08 May, 2008

General musings - why are there no birds in China?

Strange but true. It took me a day or two to put my finger on what I thought was missing in China then it dawned on me.

It's not fair to say there are NO wild birds, but there are very, very few. I saw maybe one or two a day of some variety of black and white long tailed bird. There are also plenty of domestic fowl (chickens and ducks) and birds in cages.

Having travelled in many countries I am quite puzzled by this and my only explanation is that for the Chinese to feed their huge population, they cannot afford to have wild birds eating the seeds of crops, and as a result they have all been systematically exterminated.

It's the same with insects too. You rarely see a fly, or a wild bee, or a cockroach or any other insect which could be considered a pest. Unlike other countries where the visor on your helmet quickly becomes opaque from the constant splats of dead butterflies and grasshoppers it happens exceedingly rarely here.

Update 13/5/08. I'm now in Erenhot and lo and behold I am actually seeing some birds. Erenhot is a frontier town in Inner Mongolia (China) right on the border of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia). I went to visit the dinosaur monument (Erenhot is famous for dinosaur bone discoveries) in the desert to try and clear my head today after my frustrations of not being able to take the Haobon out of China and into Mongolia. It looks like because the land is only desert the birds are safe because there are no crops for them to eat. In any case, these birds looked like some form of desert sparrow (think sparrow with a slightly longer tail and a yellow brownish body) and flew around in small flocks of 3-5 birds. They had a pleasant chirp and looked happy living with the lizards (hundreds of small frill necked lizards) .

ANOTHER THING I HAVE NOTICED - why are there no cinemas in China?

Yes, I've looked and not found one cinema in any city or town. I have two possible explanations:
1. They are outlawed by the government for political and cultural reaons; or
2. There is a limited audience for cinema as most homes have cable (actually satellite) TV and a DVD player. Pirate DVDs are ubiquitous and readily available.

On the road day 10 - (1/2 day) DingZhou to Beijing

DingZhou to Beijing - 200km.

Today I would reach Beijing, the ex-home of Mr Mao.

It was a plain and simple ride and I would be there before lunch.

48km from Beijing there is a police check point. I just slowed down, looked to see if anyone was interested in me (they were too intent on going through the buses and trucks with a fine tooth comb) and just kept on riding.

I was nervous about being stopped though as there are very VERY few motorcycles, but lots of bicycles, in Beijing (there are strict regulations for motorcycles in the city) and I am not sure how much interest they incur from the local police.

I'm now staying in a hostel approx 200 metres outside the 2nd ring road (in which motorbikes are not allowed) and doing fine. Total distance ridden is now 3,800kms.

My hostel is only a short walk from Tianamen Square.

..... and with the olympics coming up shortly there is constant renovation.

Major issues enroute to Beijing have been:

1. Crazy, crazy drivers trying to kill both myself and themselves - incidentally I saw a major crash every day and have seen 3 riders cleaned up by cars (I saw one this morning which I am sure was a fatality).

2. Roadworks everywhere, meaning lots of rough roads (my poor tush!) and lots of dust and dirt.

3. Diesel fumes - especially from those 3 wheeled trucks. Combined with the dust it means me and my clothing end up filthy each day. I hate to think what the inside of my lungs look like.

Overall though I can't say enough about all my other interactions with the Chinese people, whether officials or otherwise. Everyone has been most friendly, including all the police. They just love foreigners and really do go out of their way to assist you.

On the road Day 9 - Xinxiang to Dingzhou

Xinxiang to Dingzhou - 480km

A little bit tougher today as there are frequent road works and it is really bumpy and dirty in parts.

The closer I get to Beiijing along the G107 it seems the worse the road becomes - the following sequence of photos shows the deterioration from a four lane divided highway with smooth bitumen, to rough bitumen to a gravel track.

The day was going smoothly up till around 2.30pm when all of a sudden the suspension starts to feel not quite right. I pull over to confirm my second rear puncture in two days of riding. This time I'm well away from any towns and the thought of pushing is not appealling. I discover that the little Haobon is quite comfortable riding at speeds up up to 30kmh in 3rd gear even with a totally flat rear.

After riding for 5km I find a little roadside bike repair centre. Unlike most repair shops in the west, however, this one has an outdoor workshop under a shade tree (the inside of the shop is basically just a storeroom). I pull in to find the shop is owned and run by a woman (I'm guessing she learned her skills in the military. She removes the tyre to find another nail and a stuffed tube. I get her to put a new tube in and also buy a set of crash bars off her for 35 yuan ($5). Unfortunately she was not keen on having her photo taken so the back of her head is the best I could manage!

I needed the crash bars because my derriere is red raw from 10 -12 hour days on rough roads on a saddle that has maybe 10mm of cushioning on a good day (you guys complaining about the Burgie saddle honestly have no idea). Now I can use the crash bars as highway pegs to get a little relief in my seating position.

Once repaired it was time to hit the road again and complete the remaining kilometres to Dingzhou where I was able to enjoy the local seafood delights for supper.

On the road day 8 - Lingbao to Xinxiang

Lingbao to Xinxiang - 450km.
After saying farewell to the very friendly team at the hotel in Lingbao it was time to continue my journey.

More relatively easy riding today with lots of cars, bikes, trucks and you name it - 3 wheelers of all descriptions. the best part of my day was spent continuing East to Zhengzhou at which point you turn left and head North up to Beijing.

