Riders on the GS World Tour encounter a continent full of contrasts in Southeast Asia. Stunning landscapes, fascinating cultures and a challenging natural environment. The grand finale of the trip: a spiritual place in China – and a feeling of big accomplishment.
There was never any guarantee. The border between Nepal and Tibet had been closed since the devastating earthquake last year. For weeks, the GS riders had been hoping in vain that the situation would change by the start of the trip. With this, Eric Massiet du Biest's group of nine motorcyclists faces their first challenge even before they kicked off their expedition on the R 1200 GS Adventure.
They are forced to change their plans and find new routes so they can continue their world tour eastward towards Central Asia and on to Europe. That's when Prasit comes to rescue. The Thai travel guide from T3 Ride-Asia is well connected in Asia and effortlessly organizes a new route in no time. The plan: ride from Thailand to Vietnam via Laos and from there to the province of Yunnan in China. Sometimes, bikers have to yield to the forces of nature and find a creative alternative, whether that means planning a new route or negotiating washed-out mountain roads. This trip will be just such a test.
Some riders in the group, such as Laurent Boué, have been to Asia before. He has already travelled through Central Asia and Mongolia. He is drawn to Southeast Asia like a magnet is drawn to metal. For him the trip is a way of challenging the certainty and entrenched culture of the Western world and expanding his horizons. His mind is filled with the Asian adventure stories written over the centuries, and he wants to replace these mental images with real pictures and real experiences.
Nan Province is enchanting.
The journey begins in Thailand; the journey begins with delicious food. Culinary delights tempt the riders, adding a few more kilos to the weight their GS has to carry. But it's not only the food that leaves a lasting impression. At the Sukhothai temple, a giant Buddha gazes down on the visitors. The statue is carved from white stone. It is covered in plants and moss that adorn the sculpture like a crocheted blanket.
With a spiritual calm, the Buddha is etched into the memory of the GS riders. The world they're travelling through is filled with moments like this. In Nan Province in the north of the country, they ride over creaking bamboo bridges and through muddy rivers. Prasit confidently guides the group through his country, as if he were showing off his home to good friends.
Jewellery from bomb parts.
In the north, the group crosses the border to Laos. The scenery becomes increasingly wild and rugged. The roads playfully challenge the GS's strengths, the motorcyclists embrace the challenge with a smile on their faces. As the ride becomes more intense, contact with the locals also intensifies. Especially in small villages, where Laotians sell jewellery from old bomb parts. Later on, there is much to discover and explore in the north of Laos in the mountainous region of Luang Prabang and in the former royal city of the same name.
Hanoi is heaven and hell.
The next border crossing takes the group into a country where motorcycles dominate the roads and big cars are a privilege for the wealthy. Everyone has been waiting for this moment: They finally reach Vietnam. Since the beginning of the adventure, the motorcyclists have been anticipating this country as the indisputable highlight of the trip. They're filled with curiosity. About the cities, the culture, the scenery. Their first destination is the capital. Hanoi is heaven and hell, a city full of contrasts and a real challenge for bikers.
A world of scents and smog, bustling throngs of people and peaceful squares. The city reflects the conflicts of its past, including the era of French colonial rule. In old Hanoi, garbage burns on the edge of the street. In the newer administrative centre, the opera house shines in all its glory. These scenes pass by like images on a giant screen that the riders watch from their bikes.
Escaping the bustling streets of Hanoi, the group heads east to Halong Bay, a stark contrast to the Vietnamese capital. It's like the silence after a raucous rock concert, when pulsating bass notes are still ringing in your ears. The GS riders spend two days in Halong Bay. It's a relaxing holiday on emerald green waters surrounded by countless cliffs that rise from the South China Sea like massive pebbles covered in moss.
The group needs to recharge for the complicated and exhausting ride along the Chinese border to Cao Bang. They are immediately rewarded for all their hard work on the rough terrain when they pass through Ha Giang and Lao Cai. The flora, mountains and water are unexpectedly beautiful. But even more thrilling than the natural scenery is the crossing at the small Chinese border station. They are the first foreign motorcyclists ever to cross the border at this checkpoint. The province of Yunnan literally opens up a whole new world for the GS convoy.
Ruts like trenches.
Prasit leads the group through special short-cuts, which are often more like mud pits than roads. Heading toward the Red River, they ride deeper and deeper into the South China region, which is free of industry and massive building complexes. The vast Yunnan Province is ready to be discovered. After their first stop in Kunming, the capital of the province, they head to Chuxiong. The road into town is full of ruts created by wide truck tyres. Gullies run through the road in all directions like small trenches. Anyone who makes it through them emerges on a mud-covered GS.
The mysterious origins of the Naxi
The group continues north, crosses Dali with the famous three pagodas and arrives in Lijiang, the home of the Naxi people, a city steeped in tradition. A colourful parade of people in long trousers, wide sleeves and dazzling clothes foreshadows the diversity of the local culture. These are the traditional costumes of an ethnic minority whose exact origins have been lost in the historical turmoil and vastness of the Chinese empire. The origin of the Naxi is still a mystery. The area around Lijiang shows the religious and cultural influences of China and Tibet.
Yunnan is fantastic and frustrating at the same time. Communicating with the locals is difficult; the language barrier is an insurmountable hurdle. But they do bond over one thing: the weather. Nothing brings people together more than the struggle against the adversities of the monsoon, which keeps the motorcycle group and the locals busy late into the night.
Where golden rooftops gleam in the sun.
The group makes their way towards Shangri-La, enjoying a feeling of solidarity after so many tribulations and beautiful moments. The city is mainly inhabited by Tibetans and Naxi. This is the last stop of the trip. The town is located 3,200 meters above sea level, the air is thin, the motorcyclists are euphoric. Endorphins rush through the bikers' veins when they catch their first glimpse of rooftops of the Ganden Sumtsenling monastery. They sparkle like gold in the sun.
It's been a long journey across four different countries to this heavenly place. Throughout the trip, the GS team has been inspired by nature and even defied it at times. Now, after so many muddy roads, rickety bridges and monsoon-drenched streets, it's time for golden rooftops and the satisfaction of finally arriving.
Photos: Teshin Tewsomboon