Waiting is a national passtime in China. It’s something we’re all going to have to get used to. The next few days especially. So we wait.
After a suitable wait the guide appears and we follow him down the hill and get to point No1 in the 500 stage process of getting us and the bikes into China. I was only here a year ago but the place looks completely different. Huge buildings have sprung up like weeds and the process has completely changed. What was a cursory luggage search and a quick flash of passports has become a full-on X-Ray in massive machines built to process 2 trucks simultaneously and the filling in of forms that even the guides don’t understand. If we wait long enough I’m sure it will change again.
A couple of hours in standby mode and we’re through and on the road towards the regional processing centre near Kashgar. Here there building weed problem is even worse with a huge new and imposing immigration centre springing from the earth and reaching for the sky. Out here bigger doesn’t mean better. Bigger means more people to see, more stamps, more paperwork and more… yep .. you guessed it. Just a few years ago we used to reach this point and everyone we needed to see was in the same place. Easy peasy…1 2 3’seasy. An hour and we’d be away with the bikes. All done and dusted and disappearing into the setting sun. Last year it had gone to a 2 stage process. This year….
Get through immigration and this time we’re diverted up to a staging area with the trucks and cargo to wait. Paperwork is handed through a small window to a bloke with a stamp that is allegedly made of some sort of ultra dense plutonium isotope meaning the user only has the strength to lift it up once every 2 hours. The rest of the time he has to rest. Luckily he has also has a stamp made of balsa wood that he can use for every other fucker that turns up at the window and sticks his sweaty head in.
It’s getting late and we’re still being made to wait. There was a 0.0005% chance we’d get the bikes out tonight but that chance came and went hours ago. By the time the little bloke has summoned the strength to lift the stamp and drop it on our paperwork, the gates are coming down and people are filing out. We’re released to the tarmac outside for about 200 meters then directed into another holding area where the bikes have to bed down for the night amongst the trucks.
Get the bus into Kashgar and have a chat with the fixer. The process has changed so much now that you have different people for each part of the process. This fixer only does part 1. The rest of the world is hell bent on efficiency and saving time and money. Out here it’s the complete opposite. I’m amazed at the difference a year has made. There are now police stations on every road junction and uniforms absolutely everywhere you look, often with little red/blue flashing epaulettes . Apparently it’s for safety.
Get to the usual hotel. Different guide this year but this place is used by everyone bringing people in overland. I’ve met a lot of foreign bikers here before and this time is no exception. There’s a young bloke preparing some Chinese registered bikes in the car park for a small group arriving in a few days. They plan to do the G219 like us but he’s been told the road is closed for 1000km due to military manoeuvres. I’m hoping he’s wrong but I’m suspecting he’s right. The G219 runs through some bitterly disputed areas and we’ve always known that you can have all the right permits but still be refused access at a moments notice. I’ll wait and speak to our guide before I start reaching for the Prozac. Well… maybe just one… packet… that won’t hurt..
Go out in the evening and it’s all blue and red flashing lights. In any crowded area, at least 50% of the people seem to be police. Go to the night market and every 200 yards there are big groups of them just loitering. They routinely patrol the roads every hour with the lights and sirens on too. Quite an atmosphere, and not an especially safe or friendly one. I like it all the same. It’s really good to be back.
In an effort to avoid getting intimately acquainted with the bathroom too soon, we all chicken out and head for a fast food joint. Get to the door. Not too fast… wait a second… what the fuck? It’s shut, and there is a guard sitting outside the door, all dressed for a riot and with a fettish for long rubber batons. Take a cursory look and lots of the shops have them. You can’t just walk in now. They have to release an electronic lock behind the counter before you can enter… or leave. It’s for safety. Go to a ‘normal’ shop to just to get a drink or some groceries and you notice that the person behind the counter is barricaded inside a thick metal cage. They really are taking this seriously… perhaps they’ve had shopkeepers bludgeoned to death with snickers bars … or they’ve all been tied up with noodles and robbed.
