Thursday, July 31, 2014

Days 17+18: The last days in China

Day 17

It turned out to be easier than I thought to escape the city and I was out and on the road early in the morning. The first hundred kilometers or so resembled the day before; high winds and arid landscape, but soon I started up into the mountains. After a pretty scary section of high winds racing down a valley  as I wound  my way along the sharp turns, the weather calmed and the temperature dropped. I stopped at a sacred Buddhist mountain site for some pictures and to put on my wind jacket and then proceeded through the most beautiful landscapes I've yet seen.

How can I describe it. I was traveling through a valley between two mountain ranges. All around me was what looked like perfectly manicured lawn covering the nearby hills. This was exactly how I imagined the steppe looked. On the hills the perfect bright green grass was only broken by bike rock outcroppings. On the higher mountains the grass slowly turned yellow and orange towards the top giving them a cartoony look or like someone had painted them. In many places it was hard to believe what I was seeing. In many places beyond the mountains to my right were snow topped peaks or jagged steep rocky mountains.

As I continued it started to get warmer and after a stunning view from a set of switchbacks I arrived at yurt villages with herds of horses and sheep. Here the lawn grass was covered in places by patches of a type of tall thin pine tree. Even under the trees the grass remained pristine with no under brush. The villages were build along a small fast moving brook of perfectly clear water. It was unreal. I stopped in a group of yurts that had a sign in front of them and asked if they were for rent. They were, the price wasn't so bad and I really wanted to stop in this hobbit land so I rented a yurt for the night.

That evening the proprietor prepared a meal of sheep and noodles for me but they gave me way too much. My stomach already small from the previous year had shrunk even more after the illness so I wasn't able to finish all my food. Here they have a much more effective way of convincing people to finish their meal than we do in America. We might say, " there are starving people in China!" but here they just point to the sheep outside and indicate that "his friend died so you could eat." So I stuffed away the remaining mutton and fell quickly asleep a little while later in my giant yurt bed.

Day 18
The next morning I made for the border. I got as close as I could and prepared my documents. After the yurt village the scenery became more urban and wasn't very exciting. So nothing really happened that day.

Day 15+16: Into the Desert

Day 15

I woke up around sunrise at the truckers hostel and after one last clear sighted look around the tiny rest stop village I set off for Ruoqiang and the Taklimakan Desert. I felt a bit better. My strength had mostly returned and my stomach was feeling alright.

The scenery and roads were much like the day before: Arid mountains far to my left and gravel ground everywhere. Sometimes there were little bushes and sometimes absolutely nothing. For most of China, my small 250cc motorcycle was more than enough. I went faster than most other people on the road and the winding or village roads didn't allow me to go much above 90 kmh or so. But now I started wishing I had a bigger motorcycle just so I could pass through these areas a bit quicker. I also hate being passed by other cars and the way most Chinese see motorcycles (as slow obstacles like pedestrians that need to be passed) and treat them its actually a bit safer to go as fast if not faster than others on the road.

I made roughly 600km that day. Mid afternoon I reached the end of the Tibetan Plateau and the long exciting decent into the desert basin. The monotony of the previous few days was finally broken by winding roads through canyons occasionally broken by stunning partial views of the basin below.

I pulled into Ruoqiang late in the afternoon feeling much better with greatly improved spirits.

Day 16

In the morning I took a look at my route and saw that there was a good long section of sand dune desert. Exciting! I've never seen sand dunes before. So I set off hoping to end the day in Bayingol. I reached the end of town and once I was out of the oasis and back into the desert the wind really picked up. It was blowing almost directly from my right side and

the bike naturally leaned over into the wind. I had never experienced this before so I wasn't exactly sure what to do. I pulled over and waited for a bit but soon I saw a chinese guy on a small motorcycle braving the gusts so I decided if he can do it I should be ok.

