Having been unceremoniously thrown off the Chengdu-Chongqing highway by the local rozzers we were faced with at least a days ride to Chongqing along indirect and badly maintained triple digit “G” and “S” roads (i.e. the really really bad ones). Unfortunately, my GPS had completely given up trying to calculate where we were, let alone set a route to where we wanted to go. It was confused, no doubt by the rapid pace of road construction and deconstruction in this part of the world, and so like all electronic devices when you really need them, had decided to go into “freeze” mode. No amount of shouting and cursing was going to change its mind.
There were many road signs showing the characters 重庆 (Chongqing), but apparently there was no consensus of opinion and they indicated going left, right, back, forward and even up. I couldn’t even tell which was east or west as the sun was hidden behind the smoggy haze that often envelops much of China. So we stopped to ask for directions.
My carefully constructed questions were met with shrugs, blank stares, embarrassed grins, pointing in all directions, and occasionally dashes for freedom. Annoyed that my years of Chinese study had come to nothing I asked Fanny to take over the local interrogation, but I soon realized when I heard her doing a Chris Rock like “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT MY MOUTH” that she was getting nowhere either. So we did what all couple’s do when they are completely lost on a road trip. Blame each other.
Our brief, but noisy exchange in the middle of a concrete purgatory drew a bit of a crowd, but did little to help our situation other than blow off a bit of steam. I remembered I had my Casio watch, that up until now I had only used as an altimeter, and so I used the compass function to set a vaguely south east course.
I had studied and become quite good at navigation when I did my Royal Yacht Association Ocean Skippers sailing course some years back in South Africa, but navigation requires a compass AND an accurate map or chart. We only had a map of the whole of China and a freebie tourist map, neither of which were good enough and so I pointed in a south east direction and declared in Maggie Thatcher style,
‘We go that way and we are not for turning’.
We followed a route that can best be described as “urban off roading”. Ignoring signs, ignoring traffic signals and heading along whatever surfaces aimed in a generally south east direction. The route took us through scruffy towns and construction sites and occasionally along roads that were still being built. There were often concrete bollards or barriers placed at the entrances and exits to these stretches of virgin concrete and tarmac, but these were no obstacle to two wheels and clearly the local bicycles and scooters had already found some convenient short cuts and so we followed them too.
Surprisingly, nobody attempted to stop us and I was actually beginning to quite enjoying this little bit of adventure riding. Our CF Moto 650 TR motorcycles are technically touring bikes that are in their element cruising along smooth roads, but they seemed perfectly able to tackle the ramps, holes, mud and gravel that we encountered and so we weaved over and through whatever obstacles lay ahead of us.
A bit dangerous in places as the flyovers under construction would occasionally come to an abrupt stop, leaving a high precipice which would definitely be a bad idea to fly off.
As they first said in China, and still do in other parts of the world “All roads lead to Rome” and in this case all the roads went through Chongqing first. Somehow or another by riding along unfinished roads we had managed to get onto a national highway without passing through any of the tolls. Also, my GPS came back to life, showing that we had only 35 kilometers to ride into the center of the city. Phew! However, my euphoria was short lived as I saw a tunnel ahead of us and at the entrance were about twenty police and highways officials directing the heavy traffic into various lanes.
I knew they would attempt to stop us, but the traffic had come to a halt and that gave me a chance to covertly weave through the stationary cars and trucks and avoid most of them. One official in a hi-viz jacket caught sight of me and bravely lunged in front of me and so I slowed down, punched my arm in the air and shouted ‘Chelsea’. I couldn’t think of anything better to do, but it worked and as he reared backwards in surprise, I rode around him and entered the tunnel and escaped.
Ha ha! Oh! …..Fanny?. I was hoping she would follow my lead, but as I checked my mirrors there was no sign of her. Maybe she had shouted “Arsenal”. Nobody likes the “Gooners” in China and I had to agree that would be cause enough to lock her up. There was no sign of her as I rode through the entire five kilometers of the busy highway tunnel and as I exited in the outskirts of Chongqing I was immediately faced with a dilemma.
