Thursday 29 May 2014

Geology 102: Mining Tiger Leaping Gorge, by Ian Neuss

The Yangtze is a mighty river that once flowed into the Red River to Hanoi, but with India pushing up the rocks in front of it and disrupting its original passage, it now flows east through China providing a life giving source of water and now energy to the landscape.

The Yangtze has three great bends in its upper reaches. We visited the second, then driving through the mountains of the region we came across the river flowing in different directions, adding to the geographical confusion. It travels about 1300km south to the first bend then turns 160 degrees north east for 130km through Tiger Leaping Gorge, before turning again 160 degrees to the south for 300 km to the third bend, which turns it east through China.

Highly deformed recrystallized limestones, used in buildings everywhere in China, make spectacular gorges, helped by India pushing from the south. Above the limestones are silt stones and sandstones which form wide valleys, which can be farmed. All make for a spectacular landscape.

High above the Tiger Leaping Gorge walking trail you can see small holes in the hill which look like rabbit burrows from a distance. Travelling on we came across plastic pipes and ceramic lined sluices disgorging a white sand into palongs built into the meagre areas of almost-flat land along the trail. There were also three large buildings along the road which collected the material from pipes and sluices.

It would appear that the locals are mining tungsten from the contact zone of a granite and limestone high in the gorge and sending it down the mountain for processing and sale.

Xichang and the art of Whippet maintenance

The Whippet (its name is Stan) needed major surgery. The local engine block man could not be persuaded to machine the block, instead providing a copper spray to try to patch the leak. That and two gaskets together haven’t worked.

But he has a mate! Out comes the snatch strap and Stan the Whippet is hauled to the specialist. All day Sunday Bill and a team of eager young mechanics prise open the now hardened gaskets to get the head off, then expertly cold-weld and plane the block. They relieve the sump of about 80 years of accumulated effluent, and they knew a bloke who could flush the radiator without damage.

Total bill for the weekend, about $260. Ian reckons Bill is so tight that he waited until he got to China to get the job done cheap.

Wippet maintenance is an art, and the photo shows Bills team of artists: Guo Jian, Bill, Yao Peijun and Xie Wencheng.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Again Australia fails to value-add

Occupying prominent shelf space in a large chemist shop, this miracle drug has, until now, been concealed from the Australian people. Have only the Chinese have been able to reap the benefits of this abundant extract? These benefits are claimed to include sexual wellness and satisfaction. The Merrijig economy could be about to take off on a ‘roo-led recovery. Now we want the fences to keep them IN. Perhaps the TGA can review this product.

Bill’s Whippet

Bill and his Whippet deserve a special posting on the blog. You see, while Ian’s Dodge represents a loving rejuvenation over many years, with a brand new paint job and careful testing of every component, Bill’s Whippet represents, to Bill, a collection of mechanical components that are replaceable, reparable, interchangeable, renewable, re-arrangeable, by-passable, adjustable, bendable, straightenable, disposable, glueable, invertable or re-machinable, all hanging behind a well-worn Willys Overland badge, over the leaping Whippet logo on the grill.

He has now had the head off five times. After finding that he had the spark plug leads in the wrong order, at least it found the power to climb up a hotel driveway, but the mountainous road that leads to and from Tibet was too much. There is a chronic leak from the head gasket into the cooling system. Hours have been spent in first gear at 5 km/hr, and the snatch strap came out to tow him on the way to Lugu Lake.

Has the time come for the Whippet to see the vet? Stay tuned.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Initially reluctant to follow the beaten tourist track to this landmark, we were all taken by the spectacle. Here the Yangtse River leaves a farming valley to roar through this deep, narrow gorge for about 20 km. We met travellers from the USA, UK, Brazil, Italy, Switzerland (complete with lederhosen), and many from far off in China. They all come to walk the gorge trail, hanging more than 1000m above the river. The drive in had me questioning whether this was a good idea. While there are some safety bollards the road builders must have thought visitors needed to test their nerve by car before they ventured up there on foot.

