Friday, October 06, 2006

Bringing It All Back Home

We did it. Mike, David and I made it back to George in Jinan safely and on our intended arrival date.

Mike during some of the final sooty days through coal mining towns

In the final weeks of the trip, China locked into some sort of hilarious virtual reality, as I gained enough understanding of the culture and language to get my points across and to know where and how I could interact and fuck with the people I came across. I guess I got to the point where I know just enough to be dangerous, to quote my boss back home.
Arriving back in Jinan amid the chaos, we all forgot to check CCTV to see whether we were aired on the sports channel (a film crew was at our hotel on the Tibetan Plateau and they were filming as Mike and I returned to the hotel on horses) and George greeted us with homemade burgers and Johnny Walker, as promised.

David's Dubious Spoke Repair

The last day of the ride was interrupted by a stop to have David's spokes replaced for the umpteenth time, this time the solution being twisting two too-short spokes together to replace each broken spoke. We wound through corn fields, beyond the endless row of trees lining the road, that were full of corn when we first passed through Shandong Province two months ago. From the road, I have watched the harvest cycle: first rice and then corn were tied into bundles, then removed from the field, dried on the roadway, hulled and shucked, and the fields burned and then re-planted for next year.

Crops Planted for Next Year

Similarly, we rode full circle, today riding back out to the reservoir that we had passed on our first day of the ride back in August. It was fascinating to see the difference in construction, crops, and homes that have occurred in the relatively short time since we began the ride.
All told, the ride worked out to a few kilometers short of 8000km. Two months, three brake levers for me, countless spokes for David, one bike drop for Mike, and one bum thumb for George. In that distance, I learned a bit of Mandarin; I see their quirks but still don't fully understand the Chinese; I have a much more realistic understanding of David, who I hardly knew prior to the trip; I learned more about George and Mike, who I thought I knew very well to begin with; and of course, I learned a handful of lessons about myself along the way. I hope to think through all of these interactions, experiences and lessons and write out those stories on this site in the coming months. I know that the thousands of photos alone that we took will take quite some time to process, let alone the things we have done and seen.
Tomorrow morning I will take a train to Beijing. Tonight I will have to sort through all the little bits of junk and gifts I picked up along the way and figure out some way to bring it all back home. In the coming months I will have to sort through the stuff I bring home in my head.

Odometer Upon Arrival in Jinan

It's been a hell of a trip, and to be totally honest, I could get right back on that bike tomorrow morning, go through the irritating process of strapping all my shit to the back of a dirt bike with fraying bungee cords, and head off to yet another unknown city and fumble my way through finding a hotel and meal before doing it again the next morning. Instead, I will plunge back into reality, spending one short day readjusting before walking into the office and seeing how things have changed there in the past few months.
But at this moment, there is Chinese red wine to be drunk, video games to be played, and shit to be talked with George and Mike before we part ways for some time. And I know that the next adventure will be just as wild and fun as this has been.
I'm looking forward to seeing all of you back at home and to eat a bowl of Cheerios with cold, cold milk. Man, that will be fucking great. See you soon.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Tumbleweed Connection

To those asking, yes, we're still alive! We've just been away from internet connections the past week. I only have a short time online, so I will have to be brief this time.

After seeing George off, we went back to town to check on our bikes which some Qingqi mechanic was supposed to be fixing up from fender to fender. It was apparent that he and his buddies had done nothing more than ride our bikes (David's missing 7 spokes) for two days. We took our keys, thoroughly cursed out the mechanic, and hit the road. We later found a reputable Qingqi dealership where our hero letters netted us the better portion of their showroom model of the GY200: David got a new back wheel & sprocket, 2 new mirrors, a new turn signal and an oil filter, and I got a new brake lever and oil filter.
We were ready to make some distance but wound up finding some amazing terrain on the border of the Teggen desert. There, we camped a few nights and spent time in what is now one of my personal favorite spots on the trip. We ended up camping in a basin between a number of desert hills. The sand was very hard and compacted so it held it's shape even under the motorcycles. Upon realizing that the hills formed a ring around our site and that they were all perfectly firm and contoured, we spent hours riding up and down the walls as if it were a giant velodrome or ski hill that never needed a chairlift. I could have done that for days on end.

David along the crest of one of the desert hills

We're still along the border of the desert, making our way east along a more northern route than we originally intended. The desert and the factories and mining make this a dusty, windy, ugly place. According to the Lonely Planet, Lanzhou, where we got the bikes fixed, is the most polluted city in the world. It seemed clean compared to what must be the most polluted towns in the world adjacent. We've seen more factories, refineries, and nuclear cooling towers than I can count. The air is grey and brown and the wind the past 2 days has been powerful, blowing sand, soot, and bugs across our helmet lenses every day. Dead desert brush does get uprooted and blown across the hills and streets: I've now seen my first tumbleweeds. This route will carry us east across a couple of provinces. We're aiming for a city named Pingyao, which is said to have a ton of old Ming-era architecture. We're at the 11-day mark for our target return to Jinan and things are looking good.

Well, this sucks: I had a few more photos I wanted to post, but these worthless computers keep dumping me and losing my work. I'm out of patience and time. More next time, I hope.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

So take me to the airport, and put me on a plane...