Soon I got to the bit of sand desert I was so excited about. The wind picked up and my visibility slowly diminished to about 500ft. I couldn't quite decide if this counted as a sand storm. Maybe a mild sand storm? But that was soon answered as my visibility was reduced to less than 100ft and sand. Definitely a moderate sand storm. I still figured they must get at least a little worse. Eventually the road turned so the wind was mostly at my back and then I passed through the sandy section and became more habitable. Once I reached the river and trees, villages started reappearing and it was smooth riding the rest of the way. On the positive side, the sandy wind has sand blasted the right side of my motorcycle perfectly clean. The left side was still covered in mud though.

When I got to the city,  I started looking for a place to stay but s
oon discovered this was one of those strange cities that only allowed foreigners to stay in four or five star hotels costing over 600yuan a night! This was completely impractical so after a few attempts at some cheaper looking hotels I tried to leave the city and find a camp site. BUT I couldn't find a way out of the damn city. My google maps were all wrong and the only way out seemed to be on an expressway which didn't allow motorcycles. It was getting late and I started to get a bit frustrated. Finally, after trying to check in to what looked to be a brothel, I found a decent three star hotel that with the help of a very helpful rich young guy was willing to ignore the "rules" for foreigners.

That night I decided to go look for some western food for my birthday dinner but there were no pizza places. I settled on KFC. As I left the hotel, I ran into my friend and told him my plan. He didn't really speak much english but was enthusiastic and tried hard to understand my signs and very poor chinese. He offered to drive me and when I told him it was my birthday (by singing the international happy birthday song) he paid. Things were turning around. While enjoying our chicken burgers a group of university students joined us and we ended up going out for a birthday beer. So in the end it turned out to be a pretty good birthday.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Day 13+14: Sick and Tired

Day 13:

This day started off alright. The sun was out and I got a nice early start. The landscape looked less muddy than the day before and I was warm enough. Again the roads were long and straight along RT109 so I set my speed high and put on some music. As the day went on I started to see more sand and eventually little sand tornadoes started forming and sweeping across the lunar landscapes.

At one oasis, I ran into those yellow fields and after killing a few bees on my face, I stopped to buy some honey. Lunch was some dumplings and coffee in a small rest stop of only a few buildings in the middle of nowhere.

After 300km of fast driving through increasingly desert like terrain, I arrived at the last city before my goal of a campsite in the deserts just beyond, Geermu. When I slowed down I noticed that the little green N light for neutral was flickering and then soon it stopped working. While taking a break I was only able to start the bike in 1st with the clutch. Strange. Then at a stop light  in the middle of the city at about 4 in the afternoon, the motorcycle's electronics shut off and the engine stopped. Big problem. I pushed it to some shade took out the tools and checked the battery and the fuses. Both were seemingly fine so I figured it was some other electrical fault. I waited around for a few minutes and still couldn't get the electronics to come on. So I asked around for the nearest shop and started pushing. After about 20 minutes of this the electronics magically started working again so I drove to a few repair shops only to have them tell me they couldn't help. Eventually one shop was nice enough to drive me to another guy that was more experienced with complicated motorcycles. It was getting late though and he was about to go home for dinner so he took me to the local motorcycle club's hostel/hotel.

It was great. All the chinese riders going through Tibet on their way to Xining stopped here and I got to see a bunch of different types of motorcycles, the Jialing 600cc and even an old BMW Dakar, and meet a few english speaking motorcyclists.

Day 14

First thing in the morning I went to the mechanic again to have him look over the bike. Unlike most mechanics I've encountered, he believed me when I told him about the ignition switch problem even though it was working fine when he looked at it. It turned out to be a corroded connection in the switch and after some sanding it was good to go but I was not doing so well.

Over the  course of the repairs, I started to feel a bit woozy and by the time I was set to go I was definitely sick. I set off and soon felt too tired to go on. In 40km I had to stop 3 times and run to the bushes. I turned back and barely made it to the edge of the city before I had to throw up in a small park river on the side of the street. Feeling a bit better I changed my mind about taking a rest day and turned back around. It was 2 in the afternoon so it would be a short day anyway.

