July 15 1994: Two
days into the trip and the bikes were getting pretty well sorted. We we
gradually getting them set up the way we wanted, and our packing and access to
the luggage we actually needed was improving out of sight, through trial and
error.. The bikes were proving comfortable and reliable,
and were coping well on the 90 octane fuel. Before leaving Nanjing we did
a little work on the bikes and installed a couple of in-line automobile fuel filters.
A lot of the fuel we would end up buying on this trip would be crap fuel, and a
small filter could soon be clogged. So car filters it was, and to be safe
we carried a spare each.
Already at this early stage we had settled into a daily maintenance routine.
Before heading off each morning, the oil was checked, the engine warmed up by
idling, the chain tension was checked, the chain was lubed, the tyre pressures
checked, water levels checked. The bikes had to take us half way round the
world, and we were going to check everything we could as often as we could to
make sure they did take us round the world.
the main highway after Nanjing (after crossing the massive Yangtse River), our route took us along some charming provincial
back roads for the three day ride to Qingdao.
[see China Map 2] Once away from the main
highway, the roads really belonged to commune tractors, donkeys and carts.
Only the occasional transport trucks thundered along here in a pleasant change
from the major roads. There was always a crowd of 15-20 curious farmers
and children who appeared when we stopped for lunch. The Chinese have
a habit of looking with their fingers. If we ever left the bikes alone
for any amount of time, we would inevitably have to go through a checklist
before we could start them up. The spark plug leads would be pulled
out, the kill switch set on off, fuel turned off, the high beam would be
on, the tripmeter reset - anything that could be played with always was.
Although this was annoying, we never felt concerned about theft as they were
only interested in fondling the motorcycles.
the first day that we ran into unpaved roads. The roads were theoretically
paved, but were undergoing reconstruction for long sections. The exposed
road base was just large sharp rocks, which is all fine in a truck or 4 wheeled
vehicle, but it presented a nice challenge for us on the motorbikes. Not
that we we needed challenging - 3 days on Chinese roads had already left us with
memories of a dozen near death experiences.
area of China was very green, and every square inch of land was under
cultivation - the Dutch would understand. Despite China's vast size, only
10% of its land is fit for cultivation, and with 1.2 billion people, you cant
afford to waste too much of that. Despite the jagged roadworks earlier in
the day, we hit a nice stretch in the afternoon and got the bikes up to about
An example of how the mechanics in countries like China overcome the difficulties of having no spare parts or proper tools showed up when both motorcycles lost part of their chain tension adjustment system. Needing to make a new end plate for the swingarm, a mechanic in the dead end town of Qingjiang cut two rectangular pieces of plate steel out of a rusting old door hinge with a hacksaw blade. He compared his two pieces of steel to the genuine pressed aluminium article and went to work with his file. Then, as we wondered how he would join these two pieces together, out from under an old, greasy, wooden bench came a pair of wires the size of jumper leads. He stuck one end of each wire into a giant power socket in the wall. One of the wires he earthed between his sandal and the concrete floor and while squatting down he held the other end to the metal contraption. An assistant pulled down a giant lever which looked like the type used to turn on Frankenstein. In next to no time the two pieces of metal were welded together and he set about grinding his handiwork into an identical replica of the original part. To his credit, the finished part was literally perfect. He refused to take payment, but I managed to slip him 5 kuai (yuan) as we walked out the door and he was very grateful.
The night of the 15th July was spent in the provincial backwater of Qingjiang.
Its miles from any railroad and in China that pretty much makes it a backwater.
