So, you are going to ride a motorcycle across China? There’s one question that is likely on the minds of many readers: Why? Really, why not? Besides the roads, weather, money and supposed danger, I mean. I’ve been here for about 18 months, but have only occasionally had the chance to get beyond Shanghai city limits. Once I break out, I’m going to keep going. I want to see the interior of the country up close and personal and satisfy my chronic travel itch. Trains, planes and buses severely restrict your interaction with the places –- independent transportation is the only way to go for me. It turns the act of getting there into the primary experience, not just time to be endured. It’s real freedom.
On a more practical level, it’s for charity, in a roundabout way. Sponsors have been asked to pledge money for the ride, donated to Hands on Shanghai, once the ride is completed. All of the money is earmarked for their Rising Stars program, which is putting extremely poor (we’re talking monthly family income under 320 RMB) kids through school, and giving them a long-term Big Brother/Big Sister. These kids are in our backyards. Zhabei, Putuo, etc., etc.
So, it’s fun, tempered with a little planning and fundraising.
Tell us about your route. How did you choose it? Xining, in Qinghai province, is really the only fixed point on it, due to it being the railhead for the train to Lhasa. As of today, the route wanders through Anhui, Henan, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Gansu before riding up the Tibetan plateau into Qinghai. I’m aiming for a few major cities — Lanzhou, Hefei — a few tourist sights — Huangshan, Ningxia — and allowing for a lot of spontaneity, and some days of getting lost. It’s an intentionally vague westward push — I expect to meet people along the way with better recommendations than what I could know here.
And your bike? What’s the story behind it? The bike is a Chang Jiang motorcycle; perhaps better known as those old sidecar motorcycles you see cruising the streets from time to time. The design is a classic — it dates from 1938, when BMW made them for the German army, and has changed little since the wars of the region slowly moved the factory equipment from Germany, through Russia, and finally down into China, where it was christened with the Chang Jiang name. The bikes can actually be shifted by the right hand, in case of your left leg being blown to bits in fighting, so I’m told. I met Jeff Marquass (of Marquass Motorcycles) through friends who knew I intended to take a ride like this. Initially, I just asked for advice on taking such a trip across China, not in a CJ (as they are abbreviated). These bikes are Jeff’s business, and he mentioned it to his partners. They decided to sponsor me for the trip, and give me a CJ to ride. The bike is coming specifically from Wang Baohua, of SZ Moto, a racing club in Suzhou. Wang is a guru on these bikes — it’s his passion, and more-than-full-time business. He’s a fantastic guy, and a real character. Spend a few days in Suzhou, and it’s pretty likely you’ll see him roaring around town, testing one out for a while before he delivers it. He’s given me his personal bike to ride, with a couple of modifications.
As I came to learn more about the bike, I realized how well they’re suited to a trip like this, or even much, much longer. They’re relatively simple, designed for WWII-time use, and easy to fix. The sidecar acts as a gigantic storage space, and there’s an extra seat on the back. The specs for it were for 3 soldiers, and 200 KG of gear and ammo. I’m not taking any ammo.
How long are you expecting your trip to last? Are you worried you might get lonely? Want us to ride in your sidecar? Three weeks, give or take. If I drove like a fugitive, I might be able to do it in half the time, but I want to enjoy the ride, and follow my impulses down small roads and dead-ends. Lonely, are you kidding? I need a break from being woken up by neighbors shouting in Shanghainese at the top of their lungs, everyday at 7 am, on the dot. Plus, I’ll have Shanghaiist to talk to, no? There’s a seat on the back of the bike, but I wouldn’t wish three weeks sitting there on anyone. Sidecar will be packed full of general STUFF, but you could lay flat on top, extend your arms, clench your abs, and Superman your way on the side. I would quite enjoy this, although I need to make it clear even now that I would take absolutely no legal or moral responsibility for the idea or resulting death.
Maybe we’ll pass. Tell us about your motorcycle riding experience? You must have been doing this for a long time, right? Ever done a comparably long ride? I’d like to say yes. I rode motorcycles in the States for a couple years, but it’s been a while. I’ve been out in Suzhou recently polishing the rust off of my driving skills. Sidecar bikes are much easier to ride, though. There is no balance issue, although they do take some arm strength to maneuver fluently. I’ve done some extended trips on bicycles, from which this is the natural extension. A couple weeks in the mountains of North Vietnam, a summer ride from Miami to Orlando. They helped me to learn what to expect, or better yet, to not expect.
