Meanwhile, we at Shanghaiist are thinking of setting up another fund … for Christopher. Looks like his trip to Qinghai may take a little longer than originally planned — that is if his bike survives. Christopher has already befriended a few mechanics along his route. And pieces of his sidecar motorcycle litter the route to Hubei. Read all about it below and view his photos here.
Day ten and I’m trying to escape Wuhan. The city is huge, and I’m fairly certain I will get lost trying to exit. I concoct a couple different schemes – offer someone 50 kuai to ride on the second seat and guide me, pay a taxi driver and follow the car – but in the end, I settle on a fairly simple one: look at a map. Of the four maps of Wuhan I have, I’m able to extract enough information to chart a rough course. As I’m checking out of the hotel, I notice a wall-size city map in the lobby. . of Shanghai. I wonder how to say ‘irony’ in Mandarin as I wait for my deposit back. . .
An encouraging trend is developing, and I intuit my way out of the named streets of a city back into the cotton fields that line 318 Guo Dao. This is our last day together, Highway 318 and I. I’ve been riding it, with a couple detours and under various guises, since the second day. The white headstones that mark every kilometer have become familiar and reassuring, and it makes the direction-asking easier to stick to one road – San Yao Ba? San Yao Ba? The first hundred km or so are some of the best riding of the trip. The highway is smooth and fast, punctuated with tractors, trucks, bicycles, oxcarts and people on foot, all carrying more cotton than they look designed for. It’s that Dumbbell Air Balloon effect, giving you the illusion of strength when lifting inflated vinyl in the shape of a 250 kg weight set, but I marvel at it everytime I pass. Vehicles are 6 or 8 meters high, full of bags of cotton bursting at the homemade seams, occasionally with someone riding on top, like an Indian train. Sunflower seeds drop down from above. It looks like toxic black raindrops falling from the bags of clouds. The harvest is in full swing in this part of Hubei, and the sight of the fields has become so commonplace, it’s tough to imagine an end. I neglect to take any pictures of it.
I make great time, wonder what I’ll do with the extra hours I gain by being ahead of schedule, and tell myself to be thankful I haven’t even had a flat tire yet. When I pull over to buy some oranges superstition steps in like clockwork.
The back end of the bike falls off, the wires to the brake and turns signals rub against the tires and are chewed to hell, and I smack myself for knowing better. In baseball fandom, there’s the Perfect Game and No-Hitter Theories: you don’t talk about one while it’s happening, lest you curse and ruin it. I should have known it would also apply to other phenomenon that the general human being does not fully comprehend, such as motorcycle mechanics.
Dragging the tail behind me, bumping along the ground, I drive a couple hundred meters up the street, where it’s lined with auto repair shops. The first two repairboys I ask to fix curiously poke at the broken part, laugh at each other, walk away, walk back, and then stare blankly at me. I can clearly see the tools needed to fix it sitting in their garages, but they stonewall me as they take turns sitting on the bike. They won’t answer my simple questions as they test the spring under the seat – “Can you do it?” “Yes or no?” The Color of the day here is Red. Red for the frustration, anger and anxiety it provokes in me. I politely tell them to get them-fucking-selves off and far away from my damn bike. I move on to the next one, who is everything that these kids are not – polite, helpful, attentive and patient. They stop their work on the scooters parked in front, and pull the Chang Jiang in. They grind, drill, clip, wire, re-wire, tape, and screw the beast back together again. They help me change the oil and transmission fluid, fix lights I wasn’t aware were burnt out, and continuously try to make conversation with me. Most of it ends with me saying “I don’t understand”, but I get enough that they have a son studying in Canada. They keep asking why my license plate is from Hubei, when I’m clearly not. Even if I could, I wouldn’t explain to them that it’s much easier to buy grey market ones from their province than attempt to get a legit one in mine.
As the bike is ready, and I ask for a price, the paternal figure of the mechanic clan raises two fingers – 200 RMB, about $25, and what I expected to pay for several hours work, a couple small parts, and the near-electrocution when they cut through the power cord of the grinder they were using. It’s a fair price, and I’m happy for it. But he says, “Twenty”. He only wants 20 kuai – I try to tip the mechanics, but he won’t have it. It’s a genuine act of goodwill, the kind that makes up for all of the assholes along the way. I’m so relieved, surprised, and thankful it flusters me for a minute. I drive off and don’t realize I forgot to take a picture until half an hour down the road. . I stop in Yichang for the night, the jumping off point for the Three Gorges Dam.