No tourists pass through here. Its one of those super-industrial hellholes
that you read about in geographic magazines. It is however on the once great
Grand Canal, a truly impressive piece of engineering that was built to link
Beijing to the Yangtse River 2500 klms away. Parts of it were built as
early as 500 BC, and it was completed by around 500 AD. The untouristy
nature of the place contributed to our cheap hotel bill that night. 30
Yuan (5 USD) all up. Even out here in the backwaters, construction activity was
rife. New roads were being built, hotels were being built (for whom we
wondered??), houses were being built and renovated. It is worth bearing in
mind that the quality of materials used in Chinese housebuilding left a lot to
be desired. The bricks used were not only hideous, but were cheap and
brittle. It was clear that the buildings being built would need to be
rebuilt within 25 years.
Throughout Eastern China we stayed in hotels. At the end of each
day we would negotiate with management about how much they would charge
us for the hotel room. Usually we were told to go to the expensive
"foreigners" hotel down the road. There they would want 300-400 Yuan
for a room, so we would wait and be annoying and eventually
we got a cheap "local" room for about 20% of that. Storing the bikes
was not usually a problem. They proved to be quite an attraction actually.
Many of the hotels in which we stayed had restaurants and it was often the
case that management would ask us to park the bikes in the dining area.
It seemed the restaurant patrons found the bikes to be quite an attraction.
Honda TransAlps as a backdrop for the evening meal!
16 July 1994: Waking up in Qingjiang proved not to be one of the highlights of the trip. The sky was very dark and it had been raining all night. It was still well and truly a tropical downpour at 8am. Seeing acid rain pouring down over an industrial hellhole first thing in the morning is not something to lift the spirits of a biker. Rain, particularly heavy rain, is often seen as a cleansing thing, but here in Qingjiang the rain brought with it an assortment of horrific stenches. James had foolishly left some laundry outside overnight and not only was it soaking wet, but it now stank as well. A break in the rain around 9am gave us enough of a chance to go through our morning maintenance on the bikes before the dark grey heavens opened up again and we retreated back to our ramshackle hotel room for another couple of hours. It was midday before we got on the road. Drainage was something yet to be perfected in Qingjiang and the overnight rain had meant large parts of the road were under 30-50 cm of water. We ploughed on through with legs up in the air.
There's not a great deal to the rural towns in China. The main street is usually lined with cheap restaurants. These fill up with truck drivers between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.. They are a rowdy lot, not unlike the truck drivers we were to meet throughout the trip. While eating bowl after bowl of rice and noodles, they'd flirt with the waitresses and consume copious amounts of warm beer. The waitresses too are a hardy lot, often biting the caps off their beer bottles - not surprising so many off them had chipped teeth. But at least just about everywhere had beer - which to be brutally honest was one of our concerns in planning the trip. The drivers would stay there at the restaurants for several hours, having a brief siesta before returning to the roads later in the afternoon.
restaurants themselves are very simple affairs. One room with a concrete
or wooden floor, a few old wooden tables and chairs. You don't bother
asking for a menu - there isn't one. You keep it simple and if one
of the truck drivers has something you'd like to try, you point at his and
hopefully you'll get something like it.
We once stopped for a fruit juice at a restaurant one particularly hot July day. Because we did this ten times a day, we knew that the price was always around one yuan each. On this occasion we forgot to check the price and drank the juice. After seeing us drink the juice the lady of the house told us that we owed ten yuan each. Although initially we refused to pay, when twenty or so friends and relatives gathered around us and prevented our departure, we had no choice but to pay the "bill". This was neither the first nor the last time such tactics were used to extract some bonus revenue from a couple of unsuspecting travellers. After this incident, we always double checked the price, paid and got our change before we opened anything. Once you open it, you have to pay the price they set.
