Catch my story about Frank the Chinese mechanic and being stuck on the Yellow River in China, in the March / April 2012 issue of ADVMoto/Dual-Sport News, sold in print and online.
Catch my story about Frank the Chinese mechanic and being stuck on the Yellow River in China, in the March / April 2012 issue of ADVMoto/Dual-Sport News, sold in print and online.
This is a funny audio file that I found. It was made accidentally, must have been turned on in my pocket (which means it is also not of the best quality). I edited out the over-an-hour-long engine noise, and began at tire screeching and near accident. Then discussion about being lost, and interactions with a local farmer, another car following us -- they're just not used to seeing foreigners so go out of their way to view the exotic alien beings up close! And then discussion about the cave-houses, and we take off again even though Diny's plugs are misfiring, we figure we have only about 20 km to go to the next town, and we need food and tuneups. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It says a lot about traveling independently in China. Find some preview stories about this trip at http://scribd.com/carlaking Click below to hear the audio, or right-click to download it. It may take a while to load, it's about 8 minutes long.
Just got my first slam by a reader blasting me about a piece from my China dispatches published in Travelers' Tales: China about my very mixed feelings about the people and culture during my ride there.
"I am very much offended by your overall tone. You have little positive to say about the country and its people, and rattle off one sarcastic remark or insult after another. It is seldom that I will see the word "retarded" in a published work, for example. [Re: Motorcycling in China by Carla King]
Should I (or writers in general) censor a memoir in the traverse experience and realization growing in the narrative arc of a story? I decided that I wanted the reader to experience that with me, and took the risk.
Your thoughts about relating negative experiences/thoughts in a non-fiction narrative, or the use of the word "retarded" or other possibly "offensive" words. (And were you as horrified as I was that NewSouth Books removed the word nigger from Huckleberry Finn?)
Below is a link to the piece. By the way, Travelers' Tales: China is a wonderful resource for anyone planning to go there, or curious about the country, as are all of their collections:
Motorcycling in China by Carla King, from Travelers Tales: China
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.
When I wake in the morning it is eerily quiet, which makes me nervous until I remember that, of course, a brothel operates at night.
Florescent lighting was kinder to this environment than the stark, bright morning light. The short red carpet is a puzzle of dark splotchy stains. The walls are stained with moisture and the bathroom tiles are caked with mold. The tiles themselves were shattered with a hammer to let the plumbing in. Caulking does not seem to be a talent the local handymen possess. Neither do they seem to have a grasp of the force of gravity since the bathroom drain was located at the highest end of the room. A puddle of stagnant water sits in a corner, drowned bugs float at the edges.
I half-fill the red basin with cold water from the dripping sink faucet, and uncork one of the green plastic thermoses of hot water the girls provided the night before. Amazingly, it is still piping hot, hot enough for a cup of instant coffee. I check my skin for bedbugs. None. I hope that this will be the rattiest place I ever have to stay in.
Read the rest of the story on the Motorcycle Misadventures Facebook Fan Page.
This story is a continuation of Alone, Illegal and Broke Down in China
Part 2 of the first story from my upcoming book Alone, Illegal and Broke Down: Stories from motorcycling in China
A man pushes his way through the girls and speaks in sharp tones that makes them stop giggling and stand aside. He is very young and so thin that his brown wool pinstriped suit hangs on him in folds like on a coat hanger. His hair is carefully clipped and gelled into a stiff American fifties-style flat-top, with one lock left long to hang rakishly in his face. He tosses his head back to fling the lock out of his eye, and says something to me that makes the girls laugh nervously and flutter a little farther away.
I greet him with a Chinese hello and a look straight in the eye, and the girls giggle again, their hands flying up to cover their mouths. Sighing, he beckons me to his office, a lit doorway just in front of us, and takes me by the arm to guide me inside. Surprisingly, he is a few inches taller than I, perhaps 5 feet 10 inches tall..
The girls follow us in but after few sharp words from the boss they reced into the darkness and we are left alone in the office: a square concrete box with a steel desk and a ratty Naugahyde couch bursting at the seams. I fish through the pockets of my black leather motorcycle jacket and hand him 20 yuan, the amount the woman at the gas station had quoted. He laughs and pushes it back to me. I am too tired to go through an extended haggling process, and too tired to remember that I am desperate for sleep. After riding all day in the heat, after the stress of being lost, the uncertainty of the motorcycle, finding gasoline, night falling unmercifully black and those tiny villages with fires and stray pigs and white-trunked trees, I am exhausted, and I could strangle him for what he is doing, opening drawers to find a pencil so that he can write the digits 200 on a piece of paper, ten times price the woman at the gas station had quoted.
Read the rest of this story on the Motorcycle Misadventures Facebook fan page.
