Thursday, October 14, 2010

13th October
The last run was about 200 km. I was told that there are time restrictions for riding bikes in Shanghai so I was to reach at 20:00 hrs. I thought I could after so many days, sleep late… but the excitement wouldn’t let me! Woke up at 5:30 and lay in bed tossing and turning. Finally got up, studied the maps I had, searched the net for additional information, and a lot of futile stuff. At 9:30 set out to look for a fabrication workshop had to get the mud guard altered and fixed, the weather search for Shanghai predicted rain in the evening -did not want to be caught in a similar situation like last evening.
The first welder I found said he couldn’t do it because as I understood he did not have the right equipment. The next two that I found had shops within a stone’s throw from each other. Surprisingly they were extremely rude and both shouted at me and almost asked me to get out. This was the first time I met such short fused, foul mouthed people in the trip. I was very shocked and upset that both had treated me so badly…so to feel good, I decided they must have had a fight with each other over marital fidelity! Decided to go back to the first one, he seemed nice. I thought if I could even borrow a drill and a hacksaw, then I could do something myself with a bit of wire. This young man I realized was telling me earlier that he could not handle the equipment. Now his seemingly elder brother was there, and they agreed to do the job as per my directions.
It was 13:30 by the time we were done, and a good time to leave. I left the hotel feeling satisfied and confident all was under control and the road today to the capital city HAD to be good.
Well I still had to give my final test in patience …just as I reached the outskirts of the city… my back tyre went flat!! This time I couldn’t help but laugh! This was the ultimate… on the last day last leg!! I wheeled the bike to a truck mechanic’s garage that was the nearest. Two young chaps were busy with a dumper’s engine. They couldn’t do the job… but their mother, who was minding the spare-parts shop, came out and instructed one of them to fetch the right person. Ten minutes later the puncture guy came with his kit and fixed the tyre in 20 minutes flat. The mother then instructed the son to drop me off to ‘sai ya ba’… if the boy had not led me to it, I would have never found it and would have been going around getting frustrated… so there was a silver lining.
Save the first 20 km which was a moonscape, the rest of the road was really satin smooth.
Reached Shanghai at about 20:00 hrs.
The hotel Simon has booked for me is in the suburbs and the ‘Shanghai 0 Km’ is still about 37 km away. A little disappointing, but he has promised to take me there tomorrow evening!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

12th October
Today’s destination was Huzhou about 388 km. Left Anqing at about 8:15 hrs. Had consulted the google maps and the way out of the city was extremely confusing as again the elusive G318 which I had to take today disappeared in the map somewhere in the middle of the city. I had a bad start… though I had my compass out and tried to keep heading north, I almost immediately got lost. I was turning from one road to another, people were being unresponsive, and to top it, it was raining, and my jeans and shoes was already wet, I wasn’t even out of the city, and had 9 hours to go(if all went well!). I seriously thought of turning back and checking into a hotel and postponing the trip by a day. But didn’t, I wanted this finished as soon as possible now.
As I was asking a worker at a construction site suddenly a woman in a yellow cape came up beeped the horn of her two wheeler, and beckoned me over me to show her my Chinese direction card. She said a lot of things to me and finally motioned me to follow her. Wonder from where she came, she just took me all the way out of the city till the river bank where I had to put my bike on the barge, cross it and right there was my G318.
A terrific, smooth road that too sans traffic. I speed off thinking wow today I will get home on time! Only trouble was as I had taken off the front mud guard, and it was raining, the mud splattered right on my body and goggles. I had to constantly with my left hand keep wiping the mud off.
Wet and shivering after 200 km, decided to take a lunch break. The hot bowl of rice and a spicy fish preparation got me charged up. But soon the G318 did the disappearing act. I was lost and in my most abusive mood, screaming expletives to the wind a kept riding. I knew 318 was “ sai ya ba” I like Majnu kept uttering the word asking people in desperation but no one knew where my “sai ya ba” was. I finally settled for a road someone promised would take me to my destination. I was well punished for jilting my G318, for this was about 90 km of misery, as the road was totally washed away and I had to negotiate stones and grime and holes. I had to go extremely slow as I had to take care of my spokes and my tyres, and now the constant wiping of the mud splattering in the goggles was getting awfully tiring. I finally stopped at a small petrol pump rummaged through some scrap I found on the side and with the help of the attendants there fashioned a mud guard with wire and a thin sheet of ply. It was effective against the mud for an hour, but now it had gotten dark and the ply would keep rising up as the wind got under it and obstructed the light totally. I was forced to remove my contraption and bear the onslaught of the mud again. I somehow reached Guangde a town 60 km before my actual destination and decided to stop. I was impossible to go on.
These last two day were among the worst days in my last 50 days. It is as if I am being put to test before my journey ends tomorrow. 

