Chapter 34 – Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin in Wales

With all our KTMs now sold, and perhaps a few expeditions on the horizon, we have been taking a serious look at the new Honda Africa Twin.

Honda Africa Twin

The new Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin.

 

Honda Africa Twin

The old Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin

 

 

bk4

A Royal Hong Kong Police Honda CBX 750 leaving Happy Valley Police Station, similar to the one I rode everyday as Senior Inspector Operations Hong Kong Island in mid 1990s.  A truly awful posting as I had no interest handing out traffic tickets, or mopping up blood and guts at accidents… but I did get to play around on a bike all day.

 

 

I briefly had a Honda Africa Twin in the early 1990s when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police, but I have to say I didn’t care for it that much.  It was just too lethargic and dull.

Besides, I already rode a slow and heavy Honda for up to seven hours every day as a traffic cop and didn’t need another one.

In those days I was a bit of a speed freak and so I quickly replaced the Africa Twin with a Yamaha 1200 Vmax upon which I cahooned about Hong Kong as fast as I could.

My attempts to go faster were helped with a Kawasaki ZXR 750,  the ridiculously quick Suzuki GSX 1300 R Hayabusa,  a Honda CBR 900 RR Fireblade, and of course my maddest bike ever, a tuned up “racing spec” Yamaha YZF-R1.

With all these fast racing bikes, leaping off cliffs with my paraglider, insane Mrs Utley, and Yip Kai Foon and his triads all trying to kill me, I am surprised I am still around.

Later when I got into long distance motorcycle expeditions I was fortunate to get hold of a superb KTM 990 Adventure, and stuck with KTM for over a decade, with a few Kawasaki KLRs here and there.

Now, the Honda Africa Twin is back and on paper it ticks all the boxes. It is certainly getting glowing reviews from the increasing band of owners.

http://www.motorcyclenews.com/bike-reviews/honda/crf1000l-africa-twin/2016/

But how good is it really?

The only way to know is a test ride, and the best I know of is the off road course offered by the Honda Adventure Centre in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.

http://hondaadventurecentre.com/the-courses/

I rather optimistically chose to go to the UK in June, hoping that the weather would be kind and that the two sunny days of a British summer would coincide with my visit back to the mother-ship. Also, I planned to go to Florence… but I’ll explain that later.

I flew from Hong Kong to Gatwick via Dubai, and then suffered the dreadfully unreliable and painfully slow Southern Railways train to Bexhill on the south coast where I picked up my KTM 990 SMT. After doing some work (yes, I do some occasionally) I then booked my place on the next available course in Wales, and then after finishing a work report I rode to Merthyr Tydfil.

I brought my tent and sleeping bag as I planned to camp, but as soon as I crossed the Severn River the skys turned grey and it just never stopped raining and so I threw in the towel and checked into the designated hotel where I met some of the other riders who were joining the Honda Adventure course.

 

 

 

There are three levels of off road course offered by the Honda Centre in Wales and each lasts two days and takes place in the forests and trails within the beautiful Brecon Beacons National park.

The new Africa Twin comes in two forms and we got a chance to try both. The most radical version being the DCT  (automatic gearbox with sequential gear changing paddle on the left hand-grip ) and also the more usual 6 speed manual gearbox version with a clutch that purists like myself feel more inclined to ride. All the UK bikes come with ABS and three levels of traction control.

IMG_5002

A flock of Africa Twins lined up outside the Honda Centre in Merthyr Tydfil.

IMG_5001

My bike, #17 for two days. As they say, the best off road vehicle is someone else’s.

 

 

 

 

IMG_5076

Briefings, bikes, rain, chocolate bars and lots of mud

 

 

IMG_5034

Our playground…. Nice.

IMG_5042

I call this “taking a picture of myself and my bike”.

IMG_5025

Yes… I like this bike.

 

 

So how did it handle?  How does it compare with the KTM 990 Adventure R and KTM 1190 Adventure R?

Very simply, I liked the Africa Twin so much I will get one.

In the UK the Africa Twin comes in black/grey; white/red/blue; and red/white/black. All look good and the black/grey actually looks better in the flesh than in the pictures. However, the gold wheels and classic rally look on the white/red/blue probably sway this particular colour scheme for me. 

With 232Kgs and only 94 BHP the Africa twin’s power to weight ratio is not that special, however I found the bike to be very nimble and more than fast enough. In fact, its weight is deceptive and it handled like a much smaller enduro bike off road, and like a good touring bike on the tarmac. Even with a big 21 inch front it corners round the bends extremely well. A lot of R&D has gone into its design, it has a very low center of gravity and is extremely well balanced.

Its also a very comfortable bike, the seat is just right for me and can be adjusted, the handle bars and riding position couldn’t be better. And the exhaust note ? yep…not bad at all given all the EU restrictions on modern motorcycles.

I threw it around in the mud and trails pretty competently after I got the hang of adjusting the traction control and ABS whilst on the hoof. The only time you are aware of the weight is when you are going down steep wet slippy slopes and even then I had no problems. In the mud, water and gravel it charges around like a smaller enduro bike giving the rider bags of confidence. And its a lot of fun.

Could I see myself riding one around the world on every surface Planet Earth has to offer?

Absolutely.

IMG_5005

The red one … with the DCT

 

So, what was the DCT bike like?

At first a bit strange, not least because there is no clutch. The rev and go “Honda 90″ feel quickly disappears when you open up the throttle and it charges off over the rocks and mud pools like a Dakar Rally bike.  Clucking Bell!

Allegedly, the automatic gearbox can change gear more efficiently than Guy Martin or Valentino Rossi and I strained my ears to hear the gears actually change, but all I noticed was the indicator on the display flicking up through the numbers. There are various settings to alter at what engine revs the gears actually change …”sports”  “road” etc.

On the manual version bike I rarely got out of 2nd gear,  occasionally 3rd,  on the Welsh trails, but I noticed that the DCT  bike quickly went through the gears up to 6th. A bit strange to be in 6th at a relatively slow speed off road, but seemed to work.