I was dreaming about the song "When a Man Loves a Woman" when George's voice interrupted.
He was talking a quickly, and by the dim light of the room and the heavy sleep in my head, I could assume that it was still early morning. What was he doing awake and dressed? What the hell was he talking about? What happened? Why?
The dream was a result of the previous evening. We'd made it back to civilization from the Tibetan Plateau, to Xining, the capitol of Qinghai province and were gladly jumping right back into the trappings of a larger Chinese city. We'd gorged ourselves at a KFC while a Qingqi dealer took our bikes to give them bumper-to-bumper tune-ups. We then headed to a KTV karaoke place to howl out "It's so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" a few more times. Michael Bolton was added to the playlist at some point, and had invaded my dreams.
After the karaoke, we wandered into a night market. Some skateboard stunts and horseplay entertained the locals but resulted in George smashing his thumb. No one but George thought much of it until he woke me in the morning.
"I've been up since 6 thinking this through and working through it, so just bear with me," he started, speaking quickly as I blinked and tried to focus on him.
"My hand hurts, man. Look: my thumb is a bit swollen, and it hurts to grab things, so working the clutch on my bike is going to be a nightmare unless we hang out in this city long enough for me to heal, which will prevent us from making all the stops and seeing all the cool things we've talked about, and if we mess up on the timing getting home I will be late getting back to Jinan and teaching, which is out of the question."
I really wasn't sure where he was going with this, and he wasn't giving me time to think it through, particularly considering the lack of sleep and abundance of alcohol the previous night.
"So since I woke up early, I've been thinking this through all morning and then went out and did some research and I am going to fly back to Jinan today."
"Wait, slow down. What are you talking about?!"
"Look man, it's just a stupid small injury, but I don't want to mess up the trip."
My mind slowly started catching up and I tried to offer some solutions. "Maybe there's a way we can rig the bike so you don't need your thumb," I offered, probably not the smartest idea, but the first thing that came to mind.
"No, it's not worth it. It's my left hand- the clutch hand -and with the amount we need to use the clutch, it won't work. Look, I've done this trip before, this final part of it in particular. I kicked my own ass last year, driving too many hours a day and having to get my bike welded back together every few days just so I could ride back into Jinan. I don't need to do that again. You guys have gotten the hang of this and now you are ready to finish this without my half-translating. You can take the rest of the challenge on your own. There's a flight today and there isn't one tomorrow, so I am taking it."
"Now hold on. We're stuck here a couple days while the bikes are fixed up; can't we wait and see how you heal, and go from there? You could take the flight in a couple days." His logic was sound, but the decision seemed so rash, so abrupt. This was just a routine injury in the world of George, who'd hurt his sternum wrestling Mongolians just a couple months previous, but squeezing a motorcycle clutch a few hundred times a day with any sort of injured hand would definitely be a nightmare. And at this point in the trip, we can either flat-out burn down the highway and get back into Jinan in a few days, or we can actually enjoy the trip home, making stops at all the sights along the way. Burning up time, however, could eat away at a buffer that we need to keep to ensure the George and Mike can get back with time to prepare for the school year, so we have to be careful. "But, I mean, we're supposed to finish this thing as the four of us."
"I know, but I've made my decision and I am going. I don't want to dwell on it because it will just bring me down. Besides, I'm ready to be home. And you guys are ready to finish this off and enjoy getting back to Jinan like I did last year." He then began running through how we'd have to sell his bike for him, and implored me to make sure that the three of us get back to Jinan safe and with the remaining bikes.
I thought that perhaps the other guys would help dissuade him, but when we woke Mike, he obviously saw the reason within George's decision. David had left a few minutes earlier to find food and explore the city while he thought the rest of us would be sleeping.
So in the end, George's decision stuck. Some brainstorming led us to inquire at the nearby train station as to whether we could send his bike back, and we were successful, Team China helping get the bike on a train in short order.
Back at the hotel, George went through his backpack, offering up things he wouldn't need back home. Rain boots, mittens, his heavy faux-fur blanket, an array of bungees, his rain poncho, his cheap shoes that quickly tattered after he bought them a few days earlier. "I'll just get real, decent shoes back home," he said.
I could tell that he was, in fact, ready to be home. We'd all talked since early in the trip, longing for soft beds, couches, Cheerios, tacos, hambugers, IHOP. When faced with the decision between two weeks of pain or a short flight to those comforts, he was ready. He'd been traveling since spring on frantic, rough trips like this, and skipping the re-run portion of this trip was a small sacrifice before getting wrapped up in the chaos of teaching again. And he was right: we are ready to finish this thing on our own. We've all traveled solo before, we've gotten the hang of the drive-find hotel-sleep-drive pattern. We've gleaned enough of the language to take care of many of the details that he took care of for us. It's a bummer that we won't be finishing the trip all together, but it is exciting to see how we finish it off without having George to rely on.

We caught David on the way out the door to the airport. We grabbed lunch and messed around in the airport a while before George turned and crossed the gate, wearing his cowboy hat and Qingqi jacket.