My phone got drenched and died last night...R.I.P
11th October
Had to reach Anqing today- that was 399 km and about 9 hrs according to Google maps. I was very apprehensive about the back tyre. I wanted to leave early as I had a lot of distance to cover and the condition of the roads and delays was another question mark… no time to look for another mechanic and the tyre of the right size etc.
Wuhan is a very big city with road works and flyovers being constructed everywhere. So finding my way out of the morning rush hour traffic jams and diversions was a major nightmare- spent more than an hour and a half looking for my way out.  
 I rode for the first 70 km but again each hiss or jolt was like Damocles whispering in my ear. I could not take it and just turned into a mechanics shop in a town that came next. Rocinante had also completed 9000 km and I intended to change the oil at Anqing. It was a good idea to drain and replace the oil while the tyre work was being done. It was impossible to get the right tyre in this small town. I decided to put the front tyre which was still in excellent condition at the back and the back tyre that I had changed in Dulan on the 28th which I was carrying with me, and was in a better condition than the current back tyre; in the front. Now this was the original back tyre and was wider and fitted tightly in the front mudguard… so had to remove the mudguard. The whole operation took about an hour and a half. I resumed my journey. Thankfully the road was good... but as usual there were no road signs at any junctions - you never know if you have to go left or right. What they do have though is milestones with a countdown of kilometers to Shanghai - on each and every road. Not only that, between each stone is also a hundred meter marker-this I think is a waste and it angers me no end as they should rather put the name of the next town on these stones. Luckily I have realized that at least the stones have in small print the no. of the highway on them. I was keeping an eye on the stones for this. I knew I had to stick to the G318 highway. Suddenly after a junction the markers were gone, and after a while I found myself on state road 106. I tried to back track ask people who refused to answer or did not know… but had gone quite a distance and kept getting more and more lost. I must have spent another Kafkaesque hour or more fretting and fuming before I got back on course.

 There was a mountainous patch, I had confirmed in the maps this was the very last one on the road to Shanghai! At about 17:00 hrs as the sun was beginning to pack up; I had done a range or two of the mountains, and calculated that I had another 100 km to go. Suddenly I saw a sign that said Anqing 195 KM!  I totally lost it! I was quite tired and felt utterly cheated.
Not only did I have to drive through the dark (as I have said, something that I am most uncomfortable with) but had to do about 50 km of mountains in pitch dark and through fog… and at a time when I was at the end of my last reserves of strength of body and mind.
Reached Anqing at 22:15 hrs. A total of about 14 grueling hours and 470 km.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

10th October
Forgot to mention yesterday… the back tyre has gone bald! Need to change it- had thought will change it in Wuhan (where I am today), but can’t get the tyre of the right specification here. Tomorrow’s ride is 400 km (according to Google maps its going to take me nine hours) - praying the tyre lasts. Hoping will get the required tyre there. 
Bad weather, rain rain rain all the way. Shoes and clothes and some other stuff from the back pack (now tied on the back seat and hence exposed to rain) soaking…wet have spread it all over the room …no chance it will dry. Luckily there is a hair dryer in the bath room, using that time to time on the shoes!!
Really thankful to Sharmila for regularly uploading the blog in the midst of putting up her show in the U.K and from The Netherlands, where was, for delivering a talk.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