Manage to make it through the night with just the usual toilet interaction and head out to get some Chinese sims for the phones. Even the phone shop now has guards, scanners and luggage XRay machines on the door. Get inside and it looks like China’s biggest industry is now the manufacturing of hoops for people to jump through. Last year, go to the lady, get a ticket and queue. This year, go to the lady, ask for a ticket, nope…. we need to show a permit from the tour company…. fuck… While that’s being organised I wait outside and watch everyone file out and do their morning exercise
Now we’re at the mercy of invisible men at invisible desks in invisible buildings through the city and beyond. Theory is that the have to line up all the men at the depot where we dropped the bikes, identify the one with the biggest hat, get him to check the frame numbers, then keep our fingers crossed that he has enough strength to lift the stamp. There are a lot of men and a lot of hats, lots of which are very similar in size. This is not likely to be a quick process.
We get the call about midday. The seem to have got their hats in a line and identified the a man that can lift the stamp so we get in a bus and ride an hour back out to the customs compound. It seems there has been a problem with the headgear. Apparently there is a man in an office in Kashgar that wears a sombrero and he has insisted that his hat is the biggest in all of western China, and as such, he must add an additional stamp and signature before the bikes can be released, and he’s gone missing. I think he went out for lunch, decided to walk back through some narrow streets and got himself wedged between 2 buildings. It seems they are going to have to demolish the buildings before he can get back to his desk and it’s unlikely this will be done today. There is nobody at the compound that can do it. All our fixer can do is scream and shout down his phone and get the virtual finger in response. After about 6 hours waiting it looks like sombrero man isn’t going to be free tonight and we’re going to have to come back tomorrow.
Get the bus back to Kashgar and decide to eat at the hotel. We all wander up and down death row, choose our poison and take it back to the table to cook. I’ve tried to only pick things that didn’t ever breath air or water but you can never tell. Just cross your fingers, chew and swallow.
Wake up in the morning and there is definitely something in the air. It’s my roomie. We all took a gamble last night, but when he pulled the handle he got 3 turds. Jackpot. His farts have gone from manual to automatic and his body is busy performing an emergency evacuation from all exits. Poor bugger. He’s in for a difficult day. We stand him on his head in the van to try and stop him leaking and ride back out to the depot.
It seems sombrero man has managed to extricate himself. They’ve had to chisel two huge channels in the walls and corridors so he can manoeuvre himself and his hat all the way to his desk and he has added his stamp but now he’s passed it to someone at the compound in order to complete a pretty pattern. The stamp artisan we need is in a building behind a big wall that neither us or the guide can get in to. We have a fixer inside but it doesn’t seem to be helping. It’s Friday and if we don’t get this done today we could be in trouble. It gets towards lunchtime and still nothing. People start filing out to eat and suddenly the agent is running down towards the bikes waving a bunch of paperwork and telling us to get to the gate. I take a look at the paperwork. The pattern of the stamps really is a work of art. It’s almost worth waiting for..
We head to the far side of Kashgar to the vehicle inspection station. A semi derelict set of buildings, 90% of which seem to have been used for impromptu toilets. It’s still lunchtime and the place is closed. This is going to be really tight.
The only entertainment are two very friendly ladies that are fascinated by one of the rider’s noses. As asian genetics typically doesn’t put a lot of priority into growing a nose, a long western hooter has them staring, and running their fingers all over it. Not something I’ve seen before!
‘Vehicle inspection station’ implies a state of the art facility with a rolling road, an array of sensitive sensors and banks of computer equipment manned by boffins in spotless blue coats looking at graphs. In reality it’s a small shed that stinks of piss, with turds in the corner and a small concrete anti-room where a woman sits on an upturned bucket and bashes away at an old computer while everyone man and his dog shoves pieces of paper in her face. Queueing does’t exist in China. Wherever you are, customers usually just form a disorderly scrum. The agent is in full on bitch mode though and she is spitting blood at all the late comers. She soon has them all cowering in the corner like a bunch of bad dogs and we start sorting the bikes out. The process just involves checking the engine numbers and, wait for it, taking a rubbing – remember those children? – of the VIN plate with a white sticker and a pencil. Fucking impossible! You need 10 inch fingers with 15 joints like ET to have any chance at all. It’s just about going through the process though – not the result. Our rubbings look like they could be of the arse end of a camel but nobody cares. Just stick it on the form, hit the stamp and move on.
