The point at which we actually crossed from Chongqing into Hubei province was high up in the beautiful misty mountains of Huangshui (Yellow Water) National Park. We had thought of staying there for the night, but it was late autumn, getting quite cold and the locals told us that all the bingguan and hotel owners had locked up and gone back to the city until the season starts again in the Spring. It was a shame because it was a very picturesque and peaceful place, probably because all the tourists had left. We therefore planned to push on towards Yichang where the Three Gorges Dam project is located on the Yangtze River.
But in order to make any form of progress we needed to get onto the G50 highway and head east. Whilst we were banned from using national highways in Sichuan and Chongqing provinces, motorcycles were allegedly tolerated on highways in Hubei and Anhui provinces. Why the difference? Who knows?
We were both quite tired after a long day of riding in the mountains and thought that when we reached the toll booth of the highway we could ride straight through, but no… the officials stopped us. I was not entirely sure what was going on, but after a good fifteen minutes of Fanny arguing the toss the entire shift of officials just walked away towards their administration building and I looked towards Fanny and she shouted, ‘GO’ and so we rode passed the barriers and onto the highway just as the sun was setting. I later asked Fanny what it was all about and she explained that the toll booth officials had not encountered bikes like ours before, and so to save themselves from making any decision or lose of face, they just turned a blind eye, knowing we would either ride onto the highway or turn around and go away. .
All was going well, but we soon came alongside a highway patrol car and I faced the dilemma all vehicles have. Do we hang back or over take them and risk being stoppped for speeding or whatever. They did not seem to be taking any notice of us, but after five or ten minutes the officers in the car directed us to pull over. Here we go again I thought. For reasons I can only put down to fatigue, Fanny decided that she was going to pretend she could not speak any Chinese and so I was left to chat with the officers. ‘Is there any problem, Officer?’ I asked, ‘I thought it was OK for us to ride on the highway in Hubei’.
‘Oh, it is OK’, replied the officer,’ but we are closing the highway because of a big traffic accident up ahead and you must leave the highway at this exit’.
As I unnecessarily translated what was going on to Fanny she put her head in her hands and I thought she was going to weep. ‘We are not leaving this highway’, she insisted.
I asked the officer if we could either wait or ride carefully past the accident. After a lot of discussions over their police radios they said we could wait, but told me it would be about 2-3 hours before the road would open again.
I did not think it was a good idea and tried to reason with Fanny, ‘I think we should get off the highway now, its late, let’s find a place to stay or even camp by side of road and get going in morning’, I suggested, ‘Riding on motorways in the dark AND in the rain is not a good idea… we’re tired and its been a long day’.
‘I WANT TO CARRY ON’, Fanny demanded.
So we waited.
Fanny sat by the side of the road, chain smoking and keeping out of the way of the officers, and I was left to chat with the police in Mandarin for several hours. A very daft situation and it got even more ridiculous when more and more police officers arrived in an assortment of police vehicles and insisted on taking pictures with us. I knew Fanny had been posting our motorcycle adventure on the very popular Chinese online forum called http://www.weibo.com and had recently posted the account of the traffic cone throwing incident (described in previous chapter) and it had gone viral resulting in hundreds of thousands of comments and responses. I knew Fanny was becoming somewhat of a celebrity in China, but did these police really know who she was? If they did, they were not letting on. None of it made sense to me.
We were asked for our documents and as usual when stopped by the police I showed them my UK passport, the motorcycle registration documents, our insurance policies and my Chinese driving licence. Of course Fanny also had all the legal documents for China, but she just pulled out her Hong Kong driving licence and gave them a “that’s all you’re getting” look. I was surprised that they seemed quite satisfied with the Hong Kong driving licence as it is not valid for China, being technically a foreign one. I was even more surprised that the police never asked for her passport or Chinese ID card which would have confirmed she is actually Shanghanese.
I continued chatting with various officers, and they continued taking pictures of us posing with their cars as we all waited in the dark and rain on an empty highway in western Hubei. Something was definitely going on, but to this day I have no idea.
After waiting on the highway for a few hours a very small and slightly built senior ranking police officer arrived in a command car, and after more posing for photographs gave me a serious briefing…… ‘Maximum speed 100 kph, keep right, keep lights on, and drive carefully.’