9th October
I was picked up by a guide from my hotel and taken to the point from where the tour bus left for the Three Gorges dam. It was about 35 km away. All I can say is that it is really huge in all respects as compared to the Sardar Sarovar. We saw it from various locations… from between the dam and the ship lifts (point A in figure below), from right next to the dam from the reservoir side from the north bank (point B), from the south bank almost frontally (point C), right next to the shiplifts, and from the bridge spanning the river  (point D). It was quite foggy on the river;  the dam was as if an apparition.
 There was a Finnish guy and myself only two foreigners; the whole bus was filled with local tourists. There were at least 10 other buses out of which 8 were local tourists. Looks like the Three Gorges project is an installation of national pride.
Got back to the hotel at 14:00 hrs. Had checked out in the morning and left my bags at the reception. I left immediately, but since I knew I would be leaving so late, I had only scheduled 120 Km to Jingzhou for today.
Just 5 km from Jingzhou and there was a bang! Since I knew I hadn’t had today’s share of bad luck, I knew instantly it had to be me… of course it was, the side car tyre had worn out and the tube had burst again!! Luckily as the city was nearing, there were a few houses and shops. Heaved the bike to a side to a fabrication workshop. The owner was watching me all along. As I pointed towards the wheel, he took out his phone and nodding at me made a call. Thanking him, I got busy unpacking the sidecar, putting it on the jack and removing the wheel.
When I was done, his wife told me through gestures to get on his bike and take the wheel to the mechanic…The mechanic’s shop was kept by a lady, and her brood of three boys did all the jobs. They changed the tyre and the tube. I realized I did not have enough cash…  the man who had got me there took me another 5 km to an ATM to withdraw cash. It is amazing how helpful people are… and without any expectations.
Finally reached Jingzhou at 19:30 hrs, found a hotel and checked in.

Friday, October 8, 2010

8th October
With baited breath, started my journey to Yichang, hoping not to feel the quiver and shake from the side car. After every bump or bounce I would brace myself in anticipation. It did not happen today. But tomorrow is another day!
It was quite cold and incredibly foggy; vision beyond 20 feet at the most was impaired. There was whiteness all over… it was exactly like my ride last night only this was like a white night. I would try to seek a truck that would drive at a speed I could keep up with and latch on to it like a lamprey. This way I was not driving into darkness or milky-ness as today. I could focus on the back panel of the truck with its reflectors or red night lights. The fog lasted till 11:00 after which one could feel the feeble rays of the sun beginning to penetrate through that engulfing chalky opacity.
After a lunch break at a roadside eatery, reached Yichang comfortably by 14:00hrs. The city looks very industrial. The Yangtse lay to the left. I don’t know why but it seemed like a looming, lurking, woeful, creature…, with the fog or may be smog still hanging over it…the opposite bank was just a wash of pale bluish grey.
Have booked myself on a tour to The Three Gorges tomorrow morning at 7:50.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

7th October
When I reached yesterday, before checking into the hotel, I had inspected the bike and heaved a sigh of relief. Today I set out, and in the first 10 minutes I felt the familiar but unwanted wobble on the left side. In denial mode I said to myself, “it’s the uneven road”.  I knew I had to accept the hard fact sooner or later that it was the spokes. Each time I got the spokes done I thought- this mechanic was better than the first so all’s going to be well now.
Getting a mechanic was extremely difficult today. I started with five broken spokes and by the time I drove around and found a mechanic eight were gone. People here just refuse to understand or make an effort to understand sign language which can be extremely frustrating. That is not because they are unfriendly; they go out of their way to help when they understand. I think it is because for them, the need for such kind of communication has never arisen- most of these parts do not witness foreign tourists (lots of local tourists). We in India perhaps, we are used tourists and to so many languages including ones we don’t comprehend that making sense of gestures comes more easily to us. I found the mechanic finally because a guy I asked tried to explain where to find one and finally decided to take his moped and come along. He had to take me to 3 others before we found one who would do it.
Simon translated for me over the phone that the reason they are popping so easily could be because the Chinese made spokes are not the same quality as the original… so we decided to put thicker spokes. For which we had to actually drill the holes and enlarge them. Getting the spokes was another ordeal. Shiyan is supposed to be ‘Motor City’. It is built on the automobile industry. One would expect scores of automobile shops in a locality where you can find whatever you want. But that wasn’t so we drove around the whole city on the mechanic’s bike and came up with only 13 spokes (a wheel has 36). So currently only those many have been changed. I hope tomorrow morning I do not have to go through the same ritual again.
Finally left Shiyan at 14:40 hrs. reached Jingmen at 21:00 hrs.
The end of my journey draws closer now and I am just counting days. I could not waste another day… I had decided that I will drive even if it gets dark. So I invested in a pair of clear untinted riding glasses…. Which were much needed as my helmet visor was tinted as well as damaged.

