CHINA, Qingdao - Erlian

After our first five days and 1,200 kilometres on Chinese roads we took a two day break in the port and resort city of Qingdao. The city was previously a German concession and much of the old town has a distinctly European turn of the century feel about it. The local Qingdao brewery was built by the Germans and is said by the Chinese to be the best beer in China. It isn't. China is no centre of brewing excellence, but it really isn't that hard to find better Chinese beer than Qingdao.

Brake pad change - Qingdao

While going about our business in Qingdao, we were seized upon by a local journalist who had spotted our bikes. This set a pattern for the whole trip. Anywhere we stopped for more than a day or two we became front page headlines in the local press.

Qingdao has a beach or two and we were interviewed down by the beach. Chinese beach ettiquette took some mental gymnastics to come to terms with. Women's swimsuits were hanging up by the hundreds in tents all over the beach. I asked the journalist what was the story with these swimsuit tents. "The swimsuits are for rent" I was told. And so there you go, most women who came to this beach did not own their own bathing suit, so they just hire one for the day.

I hoped their washing machines worked well.

Our stay in Qingdao provided a good opportunity to do some much needed maintenance on the bikes. Because of the amount of roadwork being undertaken in Eastern China, we found ourselves riding on temporary dirt roads and muddy detours for surprisingly lengthy periods. This had resulted in more rapid than expected brake wear, particularly on the rear brakes. Clearly these bikes were not expected to be laden with so much rear weight by the designers of the braking system. Even by this early stage, one of the TransAlps was requiring new rear pads. Rather than use up a valuable spare pair this early in the journey, we found a local mechanic, repairing motorcycles on the footpath, who said he could do the job. He was only 19, but like all Chinese mechanics, extremely resourceful. He had never seen rear discs on a motorcycle before, but he took them apart carefully, removed the old pads, and spent at least 30 minutes sanding them down. He then pulled out a huge sheet of brake pad material, traced and cut out some new pads before then using some strange Chinese glue to stick them to the metal shoe. Despite our initial skepticism, the makeshift pads performed normally and went on to last until our next rear pad change 5,000 kilometres away in Siberia. The 3 hour job set James back 100 yuan ($16).

The last night in Qingdao a couple of Chinese guys running a tyre business out of one of the other hotel rooms dragged us in to their suite for a few beers, which turned into a lot of beers. Conversation was stilted but as gentlemen in the automotive business, their conversation soon turned to women. Local women. "What did we think of them?" we were asked. Alas we were in no position to offer any comprehensive reply.

Travelling Northwest out of Qingdao towards Beijing, we began to pass a seemingly endless series of industrial hell towns. The air in this region of China was appalling. The smog being so thick that even away from the industrial sites it was impossible to see more than 300 metres down the road. Any exposed areas of skin were blackened as we rode through this incredible pollution. It took us three days to get to Beijing and it was not an overly pleasant three days.

The first hour or so out of Qingdao (20 July) saw us take a wrong turn for the first time and it cost us half a day. From Qingdao the plan had been to head northwest to Weifang and then on towards Beijing. But soon after leaving Qingdao, we must have missed the turnoff, and ended up going to Weifang the long way round.This was put down to being hung-over from the previous nights beers. Today was the hottest day so far. 35 degrees and at least 80% humidity. Riding was very very uncomfortable and we tried a number of different comfort / safety compromises that ended up with shorts, t-shirts and boots.

Late that afternoon we spent the best part of an hour doing the old foreigner shuffle in Weifang, getting offered only the expensively priced foreigner rooms; trying other hotels; getting the same intransigence there... before we decided to quit Weifang and just go on to the next smaller town.

Our accommodation throughout eastern China was always in hotels. The larger towns have separate hotels for foreigners and locals. The difference in price was considerable. 40-80 yuan ($5-10) for a twin room in the smaller towns to quotes of 350 yuan ($40) for the cheapest room in the "foreigner hotels". Not surprisingly we avoided the foreigner hotels, though this was always difficult to negotiate. Often the best ploy was to avoid the larger towns. As the smaller towns only had local class hotels, there was less opportunity for them to turn us foreigners away.

