We’re going up to the Pagoda palace later this morning so I’m up early and grab a taxi over to the rough side of town to get my panner frame sorted out. The taxi driver is a very attractive little lady with lovely hands. I like hands. I particularly like the way she strokes and slides and caresses the steering wheel through them. I’ve been away from home too long.
We arrive at a row of shuttered buildings. One at the end is open and seems to have signs of life so I head that way. I’ve taken the frame off the bike because I didn’t want to give The Bitch any more excuses not to start and I didn’t know what era of technology would be used to fix it. The Bitch’s electrics are a law unto themselves and using TIG/MIG welding might just send the whole lot into meltdown. Turns out I need not have worried.
A little bloke emerges from the shadows at the back. He takes a look, then wanders back into the darkness. I reckon he knows this is a precision job and if he gets it even a fraction of a millimeter out then the panniers are not going to fit and it’s going to be a massive disaster. I reckon he’s gone to get his lovely new jig and he’s going to spend 30 minutes adjusting it perfectly and then do a seamless fix so you would never even know it had been broken.
Truth is, he’s gone back in the dark to kick his missus out of bed and to grab an old pair of rusty pliers. Out she comes, half asleep, rubbing her eyes, clutching the old pliers and trying to stop her tits fall out of her top. Ahh. The glamorous assistant. I put the pieces together and clamp the pliers on, then hand them to the assistant. She just drops the whole lot on the floor, fiddles with her ladybumps and sways on her feet. I do it again, then again… and eventually she seems to get a grip. He lights the acetylene torch and grabs some wire. Looks like he’s going to braze it. This isn’t going to be pretty… much like his assistant. She’s standing there in flip flops and wrapped in highly inflammable blanket. He’s brazing with no goggles and bloody straw hat. It’s just a burnt boob/hair accident waiting to happen. I wait in the taxi. I don’t like the smell of burning flesh.
Job done, £5. Looks shit/well hard though and I doubt that will fail again. Jump back in the taxi to watch the woman’s hands all the way back to the hotel.
We all hop on the bus out to the palace. People look very different up here. All short with often with nutty brown skin. Not unattractive though..
They’re still fiercely independent and don’t generally regard themselves as Chinese at all. They even have their own language and a completely different alphabet too, which I didn’t know.
It’s fliipin hot today, the palace is up a million steps and we’re at 3700m. Sounds like a perfect recipe for a heart attack. It looks lovely as you walk up. This place has evolved over many 100s of years. The ‘red keep’ came first I think, then the ‘white keep’ was built up later. It’s bloody hard work getting up to it but it’s worth it.
We wander round the palace for a few hours. These is just so much stuff in there. There are tombs and gold and stuff and more stuff and stuff on top of stuff. “And here we have a 700 year old pile of dust and discarded writings from the 3rd Dalai Lama” I’m sure I can see some KFC receipts in there… It’s a mess to be honest. It needs a bloody good clean too. My wife would be appalled at the state of it. What have the monks got to do all day anyway. They’re all just sitting round mumbling and lighting josticks. Surely they’ve got time to run the hoover round now and again. Lazy buggers.
The city has a really lovely atmosphere about it and just I wander about all afternoon watching the world go by. The light up here is delicious too. So clear and piercing. I could easily stay here for a while.
We go out for dinner and eat properly for the first time in a while. Head back to the hotel and one of the riders beckons me over to his room. I walk in and there is another man down. Flat on his back with a drip and oxygen tubes up his nose. The doctor is there and he’s got a big box of tricks he’s going to use to kick start my man back to life. I hope it works. We’re heading out tomorrow, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
We’re going to take the G318 east. I see a poster showing the topography of our route. It looks a bit hilly…
G318 is is then. Out of Lhasa in the cold clear morning air. The clouds are all caught up on mountains and it looks like it’s going to be a good day.
The plan is for there to be an expressway all the way to Lhasa. They’re really going to have a job on their hands with that one given the mountains round here. Motorbikes aren’t allowed on the expressways either. In other parts of China we would wing it and just ride through the barriers but out here with the police and army everywhere that just isn’t an option. This expressway is currently under construction anyway. The problem is that the expressway out here runs parallel to the old road we’re on, and the old road is being completely destroyed by all the construction work.
There are miles and miles and miles of roadworks into the mountains. It’s all slippery mud and water on steep roads with cars and trucks slithering about. It’s a right bastard. We’re going up a long steep incline where the ‘road’ is also tilted down about 30 degrees to the side. The rider in front of me is off and up to his arse in mud. Get the bike up, go a bit further and we’re between the crawling trucks when he hits a huge hole and he’s off again, about 2 inches in front of a truck. Lifting these things is an arse any day of the week but doing it in mud at high altitude makes the beat of my heart beat echo round the mountains like a huge base drum and my blood scream through my ears. Get through the mess though and up the road to the top of the first pass and its all worth it.
