My apologies if the following 3 part series on China comes across as petty and spiteful in places. It was a tough section of the trip. Much tougher than I’d anticipated. As a result, it’s only since I’ve left China that I’ve been able to write the story, as I have started to physically, and mentally recover from the trauma of the experience. I’ve not wanted to purposely paint anybody in a bad light. I’ve just tried to share it as I experienced it.

It has the dubious honour of being my worst travel experience ever. That’s not to say there weren’t many highlights, and a lot of funny moments. China is a wonderful place. It is just that a number of incidents, both in and out of my control, did its best to test me, and my fellow travellers.

As a friend commented recently. ‘It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. And you are definitely having an adventure!’ – Thank you for that pearl of wisdom Jason Behl

I’ll leave you to be the judge. 

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Kashgar's Inner City Lake (Xinjiang, China)

Kashgar’s Inner City Lake
(Xinjiang, China)

Fun Lang arrived just after we finished our lunch. He jumped in my truck and immediately we all crossed into China. There was a simple security and passport check. Then we had a 100km drive down the Tourgat Valley towards Kashgar. The second customs check was meant to be a serious check. In fact, it was laughable, as all they wanted to take was my food. I fought to save my oranges and sausage, by eating, and hiding them from the officials. Get in!!

As Fun was in my truck I got the dubious honour of being the proxy tour leader when he asked me to sign a piece of paper, I couldn’t even read. Congratulations he said, as he scuttled away to continue the paperwork. I’d often filled the role of team organiser with my friends, and so was happy to help out. We had a large group, and if everybody chipped in then, we were sure to have a good trip. Customs was relatively straightforward, as it only took a couple of hours to process everybody.

The next stop was Kashgar, and our first hotel. I was a nice place. The bikers all got rooms, and the trucks were allowed to camp in the car park. Win win for all. We all had showers and met for dinner at 9.30. In what was to be the first of many huge Chinese meals, for just $12 each. Complete stuffed we all headed back to the hotel by 23.30. I crashed in Jose’s (The Brazilian) spare bed, as he kindly offered, and I was absolutely shattered. It was a kind and much appreciated gesture. The fellowship of 9, as I called it, was off to a good start. Months of planning and co-ordinating had come together, and we were all in China as planned. It was a major milestone and one that I’d been looking forward to with a dose of excitement, and trepidation in equal measures.

Boris & Ivor at Vehicle Inspection (Kashgar, China)

Boris & Ivor at Vehicle Inspection
(Kashgar, China)

To enter China, you are required to complete a mountain of paperwork as part of the approval for your group to enter. This meant the following day we had to get our vehicles inspected, and the final paperwork for entry completed. The day got off to delayed start, when Barry (the Aussie) couldn’t find his passport. After a four man search it was located in his room, and we set off. The bikes were first to go through their clearance, and were then free to go. The trucks followed with their inspection. They checked the lights, then the brakes and were they were done. Easy really.

Kashgar's Main Mosque (Xinjiang, China)

Kashgar’s Main Mosque
(Xinjiang, China)

That meant by 3pm we were free to explore the city, and see what it had to offer. It was a hot day, so after wandering for an hour through the markets V, K and I went looking for a cold beer. Two hours later we gave up, and settled for ice cream. Kashgar is a heavily Muslim populated city and as we found out, Muslim’s don’t sell cold beers.

The following day was our first planned day to go sightseeing out of town. It was hot, and the journey was long, so we decided to stay in Kashgar instead. It was early days but the itinerary was already being amended. I spend the day resting and wandering around the town. My stroll took in lakes, markets and fun parks before heading back to the hotel for a team meeting to discuss our plans over the next few days. The meeting involved a lot of questions from everybody on how we should proceed. Departure times, destinations, travel times and potential stopping points. Even though I hadn’t called the meeting, everybody looked to me to run it as I was the one talking to Fun our guide. It was to become a trend of the journey, as it soon become apparent many of the group hadn’t done any research of the route. The fact that I was the only one with a printed copy of our itinerary spoke volumes about people’s level of preparedness.

The Set Up

To give you an idea of how we had arrived at our current position Kashgar, let me take you back to mid 2012. Myself along with Vaughan and Barry had all posted on the HUBB forum looking for people interested in crossing China as a group. The costs were high due the guide requirements. As you only needed one guide for any sized group, the costs would come significantly down, the larger the group. Roughly from $7000 for one car, to $1500 each for two cars and 6 bikes. So there was a great incentive for a larger group. And for the bikes to have a car in the group, as they could carry the guide, and save over $6000 in car and driver costs (@ $175 per day).

