It is my first day alone on the road and I am lost. The mountains of northern China beyond Beijing are vast and enormous. There are no road signs, only larger roads and smaller roads, paved roads and dirt roads. When I stop to ask directions the peasants simply stare because I am the first foreigner they have ever seen, and a woman. Putting myself in their place I can sympathize. I ride up on a big black Chinese sidecar motorcycle, the most expensive motorcycle in China. Then I remove my helmet. A blond braid tumbles down the shoulder of my black leather jacket and I mutter something incomprehensible and then look at them with slightly crazed green eyes.
“Wa may loo la,” I say. “I’m lost.”
But most villagers have never traveled farther than their network of about a dozen villages all of their lives. And there are no taxi drivers or buses or truckers to ask.
Nearly out of gasoline, I am sure that Lijang, the town I had targeted for my first night on the road, will not appear anytime soon. The going is slow not only because of the dark but because of the potholes and badly banked curves and the asphalt that ends without warning.
Where might I be? I might have looped back to where I began. I could be far, far away. I remember how the land looked in daylight: the jumble of pyramid-shaped mountains covered in soft green foliage jutting through the landscape, the crumbling hillsides, the plunging cliffs.
Another tiny village passes; windows covered in thick, oiled paper glow with the flickering light of cooking fires. Exhausted, I consider stopping but would they be friendly? How could I tell them what I want? If I stop here it might cause an uproar. Do they have food to spare? A bed? Certainly not. My thoughts loop on the problem of where to sleep that night and on the problems that hadn’t yet come. In the background the unfamiliar engine rumbles. I am still working out its idiosyncrasies. I don’t yet know this machine well enough to take comfort in its working noises, its hard clunk down from third gear, its slight pull to the left.
Shadow trees fly by and another village appears. I shift down, slowing in anticipation of the many potholes a village brings, and a small animal suddenly bursts into the road. A rush of adrenaline prepares me for hard braking, for swerving or impact.
I hold my ground, trusting my instincts. I can’t tell if the side of the road dives off into a five-foot ditch or heads straight into a two-foot wall. The animal races alongside and, improbably, others join in. Finally I realize they are piglets. We travel together down the road for several long moments of dark indecision. I hold my breath while they grunt and squeal hysterically, invisibly.
Several times it seems that they will move off the road and out of my way, and several times it seems that they will run under my tires. Finally, I gently let pressure off the throttle, decelerating very slowly. The engine noise deepens and, in response, one piglet lets out a sudden, long, high-pitched squeal. The others squeal in response and follow it off the road into darkness.
Heart racing, I am alone again. Dirt road. Dark night. Miles later I notice that my fingers are still stiffly poised above the brake lever. The icy night air leaks up the sleeves of my jacket and between my collar and helmet. My joints ache from working the clutch and the gears of this heavy beast of a motorcycle, bumping along a barely paved road in the pitch black backwoods of China.
That afternoon my friends back in Beijing, the four Chinese bikers who formed my send-off party, led me through Beijing in a complicated route into these mountains. They turned back at the Beijing-Heibi province border with regret in their eyes and I rode on. They were tied, without specific government permission to travel, to the province where they lived. Before I visited China I’d had no idea that people living in one province were forbidden to travel in other provinces without special permissions and special license plates. Their plates were the blue provincial plates, mine was the special black plate that allowed me to cross borders. We said goodbye and I traveled on, alone.
I had spent the previous week in Beijing trying to get my papers in order. Permissions. Signatures. Chops. Both the American embassy and the Chinese government proved useless in helping with permits. I was required to obtain a Chinese driver’s license to ride outside Beijing province, but that required residency, a driving test, lots of paperwork. First of all, I had no residency. It seemed that, though the Chinese government was newly eager to welcome independent travelers, they didn’t know how to accommodate them.
My expat friends, people I’d met through the embassy, explained that since the tourist policy was in a transition period, the lawmakers wouldn’t know what the rules were. It would probably be safe to go, even without papers, they said. “They won’t put you in jail for more than a day if you get caught,” one explained. “And you probably won’t get caught…at least not for a while.
It had been a hot, humid Saturday, a particularly auspicious day for weddings, it turned out. Brides in layers of white silk and chiffon perspired in the back seats of economy cars trailing red and white streamers, their drivers honking incessantly in celebration.
