The Best and Worst Awards

The best and worst awards for our motorcycle expedition across Africa, Europe and Asia.

Whilst the two of us are in agreement, we realize that many may disagree and so we welcome any comments.

MOST ENJOYABLE COUNTRY AWARD

AFRICA – TANZANIA

Tanzania just eclipses Kenya, Namibia and South Africa as our favourite country in Africa. Good infrastructure, decent roads, amazing scenery, friendly people, and abundant wildlife.  

The highlights:

  • the snow capped peaks of Kilimanjaro;
  • the glorious plains and wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater;
  • spicy and exotic Zanzibar;
  • our second favourite African city, Dar Es Salaam (Cape Town being our first);
  • a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Tanga on the east coast;
  • and our all time favourite camping spot on our whole trip, Lake Charla.

Riding towards Ngorogoro Crater

Snow peaked mountains in Tanzania

Lake Charla … elephants at the water hole

Lake Charla

Taking a ride on a Dhow in Zanzibar

Lake Charla with foothills of Kilimajaro in the background…

 

EUROPE – SCOTLAND (to be more precise West Scotland on a sunny day)

Many people are already aware of the amazing places to see in Turkey, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Greece etc…and we were privileged to do the European grand tour and take in many of the sights.

Italy was absolutely fascinating, superb architecture, rich history, good food and wine,  but not the easiest place to motorcycle in due to local driving conditions. . Good, but not great.

France was our biggest surprise. It is Britain’s next door neighbour and often maligned by Americans for being, well French, and by the English for old rivalries and wars over the centuries. However, we found it to be a stunning country and a motorcycling heaven. The Alps, Provence, the Southern coast, Loire valley, the wine-lands of Burgundy, pretty Brittany, the battle fields of Normandy and the many charming villages and towns we rode through. So much to see and we were treated very well by everyone we met… even by the Gendarmes.

However, taking the best motorcycling country in Europe award is Scotland…. especially western Scotland (see UK revisited chapter).

Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world

Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world

 

Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn't always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.

Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn’t always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.

 

Its gets even more like Tibet ... mountains and big hairy things in the road.

Its gets even more like Tibet … mountains and big hairy things in the road.

 

WORST COUNTRY AWARD 

There were no countries we did not enjoy to one degree or another.

Ethiopia,  undoubtedly rich in history and resplendent in natural beauty is a bit of a tragedy on the human side.

The country, especially the cities seems to have been left to rot and stagnate.  Ethiopians, a handsome lot as people go, appeared to be incredibly needy and nearly always had their hand out stretched begging for money. They often leaped out at us or grabbed our arms whilst shouting… ‘You, You, You…Money, Money, Money’.

It was tiresome, annoying and ever so slightly sad.

Meeting fellow bikers heading south at Ethiopian/ Sudan border

The former and now derelict train station in Addis Ababa

Cute little things .. but they always had their hand outstretched begging for money

Fanny surrounded by little friends in north west Ethiopia

Having been robbed blind by FTI Consulting,  I need to earn a crust somehow… so when in Ethiopia do as the Ethiopians do…

 

 

CHINA is a country on a continental scale and by far the most varied and diverse country we went to.

There were impressive and well planned super cities like Chengdu, Nanchang, Beijing and Shanghai, and prettier tourist towns like Lijiang, Yangshuo and Dali. We also rode through some of the most charming and idyllic countryside I have ever seen. Some rural areas have remained as they have been for centuries, despite the rapid pace of development going on around them.

But in China there are also some of the worst and most polluted places I have ever seen. Environmental plunder, architectural vandalism, motoring misery and pitiful squalour on an unprecedented scale. Quite a shock.

Some of the second and third tier Chinese cities were absolute shockers. Polluted and crowded beyond belief, bad roads and atrocious traffic jams, ridiculously bad urban planning and blighted by hideous buildings as far as the eye could see. Hong Kong and China seem to have a fatal attraction with adorning the outsides of their ugly concrete boxes with cheap toilet tiles.

Whether fascinating or depressing; ugly or stunningly beautiful; our experience riding over 13,000 kilometers through China was hugely rewarding and something we will never forget.

 

BIGGEST SURPRISE AWARD – SUDAN.

Sudan was our biggest surprise and we thoroughly recommend visiting.

It was a complete re-write of everything I had previously thought about its people and their culture. The kindness, politeness and gentleness of many of the people we met was incredible and we are very grateful to the hospitality extended to Fanny and I by many of the people we encountered.

That said, a cold beer in the scorching heat would be nice, as would a bacon sarnie with HP sauce, but I guess you can’t have everything. Treat it as a liver detox!

Kindness and hospitality given to Fanny and I in the middle of the Nubian desert in Sudan. Its strange that those with so little always offered us so much … and the converse!

Long sand roads .. and scorching heat in Sudan

Very friendly people

Replacing the starter relay in the middle of the Nubian desert in 50+ degrees heat.

Our kind host Mohammed and his children on banks of the River Nile in Sudan

Fanny with the guys who helped us repair her bike

Yes… there are pyramids in Sudan too

 

 

 

 

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Pyramids in Sudan

 

 

WORST EXPERIENCES 

We never really had any very bad experiences.

We managed to cross Africa without being eaten by wild animals, without having to pay a bribe, without being infected by deadly diseases, nor kidnapped by pirates or Jihadi nutters.

Our KTM 990 Adventure motorcycles have been superb, a joy to ride and very reliable.

The vast majority of people we encountered on the expedition have been wonderful and treated us very well…  the only exception being a few excitable types in Ethiopia who threw stones at us or lashed out as we were riding by with whips and sticks. Most of the border crossings and tourist locations attracted annoying touts, “shiftas” and fraudsters who were keen to relieve us of the few possessions we had. They were all unsuccessful.

A particular low was early on in the expedition when Fanny lost control of her motorcycle in the Namib Desert and came off at speed.

Fortunately, Fanny and her KTM motorcycle are a tough team and in no time were back together charging through the desert, albeit with a few scrapes and bruises.

In Europe our experience in Switzerland was not great, Fanny got arrested for involvement in an accident that wasn’t her fault, everything always seemed to be closed, everything was expensive, and we could hardly describe the Swiss as the friendliest people we met on our 53,800 kilometer ride around the world.

That said Switzerland is a very pretty country and we enjoyed riding through the Alps and up and down the many meandering passes.

In China/Asia I think the worst experience was just outside Chongqing City when a traffic official threw a traffic cone at Fanny while she was riding on the highway and knocked her off her bike. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered a serious criminal offence and front page news, but in China abuse of power by the authorities is common place and the “people” can’t do much about it. Fanny was injured slightly and very upset by the incident, but she managed to get back on her motorcycle and carry on.

Not being allowed to ride in certain Chinese cities and on most of the Chinese highway network is also pretty annoying and downright unnecessary in modern China on a modern motorcycle.

Apart from these incidents, and of course me getting stopped by the police at every single road block in Tibet, we had a really great adventure in China and had the chance to see places that very few people even know about, let alone visit.

USA?  Its a continent sized and a very well developed country that most non-Americans will know well enough through the ubiquitous TV shows and movies. Big, amazing wilderness, beautiful scenery,  wealthy,  but with a dark and sinister underbelly, especially in the inner cities.

To to be honest we still have a lot of riding to be done and places to see in the USA.

So far we have explored Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in the west, and New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ohio in the east. The south and the center remains to be explored.

From what I’ve seen of the rest of world, America sits in the middle ground. Its easy to get around, everything is super convenient, there is not a great deal of culture or history, the roads are far too straight and dull, and its not as “great” as Americans think it is. Nothing really interesting, and nothing really bad, except the food which is on the whole….a mixture of sugar and lard with a sprig of rocket.

I am afraid to so that Fanny doesn’t like America, but then she is a pinko commie!

South America?   That remains an adventure for the future.

A fussy unfocused picture of one of the officials. My hands were shaking with rage.

A fuzzy unfocused picture of one of the officials who threw a traffic cone at Fanny and knocked her off her motorcycle. My hands were shaking with rage but I resisted the urge to administer some summary justice and so we got back on our motorcycles and carried on.

 

These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind... in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.

These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind… in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.

 

 

BEST CITY AWARD

AFRICA – DAR ES SALAAM 

When riding a motorcycle through Africa the last places you really want to see are the cities. The joy of riding through Africa is the beautiful countryside, meeting its people, and enjoying the amazing African flora and fauna. However, if pressed to pick an African city I would say Dar Es Salaam because it is a very interesting and lively city, friendly people, good food,  and one of the few cities in Africa I could live in outside South Africa. Traffic is quite bad though, but nothing two bikers from Shanghai can’t handle.

A dhow in Zanzibar

Having a coffee in a street in Zanzibar

Dar es Salem from the ferry

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EUROPE – Istanbul

It is a difficult call to decide on the best city award for Europe. We enjoyed many. Lucca, Rome, Florence and Pompei in Italy;  Saint Lo in France; St. Sebastian in the Basque Country; Barcelona in Spain; Saltzburg and Vienna in Austria; and Old Town Rhodes in Greece. We thoroughly enjoyed them all.

However, if we are pushed to choose one then Istanbul takes the award. Its got it all… great food, wonderful art, kind friendly people, fascinating history, amazing architecture, the east meets west straits between Black Sea and Marmara Sea, and yet its very much a first world city, things work and it feels very welcoming and exciting to be there.

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Fanny wandering along the streets of Taksin in Istanbul… a super city.

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Enjoying the cafes of Istanbul

 

 

 

ASIA/China – LHASA (followed by CHENGDU) 

I am not even going to consult Fanny because she will say Shanghai. It’s like asking a panda what its favourite food is.  I thought our ride through China was absolutely fascinating. There are hundreds of cities in China with populations over a million people… many are over 20 million and therefore bigger than many countries in the world.

Each city is diverse with the richest and poorest, ugliest and prettiest and tastiest and revolting all in one place. Cities to mention are Beijing where I went to university and have a special fondness for, colourful and spicy Chengdu in Sichuan (and prettiest women!), exotic Dali in Yunnan, the amazing “Red City” of  Nanchang in Jiangxi, so called because its the home of the “red” revolution.

However, our ride through Tibet is probably one of the highlights and so therefore Lhasa, its provincial capital stands out as the best city to see in respect to scenery, architecture, history and “never seen before” general interest.

I lost my trainers and so I klomped about Lhasa in my riding boots... which got looks of admiring looks and comments from the Tibetans.

Me outside the most sacred temple in Lhasa

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Fanny and I high up on the Tibet/Qinghai Plateau… the world’s highest.

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Just outside Lhasa in Tibet

 

An interesting picture on many levels

Fanny and Si Ba (a Lama friend we made on the road) walking down the high street in Lhasa

WORST CITY

Africa – Addis Ababa  … 

We were looking forward to Addis Ababa, a name that conjured up exotic images formed from school days for me. However, when we got there we found it to be a complete karsi. The decrepit and forlorn looking train station from a bygone era pretty much sums up Addis Ababa ‘s decline into squalour and poverty.

Bus station in Addis Ababa

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Again corruption and inability to use a condom are to blame. Aggressive touts, annoying kids, unfriendly and hostile looking soldiers and policeman, and crumbling and decaying infrastructure. Its a big disappointment.

Fortunately we found refuge in a little oasis in the middle of this complete dog nest called “Wim’s Holland House”. Not the greatest backpackers in Africa, but the Dutch owner, Wim runs a decent hostel that serves more than the Ethiopian staple dish of  Tibis and sour pancakes and has a well stocked English pub-like bar that serves draft St.George’s beer.

ASIA – CHINA 

China is basically a large continent and currently going through the biggest phase of development any country has been through…ever,  and so some of its second and third tier cities (or lower) can easily qualify for worst, ugliest, most polluted, most corrupt, most congested, unhealthiest city anywhere on the planet.

Take your pick.

However the human inhabitants have no consideration or care for the environment, and like much of China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, outside their homes and anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing.

Many people in China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, or just outside their homes ….anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing. Hidden industrial pollution is off the scale.

Urban off roading

As with other parts of China, the average worker busts his hump and toils away seven days a week for hours on end for very little compensation. Throughout all of China we saw the poverty and the day to day struggle by many people just to survive and make a living. Putting up with conditions no one in the west would ever put up with.

A lot of China looks like this… a dusty, muddy, grey construction site on the cheap.

Really.... just unlucky ... could happen to anyone

An articulated lorry on its side in a dusty China street… quite normal

 

EUROPE – LUTON Picking a worst city in Europe is a difficult one.

Athens promised so much and delivered so little. We did wander around to see the sights of Ancient Greece, but the modern day city was depressing and the economic gloom palpable.

The city of my birth, London, is a mixed bag. A disappointment on many levels, can no longer be considered “English”,  but still an iconic and interesting city if you focus on the positives such as history, art and culture.

However, if I have to pick a candidate for worst city in Europe then I am going to say Luton or Slough in the United Kingdom.

Sorry Luton and Slough…… someone has to come last …..and you made no effort not to. 

 

WORST FLEAS, TICKS & LICEETHIOPIA

The mangey cats and dogs throughout Ethiopia are covered in them, as are most of the carpets, furniture and bedding. The lush grassland, especially after the rainy season is also home to ticks. As we were camping we had to remove quite a few of these little blood suckers that somehow found their way into various nooks and “fannys”.

“No” Best Flea Award….unsurprisingly!

 

BEST DRIVING STANDARD AWARDS –

Africa …South Africa (Western Cape)

Europe … Germany

China … umm?  Let’s say Hong Kong  … the standard is so incredibly poor.

Asia …  Japan

 

WORST DRIVING AWARDS –

Africa ….Egypt

Europe …. Italy

The World …. everywhere in China, followed very closely by Egypt and Bangkok in Thailand which is dangerous on a bike.

 

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Sri Lanka … driving standard is also pretty ropey … but at least its slow.

