29 May, 2008

The Burgie lives again - long live the Burgie.

Hi, just a quick note to update everyone.

After arriving in Korea yesterday I have been down to collect the Burgie this morning.

After some minor hiccups with paperwork and having to get Vicroads (local vehicle registration office in Australia) to fax through copies of the registration documents to Korean customs, Mr Lee of Eagle shipping took me down to customs to collect the bike. The bike arrived in perfect shape and undamaged despite my concerns about how well I had crated and packed it.
It took me a couple of hours to uncrate and reassemble it before paying all fees (total around US$500) and riding the bike out the gate and into Korea.

The Korean customs people, as usual wherever I go, were polite and helpful. One of them even gave me a copy of a book he has written but I will need to brush up on my hanguel first!

I'm now about to go and find the International post office to collect the fuel filter and will leave tomorrow morning for Sokcho, where I take the ferry to Vladivostok.

It's good to be back on the Burgie - much smoother and more comfortable than the Haobon, but of course it is far less nimble and feels quite ponderous initially - that feeling will hopefully disappear once I get used to riding it again.

28 May, 2008

Anyone for a career in customs clearance in Korea? - 28 May 2008

I'm here in Busan after a 300kmh maglev train ride from Shanghai to the airport and a short flight from Shanghai airport. I've paid my shipper's handling fees this afternoon and if all goes well I'll be riding the Burgie away sometime tomorrow.

Busan is wet and rainy and so is my pack. It's all pretty damp even after only getting caught in the rain for a few minutes, so everything is spread out on the floor of the Zen hostel to dry. Hopefully tomorrow will be a sunny day in more ways than one. :-)

27 May, 2008

The Haobon is gone! Long live the mighty Haobon!.

The Haobon is gone! (sniff, snuffle)... Long live the mighty Haobon!.

It had to be! I feel so sad, as if I've lost a lifelong companion ... "Wilson, NO ... come back Wilson". Like Tom Hanks basketball, the Haobon has become my friend and companion in this foreign sea of non-English speakers.

I ended up selling it to a motorcycle repair man and his wife for AUD$150. They got a great deal, but frankly they were the only ones at all interested. I'm sure they will onsell it quickly and make a smart profit - good on them.

If I had been able to wait longer I'm sure I could have fetched a lot more but time doesn't allow me and overall my total cost for the Haobon for 1 month of riding has only been AUD$400, or $100 per week - excellent value.

I'm leaving Shanghai 9am tomorrow for Busan, Korea, and further adventures on the Burgie. :-)

Fanyang to Chuohe - Saturday 24th May

Another long and tough ride on a mix of roads but a great day's progress with another 500km covered after 12 hours in the saddle...
The day started bright and sunny as I passed through wheatfields and duck farms along with th usual mix of Chinese agriculture. I know I have said this before, but the sheer amount of energy and effort put into agriculture inChina is second to none, with every arable inch produced crops many times over each year.

However, the blue skies were not to last. This was an especially difficult day because today not only was I riding on bad dirt roads, but it also began to rain - in bucketloads.
I, along with many other vehicles, had to wait in a service station for almost two hours whilst the monsoonal downpour passed. The rain came down with such force that it was like standing under a high pressure hose.
Once I was able to get back on the road again, the roads deteriorated until they were nothing more than dirt tracks one lane wide. Whilst cars, trucks and buses were spinning their wheels in the mud I was struggling to keep the Haobon upright. The mix of dirt and water soon had the Haobon filthy, and me exhausted. Unfortunately just as night fell it also ensured I had yet another puncture. Fortunately for me I felt the rear end wriggle (as the tyre deflated) right in the middle of a small village and right outside the only tyre repairer in town. Whilst I waited for the tyre repairer to come back to town (it was night and he had finished work for the day) I was kindly invited by a local girl and her family of rice merchants to share dinner with them.
Once again Chinese hospitality comes to the fore and I was very graciously accepted as a total stranger into their group of family and friends. After repairs I was honoured to hear that I was the first foreigner to visit this small village and that I still had a way to go before I could reach a town with a hotel for the evening. I was soon on my way again and after 1.5 hours of hard riding I managed to reach the next major town with a hotel for a good night's sleep.

Chuohe to Shanghai - Sunday 25th May

After my night in Chuohe it was back on the road again to Nanjing. Compared with yesterday, today was a totally dry day again.

The road to Nanjing was a pleasant ride through rural China

and the road surface steadily improved the closer I got to the big smoke and I rolled into town through the industrial suburbs to spot the MG/Roewe (Chinese for Rover) right in front of me.

Talk about coals to Newcastle, the Chinese bought the English company (and all its tooling) from BMW for one dollar a few years back and are proudly promoting the brands quite heavily at home, but I'm not sure if they are pursuing exports as yet.