My new friends rode Chang Jiang sidecar motorcycles that belonged to two Chinese members of the international CJ motorcycle club in Beijing. We crawled along Beijing’s third ring road until, right in front of us, a truck plowed into a taxi and slid out of the intersection. For a moment, all was still. Then, suddenly, traffic on all four sides lunged toward the center. Within seconds every car was touching the bumper or door of another car, resulting in a tightly woven fabric of glittering metal.
We escaped by riding into a shallow ditch and onto a railroad track that our sidecar bikes easily managed, for they were designed for use by messengers through the rough terrain where World War II was fought. They are essentially carbon copies of the 1938 BMW motorcycles, built hastily with inferior materials, yet still robust.
I was sweating in the deep heat of polluted urban Beijing, though I’d stripped to my tank top. Our leader, Jiangshan, had to be steaming in his Harley Davidson jacket, but he kept it zipped up. His girlfriend, Yang Xiao, sat slightly away from the leather back of the sidecar chair, one hand gripping the edge of the car and the other held up to her aviator glasses. Every so often she’d turn around to smile and give me a thumbs up. Her glossy black hair tangled in the fringe of the brown suede sleeves of her American-Indian-styled motorcycle jacket. People driving, riding bicycles, waiting to cross the road, stared. Beautiful, wide-eyed Yang Xiao. She always had a slightly haunted look, except when she was riding, and then her black eyes sparkled, and her movements were almost careless. Jiangshan, an unusually tall, dignified man of around fifty, also brightened when he rode. His movements became larger, his voice louder. On the motorcycle, they seemed almost American.
Lee and Liu followed on another Chang Jiang through the ruthlessly dense Beijing traffic until we rose above the city into the relief of a beautifully paved single-lane mountain byway. The air cooled as we passed farming villages, a lifestyle in harmony with nature. I glimpsed grain drying in courtyards behind village walls made from mud and straw. The traditional curlicue roofs seemed carefully maintained in the old style, with protective demons painted on doorways. Here, I forgot about the problems of urban life, enjoyed the scenery and dodged donkey carts full of twigs, maneuvered around diesel tractors pulling into the road from the fields, a dusty wind in my face.
Country roads, sunshine, and the camaraderie of fellow riders should have made for a perfect Saturday, but the realization that in a few hours I would be riding alone for as long as six months through this strange country sent bolts of fear shooting through my heart and stomach. The Heibi Province border appeared.
Our moment of separation was inevitable. My borrowed bike, with its expensive black license plates, was authorized for operation in any province, though its rider wasn’t. These black plates, an indication of importance, of guanxi—their term for power, freedom, prestige—would keep me from being harassed by the police—or so I hoped.
Jiangshan gave me some extra wheel spokes and told me I would be lucky. Yang Xiao game me a hug, and Lee and Liu shook my hand.
I rode alone with a knot in my stomach trying to enjoy the first few hours of my solo journey but I was completely cowed by the wildness of Northern Heibi province. I still had the vague impression from childhood that all of China was densely populated. But this lonely country backwater was riddled with potholed roads among jagged mountains covered in soft brushy bushes and trees. The air was fresh and cool in the late afternoon, and the green mountains gave the atmosphere a healthy glow. I never imagined that China had such wide-open spaces, and then the road forked into three with no signs to mark the way. I switched the engine off and, for the first time since I arrived in the country, experienced absolute silence.
After a while, I pulled the map from the sidecar to consider it seriously now for the first time and to search, unsuccessfully, for my three-pronged crossroads, when a peasant wearing ragged cotton pants and a peaked cap appeared. He pushed a jumble of tree branches in a wooden handcart, his arms and shoulders straining against the slight decline of the road.
“Nee how ma,” I said to him. He stopped and I shoved up the visor of my helmet, to be better understood. “Nee how ma,” I repeated carefully, intoning as properly as I could in my basic Mandarin. “Wah may loo la,” I said, slowly. “I’m lost.”
He stared, as if he understood, so I continued, “Liajang way, please?”
The man was tiny, and looked eighty but was probably only sixty, badly bent from work and probably mineral deficiencies. His face was tan and flat, lightly wrinkled, and his eyes, though bright, were sunken deeply. I saw that he was a little startled when he stepped nearer to me to peer up into my helmet.