Then its back down into the mud and roadworks. These aren’t like normal roadworks either. No effort at all is taken to control the traffic or create a safe way round.
It’s getting late in the day and we’re chasing the horizon alongside a huge river. The road here is good as we’re getting near town and the rider at the front is really in a groove. I’m having trouble keeping up with him and he’s going a lot quicker than usual. He suddenly slows down and we nearly pile into him as he just turns to the right and goes into a short tight spiral and goes down. He doesn’t even jump off, he just sits and spins and crashes down. I think he’s passed out. We get him up and he’s sort of awake and coming round again. Altitude does funny things to people for sure. He says his vision just went and he lost his balance and went down. Bloody good job that didn’t happen when he was tanking it round the last bend at 70mph.
Get to Bayi just as it’s getting dark. We can’t find the hotel. some bastard has hidden it. When you’re travelling through China you have to stay in particular hotels that have been designated as being able to have foreigners. In some more isolated places, like this, the guide has to wait until we arrive in town then go and ask the local police where we can stay. This is always a right PITA as it can take hours of … wait for it … yes, exactly. It’s pitch black by the time we have somewhere to put our heads down. After dinner we take a wander through the streets looking to eat other than chicken’s heads and mouse balls. This is another place under deconstruction. You have the roads, and the shops that sit about 5m back and 1m up, and you have a random assortment of mud and builders rubble in between. A visit to a shop is like a climbing expedition. You have to rope up and make sure you have crampons and axes with you as you negotiate the piles of wobbly broken paving stones and bricks and try not to fall down into the wet mud below. I hear a few cries in the darkness and think I may well have lost a couple of riders but right now, a snickers bar is the most important thing on my mind.
The surrounding roads are so battered that everywhere has a jet wash machine, including the hotel. I treat The Dirty Bitch to quick bath, careful not to get the jet too close, just in case. She looks lovely, but that only lasts about 10 minutes.
The guide tells us the road gets really bad for a while today. “Really bad? How bad is really bad exactly?” “Well, its one below really really bad”. Oh, thanks. That’s helpful.. We’re only going to try and do 220km today as locals report lots of problems ahead.
Tibet has it’s head permanently in the clouds and this morning they just hanging about at street level. It’s all a bit mad really.
The road building seems to make absolutely no sense whatever out here. The towns have all new junctions and nice roads then about 1ft outside town they just turn to absolute shit. We’re diverted off the road, round some steep little tracks in a village, through a housing estate/deep puddle exhibition and we pop out onto the main road… and wait. There is column of army trucks coming through and they’re blocking the road. There are millions and millions of them. They’re never ending.. I think they’re manufacturing them just round the corner and this production line will just go on forever until we starve and die at the roadside. On and on and on and on they come, crawling through the mud. It must be an hour before they’re all through.
Through the mud and slime and we start to climb through the clouds. These roads would be motorcycling navana if only the tarmac didn’t suddenly turn to gravel and clay just round a 120 degree corner that you had just committed to at peg bending speed. A few sections of the climb are just beautiful and smooth but these get less and less until it just ends up being one very very long and very very rough loose and slippery road into the sky.
The bike is getting really battered today, poor thing. I ‘almost’ feel sorry for her. But not quite. It’s just shit shit and more shit until suddenly it isn’t. For lunch, we’re served a lovely big potion of bendy tarmac threaded high up along the side of a very very steep mountainside.
Unfortunately it’s mud pie for desert though. The road is getting progressively worse and worse. Long sections of rutty clay and slippery mud with long deep puddles just to keep you on your toes. My arse hasn’t relaxed for hours and the stitches I had put in after the birth of Trevor are pulling like a bitch. We’re picking our way through a wet track under some trees when we come to the back of a long line of solid traffic. We slowly paddle our way through, sliding and shimmying through all the mess and get to the front. There is a bit of an incline ahead and it looks like people can’t get up it. They’ve decided to dump some sand on it. Christ only knows where the sand came from, but there are 100 year old trucks trying to back into the mess and drop the sand. In a moment of comedy gold, a truck backs up and gets stuck solid right across the road. It’s grunting and groaning and it’s just digging itself in. After the obligatory wait, they call in a big fuck off bulldozer to try and push the truck out. In it goes, spinning it’s tracks and making an almighty hole in the road as it shoves and pushes at the truck. The truck is twisting and buckling with every shove and I’m sure it’s going to snap before this is over. The bulldozer just keeps on pushing and shoving and spinning on its arse like a hyperactive dog chasing its own tail sending mud and water everywhere. Eventually the truck is freed and drives away to hide it’s head in shame. The bulldozer scoots off into the forest and the end result is a much bigger bloody mess than they started with. Just typical. We’re not waiting for more trucks to get stuck so we both just dive in, have a deep cold mud bath and we’re on our way in the pouring rain.
