If we had an office, we’d start an office pool: When will motorcycling philanthropist Christopher St. Cavish arrive in Qinghai? Or will he? Will he make it to his sister’s wedding? Did he bring snow tires?
We have to say, we are really enjoying these diary postings, even if half of them involve him waiting around for mechanics to fix the bike. Remember, you can donate to the trip here — all proceeds go to kids who could really use some help. Don’t forget to check out Chris’ photos here.
COLOR: BAI JIU WHITE
I left Xing Shan in a great mood. The bike got some much-needed attention, and the lunar roads had become paved on the way into town. So when I saw the first one of these, it didn’t faze me. I hate to expound on negative aspects as I write, and perhaps give the false impression that I’m not enjoying the trip. The opposite is true; I’m having a blast riding through the country, and if it wasn’t for the unmissable event of my sister’s wedding in early December, I probably wouldn’t stop at Qinghai. I’d happily disappear into central Asia through a cloud of dust and Xinjiangese. That being said, the driving and driving-associated items (gas, roads, repairs) are the bulk of my consciousness, and on day 14, they quickly degenerate back into a muddy, bumpy, interrupted, and discouraging pile of shit. This riding is no joke; it takes almost five hours, and every curse word I know, to cover thirty km like this. Except for a quick break with these kids, I hardly notice much around me beyond my immediate path. The bike gets stuck several times, overheats and forces a break, and refuses to start after I fill up at the local fire hazard. I go about what has now become almost a routine – find a mechanic, follow him to another mechanic who knows more, wait, watch, proceed. I’m spending too much time like this.
Let me explain how repairs work here. It’s not the single mechanic toiling away in his own space of a garage, analyzing, deconstructing, and then reconstructing your vehicle-of-disrepair, hopefully fixing it in the process. This is a communal effort. The Chang Jiang not being the most common motorcycle these guys have ever seen, there is always a mix of curiosity and apprehension on the faces of those whom I approach, in varying degrees. They’re not quite sure what to do with it at first. It’s probably parked off to the side of the road, and a crowd of self-styled amateur mechanics forms. A discussion (by which this being China, the crowd being Chinese, means a shouting match) of possible problems and solutions ensues, wherein the Alpha Repairman is unspokenly chosen from the crowd to lead the work, and curse out the other proposals with his newly elected power. And then they start.
Today, a group of businessmen from Shandong on vacation happen to walk by. One of them is a fairly skilled mechanic in his own right, and quickly establishes his seniority with a couple well-placed slaps to the backs of lesser mechanics’ heads. Let me make clear, this guy is on vacation. He is with a group of friends. They leave and he spends hours with me, the bike and the other mechanics fixing it. We stop several hours into it, and he takes me out to dinner with their friends. The restaurant is across a hanging wooden bridge, built of logs, and the kind that many Hunan (yes, I am in Hubei) restaurants back home (Shanghai) try to emulate. It’s easily the best meal of the trip – genuinely friendly, genuinely drunk (six bottles of bai jiu will do that to you), genuinely superb food. It’s a country Hubei restaurant, the cups are disposable, the bathroom is the creek outside, and the flavors of the food rival places with more than one Michelin star. I’ve already met some great people, but Mr Kong wins hands down. Breaking down in this town, Muyu, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
COLOR: RED / ORANGE
As I check-out of the hotel, the owner asks me where I’m going, and informs me that the area is off-limits to foreigners. I vaguely recall a passage in my guidebook referring to something like this. “As all transport beyond Muyu travels via Songbai, it is not possible to continue north to Shiyan and Wudang Shan, however easy this appears on a map. . . go here [Songbai] and you will be arrested, fined and booted out by the PSB.” This is my route. I dismiss this as inconvenient, and decide to go anyway. The proprietor offers me some advice – “Kan jing cha, bu ting”. The first part means “if you see the police”, and with my poor Chinese, the second part could mean either “don’t listen” or “don’t stop”. They both strike me as good advice. The blessing becomes more obvious today, as it occurs to me that a breakdown in the next two hundred km would likely be met with police presence, not bai jiu and a Hubei dinner.
I leave the town nervously. Being stopped and forced to return over the hellish roads it’s taken me three days to cross is not an option. My helmet is full-face, although I usually ride with the clear face panel up, to take in the smells, the wind, and the mouthfuls of dust along the way. Not today. When I’m riding, on a Chinese bike, dressed in black head-to-ankle (I rock Adidas on the road), with the name of the Suzhou Motorsports Club written in Chinese down the front of the bike, it’s not immediately obvious I’m a foreigner. Up to now, it’s been useful only to give an extra surprise to people already staring at the unusual driving contraption coming their way. It causes some excitement and stares, and popping off the helmet to reveal my white face is the sucker punch, the punchline. Today I’m using the anonymity it provides to cross Shennongjia, a forest reserve in western Hubei famous for its medicinal plants, golden monkeys, and the Chinese Yeti. Considering the restrictions against over-haired foreigners in this region, I wonder perhaps if the legend is just a lost backpacker, or maybe fair-haired, large-footed Italian walking through the woods. This is about as close as I get to him.