Tanzanian bus and truck drivers could take some kind of bad driving award judging by how many we saw overtaking dangerously or wrecked by the side of the road, but Egypt takes the “worst driving” award in Africa by a mile.

They are absolute shockers. Maybe  its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones all the time, or perhaps because everyone employs millimetre collision avoidance techniques, sometimes with success and sometimes without.  I saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted around the wheel and the other holding a phone to his ear.

Rather than put his mobile phone down and use both arms to turn the wheel he preferred to carry on talking, veer off the road and mow down some pedestrians.

Me and my KTM at the Great Pyramids

 

Tahrir Square with the building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side

Tahrir Square, in cairo with the government building we had to go to in order to extend our visas at the top left hand side. The Spring revolution was in full swing when we arrived in Cairo and so it was an interesting time.

 

BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION –

Africa …..Namibia/Tanzania

We have a difference of opinion due to our different levels of riding experience. Fanny goes for Tanzania for the same reasons (above) as for best country and I go for Namibia, to my mind the most awesome motorcycling country… anywhere.

Challenging, technical in parts, mind blowing scenery and importantly very few people and other vehicles. Its got sand, gravel, rocks, hills, deserts, salt pans, seascape, bush, wild animals, birds and fresh air…. AND no road blocks, no speed bumps, no police and no speed cameras.  I also really liked the Nubian deserts of Sudan. Clean, beautiful and spectacular.

Fanny cruising along the gravel roads in the Namib desert

 

left or right?

Left or right?  Freedom to do whatever.

 

BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION _ EUROPE …. Western Scotland (in the sun) followed by France

Scotland was a big surprise. In Jubilee year, 2012 when Fanny and I arrived in the UK we planned to ride to Scotland, but the weather was absolutely atrocious. A year later during what everyone was calling “The Summer of 2013”  the weather was absolutely glorious and western Scotland gave me some of the best riding I have ever experienced. Not to take anything away from Scotland, my KTM 990 Supermoto T I was riding was one of best motorcycles I have ever ridden. I have to say it was an awesome ride and Great Britain was truly “great”.

Now we are talking. The ride now moves up to a new quantum level of beautiful. Fanny and I have ridden around the world and been privileged to see the Himalayas, Pyrenees, Alps, Guilin, Rift Valley, Qinghai Cederberg, Atlas etc... but West Scotland on a good day is second to none.

West Scotland

 

This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden... the

This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden… the

 

ASIA …. Tibet and Cardomom mountains in Cambodia

Who, being given the chance, is not going to vote Tibet as one of the best motorcycling destinations on the planet?  Not me.

Also, Cardomom mountains in Cambodia are very interesting and enjoyable on a bike.

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Namib desert

"Yeah! - Go On... slap me on the arse and see what happens"

Yak 1000 Adventure

 USA – Valley of Gods, Utah

The best adventure motorcycling I have come across so far in the USA is probably the unearthly Valley of Gods in southern Utah. I have ridden all over the USA on various machines over the year, but there is still a lot for me to see and explore and so there may be better places, but the Valley of Gods, although quite small is a superb ride.

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Valley of Gods on Honda Africa Twin (BDR Utah)

 

WORST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION AWARDS

All African and Chinese inner cities (except Cape Town and Windhoek)

Riding through any of the African Capital cities was  tiresome, annoying, stressful and decidedly dangerous… in particular Cairo, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. It was no problem technically for either of us, we come from Shanghai after all where the traffic is atrocious and ride our bicycles everyday, but the appalling driving standards, poor urban planning and ever increasing traffic volume made riding less fun than it should be.

Whilst we rode on appalling roads and surfaces, such as the road from Marsabit to Moyale in north Kenya, they presented the  sort of challenges bikers relish and we confronted and overcame them with a huge sense of 成就感  and enjoyment.

Worst Motorcycling Experience in Europe … again the inner cities of Italy and England spring to mind…. but no where near as bad as China or Egypt.

In England the speed cameras ruin motorcycling and in Italy the narrow medieval roads through the towns, and aggressive and poor driving standard by Italians make riding a bit stressful, but not too bad.

In London, there are feral “non indigenous” teenagers who ride scooters, terrorize people, and steal with impunity because the police do nothing. These thugs also spray acid into people’s faces from squeezy bottles or attack people with hammers and angle grinders ….and get away with it because the ethnic majority have voted for treacherous politicians like Khan and Abbott who support these hooligans because they think the indigenous English deserve it.

The police, courts and authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place and so they are largely impotent. They stick to arresting soft targets like 1970s DJs, non contentious traffic offences and local middle class people for Orwellian “thoughtcrimes”.

When I was a police officer in London in the 1980s it was urban chaos then, lots of race riots, inner city anomie, and quite dangerous. However, you did your job, your colleagues and bosses supported you, and you got promoted or advanced to more interesting jobs based on merit and ability. Now in politically correct and easily offended Britain its the opposite and so basically the police have given up and much of London is a “no go” ghetto.

By comparison, when we were riding in north Kenya, borders with Somalia, east Ethiopia, central and north Sinai and the western Sahara ISIS were just starting to take hold and there was a real possibility of running into a pickup truck of crazy Islamists. However, there were lots of armed police and army, local Bedouins were friendly and helpful, we were on fast powerful motorcycles, able and allowed to defend and look after ourselves, and so the odds were even.

Our advice is don’t ride into London. Ride around it, or park outside and take public transport into the tourist areas, see the changing of the guard, the museums, art galleries, theaters, cafes and shops and then get out as quick as possible.

In fact, best to avoid all English cities and head to the beautiful Cotswolds, Peak District, Devon and Cornwall, the Jurassic coast, the Fens, the Lake District, Scotland or Wales and a nice rural pub.

 

BEST CAMPSITES:

1. Lake Charla – Tanzania –  What a gem. perfect climate, stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro, hundreds of elephants, Colobus monkeys, unspoiled bush, a spectacular volcanic crater lake, great bar, friendly hosts, and of course the famous roasted goat dinner.

 

2. Makuzi – Malawi. Peaceful paradise on the shores of Lake Malawi.

 

3. Mountain Rock – Kenya.  A lush enjoyable grassy campsite next to a trout filled river on the equator in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

 

Europe ….Scotland   no camp sites in the whole of Europe were on the same scale of the three above in Africa. Camping in Europe, regardless of whether its next to stunning scenery like Mont Blanc or near a historical town like Lucca in Italy has a whiff of concentration camp about it.  France has simple and clean municipal campsites that were great value. Italy had some decent places but they were expensive. Wales was quite good. England just doesn’t have any and the few there are are awful, with a few exceptions. Our worst experience on the whole expedition was at Crystal Palace in London where we were interrogated and abused by gestapo like camp wardens. Hobson’s choice because London is so expensive, in fact the most expensive anywhere, and so camping was the only alternative to paying over 100 pounds for a small room for a night.

Scotland however has no trespass laws and so provided you show respect for the owners property and leave the site in the condition you found it in you can free camp where you like. Its also a gloriously pretty and interesting country and so the best European camping award easily goes to Scotland, followed by France and Wales. 

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North west point of Scotland at 11pm in the evening.

 

Camping on Skye

Camping on Skye

 

China – Nan Tso (Tibet). 

China is a great country to back pack across (I have done it) and as such has great youth hostels and cheap accommodation in all cities and towns.  As for camping, China is, on the whole, a safe country (apart from driving standards). However, despite its enormous size there is not a great deal of spare land that is not farmed on or developed… until you get into the remote western provinces of Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang and Qinghai. We were very fortunate to camp in two stunning locations.

One with Lamas on the banks of a river in the Himalayas and another in the middle of Tibet at over 5000 meters next to the shores of Tibet’s most sacred lake, Nam Tso with 7,000 meter + peaks surrounding us.

USA – Needles, Utah

Campsites in the USA are basic by African and European standards. They are clean, tidy, averagely cheap, have friendly elderly attendants, but usually lack ablutions and the facilities you get in continental European campsites and most African lodges.

Apart from free camping, which I did a lot and prefer, the best organised campsite I found was at Needles in Utah, just south of Moab. In other States the campsites are pretty gruesome, far too expensive and generally geared towards caravans and RVs, and so free camping with a tent is the best option, and easy to do.

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Camping with lamas in east Tibet

 

Camping at Nam Tso.

Camping on the shores of Nam Tso, Tibet

 

WORST CAMPSITES .

We never stayed at any really bad campsites. To our mind the simpler the better and there should be more like the good ones we saw in Africa.  Whilst Sudan allows free camping,  Egypt is heavily controlled by the military and police and our attempts to free camp were fruitless. We were chased off seemingly remote places in the desert and along the Red Sea by police, army and security people.

Being unable to camp in certain places, we did stay in some rather ropey (because they were cheap) hotels in Sudan and Ethiopia but you get what you pay for and we didn’t pay very much. The Kilpatra hotel in Wadi Halfa had the worst lavatory and shower outside China… a true shocker.

Of course, Europe is the land of the caravan. Rarely seen in Africa or Asia, these boxes on wheels are seen everywhere in western Europe, blocking the country lanes and oblivious or uncaring to the traffic mayhem they cause around them. To a biker they are annoying enough, but we can whizz pass them more often than not. To another car driver stuck behind one on a road in Cornwall I hate to think.

No wonder they are targets of Top Gear persecution and derision. Once they eventually get to their “beauty spot” they position themselves cheek by jowl and then the occupants immediately position themselves outside on deckchairs, guarding their plot with disapproving territorial expressions on their faces.

Actually, these caravan clubers are not a bad bunch when you get to know them and are often passionate about their caravaning lifestyles and can wax lyrical about chemical toilets and lace curtains.

I have to say caravaners, with their impressive tea making facilities and well stocked biscuit tins, who brew up on the hour every hour are always welcome next to our tent.

BEST FOOD AWARD

Africa ….  Egypt

Apart from the Chinese food we had in various places, Egypt probably just surpasses South Africa as the country with the best food in Africa. Fresh seafood, spicy curries, kebabs and falafel, roti, dates, fruit, salads, tasty bread… and good beer.

Lots of great street food in Egypt and Sudan

Back streets of Cairo

Lunch in Hurgharda

The food in Sudan is also pretty good and the Nile fish breakfast in Wadi Halfa is a special treat, especially with Bedouin coffee or tea. Again icy fruit juices are a specialty and very welcome when the temperature is scorching hot.

 

Europe … Turkey 

The best food we ate in Europe was in Turkey.  This was a big surprise as we don’t think either of us have been to a Turkish restaurant in our lives. Whilst in Istanbul and Mersin we were treated to some excellent local feasts by our new Turkish friends. The street food was also cheap and delicious, a bit like in Egypt.

Further along through Europe we had delicious cakes and pastries, especially in Austria, Italy and France, but the classic Italian and French fine cuisine famous throughout the World was not available to us because of the cost. I am sure its delicious, its just we couldn’t afford any.

We were fortunate to be in Italy during Easter and were treated to a delicious traditional Italian lunch with our friends Nick and Paola and her family near Rome. We also had some great home cooking with family and friends while we were in England and Wales.

I know there is good food about in Britain, but can you find it when you are hungry, or afford to eat decently in, say, London? No. Ubiquitous sandwich shops, junk food, petrol station food, and processed food is the tourists’ lot. Best you can get is a good cardiac arrest “fry up” breakfast at a roadside lay-by or fish and chips for dinner.

Even the so called ethnic food we had in the UK, like Indian or Thai was awful. So, unless you are lucky to be invited to eat at a “Master Chef” finalists’ house, have relatives and friends who are good cooks or win the lottery and have the chance to try out a Michelin starred restaurant you are going to be disappointed on the food front in the UK.

We met many tourists, especially Chinese who were on the verge of tour group mutiny in the UK because they disliked the food so much.

A wonderful lunch (into dinner) amongst the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTMshop 。 

A wonderful lunch (into dinner) among the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTM garage。

 

China – overall winner by a long way…..

Nothing beats the food in China for variety, freshness, health, flavour, texture, low cost, accessibility, colour, exoticness, pure joy and of course taste. Spicy Hunan and Sichuan, sweet and sour Shanghainese, salty and savoury Dong Bei, roasted meat from Xinjiang and seafood from Guangdong …..and it goes on with each province and each region within a province having their own specialties and traditions .

We all need food and everywhere we went in the world the people took pride in their local cuisine, but to our mind nothing beats Chinese food.

We and 1.4 billion others think so anyway..

Best Chinese Restaurant outside ChinaXiao Long (Laughing Dragon) – Livingstone, Zambia. On par with the Sichuan and Hunan food we have in China,  but I suspect only if you insist on the genuine stuff… in Mandarin ….and have a Chinese companion who does a thorough inspection of the kitchen, the ingredients and interrogates all the staff.

Worst Chinese Restaurant outside ChinaThe Panda – Mosi, Tanzania (The lovely girl, Cheng Yuan Yuan, who was left in charge of the restaurant while the owner went back to China admitted she couldn’t cook and neither could the chef). In the end one of the Chinese guests went in the kitchen and cooked a few dishes which we shared.

Would you believe it? Fanny eating again. Chengdu is famous for Xiao Chi (lit.. little eats) Snacks if you will.

Sichuan street food

I am like a dog in China. I get fed once a day, complete strangers come up and stroke the blonde hairs on my arms, in my presence I get spoken about in the third person, certain hotels wont let me in, and I have no idea what people are saying to me all the time. Woof Woof.

Yunnan food

Chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)

Its exotic and specialties appeared on street corners and by the side of fields as we rode across the country . Here chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)

WORST FOOD AWARDS

Worst food in Africa – Malawi

The lakeside resorts run by foreignors had pretty good food, but unless you like eating a diet consisting of 99% cassava (which has the nutritional value and taste of a flip flop) you will starve in the rest of the country as indeed a lot of the people are doing.  There is no excuse for this as Malawi has fresh water,  untapped natural resources and shares nearly the same geology and agricultural potential as Tanzania which grows coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables in abundance.

