Dave & Bron's incredible Journey
from Beijing to London by Tandem

Between June 1995 and May 1996 Dave Mountain and Bronwen Ley undertook a 10,000 mile tandem journey between Beijing and London. Here are some travel notes regarding their trip to give a taste of their experiences. These are followed by some specific notes covering the countries visited and the equipment used which may be of use to others considering a similar undertaking.

For further information contact:-

Dave Mountain on
Bronwen Ley on

Home
 
The Journey
 
The Logistics
 
The Equipment

The Journey

 China 

During three months cycling in China, we completed an extraordinary 3,000 mile circuit passing through an enormous range of cultures and landscapes. We ventured as far west as Lanzhou, but not into Tibet as we had originally planned - our time in the area coinciding with the anniversary celebrations of the Chinese take-over. I don't think too many Tibetans were celebrating, but Chinese Party members had supposedly secured all the hotel rooms in the region for the duration of the festivities, and no foreign visitor's permits were being issued at the time. The idea of a 2,000 km ride through barren land on poor roads with the prospect of getting turned around on the Tibetan border didn't appeal, so we opted to travel south instead, through Sichuan, on the edges of the Tibetan Plateau. Much of this area is inhabited by Tibetans who have come down from the plateau to live, and we observed our fair share of Tibetan monasteries, yak herds and slobbering great Tibetan mastiffs which are trained to protect the yaks. We took our first lift on the back of a truck in this area after being chased by one of these beasts for some distance - the thought of becoming dog meat being none too appealing.

The reputation of China as a country closed to foreigners is somewhat exaggerated, although we managed to get arrested once for accidentally straying into a closed area. The police scrutiny of our prior movements had us fearing five years hard labour, but after four hours in custody we were ordered to pay a 7.50 fine, which was duly bartered down to 3.75 which secured our freedom.

One particularly eventful day started with a road worker frantically urging us to stop. Thinking he just wanted to inspect our bike, we waved and pedalled on, just as his colleagues let off a large explosive charge sending head sized boulders flying all over the place. Hours later we were dodging more rocks as we transported bike and panniers across a road blocking landslide, and just to finish the day we were shot at by some roadside gold miners who, I can only imagine, thought we had come to rob them of the fruits of their labour as we stopped by their camp to consult our map.


Tiananmen Square.


Chairman Mao on the day of the arrest. No foreigners allowed.


Chinese agriculture


Buddhist monks in Sichuan

 Vietnam 

Leaving China, we rode south into Vietnam via the Friendship Gate between Nanjing and Hanoi.


Getting lost in Vietnam


Vietnamese road, rail and foot bridge


The multi-discipline sports stadium in Saigon - bayonette practice looking particularly appealing


From Hanoi we took a trip up to Sapa in the mountainous north - an area famed for its varied tribal groups. A fascinating region, but we did it all wrong by going on an organised tour rather than travelling under our own steam, and whilst it was relaxing to have someone else doing all the work for the first time in 3 months, the constraints of following someone else's timetable had us itching to get back in the saddle.

Further south we spent three blissful days at the beach renting hammocks from a small waterfront restaurant, simply getting fed and watching the 24 hour activities of the local fishing communities. The general procedure would involve one person swimming out to sea with a long net, which he would form into a horseshoe shape before either end of the net then was hauled in by the remainder of the family. This process took some 20 people half an hour per net, and apparently yielded a few pounds of fish maximum. No wonder they were at it day and night.

Using Saigon as a base we went by moped to the town of Tay Ninh which houses the main temple of the Cao Dai sect - an incredible mixture of most of the main religions of the world culminating in a place of worship resembling a hybrid of a Christian church, a Buddhist temple and a hippies bedroom. This was quite a trek, but well worth it. The much touted Cu Chi tunnels on the way back were a bit disappointing though by comparison to the Vin Moc tunnels further north.

