Remember to check out his photos on Flickr. And please consider donating to the trip (you can do that here) — all proceeds go to Hands on Shanghai’s Rising Star program.
ODOMETER: SAME AS IT EVER WAS.
COLOR: ORANGE ORANGE
After a couple days of sitting around in a BFE Hubei hotel-near-the-train-tracks-down-by-the-river, I need something, anything, to happen.
Day 18 starts with a knock at the hotel door. It’s my guys, the magical Chang Jiang connection in Shiyan that Wang has somehow conjured. I later find out these guys don’t know him, or of him, and it’s still a mystery to me just what branches of which network led them to me. But I don’t care, and it didn’t matter, I’m just happy to see them. They are in their late thirties, one with a perpetual slouch, a frumpy Adidas tracksuit, and the traditional bangs-jumping-over-the-bridge non-haircut. He’s an electrician on his day off. The other is well-kept, well-groomed, in slacks, dress shoes and a smart jacket. He is clearly the leader between the two of them, smiles right away, and is confidently polite. I like him immediately. Neither of them speak any English, but by now it’s less of a problem. My Chinese, especially when it comes to describing problems with a motorcycle, is improving. Oil leak? Know it. Won’t turn right? Know that one also. No, I don’t think it’s the carburetor? Self-taught. I’ll be happy when these phrases disappear with the other ninety percent of the language I keep trying to remember. I show them the problems and am relieved when they dismiss them all as relatively minor. These gentlemen both own the same kind of bike, and their opinion sets me at ease. I expect to get to work right away, but they tell me they have a friend with one of these also, who’d like to meet me and go out to lunch. It’s 9.00 AM, but whatever. My breakfast was Listerine.
They lead to me the car – it’s a small Ford coupe, fire-engine red, covered in logos of motor oil products, tricked out, and pretty unique. I assume we’re just going up the road, until our conversation runs out (or more accurately, my vocabulary) about thirty minutes after we get on the expressway. This is not a quick jaunt to other side of town. I have no idea where they’re taking me, but I’m much more concerned with the road. It’s a glimpse into a better world, a smooth, empty highway that could have shaved 4 of the last 5 days out of my schedule, had I been allowed to ride on it. They can take me where they want, these are the things I notice and daydream about now.
We exit somewhere close to Wudang Shan, the military mountain. Sword stores line the street for hundreds of meters, each one as empty as the next. I meet the friend, we stand around looking at his Chang Jiang (at what, I still don’t know. . ) for a while, and he takes us to a crumbling temple complex up the block. I realize what’s happening; I expected it to be all business – look at bike, fix bike, return to daily life and/or cross-China motorcycle trip. But anyone who’s read more than a Time magazine article about China could tell you that here business isn’t about business. Nothing is all business, everything is all relationships, and we’ve yet to establish ours. And that’s what we do for the rest of the day; visit empty, crumbling temples hidden up dirt paths, take a million pictures with each other, drink too much beer at a lunch with too many dishes, and meet their friends. We stop at a small orange grove, up hills so steep the trees grow at right angles to horizon. A group of twenty villagers is out for the harvest, and we all join in. We leave with 25 kg in a fraying sack, crumpled like a mob hit in the trunk.
They’ve hijacked me for the day, but I love it. They’ve taken a complete stranger, sight unseen, out on a seven-hour tour of their county. Afterwards, they’ll drive back with me, 45 minutes, to a specialized Chang Jiang mechanic, get their hands dirty to help him fix all of the problems, out to dinner with the wife and son, and fill my sidecar with the oranges we picked together. I’m not allowed to pay for even the tolls on the road. My vocabulary ran out hours ago, and the language barrier creates long spaces, but they never allow them to feel awkward. Who does this??? I take back every curse I threw at the city of Shiyan on the days I idled away waiting for them. . It seems all I write about are generous people, each one better than the last. That’s not a bad thing.
PROVINCE: HUBEI / SHAANXI
COLOR: VISAGE GRAY
It’s raining lightly although you can’t see it. You can’t see much of anything. It looks like this. I don’t mind; after three days off the bike, I’ll drive through hell. I’ll drive over rocks. I just want to be moving again. And on Day 19, that’s what I do.
Good driving makes for boring writing. If you could see 100 m to the sides, you’d be unrewarded with dirty, anonymous market towns and pockmarked roads. It’s not a great loss.
