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.
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.
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.
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.