Over the course of the next 6 months a group came together, a guide was found (after considering 3 options), and an itinerary was developed. The agreed itinerary had 22 hotel and 12 camping nights to accommodate the group wishes for the 35 day tour. The camping had been requested by the trucks, and was a fair compromise given they were carrying the guide, and hence saving the need to hire another car.

To give you an idea of the group. We had 6 bikers, of which 5 were BMW tourers (that could cruise between 100-130km p/hr), one bike (that could cruise between 100-110 km p/hr), and 2 trucks, my Land Cruiser (that could cruise between 90-110km p/hr) and an Isuzu truck with a home on the back (with a maximum cruising speed of 80-85km p/hr). While it was discussed at the time, I don’t think any of us truly took much notice, as we were focussed on a number of other aspects to the trip. Ultimately this translated into a big difference in speed, and distance that could be covered. It also meant that the bikes would be able to cover the distance considerably faster than the trucks. The bikers were Hans (The German, Barry (The Aussie), Billy (The English Brummie), Willie (The Welshman), Stephen (The Englishman), and Jose (The Brazilian). The trucks were Vaughan and Kimberley, along with yours truly.

The Rules

To travel in China we were advised by Fun there were a number of rules that applied:

  • We had to travel the same route, as a group.
  • We needed to stay together in the same place.
  • We needed to travel with our guide at all times, between destinations.
  • We had to enter, and exit China together, both people and vehicles.
  • Bikes were not allowed on many highways so we would need to be prepared to travel on A roads, if access was denied.

Our guide Fan was prepared to bend the rules a little, which was good from our perspective. We had been made aware that the guides are often not at the level you would expect from western guides. They are often just useful for language and arranging hotels along the way. There knowledge of the areas across the country was often poor. China itself had its own way of doing things, with its own rules. We need to be prepared, to be flexible, and be aware somethings wouldn’t go as planned.

With that all outlined we were all onboard and excited about the journey ahead. Privately though, I had concerns the group might be too big, and of course, there was the issue of how would a group of strangers get on for 35 days across China. I tried to think positively that all would go well. It was a risk I was prepared to take to get to Laos, and to save a chuck of change in the process.

Back in Kashgar, after the meeting Vaughan, Kimberley, Fun and myself headed into town to sort some maps for the everyone, and to get local sim cards for communication purposes. This lead us to a local shopping centre, and an entertaining meeting with a local lad of about 6 years of age. He seemed to roam around the shopping centre, and most staff seem to know who he was. We assumed one of his parents worked there. Anyway, he was a cheeky lad and before long we were poking fun and tongues at each other for amusement.

Next thing we knew, emboldened by our interaction he took it to a new level by running towards us. He’d then stop, turn his bottom in our direction, start spanking his butt at us, before then turning and running off, all the while laughing away to himself. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that, so I returned the favour, much to his amusement. For the next 10 minutes the scene involved a 40 year old and a 6 year old trading physical insults around the store. I then taught him a few new moves, such as the closed fist pump with a slap of left arm on right bicep, and flicking the back of your hand, from under your chin outwards. He took to these like a duck to water, increasing the volume, and range of insults in our direction. It passed for great light entertainment and generated many bemused looks around the store before we had to leave. In a sign of mutual respect, the little fella sprinted down the escalator, and across to the main door to provide one last butt spanking in our direction as we left. He then sprinted off smiling, and feeling pretty pleased with himself.

Enjoying a beer with Ed at John's Cafe (Kashgar, China)

Enjoying a beer with Ed at John’s Cafe
(Kashgar, China)

Later that evening we all headed out for dinner again, and afterwards stopped at John’s Cafe for a few beers. It was here that I ran into Ed Hewitt, a fellow traveller from London. Ed and I had stayed in touch after a London meet up about our respective adventures. He was headed westwards and we’d managed to find a spot where we crossed paths along the way. Check out Ed’s blog at www.bangkok2birmingham.com if you have a moment. His challenge is to travel only on local transport. No relaxing VIP tourist buses for Ed.

Our next destination was Karghilik 260kms away. Fun said it would take 5 hours. However as we were on the highway it only took 3 hours. Therefore we decided to continue onto Hotan, a further 300kms away, and save a day in the itinerary for later use. Most of the bikes just continued onwards, while the trucks stopped for lunch. It was long day by the time the we arrived at 6.30pm. The bikes had arrived an hour or two before us, and had checked into the hotel Fun had arranged. We found them relaxing with a few drinks in the bar.