Frequent stops made the going slower than it could have been with all the stops but I still managed about 350km on the long unbending roads. Near sunset I came to a little rest stop and pulled into a gas station. I was done. Exhausted weak and probably a little dehydrated I asked for a place to sleep. I was directed to a truckers hostel which consisted of two rooms of beds pushed together. 30yuan. Perfect. I got the motorcycle, drove it over to the hostel and dropped the bike in the sand just before their little bit of concrete. The crowd helped me pick it up and I sat myself on a tattered old couch nearby for the next couple hours. I slept for a good 14 hours that night.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 11+12: Around Qinghai Lake

Day 11
So things are starting to get interesting now. I left the hostel in Xining in the morning and planned to travel to Qinghai lake, skirt around the north of it joining up with the legendary RT315. I figured I'd end the day on the far side of the lake in a small town or in the mountains.

I put on my rain layers but decided not to wear my thermal layer. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Shortly into my ride the rain started and didn't stop all day. As I got closer to the lake the temperature fell as well. I'm not sure how cold it got exactly but it was enough to discover a major weakness in my gear choice. My gloves were not at all warm. I kinda knew this before I left but thought that cold would not be a issue that I would have to deal with on this trip.

The roads were long straight and boring. I cruised along at 90KHM through the rain just determined to end the day where I had planned. The road stretched straight in parts on to the horizon through treeless grassy mountains on either side. Sheep and yaks occasionally crossed the road in herds and yurts were set up throughout the endless grass fields. The Tibetan buddhists had also set up tons of prayer flags in the shape of tepees atop mountains. Occasionally, I ran across big yellow fields with people selling honey near them. The first time I passed one I felt something hit my helmet hard. I thought it was a rock or something and continued on. Soon I passed another yellow field and I saw little black things flying 5 or 10 at a time straight at me They freaked me out and I hid behind my wind screen. When I stopped I found bits of bee covering my helmet and jacket. I had slaughtered about five from that field. At every yellow field from then on it became a sad but slightly entertaining routine and dozens of bees lost their lives on my face shield and jacket by the end of the day


I covered 650km racing along the straight roads but forward progress was probably only about 400km. After a particularly long straight section I arrived at my destination of Tianjun on the far side of the lake. I was soaked and was in no mood to camp that night so I looked for a hotel. The receptionists apparently didn't know what to do with a foreigner or they were warned about us and called the police. Soon an english speaking policeman arrived and explained to me that i was not allowed in the area or anywhere west of Tianjun. This was a disaster as I hadn't explored any other options for getting to Urumqi. He told me to go back to another county to sleep and drove me to the edge of town.

The whole two hours of backtracking to the place where I had a late lunch that day I thought about my options. I could either go north and figure out a new plan or ignore the police officer and continue west anyway along the more desolate-looking southern route 109. I checked into a great cheap hotel in Gangca and through over my options.

Day 12
I woke up and decided to go west over a breakfast of sheep intestine soup. It was raining more heavily than the day before and it seemed a bit colder.

I didn't get on the road until 10:00am and by 12:00 I had only gone about 100km to the south west corner of Qinghai lake. I stopped for lunch and the warm my hands what had become nearly useless from the cold. At the restaurant I met a group from Sichuan provence and after a lengthy photo session, they invited me to join them for lunch. The food was amazing and I stuffed myself at their insistence.

Then with warm hands it was back on the road. I passed over a mountain, rain still falling steadily along with the temperature which by now had reached 5 degrees celsius. On a motorcycle going 80kmh, it's much colder. I was definitely not prepared for this and after pushing through another mountain range complete with short muddy sections of construction and a long flat barren landscape where if it weren't for the other cars would have felt like I was in a dream, I pulled over at a derelict gas station, lit my stove and warmed my now completely useless white hands over a cup of ginger tea. After about 45 minutes of recovery spent sheltered from the now frigid wind, I slipped on my waterlogged boots and soaked gloves and pressed on with renewed spirit.

