at the same time as oneself, for by this time we had been joined by many other tourists and the feeling that the show was being put on for us, and us alone, was well and truly gone.
That night we stayed in a perfectly pleasant little town called Wulan, where for the first time on the trip we encountered the phenomenon of there only being one hotel which is allowed to accept foreigners. This rule is, according to the authorities at least, for foreigners’ own safety. Far more likely, however, is that it is much easier to control foreigners if they can only stay in one place. This is particularly important when the town lies on the back road into a certain place with very high mountains, lots of monks and where a German guy once spent seven years. Travelling to Tibet as a foreigner not as part of a group is still strictly prohibited.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Crash, Bang, Wallop.... What a Holiday!

We left Yingchuan early in the morning planning to camp somewhere on the border of Ningxia and Gansu provinces. In the way, however, lay the Tengger Desert, which would be our first taste of desert riding, something we will mhave to get very used to when we get to Xinjiang.

The drive through the desert was spectacular. Miles and miles of sun and sand and rock, and a dead straight road through the middle. The road was flanked by the odd tiny hamlet but otherwise the whole area, as one might expect from a desert, was deserted.

We did, however, need lunch and there was no Little Chef or Welcome Break in sight. So we stopped in a tiny hamlet next to a building with a sign that said 'shop' outside it. At least we might be able to get some biscuits and a drink.

When we walked in, as soon as the boss had had overcome her utter shock at seeing our faces, she immediately offered us a meal. 'We are just about to have lunch, won't you join us?' We almost bit her hand off. So we sat down with grandma, grandpa and their three grandchildren for lunch. True, it was no Michelin Star restaurant, but it was truly "vaut le d├ętour", as the French guide might say. I know it is a cliche, but the generosity of those that have nothing is sometimes truly astounding.

We camped that night in some truly spectacular surroundings about 2000m up in the hills between Gansu and Ningxia. We managed to find a place to pitch camp in some ruins, either of an old settlement or a fort from Imperial times. The fort hypothesis in many ways seems more likely as the view afforded from the spot was unparalleled and the that area was very much on the old border of imperial China. Either way, we felt truly priveleged to be afforeded the opportunity to camp in such an imposing place.

Thw view was no less spectacular when we got up, and it was a real wrench to leave. We did, however, have a schedule to keep to.

The morning's drive was beautiful, if uneventiful, and we made good time before stopping for lunch. After lunch, however, my bike would not start. We simply could not work out why as it had been running perfectly before lunch. The battery was fine, there was enough petrol and the spark plug was pristine. We tried kick starting it, we tried pop starting it, but nothing worked. So we weeled it across the road to the motorbike workshop but the mechanic's wife said he wasn't in, and when asked when he might be back looked more than a little pissed off and shrugged her shoulders. Some things are culturally universal.

So we asked the lorry mechanics next door, who were playing drinking games at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. They had a brief look but couldn't work it out either.

At this stage Pryd had a thought. Could it be something to do with my alarm? At which point it suddenly occured to me to volunteer the information that the alarm button on my key ring had jammed briefly while I was getting something off the bike. We disconnected the alarm, and the bike roared into life, it turns out the alarm was also fitted with an immobiliser in case of tampering. Elation and shame. I felt like one of those patients in House who has prevented him from coming to the right diagnosis by not telling him a crucial part of their medical history. Everybody lies.

After this mino hiccough, however, we arrived in Lanzhou, provincial capital of Gansu. In the 1990s Lanzhou had briefly attained the dubious honour of the world's most polluted city. Since then, however, it has really turned itself around. It seemed clean (for China), and the people were astonishingly friendly. Being a mini celebrity never gets old, even if explaining your route a thousand times sometimes does. We even mangaged to become semi adopted by a motorcycle shop/club, which sorted out a few problem we were having with the bikes for free, as well as giving us an oil change and some helpful advice. It turns out the biker network even exists in China.

After one night in Lanzhou we had a rather long drive into the depths of Gansu province where we had planned to stop at Xiahe, a small village with an enormous Tibetan Monastery.

The day was going to be long anyway, so the last thing we needed was to get lost. Which of course we did. The first few hours were uneventful enough, and the scenery was beautiful as we wound our way through the 'Yellow River Three Gorges', which were not as awe-inspiring as the original Three Gorges on the Yangzi, but imposing nonetheless.

The sign posting, however, left a little to be desired, so we followed the locals' instructions. The route they picked out was not exactly that which we had planned, and involved winding mountain roads, a great view of an enormous lake and a ferryride. All this would have been much more pleasant had we known that we were eventually going to arrive in the right palce. Which we did, in the end.

However, having got off the ferry and continuing on roads with some fairly precipitous turns, Pryd seems to have forgotten that we was not riding his 600cc Kawasaki racer from home, but was in fact riding a 150cc "Made in China" cruiser. He slightly overcooked a turn, braked, straightened a bit, hit some gravel, braked again and went sliding off the road into a concrete ditch. My heart stopped.