The benefit of having trucks is that it allowed us to easily camp in the hotel car park. Thus saving us money, and allowing the bikers to have their choice of hotels, which were a little pricer than we would have preferred. It was a good compromise. Everybody was happy.

Vaughan enjoying a drink in the hotel beer garden (Hotan, China)

Vaughan enjoying a drink in the hotel beer garden
(Hotan, China)

After a long day in the V, K and I decided to set up camp and relax with a few beers in the car park. It wasn’t long before the vodka came out as well. After a while, the staff in the hotel kitchen noticed us, and we had an audience. The Chinese are very curious, so before long they came to visit. In our dodgy Chinese, and using sign language we asked if they could cook us some noodles. We weren’t sure if the message had got across, but next thing a young chef turned up in his car with 3 pots of noodles free of charge. Brilliant!! Bizarrely it appeared as thought he had brought them from another restaurant rather than cooking them in his own kitchen. We weren’t complaining. As a treat for their kindness we put on a live version of the Time Warp dance to music in the car park, for their amusement. Who knew drinking beer and vodka in the car park of a 4 star hotel could be so much fun.

With our Chef / Taxi Driver / Party Organiser - Top Lad (Hotan, China)

With our Chef / Taxi Driver / Party Organiser – Top Lad
(Hotan, China)

We were rocking along by the time the chef finished work and decided to take us out of the town. Suffice to say we ended up in a hip local nightclub, where endless dance offs with the locals showed them we had plenty of style and flair. By the time we got home at 3am we were a little worse for wear. And it was no surprise the next day when we had to use our rest day to rest.

The following day our destination was Minfeng. As it had been uncomfortably hot for the bikers during the last day of the road we tried a different approach. We would wait until check out time at 2.30pm, and then travel in the late afternoon Minfeng. Even though it was a scheduled camping night the bikers requested to stay in a hotel, because the heat left them wanting showers, and a relaxing bed. The trucks were fine with this as Fun said it was o.k for us to camp away from the hotel. Though you could feel he was feeling slightly uncomfortable about it. At anytime in China the local police force are entitled to check your credentials. If you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing it could cause trouble. By staying in different locations, technically we weren’t doing what we were supposed too.

We all used the rest of the day to perform vehicle checks. Once again I found Boris leaking fuel from the main tank. Now that I was part of a group on a tight schedule, it wasn’t so straightforward to get repairs done immediately. So I decided to drive to the next location, and see deal with the problem there if it remained.

That day we also heard about the tragedy in Pakistan. 11 climbers were killed by the Taliban in the north of the country. It was the first time climbers had been targeted and it was near the area I was planning to visit later this year. How this would affect the journey was unclear. I would have to wait and see what the impact was. In an unfortunate piece of timing my Pakistan visa application happened to be with the embassy in London being processed, and the itinerary included the area affected. Subsequently, I was required to provide more details to support my itinerary (with any mention of trekking removed).

We departed by 3pm and promptly had a bit of a palaver getting out of town (as V&K’s truck Ivor was so high, it couldn’t get past the height barriers designed to stop trucks driving in towns) and getting fuel for the bikes took longer than expected (the Chinese government considers it too dangerous for bikes to fill up in a petrol station from the pumps, because there hot exposed engines are fire risks. With Fun’s help the station attendant had to move forecourt camera so the government wouldn’t see them filled up). You started to get the impression that large touring bikes weren’t that welcome in China. They were treated like second class citizens basically because nobody in China rides anything over 150cc. As a result bikes are banned from highways and petrol station forecourts. The bikers got pissed off and you could see these sort of issues were going to cause further problems down the line.

We finally made it to Minfeng around 8.30. We arrived as bikers were checking in but they all pissed off to their rooms, so it was difficult to have our team meeting. The timings didn’t work today, and it didn’t feel like anybody showed much consideration to the trucks situation. Stil,l we made camp after getting a quick dinner. It was on a piece of farm land about 15 mins out of town. It was nice to be with the cows, goats, sheep and horses. After a beer and a bitch we felt satisfied to have made it to our first campsite. It had turned into a long day.

Camping Spot Number 1 on   some farmland (Minfeing, China)

Camping Spot Number 1 on some farmland
(Minfeing, China)

We were up for breakfast at 7.15 and back at the hotel by 9am. On the way V&K got stopped in the middle of the road, and nearly arrested by the local military, just for taking a photo of them as they drove past. They only wanted a picture of the truck because it was like their Isuzu. However the military were having none of it. It was a clear message to beware. Amusingly the picture didn’t even come out, and while I waited behind them watching, I filmed the whole thing with my GoPro.

