2010 Trans Asia Recce
Home to the Terracotta Army
We are now on well ridden routes; Chengdu to Xi’an. We often look at a map and begrudge the ride to Xi’an. It takes us into even more densely populated areas that are even more congested polluted; the ride into Xi’an shows a coal fired power station within eight miles of so of the centre, billowing fumes. But despite all this, there is something about Xi’an that we love and of course, it is home to the Terracotta Army.
There is a vibrancy about Xi’an, the first real mix of Han and Muslim we see and the draw of the Bell and Drum Tower, the massive old city walls, the artist markets, traditional (looking) streets, dumpling banquets, Chinese Opera, it all plays a part. To be fair, we have also fine tuned the ride to get here to cherry pick the best of roads, weeding out as much of the congested roads as we can, finding the smaller roads through the pine forests, where old temples nestle in the hillsides and the extensive cloud forests really do have wild pandas (even though you’ll never ever see them roadside).
We almost didn’t get the bikes to Xi’an. One overzealous hotel had taken the security precaution of taking a steel chain and padlocking our bikes together for safety. The following morning, no one could find the key to open the padlock. It was funny at first; not so half an hour later! Still one bright spark found a hammer and chisel, broke the chain and freed us to be on our way.
Leaving Xi’an we are back to pastures new. We are tracking the northern Silk Road all the way to Urumqi, from where we will head west to Kazakhstan.Back to top
Found a Pint Of Guinness!
From Kunming, we have to find the best route we can to Chengdu. Chengdu is old stomping ground as is the beautiful Mount Emie and its temples and monkeys, some 100 miles south. We just need to wind our way north there. We pick up some of the roads that we did in 2009; back then they were a terrible slow going quagmire of road works. In the intervening period, the smaller national road has been finished and some links of the Expressway are also open, which takes the heavy truck traffic.
It generally makes for much improved riding conditions, but still, China’s roads are as unpredictable as its drivers. Perfect new tarmac becomes a broken mess of concrete in a blink of an eye, or a landslide will have already taken half the road out, or one broken down truck causes a two hour jam (but not for us!)
Sections of the Expressway are still being built through some of the most difficult mountain and gorges imaginable. The engineering required to complete this road building feat is phenomenal – basically linking all the extremities of China to Beijing by a fast dual carriageway toll road (which motorcycles are banned from). As our Chinese guide described it “China’s new Great Wall” and looking at how this road has been blasted through mountains, curved around cliffs, spanning huge gorges, traversing rivers and lakes, it’s an apt description.
We arrive in Chengdu to some of the worst visibility we have experienced here. True the weather isn’t that great and it’s raining, but the pollution contributes big time to the thick haze we see from our hotel window and the whole city is shrouded in a cloying smog. We settle down for a few days, meet with old friends and manage to find a pint of Guinness!Back to top
Road with 1,864 bends...
Our route for the next few days has been disrupted because we are not allowed on the Zhatong road; the problem seems to relate to road closures. In any event, we divert to Kunming via Jianshui and it turns out to be a great result. However, the ride to Jianshui is not for the faint hearted. The weather is steaming hot and the road continuously twists and turns amidst the mountains, random massive potholes abound and if Thailand claims a road with 1,864 bends, then this should take the award for double that. The scenery is breath-taking but our progress is slow. We can’t average more that 25mph. Its 267 miles to Jianshui and we make it just as the light fades.
We stop in a traditional Chinese family courtyard residence, an old merchants house from the seventeenth century. It is so wonderfully preserved that it is also a national treasure and part museum. A wander around Jianshui the next day reveals an old city wall, preserved gates, one of the largest Confucius temples in China, old cobbled streets (and one western bar serving great coffee!) . . . and not another white face in sight! Not only is it a great find but we also find out that Zhatong had been hit by a 4.5 earthquake the previous night, so a lucky escape too!
The next day tracks us up to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province and the first taste on this journey of big Chinese cities. The road has become faster but busier, and with this the random, crazy acts of Chinese driver, cyclist and pedestrian suicidal behaviour increase too. The mental effort to take in all the unpredictability of it all as every normal road rule in the West is abused is massive and the concentration is intense. Even though its our fourth time here, it’s hard to control the rage when yet another truck pulls straight across you, out in front of you or head on for you. In the end, full Xenon lights blaring and extra loud horn blasting, Kevin scares the hell out of me by playing chicken with them. God forbid! It has a partial impact . . .
