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  1. #1 Beijing to Qinghai, departing July 23, 2011 
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    Yo, I'm looking for advice and potential partners on a trip from Beijing to Qinghai, Northwest China/Northern Tibet. I'm departing Beijing around July 23. The basic route will follow national highway 109 out of Beijing and through Hebei and Shanxi provinces. From Datong on, I plan on switching to smaller roads with a route that roughly heads through the Ordos region of inner Mongolia and then south into eastern Gansu Province. The idea is to travel between Beijing and Lanzhou, Gansu, in under a week and then head up onto the plateau in a more leisurely fashion.

    My current travel companion is a small white Beijing street dog, Foniyo, who will ride in the crate strapped to the back seat of my GS 1150. So I'm looking for a human travel companion, someone who's up for camping and frequent dog walks.

    I've lived in northwest China on and off since 2001 (Gansu province motorcycle license, 2002), and speak a bit of Tibetan and Uyghur in addition to Chinese, so I've got lots of ideas for points west of Shaanxi. I'm planning on spending all of August looping around Qinghai.

    I just returned from a trip to Wutaishan in Shanxi where I got stuck in a line of 10,000 plus coal trucks on national highway 108. Moved 29 km in 5 hours. Any advice on how to avoid coal trucking in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia? Which roads are an absolute gridlock?

    Thanks.
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  2. #2 Re: Beijing to Qinghai, departing July 23, 2011 
    Duct tape savant felix's Avatar
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    Shit that sounds like fun! I'm planning a trip in those regions too, but unfortunetly the dates don't line up. My trip is planned for sep-oct, not date set yet.

    May you and foniyo have lots of fun!
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  3. #3 Re: Beijing to Qinghai, departing July 23, 2011 
    Senior C-Moto Guru euphonius's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maxo View Post
    ...Any advice on how to avoid coal trucking in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia? Which roads are an absolute gridlock?
    Dear Maxo,

    Great first post and welcome to the forum!

    As for how to avoid those immense traffic jams, the answer is probably "ride a dual sport with decent off-road tires, and make your escape to any alternative road that works". That region has been dealing with that problem of too many trucks on too little road for more than a decade. I got caught in such a jam back in 2001 in a VW Jetta, and only managed to get out by taking that passenger car off road for probably 20 km. You'll notice that in many of the worst stretches there are usable dirt tracks running crazily alongside the main tarmac, and these were indeed created by exasperated drivers.

    Better yet, of course, is to avoid these main intercity highways. An excellent reference for this trip surely will be MCM poster Pat, whose Beijing-to-Kunming ride report you've surely seen by now. He managed to get through, or around, the Shanxi/Shaanxi coal region without getting ensnared.

    I do hope you find a good riding companion, especially one who is adept with a camera, so you can post brilliant daily updates and awesome pet trick pictures featuring Foniyo.

    The 1150GS should be a great companion too, especially if you are experienced riding such big artillery in China. Would love to hear a bit of your history in China and that of the bike too.

    How is it that you've only joined MCM now?

    cheers!
    jkp
    Shanghai
    2010 JH600 "Merkin Muffley" (in Shanghai)
    2000 KLR650 "Feezer Ablanalp" (in California)
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  4. #4 Re: The GS is not always the right tool for the job 
    C-Moto Not-so-Noob
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    Thanks for the advice. The GS is indeed an unwieldy creature for China, especially when loaded with a dog. I've now put about 10km on her in China, including two major jaunts: 1) from Kashgar to Urumqi via the Kyrgyz border-regions and the Yili Valley in 2007; and 2) a loop from Lanzhou down to Yushu in southern Qinghai and then over the back roads of Qinghai to Xinjiang in 2009. On both trips I found myself dreaming of the 200cc Qingqi motorbikes that I have garaged in Lanzhou. Having done trips with both domestic dirt bikes and foreign imports, I have to agree with other posters that the former is in most cases the better option. Still, for all the crashes and drops, the monster has been absolutely reliable, which I can't say for the Chinese bikes. And when the highway opens up in the straight-shot expanses of Xinjiang or Tibet, it is pretty sweet to drop the thing into the sixth gear. For this upcoming trip I just threw on a pair of proper stubby off-road tires, unlike the 70%-30% combos I've used in the past. So I'm hoping that this will make weaving around the coal trucks in the dirt a bit less risky.
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  5. #5 Re: The GS is not always the right tool for the job 
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    Sounds like an amazing trip you've got planned.. adding the dog element should make things interesting too! Are hotels in China pet friendly?

    I followed the G109 out of Beijing and through Datong to roughly Youyu Xian before heading north up to Hohhot. I didn't hit much along the way in terms of traffic and didn't get ensnared by any of those infamous traffic jams.

    I doesn't sound like you'll be as far north as Baotou, but if so, I can warn against the road between Baotou and Dongsheng. I think it's the G210 - it parallels a highway and was dusty, slow, and full of trucks. Not gridlock, but definitely not pleasant.