On Saturday morning we looked up the cliffs and wondered how those power lines had been put there, up where only goats graze. Then we started up a goat track (literally, just following the droppings), until we reached those impossible lines. There a walking track had been blasted along a contour at about 2450m. I know this because your modern walker can’t leave home without weighing himself down with a GPS, IPad, smart phone, Cyclometer, Altimeter, and Delormé InReach. Ian will add more later on the landform and minerals. JM

Shaxi, 15/16 May 2014

Shaxi is a REAL “old town”. Thankfully it has avoided the commercialisation of the "old towns" of Dali, Lijiang, and to a lesser extent, Weishan. Guest houses are more low-key and our hotel felt like it could well have been used by Mao on the Long March.

For millennia Shaxi has been an important trading stop between China and Tibet. It has an agreeable climate, rich agricultural land, and natural resources (they smelted copper way back BCE). It was on the recently named “Tea Horse Caravan Trail” – tea to Tibet, to cut their fatty diets, in return for horses from Tibet. Over 80% of local people are of the Bai ethnic group, or national minority.

The present day Friday market is vast, spilling back into the approaches to town. All kinds of food are traded, livestock, butchered pork, and lots of it, vegetables, fruit, clothing, hardware, machinery and spare parts. Sometimes you’re in an open air Bunnings, then a hen and chicken market, a meat market without a fridge in sight, then a ‘seconds’ shop.

Since 2001 Shaxi has been on a World Monument Fund endangered sites list. The Shaxi Rehabilitation Project, funded mainly by the Swiss and Chinese governments, aims to integrate cultural heritage, conservation and regional economic development in the Shaxi Valley. It shows. Put it on your bucket list.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Everywhere we’ve been the cars attract attention like Pamela Anderson on Bondi beach. People stop and flock to the cars as word spreads. Selfies galore. Some ask, some just own the cars and take over. Most attention seems to be the fascination with the wooden wheels. Pictures and calling to friends to look at this. On the road cars pull alongside and take movies so sometimes another car overtakes so you have three cars abreast one oblivious of the oncoming traffic and intent on taking photos. The cars are an especially valuable distraction at Customs and Immigration, as once the forms are completed they all want is a selfie with the car.

Friday 23 May 2014


Another “old town”, this time complete with lots of identical tourist shops selling jade of varying quality, low grade silver jewelry, bars blaring westernised Chinese music, as well as McDonalds and KFC. At least the city has a statue of Chairman Mao.

Lijiang is the main location for the Naxi national minority, descended from Tibetan tribes. They have their own language and script, as well as religion. The highlight for us was the nightly concert at the Naxi Music Academy. Most of the orchestra of about thirty are of Naxi ethnicity, with at least six in their 80s. They played ancient Naxi music, with one of the pieces written in 6 AD, another in 741 AD. The instruments were mostly also very old, some being saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s by being buried by their owners. Rex and I had a chat to the orchestra leader, Xuan Ke, after the show. He had been imprisoned for a total of 21 years, first by the Nationalists, then by the Communist government. He set the orchestra up, after a couple of attempts, about 10 years ago.

Geology 101, by Ian Neuss

Today (Saturday 17 May 2014) we were in Tiger Leaping Gorge near the headwaters of the Yangtse River, between two famous rugged snow capped mountain ranges, both over 5000m, or 3000m above us. Here you can recognize that India is moving north. About 55 million years ago it began to collide with Asia at the rate of about 5cm a year. The Indian Plate is too thick and its density too low to go beneath Asia so it’s pushing the old Tethys Sea sediments up about 6 miles, forming the Tibetan Plateau just to the west of us here. India going north has forced Asia east and south east and has penetrated some 1200 miles, pushing the rocks into western China and Indochina in front of it. It’s still happening and that's why there are so many earthquakes in the region. More on these later.

To illustrate this, put your hand (India) on a table cloth (Asia) and push it. The cloth folds about your hand. The troughs near your fingertips represent the rivers and the folds. The mountains we are now seeing are broken by faults, or sliding over each other when the stresses are too great, and causing earthquakes.

The Tibetan Plateau is a basin bounded by mountains being pushed up by India coming north. Six of the largest rivers draining the Plateau, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow are the home of over half the worlds population.