Again, flopping the old ACFS letter out worked a charm and not only did we get nice simple local quality rooms at a local price (60 yuan all up), but we got banqueted again. Getting dinners for free was beginning to add up to decent savings. We didn't have a lot of cash to begin with so we could use all the help we could get from Chinese hoteliers. But our hospitality radars had got it all terribly wrong. The next morning when we checked out, the bill had a plethora of add-ons increasing the price to an astonishing 215 yuan. We got stung ... all sorts of add-ons such as shower fees, air conditioning fees, storage fees etc were added on to the bill. No amount of arguing would make the manager budge, and our normal tactic of putting down what ever amount of money we thought was fair and then just walking off was no good, as they were holding our passports. In the end we argued and argued and finally settled with the manager for 150 yuan ($25). It was a bitter experience and added to the two tone texture of dealing with the Chinese. While some people bent over backwards to be nice, others saw you as nothing more than a wallet with a motorcycle and just wanted to screw you.

The morning of the 21st of July began with us heading west in oppressive heat towards Zibo, before turning North to Binzhou and across the disappointingly small Huang He (Yellow River) ... it was not a pinch on the impressiveness of the Yangtze. A final afternoon push took us to Yanshan, which made it our biggest day so far in terms of kilometreage. We clocked up 350 kms today, in the heat. [see China Map 4] Chinese roads were proving to be as dangerous as they were scary. China has by far the greatest number of road fatalities in the world - over a quarter of a million fatalities annually. Sure, they have the largest population, but California has more cars than all of China, yet China has more road deaths than all of the United States! Having witnessed Chinese traffic first hand on the roads now for over a week, that didn't surprise us at all. Accidents were frequent. Seat belts were never worn. Motorcyclists wore the flimsiest helmets. Drivers had little to no consideration for anyone else on the roads. No-one gives way. The bigger vehicles have de facto right of way, since they are more likely to do the most damage. Therefore truck drivers and tractors never give way. As soon as we saw a truck or a tractor the brain switched into full wits mode and we would watch their every little twitch, knowing they could and would change direction without caring about other traffic. It was effectively up to smaller vehicles to make sure they didn't get in a way of a truck or tractor.

Today we came across a new road hazard - farmers using the road surface as a hotbed for drying fruit, vegetables and seeds. These guys wander all over the highway with their brooms, sweeping their seeds and fruit into new piles and spreading them out over the roads. You could blast away on the horn for 300 metres before coming up to these guys but not only do they not care, they don't even turn to look what might be bearing down on them. I didn't think a motorcycle would handle too well on a bed of seeds, and didn't want to find out the hard way either. It was yet another obstacle we had to bear in mind on Chinese roads.

Our last night before Beijing we stayed in a out of the way place called Yanshan, 50 klms before Cangzhou. After spending the usual 45+ minutes beating them down to an acceptable price (60 yuan for the room and 20 yuan to store the bikes) and doing the foreigner shuffle (there was a hotel licensed to take foreigners in Yanshan and they charged 340 yuan a night - and our hotel was worried about being fined if they took us in), we eventually checked into he hotel room and headed out into the balmy evening. In summer in China, the townsfolk pull deckchairs out onto the side of the street and so most of the town is sitting in the street eating or reading newspapers in the evenings. Karaoke stalls sit on many of the street corners. Not much more than a cheap TV and a karaoke video disc player out on the pavement, surrounded by a bunch of young people vying for the microphone. It was just a normal evening in Yanshan, but it had a touch of street carnival atmosphere about it.

We left early for the 300 km ride to Beijing but traffic today was the most challenging of the journey so far. From Cangzhou it was all 4 lane highway. But when all four lanes have oncoming traffic (tractor being overtaken by a slow truck, being overtaken by a fast truck, being overtaken by a car) you are forced over into the fragile shoulder of the road as vehicles 4 abreast coming the other rush past without the slightest care that they have forced other vehicles off the road. James almost cleaned up an old man today as he rode his bicycle blindly out from a side road across the 4 lane highway without once looking for traffic on the highway. Its hard to explain the stupidity of how people treat road safety in China. The evidence however is in the appalling statistics. According to the WHO, China has 125.0 road fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. To put that in perspective the USA has 1.9 and the UK has 1.1, while Japan, China's neighbour across the sea has a mere 0.4 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. So a vehicle in China is over 100 times more likely than a vehicle in the UK to be involved in a road fatality. Or to put it another way, that 125 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles means any vehicle has a 1.25% chance of being involved in a fatality ... per year. That's 1 of every 80 Chinese vehicles is on one end or another of a road fatality - EVERY YEAR.

