2010 Silk Road East - London to Beijing
Just a few words – we have made it to Beijing. We arrived in bright blue skies, hot temperatures and to a grand welcome party hosted by Kin One Lee, the General Manager of BMW Motorrad in China. We’re all numb, relieved, ecstatic all in one go. We’ve done it!
London to Beijing, via Tibet and Everest Base Camp
The Most Adventurous Overland Ride on the Planet!Back to top
Plunging into Chaos, Humidity and Heritage Sites
It’s all change now. Mount Emie is hot, sticky and humid and we wander through the tropical paths amidst monkeys and monks. We’ve lost the altitude and remoteness. But we’ve gained modern development. It’s tarmac all the way to Beijing now. This also means we are in the populated areas – congestion, pollution and McDonalds!!
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Beautiful Western Tibet
Ahead of us lays another week of riding to get off the Tibetan Plateau and into Sichuan province and the World Heritage Site of Mount Emie one of four Sacred Buddhist Mountains. The next few days of riding are on tarmac and it is truly spectacular.
The scenery changes to a more lush green, the valleys, the mountain peaks are a combination of tropical and alpine. Riders describe it as a mini-Switzerland. I think it’s a bit like the Guatemalan Highlands. There are prayer flags fluttering at the top of every mountain peak and long bridges and we pass through many small rural villages.
Along the way we also see pilgrims on their way to Lhasa. Still with many miles to go they prostrate themselves along the road, standing and crawling and kneeling. It’s a humbling sight. Pristine lakes, jagged mountains, gushing crystal rivers make this a magical place.
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Lazy in Lhasa
It’s only a day of riding to Lhasa and an all tarmac one at that. It is also a timed check point road, meaning vehicles must not arrive at the next check point before a certain time or else they are fined. It is supposed to keep the speed down. The reality is all the vehicles pelt along as normal and then park up a mile or so before the checkpoint and wait until their allotted time. Ridiculous system! Luckily it does not apply to motorbikes. Aha!
We have planned three full days off in Lhasa and wondered if they was too much time to be off the bikes, but given the intensity of the past ten days everyone is relieved to have some rest. We also meet up with Max – Max was our only rider who due to altitude sickness had to be rushed to Lhasa for treatment and did not make Everest. He is gutted and is still not well enough to continue so his bike is trucked onto Beijing and he reluctantly has to fly home to recoup. It’s a sad moment for all when he leaves.
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So today is the day. EVEREST! We have the day to go there and back – the total sum of around 140 miles road trip. We retrace our steps to the entrance and then start a climb through plenty of dirt switchbacks. Round a corner and on the left there’s a view point. We couldn’t have had a more perfect day.
Everest was in the distance – a perfect peak set against deep blue sky. We stop and gaze in awe. It’s at least another 50 miles to get to its base. The riders peer out and see the staggering view of hairpins that awaits them. The ride has to descend into a lush green valley first, before then climbing back up rough and rocky road to get to the Rongbuk Monastery and onto Base Camp. We share the road with packs of yaks and little local 125 bikes. Then Everest comes into view.
My breath is taken away with the beauty of the highest peak on the planet. I’m privileged to be here a second time, to wander amidst monks and prayer wheels whilst birds swoop above my head and the gentle murmur of chant and prayer carry on the wind. But more so to share the moment with a inspiring group of riders – riders for whom this journey is a defining point in their lives, riders who could have easily given up and moaned at how tough it was, but didn’t. One member of our team is 70 years old, another only came back to riding a couple of years ago and we have a couple riding two-up the whole way – incredible.
With our Everest conquered in our own way, we head back to Dingri. A milestone Everest maybe, but there is still 4,000 miles left on this trip and they are not going to be easy ones. It ain’t over yet! Back to top
So close to the highest peak on the planet
It was a freezing cold night and today we are straight back on dirt roads. There’s also lots of road works going on and the detours get very sandy. We’ve already had a few offs in the sand and lucky escapes each time, so everyone treats the road with respect. But it’s slow going – only 160 miles today, averaging no more than 20 miles an hour.
We’re at another small village and tea house, so there’s no respite from all the dust by leaping into a hot shower – just plastic bowls again. Everyone is knackered from the concentration needed to ride today. Given the cold we just bed down in our bags, complete with clothing.
Road construction continues unabated for the next day and the riding is just as slow. Unlike back home, there are no helpful diversions, simply find your own way. The next day improves; the weather is good, the Himalayas start to come into view and the sun is shining. We finally make the junction with the Friendship Highway, where tarmac awaits! Michael so pleased he just kisses the ground. The Friendship Highway is newly paved – it’s the direct route to the Nepalese border.
