And now, Chris’ final installment, covering the exciting final four days of the Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride. Congratulations, Chris!
COLOR: FRUSTRATION RED / INK BLACK
When I was in eastern China, telling people I’m on my way to Qinghai, a fairly common response was mock surprise, a polite smile, and the small nod of understanding you give when you don’t understand. I’m all too familiar with it. When my interactions in Chinese get beyond my vocabulary, and I’d like to say I don’t understand, I give this nod instead. I know what it means; people have no idea where the hell Qinghai is. But now, stopped at a gas station, at a crowd of curious onlookers, or asking for directions on the side of the road, I don’t get a polite, unknowing nod or an inquisition of where that might be. I get informed questions like “Why the hell are you going there? Do you know how cold it is now?”, “Is that all the clothing you have?” and “Which road are you taking?”. It means I’m getting close, and I’m excited.
I can’t sleep well, and I’m on the road before 7.30 AM. As soon as the wind hits me on the ride out of Tianshui, I wish I wasn’t. The appeal of getting to Lanzhou and the pull of a warm comforter are roughly equal. There is frost on the rows of garlic and spring onions.
China is one neverending field, occasionally broken by mountains. But mountains are just inconveniences in a land farmed for millenia. It might slow them down, but it won’t stop them; they’re slowly hacked and flattened into terraces. Agriculture is inevitable, but today the scenery is starting to change. In eastern Gansu, I saw the first bare patches of mountain. By today, the balding pattern is nearly complete. Where trees managed to cling onto the hills before, they’ve given up now. The brown earth starts to show fissures, small canyons where the earth steps down 10 m, like fault lines in miniature. People use them as natural paths between houses. It’s geological town planning. This part of Gansu is fascinating, and for the first time leaves me with no context in which to compare it. Zhejiang’s rice fields could be Vietnam, or Thailand. Spruce up the houses a little bit, and Anhui could be mistaken for the Appalachians. If not for the people of Hubei, you might be in a million different forested mountain locations. Shaanxi isn’t many degrees removed from the dryer areas of Peru, or Ecuador. But Gansu feels unique. The scenery, the small dirt houses, the rising, folding hills, the mix of ethnicities and the day to day life going on around me doesn’t match anything I’ve seen before. It’s difficult to believe it’s China. I love the area.
I can manage without alot of things. A permament home, a change of socks, the English language, alot of miscellaneous parts of the motorcycle, warmth, or an easy drive. But brakes; I can’t do without brakes, and today they done gone and left me. I notice when I stop for the morning’s gas. More accurately, when I slowly roll by the gas station, stamping on my brake pedal while my stomach jumps into my throat. Holy fuck. Now, at 15 km/h an hour, I can stop Flintstone-style, burning the tread from the bottom of my shoes as I find a slight incline. Losing them five minutes earlier, and I would have slammed into a farmer on the street, or the back of one of the million vehicles driving without brake lights, slowing down without warning.
I don’t tell mechanic stories anymore, and that leaves a seven-hour gap in today’s writing. A seven-hour waste of life, stuck in a shithole one-street, no-name market town, surrounded by zombies slowly spitting out sunflower seed shells onto their chins and shirts. Pressing around me, pointing and poking at me like a travelling circus come to town, calling their friends over. “Hey, stop mindlessly moving bricks from point A to point B, and then from point B to point A, and come see the show!” I’ve met alot of great people, but not here, and the possibilty of being stuck for days while I wait for some solution to the no-brakes problem buries me in stress. As the hours drag on with no clear solution in sight, I get more and more pissed. It’s the lowlight of the trip. Even writing about it now, days after the fact, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t want to dwell on it. When I finally leave, it’s with a huge sense of relief.
Twenty minutes later, my brakes go up in smoke. I’m in the mountains. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. The mechanic told me I’m ten hours away from Lanzhou, the next city I might be able to find some help in and my goal for the day. I’ve already resigned myself to driving through the night. I’m going to have to do it with barely functioning brakes. Fuck, fuck, fuck. But there’s not alot of choice; I’ve got to suck it up and press on. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of km still left to cover, it’s getting dark, and the temperature drops pretty quickly. It’s a shitty feeling.