So now there are three. I have no doubts that we will make it back safely, in time, and with at least a couple stories that George will enjoy reading from the comforts of his apartment. And then we will reconvene back in Jinan, where we'll have a few last hurrahs, tacos, Cheerios, and hamburgers included.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Cold Rain and Snow

Snow. Probably the last weather phenomenon that I expected to encounter on this trip. When we saw our first flakes yesterday, a hazy memory of a conversation with my mother began to materialize. The conversation may be a total figment of my imagination, but I think it actually happened.
"Tibet? Won't there be snow and freezing temperatures up there?!"
"Aw mom, you're always paranoid. It's summer, there won't be any snow! Besides, we can buy any cold weather gear we need."
You're both right!

Moonrise on the Plateau

Our plans to continue camping were thwarted by frigid temperatures and daily downpours. I was really nearly at the end of my rope during the last camp-out. We spotted a good set of jagged mountains to do another Qingqi photo shoot. While we were shooting, George spotted a glacier that trailed down into the valley, declaring that with pure water and stunning landscape, this was the place we had to camp next.
The river looked to be a fair distance away, but the deceptively huge size of everything up here on the plateau proved that our destination was actually a great distance away. And while the terrain looked like smooth short grass all the way up the steep mountain, driving on it we discovered that it was actually incredibly rough, lumpy terrain. We snaked our way over the terrain towards the mountain, facing several creek crossings along the way. While I love the glory of driving across creeks and rivers, I absolutely hate that I soak my feet on almost every crossing. Drying out my shoes totally depends on the weather, facilities, and time before we hit the road again. While Mike and George seem to have infinite tolerance of wet, stinky feet, it's something I still struggle with.
So on that trek towards the camping spot, I was looking to minimize my water crossings, and a kind Tibetan pointed me towards his little footbridge that allowed me to avoid one crossing. As I came off the tiny bridge and returned to the lumpy ground, I turned around to wave and shout a "xie xie" to him, and in doing so, lost my balance and dumped my bike. Argh, just trying to say thanks put me in an embarrassing spot. So I picked up the bike, smiled sheepishly through my helmet, and continued along. Things were fine, despite now being separated from the group by a small distance, I crossed another creek and stopped when I heard a clanking sound. My bungees had come undone and all of my gear was now trailing between me and that last creek. The Tibetan ran over and insisted on helping reattach everything before reminding me a second time that we could have avoided all of this by taking a small road that led to the mountain, rather than off-roading it.
Eventually I caught up with the others, but eventually I was separated again, as I took my time on the gravel road we merged onto. One more water crossing, in which I dumped the bike again, and I needed to take a few minutes on my own to cool down. It was during this cool-down that I realized why I dump my bike so often when we're off-road. I have never had qualms with my height, but I realized that just a couple more inches on my legs would make all the difference off road on a motorcycle. As soon as my bike is on the smallest rock or lump, I can't touch the ground. On the street this doesn't pose a problem, but as soon as the bike is lifted and I need support on one side or the other, the bike has to tilt significantly before I can touch the ground. With the increased angle of the bike, the weight of the load is that much more difficult to counter, and with no leverage and not being as strong as the other guys either, all I can do is get out of the way and let the bike fall.
Eventually, I made it to the campsite, where George and I hurried to set up tents and scrape together some firewood while the others returned to town to find more wood and beer.
It was then that George mentioned that he wasn't feeling 100% and upon reflection I realized I wasn't either.

David During an Off-Road

Eventually David and Mike returned, with bad new all around. On the way out, David had crashed, having misjudged the dirt road. In town, Mike's helmet was stolen (the second nicked since we arrived on the plateau). They were unable to find wood, and 3 of 9 beers were broken and spilled over the rest of their bag on the rough road back to the campsite.
We eventually scraped up more than enough wood, and settled down to light the fire in a fire circle with a "nipple" created by Mike in which we scraped hot coals under the wok. I put on my rubber rain poncho and watched lightning storms move to either side of us as the valley walls on either side of us miraculously pushed the storms aside. Things were looking up: David had been clever enough to transport eggs pre-cracked in a plastic bottle so they'd be scrambled by the time we arrived. He set to work cooking some home fries in the wok.
But while David cooked, things started feeling uneasy inside me. Yep, I needed to find a rock and prop myself up for a glorious bout of Lou Stools. At least I could watch a beautiful lightning storm while I sweated on that stone.
I returned to the campfire and as soon as the potatoes were nearing completion, a torrential storm snuck right down our valley. We ran back up to the tents and ducked under the tarp to shovel down the potatoes with whatever sticks were available. Eventually the rain abated and we ventured out again: me to my rock, and the others to cook the eggs. Like clockwork, as the eggs finished up, the storm kicked right back in again. I was through. I felt like shit, downed two Imodium, and hunkered in for what was sure to be a wet and cold night.
In the morning, I kept my mouth shut as George declared that, despite his feeling ill too, we would be camping again that night.
"No more of this 'I'm wet, I need a hotel' shit," he declared. I had to be a good sport, and I knew I wouldn't die per se, so I rolled with it.
And as David cooked breakfast, the rain started right back in again.

