Noodle slurping, with sticks eating, rice wine drinking, unmannered, rude, deep throat saliva spitting, non English speaking, arrogant, narrow minded, bureaucratic, communistic, media censoring, suppressing, frustrating, intimidating, unwelcoming, narrow eyed, yellow coloured, black haired, disrespectful, unfashionable, belly showing, inefficient, lazy, red stamp loving, redirecting people. Never had I any racist thoughts, but in China something happened. I didn't write anything earlier because I was simply too paranoid that the Chinese government would do something to us.
Man what are we happy to be out of China. Even though the whole paperwork story has not come to an end, we had a feeling something was happening and people cared about us. It's like stepping into an opposite world. Government employees didn't try to make up their own rules, but actually try to find out what the national law is. They take really care of us, invite us to their house for the night or for a good meal. We were really suspicious the first time we got an invitation after 2,5 months in China. If you don't try you'll never know, so we accepted it. It seems the Kazakh people are truly good hearted. Such a nice welcome, so GOODBYE CHINA!
I remember the last time I was writing the blog in a bus going to Battambang in Cambodia. It seems so long, but it's not more than 4 months ago. Amazing how much can happen in that short amount of time. We really got sick a few times, not only of all the temples but mainly of the food and altitude sickness. Rice poisoning (too much rice for westerners) and bad hygiene in Laos were a big problem, I'll spare you the details of our days on the toilet. Sometimes it happened at worse times than others, for example on a scooter trip in Laos on a dusty dirt road 50 km between the nearest towns. What doesn't kill ya, makes ya stronger right? I guess we must be really strong now..
We visited many beautiful places like the Angkor watt temples in Cambodia and the 4000 islands in Laos, but we usually got bored really quick because of the tourists business. Everybody trying to sell something, millions of other tourists blocking your view or standing right in front of you when you want to make a picture. Argh! Other less know places were not as bad. We came across many deserted waterfalls or the humongous Kon Lor cave. A cave where a little boat can be hired to race through the 7 km tunnel. We looked around in the same area for the day and found a whole cave to ourselves like Kon Lor, but without the river in it. So big, so quiet, so damp, so dark and so alone. Just amazing.
We had to wait a week for our visas to China so we had a lot of time to kill in Laos. We did some rock climbing and hot air ballooning in Vang Vieng. This may not sound very exciting, but doing this kind of activities in Asia brings extra risks. For example after enjoying the view in the hot air balloon it was time to land. The operator did not speak any English and we were flying quite low all the time, so the landing came as a surprise. All of a sudden we crash landed in the middle of a field of thorn bushes. Not recommended for delicate people.
After receiving our Chinese visas we headed to China by bus. If 24 hours in the bus on Laos's roads doesn't make you happy, arriving in China to find a hotel will definitely not make your day. It took us over 4 hours to find a reasonably priced hotel. At least it was an apartment on the 22nd floor for about 11 Euros a night. Definitely worth the pain.
It was time to find a bike. For a whole week we were exploring the web and the city Kunming for available motorbikes. On a Chinese motorcycle forum for travellers, we met a German guy living in Kunming. We had lunch together and he advised us to take the most reliable bike available, the Yamaha YBR 250. It was priced more than twice than the Chinese motorbikes, but the quality was much better. The best quality Chinese bike is known to break down after 5000 km, which is not even halfway our trip. We decided to go for the Yamaha bike so we could maybe sell it again once were in Europe. Of course, that was easier said than done. We knew it was going to be challenging to get a motorbike registered in the most bureaucratic country in the world, but receiving only a temporary license after running around full time for a week was still disappointing. It gave us 30 days to drive in China so we took what we were able to take and started our journey back. We kept trying to register the motorbike in the cities and towns we passed on our trip but every time they said we needed at least a 6 month visa. Nobody knew why or was brave enough to find out. When we asked questions it was always the famous word 'MAYO', which of course means NO. Just finding these registration offices was a real pain in the ass, because nobody would speak English or they would send you to a different building at the other side of the city. We spent more time doing all the paperwork and running around than actually driving. This was quite disappointing in the beginning, but we started to get used to all the Mayo's and disappointments in China.
MAYO MAYO MAYO! Wow I could really write a whole story about this word. Sometimes we would walk into a hotel after a whole day of driving and they would say MAYO straight away. The general rule was, if someone didn't feel like helping you, which was most of the time, this person would stick to the single word MAYO until you left. So if anyone asks us if we want French fries with some mayo, don't be surprised if our eyes start twitching...
