By Bill Pratt
We always looked like Darth Vader to most people. Children thought we were something special. Just after this picture was taken, the little boy looked at me and went straight into tears. His young mother, dressed in uniform, simply laughed. But rest assured, we did not look like anything this little boy had ever seen before. Gary wore a brand new black Darien Aerostitch suit with silver reflective striping. His suit was very large and since it was brand new, it looked very stiff. With his off-road style helmet, he was as alien as you could get. Still, people would approach us and want to try on our helmets and gloves…or sit on the motorcycle. Eventually it became a game to see how we would keep the onlookers off the bikes. The best guard of the bikes turned out to be Randy. It became apparent that size rules.
After a well-prepared meal that would typically last about 1˝ hours, we realized that quality daylight riding time was being wasted by our huge meals at lunch. Su Zhi Wei and Dong loved a large lunch. But the delay would mean we could be riding past sundown. Since the roads were not lighted, it was not safe to ride much past 0-dark-30PM. It became apparent that lunch would soon turn into a bowl of Top Raman noodle soup and a coke. This change in lunch got us to our next destination with extra time to enjoy the local scenery. I did start to miss some of the great meals. We usually had about seven or eight dishes of food brought to our table over the course of an hour. Each one of us would find something special that we liked and most of the balance would just get picked at by Rusty with chopsticks. He would usually stand with a bowl and walk around the table mixing the sauce from one dish with the spicy meat of another. This habit would disappear after his bride arrived in Lhasa, Tibet. Gary was usually first to blast out of town and highball to the next town or gas stop.
With any road trip, it is always fun to notice the changes in local culture. Watching people is part of the expedition. The customs would vary from town to town. But, in the more remote areas of China, each town would have their own recipe for construction. The common thread was local homemade mud brick that were baked in the dirt and stacked to dry. They were hard, but not permanent. The bricks required a layer of painted mortar on top to prevent the mud bricks from crumbling. This type of construction was temporary, and you would always find some kind of re-construction taking place. A rather new building would look fifty years old. Communicating was becoming more difficult. The further we traveled into Northern China the more difficult it was for Su Zhi Wei and Dong to understand. Translation started to become impossible. It became easier to find someone that spoke some English that it was for us to understand the Chinese dialect…not that any of the US Dragons spoke Chinese.
The changes in customs were not just the only things to change. As we got closer to Tibet, the physical appearance of the men and woman changed. The men had well chiseled faces and wore long dress or sheepskin coats. The women wore very colorful dresses and had red round cheeks. The young women were most attractive to one of our drivers. I have to admit he was correct. Rusty pointed out that many of the men carried a long knife under their coat. I personally think the knife was more ceremonial than functional.
When we finally arrived in Golmud, the architecture changed from mud brick to more modern buildings trimmed in aluminum. These buildings were probably built in the 60’s and most were starting to show signs of wear and tear. Regular maintenance was not a high priority. Randy commented that he wanted to go into the plumbing and supply business. Most of the hotel rooms needed repair of some kind. Usually the bathroom was the first room you would find that could use new pipes, sinks, showerheads and toilets. Good old western faucets and light fixtures would be great.
While crossing the Gobi desert, we came across a bicycle competition that was hosted by a Chinese road construction company. They wanted to promote the quality of the roads and the race was the marketing plan they thought would appeal to the communist government. They invited teams from all over the world. Team Australia clobbered the Chinese team every day. The winners received cash prizes. The next day we all posed for pictures in front of the hotel. The Chinese ladies in the bicycle group asked if they could take our pictures…we were glad to oblige. The highlights of Golmud included a power wash of the motorcycles for about 25 cents and a boot shine for Gary. He enjoyed all the special services provided on every corner. Ken got a haircut and a massage for $10 and I got my first message of the trip. I have to admit the massage was very welcome as the riding position of the KLR650 caused a strain in my shoulder muscles. This pain lasted most of the trip.
At this point, our accommodations were starting to go downhill. The further north we traveled, the more removed we were from major town’s amenities. If you are going to travel China, you need to set your expectations low and then you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find. Later in the trip, after Nancy joined us, she would help explain how to adjust to the conditions of each town. I would expect that if I travel this area again, my knowledge of local conditions would better prepare me for less than expected conditions. We quickly developed the four star ratings for hotels. In the US we rate hotels by four stars. In China and Tibet, you must be prepared to issue ratings in the minus star area. We did eventually stay in a minus four-star hotel. But who is complaining…it is all part of the show.
Randy and the others kept close attention to daily maintenance. Rusty was the only one who would rather take pictures and handle trip stuff. I adopted his bike by seeing that he got a daily chain lube.
Dong’s bike finally got dinged. If you remember, we installed a 90% off road tire. Rusty warned him about taking corners fast. He went down in a curve and crunched some of the plastic.
Gas was available in larger towns. The KLR650 ran fine on any kind of gas. When you bought gas, they would hand a nozzle out the window. The price was about $1.45 in every town…it was the communist way.
Ó Copyright, Bill Pratt, Mill Creek, WA – March 2001