We pass the turning for Mount Everest, but that’s for tomorrow. We have a whole day set aside to go to Base Camp and back. The team are buzzing. Mount Everest will be a huge milestone.
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Mount Kailash & Lake Manasarovar
There’s only another 60 miles or so of dirt today, around Lake Pangong – this lake is part of China and India and represents disputed territory. The road around it is more dust and dirt, but the lake itself is a beautiful mirror image.
Everyone is relieved to leave the dirt behind. The tarmac is brand new and leads into Ali, the provincial capital. Finally fuel stations as we would recognise them – except they won’t fill motorcycles up at the pump - and a room as we’d know it WITH a shower – expect that we have to wait for two hours for hot water!
The following day is a blessing for all as it is tarmac the whole way. We have a break at a local tea house for chai – some like it for others its too sweet!
There’s no showers again tonight, just a plastic bowl of warm water for face and feet and the weather looks like it is closing in. I’m cooking a past special for the team from the van. Back to top
Tibet and a few miles closer to Everest
The next ten days of the ride is very significant, with Tibet, Everest Base Camp and Lhasa all on the itinerary. Although there are a few foreign companies flying riders into Lhasa for a week’s ride in the area on local bikes, it’s still rare for large groups of foreign bikes to achieve this section of the ride. There is four days riding to get to the next town of any significance – Ger (Ali). In between is very little and I warn the group that they have a four day wait for a hot shower. But they are all pumped up for this section of the ride – it’s the heart of what this London to Beijing trip is about.
We leave Kashgar early morning to Mazar. Mazar is a tiny collection of ramshackle corrugated iron and cardboard buildings on a junction. I know that no matter how basic we have had to go through Central Asia, this place will take the award for the lowest point of accommodation, but the freshest duck. The poor little buggers are expertly swiped off the street by their wings for tea by our hosts, necks broken and thrown in the pot. We need to eat and this is all there is.
Pic: Mazar - feels like the end of the world!
From Mazar, it’s on to Reed Willow Beach (never has a name been so unrepresentative of a place), then to Duoma. The riding is hard. There’s a lot of road construction working going on and plenty of sand pits to catch riders out. But each day brings us to the goal of Everest. Back to top
Anyone for BBQ Camel? China
Arriving in Kashgar early now gives the team a whole week here, which in many ways turns out for the best. There is a lot of work to be done and more paperwork to get Chinese licences and registration plates. Everyone has to go to the local hospital to get their eyes tested and medical (haha) done. Bikes, people and clothing need a massive clean up – ahh! Hot water! Some riders get Chinese torture massages (!) and go to the barbers for the closest shaves possible. Parts for the drowned GS turn up from the UK.
Pic: Team with Chinese Licence Plates - at last!
Then there is also Western food and drink – a welcome relief for many as they find down from the hotel they can get an expresso coffee, pizza, chips and cheesecake. After yak and before the delights of the cabbage and duck to come, Kashgar is a perfect haven to rest up, clean up, feed up and get prepared for the next section.
We also have trips organised to go to Shiptons Arch, an overnighter at Taxkorgan on the KKH and then the famous livestock market, where Michael, our resident Cumbrian farmer, gave us the lessons on what made a good sheep, or donkey or even camel! Apparently camels cost £1,000. Then came the invite to a celebration feast – the locals had BBQ’d a whole camel! That’s right a whole grown camel – so big, the spit stuck up its behind had to hooked to a crane to be hoisted clear of the flames. Once again, CCTV (national Chinese TV) was there to mark the occasion and as we were the only foreigners, we also became the centre of attention. Another interview and we were given the honour of the first taste of the camel. Chicken, anyone?! No, pork, maybe . . . . (Look at www.youtube.com/globebusters)
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China - A road too far?
So the day has arrived. The day when we should all cross into China. This is a momentous milestone for us all and, logistically, its significance to the trip is huge. Once in China, we have no more border crossings and a Chinese support vehicle to assist us across the Tibetan plateau (in addition to the GlobeBusters Support Van). I get the team up early. This pass is untested due to the late change with the Kyrgyz revolution and although it is much closer to Kashgar, I am worried about the weather and what conditions could be like. What I didn’t anticipate was this being the most difficult riding day I have done, let alone the team.
Over than the snow, it started off OK. There was even a bit of tarmac for a short while. When it disappears and the snow banks rise further, we are left with a track hacked out by bulldozers. It is treacherous and riders start falling like dominoes. Unbelievably we’re having to fight our way with trucks and then we get to the point of white out.
