Fred Leeming and David Lindesay-Bethune ride across the fascinating, sprawling country that is China.
We had only travelled 12 miles when I experienced a sudden loss of power in my bike. For the first time on our trip I felt a genuine feeling of despair and defeat. Normally, a breakdown would not make me feel so, but this time was different.
We were in China, riding our recently purchased 125cc second-hand motorbikes. It had taken us two weeks of bussing from town to town, visiting mechanics and shops before we had found bikes we were ‘allowed’ to buy, let alone could afford.
But in Dunhuang, we stumbled across a motorbike goldmine, and bought what appeared to be two ideal bikes and had set off. Just 30 minutes later, Dave and I were staring at my bike hard enough to bore a hole in it.
There was something wrong with the carb, but we couldn’t do anything about it as we’d had our tools confiscated from us in a bus station recently. The thought that we had at least another 6,200 miles to travel on these bikes, which had already given up after 12 miles, shattered me.
We pushed our bikes to a cluster of sheds just off the highway and set up camp. It was getting dark and we had come to learn that everything is fine in the end, and if it isn’t fine, then it’s not the end. A fresh day would bring fresh answers to our problems.
To provide a bit of context to this little hiccup, Dave and I are two mates who set off from the UK in July 2017 on a six-month trip to Kunming in southern China. We had done 11,200 miles over three months by the time we made it to Kyrgyzstan. We were originally on a KLR 600 and DR650 (see issue 43), but we had to ditch them as the tax and legalities around importing your own vehicle into China are insane. This meant we had to purchase new steeds upon arrival.
However, once we had crossed the border and arrived in Kashgar, Xinjiang, we quickly discovered that it was going to be harder than we thought. Security in Xinjiang is crazy, and tourists are banned from travelling by their own methods – there was no chance we would be buying bikes until we made it to Gansu, the next province, over 1,200 miles away.
Eventually, we found a blue ‘Qiang’, and a red ‘Haojue’ (essentially identical bikes, named after the factories they are built-in) and paid about £230 each. We tossed a coin to see who got which, and over the next three months, we discovered I really lost that coin toss.
In the end, we managed to fix the carb problem with ease, although it certainly wasn’t the last we heard of it. Riding in China was a completely different experience to what we were used to.
Obviously downgrading from a 600cc Japanese dual-sport to a 125cc Chinese mule was quite a shock, but there were other factors at play. Firstly, we were technically riding illegally – China doesn’t recognise the international driving permit, and you can’t pass their test without speaking Mandarin.
This meant that we also didn’t have insurance or a registered bike. Foolhardy yes, but a risk we had to take, and it meant that the stakes were a little higher than usual.
Secondly, the Chinese are hands down the worst drivers I have ever come across; indicating is optional, looking either way when exiting a junction even more optional. Lastly, having come out of sleepy Central Asia, China was an assault on the senses, but very much in a good way. It’s hard to explain in words how eccentric, lively, and exciting the country is.
Our first week was pretty bleak. North Western Gansu isn’t famous for its beauty, and we had a couple of days of riding straight, busy roads in the cold rain as we headed for the mountains surrounding Tibet. Further to this, we had arrived in China in mid-October, and the cold weather was starting to arrive.
At certain points we found ourselves camping in -11C. It wasn’t until then that we realised our sleeping bags weren’t up to the job. At one point, our five-litre water bottle completely froze over during the night. Our only option was to wear as many layers as possible and cocoon ourselves in our sleeping bags, but even then it was difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
We started to fantasise about the warmer weather in the south, but we had a lot of riding to do above 3,000m before we got there. Cold weather aside, as we started to climb, we came across some amazing roads and routes. There is very little information on overland travel in China, so we had to use a combination of a very poorly detailed paper map, and China’s version of Google Maps (which is banned) to pick out and guess the best routes.
This led to some poor judgments of distances, and a few times we found ourselves riding in the dark looking for a camp spot or shelter on the side of a mountain. At one point we were taken in by a Buddhist nun who appeared in the dark out of nowhere and invited us in for shelter – it was surreal, but a huge relief!
Nevertheless, some of the mountain passes in China are jaw-dropping, particularly in Qinghai. At one point we burst out of a foggy valley and climbed up the side of a cliff to find ourselves above the clouds, surrounded by jagged peaks that reminded us of the Dolomites, which we had camped under four months previously.
Our little Chinese bikes certainly weren’t designed for long-distance adventures such as this, but we were amazed at what they could manage.
We had a couple of moments where we were defeated by some particularly steep, dirt tracks, but this seemed to be linked to my carb problem, as Dave’s bike was far more capable than mine and handled most hills fine. You’ll normally find these bikes in towns across China travelling a few miles at a time, normally with at least three onboard, plus an animal or two!
We took them through rivers, mud, and snow, over mountains, and through forests – and they always seemed to survive. The benefit of riding these bikes was that everyone had them, so everyone knew how to fix them, and everyone had the spare parts, which were super cheap.
One trip to the mechanic saw us replace a rear tyre, buy a new chain, two inner tubes, nine litres of fuel and a spark plug for the equivalent of £16 (and they threw in a bag of apples and walnuts!). One thing the bikes weren’t very good at, and who can blame them really, was snow.
