Chapter 23 – China Part 5 – Gansu Province

Fanny had done an excellent job setting an interesting route along the quiet “S” roads of south east Qinghai into Gansu, and so we had a chance to relax, enjoy the scenery and take a break from worrying about being wiped out by black Audi A4s and tourist coaches.  However, we were in China and 1,340,000,000 people must be lurking about somewhere and inevitably we would find them –all of them I think–on the G213 around the epicenter of the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan County, Sichuan.

But until then we had some relatively enjoyable and peaceful riding to enjoy in Gansu, a province with a largely Muslim population that buffers Xinjiang and Qinghai from the rest of China and extends from Mongolia in the north to Sichuan in the South.

As long as you keep away from human habitation, the geography and scenery in China is en par with the best that Planet Earth has to offer. Sadly though, apart from God’s given natural environment there is very little left of any cultural or historical interest in the Middle Kingdom as Mr. Mao was considerably more successful than all the natural disasters in wiping out 5,000 years of remarkable human accomplishment and endeavour.

With the exception of some of the first tier cities (like Hong Kong, Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai), and the remote and small rural villages, any human habitation in China looks like an ugly grey concrete construction site, covered in dust and decay, surrounded by rubbish and pollution and accompanied by a cacophony of jack hammers and vehicle horns. Will it change? Perhaps, but not anytime soon as more than three quarters of a billion construction and factory workers need to be kept employed somehow otherwise the economy of China will collapse.

There are two big holidays in China, one is National Day in early October that celebrates the forming of the People’s Republic of China, and the other is Chinese Lunar New Year in January or February. Both are week long periods of public holiday that produce traffic jams that make roads in England on a Bank Holiday Monday look relatively tranquil and peaceful.  In fact, Chinese New Year results in the largest migration of human beings anywhere on the planet and the National Day holidays are not much quieter.

Crossing the Yellow River





Gansu Province


Still on the relatively peaceful “S202” in Gansu … lots of “乡巴佬”  farmer trucks everywhere moving their farm produce about, or acting as taxis or the family car .. more often than not, all three activities at the same time.


Many homes in the south east of Qinghai and Gansu have gates and courtyards… beautiful scenery, fresh air and clear skies

Crossing from Qinghai to Gansu

Loess mountains that turn the Yellow River … yellow

Beautiful contrast in colours and textures. I sound like an artist or a poet, but joking apart many people over the years have been inspired to paint, write and verse by this sensational scenery

The cradle of Chinese civilization.  Eroded Loess mountain slopes that surround the Yellow River valley give the river its name. Due to the topography and geology the valley has a long history of flooding, thus bringing both life and death to the region (I really am being poetically inspired)

A painting of the Yellow River by Ma Yuan (1160–1225),  Song Dynasty

Lots of mosques and minuets in Gansu

A picture taken on the move … not very well framed….but showing the amazing colours and topography of  southern Gansu

Local towns and local bikers. We liked Gansu… friendly people,  relatively pretty towns, better architecture and Lanzhou La Mian … one of our favourites. Try asking for this noodle dish in your local Ho Lee Fuk Chinese Restaurant in the US or Europe.

In this part of China, at the Gansu and Sichuan border, Islam meets Buddhism and they seem to get on all right without the need to blow each other up

Linxia with its minuets and mosques. Picture taken from the Yellow River which is lined by an assortment of magnificent trees, birds and autumn colours

Fanny and bikes on the Yellow River bridge at Linxia

Riding through downtown Linxia

Chili being sold at the side of the road. Many people outside China do not realize how important the Chili is to authentic Chinese cuisine and how many of them are actually used in the average dish, especially in provinces such as Hunan, Sichuan, Xizang, Xinjiang, Gansu, Chongqing etc… Fanny and I are huge fans.