The last 100 kms was on a motorway from Tianjin to Beijing. It was a 6 lane toll road and as such was pretty empty (see above). Best of all, there were no bicycles or tractors and the 25 yuan toll ensure there were no slow cars either. We took the bikes up to what felt like their maximum comfortable cruising speed of 110 km/h. But don't be fooled at the apparent ease of our travels here readers. Riding on this super Chinese expressway was not as simple as all that. Despite the money spent building the road, someone had forgotten to install road signs. There was not a single sign telling us how far was Beijing or where the turnoffs went. In the end we missed the turnoff to Beijing and had to backtrack 40 klms.

Despite the daily stress and grind that negotiating with questionably scrupulous Chinese business manager is (not to mention negotiating the killer highways), we rode into Beijing on the afternoon of the 22nd July feeling relaxed and relieved. The first stage of the journey was over. Diplomats and other exalted foreigners were even allowed to drive in and around Beijing so we were not hassled or stopped by Police. For the first time in China, we were relatively normal. It would be a chance to relax and take stock. We had some thinking to do about whether we continue with our original plan to head for Vladivostok and round Siberia the long way, or to cut inland and cross the Gobi desert and Mongolia, appearing in Siberia near Ulan Ude.

The first stop in Beijing was Mars - in fact it was our only address or contact in Beijing. Our contact there, Jwee San, organised a brief press conference, loaded us up with more chocolate bars than any sane man could eat in six months, and introduced to a bike aficionado at the Australian Embassy, Lyall Crawford. Lyall was so impressed by our adventure that he invited us to stay the weekend as his family's guests at the impressive Australian Embassy compound, the largest in Beijing, and at the time the only source of safe to drink tap water in Beijing - it had its own underground treatment plant. Guided tours around Beijing and to the Great Wall with embassy staff made travelling in China appear simple - at least in and around Beijing.

Tienanmen Square, Beijing

Over a large number of beers at Frank's Place, an American bar / burger joint, (followed by more beers at a couple of other expat bars such as the Car Wash and the Mexican Wave) we solved the issue of what to do about Vladivostok. We would skip it. We had already started half way through the summer season and were cutting things fine as it was. Any more delays and we would be too far behind schedule to get out of the cold zone before winter came. We contacted the Australian Honorary Consul in Vladivostok and asked him to forward our 200 further rolls of film ahead to Irkutsk. Slightly worryingly, he hadn't received the film yet, but would forward it on as soon as it arrived. We would collect them in Irkutsk in a few weeks ... with any luck.

When we eventually left Beijing in the afternoon of July 25th (after another great lunch, this time provided by Mars, who took us to the Hard Rock Cafe), we did so via the fortress like front gate of the Australian Embassy. This was quite an honour apparently as it is normally reserved for the Ambassador and visiting dignitaries. We headed West, bound for Hohhot, [see China Map 5] capital of the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. We had made arrangements before leaving Australia to collect visas and motorcycle permission for Mongolia in Hohhot. As we headed west the population density declined rapidly. We found a lake by the highway and set up camp for the night on a beach by the lake. That first night out of Beijing was our first chance to test our camping equipment - it all seemed to work. It was 2 minute noodles cooked up over a wood fire - a dinner concept that would serve us well over the coming months. The two and a half day ride from Beijing to Hohhot shouldn't give us too many problems, but already, even though we were barely 120 klms from Beijing, we had trouble getting decent fuel. We passed four petrol stations before we found one that stocked 90/92 octane fuel. The water situation too had changed dramatically from that prior to Beijing. We still found stalls by the roadside, though they were far less numerous, however the stalls no longer stocked bottled water. We had hardly left Beijing but by heading west away from the populated east coast of China, we were already in a totally different environment. The hand pump water filters got their first real world use tonight as we filtered water from the lake to make our noodles. We were also going to have to filter all the water for out water bottles tomorrow.