6th October
Today was Ankang to Shiyan a 275 km journey. The Qinling Mountains sit along most of the distance, with the road traveling along the shins of the mountains of the range. The road travels at the same height so there was no up and down but constant left and right. The road was mostly appalling. To worsen matters there was one accident, and three road blocks because of road works which took at least 20 minutes each to get out of. The fourth Road block was a total mess with impatient drivers driving up the wrong way and causing a major grid lock that took about an hour and a half to clear. All in all it took me ten hours to get to Shiyan. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

4th October
.Of the 370 Km to Ankang almost 290 was fully hilly, the road twisted left and right, wound up and down. I thought I had my share of mountains already, but looks like they are not going away so easily. Today after the first 50 Km I was already hoping it would end soon but one could see layers upon layers of the mountains, and I knew, not so soon. As I was on my way up on one ordinary gradient neither so sharp nor steep, there was a stone (probably used to stop a vehicle from rolling back) which my sidecar wheel hit. Because of the momentum, and the turning, the sidecar lifted up I tried to brake but lost control and the bike careened and went out of control…and went and crashed on the rocky side of the mountain!! I couldn’t believe what had happened. I wasn’t really hurt except a bruise on the shin but Rocinante took a real bad beating on the left side… the foot brake pedal got totally twisted up and out, the foot rest and the front indicator broke and the handle bar and the wheel went out of alignment. I gathered myself and checked if it could be started… it could. The damage was mainly physical. I went up the remainder and down, with the twisted handle and faith in the front brakes… I was upset, but hell bent on not losing another day. I decided to get it fixed and meet my target come what may. At the bottom, before the next climb began was a small village, it luckily had mechanic… and a good one at that. He put the brake pedal on the anvil and perfectly hammered it into shape, replaced the front foot rest with the pillion footrest. Thankfully it was not the fork but the handle bar that was bent, and had to be replaced. After a set back of an hour and a half I was ready to take on the balance 300 km. Driving extra cautiously at first, I slowly got back into gear after about an hour. 
Reached Ankang city at 7:45 with the last light. I had checked the way out of the city for my next destination (on google maps). Basan Road was one of the listed locations so had decided to look for a hotel in that vicinity making my exit from the city easier. Accordingly I had got the attendant at Xi’an to also write for me on a piece of paper, Basan Road in Chinese script. Once there I asked around for a ‘do-you-qua’ and got me room… there is no internet in the room and I do not have the vim to go out again looking for a cyber café.

5th October
Checked out of the hotel and as I was packing the luggage in the side car noticed that the sidecar wheel was again worn out, as I sat down to inspect, realized that 4 spokes were broken again. This was most annoying. The spokes seem to be breaking every day… the load in the side car since I left Bombay has not changed at all except for a 10 litre Jerry can of petrol. I have been through the roughest of roads with this load, now in fact the roads are really good. The only reason I can think of is that the rough roads have done the suspension in and hence the wheel is taking the load badly. The same reason must be true for the tyre wearing out so soon. After much looking found a mechanic and the right size spokes. Three attendants from the hotel were with me doing all the talking and asking. They were really nice kids… they waited till the whole job was done playing assistants to the mechanic.
Got a new tyre and fixed the spokes.. It is now 13:45. Too late to leave.
Thought I should just take a break without stressing out and leave in the morning tomorrow.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