Last year it was straight from here to the police station for licences but this year… this year we have to go to another random building to get fuck knows what from fuck knows who. Get to the building and there is a huge queue of cars and lorries. This isn’t going to be done in a hurry. The agent takes one look and in a demonstration that men are the same the world over, she opens one button on her blouse, runs her hands through her hair, turns up the swivel on her hips, flirts her way to the front of the queue, puts her arm through that of the bloke with the biggest hat, cuddles up and walks him outside to the bikes. Eyes to full flutter, personal space to minimum she continues to gently move him and guide him through the process while he just giggles and dribbles like an adult baby.
Job done, she jumps on my bike, clicks her heals and we’re away up the road to the police station. Just me, her, and 50000 sheets of paperwork. It’s probably really too late to start this process but she’s got girly mode on max again and she just wiggles past the gate and into the station. We just wait. You can never be sure if they will need to see you in person. An hour.. 2 hours.. The sun is setting and the weekend is coming. Still no word from inside. Eventually we get a call that we can go and so we all set off, almost legally, back into Kashgar. It’s 9pm before she finishes with the licences. God only knows what tricks she had to pull to do that.
I have a chat with our Tibet guide. He’s confirmed that the road is closed. I’ve put all my Prozac in a Smarties tube so I can neck them en-mass easier but before I can get the tube to my mouth he offers me a thread of hope. It looks like the road may only closed in the day. He also says that you often can’t tell the situation until you get to the road block. Sometimes the local military will let you through. The problem is that this exercise is a big gig and is being controlled centrally so access could be a problem. We’ll just have to go and see what we can do when we get there. I’m a big fan of shoving my problems under the carpet and ignoring them so that sounds like a perfect plan to me. ‘Laaaa la la laaaaaa – I can’t hear you … ‘
The delay in getting the bikes out has put us slightly behind, and the next nearest towns don’t have any accommodation for foreigners so we’re going to have to start with quite a big day. Getting petrol is always a farce, even when the guide is with you. All the petrol pumps in this region will not work unless someone presses their identity card on to it. Everything is strictly controlled and you often need permission from the local police to fill up. Eventually we’re full of fuel and we’re on our way. Out and round we go, skirting the edge of the Taklamacan desert. Even here China is building expressways. If the moon was Chinese territory, they would build an expressway to it. It’s still a work in progress though so it quickly fades and we’re out in the wilderness. We stop at a services for something to eat. China builds everything on such a huge scale that is often difficult to describe. The services consist of a massive set of buildings, 100s of feet long and several storeys high. They’re built to cater for some kind of future where a million people can turn up all at once. There is only one small shop is open and even that only has a few half empty shelves filled with noodle meals that you resuscitate using a hot tap on the wall outside.
We have a town name, and a hotel name so someone who worships at the church of Google plugs it all in and it spits out a lat long. We all blindly plug it in the satnavs, label it ‘wrong hotel in the wrong town’ and follow the pink like like lemmings. We get to the ‘wrong town’ and three of us decide to try and get petrol. Daring I know. Without the guide… what were we thinking? So we pick our target petrol station, wait for them to open the barrier to a local then come in 3 abreast before they can close it. We hand over our driving licences and our insurance cards and ….. well … do nothing … for about an hour. Try anything off-piste like this round here and all sorts of people end up crawling out the woodwork. Police are called, then more police are called, then the police call more police on the phone, then we talk to the police on the phone, then more police turn up. By the time we’re eventually offered some fuel I’m not sure I want it any more. I think I’m going to walk…
So off we go to look for the ‘wrong hotel’. The ‘wrong town’ is being dug up and so we take to the separate bike lanes that run like small veins down along the river and between the all the buildings. Riding The Bitch down here is like tip toeing through a line of tiny worker ants. Eventually the road becomes a path becomes a pavement and end up outside a random block of flats where the ‘wrong hotel’ should be. Seems Google has given us the wrong coordinates for the wrong hotel in the wrong city. Nothing here but someone mending socks and someone else selling luke warm pig genitals on sticks.
We show the locals the name of the wrong hotel and they all start pointing in different directions so we go with the majority and ride round the pavements in search of our beds. We grab a scooterist and he’s convinced he doesn’t know the way to the wrong hotel so we follow him just to pass the time. When we’ve passed enough time we stop the bloke and he admits he was just having a laugh and fucks off into the distance. It’s not until that point that any of us actually dares to question the God of Google and zoom out on the satnavs to see where the hell we actually are. We are, of course, off course. We should be in another similar sounding hotel in another similar sounding town 40 similar miles away. It’s getting quite late and it’s getting dark so we call in the guide to recover us and lead us to the promised land.