Alone, Illegal and Broke Down
It is my first day alone on the road and I am lost. The mountains of northern China beyond Beijing are vast and enormous. There are no road signs, only larger roads and smaller roads, paved roads and dirt roads. When I stop to ask directions the peasants simply stare because I am the first foreigner they have ever seen, and a woman. Putting myself in their place I can sympathize. I ride up on a big black Chinese sidecar motorcycle, the most expensive motorcycle in China. Then I remove my helmet. A blond braid tumbles down the shoulder of my black leather jacket and I mutter something incomprehensible and then look at them with slightly crazed green eyes.
“Wa may loo la,” I say. “I’m lost.”
But most villagers have never traveled farther than their network of about a dozen villages all of their lives. And there are no taxi drivers or buses or truckers to ask.
Nearly out of gasoline, I am sure that Lijang, the town I had targeted for my first night on the road, will not appear anytime soon. The going is slow not only because of the dark but because of the potholes and badly banked curves and the asphalt that end without warning.
Where might I be? I might have looped back to where I began. I could be far, far away. I remember how the land looked in daylight; the jumble of pyramid-shaped mountains covered in soft green foliage jutting through the landscape, the crumbling hillsides, the plunging cliffs.
Another tiny village passes; windows covered in thick, oiled paper glow with the flickering light of cooking fires. Exhausted, I consider stopping but would they be friendly? How could I tell them what I want? If I stop here it might cause an uproar. Do they have food to spare? A bed? Certainly not. My thoughts loop on the problem of where to sleep that night and on the problems that hadn’t yet come. In the background the unfamiliar engine rumbles. I am still working out its idiosyncrasies. I don't yet know this machine well enough to take comfort in its working noises, its hard clunk down from third gear, its slight pull to the left.
Shadow trees fly by and another small village appears. I shift down, slowing in anticipation of the many potholes a village brings, and a small animal suddenly bursts into the road. A rush of adrenaline prepares me for hard braking, for swerving or impact.
I hold my ground, trusting my instincts. I can't tell if the side of the road dives off into a five-foot ditch or heads straight into a two-foot wall. The animal races alongside me and, improbably, others join in. Finally I realize they are piglets. We travel together down the road for several long moments of dark indecision. I hold my breath while they grunt and squeal hysterically, invisibly.
Several times it seems that they will move off the road and out of my way, and several times it seems that they will run under my tires. Finally, I gently let pressure off the throttle, decelerating very slowly. The engine noise changes and in response, one piglet lets out a sudden, long, high-pitched squeal. The others squeal in response and follow it off the road into darkness.
Heart racing, I am alone again. Dirt road. Dark night. Miles later I notice that my fingers are still stiffly poised above the brake lever. The icy night air leaks up the sleeves of my jacket and between my collar and helmet. My joints ache from working the clutch and the gears of this heavy beast of a motorcycle, bumping along a barely paved road in the pitch black backwoods of China.
That afternoon my friends back in Beijing, the four Chinese bikers who formed my send-off party, had led me through Beijing in a complicated route into these mountains. They had turned back at the Beijing-Heibi province border with regret in their eyes and I rode on. They were tied, without specific government permission to travel, to the province where they lived. Before I visited China I’d had no idea that people living in one province were forbidden to travel in other provinces without special permissions and special license plates. Their plates were blue, mine was black. I waved goodbye, and I traveled on, alone.
I had spent the previous week in Beijing trying to get my papers in order. Permissions. Signatures. Chops. Both the American embassy and the Chinese government proved useless in getting my permits. My trip required a Chinese drivers license because I would be driving on my own outside Beijing province. It sounded simple, but getting a Chinese drivers license requires residency. I had no residency. It seemed that, though the Chinese government was changing their laws to welcome independent travelers, they didn’t know how to accommodate them.
My expat friends, people I’d met through the embassy, explained that since the tourist policy was in a transition period, the lawmakers wouldn’t know what the rules were. It would probably be safe to go, even without papers, they said. “They won’t put you in jail for more than a day if you get caught,” one of them explained. “And you probably won’t get caught … at least not for a while.”
I left on a hot, humid Saturday, a particularly auspicious day for weddings, as it happened. Brides in layers of white silk and chiffon perspired in the back seats of economy cars trailing red and white streamers, their drivers honking incessantly in celebration.
I was escorted by two other bikes, identical Chang Jiang sidecar motorcycles that belonged to two Chinese members of the international CJ club in Beijing. We crawled along Beijing’s third ring road until, right in front of us, a truck plowed into a taxi and slid out of the intersection. For a moment, all was still. Then, suddenly, traffic on all four sides lunged toward the center. Within seconds every car was touching the bumper or door of another car, resulting in a tightly woven fabric of glittering metal.