I’ve never encountered such severe conditions; but we have to cross the border today or all bets are off. Every rider is fighting their own personal battle, they’re picking each other up and clawing a hundred yards at a time. Finally the clouds lift and we see blue sky and the descent commences, but the surface is still evil – it’s completely chewed up and frozen. We get a bit lower and finally something resembling a road appears again. It’s taken 7 hours, 40 miles and between us we counted 40 bikes drops to get to the border. We’re all ecstatic at the achievement, not quite believing that we have all made it.
It’s our last lot of order border formalities to get into China and it takes hours but it who cares? We’re just bursting coz we’ve made it to China. By the time we get to Kashgar, it’s eleven at night – everyone is exhausted but riding high. We celebrate with our first (of many!) massive Chinese meals and some Great Wall red wine. Back to top
How's the revolution? Kyrgyzstan
Another border crossing day. Back in 2009, this had been horrific conditions, paddling through deep snow. Now it was still pretty cold up there – it’s still 4,000m plus, but the snow had disappeared. Only to be replaced by the deepest, stickiest mud quagmire that I have ever encountered on what was supposed to be a road.
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Tajikistan - There and Back Again
It’s a glorious day today and sun stays shining. We’re headed even further south to the Wakhan Valley before we climb again, north to Murghab and then into Kyrgyzstan for the one night. This route remains stunning and we take the group up to the 3rd century Yamchun Fortress, which overlooks the whole valley and across the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan – the enormity and serenity of the view belies a turbulent past. It is in Langar, our overnight stop, that we learn that the road ahead in closed – another landslide. Tajikistan is as unpredictable as expected. Apparently it’s gone only about 5 miles out of the village, so we decide to take a look before having to back track. We’ve got over landslides before!
We’re on the alternate route today. With a 4,600m pass and then a high altitude lunarscape plateau to get to our last stop in Tajikistan – Murghab. This town has a frontier feel to it – it’s bitterly cold, we buy fuel from drums and settle down to another group home-stay experience. It’s a good job we all get on! It’s time to crack open a bottle of Welsh single malt to go with the bread, yak and onions. We share it evenly around the group and get a good night’s sleep. Back to top
With brand new knobblies fitted to all the bikes, we leave Dushanbe. The new road is hopefully called the M41 but shed any motorway imagery. This main road disintegrates into gravel and river crossings only 60 miles out of the capital. We stop at Tavildara overnight before the main high pass, in some basic bunk rooms. I’m relieved I’d advise the group to get some decent 3 or 4 season bags with liners as it’s not warm. Most of us sleep in our thermal underwear – my Icebreaker Merino Wool stuff is snuggley. It’s raining hard and it’s only 70 miles to do tomorrow, but I warn everyone that it’s going to be tough.
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When Julia and I first rode to the Uzbek / Tajik border last year on the recce it was no problem. At the Azerbaijan border it had been cups of tea, “$5 please” and at the Tajik border, the request was “Any Sex DVD’s?” - but other than that and a US$10 payment for a missing “eco” certificate, all was fine. Not this time. It took six hours to get the group through. Every bag and item of clothing was searched and any cash over the amount declared was confiscated! With the first riders being searched the word spread and cash was counted and declarations changed, but for some it was too late. Having handed in his declaration one rider decided the best thing to do was to stuff a role of $1,000 between his arse cheeks. He gets strip searched! Down to his pants at the border, and if it is discovered then we can all look forward to the same. But they stop at his pants and he gets away with it!
Into Tajikistan still sore from our treatment. This is eased with a brief 5 star stopover in the capital and another day for the support crew to finish off work on the bikes for the next leg. By the time we leave here all bikes need to have the knobbly tyres on, change of oils and a thorough checking over. Most of the riders pitch in to help. It has to be said that the 1200s are holding up well, but the F800s are starting to feel the pace – we’ve got fork seals that have blown, an iffy fuel pump and one whose battery won’t hold its charge. To be fair one bike has 50,000 miles + on it (it did the Trans Am last year too).
In Dushanbe, we’ve heard it’s kicked off again in southern Kyrgyzstan and the town of Jalalabad (where we have booked the group in for the night) has just had a bit of a confrontation along the main street and shot a few more people dead. The FCO has flung out another travel warning and it looks a bit uncertain. It gets quite complicated as our Chinese permits allow us entry only via the Torugart Pass (and we would need to get ourselves through Jalalabad first). Back home Julia is back on the case, re-jigging all the arrangements with our Chinese agent and we find a solution that allows us to change our port of entry in just enough time. This means we cut short the stay in Kyrgyzstan to just one overnight stop in Sary Tash, then get into China 3 days early. It’s a good plan, do-able and brings certainty back into the journey, so we break the news to the team, who naturally are more happy about securing their entry into China than 3 days in Kyrgyzstan.
