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Old 08-09-2008, 03:34 PM   #1
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Over the Great Wall, under the Iron Curtain

Russia, Mongolia and China- 2008

"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" was how Winston Churchill famously described Russia. To many people, myself included, the Far East was a closed book and touring Asia was probably the last thing on my Planned Rides list a few years ago.

That all changed around 2006, with the screening of “The Long Way Round”: it became apparent that it was actually possible to ride in the former USSR and, with some thick skin, the PRC too. On most RTW tours, these countries were excluded for political reasons and few people have been able to travel in the one or the other, let alone both. As I investigated the possibilities in 2007, things gradually fell into place…

The initial idea was to do it with local equipment, on a motorcycle, starting in Moscow. And the most indigenous form of transport in Russia just had to be an Ural with a side-car. It presented many advantages: three seating positions to choose from, lots of storage space, a fair range (especially with jerry cans), two-wheel drive and mechanical simplicity.

Disadvantages were also apparent: lack of performance (100 km/h max), inherent instability of a side-car configuration, weight of the rig and lack of riding comfort. But it was worth considering, so the Ural factory was contacted to explore the possibilities. If you are curious about the lack of commercial success of the Ural brand, wonder no more. The factory and its agents have a totally dogmatic approach that simply excludes marketing flair and customer relations as we know it in the capitalist world. It was suggested we buy a rig in South Africa and import it (!?) to Russia as the export version is not sold in Russia, and is considered much more reliable and refined.

In order to get a feel for riding such a machine, it was necessary to hire or borrow one for a while. Fortunately one of my friend’s father owned an authentic Russian version (albeit one-wheel drive only) with the side-car on the right hand side (South Africa “export” versions have the side-car on the left).

After locating the ignition key we arranged to pick it up and I gingerly rode it home. The combination of imbalanced traction, poor brake force distribution and sheer inexperience combined to see me disappearing off road even before getting home. But after a week of practice and some adjustments, I got confident enough to open her up all the way to the maximum speed. 100 km/h.

Although the Ural was not particularly comfortable, it could certainly be suitable, particularly on bad roads and in colder weather.

Colder weather. Siberia. Brrr! An urgent look at the climate of the Russian Federation was obviously required. For the time slot we had chosen between April and June, the picture looked thus, superimposed on the elevation:

With half the trip at mean temperatures below 5ºC (and therefore night times well below freezing) this did not look particularly appealing to people used to sunny skies.

A quick calculation of the likely temperature at each location in the reverse direction (China to Russia), with rainfall added for good measure, looked much better:

Riding in the opposite direction had immediate implications on the choice of motorcycle: we would now have to obtain a vehicle in China, where the maximum capacity available for locals is 200cc. That meant two bikes, made in China. Less power, questionable reliability, but cheap.

There are various “200-GY” Chinese made bikes sold under various badges such as Zongshen (Dragon), Lifan, Qingqi and Shineray. Check out for some local enthusiast’s blogs. These are basically face-lifted Chinese derivatives of the Honda XL185 with 8 litre tanks, about 240 km range and a 100 km/h claimed top speed.

After trying in vain to find Chinese motorcycle dealers on the internet, I gave up looking and decided that we would just locate one when we got there.

1NiteOwl screwed with this post 08-20-2008 at 03:50 PM
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Old 08-09-2008, 03:48 PM   #2
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This is going to be great!!

Thanks for the intro and stay away from Georgia!

btw, the person on mychinamoto, is an imate here and has posted two very good ride reports on his Chinese built adventure bike.
ADV decals, patches & flag? Here

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Old 08-09-2008, 04:34 PM   #3
'Bikes are OK, but . . .
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I'm sending waves of encouragement.

OK niteowl, let's get rollin'
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Old 08-09-2008, 06:30 PM   #4
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One out of every four people in the world is Chinese.
With a civilisation stretching back some 5000 years and a landmass 7 ½ times that of South Africa, this is a big country with plenty of tourist attractions. It’s also rather inaccessible for foreigners- International driver’s licences are not recognised, there is a strong centralised government and the language barrier for a solo traveller is significant, particularly in the rural areas.