“Liajang way?” I repeated, rattling my map and punching the name of the town with my finger. Its name was clearly written in Pinyin, the Roman characters that appeared under the Chinese pictograms, but I really couldn’t tell how to pronounce it correctly and it’s possible the man couldn’t read. The paper rustled, ignored in the gentle breeze as the man continued to stare at my face with the bald curiosity of a child.
I’d been stared at in Beijing but this was absurd. The man acted as if I was a statue in a wax museum. He studied my jacket, then bent down to study my jeans and my boots, and rose again to take a look at my helmet and gloves before walking all around the motorcycle.
At least it gave me time to stare back. So this would be the peasant so reviled and absolutely dismissed, usually with a disgusted sneer, by the Chinese middle class. In his peaked cap with his wrinkled old face he was a museum piece himself, a caricature of the Chinese peasant in his blue Mao clothes, with his stringy gray hair, pushing his battered wheelbarrow. I asked one more time the way to Liajang, but he continued to stare, slack jawed and glassy-eyed.
Starting off again I chose the middle of the three equally unlikely looking roads. The middle way seemed appropriate as a spiritual path, at least. Not that I was practicing moderation just then, but it wasn’t a heads or tails situation.
The middle way twisted around and down and up and around again and I no longer had any idea of the direction it would lead. It didn’t really matter, I told myself. I wasn’t on any particular deadline and I needed only to head roughly west, toward Tibet and the setting sun. With that thought I settled into a not unpleasant resignation. The scenery was wild and serene and the tension knotting in my stomach dissipated. I had chosen Liajang because it was a fairly large town with a few hotel choices, according to my Lonely Planet guide, but surely another town would appear. Or so I thought.
The joy of exploration waned with the fading daylight, the absence of a road sign, a gas station, or a town. I continued to choose my way randomly at forks in the road and, like the first road, they followed the contours of the mountains to take me on a tour of all the directions of the compass. By the time darkness fell I had passed only the tiniest of villages. The peasants performed their end-of-day tasks. They were poor, desperately poor. Their windows were covered in oiled paper. Their water was fetched from who knows where in buckets hung from sticks carried on their shoulders, and their grain was sorted and ground by hand and their small gardens protected from the animals by fences of bricks made of mud and it seemed impossible that anything would change for them tonight, or tomorrow, or in the years after.
Ten kilometers of empty road passes between the village where the piglets had run beside me and here, where the road narrows and deteriorates into dirt and gravel. The dark shapes of trees hover above on either side. Long ago Kublai Khan had traveled through China and was dismayed at the unbroken monotony of the roadways. He ordered trees planted on every roadside to give solace to travelers.
The trees do not give me solace as my headlight shines on one after another after another white painted tree trunk giving me the impression that it is they which move past me, and that I am sitting still like an actor on a movie set, the wind machine blowing in my face.
What does give me solace is the sudden appearance of two gas pumps under a brightly-lit shelter. Beyond it stands a building strung with white lights that I hope is a hotel. I pull up to the pumps and after a moment a woman peeks out of the doorway of the attached shack. She hushes the two small children peeking out behind her to walk toward me. Her outfit is garishly illuminated under the fluorescent lights. She sports a shapeless lime green dress sprinkled with large white polka dots and opaque knee-highs that have left a sharp dent halfway up her short fat calves, and bright pink rubber pool sandals.
She decodes my rough Mandarin as she pumps gas into the tank. Yes, she nods, smiling. The lit building is indeed a hotel—her luguan. I can stay there, and it will cost twenty yuan.
Equipped with a full tank of gas and this happy information I follow the road she traced with her finger. I would otherwise have never found the entrance, a steep dirt and gravel driveway that passes over a shaky wooden bridge built over what seems to be a very deep ravine. The sound of water running far below me quickens my heart. It will be interesting to see in the morning what death-defying feat I am performing by crossing over these rickety beams.
I pass underneath a concrete archway and through a pair of open wooden gates into the compound where a low, cheaply built stucco building stands. It is L-shaped and there is a glassed-in hallway with motel-style doors in regular intervals, each painted bright red and illuminated with a bare bulb.