The problem, as with too many places in Africa, lies with the government who are greedy, corrupt and incompetent …and the people who put up with such tyrants who keep them in the stone age.

The other crop that grows pretty freely in Malawi is marijuana , so if you like you can spend your days in Malawi stoned out of your skull in a blue haze, however when you get the munchies don’t expect to see much in the fridge.

Worst food in Europe – the UK. If you have the money, or live with an excellent cook you will eat as well as anywhere in the world.

However for any visitor to the UK the food on the street is pretty dire. The healthy option, if so inclined, is a salad with a bit of meat or fish in a plastic box. Still hungry? .. of course you are … so a tub of lard for pudding. You can tell by the unhealty disposition and obesity of most English people that there is little nutrition in many peoples diet.

In England the day starts off well with a variety of decent breakfasts and then goes downhill thereon.

Worst food in China Tibet. If we are to be picky, a diet that consists of a thousand ways to eat yak and yak’s milk might be pushing the limits… so local Tibetan food, whilst pretty OK, is at bottom of of the list as there is some amazing food to be eaten in every province across China.

All this being said the upside of increasing migration of more Han Chinese into Tibet is that good food from other provinces can be found in the main cities in Tibet. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Its a good thing when you’re hungry.

Also, I have to mention the province of Guangxi and Chinese provinces bordering Laos and Vietnam for their fondness for dog, rat, pangolin, civet cat, and other furry, feathered and scaly creatures and their insides… nope…. not my cup of nai cha, nor Fanny’s.

BEST BEER AWARDS

Africa – Namibia – Windhoek beer.

Windhoek

 

 

Europe – English bitter (in particular Marston’s Pedigree from Burton Upon Trent)

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Marston’s Pedigree – from Burton on Trent

China – Tsingdao beer  青岛啤酒)

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Tsing Dao from Qingdao, China

 

WORST BEER AWARDS  – of course there is no worst beer award, but perhaps Sudan should get a mention for not allowing beer at all.  In fact the punishment for any alcohol possession in Sudan is 40 lashes.

Ouch!

BEST GAME PARK  AWARDS

1. Masai Mara (Kenya) (in late August)

We had an awesome time in Masai Mara. Great guides, reasonable entry fees (compared to Tanzania), and when we were there the great wildebeest migration was in residence and stretched across the grassy plains as far as the eye could see. It was true Lion King country and we had a terrific motorcycle ride to get there along cattle tracks and through Masai villages.

2. South Luangwa (Zambia).

South Luangwa National Park is possibly one of the prettiest and diverse game reserves in Africa. Certainly one of my favourite. Unfortunately, while I was there the last rhino had been poached in collusion with corrupt security guards who for their evil part were paid a fraction of what the horns were eventually sold for in Asia.

Whilst the 150 kilometer road from Chipata to the national park was too technical for Fanny at that particular stage of our expedition (not now of course), I had been there on a previous motorcycle trip across Africa and on the way bumped into the Long Way Down TV show motorcycles on their way to Lusaka. They had also decided against going to Luangwa because the road was too tough for Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, although easy for Charlie Boorman and the cameraman, Claudio I expect, who turned out to be decent guys and true motorcycle enthusiasts.

With the help of my Zambian cousin I managed to ride right into the game park along a locally used two track sand road and ride right up to many of the African animals and through the stunning bush of the Valley, but trying to keep a decent distance from creatures that might like a KTM sandwich. However, I inadvertently rode into a herd elephants and was mock charged by a young male which was quite exciting. They do not like the sound or sight of motorcycles at all, especially with loud Akropovik exhausts.

 

BEST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD

Ras Mohammed, Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt.

I do not care for diving particularly having been put off  when I did a CT selection course when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police,  but due to putting down roots in Dahab by the beautiful Red Sea I had little to do while Fanny was windsurfing and so I have now completed the PADI open water and advanced scuba course with H2O Divers.

http://www.facebook.com/H2ODiversDahab

Dahab is 90 Kms away from Sharm El Sheikh in the Gulf of  Aqaba (Red Sea) and enjoys amazing marine life and is a very popular destination for kite surfing, wind surfing and diving. As well as scuba diving with an aqua lung, I also learnt to free dive and practised nearly everyday at the famous Blue Hole, or just off the coral reefs at Eel Garden, The Caves or Lighthouse. Amazing places. Fanny on the other hand learnt to windsurf in the lagoon with Planet Windsurf and is now a very competent sailor.

http://www.planetwindsurfholidays.com/resorts/egypt/dahab/

The Red Sea in Egypt, especially along the Sinai peninsular is absolutely spectacular. I have been fortunate to have traveled around most of South East Asia, but the Red Sea is to my mind better. Crystal clear warm waters, amazing tropical fish and coral reefs and pretty decent infrastructure to support it all. The Sinai desert mountains create an awesome backdrop to the coastal towns of Nuweiba, Taba and especially Dahab, and the desert itself is quite possibly the prettiest in the world, especially at sunset and sunrise.  That said, the whole tourism thing could be done so so much better, but then the Egyptian tourist industry is reeling from the Arab Spring revolution, the world economic downturn and the negative effects of blowing up tourists with fire-bombs.

WORST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD

Any open water in East or South China. Polluted and disgusting.

BEST MOUNTAINS & VALLEYS

Africa – Ethiopia and Lesotho

Whilst we thought Ethiopia was spoiled a bit by some of its annoying stone throwing feral inhabitants and decaying cities, it does have spectacular natural beauty with mountains, rivers, pastures, lakes and valleys that looks a bit like those in Switzerland, Scotland or Austria.  The roads are also for the large part extremely good, although as I have said often crowded with people and animals.

Lesotho, which is bordered completely by South Africa, is also a very mountainous country and is an excellent place to visit, albeit a bit chilly to ride through in winter.

Ethiopia’s proximity to some very dodgy African countries, short visa restrictions and some very wet weather while we were there prevented us from exploring the amazing Danakil depression and Afar region in the east of the country which are said to be spectacular.

Not many regrets on the expedition, but not venturing to this amazing part of the world that features in the January 2012 edition of National Geographic magazine.

We did go to Lalibela to see the rock hewn churches, and they were fairly interesting. But unless you are an archaeologist or Christian pilgrim you’d be better off visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and indeed any Norman church in England as they are older, far more impressive and have less fleas. The ride there was fun though and took us  “off road” for a few hundred kilometers through valleys and across rivers and streams.

Europe – you are probably going the expect me to say The Alps, Pyrenees or the Dolomites, maybe the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia in Wales and indeed they are spectacular, but I am going to have to pick the mountains and valleys I enjoyed riding through the most and so I will say The Highlands of Scotland.

West coast of Scotland

West coast of Scotland

 

China –  is a very mountainous part of the world and along our 13,000 kilometer ride through the middle kingdom we navigated over, around and often through many mountain ranges. Chinese history is steeped in legend about mountains and have been the subject of pilgrimages by emperors and philosophers throughout the ages.  We were lucky to see some of the wuyue 五岳 – sacred five and the Buddhist and Taoist fours. But for me and Fanny seeing (and riding through) the greatest mountain range on the planet with the highest peaks, the Himalayas was one of the highlights of the expedition.

After all the awful roads we get to cruise on the awesome S201 through Guangxi 广西。

Guangxi 广西。

These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River ... yellow

These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River … yellow

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

The Himalayas... what can you say?

The Himalayas… what can you say?

 

BEST BORDER CROSSING –

Africa – South Africa. Quite simply modern, efficient, quick and fair.

Europeall easy

Chinano border crossings.. although riding through the road blocks in Tibet was “interesting”.

WORST BORDER CROSSING 

1st Egypt and 2nd Sudan.

The opposite of modern, efficient, quick, or fair. The further north in Africa we went the worse the border crossings became.

LEAST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS

Africa – Botswana

Europe – Austria

Asia – Singapore (its not going to be China is it?)

MOST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS

Africa – Egypt

Europe – Italy

Asia – China

Most countries we went through in Africa could very fairly be described as corrupt. Some more than others. Unfortunately, there are countries we simply couldn’t risk traveling through because they are so corrupt and dangerous, such as the DRC, Chad, Nigeria etc.. Even the famous Dakar Rally no longer races through the Sahara to Dakar and has moved to Argentina and Chile in South America.

An anecdote from our first day in Egypt:

Having spent considerable time and parted with a huge amount of cash at customs and immigration at the Egyptian border in Aswan, we were stopped 50 meters away at a road block, the first of hundreds, by a policeman with an AK47 variant of assault rifle who looked us up and down and asked, ‘Where you come from?’

Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’

Policeman ‘What in bag?’

Me ‘ Our things’

Policeman ‘ Open up’

Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’

As I was getting off my bike to open the panniers the policeman said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha…  anything nice for me?’

Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), and continued,  ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…

Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’

Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’

Fanny ‘China’

Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’

I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’

Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’   and so we went.

On each occasion the authorities even suggested a bribe I stood my ground or played my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and they all gave up.

Some of Fanny’s friends, a Chinese expedition starting from South Africa and riding Jin Chiang motorcycle and side-cars, gave up in Tanzania after running out of money, spirit and heart after paying bribe after bribe and being messed about at every single border crossing.

I guess the Africans thought that Chinese are accustomed to paying bribes. Maybe they are, and maybe they are also as fed up as everyone else.

 

NOISIEST COUNTRY AWARDS  – Sudan followed by China and Egypt.

Sudan is a strictly Islamic country and so requires its Muslim population to pray five times a day among other noisy rituals. The density of mosques and minarets in Sudan is very high and the call to prayers starts at 4-5 am which is rather early and without doubt a very loud wake -up alarm call where ever you are.

I vaguely remember bell ringing on Sunday mornings from the church in the village, Abbots Bromley, I grew up in England, and even that annoyed me after a few peels.

As a Roaming Catholic of the lapsed kind I am a firm believer that anyone can believe in what they like provided it causes no harm to others, but object to people inflicting their superstitions, religion and beliefs on other people.

My helpful suggestion that calls to prayer be made using mobile phones on vibrate mode was not met enthusiastically by anyone I met, nor was the suggestion that  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” might be more cheerful.

China?

There are 1.4 billion Chinese, the streets are crowded, and they absolutely love noise and any excuse to make some is welcomed and encouraged.

Megaphones, public announcements, promotions, advertisements, car horns, traffic, construction noise, warning signals, conversations, music, talking in restaurants etc etc… DO IT LOUDLY!. T

There are four tones in Mandarin and to make sure the other person understands clearly its best to SHOUT. In Cantonese there are nine tones and so the Hong Kongers SHOUT EVEN LOUDER ……..AAAH MAAAA. 噪音太大。!!!!

 

MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRY AWARD – Namibia

To the motorcyclists who like a bit of technical off road riding, stunning scenery, quiet roads, good camping sites, African animals and birds, decent petrol and getting close to unspoiled nature then Namibia is the country to go and disturb the peace with your Akropovik or Leo Vince exhausts!

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A long way from anywhere…. The Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Pictures at http://www.facebook.com/bigbiketrip

Chapter 31 – Vietnam and Cambodia

So what do two adventure bikers do for their Christmas holidays?

Of course, go on another motorcycle adventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Lots of temples in the Cambodian forests… some like this very isolated

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Riding through The Cardomon mountains, Cambodia on a Honda Transalp 650

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Coffee and noodles and more coffee in Hanoi.

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Riding around Hanoi

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Our Honda and a hat

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Hanoi

Flying directly into Phnom Penh from Hong Kong was expensive and so we decided to fly into Hanoi first, have a look around and then take a local flight to Cambodia where we would pick up a Honda Africa Twin and spend two weeks over the holidays touring the country, and perhaps include a few days relaxing on the southern coast.

I have been to Ho Chi Minh a few times, but neither Fanny or I had been to Hanoi and we had been planning to go there for some time.   Originally our plan was to ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, inspired by the famous “Top Gear Special”, but we didn’t really have enough time to do a big trip in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Fanny was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery to her knee and she did not want to ride a bike herself, and so we decided to spend the majority of our time in Cambodia as we could share a larger adventure motorbike. It seems Vietnam only hires out small scooters and mopeds, which are perfectly OK for scooting about the city, but a bit challenging for an countrywide tour in a few days.

Hanoi is a really interesting and bustling city with French and Chinese style architecture reflecting its rather complicated heritage. We liked it very much. There are tens of thousands of scooters riding about in a seemingly chaotic manner, but after a while you realize, despite universal none adherence to any traffic laws whatsoever, that carnage, death and destruction is actually quite rare. In fact, everyone just manages to avoid colliding into everyone else.

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When in Hanoi….

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Lots of markets and hawkers stalls

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School kids visiting the Hanoi War Museum…

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And serving soldier …

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A B52 …once

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And Fanny . and B52 wreckage in a very small pond.

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Riding into restaurant in Hanoi

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Exploring around the narrow streets… perfect on a moped

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Look at her happy face… anyone would think she had found authentic Vietnamese beef noodles for a dollar

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And more…

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I believe this is a called a “take a picture of your self” or something like that.

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Fanny and I hiking around Hanoi

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Before…..

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After… !

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Zoom…. kids and all

Crossing the road on foot does take a leap of faith, if not courage, and yet the bikes and cars just seem to slide by, dodge and side step you, employing well practiced collision avoidance techniques. Accidents do happen of course, and like their Thai neighbours the Vietnamese take enormous pleasure in publishing the graphic images of squashed and smashed up human being in newspapers and specialist magazines. Everyone’s got to have a hobby I suppose.