    If you go west from Dongsheng, that section of the G109 is under a lot of "construction" - big mounds of dirt blocking the road and that will force you off into dusty bypasses.. sometimes the dust is six inches thick! On the positive side, the road itself is in good shape (when you're on it) and there's not a lot of traffic!

    It sounds like you'll be moving pretty quick - but if you're looking for sights before Lanzhou, I'd recommend Wu Dang Zhao - a big, largely Mongolian Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Baotou. The Yungang caves near Datong are also cool - 51,000 Buddha statues spread across a mountainside of grottoes. On the flip side, I'd give the Xiang Sha Wan (singing dunes?) a pass (between Baotou and Dongsheng).. and I've heard nothing but bad things about the Genghis Kahn "mausoleum" (he's not actually there).

    Your route sounds great - depending on time and where you've been before, western Inner Mongolia sounds fascinating - remote, deserts, dunes, etc. I spent a lot of time considering a NW loop through Inner Mongolia and then swinging down into Gansu.. but ultimately took the more direct route through Ningxia. Also Xiahe in SW Gansu is a fascinating place - and the S202 route into Qinghai is spectacular.

    Hope this helps!
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  6. #6 Waterlogged in coal country, update 1 
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    IMG_9821.jpgIMG_9857.jpgIMG_9854.jpgIMG_9838.jpgSteady rain has brought the traveling circus (laowai + BMW + dog) to a halt here in Pinglu, Shanxi, so I might as well take advantage of the free internet (in this somewhat aspirationally priced and starred hotel) to provide a brief update.

    Pinglu (northwest Shanxi, at intersection of provincial routes 212 and 304) is apparently where a good number of lumbering coal trucks originate. I've spent far too many hours wondering where they all come from and where they all go. On the outskirts of town, a nice fellow who ambled over to gawk at the BMW with a dog perched on the back, explained that if Shanxi was the coal capital of China, Pinglu was the coal capital of Shanxi. The city is literally built on coal- it is situated on a vast pile of mine trailings. The splitting headache I woke up with this morning was more than adequately explained by the fact that my hotel was obscuring a large coal pit surrounded by at least 400 idling orange "aoman" trucks.

    Why the hell are we here? Our trip out of Beijing had been relatively hick-up free. The three hours we spent sitting under the fifth ring road waiting out yet another torrential downpour was taken at the time as an auspicious sign. National Highway 109 proved to be a very pleasant route, the greenery up to the Hebei border is really astounding leafy by north China standards. I spent two nights on the Beijing/Hebei border on Lingshan mountain, giving the dog a chance to acclimate a bit to motorcycle travel.

    In Hebei we decided to try our luck with provincial routes and make a more direct approach to Hengshan in northern Shanxi (Hebei S243- Yuxian, Shanxi S303 from Guangling-Hunyuan/Hengshan). The riding around Hengshan was very motorcycle friendly: nice switch-back mountain roads and even some off-roading opportunities. I highly recomend this slightly more southernly route as an alternative to 109 and Datong. From Hengshan we continued along S303 to Yingxian, then switched to S210 and headed north to ultimately return to 109 in Zuoyun. Although this is heavily trucked, traffic moved pretty smoothly.

    However, as a warning to anyone else traveling through northern Shanxi, routes from Zuoyun west are heavily trucked. S210 is basically 65 km-long train of coal trucks. We continued on 109 all the way to the Inner Mongolian border were we were dismayed to discover that the highway was torn up and reduced to one way traffic. The situation was a bit hard to read at first: about a hundred trucks were piled up on a slope heading west with no on-coming traffic. Naturally I sprinted ahead for a couple of km until I came up against the oncoming convoy. After wedging myself in between two trucks, I learned from the drivers that the next 30km (from Shanxi border to Qingshuihe) would pretty much be stop-start first gear hell. After sucking down a good half hour of diesel and dust without moving so much as an inch, I decided to suck it up and head back to find detour. In all honesty, the dog is not that big a fan of riding on the back of the motorcycle, and a potential five to ten hours of exhaust and noise probably would have done her in.

    The scenery on the northwest rim of Shanxi does quite a bit to redeem the road: the rolling pastureland is reminiscent of the Dakotas and one can easily imagine why various Chinese regimes had to erect several layers of walls and beacon towers to keep the nomads out.

    Our detour: Having backtracked 40 km on 109, we turned south to Pinglu (S212). According to truckers and local highway officers, there is a new westerly route south of 109 that ultimately will link up with the roads around Ordos city (Dongsheng). This would be S304 to Pianguan, then across the Yellow River into the Ordos region where we pick up S103 and then X601, then 109 again). None of my maps have either the road in question or the requisite bridge across the Yellow River, so I might be back to square one by tomorrow afternoon.