A Northern Yunnan road challenge

From Lijiang to Hugu Lu (lake) is supposed to be a pretty good road of about 200 km. However the main road was closed for repairs so we took the next best route. China seems to be one big building site with millions of tons of cement being poured into new buildings, roads, and general renovation and repair, and our chosen route was typical. We were in the same mountainous area with permanent snow on the 5000m “rugged battlements” between us and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The vintage cars were down to low gear often as we climbed to almost 3000m, with the descents also challenging. At our lunch stop we heard that a hydro power station ahead closed the road at 2pm, giving us an hour and a half to drive about 30km. Sounds easy, but we didn’t have more than minutes to spare. So through the restricted zone (no photos) and down to the now south-flowing Yangtse dam and power station, out past the checkpoint, another half km, then a padlocked boomgate. Up ahead more road excavation on the rockwall above the “road”. The locals tell us the gate opens at 6pm, and closes again at 6am. It’s 2.30 and it’s hot. There’s one ‘restaurant’ and an increasing queue of cars and bored occupants. The toilet is along to the end and follow your nose. Have you ever tried to get a bit of kip on a bench a metre long by about 20cm wide?

Our headlights are not really up to night driving but we eventually have no option but to push on at 6 – and it’s all uphill. At 7.30, with daylight to spare, we climb into a village, Cuiyu, with an eatery newly extended to a hotel. Lucky it’s summer and the whole of China is on Beijing time.

Saturday 17 May 2014

The Whippet's radiator

In Dali Bill tried to get a local mechanic to repair the Whippet’s radiator but he took one look at it and wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Either he wouldn’t risk damaging such a valuable vintage vehicle, or he possibly thought it was only hanging to life by a thread and he didn’t want to become known as the bloke who wrecked the Bondi to the Baltic project. Dunno, but he was immoveable. So Bill’s brother Pete has been instructed to slip a replacement radiator into his checked luggage when he joins us in Chengdu for a week or so on the road. Easy!

Lake fishing

Rex reports: On a bike ride along the western side of Lake Erhai we came across two locals loading a small electric welder into their ‘tinnie’ then rowing a short distance into the lake. One of the men began dipping a steel fishing net into the water and shortly thereafter scooped several stunned fish into the boat. In some parts of China it seems electric fishing is easier than baiting and waiting.

Dali views

Dali itself was once a small village on a glacial valley floor between Er Hai lake and Cang Shan mountain. Its 2000m altitude provides an ideal climate to go with the views. There is now a new city, Xiaguan, at the southern end of the lake, and the old town of Dali has been renovated, or more correctly, re-olded, with the addition of many tourist shops, bars and restaurants. It teams with tourists, mainly from China, with some low-season, low-budget Europeans and Americans, and a conspicuous handful who seem to have drifted in from Kathmandu over the last 40 years, with their Ravi Shankar albums (did he have more than one?) in their embroidered shoulder bags. This is a photo of Dali about 30 years ago.


We spent the 4 days from Sunday 11 to Wednesday 14 May relaxing in Dali, an interesting place. Our accommodation, the Jade Emu Guest House, is excellent, and justifies its Lonely Planets top rating. Run by a young woman, Song, and her Australian partner, Dave, and their 2 delightful kids, Talon and Austin, it combines thoughtful service and facilities, excellent meals, and a quiet, though friendly atmosphere.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Weibo-Shan: Taoist Mountain

Sunday 11 May was a highlight. We stayed in the town of Weishan, and took a drive to the National Park of Weibo-Shan. The mountain peaks at 2500m, has 22 Taoist temples typifying Ming and Qing dynasty (14th to the 20th century) architecture, although Taoist priests started to settle here in the Han dynasty (200 years either side of BC). The temples largely survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and are slowly being renovated, with sure-footed donkeys bringing stone up the mountain. The flora includes a 400 year old camellia tree!!

We arrived to the sounds of a session by local musos at the entrance pavilion, setting an atmosphere of peace and tradition. Isn’t this only seen on TV? Later, at another pavilion, Andy told 2 men and a woman that Rex’ mother had taught him to sing “Socialism is Good” in 1959 when she returned from China, and asked them to play it. Delight all round as they performed it with finesse. We are still trying to figure out how to add video clips to the blog. Any tips would be welcome.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

One for the Firies

This one is for my mate Roy Kilford and the team at the Merrijig CFA. When the Yunnan Provincial CFA heard about our expedition I was naturally asked to provide some consultant advice and training as part of good International Relations, and to compensate for some of the gaffes of our Foreign Minister. I didn't have the benefit of props such as the Merrijig tanker or Slip-on but hope I did us all justice nevertheless. Cheers, John.