Early on the morning of the 26th, we passed the line of the Great Wall, but it was far less impressive out here than it had been at Badaling, near Beijing. Recent rains made the roads and the travelling a bit of a nightmare. Much of the road was unpaved and very bumpy.Large sections were dirt and under construction, despite being the main road between Beijing and the cities of Jining, Hohhot and Baotou. Camera gear fell of the front bike at one stage and the second bike ran right over the top of it. Fortunately it was Nikon gear. Some filters were cracked, but the cameras and lenses were just fine. We were reduced to first and second gear for much of the way and occasionally spent hours overcoming small sections of nightmarish road. That night was spent in Jining. To our surprise we managed to score a cheap room at the first hotel we stopped at. 24 yuan each. Bargain ! We even got to park the bikes in the hotel's restaurant overnight, and with a crowd or around 50 people looking on, we had to ride up 8 steps, leading from the footpath into the restaurant. We both made it with the crowds cheering us on - lucky as it would have been a hell of an embarrassment to drop the bikes at that time. 27 July 1994: We got an early start from Jining and asked directions for the way out of town from a local motorcyclist. He insisted on leading us through town and out onto the highway. The road was enjoyable as it was less crowded than any road we have been on so far. The volume of traffic west of Beijing had been relatively thin (compared to the east coast), but here beyond Jining, it was thinner still and actually quite pleasant. The scenery was spectacular, we were going at a decent pace, we could do our own thing on the road and even began to relax a bit and feel like we were travelling rather than working.

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

This all came to an abrupt holt just after a village called Jonchi, where the bitumen road became a dirt road and recent rains had washed away a 2 metre deep crevasse across the road. Traffic was banked up in both directions around the crevasse and after riding to the front of the queue we pondered the best way across. James was keen on the route a few of the sturdier buses and trucks had takes, a side track through what was becoming sloppy mud, while I felt that a narrow portion of the crevasse could be bridged well enough for the motorbikes with minimal labour. In the end we decided to go our separate ways. I went first, trying to jam some planks into the gap in the road - it was 2 metres deep but only half a metre across. As I rode across, my construction slipped a little and while the front wheel made it across just fine, the rear wheel had fallen into the narrow part of the crevasse, with the bike now resting on its sump plate. James and a group of locals helped me lift the rear up and push the bike the yard or so forward that now had it safely on solid ground. Next it was James' turn to go down off the side of the road, across the mud bog at the bottom and then try to ride up the slippery bank on the other side to get back onto our dirt road. It was looking good until he hit the mud at the bottom and then his rear lost traction and the bike went down in the mud. I had little choice but help him pick the bike up, and push the bike up from behind with two friendly (or was that stupid) locals, while James tried to ride up the bank, with mud spraying all over me, the locals and everything I was wearing. Unfortunately I had taken my helmet off and ended up with a face full of mud by the time we got James back onto the road.

In a small village 50 kilometres from Hohhot we were stopped by traffic police (as we were in most towns in China). Usually when this happened we had only to show our unique number plates and licences and we were treated as royalty. For this reason we were particularly frustrated when these fellows insisted on us coming back to the station. We waited that afternoon while they telephoned various sources without telling us a single thing. We remained detained that evening with our bikes locked in the Police compound. Although we were not released, as a gesture of good will we were taken to a restaurant, treated to a night at a genuine provincial circus and accommodated in a local guesthouse, while they held our bikes and passports.

The following morning, July 28, we were able to ascertain through the local English teacher that we'd been riding through a closed military area and we needed to obtain special permission to pass through. Authorities from Jining should arrive in the morning to sort it out. By 2 pm in the afternoon no-one had arrived and we asked the head cop what was going on. Another flurry of phone calls and we found out that authorities had left Jining at 8am, but had broken down along the way and ended up having to go back to Jining by train. Now, in order to sort out our paperwork issues we had to travel three hours back the way we had come in a police jeep to the regional headquarters at Jining. The young officer there in charge of foreigners was right out of the SS training school. If there was only one guy in the whole world who had a Hitler complex, we were fortunate enough to meet him at 5pm that afternoon. After spending an hour describing in detail how stupid foreigners were, he informed us that we were to pay a fine and unless he was in a better mood tomorrow we would not receive the permission we needed. Damn! "Every year a few foreigners come to China on motorcycles from Mongolia" he said "I catch all them, all the time. They break China law and I punish them." To prove it he pulled out his log book for the year and showed us the entries for two Germans he had fined and deported a few months earlier, and followed that up by showing us the passport of a Swiss motorcyclist he currently had in detention, who was about to pay a huge fine and the full costs of deportation to the United States. We were then told that he had in fact set up the road block to catch us after hearing that we had passed through.