Bit of traffic … nothing to worry about though

Back in the mountains again… ahead is another 4,000 meter pass and we will ride up and down it along the sort of hairpin roads and twisties that are a joy to all bikers throughout the world

Occasionally the road just disappears and we do a bit of “off roading”… OK for our bikes which despite not being true adventurers like our KTMs had no problem whatsoever climbing over rocks and potholes.  Alas, a bit of a challenge to the cars without much ground clearance

Sometimes the road erosion or damage was so bad regular cars either had to turn back or got well and truly stuck.  For bikes, trucks and 4×4 yue ye che (越野车) … no problem and I suspect, like us,  the 4×4 drivers quite relish such obstacles. Not sure whether floods, frost expansion, earthquakes, or overloaded trucks caused such damage… probably a bit of all these factors I guess.

I bet many bikers would like to ride this? As we got nearer to northern Sichuan the snow capped mountains, twisty roads and of course yaks of the Tibetan Plateau re-appeared

The S202 road –now turning into classic  “twisties” rising up towards a 4,000 meter pass in southern Gansu. Autumn colours, snow capped mountains, pleasant fresh temperature and ….aaahhh … quiet and peaceful.

One of the best roads we rode in the whole of China… if not the whole expedition. The photo doesn’t do justice, but we had several continuous hours of riding on this kind of road.

The metal netting did little to stop the rocks and boulders falling from the steep mountain sides onto the road. Its an earthquake zone of note which all adds to the sense of excitement and adventure

Up and over the 4,000 meter pass and down the other side through the mist…

A very remote bit of Gansu… high up in the mountains. Reminded me of Wales for some reason… probably because of the rain

Seemingly endless twist and turns…

I once went to GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut in the USA during the Fall/Autumn and this reminded me of the colours I saw there.

Happy times… our Chinese made touring CF Moto TR 650s in their element. I was not sure what to expect of these bikes as its a big leap forward for the Chinese motorcycle industry, but they were great. Now all we need is for the Chinese government to open up the highway network to big bikes (say over 250 cc) and this bike will be a phenomenal success.

Out of the mountains and down into the valleys and little towns.  The buildings are an interesting blend of classic Chinese and Muslim architecture.

This looks like a Chinese Pagoda, but it is actually a minaret for calling the faithful to prayer above a small mosque

And we enter yet another construction site town… one of hundreds we passed through. The sky is full of cranes, 15-20 story concrete shells, cement trucks, dust, noise, debris…. depressing and soul destroying in so many ways

Little villages like this are absorbed into the new concrete towns, and the rivers are turned into managed canals into which rubbish, pollutants and waste are freely strewn. The scale of all this is almost unimaginable outside China.

We turned off the idyllic S202 and onto the busy G309 to Hezuo. We were joined by heavy trucks on the route from Lanzhou to Chengdu, the holiday traffic, and in this case hundreds and hundreds of xiangbalao trucks ferrying the local Tibetan people from a Temple fare in the county town back to their homes. We rode for 200 kilometers overtaking them to Hezuo, mostly on the wrong side of the road and later in the rain and snow

We arrived in Hezuo just as it was getting dark and the skies opened up turning everything into a mud wrestling pool. Fanny did a great job finding a fantastic hotel given so many people were looking for a place to stay and then we hiked into the town center looking for food

Fanny choosing our dinner at the night market in Hezuo。


The next day we decided to take a rest day in Hezuo, explore the temples and monasteries and do some hiking in the mountains

Hezuo Buddhist monasteries

This is a replacement for a similar Buddhist building ( I think “Pavillion” rather than “Parilon” as the sign says ) that Mr. Mao had knocked down during the cultural revolution. Re-built in the late 80s to appease the large Tibetan population in Gansu

“And besides for satisfied worshipers’  request” …. good old Chinglish…. you can’t buy it.

Bling bling ding dong

Hezuo monasteries.

Wandering around the newly constructed temples in Hezuo

Always ornately adorned – I guess you can never use too much gold and red

The magical world of Buddhaland…. bring the whole family and throw your rubbish in the nearby stream

Don’t stress little “Tutu” out by teaching him put rubbish in a bin.. just lob the plastic and wrappers out the car window, or better still lob it in a stream or river so that it can float down stream and wash up in someone else’s village.