Into the Central Kingdom

"WELCOME TO PU'ER!": Glasses stretched and clicked all round, rice wine skulled. The two young men from the next table were genuine and enthusiastic with their welcome. They poured a small taste from their bottle and we were glad we were able to toast with beer. Cheerful, friendly people, at ease and self confident. Someone asked Gerry what he thought of China. Before Gerry could say anything he exclaimed “I love China”. At the door of the supermarket a cheerful young man smiles and says “Welcome to China” as we enter. In the tropical evening young and old stroll, eat, drink, banter, and shop in wide, clean streets with modern shops – an Apple store, supermarkets, restaurants, computers, whitegoods, and tea, lots of tea.

Pu’er is the tea capital of China. Neat rows climb the sides of the valleys for hours along the highway, a motorway to rival Europe’s, over the top of the old mountain road connecting the valleys and villages. The Dodge took it all in top gear; the Whippet needed an extra cog occasionally. Our headlights in the tunnels exposed our reasons for driving exclusively by day.

Monday 12 May 2014

Our guide, Andy

Andy has excellent English, is humorous and does his job well although he has hollow legs and his one request was not to starve him. He could take some of the load off we plump gentlemen if we let him have his fill first and we cleaned up. He loves tennis, is a non drinker, and leads what he describes as a boring life in Chengdu when not on tour. Spending 2 months with 5 old blokes who typically drink beer with dinner and rise early to tinker with cars prior to long periods sitting in them is something new for him. He has the occasional snooze on long drives and is knowledgeable about all aspects of Chinese culture and history. The six of us share twin rooms but we occasionally assign Andy a single room for relief from old blokes.

Crossing the Frontier Blues

We had passed Lao Customs the day before to get into the border economic zone. Customs took the cars papers. On exiting Lao Immigration they wanted the same papers and after an hour and a few phone calls to China, Lao Immigration, who were genuinely trying to solve the problem (their computer needed some numbers), accepted the figures from our car registration papers. Over the hill to China and a huge Immigration and Customs centre. Electronic form filling and buttons on the immigration desk to give feed back on the performance of the service provider. It took 10 minutes including the cars. Having our Chinese guide, Andy, I am sure expedited the whole process. We motored the 25 km to Meng-La, visited the Traffic Police, had the cars inspected and were issued with our Chinese driving licences. The vintage cars got their tyres kicked, the Cruiser got a brake test and tyres kicked, and were given temporary Chinese plates. We had finished the process by lunch time so could all go next door for lunch and get to know Andy.
"How much for cash?". Spending our last Lao kip on fuel, and coming up short. Lucky they take yuan near the border.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Out of Laos

Ian tells: Oudomxay is a forgettable town in the process of being upgraded with Chinese money; first the curb and guttering and then the road. They are working towards Luang Prabang but just haven’t got out of town and it looks like the Lao government isn’t going to spend any of their money doing up the roads when someone else will.

Great surprise to find the road to Boten is a new two lane highway with beautiful camber and guttering. One hint of a pot hole and 2 two slight bumps on the whole trip. We counted them. Beautiful. The Whippet still boiled when pushed up hills, but Horace just moseyed along. The larger engine in the Dodge helps.

Boten is, well Boten was, a casino. Apparently some Chinese punters were allowed credit at the tables, couldn’t pay, and were detained by the Lao. End of story, now it’s a ghost town. Large hotels totally empty shops and stalls. We were the only fools to rock up to the hotel. No food and not a paper cup or glass in the place. Two hundred made up rooms covered in dust. There was a Thai developer there who was interested in the cars and had a team who were going to turn the place into a theme park. He had 6 tour companies in China and is going to bus Chinese down for the day for balloon rides, flying foxes, elephants, massage, lady boys, you know, the usual. He was talking 1000s a day on this international jaunt. At least the surrounding forested hills look good

Car update

Both cars are performing well. The Whippet still boils if pushed too much but that might be lead foot Amann as much as the car. They are both learning about each other. It’s holding together with Bills help on the screw driver and the wrench. The Dodge after taking up the brakes is going well. It might be using a little too much fuel so will try and wean it a bit when we get to good roads. The body has been flexed and some cracks have appeared in the skin.