There is a sequential gear shift paddle like on high performance sports cars if you want to manually change gears. Suffice to say, I got used to it reasonably quickly, and against my initial reservations, I thought it was actually pretty good.  The DCT will certainly improve most people’s riding ability.

 

16_16ym_crf1000l_africa_twin

Usual layout, although I kept pressing the horn instead of canceling the indicators. Even after two days I was still honking people when I completed a turn.

IMG_5074

Not dropped it yet…but I will later

IMG_5056

That’s what it looks like underneath

IMG_5090

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

IMG_5084

There is definitely something missing on that bike!

IMG_5078

Waiting in turn to roar up a hill … steeper than it looks.

 

Below are a few videos from Youtube of the very muddy course I was on in Wales.

BTW- I am on Bike #17 with number plate index RX16 KXV – black boots and DPM style Arai Helmet.

Great fun… and many thanks to Steve for taking, editing, narrating  and publishing the video.

 

 

 

 

 

Well all good things come to an end until you start more good things. I really enjoyed the course and made some good friends. Importantly, the Africa Twin was all I hoped it to be and more. I am sure Fanny will love riding it too and we have it penciled in for the next big one, unless the new KTM 800 Adventure steals a lead.

In fact, I will be riding one fairly soon along the BDR in Utah and Colorado with my friend, John Drury, although I am not sure if the US Africa Twins have traction control.  We will see.

http://www.backcountrydiscoveryroutes.com/COBDR

So, what to do now?

Well since I was in Wales and the rain had stopped briefly I decided to go on a ride…a  ride to Touratech in South Wales in fact to have a look at all their toys.

When I arrived at Touratech in a place beginning with a Y and no vowels I asked where the Africa Twin was with all the Touratech add-ons? I was told all their bikes had been taken to the Horizons Unlimited gathering near Hereford and so that’s where I went next.

A great ride as always across Wales and when I arrived at the HUBB meeting I could see the usual swarm of adventure and touring motorcycles, a few stalls and a noticeably middle aged crowd. I had not booked a place, but a very nice lady signed me in at 60 quid for one nights camping in a wet field! Britain, huh?

Oh well, I did manage to meet the Dakar legend, Nick Plumb in the flesh and so it was worth it.

 

IMG_5094

Nice

IMG_5096

Nick Plumb’s BMW Dakar bike…. Amazing

 

 

IMG_5111

Meeting the legendary Dakar rider Nick Plumb.

IMG_5109

A Touratech’ed up Africa Twin … I should coco.

 

I also saw Alex Jackson from Kaapstad tours, and some other commercial motorcycle tour operators who had their stalls set up and were doing their marketing thing.  I expect its a tough old life trying to sell motorcycle tours to independent minded motorcycle adventurers. A bit like selling ice to Eskimos I suppose.

I was bouncing around telling Alex and his “aw wight aw wight inch yaa” business partner I had met Nick Plumb and was waxing lyrical about how he had completed the Dakar ….twice, and featured on the Charlie Boorman “Race to Dakar” TV Series.

He didn’t seem impressed. How can you not be impressed?

To me completing the Dakar on a rally motorcycle is the all time achievement …second only to walking on the moon. I would love to do it myself and have the utmost respect for anyone who has and I was truly honoured to meet Nick Plumb.

Horizons Unlimited is a strange and wonderful gathering of rather odd people. There are a few “Round The World” motorcycling legends sharing their stories, some interesting presentations for budding adventurers, some very nice motorcycles to look at, and most importantly a bar.

For the large part though, its like a village hall lawn bowls committee meeting, except with leather tassels and smelling faintly of damp nylon and exhaust fumes.

 

IMG_5128

My sixty quid a night wet camping patch… really?

IMG_5126

Well.. lets call it “checking my kit” for my Colorado and Utah BDR expedition in September, although I don’t think I need any more practice putting up a tent.

 

IMG_5121

I only went in as I bought some raffles tickets. Did I win anything? An Austin Vince mug? A Sam Manicom book? A Charlie Boorman video? A years supply of teabags? Nope. Zip.

 

This was my last jolly on my KTM 990 SMT as I decided to sell it to my mate, Nick Dobson who has been looking after it in England for the last three years. It is always sad to say goodbye to a bike, and it has been a truly awesome bike.

One of the deciding factors to part company with a UK plated bike was that I lost my temper with Bennetts, the British firm I insure my bike with as I (Nick actually) missed the automatic renewal date by three days and so they said I have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting a new quote ….and pay a premium of a hundred quid (72%) a year more than the previous year despite no accidents or incidents.

The complete moron I spoke to on the telephone from Bennetts said he must ask me all the questions again. ALL OF THEM. And in his annoying regional accent and Millennial grammar.

Again?

Yes again.

I said he must be joking, but he insisted he must ask the questions without interruption,  despite the obvious “jobs worthy” ridiculousness of the whole thing.

He was half way through his, ‘I MUST finish the question….have you had any… blah blah blah?’ when I told him quite descriptively what he could do with his quote … and hung up.

That was annoying, I thought, I will have to sell my bike now.

In actual fact, I had pretty much decided to sell my bike as riding it for just two weeks out of fifty-two really isn’t a good reason to keep a motorcycle in the UK, and I was starting to go through one of my “England’s a real dump” episodes which was bolstered by a combination of the awful weather, the awful traffic jams, the truly awful food, having to look at fat orange people with tattoos and piercings, Nick’s mum scaring the crap out of me … AND …a particularly disturbing and unpleasant visit to Starbucks in Pevensy in East Sussex.

They were all signs from the Soul of the Universe to sell my KTM and move on .

 

ktm smt

Nick!  Can I borrow your bike?

 

One of the reasons I booked a ticket to England was that Ducati had informed me I was shortlisted to ride their new Ducati Multistrada 1200 Enduro on a leg of their Globetrotter round the world marketing trip and invited me to go to Florence for a final selection. Therefore, I headed to the UK to pick up my bike as I had planned an interesting ride through Europe to Italy.

Having purchased my air-ticket I was told by Ducati they thought I was too young and handsome to ride their motorcycle and so I was unceremoniously “cut” from the event. A bit harsh I thought, but on reflection the whole thing sounded like a bit of a faff.

