Category Archives: UK

On the move again

Happy Chinese New Year!

Chengdu celebrates the start of the Year Of The Snake

Chengdu celebrates the start of the Year Of The Snake

As you may remember from our last post we decided to take a couple of months out from our busy pedalling schedule and return to the UK for December & January (and, as it turned out, half of February too), arriving back in China on their New Year’s Day at the start of the Year Of The Snake.  We’ve used the time off to do some necessary business-related things, some enjoyable friends-and-family-related things, and some useful trip-related things, in particular a long overdue clean of our sleeping bags and my down jacket (thanks to David at Mountaineering Designs in Cumbria for an excellent service). We also bought new tyres (Schwalbe Marathon Plus) for both the tandem and the trailer, picked up a new tandem frame to replace the one that had cracked and been re-welded back in China, sorted out new travel insurance, got jabs and anti-malaria tablets for SE Asia, and got visas for our return to China.

Getting back to China hasn’t been as straightforward a process as we’d hoped it might be. First of all, we’d assumed that getting a Chinese visa from our home country would be easier than getting it on the road, but because we’re not typical tourists and were not able to provide evidence of our homeward flight nor our hotel bookings for each night of our stay in China we ended up having to provide a letter of invitation, kindly provided for us by one of my brother’s Chinese friends and saying that we would be staying with them for the duration of our trip. We were at least able to apply for more than a 30 day visa and so now have 60 days here before we need to worry about extending visas or exiting the country.

Once in possesion of a visa our second hurdle was getting out of the UK.

Our route was to be a coach from Chesterfield to Heathrow, and then flights from Heathrow to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Guangzhou, and finally, Guangzhou to Chengdu.

The coach journey was fairly straightforward. The trouble began at Heathrow.

We were booked on the 08:40 flight to Amsterdam, but there was also an earlier 06.35 flight going the same way and the check-in was heaving with late comers. We waited patiently until the furure had died down and then went through to the check-in ourselves. We were only entitled to two bags in the hold, but had been unable to wedge the tandem frame and spare tyres into our rucksacks so had ended up with 3 bags. This was the first problem. At one point our check-in lady wanted to charge us £87 for an extra bag AND £87 for it containing part of a bike. Keith was rapidly becoming irritated by her manner and going to great pains to explain the difference between a bike and a bike frame. The check-in lady was giggling like a cretin and trying to liken it to us wishing to travel without a limb but not wishing to be classed as a whole person. In short, things were rapidly descending into the ridiculous.

In the end she charged us just the one £87 (well, we knew there would probably be some penalty for an extra bag) but then also made us sign a waiver to say that the bike frame was improperly packaged and it wouldn’t be their fault if it was damaged. When she diligently asked us if we’d deflated the tyres we nearly imploded with irritation, as the only tyres in the package were not attached to wheels and didn’t have inner tubes in them because we were transporting a frame and 3 spare tyres, not a bl**dy bike, which if she’d been listening to us at all she’d have realised.

Anyhow, problem number one was finally resolved (to little satisfaction on our part) and then problem two arrived as she then realised we were going to China but didn’t have a return flight booked. So despite us having acquired a valid visa she said she needed to see bank statements proving how we would finance ourselves in China and also wanted proof of exit from the country….neither of which we could provide as we a) hadn’t expected to be asked for financial details and b) were intending to get our Laos visa at the border (way easier than trying to get one from Paris, which is the nearest Laos embassy to Chesterfield). In the end I had to be taken into a back room and log onto one of their computers, access my gmail, download the letter of invitation we had sent to the Chinese embassy and print that out for their files.

What a palaver. The manager explained to us that it is IATA rules that if we land in China and are refused entry the airline will be fined £5,000 as well as having to fly us home, so even though we had a visa, they still needed to ask for all the information (and more besides!) that we’d had to supply to get the visa in the first place.

We then set off the alarms at security as we were carrying an extra battery for our netbook….and then we discovered the gates to our 08:40 flight weren’t going to be opening until 09:30 – it transpired that the flight out of Amsterdam had a mechanical problem and they had to swap to a different plane…..so right from the start our journey to Chengdu was not going smoothly.

We got a free coffee and sandwich as compensation for the delayed departure, but still arrived in Amsterdam just as our flight to Guangzhou was leaving and had to go to the transfer desk to discover how they planned to get us to Chengdu.

In the end we were put on a flight to Shanghai and then a later flight from there to Chengdu, and assured our luggage would be going the same way as us.

