“We took the customary summit photos and ate some chocolate. I felt the usual anticlimax. What now? It was a vicious circle. If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it’s not long before you’re conjuring up another, slightly harder, a it more ambitious – a bit more dangerous. I didnt like the thought of where it might be leading me. As i in some strange way, the very nature of the game was controlling me, taking me towards a logical but frightening conclusion; it always unsettled me; this moment of reaching the summit, this sudden stillness and quiet after the storm, which gave me time to wonder at what i was doing and sense a niggling doubt that perhaps i was inexorably losing control – was i really here for pleasure or egotisim? did i really want to come back for more? But these moments were also good times, and i know that the feelings would pass. Then I could excuse them as morbid pessimistic fears with no sound basis.” Joe Simpson Touching the Void

It seems very strange to be reminising about the trip already but sat here in Laos but for the first time Martin and I looked through the photos of China, from the very start when we made a video in Tajikistan where with brash excitment we proudly proclaimed to the camera that we where only 200 miles away from the chinese border. Back then china appeared as just another country. “It is big sure, but 5000km at 100km a day means that it could be done in 60 days with 10 rest days to see stuff…” famous last words eh?!

Well that was my original idea but it is fairly clear to anybody who has been reading this of late that to complete the goal of cycling across China it has taken more miles, time, effort and money than I could ever have envisaged in my optimistic naviety. When planning a route across the third biggest country in the world, i would suggest that your planning extends further than taking a blade of grass, ripping it to scale with that of the map and then aligning it and going, hmmmm one thousand, two, three, four, no, certainly no more than five thousand kilometres…

We crossed the border into Laos on the 26th of December. I reached the border before Martin as the last day left us only 55km to do and I refused stubbornly to use the granny ring. I wanted out of the country and I charged head down the whole way in childish excitment arriving to a non descript customs building to no fanfare, no dancing band and no hand shakes. Just the ubiquitous Chinese bus of tourists taking photos of themselves stood outside the aforementioned buildings.

Sat on the ground I was reminded of the time on the last trip when I crucifed myself to get into Istanbul. The same elation tinged with a sense of dissapointment. The quote above touches this feeling in a more elequant fashion than I could ever write… You give three months of your life to something, you dream of this day for so long and then when it comes it will never be able to live up to your expectations. so instead I sat on the kerb listening to Black Sabbath and waited for the smiling face of Martin to arrive studiously trying to ignore the group of women shouting “change money?” at me.

To get to that border and to have that special little moment, well it was 105 days in the end and just over 4000 miles of cycling from the border with Kygrystan to the country of Laos. Average cycling distance per day? We estimate that only 25 days of the 105 where rest days so roughly 50 miles a day or 38 if taken as a total. that does not sound like much when viewed as a daily average but the thing I wish to try and convey to you was the relenting pace that we had to maintain in order to get out of China.

Wake up, eat, strike camp, martin zeros his odo as I do not know how to do mine, ride 20k, stop and eat something. Ride another 20k and eat something else. Ride yet another 20 and stop and have lunch. Lunch which involves walking into a restaurant being stared at, picking a table with a view of the bikes then walking into the kitchen and pointing at food and the wok and doing the international gesture of fry this food for me then walking back out of the kitchen normally saying “i have no XXXXing idea what we are getting mate” grabbing a can out of the fridge and peeling the paper of the chopsticks and waiting. You then force as much food regardless of wether it is good or bad into your stomach before you encouter the gag reflex. At this point one more mouthful means you are full enough to cycle in the afternoon and then the haggle over the price, “25 for rice, no no no no….” then back on the bikes with a heavy stomach and the midday sun. Another 20k and a rest and something to eat then the last 20 with tired legs looking for somewhere to sleep, making sure there is food and water for the morning. Put up the tents, start the primus eat noodles yet again, blow up the roll mat, lock the bikes to the tent, read a couple of pages then fall asleep.

The routine changed depending on the landscape. In the desert it truly was the monotous regime that i have described above mixed in with mile after mile of slip streaming. After Xinging when China truly starts in the more arable lands and then south into the mountains, distances decreased, slip streaming became too dangerous but the food, the breaks and the rhythm never really changed.
And that is why my feelings of China have been so negative. China was merely a backdrop I feel to a physical challenge. This for me was never about discovering the sights of China, it was about getting across it. Martin saw the pandas in Chengdu (I stayed in bed, “xxxx the pandas.. youve seen one panda youve seen them all…”), we both refused the high entrance fee to the giant buddha in Leshan but other than that, no tourist attractions whatsoever. No great wall of china, no terracotta army, no world expo… nothing is left in my mind but a fading blur of road and chinese food.

