Friday, January 13, 2006



If you are new to this site, thanks for coming. The trip has been completed, but you are more than welcome to read all about it (it's long!)

The site itself is in posted order, which is backwards if you are starting now, so below I have an ordered list of the posts. I hope you enjoy them...


Hamilton, New Zealand (Day Minus-1)
Brisbane, Australia (Day 1)
Brisbane, Australia (Day 3, 0 km)
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia (Day 8, 0 km)
Ferny Grove, QLD, Australia (Day 10, 82 km)
Tropic of Capricorn (Day 12, 899 km)
Airlie Beach, Whitsundays, QLD, Australia (Day 15, ~1450 km)
Darwin, NT, Australia (Day 23, 4211 km)
Darwin, NT, Australia (Day 29, 4211 km)
Bali, Indonesia (Day 33, 4211 km)
Singapore (Day 40, 4232 km)
Marang, Malaysia (Day 41, 4837 km)
Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand (Day 48, 5540 km)
Araynaprathet, Thailand (Cambodian border) (Day 51, 6905km)
Phom Denh, Cambodia (Vietnam border) (Day 54, 7470km)
Ho Chi Minh City (Day 56, 7803km)
Dinh Quan, Vietnam (Day 58, ~8000 km)
Hanoi, Vietnam (Day 62, 9525 km)
Mong Cai, Vietnam (Day 67, 10236 km)
Hengyang, Hunan, China (Day 70, 11469 km)
Wuxi, Jiangsu, China (Day 73, 12851 km)
Off the coast of southern Japan (Day 77, 13066 km)
Journey's End - Onohara, Japan (Day 78, 13320 km)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Journey's End - Onohara, Japan (Day 78, 13320 km)

Continuing onboard the ferry headed for Osaka...

The weather was grey for most of the ferry trip, but, appropriately, the morning of our arrival in Osaka was fine and sunny. It took a while working through the carnet with the Japanese customs, but in the end (possibly due to lack of knowledge of procedures) I didn't even have to go and buy insurance, something I had been told is compulsory here.

My carnet, however, was compulsory here (one of the few places) but they had to consult many books full of regulations before deciding that my carnet was of the correct type. Strange. However, without much difficulty I succeeded in getting it stamped, and was free to continue on my way.

There were no customs charges - altogether I only had to pay at two borders, Australia and Singapore (where I shipped my bike rather than riding it or taking it as luggage). However, when asking for directions I learned that the way out from the port is through an underground toll tunnel. I hadn't yet changed any money into yen, however one of the customs officers, bless him, gave me the 200 yen (about NZ$2.60) I would need.

It was still somewhat of a challenge finding an ATM that accepted a non-Japanese Visa (they are in the post office), but once I solved this riddle, I was able to fill up with petrol, and ride without further delay towards my final destination. I soon started noticing a much wider variety of motorcycles – Japanese seem to like Harley's and their clones, and like them loud. Although traffic in Japan is far more ordered, most motorcyclists seemed to ride around the backed-up traffic, and I was happy to follow suit.

Thankfully my bike is big enough (>175cc) to be allowed on the Japanese expressway, where traffic was not much of an issue. At this stage in my journey it seemed very attractive to reach Onohara without delay, so, where possible I chose the expressway, rapidly exchanging money for speedy transit. I avoided one costly bridge by taking a ferry, but it would have been quite feasible to ride directly between all the islands.

Some of these bridges are quite high, and it was here that I had my only noticeable crosswind of the trip, thankfully not too severe. Shikoku, the island Wendy has been living on, is very mountainous and green, and I had a pleasant and scenic journey along the amazing expressway – the terrain lending itself to scores of tunnels and a number of bridges. Eventually, just before sundown, I reached Onohara, and my journey's end.

Trip Stats

Total biked kilometers: ~13320 km
Petrol Cost: NZ$592.19 (approx 75 tanks, of the order of 600 litres)
Oil used: about 25 litres, including oil changes (better than 500km/litre! Oo-er)
Replacements and repairs: excluding my valve guide problems and related bent valves and broken timing sprocket, the list is minor – front and rear brakes (which weren't replaced on my pre-trip overhaul), one rear tyre (also wasn't new), speedo cable, a few fuses, battery water, battery (unnecessary, but it was cheap), toolbox brackets (broke twice), toolbox endcap (lost in Vietnam), bent kickstand straightened and strengthened, brake light, pannier brackets (twice), handbrake lever, a couple of new oil filters and a sparkplug clean and airfilter clean.

Number of photos taken: 2515 (so for all those who have complimented me on my selection – the answer is quantity!)

Cheapest petrol: Cambodia, Vietnam and China were all around NZ$0.85, but surprisingly, it was Malaysia where I never paid more than NZ$5 to fill my tank, which means it must have cost less than NZ$0.80 per litre.
Most expensive petrol: NZ$1.52 at Barkley Roadhouse, Northern Territory, Australia.
Longest stretch with no petrol station: about 264km, east of the Barkley Roadhouse, Northern Territory Australia.

Worst road: From Poi Pet (Thai-Cambodian border) to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Most impressive road: Bangkok Ring Road Number 9 – where it existed, it was up to eight super-wide lanes across, with an immaculate surface. Expressways in Japan are faultless, but China's expressways are disqualified due to their anti-motorcycle discrimination.
Most enjoyable road: Ho Chi Minh Trail, Central Vietnam.

Slowest riding: 30kph or less. The Poi Pet – Siem Reap road in Cambodia, although traffic in the south of Vietnam made passage not much faster, although the road was better.
Fastest riding: Around 100-105kph. Most of Australia, but also the expressway in China and Japan.
Longest ride (most kilometers): 664km – straddling the petrol-less stretch in Northern Territory, Australia (there weren't more than a couple of places where it was worth stopping!) Honourable mention – 626km on the day I snuck onto the Chinese expressway.

Best traffic: Well, not much of it in the Northern Territory... 5-10 cars an hour tops.
Worst traffic (busiest): Probably south Vietnam.
Worst traffic (driver behaviour): Between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cheapest accommodation: NZ$4.50 per night - Thai Lee Hotel, Thailand – with clean sheets and en suite, plus a lobby to dismantle my bike in!
Most expensive accommodation (before Japan): NZ$24.13 per night – Burleigh Beach Tourist Park, Gold Coast, Australia. For a grassless patch of clay to erect my tent. To top it off, this was the only campsite I stayed in in the whole of Australia that had no pool, so these guys get the Hamilton2Japan Bad Value Award.

Cheapest Beer: Shanghai, China – 3 yuan (NZ 57c) for a 640ml bottle
Least favourite food: The meat in some Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, which, although the flavour was nice, had either 80% fat, or hundreds of little shards of chicken bone. Some of the Japanese pickled or fermented vegetables are up there too, although I find most Japanese food quite good.
Favourite food: The majority of Thai dishes, although preferably served in a slightly higher-budget setting, and with a foreigner-adjusted level of spiciness.

Least favourite country: I don't have any countries I didn't enjoy travelling through. I guess all I can put here is the wish that China “modernize” their regulations soon.
Favourite country: Thailand. For me it was the best blend between the first and third world. The people seem friendly and polite without being either overly familiar or too standoffish. Life is lived on the street enough that it is easy and cheap to accomplish most things, yet they have a very respectable infrastructure. And the food is great.

