Jason Mardell Ditches His Comfort Blanket As He Crosses The Border Into China, A Country That Has Long Been A Mysterious Destination For Riders

‘Hello. This is China calling. Please could you come straight over, there is something you need to see’. I’ve been getting these calls in my head for a few years now. I’ve been truly lucky to ride all over the world but the seemingly closed shop of China has always been tugging away, pointing fingers at the map, flashing subliminal messages to my nose, eyes and ears, constantly tempting me to go ‘orienteering’. ‘OK. I’m on my way. I’ll be there shortly’. A simple plan was hatched. Distance: Far. Direction: East.

I’ve done a lot of bike touring, maybe 80,000 miles including RTW in 2002 and I have often wrapped myself in the thick comfort blanket of an organised supported tour but this time I decided I’d try and leave the blanket at home, or at least just take a thinner one. Looking at the route, my apprehension increased as I looked east. Europe, fine. Russia, the butterflies take flight. Kazakhstan, I need the toilet. Kyrgyzstan, where can I buy a pay-as-you-fire Kalashnikov? China, I want my mummy. Time to consult some experts. Praying to the God of Google led me to Steve at MotoExplorers. They offer a full menu from a snack and a coke right through to three courses plus cheese and biscuits. The maximum time I could hang up the rat suit was 10 weeks so I chose a light entrée and main from Steve and decided I’d sort the rest myself.

Journeys like this are getting easier all the time. Only Russia and China required visas and once that was sorted I was ready to go. I’d arranged to meet Steve and some other riders in Kazakhstan so I set off, me, my bike, and my booking.com buddy carrying my pillow. Across Europe and  into Mother Russia and Moscow in a flash then south to Saratov on the Volga. Down into Kazakhstan and Uralsk 10 days after leaving home where the others duly arrive. We made a mixed bunch. Kurt, a Norwegian male nurse riding a Ténéré, Brian, a retired trucker on his Transalp, Chris, a young Kiwi heading for home on a 800GS and John, a retired solider in the US forces going round the world from Germany to the states with his wife on his 1200.

Handshakes over, we headed out across the vast bleakness of Kazakhstan where you feel like a flea on a football with the flat horizon bending away from you in every direction. An infinite tarmac treadmill. Hours pass with no discernible change and a constant image burns on your retinas. Towns appear and disappear instantly with no introductions. You’re in. You’re out. We spend a night in Aralsk, a lovely atmospheric town where colourful lights and long, deep shadows dance across the ground. A wedding party fills the air with petrol/diesel/alcohol fumes and noise as they parade the happy couple to the locals. Unidentifiable shapes, colours and tastes arrive from dark kitchens and begin to pull at your comfort blanket.

After Aralsk we were on our way to Shymkent, a big city with all that you thought you needed but it turns out you don’t. Noise, traffic, fast food and full throttle Westernisation. Then Kyrgyzstan with its simple, naked natural beauty and cool pure air.

We head up to the Chinese border via the Torugart pass. A beautiful ride in the cool clean air that only comes with altitude. Piercing sunshine and a washed blue sky watch over us while wild horses are running, sweating and strutting, tails straight out, heads held high. I touch the gates and peer in to the unknown. Our guide arrives, the gate opens, my name is on the list and I’m coming in. I start the bike and ride out of my comfort zone and across the border. My old bike and I are suddenly on Chinese soil and it’s a really strange feeling.

Surreal is an overused word but it’s a perfect fit as you descend from the mountains and China slowly appears before your eyes. Our first stop is Kashkar and it it feels like there is a riot going on but it soon turns out that’s all perfectly normal. Just because you’re occupying a piece of tarmac it certainly doesn’t mean you own it and it’s a constant battle of skill and most of all, nerve. We hope we’re all quick learners.

We get the bikes inspected and paperwork done just as my intestines perform the first of many violent and noisy protests at what they’re being fed.

Everything here is a shock to the system, a full frontal assault on all your senses. Kashkar is a big city and humanity quickly thins out as we leave and head out, for days and days we ride through the desert with only wind farms and sand for company. The scale is incredible, like someone has got a ‘normal’ country and then put a rolling pin over it to really stretch it out. We reach Jiayuguan and the start/end of the Great Wall. We take a walk then a ride alongside in the sand, just one of many million visitors over the 2000 years it’s patiently sat in the desert and watched the world go by. My bike, the Great Wall, a great day.