You can’t argue with that, and so I thanked and shook the hands of at least ten police officers and then we rode off in the pitch dark with cameras flashing behind us, seemingly the only vehicles on the highway. At 8.30pm we passed under a sign indicating that we had 380 kilometers to ride to Yichang and that meant a good four hours of riding in the dark and rain. We had already ridden over 500 kilometers that day and I braced myself for some iron butt riding.
We rode through about fifty tunnels and probably across an equal number of bridges. Some I knew were spectacular and civil engineering wonders, but because of the rain and darkness I could see nothing. It was slightly stressful because I was worried about Fanny, but she was doing perfectly well and when we stopped off for petrol she said she was actually enjoying herself. I really couldn’t think why.
I did, and still do to this day, regret not waiting until the morning to ride to Yichang. Apart from giving Fanny the experience of riding in the dark on a motorway, there was little to recommend taking the risk of riding in the dark and missing out on some of China’s most spectacular gorges and river systems. In this particular area hundreds of towns and villages have been submerged by rising waters due to the dam, and millions of people have been relocated. This is almost unimaginable in any country other than China where, rightly or wrongly, things get done and done quickly.
We were not really in a rush and without being able to see much had ridden through the mountains and over the spectacular valleys of the Three Gorges. I am lucky enough to have hiked in this area four years previously when I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and it was before the waters had started to significantly rise. It is a very beautiful part of China. At that time the Three Gorges Dam project had not been completed and so this time we made a plan to go on a day tour to visit one of the engineering wonders of the world and at least see what all the fuss is about.
We arrived in the heart of Yichang at about midnight. It had been one hell of a ride and we had ridden close to 900 kilometers since we set off fifteen hours earlier. I can safely say I did not enjoy riding on the highway in the dark, but I was happy we had made progress and that Fanny had cheered up. On arrival in yet another huge Chinese city we were gratefully met by a member of Yichang’s BMW motorcycle club who had been patiently waiting for us and he escorted us on his GS1200 Adventure to a tourist hotel. Given the choice I would prefer to camp and save money, but camping is not easy in large cities, it was late… and it was raining.
For those of you who have never been on a Chinese guided tour it is a definite “must do” on life’s bucket list. It is an experience if nothing else and gives one an idea of what the average Chinese person has to put up with if they want to do anything vaguely touristy or do any travelling. Independent travel is growing very quickly in China, especially among the new generation of upwardly mobile, but for the average person the organised guided tour is the only affordable and practicable way to visit their own country or travel abroad.
So what’s it like? Well the day starts by getting picked up at a designated location by one of the thousands of tourist buses and after finding a seat (or not) don’t be surprised if the person sitting next to you immediately settles down to sleep and closes the curtains obscuring the view you paid to see, nor if they repeatedly empty the contents of their lungs to the sound track of a demented cappuccino machine and deposit the green blob on the floor between your feet. It is imperative that you bring your MP3 to drown out the cacophony of deafening white noise and a high decibel monologue of memorized propaganda given by a small woman hiding behind a microphone. This is your tour guide and do not under any circumstances ask her any questions unless its involves asking where to buy extortionately priced plastic replicas of whatever you thought you were going to see, or some gelatinous food substance made out of animal hooves or innards on a stick.
You will all be given a brightly coloured hat with Chinese characters on the front, an assortment of passes, tickets, receipts and coupons that you must place in a plastic envelope attached to a brightly coloured ribbon around your neck and must have prominently displayed at all times whilst queuing, which you’ll spend most of your time doing. You only need to understand three Chinese phrases —-“On the bus”, “Off the bus”, and “quickly”.
Completely ignore any reference to the word “laowai” (old foreigner) as they are talking about you and not to you. Whilst off the bus the tour guide will tool herself up with a portable white noise machine and a radio aerial with a coloured flag on the top which she will wave above her head whilst shouting “On the bus, Off the bus” etc. Another golden rule is never ever under any circumstances talk the driver… you will recognise the driver because he is attached to an old coffee jar with tea leaves and flower petals floating inside and honks the horn all the time.