A Little Sibling Rivalry

Thankfully, as we drove that afternoon, the rain and cold dissuaded even George. I never had to vocalize what probably could have been read in my eyes, and George declared that we would, in fact, be seeking a hotel. I realized at that time that while George is rather extreme and has taken me out of my comfort zone a few times on this trip, he is still entirely reasonable and human as well. All of my solo travels have taught me so much about relativity: about what cleanliness is, what a wait is, what hunger is, what heat is, what a human really needs to survive; and together these lessons make me more tolerant and understanding while I endure uncomfortable situations, and make me that much more thankful for the comforts of home when I return. What this trip has done is taken that lesson even farther. As I sit here typing, able to smell my own funk, feeling sand grit between my teeth, the smoke of a Chinese cigarette burning my eyes, short of breath from the altitude, knowing it is just about freezing outside and that I will be returning to a hotel with no toilets or running water, I realize that all of these discomforts are things I have worked my way up to. Now, being dirty after two days of camping doesn't seem so awful compared to camping in a downpour. A face- and hand-wash and toothbrush is enough to set me for the day. Eating my lunch with filthy road-grimy hands isn't as bad as eating with two sticks I picked up off the firewood heap. Shitting in the woods is actually preferable compared to the frightening, nauseating shacks outside these Tibetan hotels. And as I said, while I am being pushed, it has been within reason, and with lessons learned all along.

So that's why tonight we are staying in the aforementioned hotel with no running water. The past couple days we have made three ~5000 meter passes. The temperature has dropped to the extent that while the skies are bright blue with puffy white clouds, any moisture in the air freezes. Not enough snow to stick, but enough to freeze the fingers and toes. David turned us on to warming the hands on the motorcycle exhaust. I've layered up with most of my clothing, and we were, as I promised my mom, able to buy cold weather gear such as long underwear and leather gloves in the towns we've stayed in. Today, as we made those mountain passes, the wind blew cold, and when we reached plains, the wind blew so hard that we had to ride at an angle to keep moving forward. Rounding corners and having to adjust to the changing wind was a frightening challenge. And as we lost altitude, the terrain turned semi-desert and we rode through several gusts of sand that burned any exposed flesh. Eventually, we arrived in some sort of military town with barrack buildings that are eerily reminiscent of a concentration camp. Everyone wears camouflage, and the sandstorm continues, whistling as it blows sand through the vacant streets.
We're striving to get back to lower altitudes and warmer weather as soon as possible, to resume the camping and sweating.

Sorry, Blogger keeps blowing my photo uploads, so only a couple pics today.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I'm a Cowboy, On a Steel Horse I Ride

I last wrote from Emei Shan, where we got lulled into about a week of stagnat relaxation of sorts, having stayed at our first backpacker-oriented hotel, complete with the typical banana pancakes, and the ease of life in a touristed town. We got back on the road again and continued north west, targeting western Sichuan province and gaining altitude onto the Tibetan Plateau.
Throughout Sichuan, we've been continually distracted by incredible sights along the way. On a whim, we left our day's route and followed signs to Er Lang Mountain National Park. Immediately after crossing the gate, we were treated to kilometers of roads winding along a rushing, silty river. The river was fed by numerous towering waterfalls, varying from thin white streams to gushing deluges that washed over the road.

Waterfall in Er Lang Mt. Nat'l Park

Similarly, there was a lot of evidence of China's live-at-your-own-risk attitude as landslides and boulders that had fallen from the cliffs had destroyed portions of the road and left craters in other portions. There were a few points where rickety Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-type bridges spanned the river (lacking only the height of the movie's bridge, but making up for it with added ricketyness), and of course we had to test out the most dubious bridge.

Deeper in the park, we learned that we could rent a bungalow for the night, a sort of camping cop-out that would not stand later in the trip, so we dropped our gear at the bungalow and then crossed the bridge again at dusk to build a fire on the boulders of a waterfall that evening. We collected firewood among honest-to-god swingable Tarzan vines and all of the night's creatures and bugs. The bridge had to be crossed again after dark, and with the river rushing underneath and beer and baijou rushing through the veins, it made for a dizzying span.
The bamboo forest in the park made the perfect environment to take up martial arts. George made a great Kung Fu Master, and in no time I was channeling the skills of Bruce Lee himself.

Hong Kong Fooey!

We pressed on and kept heading west. One day, we started drastically gaining altitude. In the region of the park, we had finally escaped the populace to the point that forests finally outnumbered crops and housing. Within a few hours, we reached the upper limit of the lush green forests. At a definite line, the landscape suddenly changed to short, scrubby trees and short grass. As we gained altitude, the air turned colder and the bikes began to struggle due to the thin oxygen. No sooner did the bikes begin to choke and sputter than we passed a Caucasian woman on a bicycle scaling this incredible pass, the first Caucasian we'd seen since the handful in Emei Shan. We pressed on, knowing that while we'd see a lot more of this country than that woman, she was certainly the crazier one for her choice in route and transportation.
Again, an invisible but noticeable line demarcated the end of the green trees and the beginning of just plain grass and rocks. And there was also a notable change in the people. The first man we saw at this altitude lived alongside the road in a tiny stone house. A hose spouting water into the air indicated that he made his living by providing water to cool the trucks making the pass. He looked significantly different than the Chinese people we'd seen before. His skin was redder and darker, his eyes somewhat rounder, and his hair grown longer. We'd suddenly arrived on the Tibetan Plateau and the difference couldn't be more obvious.
The pass peaked at 4298 meters (12,900 feet) and was marked with thousands of tattered Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the powerful wind, tied from a giant white stupa. Of course, there was a cell tower across the road, so George was able to make a phone call with full bars. In the thin air, we spent a lot of time setting up the perfect photo for a Qingqi ad. We're aiming for a billboard here.