COLOR: GREEN/TAN ROCK
The hotel I’m staying in is on the edge of town, the preferred location for clean-cut earnest men to give attractive naked blondes platonic massages. They must be staying on another floor. My room has a bathroom, added in a toilet sized space as an afterthought, and a shower head stuck to the wall. I’m a little confused about where I should start creating this bubble bath scene, more confused about how to grow hair like the guy in the picture in my limited time, and wondering where if this is the town in China where they are storing all the blondes. There’s no clear distinction where the washing area stops and the toilet-using or hand-washing area begins, understandable for an area roughly the size of my motorcycle. I turn on the shower, which shoots the half meter across the space, directly into the fake wood door, leaving me with a soggy mess of toilet paper and damp carpet. No wonder the room smells like a cave. I don’t think the elevator scene is going to happen tonight, and when my phone rings at 10 PM, I politely decline the invitation for extra service.
In the morning, I study the maps and try to cover the two inches that separate me from the Three Gorges Dam. The roads are confusing, and I spend an hour lost around Yichang. There is an expressway that runs from Wuhan directly to the dam site, but it’s off limits to me. It’s beautiful, modern with crisp yellow lines down the center, exit signs, and even pavement, and I consider riding on it anyway, playing the stupid lost foreigner if pulled over or stopped. I decide against it, taking the old local road, which cuts through some postcard scenery, but is an extremely rough ride, and hard on the bike. It turns out to be the correct decision, as when local 334 ends, merging into the expressway, it’s not these guys on guard, but young soldiers in crisp green dress uniforms with white gloves and stern expressions. They are as still as the fake cops until I try to enter, when they immediately stop me. I’m two or three kilometers from the dam, and hoped to take a picture of the bike with it in the background. I lie that I’ve ridden all the way from Shanghai just to see the dam, but it’s not working, and it’s clear it’s not going to. A small business has sprung up at this junction, offering tours of the dam in a minivan to those stopped here by the motorcycle restriction. This is as far as I can come on my own, and I hire out the whole van to take me the rest of the way. We stop at various places to take in the downriver side, the locks, and the upriver side. There’s not much more to describe it than monstrous. The sheer arrogance it takes to look at the breadth of the Yangtze at this point, and decide you can control it is beyond me. The fact that the idea originated in 1919, and its history and present existence are so conflicted and full of the human touch is fascinating to me. I had been reading about it, and the history of the Yangtze for several days beforehand, a sage move as the rapid-fire Chinese from my tour guide shot wildly around my head.
I’m not usually touched by massive infrastructure projects and feats of engineering, and didn’t spend much more than 30 minutes in total at the site. So, I was surprised to find myself with such a strong feeling for the area, the dam, and the river. The landscape was one of my favorites so far, a mix of all the previous areas I’ve visited; lush forested mountains, bare stone striated like a geology textbook, terraced hills, and the river. It was comforting to see the river loaded with barges, slowly moving in the direction of home, and knowing that in theory, I could load the bike onto a freighter here, and in time drift back to Shanghai and familiar surroundings. It unexpectedly became my frontrunner for favorite.
I bumped my way back to Yichang and felt around the bike for damage, like you might after getting your ass kicked by an angry mob. Fingers, check. Toes, check. Headlight, check.
In the time I’ve been on the road, I often wonder how the trip would be with a companion on the backseat. I’m not able to do everything I’d like to as one person; shooting video while driving, snapping photos of people along the road, have more than a superficial conversation with the people I meet, take my frustrations out on a poor, hapless, stuck-with-me partner. I am perfectly content, and prefer, travelling alone, being able to be selfish, face and solve my problems on my own, but I do wonder. Today, however, would have been a rough one for my hypothetical travelling partner. The main body of the bike is in pretty good shape, getting me from place to place, but it’s getting much clearer where the weaker links are. Wherever a nut can rattle off, a screw break, or a joint separate, they have. The connection of the spring to the seat snapped, leaving it to droop on the back. A back tailight disappeared somewhere in Hubei, and the aforementioned hinge of the previous day all add to the list. The bike has started to backfire and pop, occasionally stalling when I’m idling, and taking a minute longer to start than usual. I spend the rest of the night as the entertainment for a group of motorcycle drivers, replacing sparkplugs, checking cables and cleaning my carburetors while they shout, laugh, smile and offer advice to me.