Have you experienced some of the roads out there in rural China? What happens if (when) you get a flat? No, I haven’t been out there before. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the quality, but I’ll see soon enough. I’m prepared to fix some minor problems, like a flat tire. I’ll have tools and spare parts, and most importantly, a phone. I can always try AAA, right? Ha. Actually, these kind of breakdowns can lead to some great interactions with the people around. I read about farmers in Qinghai who have recently switched from horses to motorcycles, as the price has become roughly equivalent. They decorate their bikes as if they were horses, with saddles and garlands, and dress as if they were flamboyant cowboys. I’d consider sabotaging myself with flat when I get out there to have the chance to meet some of them.
Are you packing light? Give us an idea of what you are bringing. Not really. A sidecar full of STUFF –- spare gas, water and emergency food, spare parts, tools, and clothes. Tent and/or sleeping bag, cameras, laptop, pictures of Shanghai for when I really get out to the sticks. GPS, maps, and my book of Hanzi characters. And a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
Do you know where you are staying along the way? I’m shooting for cheap, local hotels, but would warmly welcome any invitations to people’s homes, barns or fields. I’ll have some camping gear if I get stranded, or just feel like dropping out for a while.
And once you get to your final destination, what next? What happens to the bike? Smoke a cigar, pop the bottle of Veuve and get loaded. I’m going to jump on the train to Lhasa, and the bike will be shipped back to Shanghai. I’d like to keep riding, but time and the probability of freezing solid on the Tibetan plateau will hold me back on this trip.
How is your Mandarin? Will communication be an issue? About 18 months. My Mandarin is not fantastic, so communication will be the biggest obstacle. Won’t stop me, though.
Santo Chino? What does that mean? Not much. It’s a very loose St. China in Spanish — my last name is St. Cavish, it’s not a Catholic thing. The original name was the Qinghai Suicide Ride. It has a much better ring to it, no? But, for media and sponsorship purposes, I needed something that didn’t smack of death and excitement. Too late now
So, what’s your day job? How can you take a month off to ride a motorcycle through China? I recently finished up my gig as a chef at Jade on 36. I’m riding on savings, subletting the apartment, and living cheap, but comfortable. I’ll worry about my next spot when I’m back.
What’s this we hear about some kind of Shanghai midnight bicycle riding group? Top secret information. It’s a very, very late night, completely fluid group of people, casually riding around while you’re asleep. It’s more of the stop at a convenience store for a beer every 30 minutes type of cycling club. We’re not professionals and don’t pretend to be. We ride folding bikes, Flying Pigeons, let in the odd rollerblader and are trying to figure out a way to add a san lun che to the mix. Depending on who comes, there might be a boombox strapped to handlebars.
We’re anywhere between one and 15 people on a given night, and are out seeing the late night activity from the northern edges of Yangpu, down to the curves of the Huangpu, and west as far as we can go. You see a lot of interesting stuff. Little known fact, people are actually growing corn on the northern banks of Suzhou Creek, if you get about 30 minutes west of Jing’an. The street dissolves into dirt and barking dogs. It’s my great relaxation. The city is just beautiful at night, and you can’t deny the joy of riding down the middle of Nanjing Lu at 3 am with a cold beer in hand. Despite the sound of this, we’re not a men’s only club, it’s nearly an equal mix. Perhaps we should bring some wine on the next ride. . It’s not regular, especially while I will be out of town. It’s an email only type thing. People can get in touch with me if they’re interested.
You said you are trying to get sponsors for this ride. How has that been going? Corporate sponsors are tough. I knew that before, but I didn’t realize how tough. I met some guys in India doing a similar thing, although not for charity. They spent 18 months cultivating sponsorship, and in a much more professional manner they me. They printed books, started clubs, and were already well connected. Some companies are enthusiastic, but the corporate structure and budgeting don’t allow them to take on a lot of projects. A lot of people are competing for those charity kuai. We have had some contributions, of which I am very grateful, but in order to meet the goal of 200,000 RMB (around 70 kids in school for a year!), we’re relying on personal donations to bridge the rather large gap, big and small. Even 100 RMB helps.
If readers want to help out, how can they? First, come to Senses this Friday and DRINK!!! Senses Wine Lounge will be contributing 10 RMB per drink purchased, so the more alcohol you can hold, the better person you are, at least on that night. We’ll be auctioning off a weekend at the Shangri-La, also. Starts at 8 pm.
Second, donate money. You can make a pledge directly to us on Friday, or anytime during the ride you can donate via Paypal at santochino.com.
This money is all going to charity, and a good one at that: handsonshanghai.com. Their administrative costs are next to nothing — it’s almost completely volunteer. And Rich is a nice guy.
Third, contact me directly. Have a tip for the general route? Friends or family along the way? Connections in the media in any of the provinces I’m going to? Have some extra warm clothes I can pass out to kids I meet? Anything people can contribute with is appreciated.
Occupying the sidecar in the top photo is Wang Bao Hua.
UPDATE: Chris is currently on the road — read his latest report here.