Special pre-trip thanks: Len Caley for much advice, encouragement, equipment and manufacturing expertise. And Jono Ross, for hosting my photograph collection.
Special on-the-trip thanks: The Glaum family, and Wendy's Aunt Helen, for places to stay while waiting for bike shipments in Brisbane and Darwin respectively.

Worst moment: Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand - After a day and a half of bike fixing, I start her up and she runs beautifully, for about 100m down the road when there is a sickening, grinding crunch... followed by despairing silence and dawning knowledge of the cause.
Most stressed moment: Trying to find the ferry company in Shanghai. Other things were frustrating or annoying, but that was the one time I was in a bit of a flap.
Second-best moment: Getting let into China, although at the time it felt very surreal and unemotional. At the time I wasn't sure if I'd be pulled over at any moment. But, as this was the weakest point in my trip plans, achieving this really symbolized being able to complete the trip.
Best moment: Of course, reaching my goal, Onohara, and seeing Wendy again.


This trip was by no means the biggest or most adventurous one that has been done (see, nor am I by any stretch a professional writer. Yet I have written this story to share what was a significant step for me, and I hope that you will be inspired to take your own “big step”. I'm definitely not going to start preaching here, but as a parting thought it often seems to me that too many people around me seem to be crippled by their fears (or even practicality :-) ), and end up living a bland existence that they aren't really happy with.

Thank you for reading, and for your part in this adventure.


I have been in Japan for eight weeks now, with another four remaining. Since then I have had some stereotypes reinforced (conformity, order and tranquility, law-abidingness, Engrish, nothing second-hand) and others broken (Japanese camping and climbing mountains, right-wing protestors, boy-racing bikers). Wendy and I (as well as Simon, when he visited for a week) have visited places such as Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Himeji, Shodoshima, Hiroshima, and Miyajima, as well as travelled a small amount locally. I have been introduced to the joys of communal bathing, okonomiyaki and the shinkansen. But these things are really past the end of this story.

If you are interested, some photos of this period are available at Note that, like the other albums, there are multiple pages.

If you are in New Zealand and I know you, I hope to see you again in July or August.

God bless,

Monday, May 02, 2005

Off the coast of southern Japan (Day 77, 13066 km)

The story picks up in Wuxi, a city around 180km northwest of Shanghai...

Terry tried to persuade me to stay longer so I could see some more of his town, but it was already Thursday night, and I wanted to book my ferry on Friday afternoon, so I could catch the Saturday morning sailing for Osaka. He apologised that he didn't have any gift suitable for the occasion and presented me with an unused knife and fork, before adding to that a nice aluminium water bottle.

Thank you Terry – you are welcome to stay if you ever come and do a cycle trip in New Zealand. And best wishes on your upcoming 2800km bicycle trip through Tibet.

I left Wuxi reasonably early on Friday morning. I didn't anticipate the journey to Shanghai to be more than four hours, but I hadn't banked on the road signs – a number of times I lost my way, and then, as I got closer, encountered a string of roadworks so long that I eventually turned 90 degrees and headed for the next arterial road, which was much better. At that stage it started to rain, with regular lightning flashes. Muddy water flicked up through the hole in my mudguard (usually occupied by my toolbox, which had come off). Soon my visor (and everything else) were coated in mud, which slowed me still further. By the time I was near the centre of Shanghai, it was 3.45pm, and I was starting to get a little worried.

Despite me sending a number of emails over the months, and receiving at least one reply (after I got Wendy to call their office!) the ferry company had still not emailed me with their office address, and, surprisingly, there were annoyingly few businesses with people who spoke English. My plan had been to head for the port, and start my enquiries there, but it was now almost 5pm, and I was still in downtown Shanghai. I enquired at many travel-related businesses but just ended up wasting more time and getting further stressed. I had suspected Shanghai to be more multinational. Even the lady at the Good World International Travel Service sent me packing – despite the English title, she spoke not a word and wasn't the slightest bit interested in trying!

Eventually, well after the close of business hours, I continued heading towards where I thought the port would be, on the way using my phrasebook to ask for directions. Some people seemed a bit nonplussed by my question, and, once I'd been directed to catch a small ferry to the port, I began to see why – Shanghai “port” is not in a single location, but is all along both sides of a huge river!

Still, I kept asking people where the customs office was, thinking that the ferry would probably leave from near there, and that even if I had to camp out all night, that I'd be able to wrangle my way onto the ferry from there.

Nobody seemed to know about any customs offices, but I kept trying, eventually asking at the local fire station. The young English-speaking officer seemed very eager to help, and produced a map, and discussed the problem at length with his colleagues. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to ask the police. Eyes shining, he informed me that “when the police arrive, all problems will be solved”.

Well, given my semi-outlaw status, I was less than enthusiastic about this, but I had also ridden my bike as far as I intended to in China. In any case, things seemed desperate enough for me to decide that if things got unpleasant, my paperwork was enough in order that I could probably sweet-talk my way into being able to leave, with bike, the following morning, as planned. So, although not confident if it would be any use, I asked if he'd help me use their telephone and translate for me.

No, he decided to go one better - “You wait here please – the police will come soon”. Sure enough, around the corner came the flashing lights. Gulp. Their English was non-existent, but my friend managed to convey his take on the situation. I am now convinced that the first step in the “dealing with foreigners” training manual is to examine their passport thoroughly, including all the irrelevant pages, despite understanding no English and having no knowledge of even such bordering nations as Vietnam.

However, once this step was over, they decided that this was a situation best dealt with back at the station, and I was commanded to follow them. Which I did, the night being lit by flashes of red and blue, and my mind bewildered by the bizarreness of the situation. However, nobody had yet commented on my bike. But now I was going to ride out of the frying pan and into the police station.

When we arrived, the English-speaking officer was hard at work filling out an assault report while a slightly upset Russian couple had their Chinese-speaking friend read through it and disagree with its wording. To me, my problems felt less important than this, but still she managed to find the time to get a grasp on my situation, of course after the mandatory passport-checking.

It must have sounded pretty crazy – I knew there was a sailing tomorrow, told them I was booked on it, but that I didn't know the address or telephone number of the company. I certainly wasn't hopeful, but at the same time was conscious that in New Zealand local knowledge would have still made even this challenge a relatively simple one.

She tried hard, ringing around, but couldn't seem to find any company with quite the (English) name that I provided, or a reasonable translation of it. Using my phrasebook I asked if there were such a thing as a phonebook. Yes, they had one, what did I want to do with it? When I explained that in New Zealand we could look up companies in the phonebook they thought this was an excellent idea, and started doing that, but then decided to call a superior instead.

While this was going on people started to ask questions about my bike. Was it mine? Where did I buy it? When the truth emerged everybody started taking a lot of serious interest, and I thought it was all over. But they were just amazed that I had come so far and through so many countries – I must be very strong, and they were very impressed. I couldn't believe my ears, but getting the thumbs-up from the Shanghai PD was good enough for me!

All credit to their efforts - when the phone rang again an address and telephone number was dictated and my ferry-catching plans started to seem attainable once more. The ferry company's telephone wasn't being answered – understandable, since at this stage it was after 8pm, but I knew where to go. Very thankful and relieved, and armed with a hand-drawn map, I caught the small ferry back to the other side of the river and up the road a little way, and, with the help of a few more bystanders (including one who hopped on his bike and took me there!) I was standing outside the locked-up office of the China Japan International Ferry Company.