More miles of rough river beds and roads of stones and we get to Nyingchi, another small town clinging to life amongst the chaos. Total for the day, 220km, 8 hours hard riding.
This G318 is really difficult. In fact it is proving to be a real bitch. It’s battering the bikes and the riders to death and it’s regularly scaring the shit out me. But I love this road.
Today we ride out and it decides it’s given us enough crap for a little while. It offers us some apologies in the form of some spectacular views. The clouds are keeping the scenery a secret for the first few miles but then they just part and reveal what they’ve been hiding.
Just takes your breath away, what little you have at this altitude anyway. OK it’s not Banff or Yosemite but that’s not the point. It’s a nice reward for all the trouble of getting here.
Anyway, enough of that, let’s get back to more and more and more of this.
The roads are the worse so far. I’m sure they qualify as “really really” bad by now. One long section has been chiselled out of the cliff and it’s all just falling down into the valley below. There isn’t any other way around these sections and the traffic is gridlocked. We wait under big overhangs and look at the rocks in the road. This whole place is unstable. Just one small mumble from Mother Nature and one of those big fuck off rocks will fall and I will instantly become one dimensional.
I’m riding through another section later and there are deep mud ruts everywhere. There is no barrier, that’s probably somewhere down in the valley below. The edge is shored up level with the mud but the long vertical drop is … not worth thinking about. An on coming car decides he prefers my ruts to his and drives straight down the middle at me, pushing me to within a couple of feet of the drop. Everything goes quiet, everything but the bodily essentials has to shut down and all power is diverted to the brain. Situations like this are life or death. These mad bastards place no value on any human life except their own. They’re just completely insane if you give them a steering wheel. I’ve got no time to think about that now and I just go for the gap on the road, rather than the much bigger gap over the edge. Fuck that was close.
As as quickly as it ended, pure black tarmac suddenly appears again. There is just no logic to this at all. It’s like a massive Chinese puzzle. How the hell did they get through all that shit to build this road here? How did they do that? Did they fly it in? Did aliens build this? It makes no sense. Don’t question it, just get on and ride. Hard and fast.
We meet up with the guide at a garage. The town is all up…again… and the road signs are .. elsewhere. We’ve all become complacent, it’s just one road and we’ve all just fallen into following the guide’s instructions without question. He points right. “Stop in 100km”. Off we all go. Like a pack of dogs being let out the car we all go barking and growling off up the road, chasing about and playing silly buggers. The road is fantastic. Cold and wet but really spectacular. We’re up above 5000m again too. I didn’t think we were going that high today? Who cares! Then we come to a long long twisting descent through what feels like 1000 bends. This is one of the best rides we’ve done so far I reckon. Amazing, and no traffic at all…
Someone has stopped up ahead.. He’s had a call from the guide. He’s been trying everyone but phone reception is, not surprisingly, less than 100% up here. “We’ve got to meet the guide at the petrol station”. “OK, it’s not far now”. “No, the one we just came from”. “Oh” He’s got confused in all the diversions, sent us all up the wrong way and none of us noticed. Still. We get to ride the whole lot back in reverse, which was nice. So, if you want to ride one of the best roads in China, check out the S201:) That was a public service announcement.
Back to the fuel station to fuel up…again. It’s getting a bit late now and it’s really really bitingly cold.
Another huge line of traffic. More waiting while they tarmac a random patch of road somewhere in the middle and ignore all the carnage for miles around. I reckon they start each day with a game of bitumen bingo. They put all the road sections numbers on little balls in a black bag, then they sit about drinking chai pulling them out. “All the fours”.. section 44. The fact that sections 1 to 43 and 45 to 1000 are all complete dog shit doesn’t matter. “44 it is then” and off they go.