I cross an unmarked border into Shaanxi province. What does it look like to drive across China? Today, a lot like the back of a car.
The only notable aspect of the day is the amount of accidents I come across and am stuck in the wake of. The first one was a cargo truck, ripping out the concrete safety-barriers in its path down the slope of a sharp turn. Let’s call it Blue, for the Dong Feng truck. It’s a bit sobering the see the wrecked vehicle hauled back up, and the road crushed where it fell. The crowd tells me the driver survived. I think I spot him at the bottom of the slope: the worried-looking guy with a couple lines of blood drying on his face, collecting the detritus that spilled out of the broken cab – papers, jugs of tea, clothing. I’m sure he didn’t need to look very hard for his shit, though – it was probably in the seat of his pants, or would be very shortly. If taking the plunge didn’t scare him, explaining the mess to the truck’s owner would. It takes an hour to pass his traffic jam.
Shortly after, I see the next one. It’s a small cargo truck pulled off to the side, a smashed scooter and little girl sitting on the other side of the road. A few cars slow down enough to look, one to stop and help. I just missed it happening, and I can tell by the blood still streaming down the face of the truck driver. He’s covered, his face painted in it like a Halloween costume. It drips down onto his clothes as he goes over to examine the broken scooter. This is the Red accident, and there aren’t any pictures. It’s unnerving, but my stopping won’t help anyone.
I continue on, into another traffic jam caused by a Grey accident. It’s a motorcycle laid out on its side, and a truck being pushed off the road. The welcome to Shaanxi isn’t inspiring.
What I do notice is the short-term memory of my fellow motorists. There have been a lot of stops and blocks in the day, three by accidents, many more by road construction. We sit and wait together until we can all squeeze through the bottleneck to the next one. As soon as they hit the first stretch of open road, it’s chaos. It looks like the start of a race at the rollerskating rink. You’re all lined up, knees bent and legs cocked waiting for the whistle. When it comes, it’s a mad dash, a mess of ungainly flailing arms and legs trying to hold you back, or push themselves forward, or just break their fall on to the wood. Everyone scrambles like hell for that free slice of cold, doughy pizza. For the first 5 m, anything goes while the pecking order is sorted, the older, smoother kids leading the pack, while the misfits fight to avoid last place. This is what happens after being stopped for ten minutes.
Motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, three-wheelers all spread to edges of the road, bobbing and weaving, jockeying for position, recklessly speeding up and slowing down on their invisible plot to lead the pack. It’s scary, and perhaps the reason why accidents seem to fall like dominoes here, never very far away from each other. In the rush to make up time, caution goes out the window. .
COLOR: EGGPLANT PURPLE / MUSLIM HAT WHITE
The prevailing stereotype of Shaanxi province is of dusty roads, mud-brown towns, and flatness. It’s perhaps true farther north than where I am today, but the landscape around me is gorgeous. Highway 316 cuts through the base of mountains, tracing the path of a river on the valley floor. Dramatic gray rocks are partially covered in greens, oranges, and reds and block the path in. It’s getting colder, but the sun warms up the valley mid-day, and everyone is outside. It Saturday and the skies have cleared. The road construction of previous days has faded to a bumpy memory and a sore back.
I’m riding at full throttle, so that when I pass the Caveman, I have to pull around and come back just to be sure that blur of orange was what I thought it was – the hat of a man living in a crevice in the rock. For sure, it is. It’s not even a cave, more of a wedge in the slate surface. It looks like someone pulled out the letter ‘V’ to give him a place to live, but it’s natural. He’s just sitting there, double coats pulled onto his shoulders, blanket over his lap, watching traffic pass from his blind perch. I talk to him for a minute, but I can’t understand a word of his accent, and he doesn’t understand my bad Chinese. When I was in Shanghai, some friends donated a lot of warm clothing for me to pass out along the way, and I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity. Said man-in-rock-wedge seems to be one. I offer him some clothes, but he’s got a ton. You can see his formidable warddrobe in the picture, shoved into the mountain. He doesn’t want any more so I give him a fleece blanket I’ve been carrying but not using, and oranges. My new friends in Shiyan didn’t give me all 25 kg, but they gave me a hell of a lot.