I pull up to a partially open doorway that I figure is the manager’s office and switch off the engine. It is difficult to unfasten my helmet strap with cold, stiff fingers. My back aches and my left ankle throbs from the constant shifting through gears. I toss my helmet, gloves, and scarf into the sidecar and dismount, only vaguely aware of the rush of people emerging from the door in front of me. I step away from the bike, allowing several people to push it closer to the building. My forehead itches, my hair is stuck to the skin.
Despite my aches, I feel a profound gratitude for having found this place, for the reward of having pressed on without panicking. It is dark and cold, but I’d soon be safe and warm. Finally my eyes adjust to the dim light and looking up, I meet the gaze of a dozen young ladies dressed in pajamas. When I smile they burst into giggles, covering their mouths with their hands.
So many maids! Why would there be so many maids for such a small country motel? I look at them more closely. Their black eyes flash. So much makeup! They giggle some more, then, suddenly shy, lower their eyes heavy with liner and false lashes. Their lips glow with thick red lipstick and their lurid peach-colored polyester uniforms shine. They aren’t maids at all, I finally realize. I’ll be spending the night in a brothel.
A man pushes his way through the girls and speaks in sharp tones that makes them stop giggling and stand aside. He is very young and so thin that his brown wool pinstriped suit hangs on him in folds as though on a coat hanger. His hair is carefully clipped and gelled into a stiff American fifties-style flat-top, with one lock left long to hang rakishly in his face. He tosses his head back to fling the lock out of his eye, and says something that makes the girls laugh nervously and flutter a little farther away.
I greet him with a Chinese hello and a look him straight in the eye, and the girls giggle again, their hands flying up to cover their mouths. Sighing, he beckons me to his office, a lit doorway just in front of us, and takes me by the arm to guide me inside. Surprisingly, he is a few inches taller than I, perhaps 5 feet 10 inches tall.
The girls follow us in but after few sharp words from the boss they recede into the darkness and we are left alone in the office: a square concrete box with a steel desk and a ratty Naugahyde couch bursting at the seams. I fish through the pockets of my black leather motorcycle jacket and hand him twenty yuan, the amount the woman at the gas station had quoted. He laughs and pushes it back to me. I am too tired to go through an extended haggling process, and too tired to remember that I am desperate for sleep. After riding all day in the heat, after the stress of being lost, the uncertainty of the motorcycle, finding gasoline, night falling unmercifully black and those tiny villages with fires and stray pigs and white-trunked trees, I am exhausted, and I could strangle him for what he is doing, opening drawers to find a pencil so that he can write the digits 200 on a piece of paper, ten times the price the woman at the gas station had quoted.
I hold the paper and we stand silently together on the stained burgundy carpet. It is as thin as denim, and glued badly onto the concrete floor. The walls are covered in crackling stucco, and the sagging ceiling is stained with water. The black and white television set is turned on full volume, the sound horribly distorted. Two attractive anchorpeople, a man and a woman, report the news. Their announcements are a combination of guttural and singsong nasal whining. Footage of a public execution flits across the screen: two kneeling men, blindfolded with hands bound behind their backs, a mass of enraged or excited people. Would they be shot or beheaded or hanged? Then they show blond Russian children digging through a vast garbage dump for scraps of food, followed by stills of President Clinton who is due to visit in a few months. I’d seen the same footage in Beijing, over and over and over again. It is 1998, the year that China would remove borders and other barriers to sharing in first world wealth.
I study the piece of paper. I could counter with thirty, and he would insist upon 100, and I would write down thirty-five, and he would then write fifty, and then I would hand him forty. He would take it, and I really should do all that except that the woman at the gas station already gave me the price of twenty yuan and in my exhausted state I’m not thinking about all the trouble I will cause here with paperwork and lack of language and writing skills and my need for hot water. I shove the paper back at him and explain in succinct English that the owner told me it was twenty yuan and twenty yuan was all I was damn well going to pay and hadn’t he heard that the days of Foreigner price were over. I wave the twenty toward the gas station and tell him that if he thinks I’m going to pay two hundred for a dump like this he is crazy and I push it into his hand. He takes it with a little shrug and a smile that means, “Well, I had to try,” and I stomp back to the motorcycle but it’s not there anymore. Stunned, I look around and see, with no little relief, that it has only been pushed away into the crook of the L-shaped compound near the wooden gates. I feel the manager watching me as I stomp across to it. I jerk my suitcase out of the sidecar, unlock and open the trunk to get my computer case and camera, and two of the girls suddenly appear to escort me to my room.
