The Slow Road through China
Posted on October 1, 2015
China wins no points in the moto-fun department, refusing to let us enter with our beloved motorbike, forcing us to endure the four-hour bus ride from Vladivostok, Russia to Hunchun, China. We drove over the landscape in a sealed container barely awake, rather than riding through it with our senses alight. We needed to fix this situation, whether China was onboard with the moto-hobo lifestyle or not.
The cheapest thing that we could find was a little moped looking thing. She’s 48cc’s of fire breathing Chinese muscle. Two of those ought to do for us, but the shop only had one. Two-up on a 48cc across China – was this even possible? We were determined to find out.
Buying stuff in China is pretty cheap. They invented stuff-making here. We got the bike, along with a shiny top box, two helmets, and a lock chucked in, all for a song of a deal. I still don’t even know the make of the bike. We grabbed a couple backpacks to stuff our stuff, I assembled a comprehensive tool kit (mostly zip ties and duct tape), and that was it, ready ride across China.
On our diminutive machine, wearing our Chinese helmets with sunglasses on, we’re virtually undetectable as foreigners, so we fly under the radar at any police checkpoint. They don’t even look twice at us as we ride right by. Before we arrived I’d read on a website written by an American expat in China that you don’t need a Chinese license or a plate for a bike under 50cc’s. I don’t really know if that’s true or not, but so far everyone just ignores us.
You might think we’re being a bit cavalier about all this and you’d be correct. Even after all we’d gone through on this trip up to now, wobbling off on the little bike felt half insane. I didn’t even know if we could make it up a hill with the both of us until we got to the first one 30 km away from the town. She’ll get to the top of a mild grade but she’s none too happy about the climb. We’re basically about half a rung above a bicycle on the vehicle hierarchy.
For the first three days riding, something broke every day. We just hopped from one little shop to another. Little bike shops are absolutely everywhere and there is always someone to help out. Within the first 200 km the rear tire delaminated. We retreated to a shop to get a new one that is surely better quality, but it was bigger and rubbed the fender every bump we hit. We absolutely mangled the fender to provide some more clearance and iteratively stopped at one shop after another borrowing tools to mangle it even more. Finally, with the pre-load on the springs cranked all the way up, an over-sized knobby tire, and a rear fender that looked like a piece of modern art, we had a fully off-road capable machine. Mostly because I can just lift it up to carry it over any really big bumps.
The first few days of riding we spent most of the time winding through lovely, mountain roads with very little traffic, flanked by trees ablaze with the colors of fall. I was in a state of disbelief that this was actually working; that we were really going to ride this thing, carrying everything we needed, 3 thousand miles across China. When a storm came through we found our first hard day of riding ducking under bridges as the showers came and went during the day. We donned the rain gear that we bought in Hunchun for $3 dollars each. I looked like I was wearing a set of hefty bags and Jamie looked like she was about to be sent off to the school bus carrying a Hello Kitty lunch box.
As this trip has progressed, I’ve become increasingly more useless to get where we’re going and Jamie has become ever more essential. In Russia, Jamie learned the Cyrillic alphabet so that we could read signs and she even made a fair stab at learning Russian. The first time we got into an elevator in China, Jamie started speaking Mandarin to the lady next to us. My girlfriend speaks Chinese!? Jamie had lived in Taiwan for two years, so I figured she’d picked some up, but I still couldn’t help being amazed standing there listening to her. I can say hello. That’s it.
Additionally, Jamie is now the route planner and navigator, since I no longer have the phone mounted up on the front of the bike. So pretty much all I do now is drive the bike and say hello a lot. Ni Hao.
Planning routes in a huge country on a slow bike is a lot more complex than a big bike, since we have to take care to avoid the major roads where we’d quickly be mowed down by trucks. We pretty much have to plan as though we were on bicycles, following the smaller provincial roads through the countryside and trying the skirt as many of the big cities as possible. Riding all day long we can only manage about 200 km a day. We make about 40 km per liter of fuel (100 mpg), but the tank only holds 3 liters. At the first gas station, we found a 4-liter plastic container, which has been our auxiliary tank ever since, giving us a range of nearly of about 280 km.
People in China generally drive like idiots; going the wrong way on the shoulder, launching up onto the road without even slowing down at the intersection, weaving all over the lane in a three wheel cart while talking on a phone, performing a left turn by slowly mowing through oncoming traffic. In some ways the demeanor on the road has a distinctly African feel. All of this said, there is rarely any mal intent or aggression behind any of it. People are used to lots of motorbikes everywhere and are genuinely mindful of us on the road. Unless they need to turn left and you happen to be coming from the other direction – in that case, avoiding them is your problem. It’s taken me about a week to get into the swing of things and to stop being the angriest white man in China.