I had Sri Lanka and USA biking expeditions coming up, and this Ducati marketing thing was more costly and inconvenient than I initially anticipated and so I wasn’t too disappointed.

I suspect Ducati have messed up a bit. Seven contented adventure riders, and at the same time 4993 really “pissed off” adventure riders who are probably evaluating buying a Honda Africa twin now. Must have learned their marketing skills from KTM!!

b

Not a Ducati

 

As I had finished the Honda Africa Twin off road course and had no reason or desire to hang about in the UK I decided to go back home to Hong Kong, but I couldn’t change my ticket without a costly surcharge.

As none of my relatives like me very much and I had nowhere really to go, I had to find a place to stay for a few days.  I had my tent but it was still raining a lot and in England its really difficult to camp as everywhere is private or off limits.  Luckily, I found a  Lapland style wooden hut in the middle of Dorset … in fact in the garden of April Cottage near Harman’s Cross.

http://www.dorsetbedandbreakfasts.co.uk/april-cottage.htm

My sort of place. Run by a super chap called Peter from Switzerland and his lovely wife, Joanna, it was a great place to stay, write up some reports for work, and explore the Purbeck Way and Dorset coastline, even in the rain.

IMG_5143

Sleeping on reindeer skins in a Lapland wooden hut in Dorset.

 

IMG_5331

My sister’s house in Poole.

IMG_5307

My pretty niece Sophia in Poole…

IMG_5299

And my other pretty but slightly bonkers niece, Jessie

IMG_5219

On one of my runs near Swanage

 

I believe Botox works wonders although how can you improve on perfection.

 

And went for a run along Purbeck Way

 

IMG_5159

The best meal I had in the UK… thanks to Peter & Joanna Burri at April Cottage/Lapland Lodge in Harmans Cross, Dorset.  Highly recommended.

61d0e975_original

My home at Lapland Lodge… along with the Africa Twin Course in Wales .. the best bits of my trip to UK.

33e58a90_original

My sort of place.

IMG_5183

Joined by a hoss and its rider whilst doing one of my runs near Corfe Castle in Dorset.

IMG_5259

A ride on the steam train back from Swanage to Corfe Castle

IMG_5170

I am allergic to # 15 – “English food”

IMG_5279

I do respect enthusiasts who go to huge efforts to restore British heritage, like this steam train which runs between Swanage and Corfe Castle.

IMG_5194

Moo!

IMG_5338

A380 back to Hong Kong

 

Next Chapter (s) ……Riding Honda CRF250 Baja motorcycles in Sri Lanka and Riding a Honda Africa Twin across the BDR in Colorado and Utah, USA

IMG_5853

 

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – 西藏 Tibet

When we rode through Tibet (西藏) in September 2012, the People’s Republic of China was restricting access to Chinese citizens only. The only exception being that a “Tibet Travel Permit” might be granted to a foreign tour group, provided they all come from the same country, that their itinerary is organized and strictly supervised by an approved Chinese travel agency and they are accompanied by a guide at all times.

All very bureaucratic, restrictive and undoubtedly expensive.

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

So, how could we ride into Tibet on motorcycles? For Fanny? No problem. Unlike the rest of the world she can move freely about China with her Chinese travel document, bian fang zheng ( 边防证)。 As for me?  I could exploit a very slim loop hole in the current policy as I am a permanent Hong Kong resident and hold a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Identity card. The reality is of course that the Chinese consider anyone, not ethnically Chinese, a “foreigner” and so using my Hong Kong ID holder status was at very best, “tenuous” and would mean I would have to be a bit lucky and apply whatever charm and wit I could muster to pass through the multitude of road blocks and security check points to get from one side of Tibet to the other.

We had already ridden about 6,000 kilometers from eastern China through the central and southern provinces on our Chinese made CF Moto 650 TR motorcycles and now we were entering the truly spectacular province of Tibet from the equally impressive province of Yunnan. It is a vast region on the far west of the PRC that averages 4,900 meters in altitude and shares the highest point on Earth,  Mount Everest  ( 珠穆朗玛峰), with the Kingdom of Nepal.

Video at https://youtu.be/jZK3Jv1g9ng

Tibet

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

The reason why very strict travel restrictions were in place is that this so called “autonomous region” of China is in dispute and many of the indigenous Tibetan people want independence and greater freedoms. However, China keeps a vice like grip on the territory. China increasingly calls the shots in the new world order and pretty much does what it likes.

It is fiercely patriotic and defensive about what it calls domestic issues and sovereignty issues concerning Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet), Taiwan, Diao Yu Dao and Xi Sha Qun Dao are not for discussion… especially by foreigners. The current situation and history of Tibet is extremely complex and its well worth actually visiting and studying its long and complicated history before forming any opinions ( http://www.tibet.org,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibet  or http://www.dismalworld.com/disputes/tibet.php).

Despite the geographical splendour, fascinating culture, friendly people and some of the best adventure motorcycling I have ever experienced, our ride through Tibet was one of mixed feelings. Relatively speaking, I would probably have felt more at ease had I ridden through Vichy France in 1943. It was without doubt one of the most thought provoking places I have ever been to.

Like many parts of China access by foreigners to many of the historical sites or places of natural beauty is highly restrictive or unreasonably expensive. I wonder what Chinese visitors to the UK would say if the British authorities banned them from visiting Scotland or Wales, or charged them twenty to thirty times more than local people to visit tourist sites and attractions. I think they would protest loudly that its 不公平 (unfair).

 

Leaving Yunnan and climbing up thousands of meters into Tibet

A bit muddy and rocky in places … no real problem though. Our bikes are not true adventure enduros like our KTMs, but these CF Moto 650s are very decent long distant tourers and seemed fine with everything that we came across.

Steep drops and spectacular views.

3,000 – 4,000 meters towards Mang Kang. We have started taking Chinese medicine called ” hong jing tian” for altitude sickness.

A bit like Ethiopia … we shared the road with many creatures… but none as dangerous as “Fujian peasant”  in his Toyota 4×4 with Shanghai racing circuit diagram on the back window, a years supply of instant noodles on the back seat and Mrs Fujian constantly throwing rubbish out the windows into the Tibetan lakes and streams. They did it all the time.