We turned off the road into a shallow ditch and onto a railroad track that our sidecar bikes easily managed, for they were designed for use by messengers through the rough terrain where World War II was fought.
I was sweating in the deep heat of polluted, urban Beijing, thought I’d stripped to my tank top. I knew that our leader, Jiangshan, had to be steaming in his Harley Davidson jacket, but he kept it zipped up. His girlfriend Yang Xiao sat slightly away from the leather back of the sidecar chair, one hand gripping the edge of the car and the other held up to her aviator glasses. Every so often she’d turn around to smile and give me a thumbs up. Her glossy black hair tangled in the fringe of the brown suede sleeves of her American-Indian-styled motorcycle jacket. People driving, riding bicycles, waiting to cross the road, stared. Beautiful, wide-eyed Yang Xiao. She always had a slightly haunted look, except when she was riding, and then her black eyes sparkled, and her movements were almost careless. Jiangshan, an unusually tall, dignified man of around fifty, also brightened when he rode. His movements became larger, his voice louder. On the motorcycle, they seemed almost American.
Their young friends, Lee and Liu, followed behind me on another Chang Jiang, herding me through the ruthlessly dense Beijing traffic, and soon we rose above the city into the relief of a beautifully paved single-lane mountain road. The air cooled as we passed small farming villages, a lifestyle in harmony with nature. I glimpsed grain drying in courtyards behind village walls made from mud and straw. The traditional curlicue roofs seemed carefully maintained in the old style, with protective demons painted on doorways. Here, I forgot about the problems of urban life, enjoyed the scenery and dodged donkey carts full of twigs, and diesel tractors pulling into the road from the fields, a dusty wind in my face.
Country roads, sunshine, and the camaraderie of fellow riders should have made for a perfect Saturday, but the realization that in a few hours I would be riding alone for as long as six months through this strange country sent bolts of fear shooting through my heart and stomach. The Heibi Province border appeared.
The moment of separation was inevitable and my friends, licensed only to drive in Beijing province, world have to return to the city. My borrowed bike, with its expensive black license plates, was authorized for operation in any province, though its rider wasn’t. These black plates, an indication of importance, of guanxi—their term for power, freedom and prestige—would keep me from being harassed by the police—or so I hoped.
After our farewell I rode alone with a knot in my stomach trying to enjoy the first few hours of my solo journey but I was completely cowed by the wildness of Northern Heibi province. Somewhere I had gotten the impression that all of China was densely populated. But this lonely country backwater was riddled with potholed roads among jagged mountains covered in soft brushy bushes and trees. The air was fresh and cool in the late afternoon, and the green mountains gave the atmosphere a healthy glow. I had never imagined that China had such wide-open spaces, and then the road forked into three with no signs to mark the way. I switched the engine off and, for the first time since I’d arrived in the country, experience absolute silence.
After a while, I pulled the map from the sidecar to consider it seriously now for the first time and to search, unsuccessfully, for my three-pronged crossroads, when a peasant wearing ragged cotton pants and a peaked cap appeared. He pushed a jumble of tree branches in a wooden handcart, his arms and shoulders straining against the slight decline of the road.
“Nee how ma,” I said to him. He stopped and I shoved up the visor of my helmet, to be better understood. “Nee how ma,” I repeated carefully, intoning as properly as I could in my basic Mandarin. “Wah may loo la,” I said, slowly. “I’m lost.”
He stared, as if he understood, so I continued, “Liajang way, please?”
The man was tiny, and looked eighty but was probably only sixty, badly bent from work and probably mineral deficiencies. His face was tan and flat, lightly wrinkled, and his eyes, though bright, were sunken deeply I saw, a little startled, when he stepped nearer to me to peer up into my helmet.
“Liajang way?” I repeated, rattling my map and punching the name of the town with my finger. Its name was clearly written in Pinyin, the Roman characters that appeared under the Chinese pictograms, but I really couldn’t tell how to pronounce it correctly and it’s possible the man couldn’t read. The paper rustled, ignored in the gentle breeze as the man continued to stare at my face with the bald curiosity of a child.
I’d been stared at in Beijing but this was absurd. The man acted as if I was a statue in a wax museum. He studied my jacket, then bent down to study my jeans and my boots, and rose again to take a look at my helmet and gloves before walking all around the motorcycle.
At least it gave me time to stare back. So this would be the peasant so reviled and absolutely dismissed, usually with a disgusted sneer, by the Chinese middle class. In his peaked cap with his wrinkled old face he was a museum piece, a caricature of the Chinese peasant in his blue Mao clothes, with his stringy gray hair pushing his battered wheelbarrow. I asked one more time the way to Liajang, but he continued to stare, slack jawed and glassy-eyed.