Approaching Kunming, the clear air of the south becomes more of a grey haze and it is a sign that we are reaching some of China’s more populated areas. Kunming is massive with roads laced like spaghetti, some banning motorcycles. We just ignore the signs and use the GPS to thread our way through to the Green Park and our hotel. It works perfectly. The GPS is a godsend – our Chinese guide and driver having been stuck in some almighty traffic jam, hours back and never catching us up.Back to top
WELCOME TO CHINA!
The contrast between the Laos and Chinese side of the border is like chalk and cheese. Laos has a small immigration building on the left. China has built a huge, modern complex – open only last year and empty apart from us, as we echo our way towards passport control. We are greeted very politely, in English. Once stamped in, we have to bring the bikes past the police check and the first glint of frustrating and utterly ridiculous Chinese rules. As we roll up to the check point our guide waves frantically to stop. We don’t’ understand and she shouts “push the bikes”. Yes, we were not allowed to ride the bikes to the checkpoint, but we were forced to push them, stop to be checked and continue to push them for another 20 yards past the checkpoint, at which point, we were allowed to ride them again. WELCOME TO CHINA!
We had a mad dash to Mengla to get to the Vehicle Inspection Station before 11.30am for officials to ensure our bikes were roadworthy. We speed along a brand new dual carriageway only to effect an emergency stop for two workers carrying a length of steel pipe across the whole two lanes at about neck level. Two minutes later we swerve to avoid a small tractor in the fast lane driving towards us. It’s madness and hysterically funny at the same time. We are not new to China and these situations are absolutely typical of everyday ride on the road. It’s not if they happen; it’s when they happen!
A transport official looks incredulous at our bikes, doesn’t know what to do to check them and signs off the paper anyway. We are away by lunch time northwards and through a mountainous terrain, terraced with tea bushes. The roads are quick at first – we are on a first class new road and it winds its way between misty green peaks. Our first stop is Pu-Er, famous as the starting point of the Ancient Tea and Horses Caravan route – and of course it’s tea. Shops selling bricks of tea, with special tea ceremonies, line the roads around the town. We seem to be the only foreign faces here and an early evening stroll through town, brings curious looks and school kids all shouting “hello” and then turning and giggling like mad when they get a reply and a wave. The main square is full of lines of OAPs doing tai chi, teenagers skateboarding and young families pushing prams and the main streets are wide and modern, with row upon row of glitzy clothes and shoe shops.Back to top
My elephant is called Meehan
My elephant is called Meehan and is 40 years old. She lumbers slowly through the jungle, large ears wafting and she is a slow lolloping ride. Kevin is behind me on his elephant, who never catches me up as it seems too interested in stopping to eat. The river is on our left and although it’s only nine o’clock, the heat is starting to rise. We watch the elephants bathe, with their mahouts scrubbing their backs. It’s a calm and peaceful scene. By eleven we’re back on the bikes and joined by Thai rider, Mr Pe O, who has a home in Chiang Mai where he keeps his R1200GSA. He and Kevin speed off, whilst I meander through the hills. We are heading north again to the Golden Triangle. This is the area where you can see the three countries, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, from the banks of the Mekong River. And as the sun sets over the huge Golden Buddha that watches over the borders, we eat more local delicacies at a riverside restaurant.
Next day, we take some time out to visit the Hall of Opium, a spectacular modern interactive museum, then turn south to the small town of Nan. Yet again, Thailand delivers some awesome riding through breathtaking scenery. We take some of the smaller back roads – they are endlessly twisty, with steep gradients through spectacular national parks. Nan is our last night in Thailand and we have both been blown away by the friendship and hospitality, as well as some truly not-to-be-missed landscapes. We look forward to coming back next year and sharing this with the 20 riders we will be taking on the final leg of Discover our Earth.
It’s border day and an early start to cover the 100 miles to the tiny northern border with Laos. It’s a Sunday and it’s delightfully quiet, with the usual flurry of paperwork and one man and his computer that we are used to seeing in Central America. We wave good-bye to Kai, Eak and Mr Bee who has also joined us on this final ride to the border and then it’s a new country.
There is nothing quite like the buzz of riding your bike in a brand new country, with no idea of what lies ahead, what the roads will be like, what challenges await. Unfortunately for us, our visit to Laos will only be a short transit as our gateway to China. There is a new road about 2 kms from the border to the Mekong River. It already has been impacted by landslides and we slip our way over patches of thick red clay mud. The new tarmac surface is littered with rocks and stones that have tumbled down from the steep hillsides and we weave in and out, as more torrential rain falls from the sky.