A big problem riding along these roads is that you end up black with soot from the diesel fumes of the trucks.

Finding my way through Zhengzhou was the usual struggle but once I was out of town I quickly came to, and crossed the Yellow River on the G107 freeway, which fortuitously allowed motorcycles to travel on it.

Speeding North at 6.10pm and starting to look for a rest spot for the evening, I feel the Haobon losing power (not as if it has a lot to begin with). I thought this strange but thought it best not to stop there and then (in the middle of a freeway) as there was a sign saying that 2km ahead is a fuel services stop. I kept riding and then pulled into the services.

As I slow way down, something feels a little odd as the Haobon starts to sway gently from side to side and I look down to confirm the rear is flat. Fortunately the services had a tyre repair centre which was still open (for cars and trucks) and the usual helpful team of Chinese workers pulled the tyre to find a 2" nail and a totally shredded tube. Not having bike tyres and tubes in his stock of spares, the repair guy went off somewhere (into the nearest town I think) and half an hour later returned with a new tube.

Not being familiar with motorcycles I had to show him how to remove the wheel so we could replace the tube.
15 minutes later I'm back on the road and travel only another 20km or so before pulling into Xinxiang for the night.

On the road day 7 - 1/2 day) Xian to Lingbao - 300km.

Xian to Lingbao - 300km.

Today I took it easy and spent only half my day in the saddle.

After spending the morning changing traveller's cheques and a brief walking tour of Xian it was 1pm before I hit the road.

I had my usual struggles finding the correct route out of town but once on my way I found the riding much easier now that was back on the flat lands. Alas along with the mountains went much of the beauty. Temperatures were also rising again back and the land was clearly more arid than before.

Overall it was a relatively straight forward 1/2 day ride with the only difficulties being the usual constant roadworks, finding my way into and out of the small cities (cities with an average population of 250,000 are roughly 100kms apart with many smaller towns of 100,000 citizens dotted in between), and avoiding the truck drivers who believe they own the road.

However, I did find difficulties in finding a hotel in Lingbao. I was turned away from all of the smaller establishments and pointed to the main tourist hotel in town. Being quite late by this stage I was worried that even they may not accommodate me and I might be sleeping by the side of the road. As it turned out the hotel was more than happy to have me as a guest and even though I paid the premium rate, it was less than $20 per night, representing excellent value as I am sure I would easily pay 10 times that much for the equivalent at home.

On the road Day 5 - Friday 2 May - Wanyuan to Xian

Wanyuan to Xian - 500km.

This day was a killer on the road but the payoff was some beautiful scenery and great interactions with the local community.

Travelling through tiny villages crammed up against cliftops whilst travelling through narrow river valleys.

These roads then snaked up and down mountains affording eye watering views.

In the valleys themselves were many wooden suspension bridges over the rivers and it was quite an adventure to walk across them.

Lots and lots of going up and down mountains, lots of trucks and crazy drivers.

I passed an overturned truck which was carrying beehives. The truck drivers had set up all the hives alongside the road in order to keep the bees happy, whilst they had set up camp awaiting a tow into the next major town. With the help of my trusty electronic translator they were able to indicate that they had been camped for two weeks and weren't sure when a replacement truck was arriving.

In China trucks are all painted standard bright colours - either blue, red, yellow or green dependent on their size and carrying capacity. Many times I passed, or was passed by convoys of new trucks leaving the manufacturing plants around Chongqing enroute to their new owners.

Twice I had to climb mountains up to almost 3,000 metres and the poor old Haobon was running rich and had no power. A number of times I was riding flat out in 2nd gear at 30km/h trying desperately to stay ahead of trucks bearing down on me. In addition, the tops of those mountains were very cold especially as night started to fall.

I eventually descended into 33C heat and made it into Xian around 8.30pm. I then found my way unassisted throuh the gates of the old city and into the centre of town and after an hour or so of asking various policemen discovered I was only 250 metres away from the hostel I was aiming to stay at that evening.

Like most hotels in China (and throughout Asia for that matter) the owners allowed me to safely park the Haobon inside their courtyard for the night.

The next day was spent sightseeing including an organised tour to the Terracotta Warriors.

Xian is very much a tourist city, very pretty, but nothing like the true China I have experienced until now.

Whilst nice to relax in this city, I do feel sorry for the tourists and travellers who fly or take a train from one big tourist city to the next, it simply does not provide them with the opportunity to expereince anything more athan a picture postcard view which bears little resemblance to reality for your average Chinese citizen.

On the road Day 4 - Thursday 1 May. Chongqing to Wanyuan

Chongqing to Wanyuan - 450km.

I was dreading finding my way out of Gongqing back on to the 210 North. Unable to read any local signs (and with battery flat in my GPS) I chose to navigate by the sun knowing that I needed to head NNW. Amazingly enough 1.5 hours of zigzagging later later, and when I was ready to give up I saw a sign saying 210 with an expressway picture and a diagonal bar across it.

It was then afairly uneventful, but exciting ride along the river valleys to Wanyuang apart from lots of road work and lots of diesel trucks belching black smoke.

On checking into my hotel I looked in the mirror and realised why the hotel owner looked at me with trepidation. My face was almost black with dirt and my once blue jeans were now gray/brown with dust and diesel fumes!