The Taklamakan Desert (Xinjiang, China)

The Taklamakan Desert
(Xinjiang, China)

Today was a big day. We were heading into the Taklamakan Desert. The drive into the desert was spectacular. Extremely beautiful scenery that hid a dangerous place. Since the 1920’s all the rivers in the desert have dried up, so crossing is impossible unless by vehicle. Now there is no drinking water to be found. The road from north to south was built by the oil companies in the 1990’s, all 700km in total. To protect the road from the moving sand dunes there is water irrigation system beside the road from wells of salt water. The water is used to help create, and sustain a strip of vegetation approximately 50 metres wide on each side of the road. Every 5kms, families living next door to these wells, are charged with maintaining them and the irrigations systems attached.

We arrived at Tazhong around 1pm and found the bikers filling up with fuel, so we did too. Then they all pissed off without telling us where they are going. It was bloodly annoying and showed a lack of thought for the rest of the group. Everybody was suffering from the hot conditions but they would just wander off to look after themselves. Eventually once they were all sorted we were able to depart with Fan to find a camping spot. We drove for a couple of hours and found a spot by a river at the northern point of the desert. We parked up, cooked dinner and enjoyed a cold beer. That night we discussed how we could change the set up because it didn’t feel right. We understood that the bikers were struggling in the 40 degree plus heat. We didn’t have a problem with them staying in a hotel, provided Fan was o.k with it, as long as we could still find a camping spot on camping nights. The temperatures in the evening were still cool and good to camp. What was frustrating was there wasn’t any consideration for our situation. We carried the guide, and had to wait for him to sort the bikes out because they were no longer camping. In return all we asked was that they kept us informed and made an effort not to inconvenience us too much.

The Taklamakan Desert (Xinjiang, China)

The Taklamakan Desert
(Xinjiang, China)

The next morning we had a great cooked breakfast and got on the road around 9.15am. We just missed the bikes passing our spot as they had gotten an early start when the conditions were cooler. It was another long day on the road to Kurle. I was feeling very weary from the constant driving. We were spending such long days on the road in hot conditions. Then we would lose an hour or two in the evening sorting the group out before we could relax. I was feeling unhappy about the situation, and I knew V&K were as well. We need to talk with the bikers that night.

We arrived in Kurle around 1pmish. I sorted room with Artur and had lunch with V&K. Followed by a lovely nap that afternoon. I was knackered. Sleep was more important than sightseeing, so I didn’t even go out for a look around.

At the team meeting that night I explained how difficult last couple of days had been, travelling long distances and having to coordinate the group. We asked the bikers to appoint someone act on their behalf with Fun. They agreed to find someone which was great. We acknowledged that the temperature conditions were tough on the bikers and that they should review the itinerary, and suggest any changes that might suit. The idea being we could no doubt find a way, after talking with Fun, to amend the itinerary to find more suitable days to camp. We would discuss the next evening when we arrived in Turpan. Hopeful that we were moving forward, we all enjoyed an eat all you can buffet at the hotel. Sleep came easily that night.

On the road by 9ish as part of the new regime. It was nice to be able to go my own pace as we travelled over the Tien Shen mountain range. and stop for lunch in the Turpan basin. The change in temperature was amazing as we descended down from the mountains into the basin. It decreased 22 degrees in 20 mins coming down according to the bikers.

At lunch I quizzed Fun about the government structure in China. As I understood it, it went something like this. There are 2777 regions (filled with police, local govt, university, companies, and local people in the communist party) which hold elections every 5 years. These representatives choose a 300 person committee that last 5 years as well. This committee is responsible for the regions. They in turn choose a 7 person bureau that last for 10 years, and they in turn choose 1 general secretary, also for a 10 year period. Everybody else (who are not members of the communist party) are general referred to as the common people, and they just live there lives, and do what they are told.

Fun also gave me an insight into why he prefers dealing with foreign tourists. One point was that we just pay the agreed price. Apparently Chinese tourists want to negotiate as they think guide is getting kick backs from shops and restaurants. Another interesting point is that Chinese tourism used to be subsidised for people travelling to Xinjiang province. They was one of the ways the government tried to increase the Han population numbers. This was done to off set the large Uighur Muslim population. With the new Chinese bureau in charge the policy has stopped. Along with a rise in hostile protests by local Uighur Muslim population, local tourism and business in the region is currently suffering.

