Kung Fu Riding in the Middle Kingdom
Posted on October 15, 2015
Between daily servings of diesel dust we’ve found some places in China worth the work to get there. But with the regular visits of the local police to our door, truck backups, and an endless supply of cities, it isn’t exactly the overland adventurer’s dream destination.
We couldn’t leave Beijing without a visit to the Forbidden City, home to emperors and the political center of China for centuries. It seemed like about half of China had the same idea, and we spent the day in the midst of thongs of Chinese tourists. During the city’s heyday, only the servants and councilors of the emperor were allowed in the city and some of the emperors spent their entire lives within the city walls. It was a cool place, but hard to appreciate from within the crowd. As soon as we procured our Vietnam visa we motored out of Beijing, heading southwest.
Despite the challenges, China is a very moto-friendly place. The road usually has a massive shoulder and in the cities there’s nearly always an entirely separate lane with a curbed divider for bicycles and scooters. In the cities, you’ve got grandmas, 10 year old girls, and couples with a little kid hanging off the back or a baby chilling in the front basket; all zipping around on little scooters. Most people are on their phones and don’t seem to be paying much attention and hardly anyone wears a helmet, but they ride pretty slowly. Drivers are very used to having motorbikes and scooters around, so they’re pretty good about watching out for them. With so many fewer cars, it hugely alleviates traffic and parking problems in big cities like Beijing. China is light years ahead of the U.S. on this front, where it seems to be the default position that everyone should be driving around in a massive truck, but we make a few concessions for fanatics and daredevils that want to get where they’re going on two wheels.
Now without our tent and the weather still a bit cold at night to sleep out in the open, we’re constantly searching for a place to stay. Accommodation is great value when you can find it, with comfortable rooms usually available for less than $20 USD. The problem is finding one that will take us since most places don’t seem to serve foreigners. One night we spent 5 hours looking, tried a dozen hotels, and were turned away by all of them. We gave up and started looking for a building site instead, figuring that we could just sleep the night in some unfinished concrete structure. Every place we tried, we were met with a barking dog from the darkness that convinced us to turn around. We were exhausted and on our way to just pass out in the bushes, when we finally ran into a place that let us stay.
With Jamie’s tutelage I finally learned to say a few things in Mandarin, but it honestly gets me into more trouble than it’s worth. Saying my one thing I know how to say usually prompts the other person to start rattling off in Mandarin. It gets really funny when they start writing things down in Chinese characters to help me understand. I look down at random arrangements of elongate apostrophes grouped together in cubes, and they look up at me expectantly. I mostly sit there nodding with my eyebrows raised and smiling stupidly; the most confused white man in China.
The level of development in China is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the world. Every town we pass is a big town and most of them have a whole bunch of 20-30 story buildings going up. The road infrastructure is way overbuilt with far more lanes than are needed for the cars currently on the road. It’s just unbelievable. They’ve really planned a lot of the cities out well. The country highways, however, are a different story. We spend days at a time in a sea of trucks, all of them the same open-bed style, carrying I have no idea what. There are literally thousands of them. Without the trucks there would be hardly any traffic on the rural roads. The only thing that I can think is that they are carrying either coal or road-building materials. We arrive everywhere with our faces covered in diesel dust, looking something like Alice Cooper during his glory days.
I don’t think that there are any right of way rules, or if there are, no one knows them or follows them. Every intersection is a slow game of chicken. The only way anyone ever makes a left turn is to mow through the oncoming traffic until they can kind of merge into the opposite lane. No one ever stops before entering a highway. If there isn’t a vehicle directly in front of them, the standard procedure is to just launch up onto the road regardless of what’s coming. A blind corner in the middle of a traffic lane however is a perfectly acceptable place to stop for a chat. We see near misses constantly. When there is a collision, both drivers get out and start yelling at each other. With no rules for who gives way, I’ve no idea how you might determine who is at fault. I suppose that’s why they both yell. On the Suzuki, we could use our speed to squirt us out of potentially dangerous situations, but now our only defense is slowness. As long as we move slow enough we can usually rely on the fact that someone won’t intentionally run us down. Usually.
We’ve had some hard days on the road riding this little bike slogging through one city after another or navigating the truck-scape. Most days we do nothing other than ride all day long. Progress is slow, and some days I’ve just ended up cursing China altogether at the top of my lungs as we putted along. One day we didn’t even make 100 kilometers as we got stuck in the middle of one huge truck jam after another. The first one went for at least 5 kilometers and the trucks were wedged so tightly together that the only way we could get through was to take both of our packs off the sides and wear them while we threaded through them. It was super not fun. We ran into another truck jam that went on for 12 kilometers. Some of the cities won’t let the truck pass through during the day, so they’re just lined up waiting for the entire day. There are moments that China has drained my adventure spirit altogether. Jamie takes it all in stride better than I do and keeps us on track.
