Epic motorcycle trip had its fair share of danger

A Chinese woman's ride through Africa and Europe turned her into an internet star. Mark Sharp finds out about the epic motorcycle journey

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 10:31am

Fearless is a good word to describe Fanny Fang Yi. The Shanghai law graduate and former professional volleyball player is believed to be the first mainland woman to cross Africa on a motorbike - just three months after learning to ride. It was the start of an epic 53,800-kilometre journey that also took her through Europe and around China, and back to her hometown of Shanghai.

The journey was the idea of Fang's boyfriend, Rupert Utley, who is also something of a daredevil. The former Hong Kong policeman, who was a reserve for the bomb disposal unit, had already toured Europe and Southeast Asia on a motorbike, and was a founder of the Hong Kong Paragliding Association.

"Two years ago, the company I worked for [as a forensic accountant] in Shanghai went out of business and I was left without a job, so I decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition by riding a motorcycle around the world," Utley says. "I had no backing, no sponsorship and no support. Also, I wanted to bring my girlfriend with me, but she had a job and did not know how to ride a motorbike."

This was no obstacle for the adventurous Fang, who is also a champion boxer and has captained a soccer team. Two weeks after Utley became unemployed, she quit her job and quickly learned to ride. Still, the commitment to venture off into the big wild world was not made lightly.

"It was a difficult decision because I'm the only daughter in the family; the family expects a lot from me after going to Fudan University and getting a law degree. As traditional Chinese parents, they hope I can do well; not just give up my career to do something dangerous."

So she spun her father a white lie. "I told him I had been assigned to the Hong Kong office for a year."

During the trip, Fang became an internet sensation in China, building a large following by blogging and writing on motorbike-related forums. One of her articles got more than a million hits.

I thought we were going to get taken back and slaughtered
Rupert Utley

"People find it very interesting and relevant," she says. "There's a group of people now touring from Shanghai to Germany. Some of them closely followed the trip. They are somehow inspired by our travels."

The trip had all the elements of a true escapade: extreme weather, accidents, scrapes with the law and dangerous situations. Their Sino-British relationship also complicated matters. But they also rode through some of the most beautiful parts of the world, from snow-covered mountains to searing deserts.

After learning to ride on a 50cc motorbike, graduating to an Austrian-made 1,000cc KTM 990 Adventure was a great leap for Fang. "It's easy to figure out how to start the bike and move it a bit, but it's tricky to ride in difficult conditions like in Africa," she says.

They set off in June 2011 from Arniston, at the southern tip of the continent, with a tent, clothes and spare bike parts in their panniers. Within weeks of departing, however, the trip hung in the balance when Fang had her first serious fall, in the Namib Desert.

They were travelling at 90km/h when her front wheel got stuck and the bike went into an uncontrollable spin. "Then Fanny and the bike did cartwheels through the desert. It was like a little nuclear explosion," Utley says, jokingly.

Fang credits her sports training for saving her from serious injury. "You don't fight against the force. You go with it and roll up, like when playing volleyball." She was badly bruised but they managed to find a ramshackle village in the desert and patched her up.

Without the rally driver's neck brace she was wearing, Utley says, she could have broken her neck. "At that point I really learned how hard this adventure could be, but I don't easily give up," Fang says.

The trip hit another snag when they reached northern Africa, at the height of the Arab Spring uprisings. They were in Egypt and trying to figure out how best to get to Europe.

"We wanted to see more of West Africa, but it got crazy," Utley says. They could have taken a ferry to Italy from somewhere along the north African coast, but neighbouring Libya didn't seem like a good idea.

They were staying in a Cairo hotel close to the Libyan embassy when former strongman Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed, and crowds on the street grew rowdy. "We stayed in the embassy area because it's supposed to be safer," Fang recalls.

Turkey, via Jordan and Syria, was another option that had to be ruled out. "China was supporting the Assad regime and Europe was pro the rebels," Utley says.

Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to ride bikes, and Iran, where Utley could encounter difficulties, were also out of bounds. "So either way, between the pair of us, we were not welcome anywhere," Utley says.

Hoping the situation in Syria would improve, they took a side trip to Jordan and Israel. When it didn't, they returned to Egypt for a few months, and needed to renew their visas.

"The visa extension office is right in the middle of Tahrir Square. So we had no choice but to wander in there. There were demonstrators on one side, the police and army on the other, and both sides saying 'hey' and waving at us," Utley says.

In the end, the Chinese consul general in Port Said helped to get the couple's bikes on a container ship bound for Turkey, while they flew to the country. They were in Port Said in February last year just after the football stadium riot in which 79 people were killed. "We seemed to be following a trail of disasters," Utley says.

But they also encountered great hospitality from many people they met in Africa. In Sudan, as they were pitching their tent on the banks of the Nile, they were approached by a group of men. One of them cautioned against camping by the river because of snakes, scorpions and crocodiles, and invited them to stay at his home. "I thought, oh-oh, we're going to get taken back and slaughtered," Utley says.

After arriving at the house, the host emptied the larder and prepared a feast. Beds were brought into the courtyard so they could sleep under the stars. The following day, their hosts insisted they stay because a goat was being slaughtered in their honour.

Europe should have been a breeze after the travails of Africa, but it was in Switzerland where Fang was detained by police. Her bike collided with another, in a dark, narrow tunnel, and the other rider's bike was badly damaged.

"He was jumping around, shouting in German and threatening her," Utley says. So was the champion boxer scared? "No!" Fang says. But she was detained for five hours.

Europe was a happy time, though. They spent Easter with friends in Rome, camped on a live volcano in Naples, toured second world war battlefields in France, and crossed mountain ranges including the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees.

They finished the European leg in Britain, where they visited Utley's friends and family - and Stonehenge.

Starting the final leg of the trip - China - was complicated. They had wanted to enter through Xinjiang by the Karakorum Highway from Pakistan. But the cost and bureaucracy of getting in the South Africa-registered motorbikes ruled that out.

In the end, they flew to Hangzhou, picked up a couple of China-made CT Moto bikes, and set off on the road again. Fang was emotional to be back in the country. "I wanted to cry, but I didn't. I was excited because I'd made it after all the difficulties." But being back in her home country didn't make riding any easier.

"Chinese people started owning vehicles only about 20 years ago, so they don't have very good knowledge or understanding of the traffic rules. So it's nerve-racking to ride in China."

Although Hangzhou is less than 200 kilometres from Shanghai, the couple headed south on a circuitous 13,000-kilometre route that took them to Yunnan and Tibet, before heading back east.

Their epic journey finally came to an end when they rolled into Shanghai in November last year. A group of Harley-Davidson riders who had been following their trip online hosted a welcoming reception and the couple made a presentation. Fang's father was one of the guests.

After watching the presentation, Fang says, her "stern, conservative" father understood what she had achieved. Utley was relieved: "I thought I was going to get one in the mouth," he says.

The couple had also helped raise money for the orphans' charity, Half the Sky, and the Autism Research Trust.

"My father realised that, as a Chinese woman, I was respected for doing the trip. So I think he was happy. I came back in one piece," says Fang.

They have now settled in Hong Kong, where Utley is looking for a job and Fang works as a business investigation consultant.

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