And so Fanny and I voluntarily, and with full knowledge of what we were letting ourselves into, set off on our “glorious revolutionary number one tour” to the Three Gorges Dam. We found our seats in the cheap section and had hardly been on the bus five minutes before a huge fight broke out between a middle aged women and our tour guide. I couldn’t catch what it was all about, but apparently the tour guide had seriously insulted the lady by suggesting she was a “tourist” when in fact she was a “local” from Hubei. Such a terrible and unforgivable mistake was cause enough for the lady from Hubei to shout and scream throughout the entire journey. The tour guide, however, was unfazed by all this commotion and simply turned up the volume on the white noise machine to maximum and carried on regurgitating her rote learned tourist guide babble without drawing breath.
I actually quite enjoyed the dam visit. Joking aside its an amazing engineering feat and although our actual tour guide was a bit lacking in technical knowledge and didn’t really have anything interesting to say, I managed to sidle up to an English speaking guide with another tour group who had probably paid a lot more for their tour than us, and the guide really knew his electric turbines from his kilowatt hours. Not only have I become an avid bird spotter in my later life, but a civil engineering nerd of note.
After visiting the dam, the construction museum and of course several tourist shops belonging to the driver’s uncle, we headed back to Yichang where we went for a stroll along the Yangtze River and watched the locals swimming next to the “No Swimming” sign. Some of them had attached themselves to buoys and were floating off down the immense river. Not sure why as we never saw them again.
The next day we were escorted out of the city by the BMW riders’ club members, and just as we were leaving the city I got a puncture in my back tyre. The first and only on the trip in China. Unlike the KTM 990 Adventure, repairing a tubeless tyre on the CF Moto is extremely easy and just requires pulling out the nail, or whatever, and pushing through and plugging the hole with a strip of gooey rubber. It took me less than 5 minutes and off we went again. The new KTM 1190 Adventure is being launched in 2013 and among many new updates on our 990 Adventures, including being 50% more powerful, is fitted with tubeless tyres. Its definitely the way to go as anyone who has had to repair a puncture on a tubed motorcycle tyre will agree (see Austria, Egypt and Tanzania chapters).
We rode all through the day, covered more than 700 kilometers and just as the sun was setting decided to pull off the highway at a lake in Anhui province called Huating. A really beautiful place where we managed to find a very cheap and pleasant room above a restaurant with a view over the lake. Again, we were not in a big rush and so we decided to stay there for a couple of days and explore the area, before carrying on towards Shanghai.
We got into Shanghai after dark and left our bikes with the local CF Moto dealership as riding motorcycles without “沪” licence plates in Shanghai is illegal and could incur a big fine or even confiscation of our bikes. We had ridden 12,300 kilometers in China on the CF Motos and 53,800 kilometers altogether since leaving Cape Town in June 2011.
Quite an adventure I would say.
Fanny and I stayed in Shanghai for two months where both of us were very busy catching up with the lives we had left behind. Fanny’s family live in Shanghai and they were very proud of her achievements and extremely pleased to see her back safe and well. Whilst Fanny had many things to attend to, including preparing for her bar exams and negotiating the new job she will start in the new year, I went back to language school to brush up my business Mandarin and get fit again in the gym and shed some of the kilograms I put on in Europe. In actual fact, I lost 7 kilograms, was back to my middle distant running form, fighting fit and looking forward to getting back to work myself, surprisingly.
We continued writing for our magazines, started on “the book” and wrote some technical reviews of the motorcycles we had ridden. We attended presentations about our trip, gave interviews, and swapped our biking kit for dinner jackets and party dresses to attend some of Shanghai’s social events.
As the beautiful autumn sunshine in Shanghai turned to a decidedly chilly winter, we headed back to our starting point of Cape Town where we were reunited with our trusty KTMs. Bikers, and especially adventure bikers like us, become very attached to our seemingly inanimate two wheeled friends. We were both very excited and delighted to see them again. Fanny, me and our bikes had been through a lot together and seen the world as few will ever see it. Adjusting back to so called normal life is quite difficult and for me a bit depressing, especially in winter, so we cheated the cold and gloom by simply changing hemispheres.
Whilst relaxing in South Africa and watching television one day we made the mistake of switching over to the UK’s Sky News channel (which is to journalism what King Herod is to babysitting) and managed to catch up with what was going on in the rest of the world. World economy? …still 乱七八糟.
Syria and middle east? …still fighting.
Terrorists? … still blowing people up.
Britain? ….still raining.
And America? …. nutters running amok and shooting up small children with “second amendment” assault rifles.
Same old same old. Enough of that. Click.
‘Let’s go out for a ride’