So 2 nights after last staying in Jining, we were again staying in Jining, in a hotel organised by the local Police, at a price we bargained down to 40 yuan for the night. One other problem surfaced with this this delay. We only had 6 days left on our Chinese visas. Our authoritarian friend was giving nothing away as to when he may grant us the permission to get back on our way saying it might be tomorrow, might be a few days, might be a week. He was toying with us and the only way we would get his co-operation was to boost his ego and be deferential. That would be our tactic tomorrow morning. The morning of July 29 began with us heading back in to see our detainor. Pleading ignorance on the grounds that there was no indication whatsoever that we had entered a restricted military area (it was the major road from Beijing to Hohhot, and there were no signs anywhere) proved fruitless. However, fortunately for us, and surprisingly enough for him, we had all the correct papers which meant that at least we could not be deported. In the end we were made to sign a confession to having broken a Chinese law and were fined 500 Yuan ($60) each. Although our permission to transit this area was still denied, our captor was good enough to allow us to meet the Swiss guy and exchange information on road conditions ahead. The Swiss guy turned out to be none other than Bruno Blum, one of the legendary early adventure motorcyclists. [Bruno had a nice little set up going where he just spent his time riding around the world, sending back stories and photographs to MotoSport Schweiz (the main Swiss motorcycle magazine), who would edit his material, sort through his photos, publish it monthly, and pay for the stories right into his bank account which then funded his ongoing travel. In this way Bruno effective had years of self funding global motorcycle travel and I don't think he actually got back to Switzerland from his first world tour until 1998.] Meeting him under detention in a police station in Jining was unusual and unexpected but at least we got a little information about our future 3 day ride across the Gobi. On the other side of the coin, we were able to advise Bruno than if he got as far as Beijing under the deportation process, he would be pretty much a free spirit there and could take off in any direction he wanted. Bruno would be the only westerner with a motorcycle we saw the entire journey, in the 5 months between leaving Australia and reaching Sweden. By lunchtime we had sweet talked our man into providing us with a Jeep to get back to the little town where our bikes were held, 3 hours drive away. This was a change from his initial plan that we hire a truck for 800 yuan, the truck takes us back to the town, and takes us and our bikes on to Hohhot. In the end we got a free lift back to the town and we would hire a truck from there for the 50 km drive to Hohhot. By mid afternoon we were back in the town and all was well with our bikes. The local cops there were actually very apologetic about the whole thing and insisted we drink some shots of 52% Chinese moonshine to prove there were no hard feelings. The police then began stopping trucks that were headed to Hohhot to see if any had room in the back. In the end we got one that we bargained down to 100 yuan for the lift. A group of police helped us lift the bikes onto the back of the truck and to our surprise another of the town policeman took his jeep and escorted our truck into Hohhot. We eventually reached Hohhot in the late afternoon of July 29 on the back of a truck under police escort. First stop was the Public Security Bureau (PSB). The PSB is charged with looking after the permits and movement control of foreigners within China. We were told there that Hohhot is not a military city and we were free to ride around within the city limits, but all roads leading out of town were restricted access areas. This was going to make it rather difficult to reach the Mongolian border. We checked into the first hotel listed in the Lonely Planet (it was the last time we used that wretched book) and were given different dorm rooms. The place was totally full. Fortunately I found a nice slim Japanese girl in my room, who after a couple of hours of sweet talk, made her own special contribution to the Tokyo to London project. The next morning we just wanted to sort out our permissions and get going again. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the arrangements we'd made concerning our visas and permits for Mongolia had fallen through. We spent the next three weeks in Hohhot trying to solve two problems - visas and bike permissions for Mongolia and how to get out of Hohhot and on to the border town of Erlian. Needless to say neither was resolved quickly. The opening gambit from the Public Security Bureau for the latter was a 3000 yuan deal where we get escorted by police in a jeep to the Mongolian border. That didn't sound too appetising. In fact it soon became apparent that we were not going to be getting out of China by the 3rd of August, and we also now needed to chase up an overstay permit.