The next piece of news is that the southern road to Kailikum is closed. This is the road we are due to take tomorrow! The rains have been very bad this year and the road has collapsed. Our local Pamiri guide assures us the northern route remains open and the map shows a nice bright red line indicating main road. Fingers crossed! Back to top
Another border crossing – we exit Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan. It’s relatively painless and with only 10 miles to get to the hotel in Khiva, it turns out to be more straight forward than expected. In Uzbekistan we have to change money – their largest note is 1,000 som – worth 50p. We all end up with stacks of the stuff! Khiva is the first of the Silk Road cities.
It’s the smallest but impressive surrounded by a huge ancient wall and filled with mosques and minarets all explored through tiny narrow streets. It’s also warm (at last!) and we have a rest day over a festival week-end. There’s lots of traditional music, dancing and animal fights (eek) As national TV is covering the event, we get to be interviewed again about our amazing journey.
It’s more desert to get to Bukhara – pretty uneventful. Lots of tea, even more sand and one puncture. On the road, some of our team get to meet a couple of French riders on Honda Varadero 125s – they don’t have a full bike licence and fawn over the GS bikes. Maybe one day, eh?
The police showed out in force for some of the riders the next day to Samarkand – the boys avoiding tickets by showing the police pictures of themselves being interviewed on national TV back in Khiva!
We’ve got another day off in Samarkand – there’s loads of Silk Road World Heritage stuff to see and we need to work on the bikes. We’re getting close to the half way point and we need to start changing tyres here and finish off in Dushanbe (two days away with another rest day). Most of the team head out to do the tourist bit, exploring the ancient centre – the Registan, packed with bright turquoise tiled mausoleums, mosques and medressas.
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Turkmenistan is an oil rich nation still steeped in the old Soviet empire this is a proper police state. The locals are curious but nervous and so are the police. Is the group to be feared or trusted? It’s a long straight desert road from the port to the capital, Ashgabat. We narrowly avoid being wiped out by suicidal camels and then it rains (in the desert?!).
Is this the gateway to hell? It feels like Hollywood have created this set!
Kevin Sanders Back to top
Across the Caspian Sea
Kevin Sanders Back to top
Georgia & Azerbaijan
We cross in and out of Georgia in only two days, with just one overnight stop in Tblisi. Georgia is a Christian tiny country surrounded by its Muslim neighbours and Russia to the north, with whom it had a big spat with in 2008. The back roads are quiet until you start to get close to the capital.
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Along the route in Turkey, we get to see the weird and wonderful rock formations and cave dwellers in Cappadocia.
It’s a 4am start to take a hot air balloon to silently drift over them as dawn rises. Serene and breathtaking views. From here it’s the Fish Springs – where we all soak in big warn tanks as small fish eat away our dead skin . . .
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Across Europe in 7 days
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Ace Cafe Send Off
1) Isn't she nice and clean in the early morning sun at the Ace Cafe. GlobeBusters F800GS.
2) An American finishing of a full English - Aaron enjoying the excellent Ace Cafe Breakfast.
3 A riders fond farewell - Darran says goodbye to Diane for the next 12 weeks
4) The Team - The final photo call before riding awayBack to top
We rode off from the Touratech Travel Event last year and three months later rolled into Beijing, We had traversed mountain passes covered in snow, ridden the Tibetan Plateau so high you can’t catch your breath, endured crashes, collapsed bridges, closed roads and every hazard known to man. But we had done it and the feeling as we rode into Beijing and were turned away from Tiananmen Square by the Police (“No Motorcycles!”) was indescribable.
So we have a route, it can be done and we already had a queue of people who said they want to go. After releasing the DVD of the recce trip this number dwindled somewhat as they started to recognise the magnitude of the challenge. The riding is just one element. The remote accommodation with home stays letting you right into local life, the diet of yak and onions, or stir fry and the altitude that will sap your every last ounce of energy. You either view these as highs or admit the challenge is too great.
So we are ready and in just a week’s time we will leave from the Ace Café, and then the news – “Kyrgyzstan on brink of civil war, says Medvedev” Ah that’s right on our route! Can every-one get an extra visa in 5 days, or is it over already?
1) Kevin, Julia, Mark and Jeff ready to leave GlobeBusters HQ
2) Kevin and Mark with Nick Plumb of Touratech UK - Back to top
Silk Road Countdown
China Video Back to top
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