Boxai is the smallest town on this route so far. Just a strip of concrete with a few buildings along it. The guide is stuck in traffic at least an hour behind. Captain Scarlet is near death again. He’s really suffering badly. He was diagnosed with Bronchitis by a Chinese doctor and the altitude and cold is doing it’s utmost best to kill him. He is amazingly resilient and he’ll never give in but I’m really worried about him. We’re not heading down to sea level any time soon either. The riders all collapse in the foyer of a small hotel while I go looking for our beds. I’m asking about and can’t find it. A girl jumps on the bike and points down the road. It’s not it though. She speaks to the guide and then we head back up the other way and through a small alley, down and round a corner to a little door. Bingo, it’s the right place but it’s taken the best part of an hour and the guide is here now too. Recover the riders and lead them all to their rooms/squats for the night. This is all part of the game. Part of the experience. There’s no extra charge.
The guide has been told that the next section of the road was closed by a big landslide today so we need to leave early tomorrow and see if we can get through, otherwise we’ll have to all sleep in our panniers.
Another shivering night in a hotel right next to a 24hour donkey torturers. I think there must be a lot of very bad donkeys round here as the place was working all night long. I didn’t know donkeys could scream so loud. Out at 7 into the mist we go. It’s about 220 miles to Mangkang. Sounds straight forward but nothing is straight forward round here. We’ve also got the road of 99 bends to contend with on Yela Mountain.
A quick chase through a deep gloreous gorge for an hour then we see Yela. The climb begins in a village. Slow and frustrating as the Trucks get in to their crawls and start to spread out a bit. As it climbs it opens out and speeds up. Up and up and round and round it goes. I don’t think I’ve looked at the instruments for ages, I’m always looking over my shoulder at the next bend.
So, how many high passes can we pass in a day? It’s just up…
and up above the snow line again
then back down
then up up up
and down all day long. Probably the most spectacular views so far. The guide tells us he has never seen westerners allowed along this road as it’s regarded as just too dangerous. I’m not sure that’s true though. Surely Globebusters come this way? Anyway, it’s not often that I am intimidated by a road but on the final section along the mountain today I’ll admit I was having a few problems with my nerves. The road often has no barrier at all. Absolutely nothing. It’s paved right up to the edge, then its just space. Looking down is like the view from an aircraft. It’s scale the likes of which I don’t remember ever seeing before. It’s just bloody MAD. So riding along with nothing on one side and some maniacal Chinaman in a lorry coming towards you in the middle of the road round a corner tends to question WTF you’re doing there.
But then you come down to earth, see a pretty face, your trousers whisper “just leave this to me son” and you just forget the last 9 hours of hell on wheels.
It’s the last night in Tibet tonight. So we thought we’d stay somewhere nice. Then we roll into town. ‘Nice’ might be pushing it. ‘Acceptable’ would be good. But the police have other ideas.
We’re directed to the centre of town, which seems even worse, and we wait…. for hours… and hours… and probably some more hours too. I think we all just switched off. It was starting to get dark when I work up. “It’s just up there, up the street”. Street is pushing it. “Special Stage” is more accurate. Oh well…at least nobody will notice if I shit myself. It will blend in perfectly.
Hotel is a very tired collection of basic rooms, threadbare carpets and internet working through a piece of very wet string. We walk down the ‘street’ to get some dinner. The ‘pavement’ is a 2ft wide strip of concrete just tacked on to the sides of the shops. There is just a drop down into the mud. You shuffle along and if someone is walking the other way, then you have to go into a shop to let them pass. All very strange.
We are a day behind where we should be because of the bad state of the G318. We’ve a long way to go today, all the way to Shangri La.
Ok. I’ve looked in my little bag of words but I just can’t find any that I can use to describe the roads today. The views were just outrageous. And the rocks.. I’m riding along high on the mountains and Rob is riding about 50m behind me. I don’t see a thing. We stop up the road for some pictures. “Did you see that?” “What?” “That fucking rock that came bouncing down the hill?” “Nope – didn’t see anything”. “Jesus mate, that could have taken both of us right out”
As we rode by, a big lump of rock about the size of a soccer ball came rolling down the cliff, bounced in the road between us as we rode, then flew off into the valley below. I reckon it’s still falling.. Looking over the edge, we’re flying an aircraft again, and flying really high.
if you can see it..
Some of the roads are really really beautiful, smooth and fast and empty.
but they do have the occasional pothole..
We get to the Tibet border. We’re loosing altitude fast. The bikes are beginning to get back to normal and the riders are too.
I don’t want to leave. I just want to turn round and ride the whole lot back in reverse. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate in life. I’ve ridden all over the world and seen some incredible things. I’ve ridden through the Rockies a few times, I’ve ridden all along the Andes, all through the Atlas. Alaska, Africa, Australia, all over the flippin place but I’ve never ridden a road like the G318. It’s bloody amazing.Next Page