The hallway is glassed in, and we step up two shallow stairs onto the same thin, wrinkled burgundy carpet that was in the manager’s office, and even more blotched. Standing by each door is a little yellow pot decorated delicately with pink fleur-de-lis, a quarter full of water. As I puzzle over the purpose of these, moths bash themselves to death on the bare light bulbs in front of each door, falling in the collected heap in front of each threshold. Every tiny impact creates a tinging sound that is just audible over the sound of a river.
The room is a concrete box. One of the girls pushes by me to rush in and turn on the television at full volume. The other girl walks in behind me bearing a thermos of hot water and a small, thin towel. I walk into the bathroom—it was built into the corner of the room like an afterthought, with walls that fall short of the ceiling by a foot. The hot water tap runs cold, as does the cold water tap. I request more thermoses of hot water, and she returns shortly with three more.
I put my suitcase on the double bed and the girls come closer as I unzip it. I had packed very little but carefully; a Gortex rain suit, a fine-gauge, bicycle-weight wool sweater, long silk underwear, thick hiking socks and boots, sports-bras and tights, quick-dry shirts and a toiletries kit with neat little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, moisturizer and sunscreen and a clear plastic bag full of bottles of medicines I might need.
I wonder how to get the girls out of my room so I can have some privacy, and then the manager strides in, barking at the girls, who wander out reluctantly. Alone again, he looks at me and sighs, then hands me a form, knowing that this is going to be an ordeal for it’s in Chinese and I’m illiterate. We settle ourselves down at the fake walnut desk at the foot of the bed and study the form and my passport, attempting to figure out which information goes in which box. After studying each other’s documents, we look up at each other, shrug, and begin.
I ought to have asked a clerk in a Beijing tourist hotel to give me a form that was printed in both English and Chinese, as a reference, but I didn’t, and so with a combination of my phrasebook, sign-language, grimaces and some laughter, we manage to fill out about a third of the boxes when he abruptly pulls the paper away. Either that’s all that’s required or he’s fed up. I expect the latter.
Now that we’re done I realize how much trouble I am, and sympathize. He really is just a very young man and I create a lot of hassle because of the form and demands for many thermoses of hot water and the motorcycle parking and the uproar.
I put my passport away and we walk outside together. He returns to the office and I walk over to where they’ve moved the motorcycle. Suddenly, a large blue truck roars in at an alarming speed to screech to a stop exactly in the place I’d parked the bike. No wonder they’d moved it. Two girls in peach polyester pajamas run to the door as the truck door opens. One literally catches the driver as he falls from the cab. The moonlight illuminates the empty liquor bottle in his right hand. Even though it’s empty he struggles to keep it upright during his fall. The other girl knocks it to the ground where it lies, empty and unbroken in the dusty light, as they escort him, stumbling, to the room next to the manager’s office.
I’d been warned that these big blue trucks were piloted by drivers fuelled by amphetamines and alcohol. They’d be my most frequent companions on the road, but that’s changing, fast. Though private cars have been allowed for many years, most Chinese haven’t been able to afford them, and so trucks and official vehicles make up ninety percent of the traffic out here in the country.
The excitement over, I finish locking the bike up, covering it to keep the dust out and to hide the attention-getting black Beijing plates. Back in my room I notice that the door doesn’t have a lock. But I’d brought a solution for that—an alarm that slides into the doorjamb. It works on a circuit breaker—if the door opens the device also springs open, activating a piercing alarm.
I pour the hot water from the thermoses into a red plastic basin on the bathroom floor and take a sponge bath. Brushing my teeth, I peer out from between the tattered curtains to catch the action in the compound. Apparently I have arrived just ahead of rush hour. Blue truck after blue truck roars in, their drivers and passengers falling out of their cabs, spilling empty bottles of high-octane liquor. I am forgotten.
This is my first night on the road, and my mind busies itself on the problems of my trip. I am traveling without a license, nor permissions of any sort from the Chinese or American government, and risk arrest at any moment. Just a few hours into my trip I discovered that I couldn’t rely on road signs or local people to tell me the way. Since I just generally want to head west, that doesn’t matter so much. I have no particular place to be at any certain time. But it is also now obvious that hotels are difficult to find. Is this at all dangerous, or simply inconvenient? Since I feel perfectly safe—even in this brothel—I don’t feel it’s too risky. But tomorrow would be the time to turn back if I’m going to, only one day’s ride from Beijing.