I was tired and hungry, but now that I had the information I needed, things were not so desperate that I needed to grab the first hotels I could find - high-priced foreigner hotels. Besides, I was looking a little “rugged”. Seeing me with grime on my face and my hair every which way, in my well-worn suit, I think the upmarket places were “judging by the outside appearance” that night. Eventually somebody directed me towards a secluded NZ$11 per night local hotel (shhh, don't tell!), and I was able to find some dinner and prepare for the following day's rush to buy a ticket and get through customs.

Well, the office was open on Saturday morning, and it seemed that there was no problem buying a ticket at that late stage. However, I soon found out that this was the one sailing of the year which wasn't on Saturday, and that I had another day to wait. This actually turned out to me much more convenient, as I had a day to prepare and clean my bike and gear, as well as obtain a few replacement parts. However it would still have been nice for the company to let me know instead of confirming (as they had done) that I would be able to sail on that date.

After getting money from the bank and paying for my ticket I had a quiet day getting everything looking as clean and above-board as possible. As the Japanese vehicle standard is far higher than anywhere else I'd travelled, I wanted to ensure that they found no reason to deny me entry.

After washing everything as thoroughly as possible, I started asking around for a new speedometer cable (which I eventually got for less than NZ$1.50, although the taxi cost me NZ$2.50), new brackets for my toolbox (which cost me NZ$1) and then the far more challenging rear tyre. Eventually somebody offered to lead me to a likely place on his bike, and after a 8-9km ride we arrived in motorcycle heaven – a whole community of motorcycle-related shops – repairs, mods, and anything else one can imagine.

The challenge was that my rear wheel has a 17 inch rim, whereas most in China are 16 inch (I think). But after telling me that they didn't make them in China (which I struggled to believe) they eventually managed to find a perfectly adequate road tyre which they sold to me for around NZ$40. Given the prices I also bought some more oil and a new battery, to see if that would boost my electrical system (it didn't).

It emerged partway through these relaxed proceedings (all in all the round trip including fitting the tyre and waiting for the battery to charge took almost three hours) that my guide expected a box of cigarettes in return – yet this seemed to me to be quite reasonable, as he had been very helpful and given me the bulk of his afternoon. Still, the contents of this carton of “Double Happy” deathsticks are the only cigarettes that I have ever bought.

Given my spare parts expenditure that day, the next morning I needed to change some more money for my bike's fare – a challenge, given that it was both a Sunday and May the first. After stopping outside the closed “Bank of China” I asked the helpful police (my new best friends) and they suggested I go to an upmarket hotel to change money. I was about to do this when I chanced apon an older gentleman out for a stroll. His English was good, and he offered to show me another bank that might be open, so we walked along for a while, chatting about his business and mine.

Eventually we reached the bank, and there were big queues, because everybody wanted their money for their holiday. Usually there are Q-Matic machines (where you take a numbered ticket and sit down) but today there was just a long line. My new-found friend rushed up and down talking to the guard and staff, trying to get me hurried along the queue, and eventually did manage to jump me a bit. I felt a bit embarrassed as I wasn't in that much of a hurry...

The upshot is that I got just the right amount of money out, and we started walking back. And then, sadly, my “friend” started pestering me to give him some money. He started high, and dropped the price slowly, telling me all the things he had done for me – well this was true, but it was unfortunately one of those times when I read the signs wrong – he had presented himself as a nice-enough older gentleman out for a stroll, not a money-grabbing tout. In any case, I had no spare money, so eventually he stormed off, leaving a bad taste in my mouth, and I realised I had no idea how to get back to my small hotel. Usually I carry a bit of paper with the name of my hotel (to ask for directions, as I can't usually pronounce the name), but not this time - I had thought I was just going 200m up the road!

As the rain came down I wondered this way and that, thinking how silly the situation was, and how annoyed I'd be if I missed my ferry after all the success that I had had. Thankfully, after wondering around lost for a quarter of an hour I eventually came apon the right street, got on my bike, and rode for the ferry.

Customs procedures were simple enough – I had to wheel my bike through the terminal, and have the most thorough unpacking I had yet been subjected to (not very), but nobody questioned my right to have the bike or export it. Significantly I wasn't asked to produce my “Declaration Form” which had been so important when I imported the bike. And stamping the carnet was simply achieved, although they didn't think it was necessary at all, and grumbled a little. I paid for and left the bike here, with all my luggage, for them to load later. And then I was through, and on to the ship.

Given the hopelessness of the ferry company with regard to correspondence, I had had some concerns as to the condition of their vessel, but it turned out to be a comfortable and well-maintained ship. They have even been awarded plaques over numerous years for being a Chinese “National Model Passenger Ship”.

The staff were friendly and helpful and I was allowed to see my bike safely stowed on board. Following the usual preparations, after five long blasts on the horn, we were off...

Actually, the HaungPu River is so heavily trafficked, by vessels of such a wide variety, that hornblowing seems quite a standard activity, and scene is reminiscent of the highway, in a grand, yet slow-moving way. It actually took an hour and a half of winding up the river until we were finally clear of land, and able to reach our cruising speed of 20 knots.

Although it was a grey day, cold and windy, I remained on deck and watched the sights of Shanghai go past, including probably more than a thousand vessels of various descriptions. Once we reached the open water, I again asked to visit my bike, hung out my still-damp sheepskin and suit, and got the luggage I would need for my 48 hours on board.

It was a lazy time, but after the strenuous riding of the past week, I was content to be relaxing for a bit. I passed most of the time reading, writing some trip report, and organising my photographs. The sea was mostly fairly calm, and so seasickness wasn't a huge issue, although I did start to get a cold, for the first time in the entire trip. I suspect this had something to do with the Japanese gentleman in my cabin who kept clearing his throat loudly.

I was one of four "foreigners" (i.e. not Japanese or Chinese) on the trip, but I only spoke with oner of the others; Matthius, from Sweden. We had a few pleasant times together on deck, and sampling the various over-priced (compared to Shanghai) dishes at mealtimes.

I had established that the reason this voyage being on a different schedule from every other was that there was a Japanese tour group on board, who were disembarking at a port on the far west of Japan (after less than 24 hours at sea). Seeing a way of getting to my destination more quickly, I tried to be allowed to leave here, but only encountered my first taste of the Japanese way – impeccably polite, and, with regards to plans and regulations, utterly inflexible.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Wuxi, Jiangsu, China (Day 73, 12851 km)

To get us into the mood, here is a collage I've assembled from photos of various vehicles I saw in China (Vietnam had a similar range). The ones in the top two photos are all taxis, whereas the rest are farming and commercial vehicles.

Waking up in Hengyang, the weather was fine, and I made good time that morning. I was low on money, and confirmed once again that “Plus” and “Visa” cards are no good in most Chinese ATM's. Eventually the Bank of China saw me right again, and I had a wholesome lunch of KFC. It seems to be the norm to have a statue of the Colonel outside, at least in Thailand, China and Japan. Maybe it's like that in the US too?

I made fairly good progress the rest of the day, although the road surface and traffic conditions varied a little, and finished for the day at a nice hotel in Shanggao, in the Jianxi Province. As these places probably mean little to the reader, it was now Tuesday night (4 days down, 3 to go), and I had passed the halfway point through China – on track, but still with little time for contingency if the road turned bad or my bike had mechanical issues. At worst, though, it would just have meant waiting another week for the ferry, but I was keen not to have to do this.

