Silk Road Adventure

June 15-19

Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Wuwei, Lanzhou, Pingliang

My delay in providing this blog has had to do with not being able to get an Internet connection at some of these small hotels. At Dunhuang we stayed at an elaborate hotel shaped like a pagoda with many meetings rooms. Most interesting was the way the dunes of the Gobi Desert rose above the town - Green on one side, blowing sand on the other side. Very dramatic. My sciatica was bothering me so I did not get a chance to see the sights other than to marvel at the height of the dunes rising perhaps 800 ft. above the city. But the group went and saw the Mogao Grottoes, which has the second largest Buda, and is of particular interest because the largest Budas were destroyed by Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan. In the evening they went to ride camels up the sand dunes. After riding the camels to the top of the sand dunes, they sledded down using toboggan contrivances. The next day we rode to Jiayuguan about 300 miles through the Gobi Desert, but through an area sprinkled with oases. Along the way there was a clear line where the oases ended and the Gobi Desert started.

Kentucky Fried Chicken & McDonald's

After being on the road for nearly two months, there is developing a lust for fast food. In one group session everyone but two people wanted to visit McDonald's to get a hamburger. So much for "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

The Great Wall

The Great Wall fortress at Jiayuguan is a fascinating military design. It has three walls. If one wall was penetrated, the invaders were trapped within a courtyard exposed on three sides. In ancient times there would be archers shooting down at the courtyard, picking off the unfortunate ones who had penetrated the wall.

An interesting feature of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan is that it was built between two mountains to cover the pass that intruders would use to invade China. The wall covered the entire pass and was extremely impressive. In a manner that is typical of the Chinese, they had a concession stand with some simulated invaders in the courtyard, and people were challenged to see how many they could kill with five arrows. On the fortress grounds, they had two interesting concessions. One was a powered hand glider concession, a Rogallo wing with a motor on the back of it. We were lifted off the top of a plateau and circled the fortress from perhaps 500 ft.

The wind off the desert created some nerve wracking buffeting, and I was rather glad to get back on the ground. Another group of concessions had to do with riding some aggressive little hairy Mongol ponies. A rider would mount the pony and the man managing the horses would whip the horse, and he would dash off in a circle around the plateau at a full gallop. We saw one unfortunate Chinese tourist fall off and nearly get dragged by his stirrup. When one of our group, Henry, was taking his hand gliding flight, one of the ponies ran directly at the hand glider as he was landing, and the unfortunate rider had to duck to miss the wing – a serious accident waiting to happen. The sad part was that the rider of the horse had no reins. The horse did his standard circle without any oversight by the poor rider.

On the road to Wuwei and beyond, we drove on a road that paralleled the Great Wall. At this point the Great Wall appeared to be made of sun baked bricks. Much of it has eroded away, and in spots it has been removed to make better use of the land. We got terrific pictures of us riding our motorcycles through a hole in the wall. I'm calling it "Barbarians at the Gate" – I wish I had better skill at sending photographs but that will have to come later if any of you have the patience to see them.

Jeff Munn's Tragedy

Late one evening, Jeff, one of GlobeRiders' leaders, called home and discovered that his daughter and four others had been killed in a head-on automobile accident on graduation night. Helge and Jeff left early the next morning for Lanzhou to get Jeff on a plane that would connect to the U.S. We had bonded with Jeff, and we felt his pain. He had lost another daughter to an illness, and it is the ultimate in unfairness that one person should have to endure that much pain.

The Expressway

One of the frustrations of the drive to Wuwei, and for that matter the rest of the way to Xian, is that we as motorcyclists were not permitted to take the expressway, but instead had to drive a "national road." The reason motorcycles are excluded from the expressway is that they are not fast enough – this is true for most of the Chinese motorcycles where top speed might be 40-50 mph on the level. Our motorcycles were far faster than the cars, and only on a few occasions were ever passed by automobiles. But a rule is a rule, and when we tried to sneak onto the expressway, the toll attendants would absolutely forbid it, racing out of their tollbooths screaming and yelling.


From June 15th on, it rained every day sporadically. In areas of construction, there is thick red mud that is as much as three inches deep hiding the ruts and extremely slippery. At one point there was a flooded expressway that was closed, but of course, since the puddle was there we had to go through it. The water was up as high as the cylinders on the motorcycles, but everyone got through without stalling.