Traffic moves though the towns at a snails pace. The slowest moving vehicles, the bicycles set the pace. The roads are so crowded that cars, trucks and alas, motorcycles, all crawl along at a bicycles pace. This was a killer for average speed as even relatively small towns took 30 minutes to drive through and larger towns chewed an hour out of the day. Between Qingjiang and Lianyungang we had our first key lesson in not losing each other. It may sound simple... two guys on two bikes - it should be simple to not lose sight of each other. The problem comes in overtaking large amounts of traffic. The first bike goes, and by the time he has overtaken the 20 vehicles, one or two vehicles at a time, the first bike (in this case me) settles down in front and waits for the second bike (James) to emerge. Depending on the oncoming traffic, it may take the second bike considerably longer to overtake the convoy, meaning the two bikes actually lose visual contact for up to 5 klms. Five minutes after rounding the convoy, and with no James in my rear view mirror, I decided first to slow down, and let the convoy of traffic catch me back up. Then with the convoy now on my tail and still no sign of James, I decided to pull over and wait for him while the convoy thundered past. To my surprise, James was neither in the convoy, nor behind the convoy, where I last saw him. I had no choice but to turn back and retrace the 5 klms or so to the physical location I last saw him. Imagine the confusion when having retraced the 5klms, there was still no sign of James. There was no way to contact each other, mobile phones didn't exist in 1994 ... well they weren't mobile and in any case China had no network. What to do? If we failed to find each other it would take days to link back up. We had a backup plan for situations like this. James' mother in Australia was the emergency contact. If we failed to find each other by the evening, we would both have to find an international telephone, call James' mother, and through that triangle, plan how and where to link up. But we got lucky.
Putting the puzzle together that evening the only possible chain of events was that as I pulled over and stopped to let the convoy pass, James was right behind the lead truck, and burst out to overtake the lead truck. That's how we missed each other. James was overtaking on one side of the truck, while I was coasting and pulling over on the other side. As it happened James rode on for another hour at high speed trying to catch up to me, wondering why I had inconsiderately rode so far ahead without waiting for him, before he then started to wonder if in fact he was now in front. Eventually James turned back. We finally caught up with each other 3 hours later ... as we both backtracked over the area we had last seen each other desperately searching for the elusive headlight. There was always plenty of advance notice of each other, and theoretically it should be almost impossible for us to lose each other as we were the only people in China travelling with headlights on during the day. So it was with great relief (and considerable mutual abuse and truly foul language) that we finally spotted each others headlight not far from where the convoy overtake that caused us so much grief.
The headlights in themselves caused considerable grief. The Japanese bikes
were hard wired with the dipped beam permanently on. Like in many parts of
the western world, its considered a key aspect of motorcycle safety in Japan.
Well in China, they don't subscribe to this theory. We were repeatedly
pulled over by traffic police (the guys who stand in the middle of
intersections, usually on small raised platforms, blowing whistles and waving
batons - the intersections have traffic lights, its just that without a
uniformed idiot in the middle of the road, the Chinese traffic chooses to treat
the traffic light signals as "optional" - so the man in the middle is really a
traffic light enforcer) for having our lights on during the day. Endless
explaining time after time, to every second traffic cop we passed that it was a
western safety feature cut little ice. Often the Chinese road code was
pulled out of a traffic light enforcers pocket and one particular section was
read to us slowly and loudly. I don't know what it was about but its a
pretty safe bet that it said something like "vehicles must not drive with
headlights on during the day as it confuses Chinese drivers into thinking it is
Many of the folk in rural China had never seen a foreigner, let alone a modern Japanese motorcycle before and we instantly became the centre of attention wherever we stopped. In one coastal town called Dunshang (20 Km's past Lianyungang) after checking into a roadside hotel, we were met by the manager (bearing soft drinks to cool us down), who informed us that we were the first foreigners to stay in his hotel, indeed visit that town and accordingly there was to be a banquet that night in our honour in the hotel. Further, he insisted there would be no charge for staying in his hotel. Not wishing to offend, we showered and went downstairs in our best jeans and T-shirts to be introduced to the chief of police and head of the communist party in that county. All through the 20 course meal of snails, fried cicadas, octopus and other assorted seafood, they pleaded with us to encourage any business contacts we had to invest in their prosperous region. It seems that there is incredible competition between regions to attract the vast amount of foreign capital flowing into China. Those that get investment, quickly become richer than their neighbours, earning the praise and favour of Beijing. Thus was the night of 16 July 1994. The following morning the overwhelming hospitality continued as the manager's son woke us up with breakfast offerings, and insisted on one of the young girls who worked at the hotel, hand wash both bikes, before we left around 10am. Unfortunately the roads were still wet and the weather was still drizzly, and wet roads in China equals muddy roads. The good work that the young hotel girl did was soon reduced to naught. However, Qingdao was not far away and today should prove to be a comfortable ride. [see China Map 3] Our friends at Mars had just set up an office in Qingdao and it was a logical halfway break for us between Shanghai and Beijing. Lunchtime saw us look behind the curtains at a Chinese hairdresser and found that not only do Chinese hairdressers cut hair, but they also do head / neck / shoulder massages. After 5 days on the bikes, often tense from wet roads, we were ready for some shoulder relaxation and we both discovered that the girls in a Chinese hairdressing salon give fantastic motorcyclist massages.