But foreigners do live in China (many as English teachers) and many do seem to manage to ride around on motorbikes, legally or illegally. The key is to have a Chinese vehicle with a Chinese registration.

In order to stay away from the wet and populous coastal areas, we had to commence our trip somewhere in the central plateau. We decided to start in Kunming (“the city of spring”), capital of Yunnan province. The city has a mild climate all year round and is at an elevation of 6000ft above sea level.

We landed at Kunming late on a Sunday morning, and promptly got ripped off by an insistent couple offering us a taxi ride to the Camilla Hotel near the city centre. This hotel includes a hostel for backpackers, and turned out to be a good choice. To make sure you can get back once you’ve ventured into the city, they have these little cards to show the taxi drivers:

They’re rather useful in a country where English is rarely spoken. After unpacking and changing into something lighter, we had a look around the block, found some shops and had dinner in a local diner. The bowls are huge but there's a lot of water in there. It was our first attempt at trying to make ourselves understood in Mandarin, and it soon turned into a mime and sketch routine.

It set the tone for the trip- even if you can look up a question in a Phrasebook, how do you interpret the response? To make things worse, the meaning of Mandarin speech is strongly related to the pronunciation. And while the alphabet is standardised, there are many local dialects which are very different from the Beijing dialect which is given in most language guides.

Kunming has a number of interesting sights, but the real must-see attraction there is the Stone Forest, about 120 km south-east of the city. These are actually eroded karst (limestone) rocks and caves which were formed when water receded from the area millions of years ago. It's an amazing sight.

The local Sani ladies add some colour.

As does the water that remains.

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Old 08-09-2008, 06:58 PM   #5
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Shopping for Bikes

Kunming is one the “clean” cities in China. In order to limit air pollution they do not allow trucks or normal motorcycles into the city, only cars and electric scooters, and bicycles.

There are lots of them around, but this policy has had a devastating effect on motorcycle dealers trading in our kind of bikes, who have been driven out to the periphery of the city.

After spending the morning asking around the scooter shops (a whole block of them) for the Zongshen dealer visited by Beemerboy a few years earlier, we eventually got to a printing shop and made a print of the web page ( After showing it to a few dealers we eventually hit paydirt when one of them recognised the area and marked it on our map.

We found the dealership south of the railway line- a shadow of its former glory. We were met by Cheng, who had one black LZXM200GY-2 on the floor which was promptly put through its paces for us. The price was RMB9600 (9600 Yuan, about $1370), including taxes. We asked them to get two brightly coloured ones for the next day, when we would bring the money.

We had arranged some help with a local business contact, who could speak English. She picked us up at the hotel the next morning and, after some phone calls, a truck dropped off two crates with our new bikes!

They were quickly assembled on the pavement outside…

…and fitted with our GPS mounts, power points and luggage boards (brought in our duffel bags).

Our translator helped with the ownership and insurance papers, but without a permanent local address we could not get number plates. Not a serious problem, as you are allowed 30 days grace before you must register- by which time we had to be out of China anyway. After some local sight-seeing we hit the traffic and set off for Chengdu, along the “classic” route through southwest China.

Our trip had begun!
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Old 08-09-2008, 08:03 PM   #6
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Curious to see how these bikes work out for you. Great report.
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Old 08-09-2008, 08:53 PM   #7
Don't taze me bro.
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Awesome. Subscribed.
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Old 08-09-2008, 09:52 PM   #8
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Looking forward to this.

Rob Swartzwelder, Southern AZ
I'm not real fast, but I do have a dog named Dakar!
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Old 08-09-2008, 09:59 PM   #9
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Fascinaing, thanks for the peek into this part of our planet.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
(Eleanor Roosevelt)
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Old 08-09-2008, 11:43 PM   #10
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Lots of luck on your trip!
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daring adventure or
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Old 08-10-2008, 02:09 AM   #11
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Wow. Everything needed for an epic ride, right there!


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Old 08-10-2008, 05:25 AM   #12
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Should be good!

Throw yourself at failure. You might miss.
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Old 08-10-2008, 07:12 AM   #13
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This looks like its going to be a lot of fun - bring it on
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Old 08-10-2008, 05:17 PM   #14
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Old 08-10-2008, 07:40 PM   #15
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