This hotel owner was the friendliest I met – not only did he help me find dinner, but he sat there with me and we had a good phrasebook conversation while I ate. (Although I think one phrase the Lonely Planet people could have left out was “Who are the Chinese leaders you respect most?” I certainly had no idea!). He also neglected to charge me for doing my laundry, and was happy to take me down the road to show me where the Internet cafe was, sit there for an hour while I checked my email, and then pay for it at the end! He seemed intent on more conversation, but eventually I had to ask him to leave me to sleep, as I was very tired. I would definitely stay at his hotel again – not for the complementary salted watermelon seeds, but for the welcome I received.

As an aside, I found most hotel bathrooms in Asia a little odd. Of course one expects the squat toilets, but actually most of the hotels I stayed in through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China had “Western-style toilets”. The problem with this is that in an Asian bathroom the shower is normally in close proximity to the toilet, and one ends up getting a wet seat, not to mention wet toilet paper.

Of course, things actually worked a lot better when there was a more traditional setup - squat toilet and no paper, just a little shower head to wash oneself off with. Then the only things one has to worry about are the small problem of how to dry oneself after using the shower head (do you take a towel with you?) and the biggie - what if you drop the soap in the hole when having a shower?

In the end I came to the conclusion that in trying to provide convenience to their guests, the builders hadn't really understood the Western way of having a separate shower cubicle, and that their halfway-there results actually ended up being less convenient than if they'd just left them alone.

Almost all rooms come with a comb, many with shampoo and soap, some with a small towel, a few with toothbrushes and toothpaste, and one with a pack of condoms. Cost doesn't always seem to be the determining factor in the luxuries provided. Of course I already had everything I needed, so these things were mostly wasted on me, although it was good to be able to keep my towel dry when possible, and to stock up on soap and shampoo when I could.

The next day's riding very soon met with a surprise, as directions from some locals led me accidentally to an expressway entrance. For once I didn't see any signs banning motorcycles, so I continued past the gates and, when nobody ran yelling after me, figured this must be one of those “special” expressways and continued on my way. What with an immaculate road surface and light traffic, I started to cover ground quite quickly, but I couldn't help but notice the lack of other motorcycles on the road.

The expressways have few exits, and are very well signposted in English, making for easy travelling. After twenty minutes though, I felt I'd been cheeky enough and thought I'd better take the next exit in case I got pulled over. But when nobody seemed to get upset as I passed the tollbooths, I turned around again. Checking again that there was no sign prohibiting me, I continued on my way.

From time to time I passed roadworks, and the workers would stop to stare at me, but whether it was because I was riding a motorcycle on the expressway, or whether it was just because I was a red-and-blue-suited foreigner, I couldn't tell. Every so often there would be a petrol station, and I didn't receive any reaction from them, so I remained uncertain, until suddenly I heard the wail of a siren and saw flashing lights behind me. I started pulling over, but the police car just kept on going. Over the next few hours I saw a number of police cars on the expressway and none of them seemed to bat an eyelid either, so I kept riding for about three and a half hours, mostly at 100kph.

At that stage that section of expressway came to an end, and just after I passed through the final tollbooth, somebody finally took an interest in me. He had some sort of uniform and was following in a vehicle, and seemed to be indicating that I shouldn't be continuing down this road, but taking the turnoff. Once I obliged, he followed, and wanted to ask me something, but after realising the communication difficulty, he waved me on my way.

For the rest of the day the road continued to be excellent, and I clocked up over 600km, my furthest since the Australian Outback. But I'm still not sure if I was meant to be on that road or not.

Most of the traffic I saw in China consisted of trucks of varying sizes and small motorcycles. There were relatively few private cars, many of which were European - VW Passats and Santanas, as well as a few Citroens and other brands. I hadn't thought previously about the limitations of the left-hand-drive/right-hand-drive issue as relates to Japan and China. But if I were a far-sighted Japanese car company, right now I would be building as many factories in China as I could afford to.

Of course all of the expressways in China are toll roads, but many of the regional roads have regular toll booths too. The vast majority of these have a narrow fenced path around the far right hand side where motorcyclists are intended to slip by, so I ended up paying few tolls indeed.

I originally found these tollbooths quite concerning, as I feared that somebody with authority might start asking the wrong questions. There also seemed to be checkpoint areas along the road, which were even more alarming. However most of these were unmanned and the ones that were stopping people seemed uninterested in motorcycles. I had also heard that interprovincial travel in China required special permission, so I was expecting big internal borders between every province, but on my travels through six provinces, I encountered none. So up until this point I had had no problems at all. However tonight things were going to be a little different.

I was pretty tired by the time I arrived after sundown in the small and seemingly nice enough city of Tong Lu. After hunting around a bit I checked into a small hotel in a peaceful sidestreet, and went off to find some dinner. Although I'm not used to peas and carrot in the patty of my KFC burger it wasn't unpleasant and probably fools the health-conscious consumers into thinking that KFC is a healthy choice. After dinner I went in search of an Internet cafe, and after checking my email, I returned to my hotel.

This hotel was one of those (not uncommon in the region) where you don't get a room key – when I returned to the hotel, I had to ask the proprietor to get out his bunch of keys, go up the stairs and let me in. However, for some reason he didn't seem happy to do this. Not only that, with the help of my phrasebook his sign language seemed to indicate that I could no longer spend the night there!

Well I couldn't understand what had changed, but I wasn't impressed with this – I told him I was very tired, and asked him to let me in, so I could go to sleep. He refused, saying I had to wait until the police came! Well, my phrasebook has a good section on “dealing with the police”, so I was able to ask him what I was accused of (included are a range of options from “murder”, “robbery”, “possession of illegal substances”, “traffic violations”, “disturbing the peace” and the like, all the way up to visa-related crimes, and “anti-government activity”). No, it was nothing like this, and I was urged not to worry, as they would be here soon. So here I am standing in the hotel foyer, next to my NZ-registered bike, waiting for the police... and contrary to advice, starting to feel a little concerned.

Well, they came soon enough; an older guy, who was in charge, and a younger lady, who had quite serviceable English, so we were in business. It turned out that the only problem was that this particular hotel wasn't a designated “foreigner” hotel, so I couldn't stay there. Well, that would almost seem reasonable, except that I'd now been in China four nights, and only one of those nights had I stayed in anything that could be called a “foreigner” hotel – they have “Hotel” written outside in English, and are usually more upmarket. Besides, the only likely reason this could have become a problem is because the hotel owner had a twinge of conscience after admitting me.

Well, the usual passport-fossicking went on. I told them I wouldn't have minded if I'd been refused entry upfront, but that I wasn't going to be kicked out after three hours, when I had already off-loaded and it was already late at night. They were very sorry, but I must move hotels – they would help me. I pleaded with them to allow me to please just stay one night, hoping that then they'd clear out before becoming interested in my means of transport.

The situation was definitely not hostile, but they wanted to know all the usual things - Where had I spent the previous night? Where and when had I entered China? Where and when would I leave? Nobody had heard of Vietnam, even when I showed them the Vietnam visa and Chinese entry permits, and they couldn't quite conceive that I could be travelling alone from place to place across China.

Then somebody noticed my bike.

The registration was taken, and the head guy went off with that and my passport details to run all sorts of checks, while I contemplated my sins, and what I'd do to stop my bike being impounded.