Out of the heat we go and south to the monks in the mountains. Small cold, isolated Tibetan towns worshipping at the feet of temples and monasteries where the faithful make endless journeys among the prayer wheels and where people literally drag themselves along the rough wet ground towards salvation. From one extreme to the other, we come out of the mountains and ride straight into the chaos of Chengdu where a massive magnet has attracted 16 million people. A quarter of the population of the UK and every single one of them is taking the vehicular homicide course the day we’re there. The only option is ride to survive. Aggression rules and you have to physically force your way through, banging on windows with your fist when people won’t back off. It’s just pure insanity. Surviving days like that just increases our complacency. It’s like waving your bum at fate and daring it to bite. Sure enough a couple of days later fate decided that it was time to strike and bite back.

It’s late morning, we’re at Leshan and we’ve just been on the boat to see the Buddah in the hill. Our guide is a really nice fella and he cuts us a lot of slack. He usually just gives us a daily destination and leaves us to it to ride as we please but today he wants to change the plans just as we’re about to leave. ‘Just don’t go on the 307. Very bad. Military road. Stay away from there. Big trouble,’ he says. ‘What?’ I reply. ‘Where, yeah yeah whatever…. blah blah … lost in translation…. see ya’.

My SatNav chooses this exact moment to fail. Some people have the Garmin cards and some have the open street maps loaded. They’re disagreeing, coupled with the fact that the same road number is used for at least five different roads, and the disaster recipe is almost complete. Time to stir.

At 2pm we’re sitting at a junction. There are signs indicating some roads are out due to landslides. Some of us say left, but fate points right. Through a long, long disorientating tunnel and out by a river and suddenly it feels all wrong. There is a road on the other side but it’s blocked with massive boulders so I just put it out of my mind, keep calm and carry on digging. The SatNavs are all arguing, blaming each other and none want to make a decision. We reach an unmarked junction and we need to go right but an army checkpoint says no, definitely NO. Left we go, through endless, half-finished, long, dark wet tunnels and 30 minutes later there’s another army checkpoint right across the road.

There is a huge dam peeking through the mist and there is definitely no way through. What road this is? It’s the 307. Of course it is. As we spin round wondering what to do one of the riders puts his bike down a culvert. We drag the bike out and it’s taken a hit on the front and looks like it has a boxer’s broken nose. There is a temporary suspended bridge across the ravine for locals and the army let us through to cross the bridge and try the other road, but it soon just fades out to nothing when we reach a small village. It’s 4pm now, we’re a long way from where we should be and the guide is 100 miles away on a different road. We only have one option so we back track all the way to the original junction.

6pm. It’s getting dark. We take the left at the original junction but Mother Nature has been busy claiming back the land. The road is mud and clay, then concrete slabs all rearranged by the landslide giants and left sticking up at all angles like old people’s teeth while a rough track starts to climb steeply up the mountain. By this time the SatNavs have had a chat and decided to all have an early night. We’re on our own as the sun dives under a black velvet blanket. It soon gets very, very rough, twisty narrow and extremely steep. We reach another junction but there are no signs, no nothing, just three different options heading off into the void. A 4×4 arrives and disgorges some young drunks. There’s noise, confusion, chaos with hands pointing in every direction. I phone the guide but he can’t understand what the drunks are saying.

9pm. I backtrack to an isolated little shop where the guide speaks to the owner and together they work out where we are. He tells me one of the riders that split with us earlier has taken a wrong road and ended up near a sensitive area. He’s also hit a rock, bent his front wheel and the tyre is off. The guide has five riders in one place, one in another and him in another. He has to call in the police. We all wait at the shop, buying and eating random packages, stuffing lumps of unknown food into ourselves and playing with the kids.

11pm. The police turn up to escort us down the mountain. They’re driving very slowly making it difficult to follow in the very steep muddy and wet sections. It’s absolutely pitch black too. Blind black with no light pollution at all. We reach the police station at about 1pm where some local English teachers have been dragged out of their beds to interpret but they’re almost madly happy at meeting us. It’s like a real alien sighting for them. The police are trying to organise a hotel but none of the ATMs want to play and we’ve virtually no money. At about 2am we get a three police car escort over to what looks like some kind of impounding yard. Old bikes and scooters lie everywhere all covered in dust.