I wanted to come to China because I thought it would be strange and so far I’ve not been disappointed. One night we set out in a town looking for food and found a lady frying up tofu in a street cart. Awesome! Except when it was ready, she slathered it in some gray brown sauce that seriously smelled like it had come from a break in the sewer line. This was my introduction to a Chinese classic, called ‘Stinky Tofu’. The stink has nothing redeemable about it like stinky French cheese for instance. It seriously smells like an outhouse. It’s radical. I can’t believe people eat it. Another night, we checked into a hotel and quickly noticed that it was cooking hot everywhere in the building even though it was cold outside. It seemed that we’d inadvertently checked into some spa-hotel place with the idea to cook the ailments out of their guests. Every time we left the lobby, we had to check our shoes in and head upstairs in funny little slippers. I wasn’t into it.
The reason we ended up at Hotel Hotness was that we’d been told that only certain hotels are licensed to serve foreigners. When we’d tried to check into a simple guesthouse in a small town, the police quickly arrived to tell us that we had to leave the town. The place they wanted us to go was 80 km away and it had just started getting dark. We flat out refused to go on the grounds that it was too dangerous to ride off now. They said that we were in a disputed autonomous region called Liao Ning Province and it was for our own safety that we should leave. So, leave, and go hurtling through the darkness on the highway on our tiny little bike. Safely. That made perfect sense.
We went back and forth a few times until the police finally agreed that they would call a truck to drive us out of town with the bike. A free ride – stoked! These guys really did want us out of town! During the time we were waiting for the truck, half the town had turned up to the hotel to meet the crazy foreigners riding the silly little bike. No one seemed the least bit threatening to our safety other than a guy who tried to make us eat some chicken feet. Those looked pretty dangerous. We’ve since learned that such a license to serve foreigners used to be needed, but no longer – the requirement was revoked in 2003. However, some local police still tell guesthouses that they need this license, which doesn’t exist. It’s all down to the whim of the local police and we’ve also learned some local jurisdictions have outlawed foreigners from being in their cities altogether.
With a population more than 2 billion strong, China is utterly filled to the brim with people. We run into big towns and full-on cities constantly. For us, it’s been a dramatic change from the sparsely populated regions in Mongolia and Siberia. Signs of the fastest growing economy in the world are everywhere from massive infrastructure projects to huge housing developments. Explosions of fireworks regularly punctuate the afternoon as fireworks heralding the completion of a new building. The first time it happened nearby I nearly ran for cover. We rode beneath expressways tiered up with more pillars that we could count spanning massive wide valleys and saw the skylines of town after town edged with scores of brand new skyscrapers and more on the way up. All of this growth requires plenty of energy, but they do seem to keep their nuclear power a bit close for comfort.
Sites that preserve China’s heritage persist right alongside the boomtowns. Riding towards Beijing, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go for a hike along the Great Wall. It had taken us more than a week to reach Beijing riding from the Russian border and we were more than happy to spend some time moving on our feet rather than on our butts.
We set out up onto the wall from the village of Gubeikou, where the wall is in a pretty ruinous state, but there are no tourist crowds like there are at some of the restored sections of the wall. It was a harder hike than we’d guessed climbing and dropping along ridgelines on an uneven surface of cracked and dislodged stones that formed this wild section of the wall.
Along the way, we met an Australian couple Dan and Nadine, also hiking the same section of The Wall, on a trip out from their home in Kuala Lumpur. They were the first foreigners we’d seen the entire time in China.
We hiked towards a restored section at a place called Jinshanling, before retreating the same direction that we’d come just before dusk. On the way out, we’d scoped out a good guard tower that we’d commandeer for the night.
We’d sent our warmest sleeping bag back to California with the bike, and the temperature dropped low enough that we spent a cold, angry night trying to find some warmth at bottom of our sleeping bags. I had both of our raincoats over top of my sleeping bag in an effort to retain some heat. From 2 AM onwards, Jamie and I were both barely in and out of consciousness and just waiting for sun to rise. Finally the stars began to fade as the sun rose behind the hills. As tough a night as it was, it still felt worthwhile when we caught the morning view of the wall in the golden glow of sunrise.
We’d ridden more than a 1200 miles to reach Beijing and still have double that distance to go to reach the other side of China. Jamie is practicing her Chinese and I’m trying to learn to navigate our minuscule moto through the city chaos like a Zen Master rather than a confused tourist. The journey has slowed to a snail’s pace, but at least we’re back on two wheels with the wind in our face. It still seems like a long way before I’ll get some bugs on my board again.