by Werner Wachter
So far our motorcycle journey has taken us through Southern Europe, West Africa and the Americas. Next we visit Australia and Thailand, then spend two months in Asia before concluding our expedition in Mieming, Austria, where we started 7 months ago.
AUSTRALIA AND THAILAND – FULL OF CURVES
The roads and passing landscapes are synonymous with the contrasts of the two countries: the vast Australian outback, and the mountains and tropical vegetation in northern Thailand. The population density in West Australia is about 1% of that in Thailand. The history and culture is documented in Thailand’s temples and excavations for thousands of years; in Aussie country, everything seems to be quite fresh and new.
AUSTRALIA OUT WEST
After Ayers Rock we almost went straight to the north and west. Huge resources have arisen over the last decades in the north and west. The economy seems to be based primarily on mining–metals, precious metals and minerals that are necessary for the semiconductor industry. We are aware of this when the mining Road Trains come toward us. It’s even more interesting when a series of road trains has to be overtaken. The longest are at least 54 meters long. Out here, the night is really dark – you can see the Milky Way better than anywhere in Europe.
To fully enjoy this experience sleeping in a “Swag” is the way to go! A swag is a mattress, a sleeping bag and a tent. A night in a swag, far away from artificial light sources, bring new inspirations from the universe to some of us. About every 80 km we encounter a so-called Road House, with fuel, food and simple accommodations primarily for lorry drivers. Farther west, we reach the Indian Ocean. A rest day in Coral Bay is one of the highlights; the beaches outside of the resort are deserted. A 10 km walk is a treat after we have completed almost 10,000 kilometers on our bikes. You can also surf out past the coral reef, snorkel and scuba dive and see fish and coral. Here the dolphins are accustomed to being fed every day. One can be very close to them and sometimes even swim with them.
At the end of the Australian section we arrive in Perth, which is definitely a booming city. The city of 1.3 million Aussies is very attractive. The buildings show the wealth which comes mainly from mining and fishing.
GETTING THE MOTORCYCLES FROM PERTH TO BANGKOK
As from Malaga to Buenos Aires, from Bogota to Panama City and Los Angeles to Sydney, we get on the plane with our bikes. A procedure that, for a group of 20 people and 18 motorcycles, requires some preparation: air tickets, bills of lading, customs clearance, international vehicle titles, driver’s licenses, fixing bikes on pallets, and then exporting them from Australia and importing them to Thailand. The group already has experience with this part of the expedition. Nevertheless, nerves and patience are required if one spends four days in Perth to process the bikes with the Cargo department, and then again to coax Customs at the airport in Bangkok. But we are here and the heroes of the road are still talking to each other after all this strain and stress.
BANGKOK’S POPULATION IS ONLY 12 MILLION
It is an experience to drive from the airport to the hotel. After an hour you understand what a huge metropolis this city has become. Leaving the airport the first skyscrapers soon appear. In between, there are many old, traditional houses made of poles, wooden planks and thatch and shingle roofs. The Chao-Pra-Ya River and its many channels dominate the center. Many palaces and temples line the river, and we use the two days of waiting for the bikes to see all these monuments. The Royal Palace and its temples and the impressive Reclining Buddha (44 meters long!) are sights to see, as are the boat trips along the river and through the floating markets. We see this culture has a long history and is different from ours in many ways. But also that the development of the last 40 years has brought it closer to western industrial society. Is this a good thing?
Bringing the bikes from the airport to be serviced is our first contact with city traffic. It’s funny, drifting with the countless scooters between cars at a red traffic light. The transport system of Bangkok works, but it works quite different from the one in Europe or North America!
After five days in Bangkok, we are impatient to see the country. We travel as a group of 18 motorcycles from the center 50 kilometers to the north. At intersections, the second rider waits for the rest, then joins at the end of the group. We’ve used this system many times but this time it fails. Too many cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses are around. At the gas station where we meet again four separate groups arrive within 30 minutes.
Our Thai guides promise that the northern part of the country will slow us down. And it did! From Tak the road is winding up to the Golden Triangle, the border between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – formerly called Burma. Along the route we see mountains and mountain passes up to 1,400 meters high. To get there you ride curve after curve. The temperature of our bodies and engines also rise to new heights as the air gets close to 38 C. As we reach the border of Myanmar, we learn more about the problems of Thailand and the former Burma. The dictatorship in this neighbor country means that there are many refugees moving across the border, who are then “kept” in large camps.
After a few thousand curves we are now on the Mekong and the Golden Triangle and rest for a day after five days of hard riding. Here we see the former center of the opium trade for several decades. Is it still? A visit to the Opium Museum will provide the answer.