The Mekong Delta area was excellent and we found a cargo boat to take us down river from Mytho - a 24 hour journey which saw our non stop boat being loaded up with bananas, ugly fruit, eggs and a couple of prize fighting cocks from small craft that would emerge from side channels and cruise alongside while off loading their cargo.

In Hue we met Lac who is an eccentric deaf mute restaurateur. He loved the tandem and helped us out a lot by translating for us whilst we sought a workshop where I could do some urgent repair work to our rear wheel. It may sound a bit surreal having a deaf mute as an interpreter but sign language was one of our main forms of communication, and he understood us perfectly. If you should happen to visit his restaurant, draw a picture of a tandem and check his reaction.

North of Hue, the De-Militarised Zone - the centre of much of the fighting during the war - had an eerie fascination, and Phong Nga caves were most spectacular although probably a bit pricey and out of the way unless you have a particular interest in caves.


 Laos 

From Vietnam we crossed Laos between Lao Bao and Savanakhet, which was absolutely superb and one of the highlights of the whole year. Although bus passengers might find this section of road a bit rushed, and road conditions somewhat uncomfortable, the pace of life is just right for a bike and the potholes are easily avoided. This would certainly change during periods of heavy rain, as much of the road surface was mud with lots of evidence of flood damage around Savanakhet.


 Thailand 

After a fine week in Laos, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand came as a disappointment in many ways. Much of this was down to the standard of driving and the width of the roads, which made it pretty terrifying. Also I ended up in a coma for 24 hours after bumping into an old cycling compatriot from 'Nam in Bangkok and spending far too long (all night) in one of the Cao San road bars, watching the 'ladyboys', dodging fights and drinking far too much San Thip whiskey.

In Bangkok we tried to get visas which would allow us to ride through Burma, but all the Burmese authorities were prepared to offer us was the opportunity to fly in, cycle round for three weeks, then fly out again. Feeling dubious about the political situation, and the currency laws dictating that we must change a minimum of $300 each to enter, we decided that if we were going to fly anywhere we would go to Nepal.


 Nepal 

We arrived in Kathmandu just before Christmas, having arranged to meet Bron's parents there on Christmas eve, and thus to accompany our slap up Christmas dinner we had tinned Ambrosia custard and fine Champagne couriered in direct from London. On Boxing Day we hired them some cheap mountain bikes and we all rode up to Nargakot together to watch the sun set and rise over the Himalayas. We rode back to Kathmandu via Baktaphur, before heading off the next day to Chitwan National Park where we rode elephants and went on foot in search of rhinoceros and crocodiles (which we duly found), before catching a bus up to Pokhara for a five day trek to Poon Hill. By the time Maggie and Don headed back to Britain they were shattered, and went off for a holiday to get over it all.


 India 

From Kathmandu we rode down to Delhi over the course of a couple of weeks. We were a bit dubious about India, having had a lot of mixed reports, but we got treated very well here, and despite huge gatherings of people wherever we stopped we never experienced the theft and hassle that many travellers complain of. This was possibly due to the police who used to arrive and beat away the crowds that would invariably gather to look at these two strange foreigners and their double cycle.

In one tiny out of the way village we had to stop to get some work done on the bike and almost caused a riot when the local policeman couldn't keep up with all the people willing to risk a beating to catch a glimpse of this strange spectacle. Fortunately there was a power cut in the workshop that we wanted to use, so we got back on the bike and let life return to its normal lazy pace.


At the India / Pakistan border.


Most of the Indian towns we stayed in were way off the tourist track, but someone always seemed to befriend us and help us find a hotel without any ulterior motive other than to practice their English. Even Delhi was all right once we found a decent hotel off of the main Bazaar of Paharganj, but we had to spend ages here sorting out visas to take us on through Pakistan and Iran.