By the time we get to the Mekong, it’s dried out again already and we take the ancient, small house boat barge for the 5 minute crossing – it takes one car and two bikes and it’s full. That’s going to be fun with twenty riders! On the other side, the road winds its way through small villages, busy bringing in the harvest. There is a real happy innocent feel to this place, as naked kids splash around in the rain gullies bursting with water at the sides of the road, people wave and smile at us and whenever we stop there’s the buzz and clicks of the jungle life. The riding here is laid back, through lush surroundings and it would be easy to just forget the journey, stay a while longer and munch on freshly baked baguettes (remnants of French colonialism!). But it’s only a few hundred miles to the Chinese border and entering China has to be done to a strict pre-organised schedule. Our guide will be waiting there on Wednesday 25 August and it’s a date we can’t break.Back to top
Should Tip Over 100,000 Miles
It’s 7am on a Sunday morning, the rain is holding off and we have a Thai rider on a BMW K1200R to lead us out of the city. His number plate is “1”. The bikes are packed and ready to go – they’re running great after the long cargo flight. Julia is riding a F800GS, with a Scottoiler fitted. With around 14,000 miles ahead of us, we don’t want to have to carry chain lube and this should be a saving grace to keep the chain in good condition. I’m on my R1150GS – it’s the Guinness World Record Around the World GS and it’s got over 87,000 miles on the clock. This journey should tip over 100,000 miles (it’s been a secret ambition of mine for a long time to get the bike over 100k!)
Anyway, one week in a big busy city is more than enough for any traveller. A Sunday morning start means the roads are quiet and soon we find ourselves on the northern road out past the old international airport. Mr K1200R is very controlled, signals well in advance and gives us a brisk “blow the cobwebs out” pace to a main fuel station where a few other Thai riders are waiting with “BMW Riders of Thailand” stickers. I’m always sticker greedy . . .
We then blast another hundred miles or so to Nakhon Sawan and a behind the scenes local beef noodle place for brunch. The temperatures are dripping hot. We ride in the fast lanes - the speed brings some welcome relief and these lanes are shaded by trees hanging out from the central reservation. Our destination is the ancient city of Sukhothai.
Sukhothai at sunset is magical and you can’t help feel a sense of calm as the sun silently sinks to the trees casting a golden glow over the stupors and buddhas. We slowly wander amongst the ancient remains. In the morning, we are up early and bring the bikes to some spots before everyone else appears. First the elephant stupor, then the hiding big Buddha and finally back to the heart of the old city. It’s utterly magnificent.
It’s a short days ride to Mae Sot. Finally, half way there, we see misty hills appear. Amazingly, it’s still dry so we can test the bends to the full – bearing in mind animals, people, scooter and the like . . we’re both impressed with the quality of the roads and the backdrop. The benefit of the wet season is that everything is bright green, lush, growing and alive. Mae Sot is a stopover destination, but has a small local restaurant with some of the biggest tiger prawns we have ever seen (and eaten!!). These buggers would cost £5 a prawn back home but here we can a plateful for the same amount. Utterly delicious. But why oh why is wine so expensive in this country? Its easily £40 for a standard bottle of white or red; so far we have stuck with the local beer!
Mae Sot also right on the border with Myanmar. Kai and Eak, (Kai is the founder of Storm Club and manages what is the only formal motorcycle training with Thailand; Eak is a local enduro racer who knows the jungle like the back of his hand.) Now rainy season is really not the time to take a R1150GS into the jungle . . .!!) Anyway, the two of them take us to the Myanmar border a few kms out of town. It’s a sad and edgy place. Within easy sight is Myanmar, where the well trodden trails across the water’s edge show clearly where people clearly go back and forth, undercover. Kai tells us that many people in Mae Sot are from Burma, they can’t speak Thai. The immigration problem, existing all over the world in different forms. Standing on the edge of the Meoi River, it is so them and us. There’s yet nothing special really about us, just the luck of the country of our birth.
The third day’s riding is the best yet. We are on the road of 1,864 bends. Ya Hoo!! Except the downpour has started and smooth and gentle is the name of the game. Even in the wet, this is incredible riding. The road heads directly north, brushing the Myanmar border and another glimpse of the lot of those refugees who have sought shelter from the oppressive regime. The camp is spread roadside and climbs up the dense forested hills. Police check points prevent the movement of people beyond a tiny specific area and here they wait out their lot. I can’t see how those born here now will be able to accept such an existence. Change in whatever form has to happen.
The road today combines everything a motorcyclist and a traveller could want. The road is nicely challenging, varies from open swooping bends on perfect surfaces to tiny broken roads, pot holes and mud. For the most part it is deserted. It passes small villages and life is teeming on the road everywhere. You can smell the dampness, the cooked foods and the smoke. Close your eyes and drink in the smell and you know you are in the tropics. Our average speed is quite slow and it is a full days ride to do the 240 miles. It’s been a great day.
