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The Fifth Wheel Falls Off

July 10, 2015 1 Comment

After forty five days of joy, wonder, adventure and excitement I part company with the PMF crew today. It was not an easy decision to make but traveling on 5 wheels is not always easy or practical.

Travelling with old and valued friends in Alan and Lyn and making new ones in Green, Barry and Donna has been one of the great experiences of my life. I am really going to miss Green but I will get to her in detail later in this blog.

The tour leaves Beijing today and heads north for Inner Mongolia and then leaves China through Mongolia. Whilst tempting to see some of the wild territory of Northern China I really wanted to see the Three Gorges of the Yangstze river. It is just a must see thing to do in China… so in the end there was no real choice. The fact that a lot of camping was coming up had nothing to do with my decision at all :)!

The detour also allows me to visit a wonderful mountainous area called the Yellow Mountains or Huangshan which is supposed to be magnificent and also spend a bit of time in Shanghai before flying home. It just didn’t make sense to me to not do those things while I am here.

I’ve spent over a year of my life looking forward to this trip and I simply can’t believe or accept it will be over soon.

Leaving Al, Lyn and Green at the train staton this morning was more emotional for me than I showed. A thirty-seven year friendship was strengthened further by this trip, if that was even possible. I hope to cross paths with them again in the near future before they return to Australia.

I had extremely high expectations for this trip (and a few reservations!!) but I can easily and happily say that every expectation was exceeded comfortably and the few reservations that did play out were easily accommodated with some patience, common sense and good humour (a real feature of the trip).

So what were the highlights of the trip…

I’ll see if I can briefly relate my impressions of the good the bad and the ugly. It won’t be easy to do it briefly!!


China is simply a magnificent country on a multitude of levels, but for me the absolute standout of the trip was meeting and spending time with Green our guide.


She is a beautiful soul.

She is kind, generous, funny, inquisitive, feisty, committed to her work and despite the fact that there were times we thought otherwise, she was totally committed to serving our best interests for the trip in every imaginable way. She is seriously smart.

When I first saw a small compact ball of energy walking towards our group and waving as we milled at the Laos China border and I realised she was waving at us, two conflicting thoughts ran through my head. The first was that this girl is our guide and she is drop dead gorgeous and we are going to spend the next 7 weeks in her company, how lucky am I. The simultaneous thought was this girl is drop dead gorgeous and I am going to spend every day of the next seven weeks in her company AND I HAVE TO BE SENSIBLE AND RESPONSIBLE HERE. Bloody hell that’s not going to be easy. It wasn’t but it was done.

Green loves her country and is fiercely proud of her devout Buddhist faith. She loved showing us the Tibetan plateau with its monasteries, temples, monks, and fellow committed Buddhists. I think we really offended her (although you would never know it from her) when we quickly tired of repeated visits to monasteries and pompously declared we didn’t want to see any more. At the time I fully agreed with the decision but in hindsight…

To further confuse her about 4 hours after declaring the trip a monastery free zone we told her we wanted to drive 600kms off our designated route over some very bad roads and stay in a town that was not designated in our itinerary (a big no no in China), simply to see a reclining Buddha that, you guessed it, was in a monastery. She must have thought we were all barking mad. She was probably right.

Green is 28, about 150cms, weighs around 45kg but constantly carries a backpack containing every imaginable bit of paraphernalia that weighs at least 10kg, and she has the biggest appetite I have ever encountered in a girl. She devours three meals a day and loves her “snacks”. “Peter, I’m starving” was easily the most common sentence I heard her speak.

On a couple of nights after big days of touring or driving, some people were too tired to go out and eat and simply went to bed. This was completely incomprehensible to Green. She simply couldn’t get her head around going to bed without consuming about 10% of your body weight in noodles beforehand. On more than one occasion she asked me if the other guys were sick.