There were many cyclists on the Kunming to Lhasa road. An amazing feat and respect to them. When (and if) they complete the arduous ride and get to Lhasa they usually ship the bikes back by the very efficient Chinese postal services or Kuai Di. We saw very few bikes going the other way, and virtually no bicycles beyond Lhasa. I think we saw a couple of local small cc motorcycles and absolutely no other foreigners beyond the famous tourist attractions in Lhasa where they were being shepherded from site to site like sheep.

The CF Moto 650 TR bikes have been awesome… a big surprise. I would use them again if I did the same ride, or perhaps the Royal Enfield …. after all it is the Himalayas. 

In eastern Tibet the road goes up and down between 3,000 meters to 4,000 meters  – many times.  The roads are often carved into the side of very steep slopes and sometimes the road has completely or partially collapsed or has debris strewn over from landslides. It was a bit nerve wrecking on our bikes and I cannot imagine driving one of the trucks with the wheels hanging over the side. We did see some unlucky ones that had gone over the side.

Fanny cautiously looking over the edge of the road. Much more precarious than the impression given by the photograph.

The roads wind up and down for hundreds of kilometers. Some have dozens and dozens of hairpin bends and make European switchbacks look positively tame. I’d like to see the Top Gear guys try this…

We rode through massive pine forests around the 3,000 meter mark for hundreds of kilometers. So much for the deforestation debate. Seems  Chinese forestry is as advanced as that in Bavaria or Canada.

A typical Tibetan farmhouse in the eastern side of the province.

Our first 5,000 meter pass… many to come. The last time I was at 5,000 meters was on the summit of Mount Kenya and I was out of breathe then too.

Taking refuge in a local shop during a flash storm. The storm charged through the valley with lightening and thunder crashing around us and then disappeared as quickly as it came. We became all too aware how quickly the weather could change in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.

I thought we had it bad going to school by Stevenson Rocket… these kids got dropped off to school soaking wet in an open tractor trailer

Yaks milk tea …. takes a little getting used to. Not sure what smelt more lively.. my wet sheep skin seat cover or the tea.

I told Fanny it would make her eyes water. 

Our kind host… but no more yaks milk tea for now … thanks

Storm rapidly approaching down the valley. Like something out of the film “The Mummy”. Within minutes we were in the middle of a storm with lightening and thunder crashing around us. I have developed a particular fear of lightening having narrowly escaped being zapped in the Nubian desert whilst riding my motorcycle across Namibia. Here high up in the mountains I felt particularly exposed again.

Being probably one of few foreigners in Tibet at the time and stretching the rules somewhat, Fanny told me to cover up as I walked about the first sizable town we rode into, called Mang Kang. As I walked about in my masterful disguise people would greet me and say, “Hello foreigner”  and I would say “Ni hao” in reply. I’ve seen the film, “The Great Escape” and know how Donald Pleasence got caught out…

Gazing out of our hotel room at yaks wandering through the town center. As we got deeper into Tibet Fanny became more anxious that I should conceal myself. I was the only foreigner in this town, and indeed only saw other foreigners when we got to the capital, Lhasa. Even then they were in a tour group and being herded about under strict supervision. Luckily most of the time I was in riding gear with a crash helmet and riding a Chinese registered motorcycle … with a Chinese woman.

Back on the road having managed to get through the first real challenge at a security check point on the exit from Mang Kang. I think it was the “Hong Kong Pacific Place Cinema Movie Magic discount card” that got me though or my ”警察兄弟“ patter… probably the latter.

Entering town called 左贡。。。Tamade…. this time there were 特警, 警察, 军人 at the security post. Until this point we had ridden around them, under the barriers and confidently BS’d and smiled through the previous security check points.  This time they were not impressed with my selection of Hong Kong discount cards and so we were detained. Two hours later after boring the pants off them they let us go… with a proviso that I shut up.

Like much of our expedition, the bikes always got lots of attention, as did Fanny。

Whilst pondering whether we will run into another road block we saw some Lamas sitting by the side of a river in a very peaceful and idyllic location. We asked if we could camp with them and they said kindly said yes… and so started a lovely two day chapter of our adventure where we forged some wonderful friendships.

We were putting up our little expedition tent, but the Lamas gave us this much more impressive one to use.

Fanny wrapped up in her North Face expedition sleeping bag together with our bikes inside Lamas’ tent. We were at 4,400 meters and it was bitterly cold during the night and I discovered that drinking beer at altitude gives you the mother of all headaches. Lesson learned, and clearly forgotten as later on in central Tibet at 4,900 meters we drank a bottle of champagne next to Sky Lake (Nam Tso) to celebrate.  So!!!!   Word to the wise… don’t drink alcohol at altitude. In fact, just drink the local tea. The salty sweet earthy tasting yaks milk brew found everywhere does help with altitude sickness, as did the Chinese medicine we were taking.

Our idyllic camp site with the Lamas

Giving one of the Lamas (Si Ba) a ride up to the temple higher up the mountain so he could charge his mobile phone… somethings are the same where ever you live.

A visit to the Lamas’ temple with our friend Si Ba.

Fanny and I … still laughing after 18 months on the road together

Fanny interfering with the cooking plans….

We moved to our own tent so the Lamas could prepare for the special visit of 小活佛 (little living Buddha) from Lhasa. During the night we could hear the Lamas chanting and playing drums, cymbals, trumpets and the eerie repetitive low bass of the Lama long horn… As they say, you have to actually be there to truly experience the ambiance and spirituality. We were very privileged and this bit of our trip will always bring back fond memories.

The next day we were invited to join the festivities. Unlike the monks I lived with in wu wei si in Dali, Yunnan, these Tibetan lamas are not vegetarian. They do eat meat and yaks meat, yaks butter, yaks fermented cheese, and yaks yogurt seemed to be staple foods, along with fresh vegetables from the local area. I am eating for the first time yaks yogurt and rice…. a sort of variation on the famous British rice pudding. The taste is somewhat challenging, as is eating it with chop sticks.

