It's Day 13 of the World Tour 2008.
If everything had gone according to our thoroughly considered plan, one based on the experience and knowledge gained from seven previous tours in China, we would be riding today through Inner Mongolia to the city of Yakeshi, within striking distance of our border crossing into Russia and the vast expanse of Siberia.
The Chinese people are wonderfully superstitious, and at some level, believe in omens good and bad. Given the "omens" we've experienced so far, had I been born into this ancient and honorable culture, I would, at this very moment, be trading in my "Guide" hat, shaving my head my head, and become a wandering monk instead.
Although the end is in sight, if GlobeRiders were to publish a revision of Helge's seminal book "10 Years on 2 Wheels", a more appropriate title based on the start of this tour might be "10 Days on 4 Wheels", "2 Weeks on 2 Feet", or "How I Spent My Vacation in a Seedy Hotel Room in Shanhaiguan".
Blame it all of the falling dollar and the Beijing Olympics 2008. Weeks before the tour began, we had a momentary panic - due to the fall of the US Dollar against any foreign currency that matters, US products and goods were shipping out of the country as fast as containers and shipping could be found. Our outbound container shipment was delayed by a day, as both containers and port services in the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma were scarce.
Several weeks after the freighter sailed, although we had specified a direct route to Tianjin, we were informed that the vessel instead made a port of call in Hong Kong, and that our shipment would thus be delayed by, as it turned out, almost a week.
Once the container did arrive, the "bad joss" of The Olympics took over. Because of security concerns surrounding The Olympics, and a bout of governmental tit-for-tat due to increasingly stringent requirements imposed by US Customs and Home Security for shipments arriving FROM China, our shipment of bikes TO China kicked-off a round of nightmarish bureaucratic "procedures" that would put any other nation's process and hidebound Customs despots to shame.
As noted in a previous story, based on a good outcome in 2006, we thought we had the admittedly complex process of clearing one container from Seattle, and second from Kobe, pretty much figured out. This year, we used the same brokers and agents as before. The Olympics threw all of this hard-earned experience and know-how out the window and we (and apparently the Port and Customs officials here as well) had an all-new learning curve to deal with.
As I recounted in the Week 01 Chapter, due to The Olympics, all other permits for motorsports tours and expeditions in China had been revoked, except ours. Even ours was modified; rather than riding from Beijing, we would have to start our ride 300 kilometers away, from the city of Shanhaiguan, the 3rd city on our original itinerary. Knowing this, we added another tour day in Beijing, then rented a bus to take everyone to the intermediate stop in the Mountain Villa and site of the Imperial Summer Palace, Chengde. Thus began the saga of "2 Weeks on 4 Wheels".
From Chengde, our bus took the group to the city of Shanhaiguan, the required 300 kilometers from Beijing and a straight coastal shot for the trucks that would bring our containers from the Port of Tianjin. Our freight agent assured us that everything would be OK.
By Friday of last week, the containers had not been released, and Customs was closed over the weekend, but our agent assured us "everything would be OK Monday". Believing this, and because our driver had to return, we gladly said our goodbyes to the bus - and our story morphed into "10 Days on 2 Feet".
Monday afternoon came, and still no release on The Containers. No longer trusting the "any minute now" reports from our agent, I asked Dan to stay with the group, and our local guide, Sim, our driver and I headed out for the long trek to Tianjin first thing Tuesday morning. What followed was 2-3/4 days of paperwork and process hell, most of it spent standing around in the heat, pollution and humidity of endless expanses of freight yards, or cooling our heels on benches outside of offices.
To be fair, most of the people seemed to just be "following procedures", many of them invoked for the first time due to . . . The Olympics. What made it painful was one slovenly Customs Revenue officer, unshaven, shirttails of his filthy shirt hanging out of his wrinkled trousers, who obviously had it out for the entire world, and may he receive his just reward of the eternal fires of damnation for making the lives of all he came into contact with as miserable as possible.
In gratifying contrast, the other Customs, Police and Quarantine officers were polite and helpful. Every time one of the containers was opened, the yard workers would shout out exclamations of envy when the contents were unveiled, and rushed to take turns sitting on the last bike loaded. Movers and handlers were pulled from other activities to re-stage our containers as needed, and the containers were lifted, moved, and grounded with precision and care.
Yesterday, working against the deadline of Yet Another Friday in Tianjin, surrounded by billboards and festive fluttering flags splashed with the interlocked rings of The Olympics everywhere we looked, we finally received our Delivery Orders and Gate Passes, our "procedures" were over.
It's Saturday morning here in Shanhaiguan. On the very day that we expect to receive our bikes, the first real rain we've seen in China is falling. After two hours of trying to contact our freight agent (may he also join Mr. Customs Officer from Hell in The Eternal Fires), we've been informed that, due to accidents, a general diesel shortage throughout China, and road construction delays, our trucks had to turn back from their intended route, and find an alternate way further inland. They're now expected to arrive sometime "around noon". It's 11:17AM, and still no update.
We're now solidly entrenched in "How I Spent my Vacation in a Seedy Hotel Room in Shanhaiguan". Bereft of our bikes and with a continually contracted itinerary ahead of us, our riders are understandingly frustrated and concerned. Having been a GlobeRiders client myself, and having taken tours with other operators, I’ve been on both side of the fence. There's a reason we don't qualify just anyone with the money and riding experience on our adventures, it takes a special person with the flexibility and fortitude to deal with the delays and the unexpected.
Certainly, every rider here has earned his and her gold stars for patience.
Note to self, in China, “there shouldn’t be any problems” really means “there are many problems”.
I’ve quoted this before, but a saying here bears repeating, “In China, anything is possible, nothing is easy”.
The Adventure Continues . . . .