So do i feel that the energy and time expended on this was a waste of effort? No. I am left with a strange taste in my mouth for sure but as i said to Martin the other night “that was the best trip I have ever done on a bike in the worst country i have ever been too”. china is as mad as a box of frogs. That is all you need to know. I am of the opinion that if you are from the west you could spend the rest of your life living within the country and still not come to any solid conclusions as to how it operates or the mentality of the populace. The cliche of “an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery” holds true.

The Chinese are inscrutable but when viewed as a whole the Chinese population deserve the utmost respect for many reasons. Living within a beuarcratic corrupt police state that mixes hypocritical political ideology with the rampant greed of consumerisim and short term profit taking they are not given much room for free expression or lateral movement.
In a country where children as young as 4 or 5 walk down the street with a red hankerchief tied round their neck to signify their membership of the communist party and where re-education camps (which are not a fallacy) can be found juxtaposed against hummers, mercedes and all the outward trappings of the new burgoning middle class one feels that china is a thirld world country that has just won the lottery. Slightly naieve and gauche but with the confidence that new money brings with it.

But has this money made a difference to the populace? For me I can only comment on the limited section I have seen with reference to the time frame i passed through in. Thirty years ago I am led to believe that China had a limited number of private vehicles on the road, bicycles ruled the streets and people where coming out of a time when millions had just died from starvation. So it would be morally reprhensible to say that the growth that china has experinced via industrilastion is anything but positive. (The negative side of enviromental destruction, pollution and the elephant sitting very proudly in the corner of the room with a big sign painted on its side saying “errr not much oil left there guys… and how exactly do you have a system of infinite growth based on a planet with a finite level of resources…?” shall be firmly ignored)

Chinas defence of its amusing archaic hypocritical political stance is that the new wealth of the nation is being socialised. This means that the country gets richer together. Leaving Central Asia and coming into china that stance is validated in that there are actually sealed roads, electricty and clean drinking water. The basic essentials are supplied by the state even into the furthest regions we found but this then poses the thorny question as to wether China should be having involvment in these regions. Namely everything in the autonomous regions in the desert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang) down to Tibet.

Xinjiang you have to accept will always be chinese because there are deposits of oil and natural gas. This area will never be relinquished and is home to a people who appear lost in the middle of the world, cut off from the rest by mountain ranges and immense distances there life now a pale copy of the chinese one played out in patchy oasis towns. The uyghur people that we met almost represented the emptiness of the distance. Always staring with vacant eyes and open mouths one felt that the barren geography had impressed itself into the minds of these people. A strange land full of peopled fuelled with nothing but sheep kebabs, bad bread and a hatrid of the Chinese moving into their land.
Visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/apr/05/china.tibet then start writing letters to your local MP who I can confidentally predict could not give a XXXX. That is if they can even find it on a map in the first place. This area, never had nor never will be as fashionable as the cause of the Tibetans. It is however I feel more relevant to China.

As for Tibet.. The original idea for me was to try and take the southern road through into Khatmandu. Unable to afford the cost of a tour guide and worried about my ability to cycle for an extended period at high elevation, unsupported on a bike that is really not designed for such roads I left any dreams about Tibet to the end when I thought we could dip through on the same route that Ian took. Finding out that sleeping with your boots on in minus 15 nights is not fun, led us back to the safety of lower altitudes and we dispensed with any ideas of Tibet. to late in the season, too cold, too much of a risk in jepaordising the bigger picture of getting across China. We later learnt of some Germans that had to come down off the hills in a bus abonding the idea of cycling because of a frost bitten finger. It really is cold up there.
So ultimately we saw no more than the border lands as we skirted around the area. You can imagine how frustrating it is cycling through the desert with mountains rising up out of the ground on your right hand side knowing that you are unable to go inside. That makes the incentive to ride in there even greater. I strongly belive that a trip through Tibet would be one of the most incredible places you could cross on a bicycle, but not at the moment. maybe in 5 years I do not know.. but at the moment you have two options, One go in unsupported and avoid the road blocks and blag it or two throw a lot of money and have someone follow you in a 4×4. Or go for the ultimate and avoid the road blocks altogether and cycle where there are no roads. Google crossing the Tang Chang for the adventures of one man we met. Think your tough?

Moving away from being unable to get into the area, the political situation was still visible in the Tibetan areas we cycled through. Dancing in Tibetan nughtclubs with Chinese miltary police watching you and the outright refusal to camp due to what could ony be either an outright fear or ditrust of any foreigners will last with me for a long time. China has been in Tibet for 60 years now and will not be leaving any time soon. The conflict between a nomadic cluture without fences with one that wants to put fences up.. Its happened before and will happen again. As an english person I can not take the moral high ground on this one by any stretch of the imagination, but its in this crucilble that the only conculsion you can draw is that the tibetans have a moral right to this land. The more i travel the more you start to understand that the communities that still live within the limits of the land are the ones that are the most special.