The next section was again barren and lifeless followed by another mountain pass. Actually, I don't really remember exactly how many long straight roads through barren mud land I passed through or how many mountain ranges I crossed that day. Mostly I was focused on how cold and wet I was and how I was going to to fix that. A couple times I pulled over and warmed my hands on the engine but the second time for some reason it made my hands less resistant to the cold so I stopped doing that. While I was wondering why this had happened, I arrived at yet another section of road work. I waited a bit for the cars ahead of me to slowly crawl through before I started. On a motorcycle a steady speed is more important when passing through mud. I slowly plotted my way through the first section which wasn't so bad but the section of torn up road ended up being much longer than the earlier ones. I soon found a nice relatively smooth section, sped up and shifted to 2nd gear. Big mistake. There was a small mound covered in mud about 5 inches deep. Suddenly distracted by the obstacle and slowed by the line of cars ahead of me, I forgot to down shift and went in too slow in 2nd. I got stuck. I waited there in the middle of the road like an idiot unable even to get my rear wheel to spin while cars drove around me. Finally, a nice man in a Santana stopped and pulled me out with my tow rope (lucky purchase that i intended just to be a luggage strap)

Covered in mud but now nice and warm from the physical activity I soldiered on. The rain slowed and stopped and I arrived at farmland surrounded by what looked like yellow arid desert hills. Finally, Desert! Warmth! I entered town and cautiously found a hotel. I was not going to camp in the mud mountains or mud fields.

After getting stuck all the fields and mountains looked like big piles of mud.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Days 10: The road to Qinghai Lake

It's raining pretty badly now and the owner of my hotel is still sleeping so I have some time to write.

I left Kongjie and the rough roads of the previous day and headed for Xining at 8:00am. The road was much better and soon it started winding up small mountains. I was entering the far eastern extreme of Muslim Culture. Many men were wearing a white hat like a short fez and the women were wearing head scarfs.  There were mosques in every village with a very interesting design. Most had domes like Taj Mahal of different sizes and colorful minarets with that layered roof chinese design or somewhat resembled colorful scaffolding. It was nice to hear the ezan again.

Mid morning it started to rain pretty heavily and it was cold so I pulled over in a village beside a man selling live chickens to put on my thermal layer and rain gear. While I was walking back to my dry spot  from the bike I noticed a curious looking plant growing out of the sidewalk next to a tree. I stopped to examine it and indeed it was a huge, albeit unripe, marijuana plant. I turned to the crowd of older white hatted men and gave the universal smoking weed sign and then the crazy sign and they laughed and signed to me that, "You don't smoke it, you eat it."

I pulled out of the village and drove through fields of yellow flowers and mountain covered in fewer and fewer trees. Then the road climbed steeply over a large mountain with large switchbacks. The rain picked up and the temperature fell as I climbed. Soon fog set in and I could only see 50 feet off the road and the car in front of me. Together me and the blue VW slowly wound our way through the switchbacks for maybe half an hour. I encountered my first flock of sheep in the road on the way up. My VW friend stopped for pictures and I went to the top alone. There I found another long traffic jam caused by two trucks hitting each other on a tight switchback turn so I wound my way through until I found a good place to stop. There I met a group of people who were driving these three wheeled cars in convoy somewhere. They were excited and pointed to their flags and banners written in chinese but I couldn't understand them. Then using my motorcycle advantage, I wound my way through the rest of the traffic jam and had the road to myself. Almost immediately after leaving the peak the weather improved and I got my first views of the Tibetan landscape. Treeless mountains and hills covered in grass as far as you could see.

I pulled into Xining a few hours later and found a nice hostel.