Wang stressed safety. Not in the prissy way that makes it seem like all of the fun and excitement is on the other side of the rules, but in the cool ‘Save your ass so you can keep riding’ kind of way. He didn’t preach, and what he said wasn’t much more than applying common sense – don’t ride at night, don’t ride if you’re tired, don’t ride if your bike isn’t safe, watch everyone and everything. Until this evening, I’ve taken his advice to heart. I’m glad he’s not here to see me now though – by the time the sun fades, I’ve been riding (or waiting to ride) for twelve hours, and it’s almost impossible to see the road conditions or people on the road. Even if I could, braking is an exercise in patience and alot of horn-honking.
The next several hours pass in three distinct phases – terror, exhaustion, peace. The terror is from the ink black night. My headlight illuminates a path much smaller than the area I need to brake, and I have to guess at the upcoming turns, curves or bumps in the road. I noticed during the day that there is electricity in these tiny towns, but you wouldn’t know it now. For the first hour, people are easy to spot – they are squatting on the side of the road, kindling small fires they will use to light and warm their home. It looks like the Catholic holiday where you line the road with candles in paper bags. But they go back inside and otherwise, there is no light. Not even moonlight; it’s a new moon. The temperature is dropping, on it’s way down to the minus 10 or 15 it will hit before my riding is over. Despite my heavy layers, the wind chill cuts through me. My feet are numb, and I try to warm them over the engine as I ride. I shake as I squeeze the handlebars, half from the cold, half from the fear. It’s completely terrifying, as I pray no one jumps out into the middle of the street. Occasionally other vehicles pass in the opposite direction, and it’s even worse. Their long-distance brights are on, and I’m literally blinded for a long second as they pass. I can’t see the road, I can’t see if there were people ahead, I can’t see if I’m headed into a tree or off a hill. I’d stop, but. . . .
I distract myself by focusing on the km markers on the side of the road. 174, 174, 174. . just get to 170 and you’ll be alright. . 139, 139. . break 100 and then it’s only two more hours to go. . Small victories. I’ve got two hundred km left to cover. At my pace, that’s about five more hours. Shit. As the minutes and km markers move along in slow motion, I resign myself to it more and more. Yes, this is terrifying. Yes, I can’t feel my feet. Yes, this is stupid and dangerous and there’s not much of a choice.
The distance eventually fades behind me, along with my terror. It takes alot of energy to keep up that level of fear. The stress of the day killed my appetite while there was still light, and I haven’t had more to eat all day than a Pepsi. I can’t keep it up, and the second phase, exhaustion, sets in. My brain slows down, my nerves slow down, and I drive out of habit. The worries, fear, cold, self-criticism, anxiety and low-level panic that swelled my head gradualy disappear, first into the background and the pit of my stomach, and then away altogether. I look around at where I am. Not with the scanning-for-trouble-pedestrians-road conditions-navigational awareness eyes. I look around in the third-person. The ancient, unlit houses. The tiny villages where life hasn’t changed significantly for centuries. The spooky, bare trees that line the roadside. The complete, enveloping blackness surrounding me. The lack of other cars. The lack of other people. I stop on a mountain switchback, turn off my headlight, and for the first time in eighteen months in China, I feel alone. Truly alone. There are more stars in the sky than I’ve seen in my life. It looks like the planetarium, and I wish I had paid more attention during the trips I’ve taken there. I would be able to tell what galaxy that is off to the left, which cluster of stars that is in the direction of Lanzhou, and know something about the Milky Way. Terror exhausted me, and now all I can feel is a serene peace, and a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. How many people have the opportunity to sit on a motorcycle in the mountains of Gansu, hours after the sparse population around has gone to bed, and stare at the stars? I’m far from the beaten path. It’s not without its problems, but it’s not without its rewards either. It’s a gorgeous payoff, maybe the highlight of the entire trip.
The last couple hours get colder. The numbness moves up to my ankles, my hands are shaking inside their gloves, but the kilometers keep ticking away. Fifty, forty, thirty, twenty one. . Thank god. I’m almost there, and it’s almost midnight. Fifteen hours since I left Tianshui, fourteen hours since I’ve had brakes. I stop to look at the first street sign for hours. To the left is Sanlicun. Twenty one km ahead is Dingxi. Wait a minute. . Where is the sign for Lanzhou? I remember Dingxi is not on my path. No, no, wait. . This can’t be right. Wait, let me check my road atlas. I can’t be this stupid. It’s impossible. I didn’t fuck up like this. I can’t have. I didn’t just ride hours over the freezing mountains on the WRONG MOTHERFUCKING ROAD. Imposs- . . Fuck. Page 351. Page 351 shows Sanlicun to the left, and Dingxi straight ahead. Straight ahead on the wrong road. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!!!! My entire trip, I haven’t made a mistake like this. I’ve lost a half hour here, ten minutes there, but I’ve navigated remarkably well. There was ONE turnoff, with the sign pointing to Lanzhou, 102 km back. The turnoff that I took. The turnoff that leads to.. . . Dingxi. I’m freezing, exhausted and one hundred kilometers from Lanzhou. If my fingers did what my brain told them, I might just have pulled out that bottle of whisky I’ve been carrying the whole time. No reason to do this sober. .