We were given 10 euro each to spend on lunch and thus whiled away our time in Schipol Airport. The flight to Shanghai was due to leave at 17:10 but snow had begun to fall and we had to wait to get the wings de-iced so in the end it was well after 6pm before we took to the air. The plane was only half-full so we had a comfortable flight, but at the back of our minds we were rather anxious about our reception at immigration, given the huge fuss made by H’row check-in staff, and also rather worried about the impact of the delayed departure on making our flight to Chengdu from Shanghai.  As we descended to Shanghai, the airline staff handed out immigration cards and told us that we needed to pick up our luggage before going through immigration.

The immigration forms, with classic Chinese logic, asked us to state the purpose of our visit by ticking just one of the following: business/conference; visit; sightseeing; visiting friends/relatives; plus a couple of others that I can’t remember. We decided that ‘visit’ should cover us, even though sightseeing and visiting friends/relatives also applied.

We went to baggage collection as instructed, but after watching everyone else get their bags it became apparent that ours weren’t there, so we had to go and fill in some forms and be told our bags were still in Amsterdam – no explanation of why, but we were assured they’d get to Chengdu by Monday afternoon, 24hrs after our own arrival (it’s now Tuesday am and they’re still not here).

Despite all the fuss at Heathrow we sailed through immigration with no trouble at all, but then had just 45 mins to check in for our Shanghai to Chengdu flight, so found an assistant who took us to the front of the .check-in queue, but then we were delayed at security as Keith’s 6inch metal ruler that he keeps in his diary and has been through countless security checks with no trouble at all was suddenly perceived as a knife. Drama over we legged it over to the gate and made it onto the plane.

For our final flight we were in seats at opposite ends of the plane and I ended up sitting next to a young Chinese guy who wanted to practice his English. Curiously, he asked what colour the sky was in England. “Blue of course, like it is here,” I replied. He laughed and said the sky was never blue in China. I’d forgotten about the pollution, which has become worse than ever in our absence. Chengdu is cloaked in a white/grey smog. There’s not a scrap of blue sky to be seen anywhere. Even skyscrapers just a couple of kilometres away are indistinct through the scungy atmosphere. I miss the clear blue Peak District sky already.

Duncan’s friend Matt kindly picked us up from the airport and has looked after us splendidly – we had roast yak for dinner last night – whilst we await further news on the progress of our baggage, which according to yesterday’s email update “will be arriving in Shanghai on 10 February” ie two days ago.  This morning Keith managed to speak to someone who says our bags have indeed reached Shanghai and will be put on the next flight to Chengdu, to arrive here either today or tomorrow.

It feels like it was easier to cycle to China than to fly here.

Update on 13 February

At last!  72 hrs after we reached Chengdu our bags finally joined us.  It took a number of conversations with various people to have the bags delivered to us at Matt’s apartment (apparently they were not going to deliver them to us as it was apparently our fault we hadn’t picked them up in Shanghai….even though they were in Amsterdam when we were in Shanghai).  But they’re here, unscathed, so now we can rebuild the bike and plan our route into SE Asia – Laos first or Vietnam?  Decisions, decisions.

Chesterfield to Munster 3 – 12 May 2012

Momentous news!  It wasn’t raining this morning.  It has rained since…but it wasn’t raining while we packed away a DRY TENT!  Ah, life’s small pleasures.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I guess you’ll want to know what we’ve been up to since leaving Chesterfield nine days ago.

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Packing

In more than one of our circles of friends we are renowned for our ability to ‘faff’.  And on our final day at my mum’s we didn’t break from that tradition.  After waiting weeks for bits of kit, we left it until the day of departure before deciding to go through all our gear, work out what was to be left in my mum’s garage, and place the rest of it in its proper location in our panniers and trailer.  Needless to say this took the entire morning and most of the afternoon of our scheduled departure day.  Luckily, we didn’t need to get too many miles done and my mum joined us for a hilly but pleasant pedal over to Nottingham.  After saying cheerio to my mum (who kept her resolve and refused to be all weepy) we stayed the night at my dad & step-mum’s.

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Arriving at Tamar’s dad’s

The next three days saw us roll slowly & uneventfully through a cold, windy and often wet Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.  In fact, at times it felt remarkably like when we pedalled across the Russian steppe last year.   We stayed with various aunts and cousins until we finally got on the ferry at Harwich.  Our legs are somewhat soft and flabby after a winter of little to no cycling so despite the predominantly flat terrain, two back to back 120km days were tiring enough for us to resolve to take it easy for the next few days to make sure we didn’t pick up any injuries.