I miss Beijing. In Beijing people interacted with me. Foreigners are not rare, and they laugh good-naturedly when I practice my Mandarin. They willingly look at maps and point me in the right direction. I miss hanging out with Teresa, the agricultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy. We rode together through the countryside once before I left, and the farmers were astonished at us, the motorcycles, and at her fluent Mandarin. She talked endlessly with them about the state of the crops, the weather, and whether the government had paid them in cash or pink iou slips. Tonight, at the brothel, I long for Beijing.
In the morning it is eerily quiet, which makes me nervous until I remember that, of course, a brothel operates at night.
In the bright morning light I see that the short red carpet is a puzzle of dark splotchy stains. The walls are stained with moisture and the bathroom tiles are caked with mold. The tiles themselves have been shattered with a hammer to let the plumbing in. Caulking does not seem to be a talent the local handymen possess. Neither do they seem to have a grasp of the force of gravity—the bathroom drain is located at the highest end of the room so that a puddle of stagnant water sits in a corner with drowned bugs floating at the edges.
I half-fill the red basin with cold water from the dripping sink faucet, and uncork one of the green plastic thermoses of hot water they gave me the previous night. Amazingly, it is still piping hot, hot enough for a cup of instant coffee. I check my skin for bedbugs. None. I hope that this will be the rattiest place I ever have to stay in.
Seeing my face in the mirror, I’m shocked at my puffy eyes and pallid skin. Riding a motorcycle for so many hours at one stretch is never healthy, and I am still also recovering from the effects of Beijing pollution.
In Beijing my expat friends were still sleeping in their luxurious, American-style homes and apartments with filtered water and filtered air before a day of work in offices with filtered water and filtered air. Maybe they will think of me this weekend when they ride out to the Ming Tombs on one of their forays into the countryside. Last week the little trips seemed the height of adventure.
I take my cup of coffee outside, passing the other rooms where pairs of male shoes sit neatly outside each door. These black shoes made of leather and so carefully polished cannot be truckers shoes. The little yellow pots of water had been moved to the other side of the hallway. I peer in cautiously. They don’t look like chamber pots but there is something in them. What can it be? I look closer to see globs floating on top of the water. Gross. They are spittoons.
Suppressing a gag, I hurry outside. The courtyard is empty except for a small Chinese motorcycle leaning on its side against the opposite wall: there are no trucks in sight. I surmise that the drivers pumped themselves back up with amphetamines and continued on their route.
Now to see where I am. I hear the river and try to find a way out of the compound to take a look at it. Tiptoeing down the hallways I find an unlocked door that leads outside onto a natural terrace overlooking a beautiful river cutting deeply into a stone canyon with a deeply striated stone cliff rising to the mountain behind.
All this hidden behind a crappy stucco compound, valueless in contrast to the income-generating brothel. In the West this place would have been the site of a luxurious resort with a terrace overlooking the river where one could sip coffee in the morning and beer in the evening, enjoying the spectacle of nature. It would have at least been a campground. But who wants to visit such a place here, in Northern China? Heibi Province is the poorest of the northern provinces, the mountains offer no weird and spectacular rock formations like those in Gualin and Yunnan, so tourists don’t come. This is merely a relaxing, beautiful, natural place, only a day’s journey from a major city. But in the United States it would be swarming with backpackers, kayakers, and mountain climbers.
Back in Beijing, an American friend, Rick, had told me a story about camping that illustrated the Chinese attitude toward nature. Jiangshan, the leader of my send-off party and the owner of a camping supply shop, had led the group on an overnight outing. Jiangshan had described beautiful mountains and clean air and a perfect riverside campsite. The group had been thrilled with the ride but the “perfect place to camp” was an asphalt parking lot with bright streetlights standing sentry all around. Rick had difficulty explaining diplomatically why their faces had all fallen flat. Jiangshan was quite taxed to understand why they’d rather pitch their tents on uneven ground in the messy, dark woods.