Negotiations and clarifications continued on my sleeping arrangements, but my primary concerns were still with my bike. However, strangely enough, no more mention was made of it, and when the guy came back, he had a book full of “Temporary Residence Registration Permit for Aliens” forms (I had encountered these on my previous trip to China when my hosts also had to get one). After one of these was painstakingly filled out, I was allowed to stay the night, with the semi-reluctant hotel proprietor as my “host”.

It was strongly suggested that I not leave the hotel again that night, to which I expressed my displeasure, saying that it was a hotel not a prison. I think I felt safe enough at this stage that nothing bad was going to happen, but in hindsight, maybe I should just have smiled and nodded at this stage. Anyhow, it had been a long and tiring day, so after politely letting the proprietor know in phrasebook Chinese what I thought of his conduct, I drifted off to a much-needed sleep.

Due to my expressway escapades of that day, I was now comfortably within a day's range of Shanghai and decided to squeeze in a visit to the city of Wuxi, a slight detour to the north. For me the only reason to visit was that it is the Chinese sister city of Hamilton, New Zealand, and I wanted to see what it was like. (Originally I had hoped to liaise with the Hamilton branch of the New Zealand China Friendship Society to do my motorcycle trip from Hamilton to Wuxi, and to possibly use this as leverage to smooth my passage into China, but this never eventuated) There is a plaque in Hamilton commemorating the sister city relationship, and as a footnote says that there is a similar plaque in Wuxi, I thought it might be fun to try to track it down and take a photo of it.

The road to Wuxi passes near the shores of Tia-Hu (Lit: Great Lake), the third-biggest freshwater lake in China. It has an area of 2428 km2, which is four times bigger than Lake Taupo, so it's possibly the biggest lake I've seen, although it's only 1/34 of the area of Lake Superior – now that's a lake! Interestingly, Google says Tai-Hu is only 2.6m deep at the deepest point, whereas Lake Taupo is 164m deep!

After an otherwise fairly uneventful trip I found myself in Wuxi. I had few plans other than "going there", but, noticing some tourist signs to a "tourist garden", followed them to see where I'd end up.

Soon I found myself outside the entrance to a garden that left me with a slight sense of deja vu. One thing that seemed different, though, was the the payment kiosk to the left of the entrance, and the tour groups being shepherded about by megaphone-wielding guides. Although it seemed like these gardens might have an entrance fee, I was unable to ascertain whether that was just if one wanted a guided tour, so I bowled on in anyway, and showed myself around.

Near the end of my wanderings one local proudly informed me that this garden was the best in all of China – while this sort of proclamation made me as sceptical as usual, it was definitely a fine garden, and certainly quite reminiscent of the one so far away it was trying to imitate, although on a far grander scale... I took my time wondering around soaking in the peace and taking photographs, as well as listening to a trio of young ladies give an excellent performance on their traditional Chinese instruments.

But by the time I thought I'd explored every nook of the garden, I still hadn't spied any Hamilton-mentioning plaque. I found a garden attendant with excellent English, and, although they eventually understood my meaning, they had never seen such a thing – helpful phonecalls were made to various tourist agencies, but they unearthed no further clues. This didn't concern me greatly, of course, as it had just been a mild interest.

By the time the garden staff had given up searching for this foreigner's plaque, it was after 5pm, and time to start looking for a hotel. I obtained some tentative directions and was about to set off when two young men noticed my bike and started taking an interest in it.

They had figured out that I was a long distance traveller, and were interested enough to ask me questions and ask if they could take some photographs with me. They seemed nice enough, and I happily obliged. But after a while it seemed time to move on, and I asked where I could find a cheap hotel. I was unprepared for the answer:

“If you don't mind, you are welcome to stay with me.” He seemed genuinely friendly, and told me that he lived alone, and if I didn't mind the mess he'd be very happy to have me. He said that his friends enjoyed travelling and liked to meet travellers. This turned out to be quite true – they had been on numerous mountain-biking trips. His friend had even toured through Tibet and they were all planning a return visit in a few months.

Well of course I accepted, and enjoyed wonderful hospitality from a genuinely nice Terry and his friends. I used his shower and Internet, after which he took me out for a quick dinner before we went out for the evening with his friends.

It turned out to me one of those chance meetings that leads to rather unusual experiences – Terry works for the local television station, and through his work had managed to score free tickets to hear visiting Taiwanese pop singer, Chyi Chin. Normally these tickets are 380 Yuan, or about NZ$60, but that night the international act was free.

It didn't matter that I didn't understand a word – the atmosphere and sounds were still most enjoyable, as well as watching the excited but restrained crowd – the police presence was quite strong. It must be a tough job policing such an event – keeping a crowd happy, while still under control. This involves regularly “allowing” infatuated teenage girls to run up onto the stage and present their idol with huge bouquets of flowers and warm embraces, before being dragged back down to their seats. Or in one case a sideways hug and a stolen snapshot, which he dutifully smiled for.

After the concert and obligatory encore, we left the attractive new indoor stadium and eventually found a taxi to a brand new “Westen style” bar, where we conversed a while to an eclectic mix of tunes (including "Puff the magic dragon") before heading off to bed. All in all an unusual, interesting and satisfying day.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Hengyang, Hunan, China (Day 70, 11469 km)

Oh no! Not only is this border right on the edge of a town, rather than out in the country (which somehow makes it feel like people there would be a lot better informed), both the Vietnamese and Chinese archways are built like fortresses and, although there was a wide road between the arches, the gates were closed and there seemed to be only people crossing on foot. I didn't feel like I stood any chance at all of getting through here!

Ah well, best get it over with... And at the same time keep praying... I was again grateful for the carbon-copying Vietnamese arrival/departure cards, because by this stage I had filled out a few. They seemed to yet again have slightly different paperwork requirements for my bike, but again it was not really an issue – after they'd gotten over the number of cancelled Vietnamese exit visas in my passport, they opened the gate, and I was allowed to ride my bike through, down the wide stretch of nowhere (I'm not sure who pays for the maintenance) and park outside the Chinese building.

Well, the border wasn't very busy, and in no time my passport was stamped, and I was into China and free to continue on my way. Except I don't think they'd noticed I had a bike, and that was still very much on the other side of the closed Chinese gate!

So I went back into the building and casually asked if they'd be able to open the gate for me so that I could wheel my bike through. Well, of course it wasn't going to be quite that simple... The nice lady wanted to know if I had permission, and I told them of course, and showed them my carnet, and how it gave me permission to travel through all these countries...

She was helpful, but wasn't entirely sure, not having seen such a document before. In any case, she decided things needed to be bumped up a notch and got on the phone to her superior. At the same time, my chances seemed to shrink even further – now they were starting to really look into it, surely there was little hope? But the people at this border seemed quite relaxed – maybe this is usual, or maybe it was just a Saturday morning thing. But there seemed to be a healthy work atmosphere, with a bit of teasing going on, relaxing everybody. While she was waiting, she sent a lackey to get a little round red stamp and pad, and for the rest of the discussion these sat tantalisingly on the table in front of us. That stamp could authorise my paperwork! But would it?

Pretty soon along came the boss. After he'd finished doing his tie, and put on his cap, I shook his hand, and allowed her to explain the situation. Discussion ensued, and more thorough browsing through my passport, almost giving the impression he understood its contents.