This is obviously a town that doesn’t see many if any foreigners so we’re mobbed in 10 seconds flat where ever we stop. Just like the people the whole world over, everyone is friendly and smiling and just wants pictures.
Eventually we get to the right town and head for the right hotel. As soon as we go through the check point on the outskirts we immediately have a police escort. We’re getting close to where the military action is and so we’ll be monitored. Get to the right hotel and the escort hangs about outside with the engine running just in case we make a break for it.
Before going to bed I count my lucky stars and hope I’ve got enough. I reckon I’m going to need a few to get us through the next few days.
We’re up and out early. Up to the next town where the G219 begins. Or not. Getting given the finger here would mean diverting north of the Himalayas and missing Everest. I was up all night polishing those lucky stars and I’m ready to hand them to anyone and everyone we meet.
Get to Kargilik and this is very quickly turning into a tour of roadblocks and police stations. We arrive at police central and the guide disappears to find out the score. And we’re not alone. There is a tour group from the Swizz company Muztoo here. They run bikes from Switzerland to Beijing and let people join on sections as they please. They’ve got a mix of Swiss and German riders, mostly on Transalps but with a 1200 and 800GS thrown in for good measure. They’re on the same route and they’ve got the same problem. Their guide is a mate of our guide and it looks like we’re going to attack this together…. eventually.
I put my waiting shoes on. I hope they’re comfortable. This could be a long one.
When the guides appear they’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that we can get on to the G219. The bad news is that the scenery is going to be invisible due to it being pitch dark. It’s only lunchtime now and they’re not opening the road until 7pm. Good job I bought more than one pair of waiting shoes. I think the others are going to need them.
So we settle in to wait. The riders all disperse to flat areas in the shade and turn themselves off for a few hours. I just lay in the road between the bikes, put my head on my tank bag and stare at the insides of my eyelids.
I get a kick from the guide and I get up off the road. A lovely tarmac imprint in my face and a 50% dead body desperate for a blood supply. We’ve got a way to go tonight and a couple of big passes to do so we all pick the cafe that looks to be the smallest gut gamble and I hop in for some dinner with the other riders.
As the witching hour approaches we all roll past the big scrum of trucks and cars and line up at the barrier like a load of speedway riders waiting for the off. Just the 5000th passport check of the day and the barrier is up. We’re off and up into the failing light and heading into the sky.
The G219 doesn’t do anything gently. It doesn’t mess about. You want to go to Tibet? You want to go to altitude? Here you go then. No pissing about with acclimatisation, no gentle introductions, just get on with it.
We get to the first pass as the sun is throwing the last rays of the day across the sky. It’s steep, it’s loose and the only thing stopping you going off the edge are the last rays of sun shining directly in your eyes.
Up is scary. Down is … deleted from my mind due to near death-overload. We’ve got some 200 miles to do before the next roadblock, night has fallen like a velvet blanket over our heads and somebody has turned the freezer on. Not content with a blockade at each end, there are also road blocks en-route to contend with. Around midnight we come into a tiny town with a rough road running straight up to big fuck off police station, currently under the control of lots of very small men in very large coats. Wait for the guides to catch up in the van then queue in silence as General Big Potatoes stabs at a computer and shouts at everyone and anyone within spitting distance before letting us loose into the darkness once again.
It’s after 1am. I’m cold, hungry and tired and I’m staring up in the dark. This one is a big one. Over 5000m. The last thing I’m expecting at this point is sand. I’m hoping it’s is a mirage but one ‘throttle open slide and wiggle and turtle sticking his head out moment’ and I know it’s not. It’s not a mirage, it’s a fucking nightmare. The road up the pass is completely destroyed. All the crawling up and down by the trucks and military vehicles has turned the surface to dust. Not just on the surface, but all the way through. The road is a just a layer of very thick fine dust with rocks underneath. It’s feels just like fesh fesh. It looks like this is the place where they empty all of China’s hoover bags. The corners are the worst. All the braking and turning has pushed the dust into deep piles. You turn the bars and you only get 50% of what you’re asking for. We crawl up the switchbacks in clouds of dust and the sound of farts as bowels frantically react to big slides in thick choking blind clouds. Get to the top and the headlight picks out the sign – something over 5000m in the middle of the night and I’m shivering like I’m sat on a spin dryer full of rocks – WFT am I doing here? It’s not over yet though and we’ve still a way to go. At about 2:30 we reach the small town and start dreaming of lying under a warm blanket. Get to the barrier and the warm blanket is 1km the other side. The Swiss are staying at a semi-demolished shed/detention facility just at the barrier and they kindly offer us areas of bare concrete to rest up until the guide catches up.