Photoshop Contest! We were taking "jumper" shots, as George calls them, and by their nature, it's a challenge to get them just right. So I have put together a zip file with some rough shots, each with at least one good pose for each of us. I need our Photoshop experts to take a crack at creating the perfect image out of the shots we took. We're looking for something more "Qingqi, fuck yeah!" than "Oh what a feeling... Qingqi!", so do your best. There is some cutting and pasting, and some lighting and color correction needed. Please don't put any text on the image; we'll leave that to Qingqi. The zip file is located at The winner can add to their resume that they created an image for a billboard, assuming Qingqi is as enthusiastic about it as we are. Email your full size PSD to me and the other riders, and post a link to a web-size version hosted at to the blog so others can see your work! Let's see what you can whip up. Funny stuff is always funny and welcome, but won't be sent to Qingqi, obviously.

OK, back to the road. While China lays claim to both the physical Tibetan Plateau and the land that was once independent Tibet but is now Xi Zang Province, there was no question that we had arrived in a different environment, a different culture, and different people. We're currently on the Plateau and not the province, but there is clear: we are in Tibet. Rather than just the stares that I have described before, we are now greeted with whoops and hollers, waving hands, and cheers. And that was before the costume change.
See, I called my shot before I left, and mentioned to a few people that I might take the plunge and go mustache on this trip. A few days into the trip, I started letting things grow, and made the commitment a few weeks ago. I encouraged George and Mike to do the same; David already had a full array of facial hair. George did it reluctantly and bellyached about it daily, about how dirty and gross it made him look and feel. Well, that's the point, isn't it? I mean, with the road grime, the sweat, the rainstorms and the camping, we're dirty already, why not take it a bit farther?

Tibet. It's got some sort of identity crisis. The people look more South American than Asian, with their skin and eyes alone, but then they don these flamboyant colored outfits, the women braid cloth into their hair, and men and women dangle beads and silver from their hair and ears. The styles and colors are very Peruvian; we finally escaped the grey haze of China and found color, in a big way.

Tibetans in Typical Attire

I don't know why, but these guys have a Wild West thing going on. Cowboy hats, boots, big sunglasses, the whole nine yards. Tibetans' motorcycles are possibly even more flamboyant than their attire. When I first noticed that many motorcycles have leather tassels hanging from the handlebars, I made a declaration. We executed on that and bought them... and then bought glittery stickers and George bought Chinese flags that pop up from his dashboard. And then George declared that we were getting Cowboy hats. And we wound up with the full outfits: the bikes, the hats, the tunics and jackets, the sunglasses, and of course, the mustaches.

George and Mike, On the Range

"It's as if god gave you a reason to convince us to grow these mustaches!" George declared, suddenly feeling a lot less dirty. We'd found our place here in Tibet, and some days locals walk up close to verify that we are in fact lowei, rather than locals.
So, with motherfucking leather tassels, cowboy hats and mustaches, the whole world is a different place. A motorcycle ride is a whole new experience. And the whooping and hollering we got from the locals in the beginning has turned into them going absolutely batshit crazy sometimes when they see us drive into town, pass their mud home, or walk their streets.

Pretending to Smoke, Genuine Mustache

I can now understand Scott Lewis' transformation from suburban Jew to cowboy. As George said, we now can see why people would want nothing more than to just don a leather hat and "mustache around."

Still Life with Mustache

Adam, Mike, David "Chang Hefner" Poh

Tibet is yak country. These gigantic, shaggy beasts are fascinating to look at and even more fun to interact with. They roam freely in fields and roads. I have taken to doing my share of yak herding when we leave the road; carefully riding around them and moving them across the grasslands. My bike, and the others, now backfire like David's has for a while now. The yaks don't respond to horns. Either because they hear them all day on the roads, or because they have some of their own, but backfires get their attention real quick. They truly "high-tail" when spooked, pointing their shaggy tails in the air before galloping away. A welcome reaction compared to the sheep who sleep in clumps on the road, heads all resting on each other; the humans who ignore any sound on the road; the ducks who cross the road in slow, deliberate clusters; and the dogs who are prone to unpredictable last-minute changes of direction. Oh, and yak is delicious, as jerky, medium-rare on skewers, you name it!

Giving the Tassels a Bath After Yak Herding

Mike "Mustache" Barkelew Eyeing the Horizon for Stray Yaks

With the tassels, mustaches, and Tibetan outfits, we've done some more camping, we've done less bathing, and intend to take this grimy image as far as we can. The other night we drove through a storm before setting up camp next to a river and whittling our own chopsticks using AK47 bayonets while listening to Graham Parsons and Johnny Cash. Tonight we will camp again, with a baggie of dead mealworms that are supposed to do something that the locals get all excited about when you soak them in baijiu. Wish us luck.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

If you can hear a piano fall, you can hear me comin' down the hall

Sunset in the middle of some mountain pass

Sorry for not posting anything new in a while: I sat down and cranked out a great posting a few days ago but these public computers get so full of viruses that they are incredibly unstable and somehow they even foiled Gmail's draft saving feature, so all was lost.