After five days of riding, we arrived at the Shaolin Monastery, birthplace of the martial art of Kung Fu. The temple grounds were shrouded in the mountain mist and the air was a still as a Kung Fu master’s mind. Since I still carry my 12 year-old-self around with me, I thought this would be the coolest thing ever, because Kung Fu is rad. According to Chinese legend, it originated during the semi-mythical Xia dynasty, some 4,000 years ago. The Shaolin style of Kung Fu is regarded as one of the first institutionalized Chinese martial arts. I’ve since learned that in Chinese, the term Kung Fu doesn’t refer to the martial art exclusively, but to any skill that is acquired through learning and practice. So you can do some Kung Fu cooking or be a Kung Fu programmer.
The young students of the local Kung Fu schools punched, kicked, and flipped at one another demonstrating their mastery of the art. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. Those cats were fast as lightning. Our display was slightly less impressive.
On the way down from visiting the Shaolin Temple, the mist turned to rainfall and showed no signs of stopping. Our $5 rain gear was beginning to disintegrate. I had a massive hole ripped in the crotch of my rain pants that I didn’t know about until I started feeling like I’d wet my pants. There’s also a big rip up the side of one of the legs from kick starting the bike that I tuck into my sock to keep it from flapping in the breeze. We’re both wearing our Keen sandals, since they’re now the only shoes we have, so our feet get soaked right away, but at least our socks are wool. Wearing two pairs of wool socks is now my version of motorcycle footwear. We’ve been traveling non-stop and have only one pair of pants each, so our clothes are constantly filthy. In our tattered rain gear, inappropriate footwear, and heavy metal diesel face paint, we’ve got a distinct zombie apocalypse look. I don’t think our bike can outrun a zombie though. Sometimes I have to push it.
The clutch on the bike had started sticking and it picked the moment we were entering a city, on a bridge to get stuck completely. The arm attached to the engine case was jammed so that it wouldn’t engage the engine at all. Here we were on a bridge in the midst of city traffic and getting soaked and I can’t even get the bike moving. It’s moments like this that I wonder why in the hell we’re doing this at all. The only way I could manage it was to use my right foot to kick the clutch arm free while giving some throttle at the same time. The first couple tries I just did a quick wheelie as the clutch popped free and then killed the engine, but I got the hang of it. Once we got off the bridge and moving I just matched the revs to the gearbox and shifted without the clutch, but every time we came to a stop and had to pull the clutch in and it would stick again. After a bit of Kung Fu riding we made it into town and found a guy tinkering in little scooter garage to unstick the clutch lever.
It was slow going as we headed for the pits of the Terracotta Warriors. We rode for a couple more days towards the city of Xi’an and we froze when we gained a thousand meters of altitude. We just don’t have the gear to ride in the cold anymore, and once again we’ve found ourselves trying to outrun the winds of winter. When the rain started in again, we were just too cold and had to hole up for the night after only making 80 km’s for the day.The terracotta warriors are these exquisite figures were made to protect the first emperor of China, Ying Zheng, in the afterlife. More than two thousand of them have been exhumed since a farmer digging his well discovered them in 1974, and they’re still digging more out.
They stand in row upon row within the very pits that they were buried. There are archers, infantryman, charioteers, and officers; each of their faces distinct from one another. It’s sort of an eerie sight; all of them lined up like that, seemingly assembled for their duty in the afterlife.
Every time I look at the map I grossly overestimate how far we can ride in a day. It’s difficult to wrap my head around how slowly we’re moving, and when we get lost, have some mechanical trouble, or can’t find the way across a river it just feels like we’re not getting anywhere at all. One morning I came out to find a deflated rear tire squashed beneath our beastly machine. We just pushed the bike around the corner to the local scooter shop to put in a new tube and change the oil while we were there. A scooter shop never seems to be more than a block away and the value is fantastic. A new tube along with a liter of oil and the mechanics work came to a total of 60 Yuan, which is about $9.50 USD. There are faster and easier ways to get across China, but I can’t imagine a cheaper one.
In the North, practically all we ever see being farmed are small cornfields. It’s fall here, so the corn has been picked and husked (by hand about everywhere we’ve seen) and now every surface available is occupied by corn drying in the sun – driveways, public squares, highway lane dividers and even entire traffic lanes have all been taken over by the local farmers.
We’ve spent so much time riding through really uninteresting landscape in China it was great to finally find somewhere that made us excited to walk up a hill. Zhangjiajie National Park is filled with sandstone and quartzite spires all standing at attention amidst the gaping abyss. The scene is truly otherworldly and reminiscent of the the digital worlds created for Hollywood movies like Avatar or Maleficent. The place feels prehistoric, as though a pterodactyl gliding amongst the pillars wouldn’t seem out of place. We walked along a stream valley, slowly ascending into this freak of geology.
Tiny enclaves of vegetation perched at the top of the pillars and spilled down the vertical pink and white rock to the jungle below. I can’t imagine a landscape better suited to a set of wings.
In Chinese, the word for America means the Beautiful Land, and China is known as the Middle Kingdom. China certainly feels like the center of the world with all of the people here and there are some beautiful places to be found between the city slogging and truck dodging. Foreigners are a rare sight most of the places we’ve been riding, but people have been very kind to us the whole way along. Our little bike has pushed us to about the middle of the Middle Kingdom, and we’re just hoping it can keep pushing us to the southern edge of it. It’s a lot to ask of a meager 48cc’s of displacement, but at least it’s faster than pedaling. Barely.