James and I with Qiqige and Japanese friend

We ended up in Hohhot for three weeks - which did not seem necessarily a bad thing. The food here was the best we'd experienced in China. Roast beef, potatoes, shashlik were abundant, cheap and good quality. We stayed in the Xincheng Hotel, a loose assortment of dormitary style rooms spread across about 10 buildings in central Hohhot, and there is a great little place across the road which we decreed has the best food in all Inner Mongolia. They even got used to us Aussies and what they thought was our unusual request that the beer actually be cold. When they saw us walk in at the end of each day, a cold beer would come out of the fridge, and a whole bunch of bottles would go into the freezer to help keep us going through the night. At least we could sit down there, drink cold beer, chat and eat good food until well after midnight each day. It gave us plenty of time to discuss what the future held in store, and how we might get there. Its these chats, late into the night, imagining problems, imagining solving them, which I suspect is the ultimate essence of journeys like these. Its during those chats that you get to appreciate what you were doing and the freedom associated with it. On the bikes your mind tends to concentrate on what you are immediately doing, avoiding traffic, reading maps, looking for photo opportunities and trying to take in as much scenery as possible. One evening, after a particularly liberating beer session, we decided to go for a ride and left the helmets behind. The streets on Hohhot at midnight were empty - completely deserted and we rode around the empty city as if it was all ours and we were the Emperors. We ventured out to the Airport , and took the bikes up to 130km/h (recommended in China only when there are absolutely zero other vehicles on the road). The little 400 cc engines didn't want to go much faster than that and without helmets, the wind was giving the eyes a hell of a beating. Considering in our captive existence in Hohhot, it was a reminder of sweet liberty and the open road, and how we longed to get away from the Chinese officialdom and just motor.

Hohhot was also a chance for maintenance. The fuel filters we had installed in Nanjing were clearly doing their job, so much so that there was now a decent buildup of crap in both bikes filters. We carried a spare each, but in putting that on the bikes we then needed another spare. We also managed to find 2 x 2.5 litre fuel containers each. Our fuel consumption was proving very steady at around 22 km/litre in both bikes regardless of speed and conditions, so an extra 5 litres each would extend our range by 110 klms to around 480 klms, which would be useful as we had no idea what the fuel situation would be like when we crossed the Gobi.

The little restaurant across the road from the Xincheng hotel had by now become our command HQ. The son of the owner was a policeman and spent a lot of time taking us round to the PSB, the customs people, parts shopping etc. Also by virtue of his friends always stopping by the restaurant we knew all the Police in Hohhot. By now they just waved at us and smiled as we drove around the streets of their town. Police that hadn't met us yet would pop down in the evening to the restaurant, to say hi and to check out the bikes.

We were visited in our hotel room one afternoon by a local girl. Qiqige (pronounced Chichiga) was 24 years old, had heard about our plight from my former Japanese roommate and took it upon herself to act as a go-between between us and the Mongolian consulate. She was born in China, but ethnically Mongolian. The Chinese province of Inner Mongolia has been flooded by the Chinese with ethnic Chinese, but though the provinces population is around 20 million, only around 2 million were ethnic Mongols. Qiqige's company regularly dealt with the Mongolian Consulate for their cross border business and that foot in the door, and her Mongolian language ability was a terrific help. She also insisted on showing me around the more interesting nightlife of Hohhot until the wee small hours, giving me a good insight into Inner Mongolian dating practices. While Qiqige was entertaining me in the evenings, James had been laid up with our first really serious dose of "travellers bowels". Fortunately for him there was a young female Dutch backpacker also staying at the Xincheng, and she took it as her personal mission to nurse him back to health.

Everything moves by bicycle in China

Our bikes and ourselves were becoming celebrities in Hohhot, not just with the locals and the local media, but also with the horde of Lonely Planet backpackers doing their Lonely Planet tours (seeing their Lonely Planet sights, via their Lonely Planet trains and Lonely Planet approved tour agencies, and then bumping into the same Lonely Planet wielding people they have bumped into 7 times in the past 4 weeks as everyone stays at the same Lonely Planet hotels). Nancy was a Chinese-American Lonely Planet groupie from New York who wanted to bask in some reflected glory and attached herself onto me like a limpet. She wanted me to take her out during the day on the bike, she would surprise me in the male bathroom in just her underwear, and she wanted me to give her my Lonely Planet China, as a gift since I was leaving China anyway ... As Hohhot was already proving to be a socially fruitful stop for both James and myself, I gave Nancy and her smothering advances the flick. I did however give her my Lonely Planet China book in the end. By this stage we were co-ordinating a huge operation to get us the visas and permissions. We have David Bloggs in the British embassy in Ulaan Baatar (UB) hammering on the Mongolian Foreign Office. Erkhembaatar, our little Mongolian friend from the ferry to Shanghai, was also calling and hassling assorted officials in UB. Qiqige was hammering on the Mongolian Consulate in Hohhot. Qiqige had friends in UB hammering at the UB end as well. Lyall Crawford was hammering on the Mongolians in Beijing. Bai the restaurateur, and his buddies at the Police in Hohhot were hammering on the consulate and the PSB in Hohhot. There were an army of people who had volunteered to work for us and pressured the Mongolians from all sides. Really good people who just took an interest in what we were trying to do and wanted to help out. Every day we had dozens of calls to make and faxes to send out. It was a quality operation. Near the end of our stay in Hohhot a cyclist came into the hotel. Chris was English and he had just cycled through Mongolia. We bought him dinner and pumped him for information on the road across the Gobi. Sometimes when you think you are doing something impressive you meet a guy who blows what you are doing away. Chris had been cycling for eight years (and 50,000 klms) and had already crossed Africa north to south, South America and now was crossing Eurasia. Unfortunately we had two problems with Chris. Firstly, the loneliness of life the open road had clearly got to him. He wouldn't stop talking. The guy could talk underwater. The idea of sharing a meal with other people who spoke English was blowing his mind and we could hardly get a word in. Secondly, his information about the road ahead proved to be of limited use. He had taken a track that veered off the railway line and headed into the wilderness not far past the border. Apart from the last few dozen kilometres of Mongolia (the first few dozen for us) we went different routes. Impressive as Chris's achievements were, we couldn't wait to get away from the guy. He was mad.