The road takes a turn into flat terrain. In Anhui, I saw what I thought were noodles set out to dry, although I never took any pictures. They disappeared in Hubei, so when they pop back up on the side of the road in Shaanxi, I stop to look. It turned out to be a seasonal noodle making operation, with people of all ages and abilities doing something. The entire, long process from grain to noodle was being carried out in two Willy Wonka rooms. Gears, belts, whistles, and bells drown out any conversation. Although I stick out like a giant leather thumb, they hardly looked twice at me as I watched them work. Raw grain to husked grain, husked grain to washed and dried grain, washed and dried grain into flour, flour mixed with water to make noodle dough, noodle dough run through rollers to make sheets, sheets cut into noodles, noodles dried in the sun, dried noodles cut by gramma, STINK EYE, cut noodles tied and basketed. The process of turning raw product into consumable good is usually so hidden that I found it fascinating to watch, and stayed for nearly an hour. Look at the pictures. They were called ‘Guang Mian’- ‘Bald Noodles’ as best as I could tell – but that’s all I know and possibly wrong.
This also marks the minority line. Ethnic diversity in your favorite East coast city is usually found only at the noodle stand, with la mian puller the most common affirmative action position. But not in Shaanxi, where the Muslim/Hui/Kazakh west and the Han east start to mix. The features of many people start to become sharper, the skin tone darker, and the white hats start to come out. After being stuck in homogenuous China for so long, it’s a welcome change. Five minutes after the guang mian operation, I pass this Muslim funeral procession walking down the street, a taxi of musicians trailing behind it. Just up the street, I see a woman making these mystery animals, and decide to stop to take a look. It turns out to be a good move; kids who were before hidden in the shadows come running out when they see my big cracker face emerge from the helmet. They call over their friends to stare and smile at me. I pass them all oranges. I give away the rest of the Hubei citrus harvest I’ve been transporting in my trunk. They crawl all over the bike, we take a gang of pictures together, and then one of the parents invites me back to his house with them.
I load a couple of them onto the sidecar, and we drive down a dirt path to a kind of rural picnic area set at the end of a dirt road. A thinning patch of trees is scattered with tables and chairs, kids play games and the adults sit around and bullshit. Scared looking rabbits hide in their pen. A pile of feathers half-covers a pool of warm blood, as today’s unlucky contestant gets acquainted with a pile of chilies, a warm wok, and alot of firewood. It smells great. Maybe the rabbits have figured out the puzzle.
Outside of the one-room house, I play with the young ones and the parents offer me tea. There are a lot of kids around, and not a lot of money. I decide this is the place to give out the warm clothing, and I pull out the bags from the sidecar. All of the mothers gather around, and we divide up the shirts, pants, skirts and jackets. If you were one of the kind souls who gave me a bag at the Senses party, these are the kids it went to. Thanks again. If you weren’t, you can still get in on the charity game with some other kids in Shanghai. Or volunteer some time as a Big Brother or Sister. You’ll get your thanks later. By now, the kids have adopted me as one of their own, and show me their world – the pond with poultry-themed boats, the room they share with their parents, the pictures of when they visited the big city I’m on my way to, their grandparents, and where they blow bubbles and play with their yo-yos. As kids do, they brighten up an already great day, and I’m sad and reluctant to go. When I leave, they tear out strips from their English workbook, and carefully copy down my phone number from the note I handed to their mom. I wonder what we’ll talk about if they ever call. Bubbles, or maybe the letters beyond ‘F’.
I’ve still got a hundred kilometers to go before it gets dark, but Shaanxi has already been good to me. The world here feels measured on a human scale.
PROVINCE: SHAANXI / GANSU
COLOR: CATTLE BROWN / DEPRESSION GRAY
The wind chill calculators on the Internet vary dramatically. What doesn’t vary is that when it’s 5 Celsius outside, you’re driving 70/80 km/h and your hands aren’t covered, it is cold. Fucking freezing. The light rain that manages its way through the ventilation crack in your helmet’s visor hurts. It literally brings a tear to my eye. Sitting in front of your warm Shanghai computer, laughing at me, you’re not getting it. It. Is. Fucking. Cold.