LAOS – A DREAM FOR MOTORCYCLISTS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS ALIKE
The poverty of the farmers in the countryside is clearly visible, and there is quite a difference between Thailand and Laos in this respect. But for us it is striking how a simple life is still possible on our planet in small villages consisting of wooden huts with almost no furniture inside! It is a great experience just to stop within a group of huts and communicate with the people. Starting is difficult, but at the end everybody is laughing when the strange man utters strange words and heaves the little boys onto his motorcycle.
4,000 MILES THROUGH CHINA
At the border between Laos and China we can already sense the importance of this country and its society for the future of our world. The big golden gate, the size of the Chinese administration buildings, the border crossing procedure itself – it is all different from the many borders we have crossed so far. Passport checking requires forming 2 lines in front of 2 counters. Both lines must be absolutely straight – no exceptions. After 4 hours on the border we dive into the Chinese traffic.
MOTORCYCLING IN CHINESE TRAFFIC
After the first few miles we began to understand the traffic system, but were still surprised by it even 4 weeks later:
* The size of the vehicle determines the right of way.
* Rear view mirrors are not used.
* Lane changes are necessary all the time in the busy Chinese traffic; they are done suddenly and without warning. To the left, to the right, half a lane, one lane or two lanes–difficult to anticipate.
* Leaving the main road to the left or right is done without indication even in tight traffic.
* There is lots of traffic in the country but even more in town: Heavy trucks, construction vehicles, busses, road trains, cars, motorcycles with 2 or 3 riders, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, kids, old people, cattle, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, horses, goats, and in the mountains yaks and mountain goats.
* The roads undergo gigantic quality changes: From good straight highways all the way to single lane gravel and dirt lanes. The change between these extremes is often sudden and without warning.
* All of the above means full concentration is called for whenever you ride your motorcycle here. You have to watch everybody all the time and anticipate their next move.
CHINESE SCENERY AND AGRICULTURE
In the south and west of China there are many mountain ranges, some hilly or rocky sections and some desert. One can see the traditional cultivations of rice, potatoes, corn and wheat in the plains but also in mountainous terrain. It looks like every square foot is used to produce ford. This is done on a very small scale by each family as well as by giant cooperative farms. At least this is how it looks like from the road.
Long rows of harvesting machines drive fairly slowly along the highways for long distance to manage the harvest in faraway locations. And on the other end of the scale we can see women and children in rubber boots planting the young rice plants in the water-covered rice fields. These rice fields can be very small and located on the side of steep mountains. It looks like very, very hard labor!
BUILDING OF EXPRESSWAYS WITHOUT LIMITS
Everywhere in China one can see expressways under construction. The latest building technologies are applied. The speed of progress is breathtaking. In areas where these expressways run through rivers, lakes, across hills and mountains they are built on stilts 30-200 feet high or they go through tunnels. This gigantic project of building an expressway system all across the country in record time is synonymous with the economic changes and the development of the Chinese society. Big changes are achieved in record-breaking time. This is both impressive and a concern to us.
Motorcyclists are not allowed to travel on these expressways anywhere. Only when there is no other road in the vicinity are we allowed to ride on them. When we are stopped by the police we talk to them in German or Italian, without stopping. They reply in Mandarin and finally they wave us on and shake their heads.
THE CHINESE – ARE THEY FRIENDLY PEOPLE?
The answer is a very clear YES! Mostly we are riding solo or in small groups of 2, 3 or 4 motorcycles. We really appreciate the Chinese cuisine, which is miles apart from the food that is served in Chinese restaurants in America or Europe. So the stops for lunch along the road are always a welcome opportunity to rest, to observe, to communicate, to eat, to drink and to laugh. More than once we picked a “restaurant” along the road, or better in a village, that had all the tables, chairs and the kitchen outside on the sidewalk. Pointing at the plates of people already eating is the best method to get the desired dish. When the locals see this method of ordering, see our motorcycles and our faces, more and more of them gather around us quite tightly. They ask us many questions in Mandarin, we answer in English, German, Italian and with hands and feet. The whole crowd smiles and laughs with us and about us.
Then when it comes to paying the bill after we have eaten many delicious Chinese specialties the hosts sometimes shake their heads, which means: No payment, you are invited. We don’t believe it after such a fest, but they insist and smile!
At the end we get a gigantic farewell from the crowd of hundreds of villagers, who feel good about what just happened and so do we!
The second Edelweiss Discover Our Earth Expedition is being planned for 2013/2014. For more information see www.edelweissbike.com.