There’s a highway. A highway that will have me there in an hour, if I wasn’t prohibited from getting on it. I consider scamming my way through, dodging more cops, pretending I don’t understand, or just not stopping for the sirens. I promised myself I was going to leave those crazy adventures behind on this trip, and though every frozen fiber in my body wants to, I don’t. There’s another small road, a provincial road. A two-and-a-half-more-hours road. I can’t believe it, I don’t want to believe it. I try to rationalize myself into continuing on; it’s already been a day from hell, it can’t possibly get colder, if you make it to Lanzhou there’s only one more day left to Xining. But I can’t do it. I’m drained. I can still feel my calves, and a little bit of my hands, and I like to keep it that way. I realize I’m lucky to have made it this far, and it’d be stupid to continue on with the odds so heavily stacked against me. I’ve seen enough of this day, and I don’t want it to touch tomorrow. I stop at the first hotel I’ve seen since daylight, and decide to add an extra day to my trip. I can’t feel my feet for two more hours. .
COLOR: SKY BLUE / TANNISH BROWN, BROWNISH TAN
I’m almost there. Today is a new day, and I’ve only got a couple hours left to Lanzhou. My girlfriend has spent her morning doing research to find me a repairman in the city who is familiar with my bike. She’s called him, explained the problems, and he’s waiting on my arrival, tools in hand. It’s another mechanic story. We take off the back tire, open the brakes, and black carbon pours out. The remains of my charred brakes fill the air. He’s another fantastic guy, takes me out to buy new ones, shows me pictures of his motorclub’s camping trip to Qinghai.. I couldn’t be much happier. All of the worries I’ve had about the bike are fixed, and I’m five hours away from Xining. The morning can’t come quick enough for me.
COLOR: WHAT’S THE COLOR OF SUCCESS?
I follow the Yellow River out of Lanzhou, towards the first signs I’ve seen for Qinghai.
The roads out of Gansu are designed for a cross-country trip that ends just beyond their border. The blacktop is flat, fast and the spedometer bounces up to 90 km/h befores it and the odometer give up. Four thousand two hundred and forty seven km from home, three hours from the finish line, they break. The sky today is a bright blue, and the scenery is beautifully empty. The crops of central China have finally stopped, twenty five days from home. The brown hills that started in western Gansu get bigger, and the flat land is rocky and rugged, not covered in agriculture. Factories as tan as the mountains dot the view, their smoke plumes visible long before their dusty buildings.
I’m not the only one with places to go, and kilometers to travel. From the minute I started driving, I’ve been sharing the road with animals, overcrowded in the backs of blue trucks, on their way to an appointment they’d probably rather not have. I’ve used it as a rough mental map of food styles and ethnicities. In the eastern Han areas, it’s pigs. Fat, pink, stinking bacon stuffed a hundred to a truck flying down the road. In Muslim Shaanxi and Gansu, the trucks get bigger and the pigs are replaced by cows, on their way to being slaughtered, dried and, with a bowl of hand-pulled noodles, turned into the niu rou mian I had for my Thanksgiving breakfast. But here, the people change again, and the walking meat du jour is sheep. They pass on trucks, they graze on the hillsides, and they occasionally run into the middle of the road, where they would create a traffic jam – if there was any traffic. For the first time, I see signs for Xining. To this point, Xining has been this mythical endpoint in my mind, the last dot in my long line, not a real town. But there it is, 114 km away, two hours down the road, across the Qinghai border. And before I can stop smiling, there it is, under my tortured motorcycle and freezing feet. I did it.
I done did it man, I done did it.
I’ve got more of a reason to than most visitors, but I love Xining. The people on the streets are a beautiful mix of ethnic groups. Everyone talks about Tibet, praises and glorifies it and insists you travel there. I’ve never been, and casually ignored the hype, until Xining. The Tibetans on the street immediately stand out, their clothing bright red against the beige backdrop, fur hats towering above their heads, and faces as tough as leather. One look, and you realize what a joke claiming them as Chinese is.