Luang Prabang to Oudomxay: A road to remember

Route 13 is the only North-South road in Laos. It connects Vientiane with the China crossing at Boten-Mohan, and on to Kunming in Yunnan Province. From Luang Prabang to Oudomxay is a distance of 230 km, and the last 160 km is a sealed mountain road which has been mercilessly carved up by heavy vehicles, leaving a slashed mess of broken surface and unavoidable, road-wide stretches of pot-holes. At one small village bridge approach a truck had actually sunk into the middle of the road, tilting precariously and blocking any large north-south traffic. Our vintage cars handled it with aplomb, weaving and climbing in and out of the battle zone road, almost always in second gear, with only the occasional unavoidable bounce. We were thankful for the light traffic often enabling use of the full width of the “road”. Somehow Lonely Planet has excluded it from its “most extreme road trips”. We will inform them.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is all that was promised, a sophisticated, UNESCO-listed heritage town on a mountainous reach of the Mekong – and now ‘discovered’. It is how Bali was often described in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, “before it was ruined”. Although it is low season there was a handful of European visitors. It’s the sort of place you would want to come back to. Unfortunately we were focussed on reaching China over roads that made for uncertain trip planning. We did, however, welcome our 5th crew member, Bill, and the Whippet, and enjoyed a meal overlooking the Mekong.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Laos Contrast

On Saturday 3 May, our second day in Laos, we tackled the mountainous road from the spectacular riverside mountain views of Vang Vieng, in low cloud and, as we climbed higher, drizzly rain. We came across three road accidents, including a young family who had come off their small motorcycle in rainy, slippery conditions. Unfortunately our First Aid kit was in the Toyota, a full day behind, so we did our best, donating a raincoat and flagging down 2 vehicles who took the young mother, shivering in shock, with her baby and toddler with a deeply gashed forehead, on towards their destination and, hopefully, medical help. The young father was able to communicate that he had no money to pay for a doctor so we, and one of the other Samaritans, stuffed some money in their pockets. He insisted on continuing on the bike, with 5 small hens attached, despite his gashed and swollen elbow and forearm. It was a confronting realisation of how little they have, and how much we have. We had earlier, on the same road, seen a hand painted sign on a mountain village building, “World Vision Australia”, reminding us of those small voices continuing to combat Australia’s international image as a selfish, inhospitable, racist violator of our legal obligations under the UN Refugee Convention.

The Jamieson Connection in Vientiane

Judy and Don Burrows son Chris, who lives in Vientiane, shared his local knowledge to prepare us pretty well for the dramatic change from the comfortable road conditions that we had enjoyed in Thailand. We also sheltered from a heavy downpour on his back patio. Before talking with Chris we had imagined that we could cover 180km in 4 hours, but the mountain road from Vang Vieng over to Luang Prabang turned into an 8 hour expedition. Roads are pot-holed and windy with several long, steep climbs and descents.

Driving routine

We have established a travel routine of starting out at first light to take advantage of the cool weather. The Dodge may have “air conditioning” but it gets very hot and tiring for the crew in the heat of the day. Ian’s preferred 5 hour maximum travel per day makes good sense.

Goodbye to Thailand

Our last five days in Thailand included two more National Parks, Nam Tok Chat Trakan and Phu Ruea, as well as a drive north to the border where we met the border police who posed with us for photos, and gave us good directions and warnings of hilly roads. One particular descent fully tested both foot (for the driver) and hand (for the co-driver) brakes, but after a little adjustment Horace (Ian insists on calling the old girl a very un-girly name) didn’t miss a beat.
Phu Ruea is the potted plant capital of Thailand. The high altitude Phu Ruea National Park is dripping with orchids both ground and tree, unfortunately not in flower at this time of the year.
We had a leisurely drive down the mighty Mekong, staying at Pak Chom, and dining on baked fish overlooking the Mekong, on the way to the border crossing town of Nong Khai, where we met Rex, crew member #4, who flew in to Vientiane from Hanoi and taxied down to the Friendship Bridge crossing. We also bought a third battery for the Toyota and Rex bought some Lao SIM cards for our phones. We also heard from Bill, crew member #5 that the Whippet had arrived in Bangkok and all was ready for it to be trucked to Nong Khai on Friday 2 May. This meant that Ian and John could cross to Laos and start out north, while Gerry and Rex waited to ensure that Bill’s Whippet would only be one day behind as we headed for our non-negotiable appointment for our crossing into China at 7am Wednesday 7 May.

Advice to travellers

Don’t buy Woolworths Global Roaming SIM cards. They end up costing more than your Aus Telstra cards. BUY LOCAL.