In Mae Hong Son, we have a day off to explore the many temples and take visit to the hill tribe of the Long Neck Karen people. Another refugee camp – self-sustaining due to their embracing of tourism, but yet another product of the Myanmar regime. Again we feel torn between the commercialism of these rare people and the practical need for survival.
Tomorrow, yet again it is north bound to find elephants!Back to top
A Welcome from Touratech Thailand
Surrounding the hotel are narrow streets packed with street vendors, smells of fried foods waft in the air and dogs wander in and out hoping for a quick bite. To the drone of blessed aircon, we catch up on sleepless airplane rest.
On Monday, we head over to Touratech Thailand to meet its owner, Peera. He turns out to be fantastic help and passes on a wealth of knowledge to us, as well as treating us to lunch, then introducing us to the two BMW dealers in town, BKK and Barcelona. Our agents are processing paperwork for the bikes and we have an appointment for 9am the next day to sign off documents and fingers crossed get the bikes. That night, we are taken to Silom Village for a welcome Thais dinner and meet local BMW bikers, friends of Peera.
We are at the Customs Building next morning, present our documents and wait. It’s only a couple of hours for us to sign off our temporary bike permits and then we wander across to the warehouse to collect the bikes. Obtaining there release is another two hours clock watching as agents run around, pass money and get us to sign more papers. The warehouse is chaotic, with boxes, forklifts and people zig-zagging haphazardly, and all without a fluorescent bib in sight – it’s a miracle!
Our bikes, still beautifully crated by James Cargo appear from the depths of the warehouse and are taken outside the warehouse, where they are left outside an office for us to un-crate in the muggy afternoon. No one seems to care about the timber we stack up against a wall. The bikes roll off the wooden pallet and fire up first time. We have just enough fuel to get to the nearest station. It’s taken the best part of a day.
Peera calls to invite us for something to eat at a local restaurant lakeside. Don’t try to get into Bangkok between 4 and 7pm he says. It’s impossible. Motorcycles are not allowed on the Expressway and so have to fight their way through the packed underbelly of Bangkok traffic. If we were on tiny scooters, skinny bikes, that would be fun, but on the large bikes, with narrow lanes, we might as well be a car.
Around 7pm, Eak a local rider, accompanies us back to the hotel. The traffic is still horrific, it’s now pitch black too and it’s like being in a video game. The cars are fairly polite, give you space and tooting is rare. This is NOT like riding in China – there is a courteousness about it that belies the Thai culture. The scooters are like annoying mosquitoes – they’re everywhere, quickly, all over you, then gone. Changing lanes runs the risk of swatting them.
Huge lightening strikes are now flooding light across the skyscrapers and with only 1km to go to the hotel, the full leash of torrential rain splashes everywhere. Eak tris to pull us over to the far lane, which has some cover from the Skytrain overhead, but it’s of little use. Everything is misted, the pavements are a mass of stalls rain bouncing off temporary plastic sheeting, and there’s an odd mix of the Duke of Wellington pub and Deli France alongside chicken satay vendors and tacky waving gold buddhas. By the time we get to the hotel, we are sodden and dripping, but still warm!
The next few days sees us take in some of the tourist sites, look out hotels, get our bearings. Having talked about routes with the local riders here, we also decide to get our Lao visa in Bangkok. That way we have full flexibility about which border to cross into Lao. Without it, we have to cross at the Friendship Bridge. As the best riding is in the North of Thailand, we decide its better to stay exploring around the Golden Triangle area and use a small northern border for Lao. It takes us longer in taxi rides to and from the Lao Embassy, then it does for them to issue a visa.
We’re ready to get on the road now. We’ve eaten too well thanks to all our invites from BMW riders here and the food has been delicious – fried curry crab, shrimp patties, steamed fish, beef thai green curry, spicy prawn soup and so the list goes on. There’s a bit too much of a holiday atmosphere appearing! So it’s a cool 7am set off, about 280 miles and another World Heritage Site to culturally soak in. Falling in love with Thailand will be all too easy.
Big thank you to Peera, Mr Pe O, Vallope, Kai, Eak, Pukki and the rest. It’s been so much fun, you’ve looked after us like royalty and we can’t wait to ride some with you and be back next May.Back to top
Catch all the latest pictures at http://www.globebusters.com/gallery/2010-trans-asia-recce
and also follow whats happening via our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/GlobeBusters-Adventure-Motorcycle-Expeditions/114349139602?ref=ts