Finding accommodation in Hanoi was easy and we stayed at a superb hotel in the old town called Oriental Suites. A colonial looking and very well managed mid sized hotel right in the heart of the old town. Great coffee and very obsequious staff… just how we like it.

http://www.orientalsuiteshotel.com/en-us/hotels/home.html

We decide to hire a scooter to get around and explore the city and at first were given a “last thing you’ll ever ride” piece of junk clearly belonging to one of the hotel staff.  After an 18.5 second test drive I returned and gave the hotel manager a full and frank appraisal of his “Vamporetta” or whatever it was. The traffic was bad enough in Hanoi, but without any brakes, steering bearings gone, and an engine that stalled all the time… I don’t think so.  So, we were given one of the ubiquitous Honda 110 mopeds and it was perfectly fine and off we went.

We found lots of great restaurants, cafes, noodle shops, and market stalls, most of which were selling a huge array of Christmas decorations and junk nobody really needs in life. The street food was very good and it seems the Vietnamese, like the southern Chinese they share a border, will eat absolutely anything. There were a lot of roasted pooches looking rather sad for themselves in heated glass display cases at various street hawker stalls. Evidently, the locals are perfectly aware that their taste in cuisine isn’t appreciated by the vast majority of tourists, including many Chinese from the more civilized cities and northern provinces, and so they were sensitive to people like Fanny and I taking pictures of poached pug and char grilled collie. But we did anyway.

Hanoi, along with the same parts of China that regularly eat dog, i.e. Guangxi and Guangdong, are also the markets for rhino horn although I never saw any evidence of this devastating trade in endangered animal parts. Not surprising since gram for gram rhino horn its more valuable than gold. Wont last for long though as there wont be a rhino left on the planet within a generation.

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Harley Bikers in Hanoi

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Biker Cafe

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Lots of captured US aircraft

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US aircraft sculpture ….

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The winners flag flying above their captured aircraft

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Bit mad on roads in day and night

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Hanoi shop

Anyway, we explored the back streets, drank lots of excellent coffee, went to a small lake with the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber still in it, and really enjoyed our visit to the Hanoi War Museum that was full of US warplanes and helicopters, as well as large displays of medieval warfare techniques and home made weapons used against the French troops during the 1950s. Despite nearly everyone being half the size of Fanny, the Vietnamese seem like very tough people… they certainly have a high tolerance for discomfort and hardship.

A day or so later we took a Vietnamese flight via Vientiane in Laos to Phnom Penh and breezed through immigration very quickly as we had applied for our visas in advance. We avoided the taxis and hired a “tut tut” on the main highway to take us to our hotel, the Grande Palaise, near the central market.

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Phnom Penh

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In a tut tut on way to pick up our bike

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Cambodia-physical-map

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The Grande Palaise, Phnom Penh… looks nice until you have to flush a lavatory.

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Ahh… no guests at breakfast… wonder why?

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The GDP of a country is inversely proportional to the length of their leader’s motorcade.

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If you see this dog …. hand him over to the Cambodian police … not the Vietnamese police…unless you are fond of pug stew.

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An amazing looking colonial hotel in keeping with its name, but the devils in the detail and its seems Cambodian attention to detail and good grouting is en par with that in Hong Kong.  The hotel had been converted from an old colonial cinema and it was also clear that they had done a pretty crap job of it. The electric was shocking, the plumbing was appalling, and the bed was lumpy. Judging by the expression on the faces of two snooty looking French guests at breakfast the next morning we were not the only people to think so.

The next day we navigated around a seemingly endless motorcade of Vietnamese and Cambodian officials in blacked out limos, army trucks and police officers in SUVs as they raced back and forth across the city.  Cars and pedestrians alike were forced to stop by hundreds of police officers as this officialdom went about what ever it was doing. Eventually there was a window of opportunity to move about and we got another tut tut to our motorcycle hire shop.

The Bike Shop is run by a Frenchman and his Cambodian partner and we rented a decent looking, but rather old 2001 Honda Transalp 650. I was a bit disappointed that the Africa Twin 750 we had booked online had been given to a French couple, but in the end the Transalp was absolutely faultless and was to prove the ideal bike for some very demanding riding later on. I really grew to like the Transalp.

http://www.motorcyclecambodia.com

We had intended to ride south to the coastal resort town of Kep, but decided instead to ride north west towards Siem Reap where the world heritage temples of Angkor Wat are located. For those not familiar with Cambodia, and that included me before this trip, there is a huge lake in the middle of the country and you have no choice but to ride around it.  No bridges span it and during the rainy season it expands greatly in size and pretty much the whole country is under water.

As it was late December we were traveling in the dry season and so we rode along unsurfaced, potholed and dusty construction roads for several hundred kilometers to Kampong Thom. The Honda, although 14 years old, was extremely well maintained and I could tell from the briefing about checking oil, general maintenance and spare parts that the company we hired it from really looked after their bikes and cared about them. We were also given soft panniers and I have to say if ever I ride around the world or do a significant motorcycle adventure again I will use some sort of soft pannier system rather than the  hugely expensive aluminum square “Touratech” boxes we had on our KTMs for our ride through Africa and Europe.

Because the roads and traffic were so bad we didn’t make the progress we thought we’d make. Also, I was by now really fed up riding on a so called national highway made of holes, dirt and more holes with thick dust being thrown up by trucks and speeding SUVs and so at Kampong Thom we turned off the highway and headed north towards Preah Vihear where we were told there were some interesting temples in the hills at the northern border with Thailand and Laos.

A great decision. The roads were now virtually empty, the scenery was very rural and beautiful, and the road surface was excellent. After about 40 kilometers we saw a sign indicating that there was a resort nearby and since it was getting late and we were tired we headed off along a narrow road through endless fields full of cows, water buffalo and horses and between expanses of rainforest and large deciduous trees.  At around 6pm the light faded noticeably and we had still been unable to find the “resort”, but we did find the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Quite a sight to find in the middle of a forest as the sun was going down.

There was no one around except for a young man on a scooter by a small wooden booth. We stopped to ask him about the “resort”.  ‘This is it”, he told us in perfect English.  Huh!  Apparently the resort was the ruins of the stunning Khmer temples and there was, in fact, no “hotel with a swimming pool and a restaurant” type resort that Fanny and I had envisaged in our minds.

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One of many temples we found

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Fanny and the young Cambodian guy who brought us back to his homestay

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Restaurant where we had our dinner and evening shower in a cow paddock behind restaurant

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Just Fanny and I exploring a site full of temples in the forest

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early morning light

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Prasat Yeay Poeun

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Our homestay

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Morning fire at our homestay…

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Morning wash

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Inside one of the temples

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Sandy roads

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2001 Honda

We had no tent, no sleeping bags and actually very little in the way of luggage at all. Certainly no food. Neither of us were too fussed. It wasn’t raining, the temperature was a perfect 24 degrees and we could perhaps kip with the ghosts in one of the many thousand year old ruins.

‘You can stay at a homestay’, the young man told us. ‘No problem’.

Apparently for 6 dollars for the two of us we could stay at a local home, and that is what we did. But first, food hunting. We were told there was a village nearby and we could find something to eat. Result.

We rode into a charming little farming village and found a small stall selling a very limited selection of local food, including something that looked like papaya salad with dried river prawns. As we drew up on the Honda the whole village stopped and stared at us as if we had landed in a flying saucer. The lady owner looked us up and down and we were covered from head to toe in red dust. I was wearing shorts and my light weight motorcycle jacket and my legs were absolutely caked in filth.

Would I like a shower?  Yes, I would and so I was taken into the cow paddock behind the restaurant where there was a well, a plastic bowl, a hand pump, and a bar of soap right in the middle of the field.

I looked around pondering whether I should just wash my hands and face or have a full shower, and if so am I expected to stand in the field stark bollock naked or wear a sarong or something?  I started stripping off and nobody seemed to take any notice and so I had a proper wash and then wandered back to the restaurant absolutely refreshed and in great spirits.

‘You gotta have a shower’, I told Fanny, as I described the washing facilities, ‘ Its great’.

I chatted as best I could with the owner and her extended family while Fanny had a more modest shower in a field in the middle of Cambodia. Fanny came back all refreshed and tucked into some rather chewy and gamey prawns, and I decided that dinner would be a fried egg and three bottles of Angkor beer.

After we left the restaurant, bade our farewells and were riding through the pitch blackness of where ever it was, I suddenly realized that all the farm houses looked exactly the same and could not remember which was the one we agreed we would stay in. They were all virtually identical wooden structures on stilts and it was pitch dark except for a few lights that were powered by small electric generators or oil lamps. Luckily Fanny came to the rescue and remembered that the only distinguishing feature was that “our” farm house had two doors on the outside bog. And indeed it did.

We parked the Transalp under the farm house, right next to the young man who introduced the homestay in the first place, who was resting in a hammock. Aha! It was his families house. We were shown up the wooden stairs, found our little space on the wooden floor with two mats covered by a mosquito net, lit a candle and settled down.

I had bought a Cambodian sim card for US$5 at the airport the day before and it had unlimited 4G internet connection for one month, and low and behold it actually worked and so Fanny and I did some research and realized that we were in the middle of the pre-Angkorian temple complex called Sambor Pre Kuk.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambor_Prei_Kuk

I slept absolutely soundly and very comfortably. It was pretty much like camping. I woke up as the sun was rising thanks to several hundred cockerels and the rest of the farm yard dawn chorus engaging in a rendition of “Old MacDonald had a farm”. We had a quick wash from a bucket, a warm up by the fire and then packed our few things up.

Would we like to see the temples?  Yes please.  Our young saviour who found us somewhere to stay and guarded our bike over night was also the ticket issuing official to the temple complex. US$5 dollars later we were riding along sand tracks through an 8th century world heritage site with not another soul in sight. The morning light streaming through the tree canopy gave the temple ruins a surreal appearance and we spent several hours exploring. Simply amazing.

We then continued north to Preah Vihear through a truly idyllic rural setting. It was like taking a ride in a time machine and going back several hundred years to a purely agricultural pre-industrial era. Like an oriental version of Constable’s Hay Wain painting, there were beautiful trees and flowers, paddy fields with oxen pulling wooden ploughs, farm labourers toiling in the fields, strange looking long legged white cows with frilly necks, water buffalo wallowing in paddies, and typical Asian skinny mongrel dogs skulking about.

As we got further north the topography became more hilly, but not particularly mountainous as we thought it would. Again we found more amazing Khmer temple ruins, but we were a bit templed out and wanted to press on to Siem Reap and find a place to rest and so we headed south west along very rural and narrow roads. None very direct. Fanny was navigating from the pillion seat using my Samsung phone and a map app, but like parts of west China we rode through the maps were clearly not very accurate.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preah_Vihear_Temple

We did a lot of riding that day and I had the beginnings of a sore bottom, as did Fanny. In fact, riding pillion is more tiring on your lower back and bum than actually riding because you are not supported by the handlebars. The scenery and riding was amazing, but the Honda Transalp seat was not the most comfortable I have ever sat on. I had forgotten to bring my sheep skin seat cover and was regretting it.

We approached Angkor Wat from the north along very rural roads, and for about 5 kilometers actually rode along a very narrow canal embankment, through local villages and then suddenly we were inside the Angkor Wat complex via a rather unorthodox route.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

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Not something you see everyday

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An amazing place .. and we could ride our motorcycle freely between the temples.. Not Angkor Wat, but the other one nearby.

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Riding towards Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat complex

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Wow!  Templed out or not, fond of history or not, this is a spectacular place to see and experience.  On par with the Taj Mahal and Giza pyramids, the symmetry and beauty of these Cambodian temples is astonishing. As with the other man made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is something most people are familiar with and yet its a strange feeling to actually see the buildings in the flesh, so to speak. The scale was larger than I was expecting and there were a lot more temple complexes, statues and structures. Whilst we could ride right up to many of the ruins and structures, the actual Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge symmetrical square moat and you can only get to it by crossing a foot bridge.

Not as old as the temples we had seen so far, its undoubtedly the most spectacular. Originally Hindu and later Buddhist, its supposed to be the largest religious complex in the world and like the pyramids, and indeed Stonehenge, the architectural skill and engineering involved in its construction is almost inconceivable.

We had started early that day and we were feeling tired, but the early evening light and amazing architecture was mesmerizing.  As expected there were a lot of tourists from all over the world which contrasted with the virtual empty temples we had seen earlier in the day.

After seeing as much as we could, we rode a few kilometers south into the busy city of Siem Reap and found a very pleasant hotel to stay in called Horizons Cambodia.  Given it was one of best B&Bs in the town and it was peak season we were lucky to just rock up and find a vacancy. In fact. they also gave us a really nice suite and allowed us to park our motorcycle in the garden behind locked gates. A result.

It was Christmas Eve and we wandered into the old part of the town and found a very decent restaurant serving local delicious local food.  My bum was still really sore and I could barely sit down, but what a great day.

The next morning we had a big choice to make. As there is a huge expanse of water called Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and right in the middle of the country, we could either go clockwise around it, ride the truly awful national highway again back to Phnom Penh and then further on to the south coast, or take a much longer anti clockwise ride around the lake towards Battambang and then south across the Cardamon Mountains towards Koh Kong on the south west coast of Cambodia.  This is very near to Koh Chang in Thailand which I toured a few months earlier (previous chapter).

Fanny and I wanted to see the Cardamon mountains as they are off the tourist route, remote, and home to some of the last expanses of Asian rainforest.  However it would take two to three days, I was not sure where we would stay, and we would probably have to ride on gravel tracks and trails.

I prefer to stand up on foot pegs when riding off road, partly because of balance and centre of gravity, and partly to take the load off my bum. With a  pillion rider you have to sit down all the time, and for the pillion rider they are also going to have a rough old ride balancing on the back seat. Fanny was game on anyway, and so we set off west towards the western border with Thailand and by lunchtime swung around the lake and were heading south east towards Battambang.

