This is the preface to my book in progress: The China Road Motorcycle Diaries
In the summer of 1997 I received an email from an American working in Beijing. It arrived like a fortune in my computer. “There's a bike waiting for you in a garage in China ...” it said. “You could ride it all over the country.”
Bikers are a closely-knit group, especially sidecarists, and after my 1995 motorcycle adventure around the United States on a Russian Ural sidecar motorcycle I'd had invitations to motorcycle in Europe and Australia, Russia and Tiera del Fuego. But in 1997, China was suddenly everywhere in the news: the restoration of Hong Kong to the Chinese, the opening of the country to tourism and foreign investment—bold capitalist moves in a tightly controlled society. The country was interesting and unknown. At least, I knew nothing about it.
A certain memory of childhood came to me. Myrtle Beach in North Carolina, digging in the sand, some adult asked me, "What are you doing, digging all the way to China?" And of course I imagined kids like me over there on the other side of the world, but upside-down, with eyes slanted upward because they were fighting gravity from the other direction.
The invitation appeared in my email again. "You could ride around the countryside and talk with people about Hong Kong," it said. "But Hong Kong isn't all that's going on here. It's overshadowed much more dramatic changes, out in the countryside."
I love the countryside. By October, I was there as a guest of Rick Dunagan and the Beijing Chang Jiang gang, an eclectic group of expatriate Americans and Europeans, and one Chinese couple who owned an adventure travel shop in Beijing.
The bike belonged to Jim Bryant, the owner of the Subway sandwich franchise. The bike was black, just like my Ural, with a Subway sticker on the back. Best of all, the license plate was 00069. I rode it through the streets of Beijing to sights like the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square, to the Dirt Market, the Silk Market and the Russian Market, and right past the Kentucky Fried Chicken to the Subway shop for lunch. The traffic was frightening, it seemed that everyone had just got cars in Beijing, and that meant that everyone had just got drivers licenses. It was like driving with thousands of sixteen-year olds. In 1997, there were only thousands. Nobody had any idea just how many more there would be.
But one day Rick took me out to the countryside where the peasants were harvesting golden yellow corn to be dried on the road. It was warm and sunny and the natives smiled and waved as we drove over their crops, threshing their grain. We stopped for noodles and beer at a roadside stand, bought persimmons and walnuts, and other things you do in the countryside.
The grand finale was a group ride to the Great Wall. We left Beijing, a city that’s about the same physical size of Belgium, which in 1997 hosted 11 million inhabitants. We rode and rode under the clear blue Indian summer sky. The high mountains of Inner Mongolia were visible to the northwest, stark and raised in spiked brown peaks over which laid the territories of the dreaded Barbarians.
Only ten percent of China is arable and farmland stretches right up to the feet of these mountains, not skipping a crevice as it follows the contours of the flatlands. In October, the peasants were busy harvesting and used half the road as a drying surface for yellow corn.
The farmers sat in piles of it, the men lounging, taking a break from furrowing the fields, and the women were busy separating the husks from the ears, piling the husks in the middle of the road, and the ears to the side. Other women thumbed the kernels off into neat patches of gold onto the black asphalt. Traffic, such as it was, drove around the yellow patches and directly onto the husks to help with the threshing. A farmer burned fallen willow leaves and twigs in his field, brown and furrowed by as he led his donkey to plough the dirt.
We rode high into the hills breathing deeply of clean air, polluting the silence with the sound of seven Chinese sidecar motorcycle engines headed toward the wall.
The fields gave way to a lake and a road built up against a mountainside, its gray granite cliff dripping with vines turning yellow and red from the season and the sun, rapidly setting now, three hours from Beijing.
The piles of corn gave way to roadside tables piled with fat orange persimmons, luminous in the fading light. Amongst the persimmons were baskets of cream colored apples streaked with red, boxes of walnuts, pheasants in cages of wood-framed chicken-wire and, next to the lake, tiny silver fish strung horizontally through their middles with string and hung to dry on a line like rows of metallic windchimes.
We were racing the sunset and the sunset won so my first view of the wall was in silhouette, an irregular line along the mountain ridge that folded in close to the valleys but forever stretched on toward the desert of Mongolia.
Watchtowers appeared regularly along the wall in intervals as it twisted off into the distance and overwhelmed me with the enormity of the effort that must have been required over the years to create it. For the first time I thought about the carriers of the stone to the ridge, the strength required, the ingenuity, the tumbles and falls of people and stone back to the bottom, the injuries and deaths and the constant toiling. That this human-made dinosaur backbone rolled on for 4000 miles was simply unimaginable.
We pulled up to a gate and were surrounded by villagers. I'd barely seen the low brick structures at the foot of the mountain. I sat shivering in the fading light while the Chinese speakers in the group negotiated with the villagers in what still sounded to me like random nasal howling spiked with laughing, fake refusals, hand waving, more laughter, and more shouting. I could make nothing of it at all, not from English, nor French, nor from the little German and Dutch I knew. Though I’d studied basic Mandarin before I left on this trip, now I recognized only the words for thank you.