About 3am we approach the barrier on foot and try our luck. One of the guards takes pity on us and offers to drive us down into the town so he takes us to a small van and brings a few mates to heave and push us all inside until it looks like an overloaded washing machine with random colours and faces pressed against all the windows. He starts it up, drives 20 meters to the barrier, then stops. This barrier is not coming up for anyone it seems so we’re popped back out the van, unwashed, and wait… again. After a load more passports, permits and piss taking we shuffle off down the road into the night to find our beds. Beds. Does a slab of cold concrete covered in a threadbare blanket count as a bed? I’ll have to look that up somewhere. No mattress, no electricity, no toilet. Walking in is like watching a secretly shot video of a FBI torture facility. Down a dark corridor into a cell with writing all over the walls from victims that have entered but never left.
I worry about it for all of about 2.5 seconds. I kick my boots off. Lie down. Shut down.
What feels like 5 seconds later the alarm goes off. I haven’t got a bloody clue where I am and I think my eyes are broken. Eyes open or shut looks absolutely identical. It’s completely and utterly black. I fall out of bed and crawl across the floor following the noise to the alarm. Silence. Silence and total darkness. I’m in a cold concrete womb and I need to find the exit. Find the door and go out into Mole World. Follow the dark tunnels round and then outside. It’s still pitch black and the only way I think I’m outside is the change of temperature. I walk a few yards in the dark dribbling a wee so i can find my way back to the hole I just came out of. I walk until I hit a solid object then proceed to laser cut a perfect circle in a wall using just the power of piss.
It’s 7am and we need to get back up to the bikes. The petrol station opens at 7:30 and the barrier is open momentarily at 8 so we join the waking cattle and wander up the road breathing heavily in the altitude, blowing clouds of steam into the thin cold morning air.
Meet up with the Swiss at the petrol station. One rider pushes in and claims a pump then 10 riders push up behind to share it. There is a real atmosphere at times like this. Tonnes and tonnes of metal is sitting around mumbling in the half light, people stumbling about half asleep, empty stomachs and sore eyes, all just waiting for the word.
At about 8, a massive coat appears from a door and leans on the barrier and we’re away again. Racing out into the cold bleak morning.
Cold and bleak can be miserable and grim , but it can also be beautiful and astounding. We’re on the G219, we’re at altitude, and the place is absolutely deserted. It’s just desolate. I’ve not been this way before and it’s just incredible. The blockades ensure there is no traffic and provides us with a one way racetrack through the wilderness. The Bitch is feeling the altitude but with lungs as big as hers she can always make the scenery a blur and I spend very pleasant couple of hours reeling in a widescreen horizon that is a constant treat of beautiful mountains and vast open plains. Just me, The Bitch and bitchumen in perfect harmony.
Fuel for both body and bike is really thin on the ground out here. Like every 2-300km thin. We feed the beasts then go and thaw out for a while when we wait for out Tibetan driver to appear with his truck. We try to get some breakfast but the only thing on the menu is a tasteless white gruel that even Oliver Twist would turn his nose up at. I think it’s made of that dust we saw on the pass the other night. This is where the Tibet diet starts. I’m not a big fan of toads tits and chickens ears so I’ll be eating air for a while.
Out we go again. We’ve found the war games and we’re stuck behind a crawling column of khaki. No way we’re allowed past this lot. It’s obviously a slow motion war game this year. It’s going to be a long day. Rather than sit at 30mph I just stop, get off and let everything disappear over the horizon and wait. Wait until all I can hear is the wind. Wait to feel alone. Wait and wonder at the scale of this place. Wait and picture me on my mental map. Just a small insignificant dot in the middle of nowhere. Press the starter. Catch the convoy. Stop. Nap. Repeat.