Jiangshan’s adventure shop is stocked with a few tents and sleeping bags but only Western visitors buy these things—the students, teachers, and expats who discover that China has amazing and beautiful countryside. They camp, and inevitably a group of locals comes and stares at them as they cook their meals and fish and put up the tents and bed down. It is a concept absolutely and completely foreign to Chinese villagers, and when I look at their lives I see why. Most of them are already camping, with their coal stoves and hand-carried water. They see the forest as a source for wood to burn and food to forage. It’s easy to understand how they would wonder why wealthy people would make themselves so deliberately uncomfortable.
Back in Beijing most of Jiangshan’s customers are nouveaux riche who buy Patagonia jackets and Swiss army watches as status symbols to wear on the streets of Beijing, or on touring vacations to Guilin or Yunnan where they tiptoe along the trails in designer shoes.
After the stress of the past twenty-four hours I welcome the surprise of vast nature. There are probably some pretty little villages in the hills here. What if I left the motorcycle behind for a few days, put on my hiking boots and tried to find them?
Not on my first day out.
Or can I?
I’m lost already, much too early in the trip. And my plans are vague. The general idea to cross China from east to west, heading south through Sichuan and Yunnan is just a sketch. I now realize the roads are not as mapped, and that I have some hardcore dirt riding ahead of me. If the bike holds up, and I can get to the south, how will I get back? That’s the part I can never figure out when I look at the maps. The coasts are too crowded and the interior impossibly mountainous.
Sitting by the rushing river against the high coppery cliffs provides an anchor. There will always be the force of nature. If the human face of China is impermeable, threatening, nature renews and relaxes. Confronting foreign nature has always been more comfortable to me than confronting foreign cities, and today’s ride promises spectacular scenery.
Suddenly I can’t wait to get back on the road. Who cares which road? I need only head generally west. And when I hit a barrier, south, then when I reach my destination, north.
But first is a ritual that will be repeated each morning.
Back in the parking lot I unlock the motorcycle cover and fold it up into a big red duffel bag. Nothing had been touched. I’d been told that the Chinese are scrupulously honest. The more generous claimed it was an innate trait; the less generous claim it’s because there are so many tattletales around and the penalties are so harsh.
I try to open the trunk with as little noise as possible but every creak and bang echoes from the walls of the enclosed compound. I stand still in the stark yellow sunlight on the stark yellow dirt, and listen, but no one stirs.
First, the spokes. Sure enough, a lot are already broken from the deep potholes I’d hit the night before. The asphalt had ended abruptly several times and I’d ridden miles of dirt before the road was paved again. No road hazards were marked so I’d gone careening off the edges a few times.
I squat in the dirt and begin work as the sun’s rays rise over the mountain.
With a pair of needle-nosed piers, I pull the broken spokes from their seats in the wheel. Seven of the long ones are broken but all of the short ones are intact. I stop in astonishment. The day before, when we’d finished replacing three spokes that had broken on my bike, Jiangshan handed me all of the extras in his toolkit as a parting gift. His spokes were made of steel and not the cheap aluminum that I had packed in my kit. Lee translated his message, eloquently presented with a small bow: “Seven is an auspicious number, and I predict you will break no more than seven during your trip.”
Seven spokes broken on the first day out. It would be a miracle.
I take each end of a spoke and bend it slightly, maneuver it around a cross-spoke, then bend it back straight, pressing both ends into the threaded nipples sunk into the wheel. The nipples depress slightly into the wheels for this purpose. They’re threaded, and when I twist the spoke it catches the thread. It takes some work with a pair of pliers to thread each spoke in all the way, until the nipple pops back out again when it’s seated. Now it’s only a matter of banging the spoke straight. Easy enough, if you aren’t too attached to the definition of “straight.”
The sun beats down hard on the compound. It is difficult working bent over so low to the ground, forcing the spoke rods into the nipples with the tip of the needle-nose pliers. I sit back on my heels and spot one of the girls walking across the compound. Her hair is a rats-nest of black tangles falling out from the pins that had probably, the night before, formed an elegant coif. She glances furtively at me as she passes, holding her thin blue robe closed with tight fists. Her eyes are raccoon-black from smeared mascara and a red streak of lipstick stains her chin. She disappears into a darkened hallway and I hear the sound of water running.
Checking the oil is next. It needs about a quarter of the quart bottle I’d packed in my trunk. That isn’t bad, really, for the distance I traveled yesterday.
Then I touch all the nuts and bolts—some are loose and, not surprisingly, so is the electrical connection to a turn signal.