One final story. She has a wicked sense of humour. It took her about a week to click into a typical Aussie’s sense of humour. Alan bore the full brunt of it when she did. Alan has a pathological need to know exactly where he is on the planet at any one time to the nearest square metre. He also requires precise instructions at the start of each drive to know where he is going. There is definitely a touch of Asperger’s about it. This day Green was in the other car talking to Al by walkie talkie. With her accent this can be a difficult process. Alan was asking questions and for once she was giving rather obtuse answers. This was driving Al mad and he was getting increasingly irritated. The more hostile his questioning of her the more imprecise the answers. Alan worked himself up into an apoplectic rage. I was confused by her answers initially until I realised she was taking the piss out of him big time. I started giggling and so did Lyn when she twigged to what was happening. We let Alan rage on for about another minute before Lyn put him out of his misery. When he realised Green was having a lend of him, he laughed harder than any of us, to his great credit. It was actually a significant turning point in the trip.

You might think from the above that I am smitten by her. You would be partly right. There were many times on the trip that I wished I was twenty years younger, but the truth of it is slightly different. She is quite simply one of the very few people I have met in my extensive travels who won my complete confidence and total respect in a very short period of time and never once disappointed me in anything she said or did. When was the last time you could unhesitatingly say that about someone?

I bet you are still pondering that question.

So to China itself.

The Landscape

Despite all the magnificent places we have seen, the highlight for me is the drive itself. Much of it was incredibly arduous but it has taken us to places few have seen. The scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful, especially driving through the massive mountain ranges of Southern and Western China. I’ve written before about the beauty of the mountains. The roads twist and wind, terrifyingly at times, but every turn almost always brought a new wonder. Even out of the mountains the landscape is constantly changing. Huge grasslands, vast expanses of boulder strewn fields, huge karst rock formations that make you think you are on another planet. We visited many beautiful national parks with rivers lakes mountain streams and waterfalls that make your heart ache with the beauty of it. I have no idea how we could have done most of that on bus or train. Al’s belief in this drive is a magnificent testament to him.

The Rivers

China’s western rivers flowing off the Tibetan plateaux are some of the rawest, wildest examples of the power of nature I have seen. They are terrifyingly beautiful. I have never seen water flow so powerfully.

The People

Outside of the really big cities they are not what I expected. On the whole they are an incredibly friendly courteous helpful bunch who genuinely seem pleased to see you visiting their country. I had read frequently that the opposite was to be expected. We were frequently surrounded by groups of people wanting to ask questions or be photographed with. We were frequently overwhelmed by random acts of unnecessary kindness. Two examples. Al has a quirk (there are actually quite a few) of just pulling off the road and driving onto someone’s private property for a cup of tea and a break. It is mildly disconcerting. One day he pulled into a working timber yard. There were workers in the yard going about their business gawking at these crazy “gwailo’s “. The owner came out, looked us over and went back into his house. He returned with his wife with a huge tray of peaches for us. It wouldn’t happen in Australia to a group of Asians I’m sure!!

Another time late in the day we were stuck for accommodation and we saw what looked like a guest house. It actually wasn’t. It was a place for locals to come a stay for meals and ? Gambling – but I wasn’t sure about that. The couple that owned the place could not have been more accommodating. They allowed the couples to park the vehicles on their back lawn and camp in the roof top campers at no charge while Green and I were given rooms to sleep in for a very reasonable fee. We were also able to purchase a superb home cooked meal. The lady of the house was easily the most hospitable generous woman I have met since my mother was in her prime. She was also beautiful and her husband was rarely away from her!  Al in his inimitable style hacked a one metre clearing around his entire camper with his tomahawk thinking it was weeds. Green was horrified when she saw what he had done… It was her natural herb garden!! She couldn’t have been more magnanimous about it. Al got into further trouble in the morning when he tried to pin a koala badge on the lady’s chest as a present. She nearly fainted. You don’t touch women in China. Especially married ones. Lyn was able to complete the task.