As usual, once I reached Nanjing (which is a huge, albeit very pretty) city, I knew finding my way out would be a challenge as the G312stopped dead at T junction. I chose to ride downtown (contrary to where the GPS said highway G312 should be), crossed the Yangtze (a huge river)

and found my way to a beautiful 15sq km park and lake opposite the railway station.

At this point I figured I was completely lost and went to the nearest police station for directions. They telephoned the biggest hotel in town(Hotel New (Xin) Century which was just down the road, and put me through to the English speaking assistant manager to provide guidance. Once again,my navigational instincts were vindicated as it turned out as I was only 500m from the (unsignposted) left turn I needed to make to get on to the G312 to Shanghai.

From this point it was a fairly straight forward well signposted ride, mostly on dual highway, into Shanghai. The only real challenge was a fuel shortage just when I went onto reserve. Now fuel shortages are not something I have experienced before in China and this puzzled me. I finally managed to find fuel with only an estimated 7km worth (or 200ml) left in the tank -talk about running on fumes!

I hit Shanghai just as it was getting dark and found my way to the Ming Hostel and a bed for the filthy mud encrusted Haobon and myself for the night.

In many ways it was a bit of a let down to the end of the China leg of my journey as the wide roads and big cities are such a poor, dull contrast to the "interesting" country roads and towns.

Jiyuan to Fanyang - Friday 23rd May

After a delicious breakfast and saying my farewells to the Lis, I had an early start and was on the road before 7.30am. Mr Li was kind enough to escort me a short way down the main road south before setting off on his day's labours

It was another tough day's ride on a mix of fairly good roads, but all in all I made great progress with 530km under my and the Haobon's belts by end of day.
The landscape was changing again and becoming less green - most of the agriculture now consisted of vast fields of wheat ready for harvesting.
Just a brief note on what was my highest mileage day to date. 530km may not seem a like a long distance but you need to put this in the context of road and traffic conditions.
Here in China I have at least 20-50 near head-ons every day whilst riding, it's just the nature of riding. Trucks do not respect bikes (or cars for that matter) and simply expect you to get out of their way I also experience vehicles constantly turning across in front of me and pulling out from side roads on either left or right without looking.
Everyone does this, no-one looks when pulling out on to the highway - you are expected to somehow avoid them (the closest analogy I can draw is being on a ski slope, where skiers are expected to look out for, and avoid, all skiers lower down the slope). There is NO respect for red lights and no such thing as traffic lanes (on a divided highway you will have oncoming vehicles on both your left and right - imagine being in the left lane on a freeway with oncoming trucks! - well that's the norm). It's simply the way things are.
My worst road experience so far occurred today, being caught between a 25 metre long truck I was overtaking, and an oncoming similar sized truck. I had no choice but to keep my cool and ride through the metre wide gap, whilst towered over by massive truck wheels spinning either side of me, and travelling at a closing speed of close to 150 kph (we were each doing around 75kph) on a potholed road.
Boy, do I have some adventures to tell my grandchildren.

Changzhi to Jiyuan - Thursday 22nd May.

Figuring I have to improve my progress if I am going to ever reach Shanghai I'm up bright and early to get the rack repaired before hitting the road.

Leave before the banks open, figuring I'll change money at the next town - Gaoping- but no, they can't and direct me to Jincheng, the next big town.

Only 60km to Jincheng - should be easy getting there before lunch! Garry, what are you doing thinking these thoughts!

The roads deteriorate to stone age quality and I hit Jincheng at lunch time.

Try every Bank of China I can find in what turns out to be a 3 hour exercise in sheer... excruciating ..... frustration - ultimately I am led by a bank teller (must have been the 15th I have dealt with at various branches today) to what turns out to be the ONLY place you can change foreign money in this city of over 1 million people - an obscure spot that is actually a bank of China office but not identified as such by any signage.

Now, I gotta hit the road and make up some miles, but do you think I can find my way out of this city!!! Finally an hour later I enlist the police who tell me that the road I need is actually the G207 (contrary to what the map and GPS say) and they draw me a map.

Gotta make up time, gotta make up time.... I've found the road to Luoyang and I'm doing well - a little bumpy maybe, but satisfactory enough. The it happens, more roadworks :-(

I climb up into the mountains and the concrete road has been broken into fragments (manually by hordes of road workers using sledge hammers and pick axes).
I travel along at 20kmh in 3rd gear and hark, do I feel the back end of the bike wandering??!!

The shards of concrete result in another puncture - my 3rd so far. I am in the mountains, it's getting late in the day, there are no other vehicles around and I have no idea how far it is to the next town. I end up riding 25kms on the flat tyre, fully expecting the shards to rip the tyre to shreds. I reach solid road again to spot the only other vehicle - a bike with a punctured front.