Don’t worry, someone will eventually pick it up and throw it in the river.

Its very difficult to describe how revolting and disturbing the general Chinese tourism industry actually is… you have to see and experience it to believe. Perhaps its my western background, but I suspect not as Fanny from Shanghai also finds it intolerable and embarrassing.  I venture that I will never come to terms with the selfish and slovenly behaviour of the bus and coach drivers and tour guides, nor the tourists who freely spit phlegm out of the windows of their vehicles, throw rubbish everywhere, argue, squabble, queue jump, park, drive and overtake appallingly, honk their horn incessantly, and generally behave without consideration or respect for the local /indigenous people and their way of life.

The average Chinese worker really does work hard .. and often in harsh conditions for hours and hours and for weeks and months on end and with very little pay or compensation. We were constantly reminded of the poverty and day to day struggle of so many Chinese people just to survive and make a living.  When we were in Africa and Europe the local people told us how hard they worked,  and I guess some do, but everything is relative and its true… nobody works as hard as the Germans or Chinese … and there might just be a logical reason why the economies of  Italy, Spain and Greece are in such dire straits

A look down at Hezuo from the hill above showing a major traffic route, Buddhist temples, the remains of the old town and perpetual construction of new high rise buildings… all existing in chaos and disharmony together… which makes the name of this town rather ironic…..  Hezuo = Harmony

Nice horns


Unlike the good old commie days when everyone piled onto public transport or rode a bicycle,  China’s new middle class (now more populous than that of the entire United States) gets the SUV out, stuffs granny, grandpa and little “tu tu” in the back, covers them in duvets, fills the remaining spaces with instant noodles and chickens feet in cellophane wrappers and heads for one of China’s “most glorious happy revolution number one tourist sites in world”,   which could be anything from a rock that looks like a cock, a three foot dribble of water pouring into a decaying pool of human detritus and rubbish, or even an earthquake disaster zone.

When I was a kid my father occasionally tried to employ some parenting skills on his sons and teach us some manners, and would often say things like, ‘Stop eating like a peasant’, or ‘You and your brother are behaving like peasants’. This was meant as a reprimand, rather than a compliment.

In China its different. Being, and indeed behaving like a “xiang ba lao” or country bumpkin has been glorified by the cultural revolution and subsequently through propaganda in the media as some kind of virtue. Something for the great unwashed to aspire to and revere. Behaviour such as eating endangered flora and fauna,  giant salamanders and pangolins for instance, or the parts of animals like rhino horn is considered having “face”, pushing and shoving is considered an expedient method of getting something before someone else and thus ensuring one’s survival among the masses, spitting is considered no more than getting rid of phlegm at the back of your throat and what better time to do it than immediately, and cheating, bribery and corruption is considered just an effective way of doing business and getting your own way. If nothing else, a pragmatic way of survival among a billion and a half other mouths in the human jungle.

There are of course millions of cultured and thoroughly charming Chinese people, and based upon my observations, they are mostly to be found in the northern parts of this huge country. Like many northerners, I share their view that their southern comrades generally fit into two categories. Poor peasants or rich peasants, the latter being far more annoying and obnoxious.  I reckon I could now do a thesis on the relationship between driving standards, eating dogs, peeing in metro carriages and my ethnological stereotyping. 反正。

There was also no escaping from the fact that most Chinese think cars are for rich people and motorcycles are for the poor. The fact that a new BMW GS1200 Adventure will cost upwards of 50,000 US dollars in China is besides the point. Large motorcycles like Harley Davidson, BMW, Ducati and now KTMs do exist in China, but are rarer than pandas and clearly owned by eccentrics.  Also, motorcycles are banned in most cities, are not allowed on the extensive network of highways and so are fair game to be bullied at every opportunity and nudged off the road into the nearest ditch.