Police are everywhere, and I see more in the first hour of this leg than I have in the last two weeks combined. Red trucks whom I assume to be forest rangers travel the roads, and people wearing neon orange vests ride bicycles. I guess they work in some capacity for the reserve, and are not to be associated with today. Since I entered Anhui about two weeks ago, camouflage has been a valid and common fashion choice. Today it makes me jump. The plastic front of the helmet is dirty and difficult to see through. Still, at every pedestrian, bicycle or car I pass on the road, I turn my head to look away from them once I’m in eye contact range. If there are people on both sides of the road, I look straight down at the gas tank. In the beginning, I keep up some pretense of looking towards something, but I quickly give it up and jerk my head away blatantly once anyone gets too close. I am NOT going back. As if to underscore the Chinese-only policy here, even the road markers give up their usual Roman numerals.
It’s fall in Shennongjia, and the mountain landscape is wondrous. Trees turn color, large caves pockmark the mountainsides, signs painted on rock surfaces beg for translation, and for the first time I see flat fields not occupied by agriculture. Houses are few and far between. The highway is newly paved, and besides the occasional official presence, there are more cows than cars on the road. It’s a shame this area is off-limits, and I feel lucky to drive through it. I try to stop for pictures, but immediately a cop comes around the corner in the opposite direction. I turn around, back facing him, and exaggeratedly hold out my camera before he notices me.
Yesterday I was thankful for Mr Kong and the repair of my bike, but today it feels temporary. Previous problems re-occur, and the brakes that were supposedly fixed go up in a cloud of smoke. I stop to let them cool off, but it scares the shit out of me for two reasons. One, anyone passing will slow down, see who I am, and the gig is up. Two, Shennongjia is a mountain forest reserve. By this point it’s repetitive, but the roads twist severely, up and down mountains. The bike is heavy, and going downhill through the series of S’s, it flies. The chances of a safe exit are dramatically lower with only a front brake. I ride in a lower gear, taking the risk of overheating the engine to keep my speed down, and use the brake sparingly. The combination of all the recent problems has me worried. While some great silver linings have come out of being mechanically fucked, it occurs to me that there are much better ways to meet people. I don’t want to know every other mechanic between Hubei and Qinghai, and I consider calling Wang. With some of the previous problems, he offered to take a bus from his Suzhou factory to correct them. I didn’t want to inconvenience him then, and I could live with a few problems. But there are too many now. I anticipate that the weather on the next leg will be enough to think about, without the added worries of constant breakdowns. The population density only gets lower from here, and I decide to take him up on his offer. I ride on to Shiyan, home of the ever-present Dong Feng blue truck, pick a cheap hotel, and wait for Wang. He may be a couple of days, but I’m losing time every day with mechanics who aren’t helping, and potentially causing new problems. It’ll be some long riding days from here to make up the time.
I haven’t washed the bike since I left, with each splattered bug and mud splash a symbol of honor for the journey. However, the bike is not mine – it is Wang’s personal CJ, and with him taking time from his busy schedule to come out here, the least I can do is wash it. It takes six hours to get the mud off, and I spend the rest of the cold, gray day wandering the market near the bus station, and my hotel. I’m close to Wudang Shan, the military mountain, which I intended to visit on Day 17, trading the independent transportation for a minivan, but an early morning phone call changes that. Wang has a friend here who can fix the bike, but I need to wait at the hotel for him and his phone calls. I feel like the Shiyanese small wife (mistress) of a Hong Kong businessman, kept in the hotel room waiting for the call that will release me. I use the time to write, edit pictures, and stare curiously at the mid-day programs on Chinese TV. I originally planned to buy a motorcycle off the street in Shanghai, and ride it west “until it blew up.” As I sit here waiting for the repairs that will help to prevent this kind of exciting story from happening, I realize I probably would have been on it when it exploded, and decide the hotel room is actually pretty nice. Xining, Qinghai is the destination because it also serves as the railhead for the new-ish train to Lhasa, which I planned to take once I’m finished riding. Considering the recent events, the weather, my crunched time frame and dwindling finances, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen on this trip. I want to get back on the road.
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Interview: Christopher St. Cavish, motorcycling philanthropist