Then came some questions – "How long would I stay in China?" Well, I planned to catch a ferry from Shanghai in exactly one week's time. "Where would I stay tonight?" – I decided to be specific and chose Nanning, the next major town – Chinese borders don't seem to like “Where ever I get up to when the sun goes down”.

A bit more to-ing and fro-ing and I kept praying. Now the boss led me off back the way I'd come – even though my passport still showed me being in China, we went back out the building into no-man's land. Then I understood – he wanted to look at my bike. Ok, there you go. I didn't know why, but he seemed to want to see what was in my tankbag and panniers. I figured doing what he wanted was wise, and started unpacking them, but he seemed satisfied with a rather cursory search, and I didn't have to more than half unpack anything.

It was starting to dawn on me at this stage, but it only really hit when he rolled aside the gate, and motioned that I should wheel the bike through to the other side. We then went back inside and I sat down again while more discussion went on.

The nice lady took over the forms again, having produced the magical “Declaration Form” as well. It took a few more minutes, but eventually the tantalising red stamp was utilised, first on my carnet, and then on both copies of the Declaration Form, along with a bit of good-humoured teasing when she didn't seem to know quite what the date was. I was told to look after my copy carefully, as I would need it when I tried to re-export the bike. And after that, I was free to go!

So there you have it – were you expecting something more clever or spectacular? It certainly wasn't anything special that I did, and I'm not really sure why it worked for me on that day, and so few others, but I gave the glory to God, and rode off into China, carefully, but at the same time making sure I didn't hang around long enough for them to change their minds!

I found it a very non-emotional and surreal time, yet in many ways it was the defining moment of the trip, as I had never had a clear strategy for getting into China, and I now felt confident of being able to complete the entire “Hamilton to Japan” journey. I had always assumed that once I was actually in China, things would be much easier, and this turned out to be the case – maybe because everybody in authority assumed that I could only be there because I was allowed to by somebody else, so it must be alright!

The first item of business was to put on all my motorcycle gear (I had ridden the 8 km to the border without my suit, gloves and boots so that I would cause less of a stir at the border). Then I needed to change some money. Of course this was a bit of a challenge – I'd forgotten that only one or two different kinds of Chinese banks are authorised to change money, but after a few phrasebook conversations, somebody got me to follow them on their scooter to the Bank of China, and I was soon on my way with enough yuan to be able to fill up my tank and last me until I had found my feet in this, the eighth foreign country of my travels.

Very soon I began to notice people using their indicators. Not only were horns and headlights used for purposes other than intimidation, after dark I regularly had people dip their lights for me too! This made a nice change, and was not expected, given my memories of far northern China.

Having heard stories about bikers getting this far and then having problems with a local constable, I felt like it was a priority to be as inconspicuous as a tall, white, blond-haired, leather-suited person on a noisy, overloaded trailbike can be. Nonetheless, I very quickly found that most people here were just as friendly to this unusual foreigner as they had been on the other side of the border.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that I had not lost my (very basic) Chinese vocabulary nor my ability to read commonly-used characters. This boosted my confidence and meant that by the end of the week I had had a number of fairly satisfying phrasebook conversations.

The first fun interaction I had was with the petrol pump attendant who wanted to know if I had any US dollars. I showed him one, and agreed to exchange it with eight of his yuan, about the going rate. I'm sure that counts as illegal money-changing, but I decided it was a good-will gesture, and that as China is so unlike such multi-currencied countries as Indonesia and Cambodia, it would be enough of a novelty for him that he would probably keep it as a souvenir.

Anyway, it was time to press on and get as many kilometres as possible between me and the border – I had this notion that once I was more than a few hours' ride away, if I was stopped I might be less likely to be sent back. I also figured that once I was over halfway, then maybe sending me on would be their best bet. Thankfully neither of these theories were tested, because having the bike impounded seems like it might have been a more likely result.

Without too much trouble I found myself on what seemed like an expressway of some kind, and made excellent progress for about 60km, due to the excellent road and very light traffic. This included going through a couple of toll gates, each costing 1 Yuan (about NZ$0.20), following a similar system to the Vietnamese where motorcycles pay only a nominal fee and trucks have to pay (comparatively) lots.

Abruptly this road came to an end, and when I took the road that seemed to follow on naturally, there was a problem – signs everywhere showing that this is an expressway (obviously the other one had been something different) and motorcycles are prohibited. Nonetheless, I had been in many places where signs either didn't mean anything or meant something different from what I thought, so I decided to put it to the test, and road up to the tollgate, where the attendants' sign language made it quite clear that I was not allowed.

This became a recurring theme throughout my journey – the first patch of road was obviously something technically a little different from an expressway, because it hadn't been a problem, even at the toll gates. But on pretty much every other expressway entrance I rode past, there were signs banning pedestrians, bicycles and tractors, as well as motorcycles. Given the range of "motorcycle" in China it is understandable, but the Japanese system of only prohibiting bikes smaller than 125cc seems fairer to me.

It was a pity not being allowed on the expressways, as the expressway system in China is excellent, and I was in a hurry. But I suppose it also meant that I saw much more of the countryside than I otherwise would have. And the numbered regional roads were mostly very good too, however their quality ranged from the “40 km of ploughed-up roadworks with piles of rocks” type to the “lovely surfaces with sweeping curves, good bridges and passing bays” variety. The other issue was that one never quite knew when one would turn to the other. It seemed like the signs in some towns had been put up before new road diversions had been finished, and only a few of these were covered, or had a marked detour, so sometimes I'd lose the road on my way through a town, and have to take a few crazy back streets before finding it again by accident (with the help of my GPS for direction). Roads are just one of the many areas where China seems to be investing amazing amounts of effort and money – I suspect that if I were to repeat the trip in three years, that most of the bad patches would be unrecognisable.

Just over 100km into China, near the (unmarked) Tropic of Cancer, my bike's odometer hit the 50000km mark (40000km was reached up the east coast of Australia just south of Rockhampton and the Tropic of Capricorn) and I pulled over to take a photograph. Although the road was in an isolated stretch, I happened to stop right next to some road workers, who wanted to know why I had stopped. No language was needed for this one – I just pointed to my odometer, and they smiled and looked suitably impressed.

I had been very fortunate with the weather until now, having had only one rainy day in Thailand and one drizzly day in Vietnam, but the first three days in China evened things out a bit. The first wasn't that heavy, and as it only began in the late afternoon, I considered that I had achieved enough for a single day, and asked around to find a hotel in the next small town.

The hotel owners were friendly enough, and were keen to engage me in plenty of phrasebook conversation. They also helped me find dinner, and an Internet cafe – unfortunately the cafe was the noisiest, most bustling one I had yet come across, and I was obviously the best exhibit they'd had all week, so I found it really tiring and irritating trying to do any correspondence with at least ten people clustered around watching my every move.

I knew I was in China the next morning when outside my hotel window came the sounds of activity and I looked out and saw a crew of builders engaged in construction work. Everywhere you look there are buildings shooting up – China is certainly the place to watch. But unfortunately, as most who have been to China know, the results of the construction are often quite an eyesore. It seems like even the small towns are trying to become big centres of industry, yet the overall impression is just of town after town of drab and dingy, hastily-built and rapidly decaying structures. It took quite a while before I encountered some of the more favoured cities which looked like they had actually been able to afford an architect and a coat of paint, and I have to admit they looked quite attractive.