Yichang marks a midway point for the ride, geographically and mentally. It’s the end what has been a steady course west, and the end of me expecting pleasant weather. Up to now, the days have been warm, even hot, the nights cool, cold in the mountains. From here it’s a giant right turn, cutting north through Shaanxi and Gansu, before heading west to Qinghai and the Xining endpoint. This is especially troubling, because after hitting one too many unseen bumps at jarring speeds on the shit roads of 334, the Chang Jiang has developed a serious pull to the left, and an almost magnetic repulsion to turning right. Perhaps it wants to go to Sichuan, but I’ve got different ideas. The road today cuts through mountains, climbing, twisting, and dropping. This new problem makes it terribly hard, and requires the full strength of both arms and my back to make an easy right turn. In no time, my body is exhausted, and then the roads start looking like this. I stop here to take a picture, thinking this will be the worst I’ll see. Unfortunately, this only marks the beginning of 25 km of dissolved road. The pavement ends a million times, turning into ditches and rocks, and I can hardly get the bike going fast enough to get out of second gear. I ride standing up through most of it. Even with the padded, suspended seat and my thick leather pants, I could use an inflatable ring to cushion the blow. Being able to swerve quickly out of the way of oncoming traffic, stray dogs, and suicidal bicyclists is a necessity and the pulling problem is dangerous. Swerving to the left of these mountain roads means riding off the edge. I stop for gas, and try to find the problem. An attendant points me to a repair shop, where again I meet a kind-hearted soul. They spend some time on the bike trying to fix the problem, refuse my money when it comes time to pay, and give me the phone numbers of friends in towns on my path ahead in case I have some problems. The riding sucks, quite frankly, but the people are the nicest I’ve met. Even when I realize 2 km up the road that the problem continues, I’m still smiling. I can put up with some physical strain, but rude people are a hundred times worse. I cross the river again, by which time it’s dark outside. It’s not a fun day, but I keep on through the pitch black. An hour after getting off the ferry, all of my complaining about the roads comes back to bitch-slap in the face. Very hard. Where the road once gave way to rocks and foot-high bumps, it now looks like the surface of the moon. The only light comes from a million trucks hauling load after load of what appears to be dust. It’s a mixture of large rocks, and giant ditches formed where the heavy trucks drove through mud which later dried. Some of them are nearly a meter deep, and being from tires, they come in pairs. A giant ridge sits in the middle of them. I imagine I must be lost, and stop to ask a lone building if this is the right road. Two meters from the bike, my feet sink ankle deep into red mud, and it squishes into my toes before I can get out. The bike is pissed, refusing to start again, adding to the problems. It stalls while waiting to pass the trucks, and slams into the ground. There are several times where the bike is on a 45-degree angle, with the sidecar up in the air, at the same level as my head, and I have to put my left down to keep from falling off. Flipping the bike becomes a real concern, but there’s no choice but to keep on. It’s a nightmare – a motherfucking 10 km long BMX course masquerading as a road. It takes an hour to ride, and I’m pleasantly surprised the Chang Jiang makes it through alive. I plead with it, promising a day off and an oil change if it gets me to the next town, Xing Shan. They are building another expressway through this area, and I’ve seen loads of surveyors out for the last two days. Why they feel the need to destroy one road before the new one is built is a mystery only they know.
I’m completely fucked by the time I reach Xing Shan, covered head to ankle in a thick powder of dust, and ankle to toes in a dried mud boot . If the roads get any worse than this, I won’t be able to ride them. It’s that bad.
It’s a small town, and it’s almost 9 PM, but there are alot of people out. I stop to look at a hotel and am totally mobbed by 8-year old kids shouting “Foreigner! Foreigner!”, asking me where I’m from, and running away, squealing in delight. All of their friends join them, and by the time I get back on the bike, it’s nearly impossible to move for fear of hurting one of them. They stop me at the traffic light, asking me if I’m really American, really a foreigner? Really? No, really?!?! I take a quick drive around town. The biggest, grandest buildings are the two government complexes, with fancy facades, statues and big concrete plazas. There is no light, but the square is full of people dancing, talking, and kids running around, after obviously being given cocaine by the parents. (Note: not true). The people get nicer and nicer, helping me to find a restaurant, even accompanying me, ordering for me, and politely waiting while I eat my hotpot dinner. Kindness is endemic here; I really enjoy Hubei.
ODOMETER: eh. ..
COLOR: SKY BLUE/GREASE BLACK
According to me, Xing Shan means “OK Mountain”. While probably not correct, it is definitely not true. The sky is watercolor blue, the view from my hotel room is bright green terraced hills, and alot of friendly people have gotten their hands black with grease helping me to fix the bike today. I spend a quarter of the day doing minor repairs and cleaning, and another quarter watching mechanics do what I don’t know how. The right-hand repulsion improves, but more importantly, I learn how to do it myself by watching and am that much more self-reliant for the rest of the ride. As I mentioned, the path from here goes north, into the second, more difficult half of the ride; the bike isn’t in perfect Wang-style condition anymore, with a couple of bangs and bruises, and the weather is going to get much worse. I can’t wait.
Also on Shanghaiist
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 3
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 2
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 1
Interview: Christopher St. Cavish, motorcycling philanthropist