Monkeys on Emei Shan

Today we're in recovery mode. Two days ago we took a bus and gondola to the top of Emei Shan, known as Monkey Mountain to friends of George, and billed as "No. 1 Mountain Under the Sun by the road sign. The environment here is incredibly moist, and the mountain is a jagged, nearly vertical shard erupting from the town below and reaching a peak at 3099 meters. The first day we hiked the short jaunt up to the peak and had our first monkey encounters. Mike, who'd been talking some pretty tall talk about being able to fend off 5 monkeys at a time and walk away with a "magic monkey paw" was caught a bit off guard when the first monkeys we saw went straight for his cookies and his only defense was splashing them with his Pepsi. An effective and humorous retaliation, it wasn't what Mike had in mind when he started talking trash, as he had yet to find a proper bamboo pole to defend himself with. Nowadays, he's seen skateboarding through the town swinging the pole at invisible enemies and mastering his "swing to whack" maneuvers.

Arriving at the monastery at night

In any case, that night we began the hike down the mountain and just after dark we reached the first monastery. We negotiated some rooms and had supper with some Chinese "whiskey" that we are all sure was just baijou and played cards under an exposed light bulb that attracted hundreds of tiny insects and dozens of the largest moths I've seen alive. When the monks began chanting and then working on the building, we were awoken and continued the downward descent. 3099 meters is something like 10,300 feet, which is something like a whole lot of descending stone stairs. Hence why today is a recovery day: none of us have a full range of motion of the calves or quads. But the hike was well worth it. We had numerous monkey encounters, some of which were quite tense with these spoiled brats feeling entitled to not only defend their mountain, but to also lay claim to any morsel of food visible or hidden within one's bag or pockets. Mike's bamboo pole did come in handy for fending off a few aggressive males that began by coming a hair away from biting David's leg and then just resorted to some humping when George yelled and banged the stick at them.
Aside from monkeys, there were waterfalls, plants and insects like I have never seen before. And a great swimming hole at the end which made a perfect reward for completing the trek, featuring a short natural rock water slide. The water was crystal clear (undoubtedly the only well-kept region in China -"Nationally Recognized Clean Mountain" according to the signs) and cold but refreshing.

Real American heroes

It's been a few days since we've been on the bikes, but it's amazing how much stamina I have built up compared to the start of the trip. We bang out an 8 hour ride and it seems to pass in a fraction of the perceived duration of a meeting at work back home, discussing XSDs and bean definitions. There is a midday hump where the ass still gets tender, but on the whole, I still feel like I could ride a few more hours, if it were still light at the end of the day.
I think I understand a bit more why we attract so much attention. Earlier I had said that our bikes aren't loud. The other day we had to move hotels from one end of the block to the other, and I wound up doing the short jaunt without my fully-enclosed helmet on. Our bikes are quite loud. And the bikes are very different looking from the other Chinese bikes; I have yet to see another dual-sport bike on the road, plus ours are brightly colored, as opposed to the dark red that most bikes here are painted.
David's bike has taken to backfiring, and even with my helmet on, it sounds like a gunshot. While it has to be doing wonders for his hearing, I don't mind it at all. I generally prefer to take the third or fourth slot in the line of bikes, for a number of reasons, but the backfire is one of them. First, it occurs when we slow down suddenly, which alerts me to coming obstacles or turns. Second, most of our sudden slowing takes place as we pass through small towns. The sudden explosions spook kids and adults alike and following David, I get to see the effect. In general, people point, double-take, drop what they are doing, nudge their friend, smile, or throw some sort of skeptical look our way. With the backfires, the looks of shock and surprise are downright hilarious at times.

Even without the bikes we're still center of attention. The other day we wound up in some tiny town after dark. After dropping off our gear, we set out to explore the two streets that comprised the town. In the darkness, our Caucasian features, David's towering height, and George's American flag shirt were hidden, we were sure to blend in, right? At the center of town, all of the town's women were doing some line dancing; more tai chi than macarena, but it was to somewhat modern sounding music. All of the other residents were milling about and some kids caught sight of us. Before we knew it, we were pied pipers, leading a gigantic throng of children and adults as we simply tried to see the town. At one point the crowd got too thick to continue walking. Out from nowhere a woman said "Hello and welcome, where are you from?"
"You must be the local English teacher," George responded, obviously rather jaded but also totally spot-on.
"Please excuse the excitement; people here have never seen a foreigner in person before!" she explained.
We chatted a bit and then entertained the kids with some antics. In general, however, I can't help but feel like we are letting the local crowds down; we could do more. I know they are fascinated simply seeing our bikes, our clothes, and watching us eat the same food they eat, but we can do more. So David proposed that we for an entertainment troupe, White Man Group. The act will contain George's Danger Juggling, some stupid human tricks, and some musical numbers such as America the Beautiful. We are tossing around the idea of working out some barbershop trio songs (can't do a barbershop quartet when Mike won't even stand there and snap his fingers).