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Andrew, Friedel, Keith and baby Luke (in trailer)

We docked in Hook of Holland at 07:45 on Monday 7th May and made our way to The Hague to see Friedel and Andrew, a pair of cyclists who we met in Canada in 2009 (they were at the end of their 3 year tour and were instrumental in giving us the courage to pack up our old lives and seek our own adventures).  Their website www.travellingtwo.com is an excellent treasure trove of all things bike-tour related. It was lovely to catch up with them again and they generously fed us coffee and cake and told us about some free camp sites dotted around Holland, and then, after filling our panniers with delicious cheeses, cake and home-made cookies, pedalled with us to the start of a gorgeous cycle-route through the sand dunes that we’d never have come across if left to our own devices.

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Legal free camping! Heavenly!

The camp site they’d told us about had no facilities whatsoever, but that was of no concern to us.  Located in a little woodland next to a canal it was peaceful and pleasant, and, most importantly, had plenty of space in which to erect our Brobdingnagian tent (go look it up…it’s a delicious word).We awoke the next day to rain, which made us somewhat reticent to get on the road, but eventually we did, and continuing east we headed through Utrecht.  For once, Keith could find nothing negative to say about the cycle lanes.  They were good quality tarmac or paving, well-signed, gave bikes priority over traffic from adjoining side-roads, weren’t full of obstacles and didn’t randomly send you off in a direction you didn’t want to go in.

We’d noted some woodland the other side of the city for a spot of sneaky camping but Kor, a local doctor/cycling journalist who stopped for a chat, told us it wasn’t allowed.  He suggested a place where we might get away with it, but on the way there we felt tired and the woodlands looked enticing, so despite having been warned we couldn’t, we thought we’d give it a go.  For about 45 minutes we thought we’d got away with it and then we heard footsteps approaching.  Damn!

Luckily for us, the chap was the nicest forest warden we’ve ever met and after we explained we were only staying for one night on our way to Russia, he gave us the most polite and gentle telling-off before giving us his blessing to stay the night, and he even gave us his name and told us to say he’d given us permission to camp if anyone else tried to move us on.   What a nice man!

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The most capacious two-man tent in the world?

It rained heavily all night so, again, we were slow in packing up in the morning.  We made our way to Arnhem where our task was to find a map of Northern Germany.  Unlike last year, where we left home carrying enough maps and route-guides to get us all the way to the Black Sea, this year we departed carrying just a handful of photocopied bits of road atlas to get us to Harwich.  We bought a couple of maps of Holland and The Hague in a petrol station just outside Hook of Holland, and then Friedel & Andrew gave us a much-used map of theirs with the free campsite marked on it.  That map, as anticipated, did not survive the few days in our possession and we binned the few remaining strips in Arnhem, but posted the newer maps back to Friedel & Andrew to give to the next passing cyclists who might need them.

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Floating groceries a short while after Arnhem

In Arnhem we struck traveller’s gold when we were directed to a map shop to rival Stanfords (the UK’s premier map and travel book shop).  Not as large, granted, but De Noorderzon has a great range of maps and interesting books in both Dutch and English, and has friendly and knowledgeable staff who recommended a ’Bike-Line’ cycle-route guide to take us from Arnhem to Berlin, and a couple of good maps for Poland.   They also looked up the location of the factory where our tandem was made and found us a map for the area that overlapped with the Arnhem/Berlin route.  We could have bought loads more, but decided to hold fire at 40 euro.

The weather warmed up a bit, but remained changeable with rain on and off through the days and pretty solid rain all through the night.

We arrived in Germany on 10 May and treated ourselves to a ‘proper’ campsite to shower and wash some clothes….but there was no wifi so no chance to blog.

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Mmm….shiny!

Suitably clean and fresh-smelling, we made our way (in the rain of course) to the Hase factory in Waltrop where Ruth and John at JD Tandems had arranged for a very nice chap called Joerg to give us a guided tour of the factory.  Row upon row of shiny new Pinos glistened seductively.  We oohed and aahed at their latest offerings and eventually said our goodbyes and heartfelt thanks for such a treat at very short notice.

A woodland just south of Munster made a very pleasant campsite last night and we fell asleep listening to birdsong, and, to our delight, awoke to the same….for once without the accompanying thrum of heavy rain on the flysheet.

We’re having a lazy day today and spending money in a ‘proper’ campsite just east of Munster, predominantly to get internet access, but also ‘cos we’re feeling lazy today and want to sit around doing nothing … some parts of this holiday do remind me of being in the office actually!

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Thanks mum, we love it!