Little Living Buddha … 小活佛。 A very shy boy who bears a striking resemblance to another shy boy I know when he was the same age. Our friend Si Ba is one of the Lamas who looked after him and ensures he receives the correct education and upbringing.

We were constantly reminded of the Chinese influence in Tibet by the new middle class Chinese exploring the mountainous province in their Hi-Tech 4x4s, the young cyclists performing the Kunming to Lhasa right of passage, and more acutely by the extremely long military supply convoys that sometimes consisted of a hundred army trucks heading back and forth to Lhasa. These convoys are often used in propaganda films as they evoke images and impressions of “Long March” heroics.

A picture paints a thousand words

I politely declined to participate in the Lama tug of war games for obvious reasons.  Right next to the temple (sen above) the Chinese authorities are building a new four story concrete police station with all the architectural splendour and creativity used in every second and third tier cities we saw across China… i.e. zero.  A slightly disturbing sight to my mind, but the explanation given by the omnipresent plain clothes “protector” person was that for the first time in centuries the temple was being burgled and so a police presence was needed. Really? I doubt it.

 Happy peaceful people.

The bikes always popular with everyone.

Little Living Buddha (小活佛) has a look at our bikes with the other Lamas. 

Lounging about after lunch by the river. This young fellow was a real character. His only English was “Let’s Goooo!” which he used often and between the many chores he was given he would spend time with us.  Little living Buddha is seated in the background. The contrast between the lives of both “Lama” boys who were about the same age was immense.

Eventually we had to go and all the Lamas came out to bid us farewell. It was a bit tearful as I think Fanny had made a real impression and they seemed extremely fond of her. Fanny, is extremely smart, gregarious and easy to get on with whether you are from the east or West. She is a true ambassador for all that is good about China and should be in their diplomatic service.

As we rode along the beautiful river path towards the main road that will take us to Lhasa, two hoopoe birds flew alongside us with their crests extended as the Lama’s waved goodbye…. if that isn’t spiritual I don’t know what is…..

Riding along generally good tar roads, with occasional potholes, and stretches of gravel, mud or water flowing from streams across gullies. Biggest hazard is other drivers. This guy in front is on pilgrimage to Da Zhao Temple, Lhasa and every few steps lies prostrate towards direction of Lhasa. Some of these pilgrimages can take years and occasionally people die.

Ran Wu …. Tibetan side of town

The Chinese side of Ran Wu …. nearly every small village and town in Tibet has a Chinese garrison regardless of how pristine or historically relevant the place may be. There are thousands of uniformed and plain clothed security police, army and often huge barracks for the military supplies conveys. Invariably ugly, intrusive and looking like an unfinished construction site. No National Trust in Tibet, nor any architects apparently. Rubbish and sewage strewn everywhere. Nearly every Chinese person we saw just throws rubbish straight into the lakes and streams or throws them out the windows of their vehicles onto the hillside. Everything is slovenly…..and with no respect for the environment, nor with any real respect for the indigenous people. The Chinese government needs to start acting responsibly.  

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Ran Wu.. with beautiful lake, although waters have receded for many reasons, including climate change and hydroelectric projects upstream.

There is definitely a live goat at the bottom of this Tibetan building, but I am not sure about the other one up in the rafters!

The geography of Tibet is always spectacular, fresh and BIG. Its pleasing that it will be there long after man has gone.

I am reliably informed by a Hong Kong friend, Franki  that these are Char Char stones. If anyone knows anymore about what they are and for please leave comment.

Under ever nook and Fanny are tiles carved with Tibetan prayers.

Its as heavy as a BMW or Triumph, but handles better off road

One of the photos that was sent to us by the travelers we met en route. Their cameras often better than ours.

Riding towards Lhasa high up on Tibetan Plateau… Beautiful lakes and forests.

We did the back of the RMB 20 note in Guilin, now the back of the RMB 50 note in Lhasa.

Riding about in Lhasa

Be a good citizen and make sure you are flying a crispy new red flag.

The most sacred “Da Zhao” Temple in Lhasa

Our Lama friend Si Ba outside the holiest temple in Tibet, “Da Zhao” in Lhasa.

Lhasa back streets

The Tibetan’s have a very different language, customs, appearance and way of life to that of the occupying Han Chinese.

Some beautiful alleyways and courtyards in Lhasa.

In addition to road blocks and security posts, garrisons and army barracks in every town and village in Tibet, there are police checkpoints on every street corner in Lhasa and Tibetans, particularly Buddhist lamas, are constantly stopped and searched. Whilst spending an afternoon with our friend Si Ba, I noticed he was constantly stopped and frisked by Chinese authorities.

Keeping a close eye on the “lao wai” who didn’t appear to be in a supervised tour group.  Some of them friendly enough young lads doing their job, but….

This yak seems to be missing some major body parts

Local ladies walking through the markets and praying.

Lots of people walking clockwise around the “Da Zhao” Temple with prayer beads and prayer wheels.

Tibetan streets, Chinese flags and skyline dominated by the beautiful mountains that surround Lhasa.

The “Bu Da La Gong” can be seen where ever you are in Lhasa.

Fanny at “Da Zhao” Temple.

Lhasa

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

Tibetans are very devoted Buddhists and can be seen praying at most times of the day. Many spend years on pilgrimage to Lhasa.

Exploring Lhasa with Fanny

Just to remind everyone whose in charge.

Goose-stepping down the main road. Always a crowd pleaser.

Who are you looking at?

Having yaks milk tea and walnuts in a local tea-house with our friend Si Ba.

Many of the Tibetans look very much the Cow Boys and Girls that they are.

Handsome people.

Si Ba and Fanny in the market buying incense for the temple.

An interesting picture on many levels.

These guys offered me their prayer beads to hold… so I did.

Si Ba getting stopped and searched again, and again, and again. I asked him how he puts up with it and he replied ” mei ban fa”.. (no worries)

The tank of Fanny’s bike sprung a leak because a rubber supporting mount was missing and after 6,000 kilometers “on road” and “off road” it vibrated a crack in the attachment. A bit dangerous,  especially as self immolation is illegal in Tibet. Therefore we had to ride with no more than 30% of fuel in the tank at all times which meant siphoning fuel from my tank for several hundred kilometers until we got a new tank in Lhasa sent from Hangzhou. All part of the testing program, I guess.