At one point we crossed a mountain pass that had recently had some fresh snow dumped on it. Within 20m Dave and I performed a graceful synchronised fall. We had next to no control, and could only make any progress with our feet acting as stabilisers.
It’s fair to say we looked pretty ridiculous and stuck out like sore thumbs in China. Everywhere we went locals gawked at us. Its hard to blend in when you’re both 6ft 4in and riding bikes fit for toddlers! At one point we went five weeks without seeing another Western face.
We relished in the feeling of remoteness this gave us, especially as almost nobody speaks English whatsoever, and try as we might, we couldn’t master Mandarin. However, in China you can never truly be very remote. It’s incredible how many people live there, just when you think you’re miles away from anybody, you come round the corner and there is a city the size of Leeds right in front of you.
This made finding camping spots a bit tricky at times. The Chinese are very good at using up all flat ground for either building or farming. However, we became very good at spotting the tell tale signs of paths that would lead to nice camping spots, so still ended up camping roughly two-thirds of our nights. Admittedly, some of them weren’t exactly glamorous!
In all towns we were greeted with grins and gob-smacked faces. I think it was very rare for Westerners to pass through the areas we visited. They were always amazed that we were on such awful motorbikes, too. In China, motorbiking is seen as a lower-class mode of transport – definitely not something they’d expect to see ‘rich’ foreigners on!
Now, some of you may be screaming about how stupid we are riding illegally in a foreign country, and I suppose you’re right. But, we took a calculated risk and we got the maths right… just about. We had a few encounters with the police and they were always absolutely charming and asked to see nothing but our passports.
There was one time they needed to see a bit more, however. Around the outskirts of Chengdu, Dave was tail-boned by a car at about 18mph.
Thankfully Dave and the bike (in that order!) were fine, but there was damage to the car and the police were involved. At best, we expected a fine or a confiscated bike, at worst deportation, perhaps even jail! In the end, the authorities were happy with our International Driving Permits, and the car owner’s insurance paid for the damage. We lived to ride another day.
The highlights of our China trip were mostly in Sichuan and Yunnan. These two provinces vary so much in climate, terrain, roads, culture, and food. Every day provided new sights, smells and experiences.
We accidentally stumbled across a mesmerising route through Yalong Valley in southern Sichuan. This was typical China, a world within another world. It was early evening when we climbed up over a ridge and were treated to a fantastic view of the valley we would spend our next few days riding through.
Originally, we thought the detour would only take a day and a half, however, to our delight the roads quickly turned to dirt and the single route on the map branched off and we got lost a few times. At one point my bike broke down again and Dave had to tow me to the nearest village where we borrowed some tools and rebuilt the carb again.
The villages we passed were about as close to feudal China that you’d imagine from films as you could get. It was idyllic, and the locals were so lovely. It was the hottest weather we’d had since we’d left Uzbekistan and we managed to cool off in the river.
We also managed to tick off the ultimate adventure combo – bikes on boats. In order to cross the river and exit the valley we had to put our bikes on a tiny ferry that carried us, and two locals, 100m to the other side.
Traversing the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, we came across possibly our biggest adventure in China. Whilst choosing our route, we noticed a selection of villages not connected by any mapped road. We decided that there must be something there, but there was only one way to find out. What we found wasn’t necessarily what you might describe as a road, much more of a stretch of deep mud designated for driving.
A number of times we got lost, and it was difficult to work out when we were, as there was no road on the map to adhere too, just what we thought was common sense. At one point, we came across a section of the road completely blocked by a landslide.
We couldn’t go around it, and turning back would have set us back by two days of riding. We had to go over it. With hearts in our mouths, we slowly bounced ungraciously over large rocks and boulders one by one. A few locals turned up and watched us in awe; it didn’t look like they fancied braving it, but gave us big smiles and slaps on the back when we were both over safely.
By the time we had run out of riding time, we had ended up in a town called Fu’Ning in Guangxi province. There is absolutely no reason why any tourist would end up there, as it wasn’t the most attractive town. The road up to it was a mess, and even though we had waited six months for this moment, we felt ready to end our trip.
We got nailed when selling our bikes – it’s quite hard to strike a decent deal in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language and are selling two unregistered bikes. In the end we got £75 each for them, which wasn’t too bad considering what they had gone through!
I’m so glad we put ourselves through the extra stress of getting a visa for China and risking the illegal riding. It is a fantastic riding destination with a perfect mix of fun, well-built roads, and exciting off-road tracks.
The culture is so far removed from our own, but unbelievably interesting and exciting. Mix this with its size and small number of other adventurers; it is very easy to feel like you are the first explorer of China. I would recommend it to all experienced riders, but there is a far greater risk in travelling in the way we did, so definitely do your research – we made it home safe, but that may not be the case for everyone.
All in all, from London to southern China, it was a rollercoaster of a trip. Over two continents we experienced a vast diversity of culture, people, languages, food, roads, and terrain. It was an adventure in every sense of the word, and looking back on it, a great achievement.
We’re now both back in London, and another big trip doesn’t seem to be on the horizon for a while, but in the meantime, we are hoping to explore some of the Trans European Trails.