The crushing audience

Our run-ins with the law have been drastically reduced since we left that province that required us to check in at every city. There was one officer in a larger city who asked to see our licenses but immediately let us go once David presented our Hero letter. And then there was the issue over the chicken... I had bought a real bottle of red wine to share over dinner. We negotiated a fancy meal with a local restaurateur that was based on the purchase of an entire chicken. When the meal was delivered, and consisted of only chicken feet, the head, and an array of meatless bones, some disagreement ensued as to whether or not chickens actually contain meat.
"It is late, so the chicken is small," was the excuse offered by the daughter of the owner, despite our having watched the slaughter of a healthy-sized chicken.
The cops showed up to help solve the issue, and once George handed over the tab due, they were satisfied and departing until a special tourist cop arrived on the scene. He was clearly completely drunk, dropping things, asking the same questions over and over, and generally maintaining a facial expression that said that dealing with us lowai was not his expectation when he first cracked open that bottle of baijiu. Nonetheless, it was he who was not satisfied with ending the issue when the other cops were satisfied, and his drunken tomfoolery balanced out the general stress of dealing with the situation.
George masterfully guided the drunken cop through the conversation in which both sides of the story were heard and any notion of how we got there and why was completely avoided. With the cases stated, George led the cop towards wrapping things up.
"OK, so the money is paid and restaurant owner is happy. Everything is OK and we can go now, right?"
"No," the officer said, head in hands, "everything is not OK." His voice slowly escalated into an desperate, exasperated tone.
"You... spit... on... R...M...B!!!!"
Oh. That.
That night we learned the hard way that defiling Chinese currency is tantamount to defiling Chairman Mao and China itself. Ordinarily, the cops never would have let a restaurant owner rip off a tourist like that, but this act touched a patriotic nerve. In the end, we lost our our Ping Chang privileges, but we were on our way again with bikes and everything else intact.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chineasy Rider

As I said in my last post, my assignment yesterday was to send photos to Qingqi while the others did their errands. George and Bark had to get a visa extension from the cops and David had to watch the bikes and make a phone call to the US. I got a call from George on my cell as I wrapped up sending pics to Qingqi.
"How are they coming?"
"I'm in a rhythm now, got about 30 sent, and can wrap up soon."
"Excellent, everything is working out perfectly: We're getting the extension with no hassles and we found a KFC for lunch; David finally made his call, he found a tattoo shop that will sell him some tattoo ink, and he met a motorcycle gang that wants to take care of us."
"How you say, everything's coming up Milhouse?"
And sure enough, when I got back out to the bike, there was a typical crowd, but a whole lot of other motorcycles as well. These weren't your typical Chinese bikes, but a variety of Hondas, Yamahas and other souped-up Asian bikes. As it turns out, the guys all work for/own a motorcycle shop in town, and formed a riding gang with a logo, a website and an impressively large group of riders. When they first met David, they learned that we needed some repairs and these guys were the obvious choice. We didn't yet know to what extent they would demonstrate Chinese hospitality.
The gang present spanned all the necessary archetypes: the take-charge leader, the "bitch" who was employed as an English teacher and became our translator, the heavy-set tough softie, the older what-are-you-doing-with-these-kids guy, and so on.
"No money while you are in Ankang!" the leader declared to David. We weren't allowed to spend our own money when we were under their care.
First order of business was getting a place for the night. We all started up the bikes and caravaned, probably 8 or so bikes at this point, down the street to a nice hotel. We arrived and were ushered right upstairs to our clean, air-conditioned rooms: the gang had already paid for our accommodation. After dropping the bikes off, the whole entourage cruised back the way we came and were led to the bike shop, just another greasy hole in the wall, already sporting a decent collection of bikes parked out front in various states of repair or lack thereof. The English teacher interviewed each of us to learn what we needed repair-wise. One by one, each bike was taken care of; both requested repairs and fixes that the gearheads decided we needed. George got a new headlight, and new spokes; they pounded out my bent brake handle, readjusted my bent handlebar controls and mirrors; we all got our spokes tightened and wheels trued, our chains lubed, and so on and so forth. The heavy-set kid was a whiz with that spoke tool and he and a few other kids became greasy messes fixing our bikes and replacing parts at no cost.