That said, motorcycles and bicycles are considered so low and unworthy that their riders are not expected to comply with any traffic laws or regulations whatsoever. I guess being a former motorcycle policeman I had a natural instinct to at least try and comply with the local laws, after all a motorbike and rider will always come off worse when T-boned by an overloaded truck, or indeed by anything on four wheels.

However, after a few weeks in China I was riding like a true local, jumping red lights, riding on pavements, surfing the internet on my smart phone and weaving the wrong way down streets. The crazy thing is nobody cares, least of all traffic enforcement officers. All they care about is that you don’t ride on the highway and your don’t waste electricity by having your headlights on. We are definitely going to need re-educating before we start riding again in law abiding lands, or else we will both become adornments on the front of some Mack trucks or locked up.

We continued riding southwards through Hezuo and across the high altitude grasslands towards a rather popular tourist town called Lang Mu Si at the border of Sichuan. Here there are temples and monasteries, rivers, mountains and amazing hiking routes where we actually saw some otters by a stream. However, what really makes Lang Mu Si famous is that it is one of the few places in China you can go and watch a “Sky Burial”.

I vaguely remember reading about Sky Burials in a National Geographic magazine, but it was not until my friend Andrea Corbett recently told me that when she pops her clogs she wants to be disposed off by “Sky Burial” that I gave it much thought. I am not sure the Derbyshire authorities allow bodies to be left on Kinder Scout and eaten by magpies and other birds that live in the Peak District, but on the Tibetan Plateau this is actually a common way for Buddhists to move on to where ever or what ever awaits them in the after life…. the atoms of the former human being rearranged into bird farts and bird poo I suspect.

One of hundreds of new highway being constructed through rural China. The civil engineers construct a huge number of impressive bridges and tunnels across the valleys and rivers and through the mountains

A small Buddhist shrine on the mountains above Hezuo

The skies turning grey as we continued into high grasslands and towards the Sichuan border at Lang Mu Si. Villages and farmers arstarting to bunker down for the hard winter ahead. We also started to encounter snow and sleet that made riding a bit miserable and uncomfortable




Into the high altitude grasslands

My CF Moto TR 650 at 8888.8 kilometers… all good.. all going well

The snow capped mountains of Sichuan ahead of us

Grasslands and peaks

Long roads through the massive high altitude grasslands

Now riding at the snow line and it had become quite cold on the bikes, especially through the snow showers.  Our visors would get completely misted up and we would have to lift them up and get frozen noses and watering eyes.  Fifteen minutes prior to this picture I lost my sunglasses trying to take them off with frozen hands.

Riding down into the Lang Mu Si (pronounced lang moo ser ) valley where Gansu borders with Sichuan. There had been a lot of rain, snow, sleet and traffic and we were both looking forward to getting off the bikes. Our Rev’it motorcycle jackets and trousers had been superb though, perfectly dry and toasty inside. Ours hands, noses and feet? No so toasty and not so dry. Later we would use the tried and trusted method of putting our feet inside plastic bags and then inside our boots–instant water proofing.

Entering a very muddy and crowded Lang Mu Si right on the border of Sichuan and Gansu. Its the middle of the Chinese National Holidays and its mayhem. All the hotels were booked out, but Fanny managed to find us a room in a Muslim family’s home. We were lucky otherwise it was camping on the mountain in the rain with the Tibetan vultures from the Sky Burial, which would have been risky given that sheepie and I together smelt considerably worse that most of the corpses.

Crazy roads in Lang Mu Si.. but no problem on bikes … although both Fanny and I got completely covered in mud. The tourist cars were very impatient and often got stuck and the drivers got in arguments and started quarreling with each other

Have these guys ever read Animal Farm?… two wheels good, four wheels bad.

Beautiful mountain ridges above Lang Mu Si

The human inhabitants have no consideration or care for the environment, and like much of China and Taiwan just throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, outside their homes and anywhere except in a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing. It will require a major campaign by the government, authorities, universities and schools to change this appalling attitude to conservation and the protection of our planet.