We left Kunming on the 19th of April to start our journey back home. First was the tourist town Dali, to extend our visas. We could only drive very slowly because we had to break in the new engine. It took us hours to drive 300 kilometres and we were soaking wet from the cold mountain rain. Not the best start of a trip. On the internet we read that extending a visa would be really easy and quick in Dali, that's why we did it there instead of Kunming. Well that turned out to be wrong. It took us a whole day to drive back and forth to get the right papers for the application. Then it took another 5 working days to get our passports back. Not easy and not quick. At least we were able to adjust to the altitude a bit and rest from all the hassle we had in Kunming.
After receiving our passports again with an extra 25 days we headed off to the mountains and try out a little shortcut. We came in Shangri-La, a town with an altitude over 3000 meters to stop and have a rest. We really needed some warm clothing because the mountains were not as warm as we thought. It turned out to be a big rest because we both got altitude sickness for a few days. Throwing up, severe diarrhoea and not wanting to eat. Yes even I did not feel like eating. Just walking up 10 steps of stairs was completely exhausting because of the thin air. We were not aware of the extremeness of the symptoms. It appears that above 2400 meters you should take preventive medicines, which we learned the hard way. We didn't trust the local Chinese medicines so we just took it easy and waited until it went away. Unfortunately the shortcut past Shangri-La brought us to even higher altitudes, some passes were around 5000 meters high. This made us even more sick, but it was so worth it! The blue sky, the snow, the high mountains, the views and the dense air. I really respect the people cycling at these altitudes, they are nuts!
The shortcut wasn't well marked, so it was inevitable to get lost. We ended up driving 250 km the wrong way heading towards Tibet. We were not aware of this until we came into Derong, 10 km away from Tibet. The Chinese government does not like foreigners to come this close to Tibet so everywhere in town we were answered by MAYO. We thought this was a bit overcautious as we were not even in Tibet yet, besides it was a long day driving on tough roads so we were not happy to be denied at all the hotels. We decided to head back straight away to camp in the mountains for our first time. We only had one sleeping bag and mattress as we were not planning to camp yet. This happened to be the coldest night in our entire lives and then to be woken up by a stupid Chinese person shouting outside your tent definitely makes your day.
After visiting the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas we were done with all the altitude sickness, bad roads, coldness and unfriendly people. We headed for Chengdu, the nearest big city on lower grounds to rest en get our health back. On the map it was marked as a big highway called the Sichuan-Tibet highway. We were expecting a better road than the shortcut we had taken, but we were wrong again. This road is known as one of the worst roads in the world, we found out the hard way. We knew that China did not like Tibet, but to cut it off by letting all the roads heading into Tibet deteriorate was not something we expected. It seemed like the roads have not been looked after for decades, which could be true as the Tibetan clashes go back to the 1950's. For us this meant 300 km on the bumpiest and dustiest road you can imagine. To make things worse, after 5 km's on this road the motorbike started acting funny. We stopped to look what was going on and after a while a car stopped. Not to help us, but to make pictures of us! This was the last drop for Jasmin so she started shouting at them to go elsewhere(saying it politely). After this the driver got out and started helping us, by giving us his phone with his friend on it that speaks worse English than himself. He then translates that the air filter was blocked by the dust. The bike was new and we only did 5 km on this dusty road so I had my doubts. We checked the air filter and it was completely clean. It was clear to me that they did not know anything more than I did so we kept going on a stuttering engine. The problem went away eventually, so it was probably bad fuel. Doing an average of 20 km/h this was the hardest road we have driven so far. After this we decided to stick to the expressways going around Tibet. It meant a thousand more kilometres, but at least we can drive normally. Of course this didn't go without problems either. For some reason the Chinese do not like motorbikes on their expressways. Every time we passed a toll gate we had to sneak by or explain why we want to drive on their expressway. They like to claim that it is the Chinese law that motorcycles are forbidden on highways because it is not safe. Sometimes they would deny us entry which meant driving on bad local roads. We did some research and found on the motorcycle forum that there is no such law. Besides what is safer, driving on a good road marked with English signs or driving on a little road full of sheep, potholes, local Chinese drivers and getting lost all the time?
Since Jasmin was young she always wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors. I never heard of it, but it appears that some Chinese emperor believed he could take stone warriors into his afterlife. Therefore he made hundreds of life-size stone statues of soldiers and horses and took it into his grave. Now hundreds of years later they discovered the grave and turned it in a multimillion dollar tourist attraction. We were in the area anyway so why not? Besides we could use our driver licenses as student cards to get discount. It was very impressive to see the number of statues and the detail put into them. Nevertheless they are still pieces of stone, we got annoyed by all the tourists and moved along after an hour. Off to the China wall!