Mr Li (the other rider) follows me to town and directs me to local vehicle repair centre (welding on trucks etc) where they fix the 3 holes in the tube for nix and Mr Li insists I follow him home to stay the night at his house as guest.

Needless to say, I am the star attraction, being the first foreigner to visit this town - but more on the Li's hospitality later.

Yuan Ping to Changzhi Wednesday 21st May.

Given yesterday's poor progress I figure today has to be a good day to make up time. I head out of town to Taiyuan and it is a good run on fairish roads - certainly an interesting mix of traffic!,
but the dust can also be a little rough (and you guys wonder why I end up so dirty at the end of each day!).

I try to avoid getting into Taiyuan as getting in and out of big cities in China is always a struggle with poor signage and pictogram only town names.

Leaving Taiyuan I manage to find, and follow, the G208 south for 50-60km until it abruptly ends just coiming out of Taigu at a big pile of rocks bulldozed across the road and all of the trucks turn right onto a different road (don't ask me where it leads - the signs aren't in Pinyin (roman character Chinese). Now this sort of thing happens regularly in China and usually the detour reconnects with the main highway after 3-4km, so I decide to push on and continue down the G208 and the (trusty?!?) confirms I am on the right route. For the first 20km I figure this is great - no trucks and dust, road to myself) until the G208 is blocked again and what little traffic there is, is redirected onto a goat track which winds it way through all the small towns. 'being on a bike, I do what the other bike riders do (and the cars can't), I continue along the 208 figuring I wil be able to ride around any obstacle/Weel this is kind of true, but I didn't figure on the fact that most of the road had been torn up, bridges deconstructed and the general road surface simply removed! On top of this there were regular landslides (which I expect were caused by the recent quake 1,000kms away) and dirt / mud sections - you name it.
The landscape throughout is still magnificent though.

Progress, once again, is SSLLOWW!!, the bike is getting hammered with the suspension regularly bottoming out, I'm getting exhausted and I can feel from the handling that the steering head and swing arm bearings have given up the fight and are well and truly in need of replacement. Changzhi, the provincial capital, is only 30kms away though and all of a sudden the G208 is back to normal with cars travelling on it and a smooth surface. I figure I'll make it before dark, until...
yet another detour around a bridge which is being resurfaced. I head of finto a small town looking for the way back onto the 208 when I look in my mirror and see my backpack leaning at an unusual angle. I hit the next bump (don't forget bumps are usually less than a metre apart on these roads - that's how bad it is!) and look back to see the rack, top box and luggage falling to the road.

Half an hour later I've jury rigged the luggage system and I'm back enroute to Changzhi.
Arrive in what is a very pretty town and pay $27 for my most expensive room yet.

Things couldn't get worse could they? - yes they could, I've spent my last yuan on the room (and key deposit) for the night and am right out of cash. Looks like I'm going hungry this evening. :-(. I find 3 yuan (45 cents) in assorted pockets and manage to buy a cup of noodles box from a little shop across the road. Back to the room to put the kettle on and settle in for a miserable night. :-(

Jining to Yuan Ping and my magnificent obsession - Tuesday 20th May.

Well the day started off well enough but deteriorated pretty quickly. I somehow managed to find the wrong road out of Jinning (the map says there is only one!) and spent the first hour travelling a back road till I finally found a sign indicating the G208 (the main road South). Hopped back on the G208 and it was the smoothest new highway I have been on yet - did a few speed runs using the GPS as a proper measure (the bike speedo at this point was indicating anywhere between 0 and off the clock as it jumped around continuously) and saw a genuine 95kph (60mph) flat out.

Continued South and the road deteriorated to the usual Chinese standard but nothing out of the ordinary, I saw a sign saying Xinxhou 116km and thought, hmmm..., I'm making GREAT progress. 2 minutes later I see another sign saying Xinxhou 210km! Did I miss something here?

In hindsight, obviously I did, because there must have been the usual Chinese well camouflaged turnoff lurking behind some bushes. I continued South (West) to discover I was near a town called Pingu, saw a sign to Xinxhou saying 175km and realised I was drastically off track. I turned left onto the Xinxhou road and immediately hit what can only be described (unfortunately no photos as the batteries were flat and not yet recharged) as a dustbowl which then became a 3 metre deep 25km long pit where the road used to be. This pit continued right through the centre of town and the town was effectively divided. It looked like it had been this way for quite some time as well. I did my usual trick of following the locals on their bikes only to find that, hey - is that a river ahead?, and hey does the road go straight through it? Fortunately the river was only around 6ocm deep at the point where I crossed and I managed to lift my feet and stumble across the rocky bottom in 1st gear, only just managing to avoid either stalling or falling off.

I figured this had to be "rock bottom" for the day, but no, the roads only got worse as the road changed back to heavily potholed and cracked concrete and went up and down a mountain.