Whilst filling with petrol at a gas station and studying the map I realized that going forward navigation was going to be a bit tricky. We were told by locals there were some new gravel roads built by Chinese contractors to serve hydro electric dams up in the mountains, but these were not marked on our maps. In fact, as far as this remote south western part of Cambodia was concerned none of the maps reconciled at all.

Oh well, go for it.

As we turned off a fairly busy highway between Battambang and Posat we still had about five hours of daylight left. Within a few kilometers, the road narrowed and we were on a single trail just elevated above the paddy fields and within fifteen kilometers it turned into the classic gravel type track we were very familiar with in southern Africa.

I could see a range of medium sized mountains in the distance and knew that there were several peaks around two  thousand meters in height that we would have to navigate around. I was estimating that as the crow flies we had about 250 kilometers to reach Koh Kang, but the roads indicated on both our hard and soft copy maps meandered about and often faded out completely.  I know logically that locals over the years would move between villages and there should be some sort of access, even if only using small tracks.

As we rode along Fanny suddenly told me that our position on the cellphone map indicated we were in the middle of a field, and yet we were still on the road. Strange. We had similar problems in remote locations in Sudan and Egypt from time to time, but then we were using a GPS with loaded maps, rather than a cellphone that uploaded maps from the 3G internet signal.

We carried on for a while, but we were going more and more off course, or so it appeared. After a while I doubled back to the point it deviated and could see no sign of another road and so we turned around yet again and carried on again.  After about 40 minutes we arrived at a small village where I could see a cell phone repeater mast on a nearby hill. However, the Samsung still showed we were in the middle of nowhere and our hard copy map tended to indicate we had gone too far west.

Time to ask someone, but we were really struggling with the language and through repeated attempts I realized the locals would just nod and shake there heads, point in any direction and agree to anything you said just to get rid of you and save face. I am pretty sure “I don’t know” is not in a Cambodian’s vocabulary.

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Riding around on sand roads in the forest looking for temples

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A lot of gravel roads in Cambodia

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Crossing one of the Chinese bridges across the dams for the hydro electric stations in Cardamom mountains

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Nice bit of concrete near dams… only last a few kilometers and then back to gravel and sand

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This is pretty much only picture we have of the rough roads as I had to concentrate on riding and Fanny was holding on for grim life. Usual obstacle course …. quite steep here and deciding which route to take. Good fun really

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Mostly we were on our own all day… rarely saw any other people

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Is it a road or a stream? … both apparently

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Water to cross

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Reservoirs for hydro electric dams

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One of many bridges crossing the dammed river in the Cardamom mountains

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Fanny

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If its takes a car .. it’ll take us

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Eventually someone pointed to a road that by the position of the sun seemed to be heading south and that to my mind was all the corroboration I needed and so we started riding down an increasingly narrow and eroded trail.  Within half an hour the road turned into an obstacle course of rocks, deeply rutted hardened mud and occasional ponds and swollen streams. I was sweating profusely as we battled along for an hour, making what I guess was less than 10 kilometers in progress. The track went up, down, left, right, through jungles, over ridges and across streets and rivers. Often the vegetation was so think, or a branch so low I would have to get off the bike and walk it through while ducking.

We stopped for a water break, looked around, studied my lying maps, and then I looked at Fanny for some feedback.  I was a bit concerned she was not enjoying her “Christmas Day lost in the jungle adventure”, but actually she was in pretty good spirits and seemed to be enjoying herself.  Of course, as an adventure rider I do not like to say that I am lost, rather I am not where I thought I should be. Nevertheless I hadn’t a fucking clue where we were.

Occasionally the track or river bed was so bad that Fanny had to get off and walk as a tackled some particularly rutted patches or wade the bike through a river or stream, or worse a river that I didn’t know what the depth actually was. I have to say that the Transalp was superb though…. handling like a modern 250 enduro.  I was a bit nervous that I was giving the 14 year old veteran too much of a work out as the long suspension fattened out and the belly pan scraped over logs and rocks. But it seemed fine, the engine, gear box, clutch all purring along doing what its meant to do. Only the suspension was showing its age, but then it was carrying two big chunky humans over a surface that resembled a trials bike course.

A one stage there was a dark and particularly still expanse of water in the jungle where the trail suddenly just stopped and so we got off and prodded around a bit, trying to gauge how deep the water was.  The dark pond seemed to continued into the darkness of the jungle and I couldn’t see the other side from where we were.

With no other vehicles to observe going through the water Fanny decided to get off and take a jungle trek around and I took a leap of faith and plunged into the water and sludge and to my relief emerged out the other side. I was a bit alarmed to catch sight of a large snake dashing for safety as I hurtled towards it. If I lost momentum the bike would undoubtedly fall over and get stuck in the sludge, so out my way Sid, I’m coming through.

Trucks clearly used the trail, possibly as a short cut, or maybe there was no other way through. I just couldn’t tell. But during the recent rainy season the trucks had carved out two to three foot deep troughs in the mud that had now hardened and were like an obstacle course and quite difficult to ride across. Often there was no sign of consensus for the two wheeled traffic and the motorcycle tracks weaved about and went in all directions.

I don’t drop my bike often but on one particularly nasty stretch I hesitated on a high ridge with Fanny on the back and as there was a four foot drop on either side there was nowhere to put my feet and so I called out to Fanny that we were going over and in very slow motion that is exactly what happened.  Fanny jumped off, but I didn’t want to damage the hired Honda and so it fell on top of me. No Alpinestar enduro boots, no enduro gear.. just shorts and trainers and so I was pinned into the hardened mud with 200kg of motorcycle on top of me. It hurt a bit but I was basically uninjured and the bike was completely undamaged having had a soft landing.

Adventure bikers will know that once pinned under a heavy adventure bike its near on impossible to get it off. However, Fanny has a black belt in picking up motorbikes and despite the uneven surface she lifted the bike sufficiently for me to wriggle out from underneath it. Once free we could easily right the bike, push it to a place we could get back on again and carry on.

It was a stupid fall caused because I was faffing about and because I was tired near the end of a very long day of riding.  Riding off road is a head game and requires being focused, being balanced, using proper throttle control and riding assertively. If you lose momentum on a slope or uneven ground you will fall down. If the front wheel washes out or don’t use proper throttle to keep up a forward momentum you will fall down. And if you are wearing shorts and trainers instead of enduro boots and riding gear, you stand a good chance of hurting yourself.

We crossed a few more rivers and I was starting to think we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. On one tricky and very rutted section Fanny said she would prefer to get off and walk and so I powered the very capable Honda along the twisty and ploughed up trail, until the surface improved a bit and there were less streams to cross and then waited for Fanny. After a while I decided to park up the bike and hike back the way I came to find her and share some water.

As I was hiking back I could hear the unmistakeable whine of a 100cc moped and then I saw it appear out of the murkiness of the jungle canopy, with an old man riding and Fanny waving and laughing on the back. As it approached I noticed the old man only had one leg.

‘I have been rescued by a real biker who knows what he’s doing’, Fanny said laughing.  Well you can’t argue with that.

We thanked to old man who then he soldiered on into the jungle again and we watched until the putt putt sound of the moped disappeared. I am quite sure he knew the route much better than me, but was humbled by his riding skill and endurance, especially given the fact that he had only one leg and was about 70 years old.

We had spent a good deal of the afternoon battling along the trail and did seem to be getting nearer to a visible cross roads near the Pursat River that looked like it might be habitable and we might find somewhere to stay. And then almost suddenly we were in pitch blackness. For some strange reason that only Cambodian’s will understand, you are not allowed to put your headlights on while riding in the daytime.  This safety feature is reserved only of the government. In most parts of the world the headlights on a motorcycle are always on… for safety so you can be seen. Not so in Cambodia and so now it was officially dark I could turn them on.

Riding in the dark is not so bad,  you can see the road clearly enough, you just can’t seen anything else.  After a while we came off the trail and joined a more substantial gravel track and within about 30 kilometers we were at the cross road marked on the map which in reality was a roundabout with a statue of an elephant in the middle. Not only did we find a hotel, but also a pretty decent roadside restaurant.

The hotel wasn’t very nice, but it was cheap, had a sort of shower thing, and we could ride the bike into the hotel building and park it outside our room. Again we were filthy, but after a scrub down and some food were out for the count.

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Out of jungle into an open space … time for a water break

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Rest break…. dense forest behind which we rode through on second day in Cardamom mountains

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Plaque showing Chinese Civil Engineering Company who build hydro electric plants, bridges and dams etc…

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Gravel roads and trails

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Good bit of gravel road meandering through Cardamom mountains

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Have to stand up a bit… bum too sore and road to rough

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Fanny doing the elephant sign motorcyclist pose … we all have to.

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Our Honda Transalp 650 on a good stretch of gravel road in the Cardamom mountains, SW Cambodia.

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Similar to picture I took of Nick Dobson in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast in 2009

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After you….

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Fanny playing volleyball for first time after her ACL operation with some locals in Kep

The next day the weather was perfect. The bike started which was a relief and we set off up into the mountains and subsequently along some of the best trails I have ever ridden. The only sign of humans were when we got close to a hydro electric dam and the road turned to concrete, but quickly reverted back to gravel and sand after a few kilometers. There were many lakes and quite a few impressive bridges and dams.  We passed through some very basic villages that reminded us very much of Africa and meandered around lake shores, rivers and contour trails around hills.

Strangely, considering the natural beauty of the rainforest we were riding through, there were no animals and birds. I expected this area to be teeming with life, like a tropical paradise, but it was unnaturally barren and very quiet apart from a few insects and butterflies. Had the Cambodians eaten the place clean during the war? Perhaps.

By mid afternoon I could tell by signs of human activity and signs of electric pylons etc… we were getting nearer to Koh Kong, and as we descended out of the mountains we could see the sea, a huge river delta, mangroves swamps, bridges and the buildings of the coastal town that border with Thailand.

We stayed at Oasis Resort, a very lucky find indeed given it was peak season, and a thoroughly relaxing place to re-charge the batteries for a couple of days. A lovely location next to the river and mangroves, great value for money, big clean and well appointed room, top notch bar and restaurant and a superb “infinity style” swimming pool. Jason, an Englishman from Southampton, had built it from scratch over a decade ago and over the years built one of the best places we have stayed at.  Jason is starting a new project in Sri Lanka and so this place will be up for sale. Very tempting.

http://oasisresort.netkhmer.com/p/blog-page_30.html

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Riding down towards Koh Kong

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More water to cross

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Chilli crab on beach at Koh Kong

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Riding along elevated trail roads above mangrove swamps in Koh Kong

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Oasis Resort in Kep

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Jason at his resort called Oasis in Koh Kong…. Highly recommended.

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Oasis infinity pool, Koh Kong

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Oasis Resort, Koh Kong

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Exploring the magrove swamps around Koh Kong

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Koh Kong …. next to Chilli Crab restaurant.

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Koh Kong

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Fanny concentrating on chilli crab

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Our hotel in Kep

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Kep

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Relaxing at our French owned resort in Kep

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How many glasses of rosie can one drink in the afternoon before falling asleep? Six allegedly.

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Kep beach

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Not too shabby…. our hotel for New Years Eve in Kep

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Our evening dinner spot…. Kep

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15 seconds after this photograph was taken the cow took exception to Fanny and tried to head butt here… luckily it was tethered

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Hiking around Kep

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Seafood market in kep

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Kep coastline where we went sailing

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Really good bike ….

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Ummm…I think it was a good move to get a Honda Transalp instead of a Honda Africa Twin… maybe.. perhaps… probably.

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New Years Eve in Kep, Cambodia

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Kep…. relaxing at Yacht Club with a sundowner

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Fanny and our trust stead

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Never stop exploring

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Another year gone by….

After exploring Koh Kong, eating chilli crabs, drinking Angkor beer on the beach, swimming, serious idling about and yarning with Jason we set off back into the mountains, but this time on a good road through Boulum Sakor National Park, with elevated views across the forests towards Kep.  We passed the turning to Sihanouk which was described by some people we met as a tourist resort for “common people with nasty kids” and into Kampot which is famous for pepper plantations. We didn’t stay, but it looked a pretty nice place, and continued to Kep.

At first, I didn’t care for Kep too much, but I grew to really like it.  Quiet, relaxed, very nice resorts and excellent food. Just what we wanted for a few days over the new year. We hired a hobby cat and sailed around until Fanny got seasick, tried out a few French owned resorts that actually had some vacancies as we hadn’t booked ahead, did some hiking and exploring, ate a lot and saw in the New Year at a party at the Yacht Club.  Well, “saw in” is a bit of an exaggeration as we both fell asleep at 10 pm … which was just as well as we had to ride back to Phnom Penh the next day to return the Honda before midday, which we did.

As we had some time to kill before our flight to Hanoi we decided to visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum

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Whilst we should all be aware of what real shits human beings can be when push comes to shove, I wish I never went. It was thoroughly depressing and disturbing. Its unimaginable what the Cambodians did to each other in the killing fields and torture chambers just a few decades ago, until of course its thrust in your face at such a hell hole as this.  With the ungodly atrocities being committed at this moment by ISIL, Jihadis and Boko Haram… carrying on where the Maoists, Rwandans, Japanese and Nazis left off, do we really need it? Maybe, maybe not.  I just wish I hadn’t gone.

We caught the evening flight back to Hanoi, stayed at the same hotel in the old town as before, and the next day took another short flight and were back in Hong Kong with yet another motorcycling adventure added to the list.

The Honda Transalp was a superb bike for an old girl, and hauled the two of us all over Cambodia with ease. Its fired up my interest to take a look at the Honda CRF 1000 Africa Twin when it comes out in 2015.  Or do we stick with KTM and try out the new lightweight 800 Adventure?  Decisions decisions…..

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Next … we off to the Isle of Man TT and Ireland on our KTM 990 SMT……

Chapter 30 – Thailand

After our marathon big bike trip Fanny and I did a few “mini” motorcycling adventures in the Mekong Valley and around the Indo-China region.