In the end, after many long days on the telephone and fax, and about a dozen trips to the Mongolian Consulate, we received our Mongolian visas and permission from their Foreign Office for our motorcycles. The visas had been easy - a simple matter of $50 each, but permission for the motorcycle puzzled the Hohhot Consulate as they had obviously never come across that one before, being in China where foreigners don't have their own vehicles. It had all been a mountain of work. Wires were sent backwards and forwards to their Foreign Office in Ulaan Baator. We contacted Lyall in Beijing, who in turn contacted Australia's representation in Ulaan Baatar - David Bloggs at the British Embassy. There were only 4 western embassies in Ulaan Baatar - US, UK, Germany and Japan. As soon as it was looking like a bit of effort was required however, David Bloggs efforts waned rapidly and we were relying on Lyall in Beijing to contact the Mongolian Foreign office... who then had to communicate with the Mongolian embassy in Beijing, who in turn passed the messages onto the Mongolian consulate in Hohhot. Needless to say, the Mongolians had hardly any fax lines and Lyall's letter alone took several days to fax through. But in the end the pressure must have worked. It turns out the permission was actually granted a week and a half before we actually got the news, and that time was just spent passing the permission from one bureaucratic department to another until it arrived in Hohhot. The next trick for the Mongolian officials was to work out how should the permission look? Well in this case, they just hand wrote in the passport next to the Mongolian visas that this included the motorcycle permission. This was a real coup. The Mongolian - Chinese border is a very sensitive one, not just for the Chinese but for the Mongolians too. In fact, had we been coming in to Mongolia from Russia with the bikes, it would have been a cakewalk. But getting in from China was touchy for the Mongolians and Chinese alike ... we found that out the hard way.

Then after three weeks of tiring negotiations with the PSB, the military and a local tour operator, we established that we could get aspecial Alien Restricted Area Permit, allowing us to ride the 450 kilometres to the border, if we took a registered tour guide along with us. A seventeen year old Japanese speaking Chinese student (of Mongolian descent) was to be the unlucky guide. It cost us 300 yuan for the permit and 100 more for the guide, a dramatic change from the 3000 yuan initial attempt 3 weeks earlier. One of the odd things about the tourism industry in Inner Mongolia is that 50% of the tourists are Japanese. So the vast bulk of the people who had to deal with tourists or foreigners spoke far better Japanese than they did English. James is basically fluent in Japanese and he ran our dealings with officialdom in Inner Mongolia. Some dealings, including trips to the Mongolian consulate were translated from Mongolian to Chinese by the embassy, to Japanese for James, and then into English for me to get what was said. Then back through 4 languages the other way. No wonder it took so long. Still carrying our huge payload of equipment (re distributed) and now doubling a guide on one of the bikes, we finally set off for Mongolia on the 19th of August. It was a sweet and sour feeling leaving Hohhot. It had been our base for several weeks and we had a great time there and had met and been helped by a great motley crew of people that we would never have the chance to thank or to repay. On the other hand, we were desperate to get moving and itching to get to Mongolia - so close but so far for so long. [see China Map 6] The ride to the border was to take from early morning until 8:30 at night. It was not warm and it rained all day. Soon after crossing the mountains just outside Hohhot, we were in the Mongolian grasslands, the edge of the Gobi desert, yet for us, this "desert" was just mud and slush all around. We stopped for lunch in the grasslands as it was the middle of the Nadaam festival, an annual Mongolian summer festival of archery, wrestling and horse riding. Some Swiss friends we had met in Hohhot had their own yurt (called a ger in Mongolian) for the week, but as we visited, the rain had washed out the days activities, and we had to pass up a potentially great photo opportunity with the bikes. So after a nice warm cup of tea or two, it was back on the road.