Hyper growth as seen in china with the ubiquitious concrete mixer seen throughout the land has left a network of identikit cities that are utterly souless and void of any true character. designed with rulers and budgets they have not evloved naturally to fit the local populace. Truly horrendous places in many respects and that more than anything is what scraes me about Tibet. If the Tibetans fall victim to the Chinese growth model then the people will be forced down off the hills, moved into high density housing and expected to produce and consume like the rest of us.

Some areas of this world where we live have a carrying capacity for a limited number of people. Once exceeded then either the soil is depleted, maintained as a sponge to squirt more petro chemicals on or food and resources are brought in. the tibetans have been living in a sustainable fashion for many years and i might be painting a romantic picture naively but a life in a yurt has to beat a life in a chinese new city.
As long as China is of importance to us in the west as a trading partner then Tibet will never be free. Our governmenents are We are happy to turn a blind eye to the many atrocities that have been performed in this part of the world and instead scare us with stories about men with turbans who are jealous of our freedoms…

The tibetan areas ended as we started heading south. The landscape became hiller after the desert and the sheer mass of population squeezed into these arable lands is incomprehensible. China has 7 percent of the worlds arable lands with nearly a quarter of the worlds population. every square inch is farmed. Every square inch. the inguenity of the local population in finding a little bit of land to stick some cabbbages is truly remarkable but it makes putting a tent up absolute hell. Hence the never ending terracing meant night after night in the cheapest hotels in towns. Some where good, most where bad and a huge amount of them ended with a knock on the door at ten at night with the police asking to see our passports.

Brief moments of respite where offered in the form of hostels where we encoutered other westerners and western food. Riding away from these protected little ghettos back into the land of staring, squatting, spitting and shouting was always the hardest. As was knowing the distances ahead. 4000km to go, 3000km to go, 2000km to go, my god we are still here….

The arable lands gave way to the forests of Yunnan. Over the tropicum we rode through bamboo forests, past elephants (chained to posts in yet another shocking display of chinas treatment of animals), huge spider webs, snakes on the road and rubber plantations. this landscape gave rise to the glorious feeling that we where entering the tropics and china was coming to a close. the skin of the pople was getting darker, the archietcuture had changed to pole buildings and days where spent riding along looking at the ingenious ways bamboo is utilised in furniture, motorcycle panniers, motorcycle helmets, hats, houses, fishing reels, winnowing trays. There is something special in seeing these things being made and for me it was one of the highlights of the trip. Old men sat by the side of the road stripping bamboo canes into progressively thinner pieces before weaving them into something eminently practical.

Then christmas in the woods, we went to a restaurant where we bought meat (still unidentified), spuds, and beer then rode down the road, up into a rubber forest where a fire was built then a hammock was slung between trees and the dissapointment of missing friends and family back home was dutifuly ignored. The fact that the Chinese outside of the main cities could not care less about the day made life easier but it was still a day to be forgotten in many ways.

After this it was a rush to the border where we met a geordie who had tourettes cycling north to Kunming to get a visa. Cycling with a bottle of spirits and very little equipment he personified the whole “i dont give a XXXX because it will all work out…” mentality.

After the border we met Cathy a wonderful Kiwi woman who was cycling round with her ukulele. sat in a restaurant on the laos side singing xmas songs was not something I will forget for a long time. A very nice and helpful woman. Good luck on your future travels.

Then 4 fast days of Laos where we met a helpful Canadian coming north (www.CoveringTheGlobe.com) who gave us news on the road ahead. The mountains felt like hills after the gruelling stretch after Kunming and we rode down two days faster than expected overtaking on the last day two slightly beligerent old dutch ladies. The first I have to mention who tried to ignore me on the road. It seems that the cycling community is very small, only two degrees of seperation exists in that you meet another guy on a bike and they know mutual friends or know people who know them. This link I feel is the product of a shared empathy, if you are on a bike you understand that you need the help of other cyclists for information and advice. Plus the simple joy of knowing there is somebody else as stupid as you in the part of the world… So it was an immense surprise to see the two dutch be so rude. We are guessing that they flew in having only two panniers and where not enjoying the ride as it was stinking hot and the hills where steep and the road unsurfaced and covered in a layer of fine dust that was thrown up every time a car passed… or they where apalled at the sight of someone who has worn the same clothes day and night and not showered for two weeks… could be the latter….

