True tales from motorcycle journeys through China
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.