The highway divided. Four lanes going left and four going right and so I stopped, a bit precariously, right up against the central concrete divider with traffic hurtling both sides of me and waited, and waited and waited. Unlike throughout most of the expedition I actually had a charged up mobile phone, with a local SIM card inside, and there was a strong signal and so I called her, but there was no reply. Tamade! I had made a stupid mistake because I did not know where we were going to stay that evening as Fanny dealt with all those sort of thing in China. I guessed it was probably near the Chongqing International Exhibition Center, but I didn’t really know where I was going and I couldn’t leave Fanny lost in one of the biggest cities in the world. What if she really had been detained or had had an accident?
I was starting to get anxious when I saw the headlights of Fanny’s bike emerge from the heavily congested tunnel and she pulled up behind me as traffic whizzed by either side of us. I asked what happened and she said the police stopped her, but she explained that she was with the “lao wai” on the bike ahead and must follow otherwise we would get really lost. ‘In the end they just let me go’, she explained, but continued, ‘What did you shout? They thought you were mad’.
After programming the GPS with the location of the hotel that the Chunfeng Moto delegation had booked us into near the exhibition center we cruised along Chongqing’s city highways down to the formidable Yangtze River and crossed one of the many outrageously enormous bridges than spans it into the commercial heart of the city where we eventually found our hotel. After settling in, there was only one thing to do. Have some hotpot (火锅), the quintessentially Chongqing dish.
Chongqing City centre looks pretty much like most other large city centres in the world. Absolutely heaving with people, very noisy, busy public squares, bright advertising lights, sky scrapers, heavy traffic congestion and poor air quality. However, everything is on a scale unprecedented anywhere else in the world and, stating the obvious, “Very Chinese”.
There are restaurants everywhere from small “da pai dang“, palatial “fan dian” to fast food stall, including not only local Chinese snacks, but western fast food chains like the ubiquitous “mai dan lao” (McDonalds) and “ken de ji” (KFC). Also, in the early mornings and evenings thousands of middle aged and elderly women fill the public spaces and practice synchronized “line dancing” or “tai ji quan” to a cacophony of music ranging from traditional Chinese folk, Canto pop, Western classical, trance anthems, bass and drum and hip hop. It is extremely popular throughout China. Sometimes hundreds of couples practice ball room dancing in the streets as well. At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, I think I can very safely say Chinese people love food and love noise.
I too love Chinese food, but increasingly as I get older I hate noise and if I can will avoid crowds like the plague. I had to admit I was hoping to get the next few days in Chongqing over and done with, but the reason we were in Chongqing was to meet our kind sponsors and participate in the China International Motorcycle Exhibition. I knew it was a showcase for the Chinese motorcycle industry and would be a far cry from the bike shows in London or Italy.
There would be no KTMs, nor the latest European or Japanese speed machines on display, but I like motorbikes of all shapes and sizes, even if they are all 125cc. Fanny was very excited though, not least because she would meet her friends from CF Moto and many of her growing fan club. Quite rightly many Chinese are proud of her motorcycling achievements and she was looking forward to the attention. She is a woman after all. So, I put on my happy face and got stuck in.
We had three days at the Chongqing China International Motorcycle Show and we both enjoyed ourselves in the end. But, clearly starting to show the signs of becoming a rather fat and prosperous looking, it was time for me to stop wining and dining and for us to get going again. As motorcycles are banned, not only in Chongqing, but on all the highways in Chongqing and Sichuan, Fanny had been in discussions with many experienced bikers about the best possible route out of Chongqing towards Yichang in Hubei province. It was decided we would leave very early in the morning to escape the traffic and get onto the G50 highway, as many large bike riders from the east of China were planning to do, and had done in the past with success. If we could get out of Chongqing and into Hubei we would be OK as motorcycles are allowed on highways in Hubei province, and indeed later in Anhui.
We got out of Chongqing City quite quickly as it was early and rode through the toll of the G 50 highway without too much hassle from the officials, but after 20 minutes of riding along the highway I saw some officials in hi-viz jackets run into the carriageway and wave their arms about. I slowed down, but easily rode passed them. I then looked at my mirror expecting Fanny to do the same and was absolutely astonished and shocked to see one of the officials pick up a two foot high traffic cone and throw it with force at Fanny’s bike, causing her to come off and skid on her side with bike on top of her for several meters.