Thankfully Pryd was essentially ok, although is still carrying a rather painful knee injury. The bike, however, seemed to be in rather a bad way. Lots of bent and scraped parts and, far more importantly, it wouldn't start.

After discussing what to do we eventually decided that Pryd would at least coast it down the hill and try to pop start it. By a phenomenal stroke of luck on the second try the engine roared (or more accurately spluttered) into life. At this stage, had I been in Pryd's position with a bashed up bike an incredibly painful knee, I would have been very keen to call it a day there. Pryd, however, with determination worthy of extreme admiration decided that he wanted to continue on to our intended destination, another 130km away.

Time, was by now at a bit of a premium, so once again we got lost. No signs on the road, and where we were seemed to bear no resmblance to what our map was telling us. This at least afforded us a good look at linxia which was an intriguing majority Muslim town. At last, however, with a lot of local help we found the right road and began heading up into the lush green of the Himalayan foothills, with hillsides dotted with nomadic Tibetan camps and sheep. The scenery was fantastic but our enjoyment was slightly dampened by the ever strengthening rain. My call not to put ponchos on as we were 'only thirty kilometres away' proved to be an error, and we froze in our light weigt summer kit as we climbed the mountains.

Then, Pryd was once again felled, this time by a goat that inexplicably ran out in front of him. Luckily neither Pryd nor the goat were hurt, and Pryd also had the honour of being picked up and dusted down by a Tibetan monk who also gave his bike the once over. The bike was, by now, looking distinctly worse-for-wear, but it started and we continued.

Finally cold, wet and a little bashed up we reached Xiahe. About time.

Xiahe itself is a fascinating place. Even more so considering that in the space of one day's drive we went from Han, to Muslim, to Tibetan, three very different cultures all with their own intricacies and complexities.

In Xiahe we had decided to have a much-earned day off and visit the monastery, among other things. The monastery, the monks, and the smell of yak butter and incense took us both straight back to previous travels in Tibet, and it was great to have the opportunity to see something which I wasn't sure I would necessarily see again. We are all the more lucky in that Xiahe has only been reopened for the last three weeks after being closed for one and a half years after the Tibetan riots of 2008.

Tomorrow it is onwards and upwards to Qinghai lake, China's largest lake.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Steppeing on Sand

Well, as far as I can see Inner Monglia consists of the steppe, some stunning scenery and road works.

We set off from Datong after our day off feeling pretty fresh. I had actually already begun to miss sitting on the bike and seeing white centre lines rushing (or crawling) past me. To be honest so much has happened since then it's hard to remember even s far back as a few days. One thing that is impossible to forget though is the road we took out of Datong and in to Inner Mongolia. It was, quite simply, stunning. It wound itself precariously through some of the most stunning natural and man made scenery I have ever seen. Rolling hills and craggy peaks, dotted around with some of the oldest pieces of the Great Wall still in existence. Needless to say, Pryd and I got very, very excited. We were giggling like schoolboys who had not only been given double maths off because their teacher was ill, but at the same time found out that not only was the teacher ill, he had Gonorrhea.

Hohot itself, however, was a fairly unremarkable town. We stayed the night and left early the next morning.

The next day was characterised by soaring highs and crashing lows. Highs brought about the scenery, which was still breathtaking. The Mongolian grasslands at this time of year truly are a fantastic sight. Lows were brought about by road works, tons of roadworks. Sand, mud, gravel, stones, sand, mud on gravel, and sand. It really was very tough going and we made painfully slow progress. As has been pointed out to me, we may have felt like Genghis Kahn but we probably made slower progress than he did across Inner Mongolia that day. The denouement of this odyssey of road works was a puddle of muddy water about a foot deep under a bridge. We emerged with bikes and gear covered in mud. Our beautiful chrome finish which glinted so stylishly in the sun was well and truly gone.

These trials and tribulations were more than made up for, however, by the place we decided tp camp for the night. The middle of the Mongolian grasslands is a great place to pitch camp. Even the fact that I couldn't stand up to put my trousers on in the morning did not detract from it. A truly memorable night.

The rest of our time in Inner Mongolia has consisted of more road works and some incredibly heavy industry. The whole of Inner Mongolia after where we camped was grey from smog and dust. The problem in Inner Mongolia is that it is never meant to have been farmed, it is meant to be pasture, as it has been for thousands of years. Now, however, it is being farmed by sedantry Han Chinese which means that the thin topsoil, ater it has been cultivated for a few seasons and exhausted of its nutrients, is simply left to blow away. When this is added to the severe pollution in some areas the whole place is cloaked in a concrete grey smog which rarely lifts. It is a tragedy, as Inner Mongolia has the potential to be one of the world's truly beautiful places.

So, as it happens, we were quite happy to be out of Inner Mongolia, as I write this we are in Yingchuan, capital of Ningxia province, and will hopefully make it into Gansu province tomorrow.