And so we set off from our hostel in Lhasa…

We continued with the totally ridiculous practice of having to fill the bikes with petrol in open watering cans, kettles and tea pots. Unsafe, annoying and a hassle that invariably resulted in our petrol tanks being not full enough, or with petrol left over in the tea pots that we would donate to a fellow biker. Invariably we got petrol over everyone and everything as we trudged back and forth from the pumps.  The logic was that nearly all motorcycles in China are peasant owned small engined machines that are neither safe nor well maintained and so prone to leak or even explode. The local authorities, therefore, stipulate that motorcycles and their cigarette smoking owners be kept a safe distance from the petrol pumps.  In most of China, and particularly the wild west, modern large engine motorcycles found elsewhere in the world are unheard of … and so given that they have two wheels are subjected to the same logic…. just like their ban on Chinese highways. I am surprised there isn’t a Chinese Chengyu (idiom) “Four wheels good… two wheels bad”.

Back riding with the big peaks again.

Beautiful roads weaving between peaks and rivers high up on the Tibet-Qinghai  Plateau.

Mount Everest (珠穆朗玛峰)… which I never saw because the authorities would not let me ride the 80 kilometers or so from Tingri to Base Camp. Despite having Hong Kong papers and documentation I was deemed by my fellow human beings to be the wrong race to look at the tallest mountain on our shared planet.   Fanny did all she could to help and support me but it was no good …. I guess we’ll see it from Nepal one day.

The sacred Sky Lake (Nam Tso) with 7,000 meter peaks in background.

Camping at Nam Tso.

Camping next to sacred Nam Tso Lake at 4,900 meters. The mountain in background is Yan Qing Tang Gu La  at 7,800 meters. There is a local saying that when you are here you never think of home.

Our remote campsite at Nam Tso

There were lots of semi wild, huge and woolly Tibetan dogs. During the night the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees and so the dogs slept right outside our tents pressed up against us… keeping us both a bit warmer.

A lot of Yaks … very likable creatures

Tibetan Antelope … quite rare ( near border with Qinghai)

Beijing to Lhasa Railway… at this point in north Tibet around 5,000 meters. An amazing bit of engineering on the perma-frost plateau

Hundreds of kilometers of good roads in north Tibet

Geographically, Tibet is stunning.

North Tibet…. remote, big, beautiful

We had snow, rain, brilliant sunshine, fog, and a mini tornado all in one day

Fanny cruising along at 5,000 meters

At border of Tibet and Qinghai. Bit cold and pleased I invested in the bar mitts. Fanny thought they looked daft but changed her mind in the snow and cold.

The last 5,000 meter plus pass before crossing into Qinghai.

Amazing skies, clean air, big spaces and long roads.

5,300 meters … high altitude lakes, snow peaks, and permafrost plateaus… quite stunning.

Chapter 20 – 中国 Part 3

Praying for our safe travels at a monastery in Dali, Yunnan

Fanny at South gate of Dali

Er Hai lake with Bai ethnic minority people

Er Hai … they say its very dangerous to ride without a helmet. They are right… I got very burnt.

Er Hai Lake in Dali

Fanny and Dinesh (Dino) Nihalchand at Wu Wei Si (Monastery above Dali) This is where I studied Taijiquan in 2008 during a semester break from Mandarin studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Fanny stretching on the Gongfu training square at Wu Wei Si or practicing to get on a Yamaha XT 660

Bikes parked up in Lijiang, Yunnan

Tiger Leaping Gorge … being careful not to lean back too much

Some roads good and some bad as we head north west towards Shangri-la

Our lodge just outside Shangri-la

Super clouds over Shangri-la

Ah… that’s why its called Shangri-la ….. a direct hit

Starting to ride further up into the Himalayas towards Deqin

The long road meanders, twists and turns up to 4,000 meters and then down to 3,000 meters many times. Quite superb biking conditions and TR650s going really well.

Roads have to be built sometime and it takes a bit of nerve to ride along pitted, muddy roads between trucks, diggers, excavators and 1000 meter sheer drops

The roads carved into the mountains zig zag upwards… good fun

Bai Ma Xue Shan at 5,460 meters behind us.

Another 4000 + meter pass

And at the end of a superb day’s riding we reach fei lai si (Flying Temple) where on the other side of the deep valley as the sun is setting is mei li xue shan (Beautiful Snow Mountain) at 6,740 meters.

The Himalayas… what can you say?

We took a lot of pics at fei lai si

Fanny with our bikes ….with mine taking on a more “sheepy” look to relieve the piles.

Its all too easy to look around in wonder at the magnificent scenery as you cruise along at 4,000 meters and forget that the weather and trucks take their toll on the roads. Sometimes the road just disappears which could be interesting if you didn’t stop in time.

The road is strewn with rocks and debris that fall down the mountain sides. We saw hard working people clearing it up all the time, but sometimes the whole road is covered or missing.

Next some yak horns on the front and a Tibetan multi coloured mudflap on the back…then we are sorted.

Some fellow bikers in Tibet. I have to say two wheels with an engine is the way to do it at 3-4,000 meters. I am out of breath doing up my boots.

I am not keen on getting wet, and I particularly dislike thunder and lightening and so we took refuge in a small Tibetan village as this storm crashed and banged passed us.

Taking cover from the rain and making friends with our first Tibetans

One of many Tibetan farm houses we passed.

Chapter 18 – 中国 Part 1

The planning for the China leg of our expedition was solely in the hands of Fanny (方怡. I had agreed that if she managed to arrange motorcycles and sponsorship to support us then I would fly out and be her wing-man and basically do as I’m told. A tall order granted.  I still had a few air-miles from the days when I actually had a job and used them up flying from London to Hangzhou (杭州) which is in Zhe Jiang province(浙江省), just 35 minutes by the 400 Kph train (高铁) from Shanghai (上海). Why Hangzhou? That’s where our new motorcycles come from.