I screeched to a halt in the middle of the three lane highway, U-turned and rode back to her. I couldn’t really hear what the officials were saying as I ran up to Fanny, but I saw she was crying and had clearly hurt herself. Her bike looked damaged, but not too seriously. I picked Fanny up and checked her out and she seemed more shocked than injured ( a few bad bruises as it turned out) and then I saw the official who threw the cone. He immediately put on a show of bravado, but he was clearly nervous as he suddenly realized I was a foreigner and extremely angry. I charged up to him like a raging bull, and really considered thumping him, but controlled myself. I was desperately thinking of what to say in Chinese and all that came out of my mouth was a rather lame and pathetic admonishment. In the heat of the moment my Mandarin let me down and all I could think of calling him was a “bad egg“.
When I joined the Royal Hong Kong Police in the mid eighties all the expatriate Inspectors had to learn Cantonese, and of course the first thing we learnt were all the swear words (of which there are many good ones that are frequently used). This was followed by chat up phrases so we could attempt (and always fail) to impress the local talent. My Mandarin, however, was learnt at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s top academic institutions, and although I can chat almost fluently about magical phoenix(s) in mysterious forests and use impressive “cheng yu” (idioms) that nobody really needs, my “ma ren de hua” (cursing ability) is extremely poor. My “How do you say?” requests to become more acquainted with China’s more colourful and fruity expressions have always been met with embarrassed chuckles from my teachers and Chinese friends. Fanny is no help either as I rarely hear her say anything impolite. In fact, mainland Chinese are much more polite and cultured than the southerners or Hongkongers and so there is a big void in my Putonghua street credibility. Perhaps its a good thing. Of course it is.
So, having used up all the “egg” terms I could think of I reverted to tried, trusted and universally understood Anglo Saxon, took some pictures of the offending officials and got Fanny back on her bike as quickly as possible before anyone else turned up. I know all too well in China that things can escalate quickly as indignation rises and face is lost. Fanny’s bike was damaged on one side, as bikes with plastic fairing tend to be after a crash, but it seemed 100% roadworthy and so we made our escape as the officials got onto their mobile phones to plan their alibis and excuses.
I remember years ago in Hong Kong getting stopped on my motorcycle at a police roadblock. I had done nothing wrong but I guess they needed to make up their numbers and in Hong Kong a police officer in uniform needs no justification to stop anyone. Strangely, and very unfairly they had waved on a Mercedes Benz luxury car that had dangerously cut me up and stopped me instead. I remember it vividly because it was on the very same day my son had been officially diagnosed with autism and so I had “gone off” on my bike to collect my thoughts and reflect on the lack of prospects that lay ahead for us all. Of course I was not in a particularly happy mood and unwisely remonstrated against the police officers’ surly behaviour and unfair actions towards me. This was a very bad idea as at the time I was also a police officer, more senior in rank, and a 鬼佬 (‘foreign devil’) to boot. So, in order to protect themselves from a potential complaint from me they embellished a damaging story against me instead, and to cut a sad and long story short I ended up getting disciplined for conduct unbecoming an officer and was thrown to the dogs. Life is unfair sometimes, but the lesson learnt was that the police, not just in China or Hong Kong, are not shy in making something up to protect their necks, and as a foreigner or outsider one is always in a much weaker and vulnerable position. As hard as it is, the best course of action is to avoid confrontation, swallow your pride and turn on your tail, regardless of the provocation.
As we rode away along the rather deserted highway I suspected that this was not going to be the end of matters and I was right. At the next toll we rode through the gap in the barrier, as all motorbikes do, and a group of about twenty uniformed traffic police ran frantically up to me and surrounded my bike, much like pit crews do when a Formula One racing car pulls into the pits. Clearly they were waiting for us, but Fanny was not in a good mood and she explained in no uncertain terms what happened earlier, but the traffic police seemed uninterested and completely unconcerned. To them, riding a motorcycle on a highway was a much more heinous offence than deliberately causing a road traffic accident and injury. Initially I though Fanny would be able to explain the seriousness of the incident and we would be allowed to carry on, but that was not to be. We both got a first hand lesson about the lawlessness of officials in Chongqing.