China, as We Know It

As we left the Gobi, the China that we see in pictures emerged – steep mountains heavily terraced, completely green with deep gullies cutting through the landscape, and orange-red clay everywhere. Some of the terraces are farmed with cash crops, but in the steep places the terraces are not wide enough and seemed to only support the vegetation for animal grazing. I'm sure these terraces go back more than 1,000 years.


Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province and has a population of approximately 3 million. It is located in a narrow canyon with mountains on each side and the Yellow River running through it. The Yellow River is not yellow, but it is the color of the clay soil, an orange-red. Some of the group took rafts floating on inflated sheepskins down the river. With my back problem, I stayed back with the guides.

Motorcycle Problems

The problems with Bucephalus (my motorcycle, named after Alexander the Great's horse) intensified two days before the end of the riding part of our trip. The bike had been running well for more than two weeks with the automobile fuel pump. But on the way to Pingliang it stopped running. Fortunately, Dennis, one of our group who is an electrical engineer at Cisco (the Cisco Kid), developed a way to jump the fuel pump directly off the battery, so that the fuel pump would run regardless of an electrical fault somewhere else. It worked for one hour, and then on a steep hill, it stopped running even though the fuel pump was getting fuel. This time we had no answers, and it looked like we would have to call the chase vehicle to carry Bucephalus the rest of the way. There were steep cliffs all around, and there was a discussion of euthanasia, but I would have no part of it – Bucephalus and I are bonded.

Although Jeff had left to be with his family, his motorcycle was in the chase vehicle. The plan was for me to put Bucephalus in the chase vehicle and ride Jeff's motorcycle. However, the chase vehicle finally arrived, we discovered that no one had the keys to Jeff's motorcycle, and it is nearly impossible to jump one of these big BMW's. So instead, we took the gas tank off of Jeff's bike and put it on mine – and again, we were in business. But unfortunately, only a short distance away, Jeff's motorcycle ran out of gas, and of course we had no key to open the fuel filler, so we ended up disassembling the gas cap and siphoning fuel from Mike Paull's bike – again, we were in business. Off we rode. The motorcycle would skip every now and then, particularly when I touched the clutch lever, and as we were entering Pingliang, the bike went dead. In the middle of rush hour traffic, Bill and Mark, two younger more aggressive members of the group, while on their motorcycles, pushed my bike with their feet down the crowded road into the hotel parking lot. Unfortunately, this was the last straw for Bucephalus. That night I purchased the bike that Helge had been using for a few years, replaced the gas tank on Jeff's bike, and Bucephalus is down for the season. Hopefully I can get it fixed on the west coast where there are some large and experienced BMW dealers.

The following day we rode to Xian, again through rain the entire day, on a road that was periodically being repaired and covered with red mud. The mountain scenery was the same – steep mountains terraced, bright green, gullies of red clay and all the water orange-red in color. It is beautiful country, but it is meant for mountain goats, not for motorcycles. When we reached Xian, we had to caravan into the city, a busy metropolis with traffic gridlock, motorcycles squeezing between cars and trucks amid a cacophony of horns. Xian is a city of 8 million, and was once the largest city in the world. It served as the capital of eleven Chinese dynasties. It is the city made famous by the Terracotta Soldiers. There are tower cranes everywhere, more than you could count. The construction is at a rapid pace, perhaps for the Olympics, or perhaps just business as usual. China has an advantage when it comes to growing quickly because the wage rate is still in the range of $100 per month, but commodity costs, like steel and concrete, are world market priced. It is extraordinary to me that the Chinese are able to centrally manage an economy of this size. During World War II, General Marshall was in charge of managing the U.S. economy on a centralized basis. Although the World War II effort was big for us, it does not compare to the scale of what is happening in China. Having arrived, there was a lot of hugging and hand shaking, each of us congratulating the other on completing the trip. We then took the motorcycles to a steam cleaning facility and cleaned all the dirt and mud off of them, so they would be accepted back into the U.S. and Europe. The following day we loaded them into containers bound for the U.S. and crated the ones headed for Europe.

The trip has not seemed like two months, perhaps because of its repetitive nature – getting up in the morning, riding, getting into a hotel, having dinner, etc. But it has been a trip that I have always wanted to do, and I am delighted that I took this time to get it done.

I will have one final blog about touring Xian, and when I get back to Cleveland, I will post a number of the pictures from the trip.

That's all for now.

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