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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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