Back in my room I take a quick sponge bath with the remaining thermos of hot water and scrub the grease and dirt as best I can from my fingers. It would be interesting to find out a little more about the brothel, I’ll have to ask Teresa when I get back. I already know that, like most places, China has interesting and conflicting views on sexuality. For one thing, the government insists that homosexuality doesn’t exist, and even claims that HIV isn’t a problem. Condoms are not routinely used, and the condoms manufactured in China are of the poorest quality. Abortion is the most common method of birth control and is provided at no cost by the state, which supplies traveling doctors in medically-equipped vans for this purpose. As for the brothel, I surmise it is state-run, like everything else in the country, but still I’m uncomfortable with the thought of cops dropping by, just in case it’s run like the ones at home—an illegal activity sporadically enforced and profitable for corrupt officials.
I haul my suitcase, a soft-sided convertible backpack, from the room, and slide it into the toe of the sidecar. The motorcycle cover goes into a duffel bag with the tire repair kit and pump, which rests in the seat. I shove my maps (with town names printed in both Roman and Chinese characters) between the duffel and the seat back of the sidecar for easy access, and there is also room in the duffel for food. A trunk located behind the seat back is lockable and holds my valuables in its two-by-two foot compartment.
First into the trunk is the video camera, which lies on top of miscellaneous spare parts like an extra headlamp, signal bulbs, oil filter, voltage regulator, cables, and spark plugs. My laptop computer in its padded case slides upright against the back wall of the trunk and the toolkit against the opposite wall. This leaves just enough room in the middle for two cameras—one film, one digital—in their padded cases. A quart or two of oil can easily be wedged in the odd small spaces and a couple of rags keep the leakage from spilling onto everything else.
In the pockets of my motorcycle jacket is a small packet of tissue, small amounts of money for purchasing food, my passport and a phone number to call in case of emergency, the trunk key, and a phrasebook.
One final ritual look around the motel room for forgotten items and I am ready to go. However, the big wooden gates to the compound are still closed and locked. Just as I consider knocking on the office door, the compound gates are pushed open toward me as if I’d said “open sesame.” An adolescent boy walks through, key in hand, and stops, startled, when he sees me.
“Nee how,” I say, casually, and push the bike through the gates. I quickly put on my helmet and start the engine. The cacophony of the engine warming up rattles through the canyon and echoes from the cliff walls. Without waiting for it to warm up I take off over the wooden bridge, peering carefully over the side. Shuddering, I can’t believe that a constant stream of heavy blue supply trucks roar over it. It is even more rickety than I had imagined the night before. If it collapsed, I’d be immediately swept away in the whitewater that rushes through the rocky canyon two hundred feet below.
Without thinking about my doubts of the previous night I turn west, away from Beijing. From a height I can see the brothel in its U-shaped configuration and some other buildings, also sloppily made from concrete blocks and plaster, scattered on a very flat area of dry dirt between the river and the road. It would have been a perfect escape, the setting for a fishing lodge or a campground and a base camp for hiking trips. But the only travelers in China are truckers.
Suddenly, I can’t stop laughing. If I had wanted to alter my reality, achieve a true escape from my life in San Francisco, I had certainly succeeded. It’s so far away I can barely imagine it—my apartment on Nob Hill on the cable car line, my boyfriend Michael making coffee after an all-night party in some Multimedia Gulch warehouse with electronic music and designer drugs, not to mention the everyday realities of refrigeration and indoor plumbing. And for fun, an afternoon at Baker Beach under the Golden Gate bridge, a motorcycle ride to wine country, or a weekend at Harbin Hot Springs for baths and massages.
I rumble past the now-lifeless gas station and head into the green mountains, passing a village with houses made from mud and straw. It’s a tight jumble of rectangles standing on a natural shelf between the road and the river with smoke rising lazily from metal pipes sticking sloppily out at angles from red-tiled roofs.
The sun is bright and hot but the air is still cool. The only other person on the road this morning is a man in blue Mao pants, jacket, and cap pulling a cart of twigs toward the village. He must have been up to gather them before dark.
Centuries ago the peasants lived the same way, in mud and straw houses with wood-fueled cooking fires. I catch a whiff of smoke and then its all wilderness again, only mountains and trees as I make my way up a series of switchbacks to continue on a trip that would last four months through terrain ever more rugged and
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