I really liked almost every one I have had dealings with in this country. I hope it continues as I tour alone.
Beijing was different. There are 20 million people there and tourists are either irrelevant to them or worse, an irritation. Don’t ever expect too much from them. I suspect Shanghai will be similar. There is simply no need for anyone in Beijing to speak English. It’s a tough place to visit without an interpreter.

The Infrastructure

The building intensity in China is simply mind boggling. Every city or town we went to had massive construction sites. Cranes dominated virtually every skyline. The country’s GDP is supposed to be dropping off rapidly. I simply can’t conceive of what it must have been like a few years ago. As an example, we drove a 10km stretch of road that went from a massive tunnel drilled through a mountain to a massive bridge spanning a valley back to a tunnel, then bridge, then tunnel and bridge. Not one bit of road was built on natural ground. That scenario repeated itself dozens of times. One tunnel was 18km long!

In China everything is big.

The Breath Taking Moments

Huashun Mountain Peaks

Majestic Huashun Mountain Peaks

In no particular order:

  • The Yuangyang Rice Terraces
  • Zhiljin Cave
  • Yading National Park
  • Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Manigagne Lake (despite the cold!)
  • Kanbula National Park (which I’ve not previously mentioned but Google it)
  • Huashan Mountain

Things that were Magnificent to the Point They Can’t Surprise You any Further:

  • The Great Wall
  • The Forbidden Palace
  • The Terracotta Warriors

Things I’m Really Looking Forward to:

  • Three Gorges River Cruise
  • Huangshan Mountain
  • Shanghai Skyline


Very little to be honest.

I’m really struggling to think of one bad experience here that had any significance to the trip. OK there was one in Beijing but it was our own fault. We had had a frustrating morning in Beijing struggling with queues to get visas for Mongolia for those going there. I didn’t need one so I agreed to be Green’s pack mule to carry all the crappy presents she had bought for her friends to a post office so she could post them home. It was an hour walk to find a bloody PO. The final package weighed close to 15kg! When we all finally met up again we stopped at the nearest cafe we found and without even looking at a menu ordered 5 coffees and 7 pieces of cake. The bill came to $85 Australian dollars!! It was dearer than any food bill we had on the entire trip. At the Great Wall coffee was $12 a cup.

Beijing can be hideously expensive for the unwary. I did a tour by myself to the Wall. It was a rip off from start to finish. We were taken to Jade shops, tea houses, so called traditional Chinese Medicine Places for “free” health assessments. In a seven hour tour we spent 2 hours at the wall. The rest was hard sell BS. I watched a bloke from Sweden get milked mercilessly for over 2000 yuan in a few hours. I thought of rescuing him but he was caught up in the hype. As soon so we got close to Beijing I left early and got a metro to the hotel.


This is easy.

The Chinese love their country fervently and intensely. Their patriotism is almost scary beyond anything I have experienced before. (They all want to get out though!!) But they don’t respect the land. The whole country is one huge garbage tip.

China is drowning under its own pollution.

Everything comes wrapped in 4 layers of plastic. It is all thrown on the ground. There is no part of the country untouched. We got to some pretty remote areas but I simply never stood on a road, a field, a river or forest that didn’t have the detritus of glass, cans, plastic or cigarette butts obvious in small or huge amounts. No one seems to give a toss about it. In one city we stayed in, people were just openly throwing their rubbish in the river that flowed through the centre of town. It was depressing to observe the industrial scale of litter and pollution that blights the country. I almost understand the severe air pollution of the major cities. It is an inevitable consequence of 1.3 billion people industrialising at a massive rate.

I don’t understand why you would treat a country you love and cherish as your personal dung heap and cover it in shit with complete disdain.

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  1. Cliff says:

    Fantastic reviews Hendo, I think I speak for most when I say your input and insights into the trip will be missed. Maybe you need to skip ahead of the rat-bags and introduce vehicle #3.

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