First, Thailand, a superb country to motorcycle around and very much geared up for both the adventurous or idling tourist.

First, I managed to escape from Hong Kong and catch a cheap “Air Asia” flight to Bangkok where I hired a Kawasaki Versys 650 to tour around the country for a couple of weeks.

My intention was to ride up to Chang Mai and ride around the Mao Hong Son Loop or perhaps further north and ride the Golden Triangle loop, but I realized I made a mistake by flying to Bangkok (which I did because it was cheap) instead of flying directly to Chang Mai and so I changed my plan and decided to ride around the south of Thailand and do some island hopping.

Later in the year Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai and hired a Suzuki VStrom 650 and rode the 600+ kilometers around the Mao Hong Son Loop which I have to say is one of most enjoyable rides I have done.  Not technical apart from lots of switch back turns, but great fun and wonderful views.

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Koh Tao, Thailand

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Fellow riders

Thai biking kit ... better than most riders for sure.

Thai biking kit … better than most riders for sure.

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Meeting fellow riders

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Unlike their African cousins, these Asian elephants didn’t try to charge us as soon as they saw or heard our motorcycles.

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Riding a Suzuki VStrom around Chiang Mai Loop

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Mae Hong Son Loop …. Highly recommended

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Riding a very decent Honda Zoomer scooter around Chinag Mai… why not?

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai.

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai. Not bad at all.

The bike .. near end of trip

The Suzuki .. stopping off for another explore around

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The Thais always seem to do things with some style and charm….. unlike their modern Chinese neighbours, most of whom are complete strangers to the concept of style and good taste… and rubbish bins.

On the road .. Suzuki V-Strom 650

On the road .. our Suzuki V-Strom 650… a very good two up tourer for Thailand

The long neck village....

The long neck village…. these wooden ones were the only ones we saw…

A water snake ... the resort was riddles with them. Apparently harmless

A water snake … Apparently harmless

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand…. thoroughly recommended.

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop.... very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop…. very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

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On my solo trip of southern Thailand I wanted to catch up with an old buddy from my Metropolitan police days, PC 673X  (if I remember his number correctly) who had retired to Pattaya with his Thai wife.  “Blackie” and I used to crew the X-ray 2 area car back in the early 80s and respond to 999 calls which meant Blackie hurling a “jam sandwich” SD1 Rover at break neck speed through the streets of Ealing and West London and me hanging on to a doner kebab in one hand and gripping the police radio in the other as I gave a running commentary… or tried to.

In those days we chased the car thieves and robbers until we either caught them or they wrapped their stolen vehicle around a lamp post.  No match for Met police class 1 advanced drivers like Mr. Black in hot pursuit. Back in the 80s Londoners were quite alert to the occasional area car driving at 100 mph along the pavement with “twos and blues” blaring.

I am not sure if British police are allowed to chase robbers and car thieves anymore. It’s probably against their human rights. I expect nowadays with the gormless internet generation permanently bent over and absorbed in texting on their iPhones as they shuffle along that such a car chase down Ealing Broadway would be akin to 10 pin bowling.

And health and safety?  It hadn’t been invented yet.  In those days only lolly pop ladies and Gary Glitter wore hi viz clothing, Benny Hill was on the telly and Maggie was in charge.  Suffice to say, with all these “look back” inquiries into the antics of pretty much everyone back in the 80s I am going to leave it at that.

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PC 929X Utley with X-ray 2 Area Car early 80s.

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An Area car on the hoof during the 80s. Exciting stuff

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Evolution …. its all downhill from here.

A Kai Tak Convention picture of Pattaya.

Pattaya…. looks nice from a distance.

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A little bit over the top….. where are all the temples?

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That’s better ……Koh Chang Island on the Kawasaki Versys 650

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Bangkok Bike Rentals …. Good bikes

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New 2015 Kawasaki Versys with improved headlight cowling.

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The old Kawasaki Versys, like the one I hired.

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I had been to Phuket many times back in the late 80s when it was actually quite nice, but never to Pattaya. I’ve got nothing against hookers, disco bars, or middle aged men (I is one after all), but its just not my cup of tea or coffee or anything really. There are so many beautiful places to go in Thailand and the rest of South East Asia, so why would you go?

Anyway, I collected the Kawasaki Versys 650 from Bangkok Bike Hire and aimed it in a sort of southerly direction which isn’t that easy in the heart of the bustling and chaotic metropolis of Bangkok.

I was immediately surprised at how quick, agile and comfortable the Versys was. Not bad at all.  I had been given the 2013 version that has a twin cylinder 650cc engine and ABS, but strangely adorned with an ugly cyclops headlight arrangement protruding from the cowling that in my humble opinion spoiled the look of a very capable bike.  I guess due to this negative feedback from many other people the new 2015 model has been restyled and has a vastly improved cowling in keeping with current Kawasaki styling, including an adjustable touring windscreen.

Like many cities in Asia, riding a motorcycle in Bangkok is just as treacherous, if not the most,  and you need to be very cautious and very alert to the other fools on the road, of which there are many. Apparently, like in China, motorcycles are not allowed on the highways, but unlike China its difficult to know what’s a highway and what isn’t.

The signs to get out of Bangkok, or go anywhere else were truly awful and the road construction, diversions and elevated flyovers meant you couldn’t be sure where you are and so it was very easy to get funneled into the wrong lane and into one of the frequent police road blocks manned by Thailand’s finest.

Like much of South East Asia, it is very fair to say that the police are completely useless, AND extremely corrupt. I got stopped fifteen times on this particular ride for nothing more than being on a motorcycle, nearly all around Bangkok and given the shake down for a bribe. But as always I stood my ground and in the end they just let me go. I have never paid a bribe in my life and have zero respect for anyone who does.

It took a couple of hours to get into Pattaya, which after escaping the sprawl of urban Bangkok and having to ride under the elevated highway on uneven roads for a large part of the way was actually pretty easy, if not a tad boring.  Nothing much to see along the way, commercial sprawl and by no means a pretty bit of Thailand.

Pattaya is a huge sleazy party town on the coast just south of Bangkok and the first thing I noticed when I arrived were thousands of thuggish looking Russians with their glum looking “Katie Price” girlfriends milling about looking predatory and loutish.

As Fanny and I saw all too often in Egypt these new upwardly mobile Russians all appeared joyless, unfriendly and damned right depressing. There were also thousands of middle aged and repulsive looking European men sitting in bars, or waddling hand in hand with girls a third their age.  I presume they weren’t walking them to school!  And then there were, more surprisingly, regular family groups who for some reason or another had decided to go to Pattaya on holiday.  Why?  Who knows?  With the possible exception of Gaza, Luton and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, its got to be the most inappropriate place on earth to bring your children on holiday. But each to their own.

There were streets and streets full of neon lit massage parlours, go go bars, hotels of various descriptions, “Old China Hand” style English pubs, small trucks blaring out adverts for Thai boxing events, and miles and miles of street stalls selling colourful summer clothes and tourist crap made in China.  Oh, and there are some beaches and sea…which are quite nice in a “here we go, here we go, Torremolinos”  “Watney’s Red Barrel” sort of way. I guess if you live next to beach like I do in Arniston is South Africa all other beaches are a bit of a disappointment…. with the exception of Felpham in Sussex…

I met my friend Blackie in one of the many coffee shops along the sea front and he looked almost the same as he did in the 80s, except for being a lot more tanned. I followed him on his Honda moped back to a residential part of Pattaya where he lived with his missus. After using me as an excuse to go out, we did some sight seeing that involved copious amounts of Chang beer, and types of beer,  blurry neon lights, ping pong balls and balancing on the back of his scooter shitfaced. As with many of my activities with Mr Black over the last three decades the “Kai Tak Convention” prohibits saying any more.

Traffic madness in Bangkok

Traffic madness in Bangkok

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Oh dear!

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After an early start the next day, a Thai noodle and egg breakfast and a very detailed briefing on where to go and what to see from my friend I headed off to Koh Chang.  Mr Black is also a biker, extremely well traveled, has ridden across India and Nepal on a Royal Enfield Bullet, and his recommendations and observations were spot on and very useful.

Unimaginatively, and perhaps a little confusing, Thailand has two “Koh Changs. One is off the west coast and one near the border with Cambodia. I went to the latter which involved a two hour bike ride and an hours ferry ride from the coastal town of Trat to the island.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Ko_Chang

I highly recommend Koh Chang. Of the four islands I hopped across it is perhaps my favourite. After exploring the island’s tracks and trails on the very capable Kawasaki Versys I found an idyllic spot on the less developed north east side of the island next to a perfect beach.

It was much like the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. No electricity, a very simple thatched beach huts with a little veranda on stilts, a simple bed covered in a mosquito net, and facing the sea. In fact at high tide the sea came right up to the hut and nothing beats the soporific sound of the breeze rustling through palm trees and the gentle lapping of the waves. There was a larger thatched building nearby with a kitchen and a common area with hammocks and easy chairs where you could get local Thai food and tourist fodder like banana pancakes and smoothies. It was very good book reading and mellowing out territory. A big thumbs up.

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Beach huts on Koh Chang

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Ferry to Koh Chang.

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Wait for road to be built … no hurry

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Seen worse

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Typical road

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Bit rutted by the rain and trucks

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Camping spot, Koh Chang

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Posher huts on the beach

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My place for a few nights

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The main place with hammocks and a kitchen full of food and beer…. right on the beach.

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Nice and relaxing

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Koh Chang

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Home sweet home…. my hut for a few days… what more do you need. Slept perfectly.

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Out on the Kawasaki for an explore around Koh Chang island… resisted the urge to ride down the river bed.  Every scratch costs.

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My hut in there somewhere

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Million star hotel

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One afternoon while wading about in about eight inches of seawater I got stung on my ankle by a stingray. Apparently they are quite common in such waters and its easy to inadvertently tread on one as they are well camouflaged against the sand. I can’t begin to describe how painful it was and I actually thought for a while that I might die. An over reaction, but my landlady came to my rescue and I had my foot plunged in almost boiling water that was actually less painful than the sting.

Despite the excruciating pain, I was told the sting had only grazed my ankle bone and was lucky it hadn’t penetrated further.  The hot water actually breaks down the structure of the poison and so the pain from the sting eased off steadily over the next few hours, but I was left with a throbbing lower leg for about 3 weeks. Moral of the story… don’t tread on a stingray… they sting.

I explored the island for a couple of days, going off road and climbing trails, visiting little villages and remote beaches, and then decided to ride back to the mainland and ride north along the border of Cambodia and through the villages and small towns and head back in the general direction of Bangkok through the eastern hills. I had originally planned to keep the Versys and ride to Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan but decided instead to fly and then hire a smaller bike when I got there.

The ride back to Bangkok was excellent and I managed to find what I was looking for.  Jungle trails, mountain roads, forests, and remote villages. In the cities and tourist areas the Thai food is mellowed down like it is in Thai restaurants in London and other western cities, but the secret to getting the authentic deal is to ask for “old man’s tom yam gai” or “old man’s papaya salad” or whatever and then you get the highly spiced and original hot dishes. They always asked me if I was sure this is what I wanted and studied me carefully as I tucked into the chillies with sweat dripping profusely from the tip of my nose into the bowl of food.

In the hills and small villages there were street side hawker stalls and little restaurants selling bags of red and spicy chai tea and a smorgasbord of Thai specialties like Pad Thai, Tom Yum, and fruit.  All excellent.

I eventually got back to Bangkok via the scenic route, although the last 50 kilometers were through the usual traffic chaos and returned the bike early and made my way to the central city airport to get an Air Asia flight to Surat Thani.

Exploring around the island... good bike

Exploring around the island… good bike

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

The other boats

The other boats

Ferry

Ferry

Time for a poo ... this'll doo

Time for a poo … this’ll doo

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Bit bigger than most of the bikes, that are usually Honda 110s.

Let Good Things Happen… quite right

Exploring

Exploring

Soi Cowboy.

Soi Cowboy.

Fixed that bridge yet?

Fixed that bridge yet?

I was traveling extremely light and only had a small rucksack, just as I like it.  From Surat Thani there are several overnight ferries that you can take and sleep throughout the journey on basic mats side by side like sardines with other travelers and arrive at one of the three islands in the early morning.  I decided to start in the north with Koh Tao and then hop between the island. And that’s what I did.

Koh Tao is a very pretty island and I hired a Honda CRF 250 trail bike to explore and get around. Beware though!  There is a scam going on across Thailand where the bike renters take your passport and only return it if you return the bike in the original condition it was hired in.. or they say it was hired in!

Of course, many people either crash or drop their scooters and motorcycles and only get their passports back when a huge payment for damages has been made. Some of these payments are significant and the cause of many disputes, but the police are all in collusion with the bike hire operators and so the unfortunate bike hirer is on a hiding to nothing.

The bike renters also try and charge for existing scratches and scraps and so the wise technique is: firstly to find as reputable a bike hire firm as possible (not always easy); secondly, to photograph the entire bike and all its faults and scratches and show this to the vendor so that he knows you are on the ball;  and thirdly, if at all possible leave a cash deposit rather than your passport.  Leaving your passport with someone you don’t know in a foreign country isn’t a very wise thing to do. It can be stolen or replicated and you could find your passport being used for all sorts of scams and frauds, even involved in human trafficking and illegal immigration as was discovered during the investigation into the disappearance of Flight MH370 – which happened to occur very near to where I was in Koh Samui at the time.

southern-islands

The islands

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One of the overnight ferries…Koh Tao, Koh Pha and Koh Samui I took the longer Koh Tao and worked my way south. Passengers sleep on mats side by side

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Beautiful islands and turquoise warm seas

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my rental Honda 250 …very nice indeed … perfect for Koh Tao

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Off scuba diving

Off scuba diving

Koh Tao... lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess... why I am surprised

Koh Tao… lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess… why I am surprised

Dive boats and divers... big business on Koh Tao

Dive boats and divers… big business on Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

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My rental for the island … good bike

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Riding into the hills .. very steep .. lots of youngsters fally off their bikes and getting Thai tattoos

Koh Tao

Koh Tao

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Most tourists, especially young girls seemed to have “Thai Tattoos” on their arms and legs. Not the Chinese characters for “wardrobe” or some other lost in translation hieroglyph, but cuts and large grazes due to coming off their hired scooters. Why?  Because basically they have little or no skill riding motorcycles and initially they think its easy until they inevitably hit a patch of gravel or find they can’t slow down fast enough on the windy bends coming down the steep hills and gacross most of Koh Tao.