Eventually the convoy comes to a coordinated stop and a million bodies suddenly run down into the plain and break the world record for the biggest simultaneous piss. We take the opportunity to scoot past and get a groove on, into Tibet and …. immediately to the next blockade. It’s early afternoon and the barrier is going nowhere until 8pm. Here we go again. There is nothing here but the police station. No shops, no cafes, no nothing. We’re at about 5100m and we’re all feeling pretty shit. The Swiss group are here too, all scattered around the police station floor, all dead to the world, all wearing their waiting shoes.
By the time 8pm comes round we’ve had enough and we could really do with loosing a bit of altitude. We’re already at 5100m, and tonight’s town is somewhere around 4300 so I’m looking forward to a few hours gentle descent in the evening sunshine.
Ok. Forget gentle. The road is lovely and smooth and we’re all racing the sun to the horizon. Keen to find a bed before 3 o’clock in the morning. The road has different ideas though. At random points it just falls away beneath you leaving you sitting 2ft above the saddle and waiting to be bashed right in the bollocks as soon as the road decides to join you again a second later. Either that or you manage to descend with the bike only to pull 10G as it hits the steep exit to the yomp and you’re spat out over the top. Beautiful place for a big accident though.
OK. Forget descent too. The sun is going down and we’re still going up. Up… up and slowly up we go. This is exactly what I don’t need. The top of the pass is 5378m and it’s all very flat up here. I expect 5478m to be the very very pointy snowy bit at the very very top of a triangular cartoon shaped mountain but it’s not. It’s just a long straight road between a lot of very large fuck off imposing mountains.
The evening is quickly turning to the dark side so we gather in small formations and chase each other’s tail lights into the night….again. About 10pm we get to a barrier just on the outskirts of the town, freezing and completely wankered. I want my bed. The guards don’t like it when you turn up alone, especially when the place is up to it’s tits in army. We saw a load of them camped off in the distance when we came in. They look nervous and won’t let us approach the barrier so we have to wait for the guides. 10:30. The guides arrive and we’re invited into the warmth of the police station while they decide where we’re going to stay. All the police are really friendly and happy but I don’t want a cup of hot water and a soggy pig’s foot to suck on just at this moment thanks. I’d much rather prefer a WARM FUCKING BED.
The two guides come up to the groups together, that’s never a good sign. The good news is that there are some luke warm beds within staggering distance, the bad news is that the next road block, 160km away, will shut at 7am tomorrow and we need to get there before it does.
Get into the town and fill up the bikes. Round to the hotel about 11:30. No showers, No dinner. No time for anything but sleep. And not much time for that either. Back up at 4:30 into what feels like groundhog day. Follow the black line… make that the white line. The world has gone black and white as snow flurries come in horizontally on a fierce cold wind. There are always points on these trips when they move from being a holiday to just being a mission and this is one. Auto pilot on, just count down the numbers on the satnav. Split them into 10s. Anything to distract you from the cold wild weather attacking your senses just a few thin layers of clothes and a thin piece of plastic away.
Get to the roadblock just before 7 and all huddle together in the wind and cold like a bunch of penguins out on the ice. Stamping our feet. Stapling our eyelids to our foreheads to stay awake…. and then we’re through. This is the last roadblock in the exercise and we’re free. Free to run wild. Free to do what we like. Free to….find the nearest bed and get something like normal body temperature back.
By 8:30am we’ve done another 120km and we’ve reached our destination and a lovely beautiful soft warm bed:) After a quick recharge I go for a £2 wet shave and take a wander round the town. It seems to be 50% police stations. The guide has had to register us at 4 of them already and I have to go with him to a 5th and sit for a couple of hours with the leader of the Swiss group and have our photos taken.
The fuel stations are getting further and further apart now. You’re not allowed to carry or fill cans in Tibet. So I have to fill the bike with a kettle, go and get my can, go out of the town and find a secluded spot, let the fuel out into the can, then go back into town to a different fuel station and fill the bike back up. It all makes perfect sense when you’re there believe me.
So. We’re on the G219. We’re getting closer and closer. I still can’t believe we’ll actually get there. I daren’t really think about it. A lot can still happen between here and there. We’ve been above 4000m for a few days now and we’ve got quite a few more to go. Perhaps I should buy some of this. Might need it where I’m going:)Next Page