Despite being on the road for nearly 18 months, we had both heard the recent stories about organised crime in Chongqing and about the scandal of Bo Xilai and his wife who had murdered a British businessman. Clearly this unethical tone at the top had permeated throughout all of the public sector in Chongqing and government officials and the police alike were unaccountable for whatever their actions might be. I was resigned to just getting off the highway and escaping these fools, but Fanny was very very angry and quite rightly so. Someone had tried to seriously injure her and it could have been very serious indeed. After an hour of arguing the toss, our fate was clear. No action would be taken against the officials whose reckless behaviour could have killed Fanny, and we were being kicked off yet another Chinese highway in the middle of no where.
I had regained my composure and while Fanny was alternating between crying and arguing I had structured a little speech that I gave to the most senior officer in as calm and articulate manner as I could. I told him about the accomplishments of Fanny–a fellow Chinese citizen, a woman and a proud ambassador for China throughout the world, and that a Chinese law enforcement officer had deliberately tried to injure her. Not only had she been injured, but her motorcycle had been damaged, she had lost serious face and the actions of the officer were reprehensible. It was quite a speech, grammar a bit dodgy in places, but it hit the spot and the officer literally rocked and recoiled on his feet. He made an attempt by telephone to persuade more senior officers to allow us to continue, but alas it was not to be and so we were escorted off the highway literally onto a sand track in the middle of very rural Chongqing.
I think at this stage both Fanny and I were hoping we could get the trip over and done with. I assumed the most interesting riding in China was behind us and all we had ahead was a slog of 2000 kilometers plus eastwards to Shanghai. Riding on the highways, unlike motorcycling in other parts of the world, is actually quite enjoyable as the route passes smoothly through valleys and mountains and you have time to take in the view as you cruise along. Riding off the highways was a battle of survival against appalling traffic and road conditions. In my mind Chongqing province was just another sprawling conurbation of concrete and chaos. How wrong I was.
The stress of the previous few hours was starting to fade, and although technically we were still lost I think both of us could not care less. We rode along a sand track for a while until it stopped and became farmer’s field and went no further. Like many roads in rural China it was no longer used as the highways now took the bulk of the traffic. I looked at the only maps we had of the area, one a freebie tourist one that Fanny used, but was pretty useless for navigation, and the other showed the whole of China that only reminded us we were right in the middle. I looked at the GPS and it showed a red line of the highway we had been turfed off and nothing else at all except the mighty Yangtze River and its tributaries meandering all over the place. I surveyed the land around us we were surrounded by green fields, small thatched farm houses, small streams, rice terraces, and quite steep mountain slopes which were covered in mist. It looked like one of those Chinese paintings of idyllic rural landscapes and I think we both accepted that our China adventure was far from over.
Our meandering around the villages of rural Chongqing was very pleasant, but we seemed to be making no progress at all and so I made a concerted effort to try and work out where we were by asking the locals. For some bizarre reason I was having more success asking directions than Fanny. I think foreigners who speak Chinese as a second language can guess the meaning of people who speak with strong regional dialects better than say a native speaker from elsewhere in China. I knew Fanny was having trouble with the Sichuan and Chongqing dialects, as opposed to me who was having trouble with all of them. Anyway, we decided to adopt a “get from village to village approach” and get to the border with Hubei even if it meant traveling in the opposite direction to get around the mountains ranges. It might take three days rather than three hours but we were OK with that. We had accepted that against our original plan we were now exploring a part of China very few people will ever go to. It doesn’t really feature as a tourist attraction, despite being infinitely more interesting, beautiful and tranquil than the so called official tourist destinations.
We rode through many beautiful villages and some how or another were gradually making tracks in an easterly direction. We took each village as it came and asked for directions to the next passing over mountain and through valleys and paddy fields. We were aiming for Fengdu where we planned to spend the night. It is located on the banks of the Yangtze River and in China is known for its “Ghost Culture“, hence its called China’s Ghost City. Fanny found a pretty good hotel and after a good spicy catfish hotpot we went for a walk along the banks of the river and saw many of the locals dancing the evening away in the public squares.
The ride through eastern Chongqing was awesome. Fate had forced us off the highway and into a part of China that it seems few people venture into…because of the efficient highway system I suppose. We thoroughly recommend anyone wanting to experience an unspoiled trip back into the rural China of old to visit.
…. a bizarre and enjoyable encountered with the Hubei traffic police, a long long night of riding in the dark and rain, the Three Gorges Dam project, idyllic rural Anhui, my first puncture, and arriving back in Fanny’s hometown of Shanghai and the end of our big bike trip (for now).