So another 1300 km further, we were standing on the China wall! We found an old piece of the wall, with a very steep ramp, where you can drive a bit on the wall! Apparently there is not one, but many pieces of wall built in different times. We were standing on one of the western parts which was very old and less impressive. The bigger parts which are better restored can be visited closer to Beijing, but I don't think you'll be able to drive your motorbike on it without killing tourists. Parts of the old wall are still intact and visible next to the highway. Now that was nice driving!
Further on Silk Road we noticed we were ascending a lot. The whole day we were going higher and higher, so it was getting colder and colder. Eventually it started to rain and the rain turned into snow and Ice. The clouds were hanging low, forming a thick mist. This was creating a fog in my helmet, so I couldn't see anything and my hands were freezing. We were going over a mountain pass over 4000 meters high again! We didn't do a lot of research, but then again how could we know? All the maps are really bad detailed or written in Chinese. We were so cold and wet that we had to stop. We found a little road restaurant(which was their house) with a warm furnace in the middle. We spent a few hours warming up. I won't forget the pain in my hands of warming them up again. Thankfully it stopped raining and now all dry and warmed up it wasn't as cold anymore. After the mountain pass, it was time to go through the desert. As fast as it got cold on the mountain pass, that's how fast we got hot in the desert. It was amazing to be able to see the snowy mountains from the melting hot desert. Now entering Xinjiang, one of the biggest provinces in China and only 4% is fit for human living. That means we had a lot of nothing to drive through. Luckily we didn't have any problems going through, as there were less toll gates too. Funny huh, fewer Chinese people makes less problems?
We arrived in Urumqi, the city furthest away from an ocean in the world. The seafood was not recommended, even by the locals. Here we had the hardest time finding reasonably priced accommodation as foreigners were not accepted in most places. We learned China doesn't like the people in this province as they have Uyghur (Muslim) ethnics. There have been many recent lethal fights with the government so tension is high in the area. Even though we met a young guy working as a translator that offered us a place to stay in his apartment. We didn't know what to say, as this was the first time we got invited in whole Asia. We didn't have much to lose so we accepted his offer and we ended up meeting two of the nicest guys of Asia. We talked about the things happening in and around China and how they live under the rule of the government's law. They helped us getting our Chinese visa extended, a visa into Kazakhstan, getting our bike serviced and a new temporary license plate for our motorbike. We knew it would take us a lot of time to get this done, as we had experienced earlier in Kunming and Dali. It took us three weeks to get everything done in Urumqi, but imagine how long it would it have taken without the help of our friends. On one of the days we counted the number of buildings we visited and we ended on 16 different buildings. Our two friends told us it went very easy because we were white foreigners. EASY!?
In Urumqi they have a law that motorcycles cannot be driven between 0700 and 2100. We were basically the only ones driving around on a motorbike and because of the tensions in the city there are police everywhere. It didn't take long before one of the police took us off the road. The first time I was by myself, but the officer didn't speak any English. It's funny how they stop you, they come running to you as if you are a terrorist and try to take out the keys of the bike. Our friend in Kunming already warned us of this, so I took out the keys before him. You should have seen the face of the policeman, unfortunately our friend in Kunming was not so lucky. When they get your keys they hold you for hours because you cannot leave. Now I had the keys so he had nothing to keep me. Even though I followed them to the nearest police station to get a translator. So I'm sitting in a police office next to the holding cells getting an interrogation over the phone from a translator. I didn't have my passport, the motorbike wasn't registered and I did not have a Chinese driver license. Besides the night before our friends were telling us about the things the Chinese government can do to people. They had enough to hold me in their prison for a long while. Then after a half hour all of a sudden the translator over the phone said I can go because I was a white foreigner. I was happy to get out of that place, but I couldn't stop imagining what could have happened if I was not a white foreigner. The second time police stopped us, we were together and I took the keys out again. This time they let us go after they found out we couldn't speak Chinese.
After three weeks time we were happy to be able to leave China. We didn't know what would happen when we would get to the border as the motorbike wasn't registered. Nobody had done this before and many people in Urumqi advised us to sell the bike because they thought it wasn't possible or worth the effort. When we arrived at the border, the guards kept pointing their guns, spitting in front of us and shouting Chinese at us. It was clear they didn't want us there so we informed at the closest hotel. It appeared they are closed in the weekends. We waited two days and the Chinese border was surprisingly helpful getting us out. This was too easy, we were convinced something had to go wrong.