This was incredibly heavy going - slow and painful and dangerous. Around 6.30pm I pulled in to Yuan Ping 13okm short of my original destination of Taiyuan.

I found the best hotel to take my filthy, dusty battered body to, to be greeted at the door by an urgent "hello". Feeling too tired for conversation I responded with "good evening", figuring that would be well beyond the English language skills of the majority of Chinese, and the small talk woud quickly terminate. No, this little lass ("you can call me Cindey") was a strident sinophobe / europhile, and I should have picked up on the fact that she was also a trifle obsessive. She told me all about her English language classes at school and how much she loved the west and hated China. I was impressed with her language skills - far better than just about any other Chinese person I have spoken with - and as I had just finished a book of Joseph Conrad stories, and was looking for any reason to lighten my backpack, I figured she would appreciate an English language book (which are very rare in China).

Big mistake, 7am and I'm downstairs at breakfast when she comes up to greet me with a "present" for me. At this point I'm getting a trifle worried as she explains how she will do anything to leave China, and she clearly sees me as her passport out of the country. I explain my age, marital status and the fact that I have children her age. She clearly believes I am much younger (she's obviously mistaken my grey hair for blonde - not the first time that has happened).

I manage to extricate myself from the situation with a photograph together and a promise to send her a copy, jump on the bike and I'm outta here with no looking back!

Return from Mongolia (and ride South to Jinning) - Sunday 18th - Monday 19th May

'caught the night express sleeper from Ulaan Baatar to Erenhot. Shared a 4 bed compartment with a Mongolian lady and her adult nephew.

Pleasant enough experience as far as train travel goes, train seemed a little faster and smoother coming back to China (certainly a lot cheaper, at around 1/3rd the price) but I still only managd to snatch 3-4 hours sleep with all the interruptions.

By 12 noon I was back at the hotel and had collected the Haobon, just in time to get to the bank of China to change money, but of course..... catch 22 again, the bank closes from noon till 2.30pm.
So I knew I had less than 6 hours to cover the 330km from Ernhot to Jining to ensure I got there before the banks closed at 6pm. It was a good smooth ride and the Haobon was humming with a strong tail wind.

I arrive at Jinning at 5.57 with the bank manager closing the door in my face. I stuck my foot in and pleaded for assistance otherwise I would be sleeping on the street. 1 hour later and I had succeeded in changing an Aussie $100 note (this bank wouldn't take traveller's cheques). A teller then helped me find the most expensive hotel in town (my most expensive night yet at 180 yuan (or AUD$27 ). I offered him a beer for his troubles and got hit for another 24 yuan (or ten times the price if I'd purchased from a store).

Time for a good long sleep and bright early start for the long ride to Taiyuan.

17 May, 2008

Chinggis can't (or Khan he?) - life in beautiful downtown Ulan Bataar.

Not a lot to say really. I arrived on Thursday afternoon after an enjoyable train trip through the Gobi desert from Erenhot (China) on what turned out to be the Trans Mongolian Express. It starts in Beijing and joins up with the Trans Siberian in Irkutsk en route to Moscow.

Given the difficulties encountered in booking the journey up North, the first thing I did was book my ticket back to China for Sunday night. Since then I have spent a lot of time walking around Ulan Bataar itself, discovering the back streets, and applying for and obtaining my visa for Kazakhstan.

Mongolia is significantly more expensive than China - a taste, I expect, of things to come once I reach Russia.

Prices are surprisingly high, for what is a VERY poor country. Mongolia has limited exports, basically a little copper and some livestock. Surprisingly enough, the main source of income appears to be repatriation of income from family members working overseas - hardly the basis for the future. This doesn't stop the locals from dressing in traditional costume though, whatever the opportunity.

Of course, most of the city is rather run down with broken roads and footpaths, weather beaten buildings and a general dismal air (although this has a lot to do with the fact that winter has just finished, grass is yet to grow and trees are only just starting to bud.

Despite their local culture there is clearly a strong Soviet influence in Mongolia. Interstingly enough, now that the Russians have ceased aid it is South Korea who inject vast sums and are the major Mongolian trading partner.

I did see one optimistic element today though. In what appeared to be the Mongolian equivalent of "Keep Australia Beautiful" day, volunteers were working to remove rubbish from the banks and surrounds of the local river (which unlike most rivers in Asia is surprisingly unpolluted).

It was great to see how common and frequent the tradional gers (yurts) are in both the city and country. If nothing else, the Mongols are certainly very strong on their tradition.

AS I sadi earlier, I took advantage of my time in Mongolia to apply for my Kazakhstan visa. This degenerated into a bit of farce and I ended up supplementing the meagre income of the Kazahstani visa officer quite nicely in order to ensure my visa request was processed promptly.

I also had the opportunity to see a few of the sights and sounds of Ulan Bataar and to take a series of local buses to visit one of the national parks that was close by.