There was a slight drizzle falling, and I delayed starting a little hoping it would dissipate. After some thunder (odd for 9:30am!) it lightened a bit. I decided to brave it, and it cleared up before lunch. That morning I discovered that my speedometer had stopped working (50000km must have been enough) and later I noticed that another of my left pannier's mounting brackets had failed, leaving the pannier wobbling out a bit around corners. The bracket was an easy fix on the side of the road, but I didn't investigate the speedo problem until I reached Shanghai.

This was primarily because I felt I was behind schedule and wanted to catch up. I had gained entry into China a few days later than I had planned, but still wanted to catch the Osaka ferry from Shanghai seven days after arriving, which meant I had to cover just over 2800km before then. So unfortunately a lot of my focus in China was just to cover as much ground as possible – I ended up riding long hours, and often finished after dark. Yet, just like on the rest of the trip, unexpected things happened, and I have a few memorable and positive experiences from China too.

One of these was that afternoon, after being stopped for about half an hour in a queue of traffic waiting for a couple of earth-movers to widen or stabilise a section of the road. I was rearing to go again, and ended up choosing the wrong road, but didn't mind; instead I tried to take side-roads in the direction shown by the gps, hoping to get back on track eventually.

Well, it didn't work, but along the way I had a delightful tour through a few picturesque and unspoilt Chinese villages. No grimy brick buildings here, but wooden thatched structures, alongside the river and rice-paddies. Of course, the further I got up the river, the more the road deteriorated, and I began to doubt that it came out the other side. But still I continued, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, but also finding navigating the rutted and muddy road surface a fun diversion from my serious goal.

I continued down for some time, until I reached, and crossed, this ford. Actually it wasn't quite this simple, as I lost momentum in the middle, and had to rely on a friendly villager (I think the guy in the middle) to help push – together with his efforts and mine, the bike was able to grip and run up the other side. However, the sign language I was offered seemed to make it clear that the road didn't go much further and that I should turn back.

I retraced my steps, crossing the ford without trouble this time, and having enjoyed my “off-road” experience, continued towards the next town. Unfortunately it was getting late, and it was here that the road degraded to a 40km long stretch of ploughed-up roadworks. This road was corrugated and covered intermittently with rough gravel, and not nearly as much fun as the muddy clay one I had travelled on before, especially as I navigated it all after dark.

The following day was the wettest of the entire trip. It was only drizzling when I went through another picturesque mountain pass, but after that the thunder kept rolling around, and I was totally soaked and shivering when I decided to have a break at the next petrol station.

I wasn't trying to make a performance of it, but once I'd taken off and wrung out my gloves, and removed my boots and poured the water out of them, the attendants had seen an opportunity to show kindness, and decided to get involved. By the time I had started drying my hair and face they had sprung into action, and gave me some hot water to drink. Next they tried to persuade me to have a shower and clean up, but I signed that I'd just get soaked again, so I'd save it for the end of the day. So instead they took me to a side room where they had a fire going, and gave me a hot lunch while I sat and warmed up. Bless them. It was a lovely experience, quite a bit different to what I'd expect in most Western countries, and at a time when I appreciated it most.

That evening was my first in China where I tried to stay in a reasonable-sized city (Hengyang in the Hunan Province), and I such trouble finding accommodation I decided to stay in smaller towns as much as possible for the rest of the trip. I suppose bigger towns end up having areas for different things, but also people are far more likely to point you towards the well-known (and expensive) hotel than the non-flashy, cheap one. After asking many bystanders for directions I eventually paid a taxi-driver to lead me to some cheap hotels, and his second attempt found me a place to rest my head.

Money doesn't go as far for accommodation in the big city, and, while the hotel was no more expensive than other places I'd stayed, its facilities were fairly basic and run-down. The shower being on another floor was no big deal, but the light switch being on the outside of the room was one of a number of signs that made me think that this used to be either a barracks or school dormitory. Probably the highlight of my stay was getting my bike up and down the front steps, the most challenging entrance of the trip.

Being in an obscure area of the city meant that this was one of the few places where it was too far to walk to the nearest Internet cafe. I had a bit of fun with the taxis both on the way out and on the way back, as both drivers were of the mindset I found common in the more competitive countries that they should first tell me they understood where I wanted to go, in order to get me onboard, and later see if they could actually figure out my destination.

While out looking for an Internet cafe I stopped for a snack. By that stage I was used to drinks (even canned) having lumps (of fruit?) in them, but I was caught out by the chocolate-coated ice-cream that I bought. In my country if it's chocolate-coated it's sure to be real ice-cream, not a sorbet, but more importantly, the nuts embedded in the chocolate do not turn out to be sunflower seeds!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Mong Cai, Vietnam (Day 67, 10236 km)

China is surely going to become one of the dominant superpowers of the 21st century, but there are a number of ways in which they still haven't followed the rest of the world. One small hitch about this part of the journey is that China is the only country apart from Cambodia which is not expressly listed in my International Driving Permit – because they haven't signed that agreement. Everywhere else that I went has, including Vietnam.

I've always thought this permit is surprisingly non-specific and easy to get. No tests are required – just present $15 and a passport photograph, and you're qualified to ride on whatever side of the road is applicable, and expected to know when to give way, etc. Well, suits me – I can do without extra tests, but I can understand why China might choose not be part of the agreement. Incidentally, I wasn't required to present any form of licence at any stage during the entire trip.

No, a far bigger issue is that as well as the rider requiring a Chinese licence to ride on Chinese roads, by law the vehicle concerned needs Chinese licence plates and registration. Foreigners should definitely not be allowed to travel as and where they please, but an exception to the licence and registration issues can be made if one applies to a Chinese travel agency at least 3 months prior to the trip, pays US$100+ per day for a guide, and sticks to a pre-arranged (and pre-approved) itinerary (There are definitely "restricted" areas, through which travel would not be approved).

Of course, these restrictions are disagreeable to most bikers, as well as requiring a hefty budget, so most steer clear of China for now. I would have too, however my trip was from New Zealand to Japan, and this makes China quite hard to avoid! I had been keeping my eye on the situation through various Internet sites (especially the excellent – one solution taken by a few bikers had been to find friendly truckies, and pay them a few US dollars to "transport" their bikes across the border. A last resort, but “smuggling” is not a nice-sounding word, especially when you're actually standing within five kilometers of the border!

The more encouraging stories were a couple of instances where people had managed to just turn up at the border and be allowed in, but the official situation remains the same, and others have tried many borders and still been turned away. The situation in China really seems to be that the left hand does not know what the right is doing, or even if it does, whether it is allowed to or not.

Despite the (not entirely unfounded) fears of some people over irrational governments locking me away, I have thus far found customs officials to be only helpful and polite, even if they don't know what to do with me. I decided that I am unlikely to be prosecuted just for trying, so, once I had my express Chinese visa, I headed north, to the China-Vietnam border closest to Hanoi.

Signing out of Vietnam was no problem at all – just a stamp in my passport, and one in my carnet, and away I went. I had not been overly apprehensive, but there had always been the chance of some friendly customs official deciding that something was not in order, especially with my bike. Nope – once I explained that I needed an extra stamp on my carnet, they were very happy to oblige, although I'm not sure they actually realised it was for my bike.