I try to look at the mountains and spot birds and wildlife, but my eyes are always drawn back to the environmental vandalism in this part of the world. Its wrong.

Jeeps, scooters and ponies to take tourists up the mountain to the temples and Sky Burial site



The Sky Burial site at Lang Mu Si

Yuck is all I can say..

“Fanny, come and look at this…a jaw bone bigger than mine”

It looks like Fred West’s tool box.


After looking around the muddy and rather disappointing town, Fanny and I  decided to climb to the top of the mountain and investigate a bit more. I wish I hadn’t. I assumed that the recently deceased “grandpa” would be left on the mountain and the Tibetan vultures would fly down and in a mass of feathers and frenetic activity eat him up. The reality it turns out is much more gory.

I suppose I have had more exposure to grizzly sights than most people having been a policeman for many years, but I have never got used to it and I am actually more squeamish about blood and guts than most. Reluctantly, over the years I have pretty much witnessed everything that can be done to a human body. Hanging, burning, decapitation, being blown up, eaten by maggots, fallen from skyscrapers and on hitting the ground literally “gone pop”, being shot, drowned and all bloated up…. and I have attended  more postmortems than I care to remember. It all comes with the job. When I was a young police constable in London, doing the school crossing patrol and babysitting the remains of human beings seemed to feature highly in my policeman’s lot.

Little did I know that the bodies of Sky Burials need to be prepared first, butchered if you like, so that the “eating” process is quick and efficient. The vultures, just like other animals, go for the best bits first, and once they are full leave body parts lying on the mountain side and so the bodies are filleted first so that the bones and marrow is fed to the vultures for the main course and then they can have the flesh and organs for pudding.

When we got to the peak the first disturbing thing we noticed, or heard, were Chinese tourist howling, screaming, shouting and generally messing about and I was a little surprised, but pleased when Fanny admonished them in no uncertain terms about not showing appropriate respect and desecrating a sacred site;  the second was that a container full of various sharp instruments and axes caught my eye at the butchering point. It looked like they belonged to the Sun Yee On triad and 14 K triad who were getting tooled up to have a major turf battle; and lastly and more disturbingly there were body parts like jaws and rib cages lying about that smelt quite revolting.

Realizing that there was a strong likelihood of a reenactment of a serial killer disposing of his victims with Chinese made carpentry tools I looked at Fanny, and she looked back at me and we both scurried off down the mountain side as quick as we could. When we got back to Lang Mu Si we were immediately descended upon by a tourist tout who asked us if we’d like to see a Sky Burial.  “NO WAY” was the resolute answer.

Lang Mu Si is located in an amazingly beautiful location and I was absolutely delighted to have spotted an otter by a river which I pursued like a mad naturalist. However, unlike my hero David Attenborough, the critter got the better of me and I never saw it again.  The town of Lang Mu Si itself is a real mess though. There was rubbish strewn about everywhere, sewage pouring into the canals and streams and the tourist touts were overwhelmingly annoying and rude.

The road was a muddy mess and the local restaurants and shops were not up to much and looked rather sorry for themselves.  I really hope the Chinese authorities recognized that it is a place of special cultural interest and natural beauty and give it the management and protection it needs. I would certainly like to go back and do some hiking in the mountains and find that otter and his friends, but only after the area has been protected and given the respect it deserves.

We did manage to get into one of the temples and have a wander about and make some offerings. There are two temple complexes, one on the Gansu side and another across the river in Sichuan. I had bought some beads in a village on the Tibetan Plateau to give to my daughter and a special forces friend and wanted to get them blessed by a Lama before I gave them to them, and that is what I did. The Lama was very friendly, took the beads, and took some time concentrating on chanting some prayers.

I later found out that the prayers do not actually add “something” to the beads, but take away everything from the beads, including negativity, in a 佛家 “nothingness” sort of way. A bit complex to explain but I’m told “wuwei”  equates to the sort of blessing a Christian priest may give. The temples were amazing to see, both inside and out, and we spent a long time looking around at the ornate decorations and Buddhist statues.