3rd  October.
The bike was to be ready by 9:00 hrs. I was ready by 8:00. Looked out of the window-the shop was closed… at 8:30, saw the shop open and bike out. Went over to find, the spokes which were not available in the locality and had been ordered from elsewhere had not arrived last night. They were to come on a local transport bus with the driver…a regular mode of local courier service I realized, as I saw people collecting packages from busses. Our package finally arrived by the 10:00 o’clock bus. By which time I had found a cyber café, posted yesterday’s blog, and out of impatience cleaned and shined Rocinante. We opened the packet and found that the spokes were one size small. This meant re-ordering and waiting for at the least one hour for them to come and then the fixing so 12:00hrs…Shoot this dashed my ambition of doing 424 km today to make up for the lost time. I had to accept the one day delay. I finally got the bike in hand at 12:40 after which checking out of the hotel, packing the bags etc in the side car took about 20 minutes.
The road to Xi’an was smooth but extremely busy. There were villages/small towns that almost continuously ran along the road. To top that, today was Sunday and all towns seem to have a Sunday market so the streets were packed with loitering teenagers, cruising cars, roving two wheelers, people seemed to be in a festive mood as this was a long weekend because the National day was on Friday.
Reached Xi’an at 15:30 hrs and looked for a hotel for an hour and a half… all were full as Xi’an is a big city and the national day weekend celebration had brought a lot of people into the city. After many hotels turned me down, one of the receptionists who told me they could not accommodate me, ran out behind me and made calls on her cell phone to find me a hotel but couldn’t.
I was sent to the 5th floor of a building either inadvertently or mischievously by a group of youngsters. This turned out to be a lavish massage parlour. Frustrated by my inability to find a hotel with a vacancy for so long, I slumped on the couch, the girls behind the counter went into a discussion and one of them came down with me and walked around the neighbourhood taking me to two hotels which had no room and then finally to a third one which did!!! I told her she was very kind and sweet but all she said was “I don’t know”. I wished I knew a little Chinese to convey to her my gratitude. It is really peculiar that here people who help go all out leaving their positions to guide you or their routes to escort you  to the right road and the ones who don’t, just treat you like you had conjunctivitis.
There is a boy who works at the hotel who speaks quite good English, I figured out from him that a hotel is called, or rather sounds to me like: ‘do –you- qua’ or ‘chouthia’!! I couldn’t stop laughing as he tried to correct my pronounciation on the second one. have got my texts for tomorrow written out from him.
2nd October
After breakfast I went to the basement where Rocinante was parked to check the lights that were not working. Right next to where Rocinante was parked was the maintenance office. The staff immediately gathered around me, eagerly supplying me cutters, screwdrivers and missing screws. Rocinante really has a fan club wherever she goes!!
I drove around trying to find the exit to the city …pointing at the text stuck on my sleeve, only to find myself at the toll gate of the expressway. I was most rudely turned away, and I sullenly drove back swearing under my breath against the discrimination against two wheelers…well, I had three but they didn’t care.  After about 5 kilometers I suddenly felt a wobble on the side car which got bad in the very next moment. I pulled up sure it was a puncture, to my dismay it was worse… Eight spokes were broken and the wheel hung out at an angle rubbing badly against the mudguard. My heart sank through my two pairs of woolen socks into my snow shoes, there was a toll booth nearby but nothing else. If I removed the tyre to take it for repairs (by cab) who would look after my luggage? Just then a car stopped behind me, the family got off, the husband inspected his tryes and opened the boot and lit a cigarette. I partly rejoiced at their misfortune as I thought till they fix their tyre I can entrust my luggage to them and get a mechanic. I was cranking my jack, thanking my stars that this happened here on the outskirts of the city not somewhere on a hilltop, and also for puncturing the tyre of my successor. I looked back to see the family resettled in the car and about to move away. They came up beside me looked at my damage and said something and gestured which I optimistically took as… “We will look for a mechanic and send him to you”… “Sheshye” (thankyou) I said drawing from my 3 word vocabulary and admitting the presence of the almighty. I got busy removing the tyre, having no clue what I was going to do after it came off.  The tyre was lying on the road and I was peeling my layers of clothing when a motorcycle came up honking and stopped with a screech swinging round on the front wheel making a burning rubber mark circle on the road with the back tyre. Now that’s an entry!! The family had really sent me the promised mechanic. He checked the tyre and compared the sample spoke he had brought along. Signaled timeout and went away with the tyre. I was calculating the number of kilometers (330) I had to do today divided by pot holed, non expressway and as my map showed half way hilly- speed and sinking…it was already 11:50. The mechanic returned at 13:40 fitted the tyre and I was off by 14:00hrs. The road was amazing, nothing less than the express way.  And lo behold- there were some road signs… they were in Chinese but I had somewhat memorized the pictogram so I could tell I was on the right track without much asking. The road was throughout hilly but I covered the 180 Km in 2.5 hrs to reach Baoji my interjacent destination. As I reached the bounds of the town, again the same wobble. On stopping I found myself looking at the exact same problem as in the early afternoon. six spokes broken, tyre badly chafing against the mudguard. It had taken almost 2 hrs to settle the crisis earlier… again my calculations of Kilometers divided by driving hrs in day light began, yielding unacceptable results. I have decided not to drive in the night as I am extremely uncomfortable verging on paranoid doing so on a highway without street lights, full of trucks…and in China.
From where I had a breakdown, at 100 meters was a decent enough hotel and 50 meters further was a mechanic. Again I wondered at how it had happened here and not on the middle of highway in fading light?
It transpired that the earlier mechanic had used not the right length spokes so they gave way again… So here I am taking an unscheduled halt at Baoji. Have spent the past hour with my maps and re-charted my course to be able to keep my schedule. Have a tall order to complete tomorrow,
 Simon my other co-ordinator in Shanghai has been playing translator on the phone when situations get totally exasperating. So now I know that the mechanic will have the bike ready by 9:00 in the morning