I had done the London to Hong Kong flight many times and Cathay Pacific is an excellent airline. As usual, I spent most of the flight asleep. Before I boarded I did get stopped at Heathrow airport by security who were concerned about the fact I was getting on the flight in full motorcycle Enduro/Adventure kit. My bag was full of electronic gizmos and the security officer probably regretted asking me to take everything off as the rancid odour from my Alpinestar Tech 3 boots wafted around the x-ray machines. I apologised with embarrassment as people clearly started to notice and give them a wide berth.

A night time picture of China from space ….as we ride west the population decreases and the riding pleasure should increase

Twelves hours later I transferred onto a Dragonair flight in Hong Kong that took a further two hours to get to Hangzhou where Fanny was waiting for me. I was very happy to see her and we immediately switched to the Chinese channel.  Despite the fact that I had tried to keep up my Mandarin throughout the expedition there really is no substitute for actually being in China, seeing all the Chinese character signs and adverts and being forced to speak and understand it.

Fanny had arrived earlier by high speed train from Shanghai and booked us into a very nice studio apartment. Early the next day we were picked up by a limousine and taken to the Chun Feng Moto HQ in Yu Hang (余杭)where the bosses very warmly welcomed us, gave us a VIP tour and handed over two brand new motorcycles.

http://www.cfmoto.cn/onroad/details.aspx?productId=32

CF Moto 650TR and 650NX

Out and about in Hangzhou

Something for dinner… a centipede, scorpion or a tarantula?

Hangzhou 杭州, where Heaven meets Earth, allegedly.

。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。

I was vaguely familiar with CF Moto because recently in the British motorcycle newspaper, Motorcycle News,  there was an article about the new CF Moto 650NK which was being imported into the UK for the first time. There was a lot of discussion (positive and negative)  about the first Chinese big engined motorcycles and the impact the Chinese are going to have on the motorcycle industry.  Up to this point the Chinese were only making, and making in huge numbers, scooters, quad biikes and small engined bikes below 125 cc and so a lot of parallels were being made with the Japanese motorcycle industry forty years ago and their subsequent dominance of the market.

Our bikes for China….CF Moto 650 TR

The bikes we were being loaned were not the 650NKs, which are sort of naked street fighter types, but the touring 650TRs.  Why Fanny had chosen CF Moto rather than a manufacturer that made enduro or adventure bikes was not understood by me at that time, but I was subsequently to find out that CF Moto had joint ventured with KTM to make 390 Dukes for the Chinese market.

I am not really a touring bike fan, had never owned one and the closest thing I had really ridden for any distance was a Suzuki GSXR 1300 Hayabusa which is more of a sports tourer and at the time I owned one in 1999 was the fastest production motorcycle in the world with a top speed above 200 Mph (310Kph).

Specifications for our CF Moto motorcycles at:

http://www.cfmoto.cn/onroad/details.aspx?productId=32

CF Moto 650 NK

Our proposed route through China was discussed and I looked skeptically at the bikes and wondered if they would handle the challenging road conditions in places like Xizang (西藏) and Qinghai (青海) and indeed anything remotely “off road”.  I would really liked to have ridden our KTMs in China and there would be many roads and places we would ride through where the KTMs would have been perfect, but for now that was just not possible and so I embraced my new bike with cheerful optimism.

I was very thankful and relieved that we were being supported by CF Moto with their extensive distributor and service network across China and so my worries about reliability and indeed suitability were somewhat allayed. Also, we knew of another expedition who were riding a mixture of bikes, including the 650 NK and 650 TR and they reported very favourably on their handling and reliability and gave us some recommendation about minor modifications and spares we should bring.

Last minute cramming for my China licence theory test

The bikes would need to be licensed, number plated and insured, which is a tricky process in China and involved Fanny, among other things, having to be registered as a Hangzhou citizen under China’s Hukou system. For me? I would need a Chinese driving licence that required going to the police station to register a residential address in Hangzhou, going for a medical, eyesight and hearing test, translating my UK driving licence into Chinese at an official Public Security Bureau centre, and since I wanted a permanent 6 year licence rather than a temporary licence, passing the driving licence theory test at an approved transport bureau center.  The first things we rushed about and got done pretty quickly, but the last I had to swot up and cram throughout the night to achieve the 90% pass mark.

PRC Driving License – very proud

我的新驾照

The test was trickier than I assumed as the questions in English were grammatically incorrect, ambiguous and very confusing and the only possible way to pass was to rote learn the answers from a bank of several thousand Q&As. The most difficult part was trying to remember the Chinese names of all the various government departments, the traffic officer hand signals and the bizarre 1st Aid questions and answers that bore little resemblance to any of the previous 1st Aid courses and exams I had done in the police in England or Hong Kong, or as a paragliding instructor. Do you really tie a tourniquet around someones neck if they are bleeding from a leg wound? You do in China, but I suspect probably to stop them claiming compensation for injury and damages in the future.

My first attempt at the mandatory 100 questions required me to guess the answers to at least 20 questions as neither the official text book, logic or common sense could help me and I failed with 87% and was majorly pissed off. Fortunately, I had time to resit the exam and despite completely different questions, I scraped through with exactly 90% and so with a huge grin I took my pass certificate to the Transport Department with Fanny and was issued with a shiny green PRC driving licence.

We were also being sponsored by “The North Face” who very kindly sent us a huge box full of top of the range clothes, shoes, sleeping bags, an expedition tent, high tech ruck sacks and new water proof duffle bags to put everything in. Yet again my big size 12 feet prevented me getting any shoes for myself, and I looked at the super quality ones Fanny had been given with envy. If only I had had such a pair when I did the Offa’s Dyke walk a month earlier. Oh well.

Out and about in Nanchang in our North Face gear

And so we were ready. We had lunch with the bosses and their support team who wished us well and sent us off to Nanjing (南京)so that we could run the bikes in with a 400 Km ride there and another 400 Km back to test the bikes and to get in two oil and filter changes before we set off. We were also having my GPS fitted and wired up… and just as well as navigating the first 400 Kms was extremely tricky as motorcycles are not allowed on the direct and easy to navigate expressways and so we had to stay on provincial and county roads which can, on occasion, be confusing and not very direct, especially as some of the Chinese characters of place names were not known to me.