The grasslands are not named that for nothing. Trees were very very few and far between. Since climbing up though the mountains we had noticed that we did not really descend down the other side, but rather found ourselves on a plateau, around 3000 feet above sea level. This made the climate up on this endless sandy, grassy plain considerably less hospitable for trees. Our young guide, without any wet weather gear, was for most of the day, on the verge of hypothermia. All up it was over 450 klms of hard slog. The last 150 kilometres was dirt road and had become a mudbath as a result of the constant rain, including stretches 10 klms long of mud at least 6 inches deep. Both bikes hit the mud that afternoon and the young guide only just avoided a mudbath himself when he spectacularly vaulted clear of the motorcycle he was on, just as it slid over on its side. It was typical of our luck with the weather. All the 3 weeks we had been in Hohhot the weather had been fine, warm and sunny. The one day we finally get to leave, and it was icy cold and raining all day.

Eventually the lights of the border town of Erlian (Erenhot) came into view across the perfectly flat grasslands once we were around 20 klms away. But those 20 klms were among the hardest 20 klms of the whole day. The mud was intense, and now that it was dark, the air was very chilly, leading to tense shoulders all round. The bikes were each carrying around 40 kgs more than usual thanks to the guide being added to our load. That 20klms took us an hour, torture as we could see the lights of the town, lights that seemed to get closer ever so slowly, lights that were visible but out of reach for a whole hour.

Eventually we made it into town. Our young guide recommended a hotel and we checked in and ate a most satisfying meal - it wasn't that good, but after along cold wet day it was definitely satisfying. The next morning, a Saturday we rode out to the border to check it out. It was closed for the weekend and would re-open on Monday morning at 10am, but we gazed longingly into Mongolia and saw the next stage of the journey unfolding.

We spent the weekend in Erlian waiting for the border to re-open and used our time to stock up on chocolates, instant noodles, truck gear oil for the chain (chainlube didn't exist in China), oil for the engines and even a few clothes, all from the local markets and shops.

At 0900 Monday morning on the 22nd of August 1994, we rode out to the border. At the pre border checkpoint, about 200 yards from the border checkpoint itself, a military man told us we could not cross the border. We insisted we could and we had all the paperwork to do so. He clearly didn't know what the correct paperwork was for foreigners riding bikes across the border so reluctantly, in order to appease these stubborn foreigners, he called his boss back in Erlian, and told us to wait. Right on an hour later, the boss came speeding up to the border in a new VW sedan with a driver and two other shitkickers in tow. One shitkicker jumped out of the VW, grabbed our passports, drivers licences, registration documents and Alien Restricted Area Permits and retired to the back seat of the car where head-honcho was waiting. Head Honcho fortunately did seem to understand that we had all in order and quickly gave us the nod to use his border. Then at 10:00 it was on to the border proper. The border post was a mass of vehicles, all having trouble crossing, buses, trucks, cars, going through all the tortuous customs formalities.

One group of vehicles that routinely just got waved through were the trucks bearing the "WJ" numberplates. These belong to a Chinese paramilitary police service called the Wu Jing. These WJ trucks just got waved over the border and were laden to the hilt with trading goods. It seemed to us that the Wu Jing had their own trading operation going on. I wondered how much customs duties they paid?

By 11:00 we were through the boom gates and entered the customs control area. Here were returned the guarantees we had arranged in Shanghai to take the bikes out of China. At 11:30 we were finally stamped out of China and as we looked across no-man's land towards the Mongolian checkpoint, a teenage border guard wielding a Kalashnikov and surrounded by savage dogs signalled for us to approach.

The two months spent in China were now behind us and we were looking forward to what Mongolia held in store. Continue to next page Mongolia

Additional Images of China

All text and images copyright © 1994 - 2010; Walter Colebatch and James Mudie