Saturday, October 2, 2010

1st October
Left Lanzhou at 10:00 and reached Tianshui at 8:30!! The drive was 330 Km but first reason for the long riding hours is that motorcycles are not allowed on the expressway… so I had to take the old very decrepit road than ran over the hills while at certain points where the routes coincided I could see the vehicles  zooming below on the express way. While I lumbered on the gradients and snaking turns, the expressway burrowed straight through the hills. The second reason was that there were almost no road signs. You could drive for 30/40/50 km before you encountered a sign. That too in Chinese…of course why not- I am in China but only that meant halting a hundred times as there were ample forks, roads branching left, roads branching right, cross roads, T- junctions. In Chinese pronunciation is of utmost importance, a slightly more or slightly less lingering/weightage on a syllable could mean something different or nothing at all. The intonation is also important. Each time I asked directions, my pronunciation of the name of the town was so dismal that it made no sense to the people. Some people would just shake their head vigorously and look away, look like I was trying to sell them an insurance policy they did not want. Some people were extremely helpful they would get into a flurry trying to ask / involve other people in my query. A discussion would ensue, during which I would keep uttering the name of the town like a broken record and keep pointing to the options the road in front provided. Finally someone would understand and send me off.  This was getting very tiring, also at one point I had set off on the road that was pointed to me after much disagreements and arguments over what they thought I was saying, I was sure I was on the wrong track. So after riding tentatively for about 10 km, I decided I had to resolve this. I pulled into a gas station, undid the laborious packing and strapping of the side car and took out the map from my bag, showed it to the attendant and pointed out my destination, she could not speak but did read English… she confirmed I was on the right track. Now I had a brain wave I asked her to write my destination in Chinese script on a piece of paper, and stuck it on my petrol tank. As fishing the paper out from the pocket with a zipper when you have thick gloves on is seriously tedious, especially when you have to do it almost every 10 minutes.
So now all I did was stop and point to the text, and people would immediately point… I did not have to take my helmet off, stutter and stammer, there were no discussions…  Though sometimes I had to stop the bike get off and call people over to the bike to read the text, so tomorrow before I leave the hotel I will get the receptionist to write out my destination with a thick black marker, and tape it to my sleeve… howzzzat !!
 The second half of the journey which was a good 200 km was peculiar. I climbed up the slope and stayed totally on top riding the crest of the range descending only twice that too only to make contact with two small towns.
The left indicator lamp and the red and yellow pilot lamps on the side car are not lighting have to check the wiring/bulbs and rectify before leaving tomorrow its going to be a long drive again tomorrow.
 I have finally given in to the temptation and made up my mind to go all the way to Shanghai and not finish at the Three Gorges. So now it’s ‘Riding Rocinante – Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges’. That’s going to be about 2300 km more to go- totaling about  9500Km