It was on this initial ride I started to get used to the signage, the roads and became all to aware of the atrocious driving standard of local drivers. It takes a certain nerve, or perhaps lack of imagination to drive or ride on Chinese roads and for the first few thousand kilometers I had no nerve whatsoever and far too much imagination. I hate to think what my old traffic division police colleagues would have thought of Chinese driving. It really is awful. The worst driving standard in the world.

Fanny having her first ride at CF Moto in Hangzhou

Through ingenuity, a GPS bracket is made and wired up to electrics of the bike. Although the GPS can be quite inaccurate and misleading it is still very useful, even if used as a map or compass.  However, the maps are quickly out of date. On one occasion it showed us riding “off road” in a field when in fact we were on a super smooth twelve lane highway going into a Hunan city.

Fanny’s red bike and my grey one behind it.

My bike having stickers attached “Cao” (our mechanic, England, Hong Kong, South Africa flags (take your pick),  The North Face, Camel Toe, Kaapstad Adventure Tours and flags for all the counties we had been to so far. Thanks to Fanny.

Mr Cao (tone 3 I must add as tone 4 is a swear word) with his family and us at his garage in Nanjing where we had a service and fitted the GPS before riding back to Hangzhou

The bikes handled really nicely. Very pleasantly surprised at how balanced the bike was and how smooth the power delivery was.  With 75 BHP engines the bikes were powerful enough for what we needed them for and the riding position was quite comfortable. The gear box took a little getting used to but gradually settled in and eventually I could successfully locate neutral.  I would say the only shortcomings were the windscreen that directed the wind and dust straight into my face; the indicator switch that is just too cheap and vague; and by far my biggest complaint are the mirrors which are a cost cutting item too far. They are completely useless, made of cheap material and only give a vague and blurry “hall of mirrors” idea of what’s behind you, which may indeed be a good thing in China.

The clutch is cable operated rather than hydraulic and like motorcycles from an older generation needs some adjustment after initial run in to get just right. Other niggles are minor and really relate to the quality of materials and finish, like the seat which starts to get painful after 200-300 kilometers and the glove compartments, which although really useful and a good substitute for not having a tank bag, are not Honda or BMW quality, but then the bike is not Honda or BMW price and I would say overall is excellent value for money.

If CF Moto or another OEM manufacturer can produce some good after market parts and accessories to address these shortcomings they are going to be very successful. As for overall reliability? That assessment will have to wait for a few thousand kilometers more, but so far the bikes handle well on tar and on indeed on the many stretches of Chinese road that have no surface or are being rebuilt or repaired.

(Post note : many of the shortcomings were address in later models and the 2014 bikes are superb.  AND .. the bikes WERE very reliable and handled everything we rode over in China and Tibet)

I do miss my KTM though, it is a super tough bike, has immense character, very comfortable, can be ridden all day and of course off road or on gravel, sand, mud, or potholed roads, nothing can touch it. That said, we were both excited to be riding a brand new motorcycle and relieved that we have a network of CF Moto garages throughout China to help us if something does go wrong.

Fanny cruising along in east China

On the way to Huangshan

Not always easy riding but bikes are very well balanced and have good engines.

Being told we cannot enter an expressway forcing us to take a big deviation to our destination. Usually in China two wheels can go anywhere and do anything…but they are banned on expressways (Chinese motorways). Why? Probably because bikes are usually the vehicle of peasants and my experience so far is that 乡巴佬 don’t drive very well. However, times are changing and big modern Chinese bikes can now go as fast and handle as well as any other vehicles. My recommendation is this. The Chinese Government should stipulate that motorcycles with an engine capacity of over, say 150cc, are now treated like cars and not only allowed on expressways and in certain cities, but  should also comply with traffic laws like every other road user.

Crossing the many bridges over the lakes between Jingdezhen and Nanchang

Chatting with locals selling 莲子(lotus seeds) next to huge fields of 莲花(lotus)

Its over 40 degrees and so stopping by side of road to eat refreshing water melons 西瓜

Fanny, Flanny (his real name) and me having delicious Hunan food in…. Hunan of course…. the hottest food on the planet and where Chairman Mao came from.

Our bikes getting another service thanks to the Re Rong Motorcycle Club in Zhizhou — all BMW riders but we’ll forgive them for that

English or Chinese… BMW or KTM ….. beer solves everything.

Our new friends guiding us out of the confusing city. The guys are real enthusiasts and must be wealthy because each of their BMWs cost around RMB 350,000 (US$50,000 each) to purchase, licence, tax and import into China.

We passed by many rice paddies, tea plantations, terraces, vegetable and other crops…. this one looks like art work

Whilst the countryside is lush and charming, the towns and cities, which number into the tens of thousands and growing. are ugly, noisy, dusty, polluted and boring concrete jungles. Does China have any architects with any imagination or creativity.  A few and they work overseas.

Many of the roads are smashed up because the trucks are all seriously overloaded and drive recklessly. We have lost count the number of times we have been forced off the road by overtaking oncoming cars and trucks. Very stressful and dangerous, but everyone does it all the time.

We have learnt to follow the local bikers who know how to navigate around the obstructions and keep away from the danger. We don’t have bike umbrellas though.

These xiangbalao 乡巴佬 tractor things are everywhere belching out diesel smoke, causing havoc and cutting across the road. Who would give them the vote? I wouldn’t.

After all the awful roads we get to cruise on the awesome S201 through Guangxi 广西。I rate this 150 Km stretch of road from Quanzhou 全州 to Yangshuo 阳朔 as oneof the best motorcycle rides in the world. A real gem hidden in the middle of China.

We stayed in beautiful Xingping 兴坪… thought I had seen that view before

Its true… Southern Chinese 南方人 will eat anything…. leave a message if you fancy the special of the day… 凉拌狗肉。

I wouldn’t look so smug, Fido….when the chickens run out you’re next

3,000 kilometers, end of day 7… not a bad view. (兴坪, 广西)