Starting off again I chose the middle of the three equally unlikely looking roads. The middle way seemed appropriate as a spiritual path, at least. Not that I was practicing moderation just then, but it wasn’t a heads or tails situation.
The middle way twisted around and down and up and around again and I no longer had any idea of the direction it would lead me. It didn’t really matter, I told myself. I wasn’t on any particular deadline and I needed only head roughly west, toward Tibet and the setting sun. With that thought I settled into a not unpleasant resignation. The scenery was wild and serene and the tension knotting in my stomach dissipated. I had chosen Liajang because it was a fairly large town with a few hotel choices, according to my Lonely Planet, but surely another town would appear. Or so I thought.
The joy of exploration waned with the fading daylight, the absence of a road sign, a gas station, or a town. I’d continued to choose my way randomly at forks in the road and, like the first road, they followed the contours of the mountains to take me on a tour of all the directions of the compass. By the time darkness fell I had passed only the tiniest of villages. The peasants performed their end-of-day tasks. They were poor, desperately poor. Their windows were covered in oiled paper. Their water was fetched from who knows where in buckets hung from two sides of a stick that they carried on their shoulders, and their grain was sorted and ground by hand and their small gardens protected from the animals by fences of mud brick and it seemed impossible that anything would change for them tonight, or tomorrow, or in the days after.
Ten kilometers of empty road passes between the village where the piglets had run beside me, and here, where the road narrows and deteriorates into dirt and gravel. The dark shapes of trees hover above on either side. Long ago Kublai Khan had traveled through China and was dismayed at the unbroken monotony of the roadways. He ordered trees planted on every roadside to give solace to travelers.
The trees do not give me solace as my headlight shines on one after another after another white painted tree trunk giving me the impression that it is them who move past me, and that I am sitting still like an actor on a movie set, the wind machine blowing in my face.
What does give me solace is the sudden appearance of two gas pumps under a brightly-lit shelter. Beyond it stands a building strung with white lights that I hope is a hotel. I pull up to the pumps and after a moment a woman peeks out of the doorway of the attached shack. She hushes the two small children peeking out behind her to walk toward me. Her outfit is garishly illuminated under the fluorescent lights. She sports a shapeless lime green dress sprinkled with large white polka dots and opaque knee-highs that have left a sharp dent halfway up her short fat calves, set off by bright pink rubber pool sandals.
She decodes at my rough Mandarin while she pumps gas into the tank. Yes, she nods, smiling. The lit building is indeed a hotel—her luguan. I can stay there, and it will cost twenty yuan.
Equipped with a full tank of gas and this happy information I follow the road she traced with her finger. I would otherwise have never found the entrance, a steep dirt and gravel driveway that passes over a shaky wooden bridge built over what seems to be a very deep ravine. The sound of water running far below me quickens my heart. It will be interesting to see in the morning what death-defying feat I am performing by crossing over these rotted beams.
I pass underneath a concrete archway and though a pair open wooden gates into the compound where a low, cheaply built stucco building stands. It is L-shaped and there is a glassed-in hallway with motel-style doors in regular intervals, each painted bright red and illuminated with a bare bulb.
I pull up to the a partially open doorway that I figure is the manager's office nd switch off the engine. It is difficult to unfasten my helmet strap with my cold, stiff fingers. My back aches and my left ankle throbs from the constant shifting through gears. I toss my helmet, gloves, and scarf into the sidecar and dismount, only vaguely aware of the rush of people emerging from the door in front of me. I step away from the bike, allowing several people to push it closer to the building. My forehead itches, my hair is stuck to the skin.
Despite my aches, I feel a profound gratitude for having found this place, for the reward of having pressed on without panicking. It is dark and cold, but I’d soon be safe and warm. Finally my eyes adjust to the dim light and looking up, I meet the gaze of a dozen young ladies dressed in pajamas. When I smile they burst into giggles, covering their mouths with their hands.
So many maids! Why would there be so many maids for such a small country motel? I look at them more closely. Their black eyes flash. So much makeup! They giggle some more, then, suddenly shy, lower their eyes heavy with liner and false lashes. Their lips glow with thick red lipstick and their lurid peach-colored polyester uniforms shine. They aren't maids at all, I finally realize. I’ll be spending the night in a brothel.
The Chang-Jiang Gang in Beijing found an untouched, untouristed, un-google-able Chinese village just a few hours out of town on their ride last weekend. Catch this great video by Sabine Hartmann of spring riding in the mountains north of Beijing, covered in white flowers that look like snow, to remote villages. It's warming up!
Thanks to Jim Bryant of Jimbo's Classic Sidecars for passing this on.