Either way it ended comically in that we ended up staying at the same guest house that night and then in the same restaurant, and then we met on the road three times and then in laung prabang… so no it was not awkward for either party in the slightest as we studiously tried to ignore one another…

And then into Luang Prabang where the same game was conducted. Lots and lots of westerners all walking down the street trying to imagine that they are the only ones here with the locals… LP is very very toruisty. A world heritage town full of restaurants and bars. But the quality is high. Higher than anywhere i saw in china, there is bread, cheese, instant yeast, tim tams, leffe, beef steak in a blue cheese sauce, duck pate, red wine that is from france and not relabbeled cooking wine (ian checked the label after months in china a bottle of wine is still to something to be slighty feared… truly the most horrendous wine ever to be tasted no matter how you spend on a bottle) and joy of joys sandwiches on the street made with chicken cheese and bacon.

It has been wonderful to reach this point of the journey and to have shared the last couple of days with ian again who made it out of Vietnam and here despite mechanical problems feels like the perfect ending of China. Ian after arriving very kindly too Martin and I out for cocktails and dinner to celebrate crossing china and meeting up again. To sit in a restaurant with a knife and fork, a cloth napkin, clean unchipped plates and a wine menu. My god that evening will live with me for a very long time. After drinks in a bar that faces out onto the river, we left and ended up in a local nightclub with a 50 year old guy from Manchester who hilariously explained to Ian that he was on the sick in England and was just travelling round here for a bit… Ian then still in his capacity as a medical proffesional dispensed medical advcie to a random english girl in the club. all this whilst a 5 year old child was playing next to our feet in the middle of the nightclub at 1 in the morning….

There are a fair few freaks here it has to be said. After coming out of central asia, china and now into south east aisa it is my firsy introduction with the eclectic people that spend time here. There are long term travellers, drop outs, sexual predators lurking in the bars for local girls, sexual pervets who are with their asian younger girlfriends who are barely out of puberty…, drug abusers, ukranian fire spinning photographers who travel with their cats, short term tourists and my favourite the backpacker.
I feel it would be remiss of me not to share with you dear reader some of the best-over-heard-being-said-by-a-backpacker- quotes with you: (country indicates nationality of those that unleased these beauties…

“we are off to see some old whores weave some shit” Australia

“yeah i won 86 thousand dollars on online poker” UK

“yeah and i am in a bar and a bunch of whores tried to knife me” Ireland
me_ “so why did you get in a fight with a bunch of whores?”
I_ “we where drinking in this bar right to see the ping pong”
me_ “ping pong?”
I_ “yeah ping pong”
me_ “what your playing ping pong in a bar?”
I_ “No, the girls get the ping pong balls then spray them out of their snatch”

Me: So you have been to thailand?
Australia: “yeah i have a good connect in thailand. Good peoples in thailand bra”
_long pause_
_even longer pause_
“but the thai government, no good bra. no good bra. r.”
_short pause_
_”good chillum in thai bra. No what I mean bra. Good connect in thailand bra.”
_very very long pause_

The guy at this point then realises a tuk tuk driver is outside, throws his pool cue down, runs off from the pool table out into the road shouting
“wait!! I need opium”

Vang Vieng is the next stop on the road. 200km from here and it it is a place that you are either going to love or hate we have been told. It will be interesting if nothing else.. In the meantime I am going to spend the next few days doing nothing and debating whether to drop five dollars on a packet of cornflakes…

I will leave you with some of martins photos from the last stretch.. he has quite an eye you have to admit :) He is also the first Uruguayan ever to cycle across China.. worlds first ladies and gents :)
Going from left to right across the rows…

1- man with knife after just killing the pig. you heard one of those scream…
2- local meat market with all the motorbikes
3- one of martins rare punctures…
4- riding through a 2km tunnel, head torch flashing trying to miss the holes you can see on the right of my rear wheel. this was a good one, most of them did not have lights…
5- cooking chips by the side of the road
6- no idea?
7- cyclists :)
8- unsealed road out of kunming. we tried the motorway and ended up being given a police escort off it…
9- one of the best camp sites we found in china, a group of lads came shortly after who shouted us dinner and a bottle of spirits
10- bong hits with a fag. no really.
11- ok..
12- crawling down a hill off the side of the road where the barbed wire had been pulled away we found these elephants chained up with neither food nor water….
13- xmas eve
14- old china
15- another puncture
16- overtaking lang
17- Text on the very upmarket bakery sign that martin is standing outside of brandishing proudly a free coffee they gave us for drawing such a crowd (more than the poor girl on the microphone trying to get people in…) reads below… (i should mention five minutes after this photo was taken we turned down an interview with the local paper “no interviews today, too busy!”…


18- good cafe very bad bread
19- mao. did he even understand his own country?


2 Responses to “”

  1. Sy says:

    Happy new year!
    2010 what year for both you and I :-)

  2. Eric says:

    Hello !
    Thanks for the picture :)
    Nice to see that you are going well with Martin.

    It took me nearly an hour to read your stuff and related links … :) So now I don’t have time any more to update my own website … Thanks …

    We are in Hanoi, will be in Lao in about 12 days …

    Good Luck !!

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