Some of the accidents were more serious, especially because many of the tourists don’t wear helmets, or wear poor quality helmets that are not properly secured to their heads. The local ambulance service was certainly fully employed racing to and from the hospital and various accident scenes.

Koh Tao is also famous for diving and I had several scuba dives while I was there. There are many dive centres and it seems you are spoiled for choice. Pretty good facilities, good diving gear, but very crowded. I have my PADI advanced open water certificate, but I am not a very experienced or well traveled diver. That said I thought the diving around the  Red Sea in Egypt was much better and had prettier fish than Koh Tao.

A day or so later I took the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan which is a magnet for hippies and ravers as it has the full moon beach parties, and even half moon beach parties.  I never went to one, too old, don’t like smoking, and basically couldn’t be arsed, but I did find the rest of the island very interesting and I hired another CRF 250 and explored the road less traveled.

Because many of the hippies and partying foreigners seem to treat the island rather disrespectfully, I did notice that the locals were not overly friendly and only smiled when they were relieving you of your cash, if indeed they smiled at all.  Very un-Thai like. Blackie later told me that most of the Thais on Koh Pha Ngan are not indigenous to the island and perhaps should be a lot more grateful for the incomes and livelihoods they make from the lucrative tourism industry. In any case, Koh Pha Ngan is a not bad place by any means, but is perhaps my least favourite of the four islands I visited in Thailand.

I then took yet another ferry to Koh Samui, which is regarded as a rather luxurious and up market island with very nice hotels and resorts. It also has budget hotels and resorts and is quite big. Its very much geared up for general tourism with snake parks, elephant rides, botanical gardens, water sports, dirt biking, quads, safaris, cruises etc….  In fact, the island has an airport, but seems to only be served by Thai Airlines which is considerably more expensive than the other airlines in the region. Instead of a Honda CRF 250, which I really like,

I hired a funky Honda Zoomer X for just a few baht a day. This scooter has a 108 cc engine and is absolutely superb. It looks good, very well built (it is a Honda after all), is technologically quite advanced with a hi tech automatic transmission, easy to ride, surprisingly fast, sips fuel, comfortable, space to store a helmet under the seat, and to my mind the perfect run around city bike.

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I have no idea what this picture is about…must be Koh Chang as the Kawasaki is there.

Honda Zoomer X .... love this bike.

Honda Zoomer X …. love this bike.

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Koh Samui …. on another Honda Zoomer. Love this bike.

Zoom

Zoomer-X

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Climbing up into the hills of Koh Samui

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Aaah , lunch. Tres Bien.

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Super beaches in Thailand , although becoming noticeably more polluted over the years.

I managed to ride up into the mountains, ride on rough gravel roads in the interior jungle and find charming little beach bars, one claiming to have the greatest selection of Belgium beers in the whole of Asia. My only regret was that Fanny was not with me. I had a reasonable amount of free time as I was working on a project basis for various investigation firms in China, but Fanny had a full time job at the time.

However, this was to change for me and I was hired by a Asia Pacific professional services firm called Censere and had a start date which meant for the first time in three years I would have a full time job and they would expect me to go into work “every day”!!!

So, a month or so later, just before I started work Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai, and in addition to some emergency dentistry that had been neglected of the previous three years, we decided to ride the Mae Hong Son Loop, all 600 kilometers and 1,864 switchbacks and corners through the jungle, forests and plantations and rode close to the border with Burma.

We visited Pae, Doi Inthanon National Park, Wat Phra, and Vachiratharn waterfalls. This time we hired a Suzuki V-Strom 650, a bike only recently imported into Thailand and I have to say another very good bike and a bit of a surprise.  Quite large in size and high spec with a 19 inch front wheel and 17 inch rear, 66 BHP in power, and designated as a mid sized dual purpose bike. Perfect for the two up trip through the mountain roads with a North Face bag of luggage. Not a very fast bike, but fast enough.

The first place we got to was Pae, famous over the years for being on the hippy trail, and indeed quite a few of the banana pancake and lentil eaters still wandering around in their hippy uniforms. We rode slightly out of the town and found a resort called Bueng Pai Farm on the banks of a big fish pond run by a very mellow, but hard working Japanese woman who had settled in Thailand.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303916-d1641585-Reviews-Bueng_Pai_Farm-Pai_Mae_Hong_Son_Province.html

We hired a bungalow on stilts above the lake, together with fishing rods to catch carp and perch and then release them back into the water. These fish earned their keep by being caught several times a day. Quite alarmingly, I suppose for the first time, we saw that the resort was infested with water snakes that were quite large and quite fast. Our host said she encouraged them as they were part of the ecology and that they were not “very” poisonous. Ah hem!  Bueng Pai Farm prides itself on being organic and environmentally friendly and we had a swim in their naturally cleaned pool and before we set off again had their signature breakfast of some of the best mueslis, eggs and toast I have ever eaten.

Pae

Typical Thai scenery

Pae

Bueng Pai Farm

Fanny relaxing on patio

Fanny relaxing on the patio of our suite

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Super riding route. If you don't fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Super riding route. If you don’t fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Relaxing between riding

Relaxing between riding

V-Strom is really good bike. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all.

A brand new V-Strom from Chiang Mai. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all. Good bike to hire.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Some other residents who stayed at the resort...

Some other residents who stayed at the resort…

Packing up again and back on the road again

Packing up again and back on the road again

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mangoes

Mango trees

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Gold and temples…

More gold....

More gold….

Lattee?

Good morning!

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Fanny and I doing the tourist thing around the old town… Seems you can’t have too much gold.

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Swapping the Suzuki V-Strom for another Honda Zoomer -X scooter to explore the city.

A typical day on the road...

A typical day on the road…

Doi Inthanon National Park.

Doi Inthanon National Park near Chiang Mai

We carried on through the jungles the next day and then started to swing south again near the border with Myanmar where we started to see signs for the “long neck people” village. A bit of a controversy as some people saw this as exploitation of a minority tribe and in effect a human zoo.

However, when we got there it was clear the exploitation was the other way around and that the tourists were getting ripped off. Based upon posters depicting some old dear with an unusually elongated and brass ringed neck and the accompanying historical narrative, a tribe of displaced Burmese did cross the border into Thailand and settle in a refugee camp. And the women did, by tradition, keep adding rings to their neck as they grew up until they were giraffe like in appearance, much like tribes we saw in Kenya. But over the years the tribe had slowly integrated into Thai society and the traditions had slowly faded out.

However, not to miss an opportunity to make a few buck some of the girls do have rings round their necks and wear traditional clothes and display themselves to paying tourists who are bused in on day trips. Fanny and I were of course on a motorcycle and as is our common practice we took a short cut to the village along the country trails and approached the village from another direction.

Along the way we saw the girls getting ready for their day in the “long neck” village and getting out of their modern Thai clothes and into traditional garb. They did have rings on their necks but only about four or five and probably as many as you or I could put round our necks if we wanted to. I asked Fanny if she wanted to go and look at the village and she did.  I was partly annoyed at the rip off,  partly indifferent, and wholly disinclined to spend 5 dollars to go and have a look at a “human zoo” and so I stayed in the real village and looked after the bike and our kit while having a drink with the local touts and villagers.

Fanny paid her entrance fee and went off only to come back 15 minutes later and tell me that it was indeed the same girls we saw earlier who were now selling tourist crap at some stalls in the village. Any really long necked women?  Apparently not, and so we headed off with a new goal to find some elephants and waterfalls, and more importantly dinner.

We found a rather luxurious resort and were very pleasantly surprised to be offered a very nice suite at next to nothing. In fact the whole resort just had Fanny, myself and about 30 staff in it. Why?  Well just before we arrived in Thailand there was a military coup and this had obviously put “normal” people off.

As veterans of riding into revolutions in Africa and the middle east on our motorcycle expedition we realized this meant everything would be cheap and negotiable and Thailand was just the same. Its a country that thrives on tourism and does it very well, but when the tourists stop coming it becomes extremely competitive and huge savings can be made if you are bold enough to ask for them.

There was also a curfew which pretty much coincided with the hours Fanny and I are fast asleep, and in any case the curfew got shorter and shorter over the two weeks we were there until it was irrelevant. There were quite a few soldiers and police milling about in Chiang Mai itself, but for the large part the military coup and curfew went unnoticed. Anyway, this resort’s claim to fame was that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had stayed recently, no doubt while Angelina was collecting more ethnic children for her collection.

Interestingly, it was not the first time our paths cross on our expedition as we were next door neighbours to the Pitts when we stayed at my aunts house in Provence, Southern France for a while. We continued on our windy, up and down journey, passing through rain forests and small villages, but also alongside huge stretches of land and hillside where the rainforest had been slashed and burned to such an extent that all there was left was red soil and blackened tree stumps.

The scale of deforestation was a bit of a shock. We were riding in the dry season, but judging by the recent soil erosion and rivers thick with red sediment, the lack of vegetation holding the top soil together must be extremely harmful to the environment. In some areas we saw attempts to start palm oil plantations, but the topography and severe soil erosion was hampering their efforts and all that was left looked like the surface of Mars. We visited some beautiful waterfalls, stayed at a few basic lodges and eventually returned back where we started in Chiang Mai.

Our last day was back in the resort we stayed in called Viang Thapae Resort, which was pretty nice.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g293917-d6506831-Reviews-Viang_Thapae_Resort-Chiang_Mai.html

We dropped of the Suzuki V-Strom which had been an excellent bike for our 6 day trip around the “loop” and hired another Honda Zoomer-X scooter for a day to get around Chiang Mai and explore the old town and street markets. Our only negative experience on the whole trip was getting stopped at a road block and being shouted at by a Thai Policeman because I wasn’t carrying my driving license and passport and he was clearly in a bad mood, probably because of the long hours he had to work throughout the curfew.

I was humble, apologetic and pleaded ignorance and he calmed down and let me off.  We then spent our remaining day exploring the old part of the town and eating street food in the night market.  Finally our time was up and so instead of taking a taxi, we hiked from our hotel across town to the airport and within a few hours were back on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

Next… Vietnam and Cambodia.

Chapter 26 – 中国 Part 8 – Hubei, Anhui and onwards to Shanghai

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?

One of many bridges spanning the gorges in Hubei

One of many bridges spanning the gorges in Hubei

 

The officials at the highway toll in Hubei

The officials at the highway toll in Hubei

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.

The first officer taking some pictures of us.

The first officer taking some pictures of us.

Literally one of hundreds of pictures that were taken of us.

The police moved their cars and vans around so they could use the headlights to take more pictures. We were slightly bemused by it all, but it was all done with good humour  and in a friendly manner and so like much of the last 20 months we just went with the flow.

What is going on?

All a bit odd… standing in the middle of a closed highway. At least we were not being thrown off the highway for once.

Oh well.. go with the flow.

Oh well.. go with the flow.

At one stage an officer asked if he could have a picture of Fanny.  Fanny? How does he know she is called Fanny. All her documents say 方怡。Did he hear my call her  name? Odd.

At one stage an officer asked if he could have a picture of Fanny.  Fanny?  How does he know she is called Fanny. Her documents say 方怡。Did he hear me call her name?

The character "e" used as prefix on all Hubei licence plates.  'You guys are a lot nicer than your colleagues in Chongqing'  I told the officers.

The character “e” used as prefix on all Hubei licence plates.  We liked Hubei as the police were a lot nicer and more friendly than their colleagues in Chongqing.

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.

Pulling up at one of the highway petrol stations and getting petrol pumped straight into the tank from a friendly attendant. We like Hubei.

Pulling up at one of the highway petrol stations and getting fuel pumped straight into our petrol tanks for once from a friendly attendant. We like Hubei.

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.

175 meter sign indicating rising waters upstream of Three Gorges Dam in Hubei

175 meter sign indicating rising waters upstream of Three Gorges Dam in Hubei

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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.

The region from the air.

The Three Gorges … with the huge dam to the right.

Many of the gorges have been flooded due to the hydro-electric project, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and engulfing whole towns.

Many of the gorges have been flooded due to the hydro-electric project, displacing millions of people and engulfing whole towns and communities.  China needs the energy and having lived in Beijing I can definitely say this is a better way of generating power than the ubiquitous coal power stations that create pungent smog and choking pollution.

Not my picture, but a typical Chinese tourist industry one framed Chinese style with flowers in foreground ... just like a classical Chinese painting. However, on a good day it will look like this.

The three gorges …. looks just like a classical Chinese painting.

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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.

We made it... its a motel.... not that exciting .. but warm and dry

Our motel in Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam project

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.

On the bus ... Off the bus

On the bus … Off the bus

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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.

Fanny's passes

Fanny’s passes

Its that our flag? Forgotten.

Waiting around for someone to do something.  Get off the bus, follow the flag, queue for something, get back on the bus, wait a few minutes, and then get off the bus again and join another queue.

Beyond! the magnificent Three Gorges Dam project..

BEHOLD! The magnificent Three Gorges Dam project..

No worries ... here's a plastic one. Behold! the plastic three gorges project

Can’t see it? No worries … BEHOLD! the plastic Three Gorges Dam project

C'mon Fanny ... I take you to all the best places.