Qinghai sits on the edge of a plateau that it shares with Tibet, and their population here is significant. The train station is crowded with them buying tickets on the new train to Lhasa, the one I intended to take, but ran out of time for. Muslims and Hui are the other majority, and the Han Chinese on the street look a bit out of place, usually in their modern department store clothing and dress shoes. Welcome to my world, buddy.
I feel immediately comfortable in Xining and Qinghai, and will definitely come back to spend much more time here, perhaps to live, but not today. The trip has lasted longer than I anticipated, and I’ve got to get back to Shanghai. I decide to take the 36 hour train, running 2,400 km back to the east, through the rough path I thought I would follow before I changed my mind somewhere back in Hubei, or maybe Anhui. I’m a long way from Shanghai, geographically and mentally. Stepping on a plane now, and walking off three hours later back into the opposite world of home seems too jarring, too quick. I need to decompress back into it, one small train station at a time, watching the scenery slowly turn back into an industrial complex, and completing my 6500 km oval circuit through central China.
ODOMETER: NOT MY WHEELS ANYMORE. .
COLOR: WHITE SHEETS / GOLDEN BEER
Snow covers the fields that bump up against the train tracks. I stare out the window for hours and hours, while Qinghai turns back into Gansu turns back into Shaanxi turns back into Henan turns back into Jiangsu turns back into Shanghai. I realize I’m good at it now, watching the scenery roll by, imagining backstories for the people and tombstones I pass, wondering at their customs and daily routine, and where they would fall between the two narrow categories I’ve been using to define people: the point, laugh and stare apathetics, or the generous, warm and caring people who are the only reason my trip didn’t end with a breakdown thousands of km ago. I drink way too many large beers, eat the apples and oranges my Xining farewell party loaded me up with, cover myself in warm clothing, and watch my trip go by in reverse. I don’t mind having someone else drive today. .
So, what does driving across China teach you? I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out. And when I do, it’s probably not going to be a golden nugget of wisdom worthy of sharing with everyone with Internet access, but something more like the rough, and ruggedly elegant but ultimately common rocks for sale on the side of the road in mountainous Hubei – for all of the assholes, the snickers and downright rude and nasty attitudes, there are alot of damn good people out there. You just need something in common to break that first cultural ice – a broken motorcycle at a mechanic’s shop will do fine – and then it doesn’t stop.
Alot of my trip, and thus alot of my stories, were about the bike breaking, being repaired and/or breaking again. It’s not exactly fair to my generous sponsors, Wang Baohua, Steven LaPlume of Grand Dragon Gear, and Jeff Marquass of Marqauss Motorcycles. I will be the first to say that the Chang Jiang motorcycles they sell are fantastic. Drive ANYTHING 4000 km across provincial roads, broken national highways, rocks, mud, dust and the moon, and you’ll be lucky if your problems were as minor as mine realistically were. Do it on a 30 year-old vintage bike and it’s almost a miracle. They were frustrating, but it’s a little embarassing to admit that someone with even the most basic knowledge of motorcycle maintenance would have avoided 80% of the problems I had. This trip was the tough beginning on my learning curve. It’s inevitable a nut or ten fall off here or there, a wire needs adjusting, or a sparkplug needs changing, and it’s a testament to the job they do that the bike was performing at its best on the drive to Xining, on my last hundred kilometers after 25 days of driving. When I drove out of Shanghai last month, I wasn’t a motorcycle fanatic. Now, off the seat for three days, I’m anxious, antsy and don’t feel right NOT being on one. Not having one is not an option. Guys, start on another one for me while I try to save some money. It’s the only way to go, and I’m going to keep going. The rest of Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Tibet, Guizhou are all on my radar now. Santo Chino don’t end here man.
You want to go with me next year? You want to give me some money for all of the gas I burned through? You want to buy a bike or want some information on them? You want to do a ride yourself and want some tips on where you should go, what to pack, where to sleep and how much Chinese you need to speak? You want to know how to say “No, no, the carburetor is clean, I’m sure of it” in Chinese? You want to donate some money for the charity now that I’ve set out what I accomplished to do? Get in touch with me ([email protected]), buy me a beer or five, and I’ll be happy to talk.
Thanks to everyone on Shanghaiist who has followed along, donated money, and offered support. Especially Dan. And no, no, I just changed the sparkplugs.
Also on Shanghaiist
Santo Chino Motorcycle Ride: Report No. 6
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