Fanny taking in the scene from a safe distance- but we didn’t hang about. We both thought it was rather grotesque and I was keen to look for more otters by the river and so we scurried down the mountain as quickly as we could



I understand it takes considerable skill to prepare a Sky Burial, but we did not hang about to find out… and this picture is courtesy of someone with a much stronger stomach than us

And the vultures do the rest. They are alerted that there is a body to be eaten by the burning of some incensed smoke from the temple



Lang Mu Si (Si means monastery in Chinese)

I have yet to write a “best and worst award” chapter for China, as I did for Africa, but this takes the best “bling bling ding a ling roof ” award by a mile


Getting the beads blessed by the Chief Lama in Lang Mu Si in order to give to my daughter, Becky and also to a 23 Regiment friend, Gary to keep them safe and well

Lang Mu Si Temple… I would like to go back when the Chinese start taking environmental protection and conservation of our shared planet a little more seriously

Sichuan in the distance


The next day we rode back through the mud of the main street and the few kilometer to the border into Sichuan, but not before Fanny was knocked off her bike by the impatient and rude driver of a Jeep 4×4 who failed to stop to see if she was OK. I rode after it, getting muddy myself, but the driver had absolutely no intention of stopping. He made a reckless escape, blaring his horn and dangerously trying to imitate a rally car hurtling through the muddy roads of the busy town center. Maddening, but what can you do? Fanny was unhurt, but of course completely covered in mud again. Absolutely no point getting madder than we were already, and I suppose the best thing to do was to put it down to experience and soldier on.  Attempting to look on the bright side, it was raining again and we would soon be clean.


Southwards towards Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province and famous for spicy food, street snacks, mad goings on in People’s Park and of course giant pandas.  Apart from the breeding centers we were extremely unlikely to see a panda, but we might see a takin, a rare goat/ox creature that lives in the Sichuan mountains. From Chengdu we would start heading eastwards towards the largest city in the world, Chongqing where we would participate in the China International Motorcycle Show and Fanny would meet many of her fans and the motorcycling media. From there we would ride through the surprisingly beautiful countryside of rural Chongqing and into Hubei, a section of our journey that I had not expected to be particularly interesting, but which actually turned out to be an adventure and a half.

Recent scientific research has revealed that all non- African people in the world have about 3% Neanderthal in their make up … Clearly some have more… 神农架的 大脚野人。

The wild man of Shen Nong Jia in remote north west Hubei.

5 thoughts on “Chapter 23 – China Part 5 – Gansu Province

  1. Hello Fanny & Rupert, Your site is fantastic and your posts very compellings. I did a lot of travels (mainly on duty), was born in Africa, lived there more than 30 years and discovered or learned many things around the world, BUT your stories and the way you are telling them is excellent, first class, so much so that I find myself like a litle boy reading novels.
    When I come here (reading parts of your numerous posts), I feel like I am leaving for a very far and new world …and I know that I will be occupied for a long and GOOD moment.
    Congratulations! (and many thanks for the very clarifying/explicit photos)

    I would love to embark for such a travel (troughout China) but I would never, never NEVER try that without somebody as Fanny by my side.

    Enjoy your trip and good luck.

  2. Hi guys, all familiar territory re the rubbish they throw out everywhere, even at 4292 metres at Mali Snow Mountains with beautiful streams that looked more like rubbish tips, very sad to see right at the source. Great bit of writing Rupert, and brings back memories of my frustrations seeing them destroy their own back yard.

  3. Hi Rupert,

    I would like to have your opinion about my new bike 2011 Suzuki DR 650. I am going to use this bike to do RTW trip.

    Is this bike good enough for the job?

    Any information and help would be appreciated.



    • Absolutely…a good bike. As I mentioned I would do trip again on KLR 650 for sure.

      Just remember service items like chain, oil, filters and consider upgrading suspension system if like the KLR the rear isnt brilliant. Check out the website and forums for DR650 for riders views and comments about upgrades and weak points.

      Good luck…

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