This was also the day that cemented in our minds that the Honda TransAlp was an excellent
choice for the journey we were making. Road repairs today meant that 20
metres after the landing strip sooth stretch of highway ended, a gaping crevasse
began. It was raining all day and we ended up giving the bikes a good
workout in all sorts of conditions. The TransAlps took it all in their
stride. Today, a road bike would probably not have made it. We did
dozens of kilometres on sand, dozens on gravel, and dozens dodging man sized
potholes on roads under various stages of reconstruction. We got it all today. The Dunlop Trailmax tyres too were
lapping it up. No loss of traction at all on the wet roads, under 6 inches
of water, or on the gravel. Only the deep mud sections saw us on our
guard. It was a good feeling knowing that as total motorcycling amateurs, we had somehow muddled our way
through to appropriate bikes and appropriate tyres.
By late in the afternoon we were waiting for the ferry across the Jiaozhou Wan bay. Buying tickets was a challenge as the Chinese are not yet familiar with queuing etiquette. A window just large enough to fit a fist full of yuan was the ticket office and with over a thousand people needing tickets, the scene in front of the sales "window" was nothing short of a 15 deep scrum. We learned quickly that whoever pushed to the front and got his fist into the sales window, got the next tickets. Once we worked it out, we did remarkably well. Being considerably larger than the average Chinese competitor we scored our tickets quickly and with minimal violence before settling back on the bikes to await the ferry. Waiting next to us were Chinese motorcycle police. As we had seen throughout China, the motorcycle police all seemed to ride a BMW boxer type design from what must be around 1970 vintage. The bikes were obviously reverse engineered and typically came with sidecars.
On leaving the ferry we soon had little choice but to resort to the cursed book, the Lonely Planet guide, in search of a cheap hotel. As Qingdao was a resort town and in the height of summer, as we found ourselves, we ran into full hotel after full hotel. But true to form, the Lonely Planet was useless, as every hotel it came up with was also full. Walking out of our upteenth hotel looking dejected, our spirits were suddenly perked by a stranger coming up to us insisting he could help us. We walked back into the hotel and began making some phone calls before leading us on our way through Qingdao to a hotel that had rooms. By now it was 9pm and the hotel wanted to charge us 60 yuan ($10) each. We knew we had little choice and were about to accept when James in a stoke of genius decided to produce our Chinese introduction letters written by the Australia-China Friendship Society (ACFS). The guy folded immediately and charged us only 40 yuan each. He then enquired as to our stomachs before insisting he organise some snacks from us from the kitchen. Those letters worked a treat. They were quite possible a good part of our getting the driving licences in the first place and were scoring us favours all over China. We dont even know what that letter says, but it packs a punch. We just flop it out and suddenly we treated like royalty. The beers that night were drunk in the name of Tom Loy, the head of the ACFS. Liang ge pijiu (2 beers) please barman.
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