Through the boom gate, the last milestone on the Vietnamese road states “0 km” and beyond that the surface is a slightly different colour. I rode slowly over the transition, onto Chinese soil, past the open boom gate, and stopped outside the customs and immigration building. Various passing Chinese travellers smile, wave, and some give a thumbs-up and say “Hello!”. I suppose I am the only Westerner in the vicinity, and definitely the only one with a bike - although there is a line of trucks on either side of the border, I don't see any private traffic here. But still – things are feeling pretty good so far. I haven't had any guns pointed at me, anyway.

“Why you no take package tour?” The young immigration lady was not hostile, just a little confused – demonstrating a stereotypically Chinese mindset to tourism. This was reinforced for me later in China as I watched scores of people paying for guided tours through what seemed like the equivalent of Hamilton Gardens. Anyway, my explanation must've been good enough because she was starting to process my entry, when another customs man ran up, and excitedly told her that I had a motorcycle, something she had been unable to see, due to us being on the second floor (of the round building in the photo), and my bike not being visible. Nonetheless, I had made no attempt to hide my leather suit, undone and hanging down around my waist.

My entry-stamping stopped, as everybody tried to figure out what to do with me – it wasn't that I couldn't do it, it's just nobody quite knew what needed to be done, so I gathered none of them had encountered the situation before. However, one young officer had excellent English, which negated one of my concerns – at least I'd be able to explain my intentions and documents.

Somehow I had forgotten that China is an hour ahead of Vietnam, so the Chinese were starting to wind down for the day. Yet we still managed to have a few rounds of discussion, with the young guy being very helpful and supportive, apologising for the delay, and assuring me they'd try to get everything stamped as soon as possible. I think we was being a good advocate for me with his superiors too. He told me he admired my spirit, and hoped that he could one day do something similar, although he said it was a lot more difficult as a Chinese-born person.

He did express some doubt at one stage, though, as he wondered how I'd know how to follow the traffic rules in China. It didn't seem diplomatic to give my opinion on the traffic rules in China, so I told him that the signs would be an international standard (in hindsight, that was mostly true), like they had been for the other eight countries, and he seemed satisfied at that.

In the end they decided that I probably needed another paper from the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, although to me the paper sounded like one I should be able to get at the border. My friend told me that the people who could help me had already gone for the day, but that if I came back tomorrow we'd probably be able to sort something out. He wouldn't be there, as it was his day off, but somebody else with good English would be able to aid my negotiations.

Well, having to wait overnight was a little disappointing, but there was also hope, so I was feeling good. But now where should I stay? Although I figured Vietnam would probably let me back in, I tried settling in no-man's-land instead, just to see if I could. No, I was soon informed that “International Agreements” didn't permit such things, and sent back to try my luck with the Vietnamese.

It caused quite a stir, but after some hand-waving, and concerned questions as to why China had refused me entry, they seemed satisfied, and I received a red “CANCELLED” across my exit stamp. Checking in at the nearest town 5km away was nothing new, although stumbling through a patch of unmarked wet concrete on my night-time ramble was. I felt bad, but what could I do?

The next morning I left Vietnam again, although their papertrail requirements seemed slightly different this time. On the Chinese side things were also slightly different - I had to fill out not only a medical declaration, but also a questionnaire testing my knowledge of the symptoms and spreading of HIV. I wasn't sure if I'd be denied entry if I got any answers "wrong" so I promised to always use a condom, among other things. But in the end I just handed in the form and was waved on to the immigration people.

To my relief, today's young Chinese border official also had excellent English, but, while the discussion flowed well, things didn't seem quite as positive as yesterday. Finally, after much discussion and book-searching, they decided that there was a “declaration form” that I needed from the embassy in Hanoi, and things could go no further without that, or maybe a note on my visa or some other form of “official permission”.

It is my belief that this paper was a simple way for them to delegate the problem, because a “Declaration Form” is usually available at the border for declaration of such items as an extra camera, or some other valuable thing that they want to make sure you export again at the end of your trip. But I agreed to go back and try anyway.

Vietnam shook its collective head, but, like the night before, allowed both me and my bike back in, without reversing the paperwork that they'd wanted on the way out. So I've been to Vietnam three times already...

It was an easy ride back to Hanoi, and back to the same guesthouse. From there I visited the embassy, which did a very good impression of being deserted and locked. However, co-incidentally, a couple of (Vietnamese) ladies from the Australian Embassy were trying to get in too, and made a few rather demanding phonecalls – when they were admitted, I snuck in too, and after they left, was granted a brief audience.

Well, this little enclave of China certainly seemed to know the regulations; and they gave me some basic information to organise a guided tour. However, I kept repeating that the Chinese Immigration had told me I only needed a “Declaration Form” or a different visa, both of which they insisted they didn't have. Eventually, to get rid of me, they sent me off to the business and commerce department of the embassy, at another address. The lady here spoke little English, and called somebody to deal with me – he was very helpful, but after a while I established that he was not able to help, as he was the gardener, and Vietnamese! Eventually I established that the person who might be able to help was very busy but that maybe I could meet with him tomorrow.

The next day had a few wrangles of its own but eventually found me in an ornate meeting-room, sipping small handleless mugs of green tea, while a Chinese gentleman listened to my plight. He was very helpful, and made a number of phone calls, some to the border, but at the end of the day was unable to provide me with my form.

Slightly discouraged, but not overly surprised, I left Hanoi, starting to come to acceptance that I would be unlikely to be riding through China on this trip. I headed east towards Hai Phong, where I overnighted, and on the following day, obtained a quote for shipment of my bike to Osaka. As it was now a Friday, I allowed myself the weekend to try one last Chinese border, otherwise I would return on Monday and get the bike on a ship departing on Tuesday. I would continue through China by public transport.

The reader's impression at this point may be that I was all-consumed with getting into China – certainly I had always realised that this was the weakest part of my planning, and that I would probably have to give up here. But I also had always planned to give it a good bash too, and not say it couldn't be done until I'd tried it. Whatever happened, after over two months on the road, I was starting to feel like it was time for the trip to draw to a close.

Nonetheless, I was still having a good time, and rode on towards the border, past picturesque Ha Long Bay, and, on a more personal level, some farmers burning off a hillside of undergrowth. They were most impressed by my instant noodle routine, and got me to take some photographs of them, as usual to be posted to some absolutely illegible address...

A travelling salesperson must have been through here selling Christmas carol tune bleepers - they sound like those old Christmas cards that bleep out a tune when you open them, but rather than a single tune, they are a slightly garbled medley of your favourite hits. In this area of North Vietnam, these have been fitted to streetcarts, presumably to attract your attention to the wares for sale - I am surprised that they don't drive the owners insane! Not to be outdone, some truck drivers have replaced their reverse beeper with these things, so they can reverse to the tune of Jingle Bells!

Internet cafe's seem more prolific in this part of the world than places to eat, and cost the equivalent of 25c an hour or less. The connection speed and reliability tends to be somewhat flaky, however, and I can do without the local custom of being surrounded by cute kids (or adults) all staring intently at what I'm doing. Regardless of whether they can understand or not, to my Western norms it feels quite invasive.

I found myself that night about 8km south of the Chinese border, with enough Vietnamese money for a hotel and Internet, but not for a meal. I wasn't unhappy with that predicament, however, as my stomach gazed with renewed distrust at the local food offerings, despite one friendly local physically dragging me into his establishment of choice for a drink - they lost interest only when I showed them the sad state of my wallet.

After some Pam's meusli bars, I went to sleep, deciding to delay changing the remainder of my US Dollars into Vietnamese Dong just in case I was allowed through the Chinese border the following morning.