    Ms. Foniyo, the dog, has most likely lost a certain degree of hearing, and probably a number of ribs as well from rattling along the shoulders or cutting across construction sites to avoid trucks. But that said, she rallies when we stop and it has been remarkably easy to travel with. We've mostly been staying over at peasant guesthouses (the Nongjiale), but have yet to be turned away are more high-class enterprises. Restaurants have all been okay, including the morning buffet line at the four-star hotel we splurged on today. Neither has she been rejected from entry from any scenic spot. In a country where there is a rule for everything, they seem to have overlooked pets. It seems quite rare for people to travel with their "spoiled objects" (chongwu in Chinese), so they don't seem to have the regulations in place yet.

    Tomorrow we'll see how she gets along with the Mongols.
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  7. #7 Re: Waterlogged in coal country, update 1 
    Duct tape savant felix's Avatar
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    Good stuff Maxo, you're actually doing it! I always thought sidecars were ideal for canine transportation but am happy to see it can be done on two wheels too.
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  8. #8 Escape from Shanxi, update 2 
    C-Moto Not-so-Noob
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    It seems ridiculous, but it took four days to get the hell out of Shanxi. Attempt one, as I mentioned in a previous update, ended on National Highway 109, just over the Inner Mongolia border. The second day ended in heavy rain. On day three I attempted Provincial Highway S304 from Pinglu. This attempt ended here:
    IMG_9905.jpg

    This point would be mere two km out of town. I ascertained that the road had become clogged the night before: the entire 82 km section, from Pinglu to Pianguan (county town to county town) was stuck. At least it was a beautiful day.

    The traffic police then directed me to attempt three, a small "tourist road" to the north. After some slithering about through the mud, I arrived at this:

    IMG_9910.jpg

    This was apparently also the road to the 17th century. Still, it seemed okay until:

    IMG_9915.jpg

    That would be the very same S304 that I had attempted 1.5 hours earlier. The rural route dropped me off at a point a mere 20 km out from my original starting point (Pinglu). The bridge in the background is packed with trucks going exactly nowhere, as they had since yesterday.

    On the advice of the truckers, I stormed up the grassy knoll to the right, scrambled across some fields, and gained, perhaps, one more km, before grinding to a halt.

    From here on it was a dicey game of lane splitting for perhaps fifty plus km, a journey of 9 hours. I almost lost a case to a truck bumper. But I must tip my hat to the truckers who were preparing to spend yet another night on this road: they were quite good-humored and magnanimous, giving me as much space on this narrow road as they could afford.

    Arriving in Pianguan, on the northwest frontier of Shanxi, the trucks finally thinned. On the advice of locals we motored north to the hamlet of Laoniuwan (old cow bend). Increasingly spectacular riding. This is the point on the Yellow River where the three provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia now converge, and is the site of a Ming-period fort that has now been opened as a tourist spot.

    (As my internet connection has now ground to a halt, I'll have to post further pictures at a later date.)

    The relief I felt at finally catching sight of clear roads and Inner Mongolia in the distance found expression in a delightful bottle of baijiu. The evils of which nearly delayed my departure from Shanxi for yet one more day.

    I've just arrived in Lanzhou, Gansu. In the next couple days I'll post updates on routes through the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and eastern Gansu.

    Max
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  9. #9 Re: Escape from Shanxi, update 2 
    Senior C-Moto Guru euphonius's Avatar
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    Holy sheeeyit, Max, this is an unbelievable tale. Only in China.

    All I can say is I hope you had company for that bottle of baijiu. On the other hand, what better way to erase your brain cells of a four-day nightmare.

    Glad you and Foniyo made it in one piece to Lanzhou, which can be beautiful in the right light, especially down along the river. Actually, you didn't mention Foniyo. How's she holding up?

    cheers!
    jkp
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    2000 KLR650 "Feezer Ablanalp" (in California)
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  10. #10 Re: Escape from Shanxi, update 2 
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    For those concerned about the possible mistreatment of animals, rest assured that Foniyo has endured the trip from Beijing to Lanzhou quite well. I'll admit that I don't think that she enjoyed it. But she resigned herself to fate with as much dignity as a Beijing street dog can muster.

    I removed the back seat from the GS and secured her travel crate over the tool compartment. This worked quite well, she was well protected from the wind and didn't interfere with my riding position. Foniyo weighs in at about 6 kg. At this small size, she really didn't affect the handling in any noticeable way. The only drawback was that the I could really hear the tools rattling away on particularly bumpy stretches. For most of the trip I kept her rain cover on. I think that this reduced some of the noise and made her feel more secure. I'm going to add some additional padding to her crate, however, before attempting the loop through Qinghai.

    My internet connection here in Lanzhou is terrible, so I'll try to post pictures at a later date.

    We are going to depart Lanzhou for Xining probably next week (August 8th). We will be in Qinghai for at least two weeks, looping through the south-central pasturelands. Any one in the area is welcome to join in.

    Max
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