A stark illustration of this occurred two days before our arrival in Turpan when local Muslim protesters stormed a police station resulting in the deaths of 16 protestors and 6 policemen. There was an increased, and nervous police presence when we came into town that day. Unfortunately it’s not an isolated incident as the local Muslim population want independence from China. The region is now 40:40:20 Muslim/Han/Other in total of 23 million people. The Chinese government has flooded the area with Han people to gain better control. China to, has its internal problems, based on centuries old conquests of areas within its current borders.

The Coup

It had been a fun day on the road and most enjoyable. That night in the hotel we relaxed before meeting up to discuss our next plans. I was hopeful things were back on track. How wrong I was. At the meeting 4 (Hans, Barry, Billy, and Willie) of the 6 bikers produced a bombshell. They decided they wouldn’t camp at all, and that was that. It was too hot and had they been aware of the conditions they wouldn’t of agreed to camp. They also had decided that the weather would be too wet later in the journey so they wouldn’t bother then either. It was obvious none of them had done any meaningful research into the itinerary, and the conditions to expect. It seemed they were only interested in getting the group together to save cash, and get across China. They were happy to have the vehicles along, as it would save them the burden of having to pay $6000 for hire a car and driver. However they weren’t prepared to consider the other members of the group and find a compromise. All they could suggest was, you are free to camp if you want. Conveniently ignoring the rules stated above that said we had to stay together as a group.

The small group hadn’t even included two of the other bikers in the discussion. The delivery was dictated rather than requested. I thought we had turned a corner yesterday but this had just blown it out of the water. It was totally unreasonable and unfair in my book. I tried to mediate the situation, and you could see there was a number of very uncomfortable people who didn’t like what was going on. But it had been said and done. Who knew what this would do to the group.

I got out of there and spent the evening with V&K. We had dinner and a few beers, while we cursed the wankers. They now became the Bike Wankers!! Tensions were high – both amongst locals, and tourists.

The morning after the coup as I referred to it as, I was still fuming. A night of sleeping on it, did nothing for me. I missed the sightseeing session, as I didn’t want to be around people that could so callously self serving, and show no thought or consideration to their fellow travellers in the group. I was not sure how to handle the situation. My feelings moved from minute to minute. One moment it was screw you guys to, let’s try and sort a compromise (again!!). I ran into Stephen at breakfast and we discussed the situation again. He had been kept out of the decision, and was flabbergasted by the approach the others had taken.

On top of trying to figure out our options Boris had started leaking fuel again, all over the hotel forecourt. I found Fun and we found a mechanic to sort it out. I also asked them to check the rear diff oil levels and top them up if need be as there was a small leak. When we returned they had patched the tank and filed up the diff oil level. They had used nearly 1 litre which was a concern.

The damaged section of my fuel tank (Turpan, China)

The damaged section of my fuel tank
(Turpan, China)

That afternoon V,K & I discussed options for leaving the group with Lun. We didn’t want to travel with a bunch of wankers. Putting vehicles on a truck to the border, and travelling by ourselves was a considered option. The problem for Fun was that the vehicles all had to leave together. Also he need to be transported with the group. Personally I wasn’t feeling so inclined to continue carrying the guide for the bikers benefit, especially when they were so inconsiderate.

Instead we did something the bikers should have done. I looked at the forecast to see what it would be like. We discussed what we could do for the bikers to make it easier for them to camp. Carrying their stuff, carrying water for them to shower, carrying food for their dinner. Remaining open to hotel nights if the conditions weren’t suitable. Basically being as flexible as we could, as you would hope anybody would be in a group environment.

That night V,K and I went down to the lobby to see if anybody would show up for what had become our regular 8pm slot to discuss. The bikers just happened to be passing by so we pulled everybody together to discuss again. Earlier Barry had summarised the situation in an email. I could tell he was uncomfortable about the situation. He was the one guy in the bikers that had put a massive amount of work into pulling the group together in the first place. It helped to break the frosty mood and give us something sensible to discuss. That with our offerings of help it got things back on track. Amazingly the ring leaders from the night before denied saying that they wouldn’t camp at all. Unbelievable really.

A tentative peace agreement had been reached. But where we would go from here? Nobody could be sure.

We still had 26 days on the road together…

3 Responses to “China Part 1 – Unhappy Campers, Bike Wankers and Butt Spankers”

  1. Good grief!

  2. Jeepers… bring on Part 2.

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