The Pakistani one was a formality, albeit a three-day wait, but the man in the visa section of the Iranian embassy took a week before he would even give us the relevant papers. We managed to fit in a trip to Agra and Jaipur in this time and also get ourselves invited to a very up-market Sikh wedding, but it got extremely frustrating waiting on one person behind an embassy desk who couldn't be bypassed. Eventually after a week he mysteriously gave us the forms, after which things were sorted within 48 hours.

To make up for some of the time wasted in Delhi we caught the train up to Amritsar where we stayed at the Sikh's holy Golden Temple. Foreigners are fed and housed for a small donation in a section of the pilgrim's hostel and this proved a useful place to gather information from travellers coming in the opposite direction from Pakistan and beyond.


 Pakistan 

Hearing other peoples' Pakistani experiences somewhat prepared us for a hard time, and there was definitely an atmosphere in Pakistan that we hadn't encountered before. Much of this was due to the lack of women on the streets and the consequent interest caused by Bron's presence. Although never especially unpleasant, this was always with us and put us under some strain.

Crossing directly through the centre of Pakistan, we rode from Lahore to Quetta avoiding the troubled province of Sind. The next two weeks was possibly the toughest part of the trip, and as we set out from Quetta into the Baluchistan desert clutching our 7-day Iranian transit visas, we were more than a little apprehensive.

The desert was extremely hard work as we battled against a strong head wind each day, often accompanied by rain and near zero temperatures. It took 6 days on poor roads to reach the border and we unashamedly accepted a few lifts when the going became really unpleasant.

At the frontier we stayed in a fascinating little hotel where a 'material' smuggling camel train was congregating in the courtyard, ready to slip off into the mountains after night fall in order to avoid crossing at the heavily guarded road and rail crossing. We never found out exactly what material they were transporting, but judging by the $5,000 worth of electronics goods that the man in the room next to us had stashed under his bed, I guess that it's items like that rather than a nice bit of black woollen cloth for the obligatory Iranian chador.


Dera Gazi Khan.


A meeting with some Swiss tandemists.


Mushtaq Murza - Doctor for Obstinate Diseases and befriender of passing cyclists.

 Iran 



Crossing the border in a more orthodox style the next day, the official dropped a bombshell by telling us we would have to go back 600 km to Quetta to get some minor irregularities sorted out with our visas. Fortunately a lot of patient arguing and explanation of how long it had taken us to get there eventually saw us through, and once past the red tape Iran was superb.

Despite going in on a seven day transit visa we managed to stay for about five weeks, in which time we spent 168 between the two of us - most of this on cakes and the magnificent fresh dates and dried figs. The Iranians are a marvellously hospitable people and hardly a day went by when we didn't get invited in to someone's house for tea, dinner, the night, the rest of our lives etc. There are very few travellers in this part of the world, so you're viewed as an object of interest rather than someone who needs to be parted from the large amount of cash you are obviously carrying.


 Turkey, Greece, Italy & France 

Not so in Turkey where tourism is definitely big business. We still managed to have a pretty good time here despite breaking our rear hub on the way out of Tehran and having to travel most of the way to Istanbul for spares using lifts and public transport.

We took one final train ride from Istanbul to Pamukkale, and from there came all the way by bike and ferry through Greece, by boat to Italy, crossing the Alps into France and finally up the A2 to London.


Capadocia.


Bron and Dave captured riding through the French countryside at high speed - photo courtesy of David Noton




 England 

The excitement didn't quite finish with the meeting of our parents on Ramsgate docks though. Right from China we had been keeping our spirits up by playing 'The eight items or less game'. The idea of this is that you're in the express checkout at a supermarket and you have to imagine the things you've got in your basket.

Bron's mum knew about this game and had gone along to Sainsburys in Whitstable and spoken to the manager who let us go down and play for real (for free) for a bit of publicity. Over the course of 12 countries, 11 months and 10,000 miles some strange things had happened, but posing for photos while riding the filthy tandem down the chilled goods aisle amongst happy shoppers was about as bizarre as it got.

Home
 
The Journey
 
The Logistics
 
The Equipment