The whole deal ended up costing about $16 for all 14 of us, an all-inclusive package of admission to the wall and permission to camp on it, portage of our things up the mountain, a boiled egg breakfast at dawn, and a promise from them to leave us alone and save the souvenir-hawking until morning. It was a deal both sides quietly laughed about, each party certain that the other came from the stupidest part of their country.
We hiked up to the wall. I imagined we would pitch our tents on the ground at the foot of it but I followed the group into a watchtower and up its staircase to the wide, flat top of it. We pitched our tents and settled in just in time to witness the full autumn moon rise over Mongolia.
As the rest of the group went about making dinner—a weird combination of American, European and Chinese fare—I stood on the wall looking around at the countryside in what can only be described as astonishment. I’d really had no idea. And yeah, I could do this, I thought. Cities are horrible to ride in, as they are all over the world, but the countryside—I had not imagined such a vast, uninhabited spaces existed here, I had not imagined that China would be so beautiful.
I’d done my research about the wall, though, and the residents told me more. Our our campsite was atop just one of the 90 watch towers on this thirteen-kilometer stretch of wall at Jinsanling, a section that runs through mountain peaks for 7.5 kilometers from Gubeikou Pass—which used to be a strategic outpost between Inner Mongolia and Northeastern China. The watchtowers on this section are built at 100-meter intervals, except where the terrain is more complicated, and then they are placed even closer because defense so close to the capital needed to be strong. During the Ming dynasty the Mongols had finally been ousted, but guards watched for them from the round watch bays—unique to this section of the wall. Horribly, the warning signal for approaching Mongols was blue smoke made by burning wolves paws.
It was a clear, chilly night and the stars sparkled. The Jiang’s stirfried lamb, onions, and green peppers on a flat-topped grill and offered it from white paper plates studded with dollops of plum sauce. Rick contributed chicken wings and a canister of Pringle's chips, John and Susan had brought barbecued ribs, Walter and Ursula grilled hot dogs.
After dinner, I fished through my backpack for the bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon I’d wrapped in a layer of bubble wrap amongst the camera equipment, and put my hand on a velvet bag. It was a selection of duty-free Ghirardelli Chocolate bars from San Francisco I'd forgotten I'd bought, to go with the bourbon. These treasures were met with delight by the others and we sat sipping the whisky until the full moon burst over a far-away mountain to wash us in its cold white light and send our thoughts centuries through to the past.
Between swigs of bourbon there were silences filled with the awareness of a place that holds generations of souls. Soldiers and slaves, peasants and princes. A place of nightmares and sweet dreams.
Sleep came and went. In the middle of the night I crawled out into a moonlight so bright that the zigzag of wall took my imagination to the Gobi Desert where it ended abruptly in the sand. But here there as a watchtower at the apex of each hill, a square silhouette in the weak gray light. To reach the last one I would have to walk for hours in the night, through dark passages under each watchtower and along crumbling stones in a still cold air as dry as ice.
My boot heels clicked against the pounded earth surface and the sound seemed to echo all the way into the craters on the moon. I continued walking until I could no longer see the tents and then I noticed the perfect silence. No nightbirds. No scurrying rodents. Where are the animals in China?
In the morning I walked the wall again to take a photo of our tents. From my vantage point I saw the villagers approaching, bearing the promised boiled eggs and souvenirs, and I walked back to meet them.
Adorned in "I Climbed the Great Wall" sweatshirts they gently pressed me to buy gourds inked with romantic scenes of ancient China, and cheap ceramic necklaces scratched with symbols of long life and happiness. I studied the gourds for a long time, selecting them carefully. The scenes were mythological: a long-eared pig-man dancing with abandon, an offering to a goddess, two women in robes, their black hair piled meticulously into three bundles, one atop the other. One gourd with a handle was badly etched but unique in shape. I shook it, laughed, and returned it to the bag, much to the amusement of the toothless old woman.
In the end I bought more than a dozen each of the necklaces and gourds and the old toothless woman smiled and rattled the gourd I’d put back at my ear, then pushes it into my hands. Yes, I paid too much.
I returned the next spring for a journey planned from Beijing to Burma. But in four months, I never got out of North China. The roads were bad or non-existent, and the maps were wrong. I got tired and lonely and came home, not to return for a decade.
What a difference a decade makes! There were roads and cars—many of them. And surprisingly, I had companions, two women on two motorcycles just like the one I rode. We swooshed out of Beijing north and then west, and experienced all the extremes that define China today.
So this is the story of two journeys to China, one made alone, without companions, and mostly lost, and another ten years later, with companions, and mostly lost, illegal, and broke down…
Read preview chapters of the book free online or download the documents here.