Fanny having a great time … I take her to all the best places.

I have even got my anorak on... blah blah blah mega watts, blah blah blah litres a second

I have even got my anorak on… blah blah blah mega watts, blah blah blah litres of water a second, blah blah blah we designed it all ourselves and the lao wai did nothing

I am loving this...

I am loving this…

I am

I am, really

So is Fanny

So is Fanny

Look at her happy face

Look at her happy face

I know, I know.... its a dam

“???!!!”

Yes its a dam

I have to go on the internet to see what we were supposed to see. Ahh yes, its a big dam

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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.

Wandering around the dam construction museum

Wandering around the dam construction museum

Local guys attaching themselves to buoys and floating across river

Local guys attaching themselves to buoys and floating down the river

 

BEHOLD! the new KTM 1190 Adventure ... with tubeless tyres.  An ugly exhaust because of the  EU emission regulations, but nothing Akropovik can't sort out.

BEHOLD! the new KTM 1190 Adventure R … with tubeless tyres. An ugly exhaust because of the EU emission regulations, but nothing Akropovik or Leo Vince can’t sort out.

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.

Repairing the puncture and the guys who helped us.

Repairing the puncture and the BMW guys who helped us.

saying goodbye to the Yichang BMW club guys who guided us onto the highway to continue our journey eastwards.

Saying goodbye to the Yichang BMW motorcycle club guys who guided us onto the highway to continue our journey eastwards.

No problems getting through toll onto the highway in Hubei on a beautiful sunny day

No problems getting through toll onto the highway in Hubei on a beautiful sunny day

Crossing one of many bridges. Roads were relatively quiet and we made good progress passed Wuhan to Anhui

Crossing one of many new bridges in China that now link the biggest road infrastructure in the world.  On this occasion the roads were relatively quiet and we made good progress through cities like Wuhan into Anhui province.

Fanny cruising along the highway in Hubei. Bikes going well and no worries about being thrown off highway until we get closer to Shanghai

Fanny cruising along a highway bridge in Hubei province. Our Chinese made motorcycles were going well and in Hubei we had no worries about being thrown off  highway until we got much closer to the mega-city of Shanghai. Chinese cities don’t just have one or two bridges spanning their rivers, they have dozens. The scale in China is immense.

Where ever we stop, large crowds come up to see the bikes. A rare sight  I guess to many people in China.

Where ever we stopped large crowds came up to see the bikes and ask questions. The big Chinese made motorbikes were a rare sight to many people.

After riding 700 kilometers on the highway we decided to pull off highway and stay at Huating lake in Anhui Province.

After riding 700 kilometers on the highway we decided to pull off and stay at Huating Lake in Anhui Province.

Enjoying the last few days of autumn in Anhui

Enjoying the last few warm days of autumn in Anhui

Swimming in Huating lake as the sun sets

Swimming in Huating lake as the sun set.

We found a small restaurant in a village next to the lake and managed to book a room upstairs for about five pounds. But first, fresh fish hotpot for dinner. Absolutely delicious.

We found a small restaurant in a village next to the lake and managed to book a room upstairs for about five pounds. But first, fresh fish hotpot for dinner. Absolutely delicious. This is what touring in China is all about. My view that Chinese food is best in the world was vindicated where ever we went.

View from our room. We were delighted to find this idyllic spot in Anhui. A perfect place to relax for a few days near the end of our big bike trip

View from our room. We were delighted to find this idyllic spot in Anhui. A perfect place to relax for a few days as we come to the  end of our big bike trip.

I have been all over the world and stayed is some of the best hotels, but few compare to this little paradise.

I have been all over the world and stayed is some of the best hotels, but few compare to this charming little place on the shores of the Huating.  Clean, simple and cheap… just how we like it.

Drying a kind of fungi in the sun for cooking

Drying a kind of fungi in the sun for cooking. The ingredients used in Chinese cooking always reflect the local area and tastes and flavours changed as we moved from one province (or even county) to another, but one thing always remained the same where ever we went… a passion for freshness and quality.

And lake fish

We ate some delicious fish, prepared Anhui style.  These are dried lake fish which are often used in soups and stews.

Fanny eating "mantou" (a kind a bread bun) from a hawker in the main town

Fanny eating “mantou” (a kind a plain bread bun, normally from northern China)

Local fruit stall... selling You Zi (Pomelo) which we eat often

Local fruit stall… including the large grapefruit looking You Zi (Pomelo) which we ate often at this time of year. Chinese people do not really eat puddings and sweets, but fresh fruit is always an important staple. No wonder the average Chinese person looks lean and healthy.

Having our dinner next to the lake and watching the local fishermen in their small boats

Sitting by the shores on Huating lake having our dinner and watching the local fishermen in their small boats

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Peaceful

A local girl picking cotton

A local girl picking cotton in the autumn sun

Cotton fields by the lake

Cotton fields by the lake in Huating, Anhui.

View from dinner

View from the small restaurant where we had our dinner

Last night at Huating before we set off towards Shanghai

Last night at Huating in Anhui Province before we set off towards Shanghai.

Our last evening on the Big Bike Trip. Couldn't ask for a nicer place.

Our last evening on the Big Bike Trip. Couldn’t ask for a nicer place.

Back on the road and the last stretch before we get to the outskirts of Shanghai

Back on the road and taking a petrol stop before we get to the outskirts of Shanghai

Our last petrol stop ... as always in China draws a crowd.

Our last petrol stop … as always in China the bikes draw a crowd and Fanny entertains them with stories from our trip. For many of the people we met they are witnessing the new generation of  modern China. The pace of change in China is phenomenal.

Arriving at CF Moto in Shanghai. We rode over 12,000 kilometers in China and our total mileage was 53,800 kilometers from South Africa and taking 18  months... with a few stops here and there.

A very proud Fanny arriving in her home town of  Shanghai and being met by the owner of the local CF Moto shop. We rode over 12,000 kilometers in China and our total mileage was 53,800 kilometers altogether from South Africa. It took  18 months… with a few stops here and there.  More adventure?  Of course.  Alaska to Chile? …. yes…. one day

We did it.

We did it.  53,800 Kilometers from Cape Town to Shanghai

The bikes did well.

Our CF Moto TR 650 bikes did well too.

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.

Big Bike Trip Presentationin Shanghai

We were invited by Harley Davidson, Shanghai to use their facilities where Fanny and I gave a presentation about our Big Bike Trip to our guests and the local press.

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Presenting in Shanghai

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Fanny had a banner made up for the presentation in Shanghai

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Getting back into Shanghai life …. I had to have my “Chobe Safari Lodge” beanie and red fleece surgically removed.

a contrast to what we have been wearing for last 18 months

A contrast to what we have been wearing for the last 18 months

Fanny at charity boxing dinner in Shanghai.

Fanny at a charity boxing dinner in Shanghai.

Fanny looking lovely at Shanghai boxing charity event

Fanny…….my tough and beautiful round the world motorcycling partner

Looking very different to how she looked in north Kenya on the road to Moyale. A lady of many achievements

Looking very different to how she looked in north Kenya on the road to Moyale

Fanny looking very different to how she looked in Shanghai

Fanny in the deserts of north Kenya looking very different to how she looked at the charity boxing event in Shanghai

The end...

Life isn’t a dress rehearsal…

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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.

 

Arriving back where we started.... Cape Town

Arriving back in Cape Town with our biking kit

开普敦。

开普敦。

Back in South Africa with our KTMs

Back in South Africa with our KTMs… we have got this riding and camping lark down to perfection

KTMs arriving back in Cape Town --- where we started 18 months previously

My KTM 990 Adventure R being unpacked at the shippers in Cape Town and looking as good as the day we started off… which is more than I can say for myself.  We have cheated the northern hemisphere winter and back to the sun and beautiful of South Africa

Fanny's bike being unpacked

Fanny’s bike being unpacked and also looking like it could ride round the world again.

Both bikes back home at KTM Cape Town

A visit back to see Louis, Charl and the team at KTM Cape Town. Also, to have a quick look at their wonderful KTM 690 Adventure Onyx… very nice.

Back in Arniston ---southern tip of Africa

Having breakfast at “Willen’s” in Arniston …. the southern tip of Africa … and my home

Hout Bay

A ride out to Hout Bay for fish and chips … we love the northern hemisphere winter

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’

Cruising about Cape Town

Cruising about Cape Town

Borrowing a glider to fly off Signal Hill. Thanks www.paraglidesa.co.za

We rode up to Signal Hill in Cape Town and a tandem paragliding company lent me one of their gliders so I could have a fly.  I hadn’t flown for 18 months, but it’s like falling off a bike … just higher. Many thanks to http://www.paraglidesa.co.za

Riding around Cape Town with Fanny

Riding around Cape Town with Fanny

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At my home in Arniston

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Enjoying the amazing riding routes in the Cederberg and Karoo. Its going to be difficult for both of us to hang up the riding boots.

Chapter 25 – 中国 Part 7 – Chongqing

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.

Strolling along Chongqing Bund at night

The Bund in Chongqing with the mighty Yangtze River, colourful skyline, barges and impressive bridges.

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’.

Chongqing

Chongqing province, with its capitol city being one of the largest and most crowded cities in the world.  It is a center for China’s “Go West” policy and famous for heavy manufacturing, especially the growing motor industry. The mighty Yangtze River cuts through the hilly capital city which is navigable all the way to Shanghai. Like Sichuan province, which Chongqing used to be part of until 1997, both of these south western provinces are extremely motorcycle unfriendly and their officials and local government are unruly, unaccountable and institutionally corrupt.  It is the wild west of China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Urban off roading

Urban off roading

Motorcycle clubs meet in Chongqing

Meeting the Motorcycle clubs and forum groups Chongqing

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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’.

East

Eastwards…..

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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 ... an classic image of modern China

Chongqing

Chongqing huoguo (hotpot)

Chongqing huoguo (hotpot)

Nanping District, Chongqing

Nanping District, Chongqing

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.

Fanny with her Tibetan white fox hat and the CF Moto 650 NK street bike that she will ride in Hong Kong.

Fanny with her Tibetan white fox hat and the CF Moto 650 NK street bike that she will probably use to ride in Hong Kong when she moves there in 2013.  The white fox hat might not be needed though.

Fanny and friends

Fanny and chief editor of Moto8 forum

At motorcycle show in Chongqing

At the motorcycle show in Chongqing

Earning my corn by taking the Chinese motorcycle press for rides around the exhibition demonstration ground.

Earning my corn by taking the Chinese motorcycle press for rides around the exhibition demonstration ground.

"And there we were heroically riding through a pride of lions in the Serengeti" blah blah blah ......

“And there we were riding through a pride of lions in the Serengeti” blah blah blah ……

The last time we faced our lunch like this was at Lake Charla in Tanzania.

The last time we faced our “alive and kicking” lunch like this was at Lake Charla in Tanzania.

Fanny facing the press

Fanny facing the press. There were big crowds and we had many press briefings to go to.

Heaven forbid I am becoming politically correct... but what is this bimbo doing on a motorcycle. Pointy end forward, pet

Fanny arriving at the show on her CF Moto 650 TR

And free of charge our demonstration rider "Mad Max"  putting the 650 NK through its paces. A wheelie, perhaps?

Me riding around the show ground. A wheelie, perhaps?

Yes.. a wheelie.. but not from Rupert, but from Hu Hai who really knows what he's doing.

Yes.. a wheelie.. but not from me, but from Hu Hai (CF Moto’s stunt rider) who really knows what he’s doing.

Hu Hai on the ATV doing ... what do you call it? ... a sidey?

Hu Hai on the ATV doing … what do you call it? … a sidey?

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Would you like a bowl of noodle? Looks like you need something to eat.

And what's this idiot doing?

Messing about on the CF Moto monkey bike… good fun.

Checking out the CF Moto 650 NK. This is bike Fanny will ride in Hong Kong next year to get to and from work.

Checking out the CF Moto 650 NK in its new signature livery of black and blue … will match Fanny’s bruisies.

Fanny on a bike like ours... the touring CF Moto 650 TR. It has been a great bike. Technical review of bike to follow soon.

Fanny on a touring CF Moto 650 TR like the ones we rode 12,000 kilometers across China It has been a great bike. Technical review of bike to follow soon in this diary.

Fanny on CF Moto 650 TR

Fanny on the CF Moto 650 TR

CF Moto is famous for these ATVs. Would be nice to have one at our home in Arniston, South Africa for going down to beach.

CF Moto is famous for manufacturing these ATVs. Would be nice to have one at our home in Arniston, South Africa for going down to beach.

Chen Lei from CF Moto showing off their bikes

Chen Lei from CF Moto showing off their bikes

I used to have one of these ... if I ever get job again I will get another.

I used to have one of these … if I ever get job or money again I will get another.

Fanny still doing the press thing. She writes for several Chinese magazines and also publishes a very good blogg at www.weibo.com/bigbiketrip

Fanny still doing the press thing. She writes for several Chinese and Italian magazines and also publishes a very popular blog at http://www.weibo.com/bigbiketrip

Having dinner with imotor.com

Having dinner with http://www.imotor.com.cn

getting into the mood ..can't stay  grumpy with all these bikes to play with

Getting into the mood ….can’t stay grumpy with all these bikes to play with

I would really like one of these for Hong Kong

I would really like one of these too… or a new KTM 1290 Super Duke  … or a ????

Looks familiar

Looks familiar

Electric bike from Honda .. maybe the future of motorcycling?

Electric bike from Honda .. maybe the future of motorcycling?

Fanny and our kind sponsor, Louis from Beijing Motoway who supplied our superb Rev'It kit. www.527motor.com.cn

Fanny and our kind sponsor, Louis from Beijing Motoway who supplied our superb Rev’It motorcycling kit. http://www.527motor.com.cn

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Beijing Motoway Motorcycle
http://www.527motor.com.cn