Starting a couple days ago, the temperature has been steadily dropping. The thermometer I bought at a comfortable 27 degrees is on a downward spiral to the wrong end of the scale. When I stop at a toll both, I realize how ruined my hands are. They’re frozen into the shape of the grip, and it takes a few minutes to grasp the three kuai the attendant waits for. I own a pair of those gigantic arm condoms that motorcycle drivers use in the winter, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to use them. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve felt clumsy, my fine-motor skills dulled and restricted. I need to see my hands in motion, the shine of the clutch and brake, and have quick access to the horn. I’ve removed them within minutes on each aborted attempt. I try to press on. I sing disco songs at the top of my lungs, screaming like a banshee through the fields of Gansu. The Undisputed Truth’s chart-bottoming hit ‘Sandman’ makes head-down farmers pop up like gophers. They’re probably scared for their life. I tough it out for a few hours, and then I can feel it in the bones of my fingers. Fine, okay, you win, I’ll wear the leather condom. Peer pressure. Even he is wearing gloves.
I’ve heard a lot of great things about the scenery of southern Gansu province, into which I cross today. It’s true, it’s beautiful, pine-covered hills and terraced fields. I liked it also when it was called Shaanxi, or Hubei. But winter here comes early. The fields have already been harvested, and the patchy expanses of empty land make the hills look mangy and patchy when they poke out of the fog. I wonder if the mountains and fields ever end. I fantasize about the Tibetan plateau rising sharply up in the west, somewhere ahead of me, putting an end to the repetition once and for all.
It’s another gray day; the sun is busy somewhere else. Without it, the driving is a bit disorienting. There’s no anchor to determine direction or time. The day seems to last forever, a long, long drive through a tunnel of grayness. The scenery is fuzzy and faded. It’s perpetually twilight, or dawn, and except for the kilometers realistically rolling over the odometer, it could be a dream. The towns become fewer and farther between, and smaller when they do appear. The population here is thinning, and the drying foodstuffs enormous.
For all of the corn I’ve seen being grown, picked and dried, I don’t see the influence on the local food. Perhaps it’s animal feed, ground into meal and sold, or turned into starch. At 300 km/h a day, I could also be missing it. I don’t pretend to be seeing more than the very surface of the places I’m visited. Hopefully a more knowledgeable reader can answer the question of where the hell all this corn goes.
Inspiration comes from an unlikely place today, the road signs. I stand somewhere between Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. I see signs for both today, and it’s a happy reality check. As many stories as I’ve heard or words I’ve read about them, they still retain the aura of exotic, far-off places, well-removed from my insular Shanghai life. To see an arrow, a real distance, and the literal fork in the road that will take me to either makes them tangible. It gives me a premature sense of accomplishment; I’m now three weeks from Shanghai. Tibet is closer than Huangshan. I’ve covered some ground, and when the days driving is done today, I’ve got 3300 km on this trip. The stop for the night is Tianshui, an old Silk Road trading town come anonymous industrial sprawl.
COLOR: GREASE BLACK / ROCK BROWN
Anxiety and anticipation wake me up early today. From here, Xining is only two or three days away, and I want to get moving. But my guidebook is persistent that one of the best sights of eastern Gansu is in my backyard this morning, and I debate whether or not to take a break to see the Buddhist grottoes of Maiji Shan, “Wheatstack Hill”. Forty five minutes later, any reservations I had about losing a day of riding are erased. A bald, exposed cliff juts 200 m up out of the forest, with gigantic Buddhas carved into the face, and stairways cling to a rock face. They make an irregular pattern of straight lines, a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing. It’s still early morning, cold and drizzling outside, and I have the entire place to myself. It’s exactly how you’d want something like this to be, free of all the kitschy souvenir salespeople imploring you to buy postcards and things hanging on red strings. I spend an hour climbing stairs to peer into the 1300+ year carved niches and rooms, full of beautiful statues and frescoes. Though the new concrete platforms are sunk 50 m into the mountain, I’m still nervous ascending/descending the steep corridors. My guide explains that for the 1400 years leading up to 1976, the stairs were wooden, too dangerous for even the Red Guards to climb and destroy. Much of the original paint is still vivid and colorful, most statues intact, and I don’t blame them at all. It’s great. Occasionally, guidebooks are right.
Riding out of Shiyan, I promised myself I’d stop writing stories about mechanics. So Day 22 ends here, without another repetitive anecdote of thick black grease, curious onlookers, blown tires and more ridiculously friendly people. Tomorrow is Lanzhou, the end of the ride is getting clearer and clearer and I’m stoked. I want to ride. Jam pony.
Also on Shanghaiist
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 5
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 4
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