We leave the bikes under cover and cross to a hotel hidden within a block of flats patrolled by women of the night. Knock up the watchman from behind his metal grill and share our money out to pay. Luckily this place is dirt cheap, about £10 a room, or £5 an hour, with guest. I chisel my eyes open at 7am for the police to escort us to breakfast in a local fried chicken shop. We all order the cheapest item on the menu as we’re down to a few quid each now. We need fuel, fortunately one rider has enough cash to give us all a splash. I’ve got 20p left, others have less. The police now have to escort us to meet up with our guide 100 miles away. For three hours we average 20mph up and down tight slippery mountain roads through endless, filthy forgotten towns.

Our SatNavs have no roads showing, we’re strictly off-grid. The police won’t even stop to let us pee for three hours. Nearing the meeting point there are more big blue signs across the road. Another big landslide and the road is closed. ‘Our’ police are some sort of tourist special branch though, they make some calls and 10 minutes later the diggers are clearing a narrow path through the mud to let the bikes through. Once we’re through they instantly seal the gap behind us. The guide is waiting on the other side and the police hand us over before walking back through the landslide. ‘Road ahead is very, very bad’ he says. It’s cobble/ brick pave mix, wet, slippery and rutted with a full-on waterfall across it. Through that then two miles of underwater road anything up to a foot deep with random holes and ruts before miles of wet, dark tunnels up to 5km long with tarmac split and raised in the air by earth movement.

We finally reach our other rider and we’re all together again, accompanied by more special branch police. Petrol is really low now but we’ve no money and the police just want to get going. A couple of punctures later and it’s now 7pm and dark and getting really cold. We follow the police another 60km over a foggy mountain pass among the totally insane night driving before descending into a big old city and a really nice hotel. The police release us, we find a working ATM and we finally relax.

As we head south China dons its jungle uniform which is something I’d never really thought about before. We follow the meandering Mekong River among giant bananas fields in the valleys then tea and rubber plantations clinging to the mountainsides. We reach Laos and see the weird, jutting, super green mountain scenery and finally Thailand where everyone is born with a smile on their face and the forgotten, chain names of home start to reappear. I drop the bike at the shippers and suddenly it’s all over. A camera full of images, brain full of memories and a bike covered in scars.

UK to Bangkok, such an incredible, wonderful, educational journey following ancient paths across very special places. It’s sometimes hard to find something different nowadays but China gives it to you in spades. Has it cured my curiosity? Unfortunately not. China is a dish that takes more than one serving to finish. I need a second helping and I’m planning a sequel. Fancy coming along?

Want to ride China?

Taking your own vehicle through China is difficult and can be expensive. We met several people joining up others on the border with groups found through Horizons Unlimited or similar forums to spread the cost. You need to be accompanied by guides who will travel with you. Our guide was very easy going and would often leave us to our own devices in the day and meet at the hotel in the evening. The police are often all over the groups and come to the hotels in the evening to check you’ve turned up. After our brush with the law we were very closely monitored from then on. The vehicles need to be inspected on entry and have a rudimentary MOT like inspection plus you need a temporary driving licence which can be issued without taking a test. It’s all worth it though as you pull out and ride across the Gobi desert on your own bike.

The Joys Of China

Traveling through China is an absolute joy. It’s a totally immersive experience usually without any of the Western influences and chains that are taking over the world and turning it into planet America. The beds are like a tea towel draped on a concrete motorway. The food is often unrecognisable (or recognizable but unbelievable – who eats ‘face and nose of cow’ for example?), but is cheap (unless you price it by the minutes it resides in your body before heading for the nearest exit) and plentiful. The people are so much more friendly than I ever imagined and the scale of the place is just mind blowing. I loved it.

What’s It Like To Ride In China?

Chinese driving is a law unto itself. I’ve ridden all over the world and seen some spectacularly stupid things but what I saw in China holds the top three places easily. On a bike, you’re often treated as you just do not exist. Like you’re truly invisible. Never before have I been driven to bang on drivers windows or play dare and jink panniers towards cars to get them to stop crushing me in my lane. Indian roads are insane but at slower speeds. China is full of modern roads with new fast vehicles being driven in some kind of death race. It’s mental!

The Bike

My beautiful old GS. Found neglected in a squalid garage in 2007 already suffering from psoriasis and lack of attention she first took me to Timbuktu and since then we’ve been on to travel all over the world together. She’s not a beauty, she’s not an athlete, she’s not the slimmest or the sexiest but she’s a keeper. Like a badly abused wife she takes constant batterings and beatings but never complains. She just takes the blows, dusts herself down and gets up for the next one. That bike is a truly trusted friend.