George's bike getting some attention at the shop

We played the getting-to-know-you game and explained the route and the plans. One biker inquired about my leather jacket, asking if it was hot. "Yeah, I don't know how to say weenie in Chinese," George said, continuing the ruse at my insistence on safety.
"What time will you leave in the morning?" the leader asked George.
"It depends on how much we drink tonight," he responded.
"Oh, we will only drink fruit beer tonight (1% alcohol content) because we do not think it is safe to ride and drink," the leader responded, via his translator.
Everything was coming up Milhouse.
Bikes fixed, it was time to feast. By now, the posse had grown to about 20 people, including riders, ladies, and one biker's infant. Just as the hotel was within a few blocks of the bike shop, the entire caravan wound just a few blocks to the restaurant. Finding seating for 20 was going to be a challenge, so the grumbling snake moved from one place to another before finding one that could accommodate us. We wound up in a fancy place, circling up as many chairs as possible around a gigantic round table, many of the bikers sharing seats to fit. We were fed more than we could handle, sweating and dodging elbows and flying chopsticks in the tight quarters. A few toasts were presented from either side, but nothing overbearing or tedious: indeed these guys were rare in their ability to be traditionally hospitable without being annoying. They kept the toasts short, offered cigarettes only to those who smoked, and generally didn't over-insist when we refused things.
Sated, one of the bikers announced our evening's next destination: swimming!
Everyone hopped on the bikes and caravaned through the teeming city night, doubled up in each lane at first and then eventually stretching out into a long, rumbling train, drawing eyes and splitting traffic wherever we rode. We were led by the heavy-set guy who unfurled the gang's flag behind his bike and who rode with a visible pride at the chain that followed his lead. The city's buildings eventually gave way to a gigantic bridge, illuminated with chasing pink and purple neon lights. Rather than crossing the bridge, we hung a right, between a hill at the peak of which was a gorgeous illuminated pagoda, and a crowd of people buying ice cream and drinks from carts. The on either side of the river was up a steep shore which had been paved over with stadium-style stairs and seats. Long stretches of pedestrians and people seated at tables reminded me of the Seine river that snakes through Paris. We parked and descended the stairs to the rocky shore below.
"This is the cleanest river in all of China!" the translator explained. "The water will be bottled for drinking in the 2008 Olympics."
Everything is relative, but suffice to say I was much more comfortable swimming in this water in the darkness than being able to determine what color it really was.
On the rocks, everyone stripped down to reveal the most hilarious array of skivvies known to man. From George's black Speedos to the striped, high-waist briefs the Chinese wear. All the bikers whooped like children as they waded into the water, as if it were a barely-tolerable temperature rather than the balmy 70 or so degrees it was in actuality. The ladies watched our stuff while some guys bathed and some guys splashed each other. We rode the current and frolicked with the guys. It was downright hilarious to me how childish the whole thing seemed, but so unabashedly fun for everyone.
After swimming, the rest of my gang was tired, so I was the only one that agreed to continue running around with the motorcycle gang. The experience was so like any other motorcycle gang, just in China. We rode along the river and the crowds, again drawing eyes, some guys revving their engines occasionally or doing a quick maneuver around a car. We picked a spot to hang out, and as best I can tell, just hang around and look cool. While we hung, the posse grew some more, cell phones glowed in the darkness and more friends were phoned.
"Adama! You ba-ba-ba!?" one biker demanded, miming a microphone. Yeah, I'll sing.
Off to a karaoke bar, grabbed some tall Chinese beers, munch on the tastiest sunflower seeds I've ever had, thew bottle caps and shells around the bar, and generally acted like we owned the place. The mic was handed to me before any of my compatriots had sung. My translator had skipped out on the bar, so with my limited Mandarin I had told them that I could only sing in "American". I hoped they got it.
It was, in fact, an English song. A Chinese hit... friends in Seattle, you have one guess what song they gave me.

Yep, "Take it to your heart," the song that George so famously performed on TV a few months back. Well, at least I knew the first verse and chorus, right? I was waiting for the gay-looking host in the pink t-shirt to tackle the second verse in Mandarin, but it didn't happen: this version was all in English! I had to make my best guess, and I figured out a bit too late that the damn song modulates at some point, but whatever. I rapped during the instrumental break and got a huge round of applause from the whole bar when the song was over.
This morning, the gang took us out for breakfast before reconvening at the bike shop. Nearly 20 bikes were in attendance as the gang had decided to take a ride with us: get us going and then split off in the afternoon before making a loop back to their home city.

With most of the gang in the morning before our group ride

Four bikes get noticed in China. You can imagine the scene when a large Chinese man on a dual-sport with a gigantic flag leads 20 roaring, mismatched bikes through small Chinese towns. Old ladies and children counted the bikes as we rumbled by, drawing smiles and double- and triple-takes.
We gained significant altitude, finally escaping the suffocating heat for the first time this trip, and winding though mountains and along rivers, passing cave homes and other earthen homes. The turns were wound so tight that there were times I was sure a curve would wrap right back around 360 degrees to make a corkscrew, but would whip back the other direction at the last moment.
It's a trick, riding those turns. Imagine a hairpin right turn with a cliff rising up on your right. The right thing to do is to move to the left, toward the center of the road, to get a view around the turn and to make the straightest cut through the turn. But doing so is certain to make you at risk of the inevitable rock-hauling horn-screeching truck who is crossing the lane to trim down their turn. It's a balance, and it works, thankfully because we move at a reasonable speed. Today, as we rounded those turns amid dense mountain jungle, above terraced cliff-side rice paddies, rivers in the distant valley floors, the front or end of the caravan could be seen snaking through the trees and around past or coming corners. It was an exhilarating experience, start to finish.
Now, we're in a town for a night to do our internet stuff before we leave for slightly more rugged terrain and less technologically advanced towns as we cross into Szechuan province.

Part of the gang on our big ride, from their camera

And a couple more photos, while I am at it:

Daughters of a family that invited me in for dinner the other night

View from across the river of a town we stayed in for a few days

OK, I just got a call from George that they hear noise coming from upstairs at the hotel. Time to check it out.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Waiting on a Vision?

Okey dokey... I've been assigned to email some photos to Qingqi for their ad campaign or whatever. I know people want pics, so while I wait for them to send I'll see if I can post a few here. They are all bike-oriented because I pulled them down for Qingqi, but next time I'll aim to post a few non-bike pics.
I'm flying blind with Blogger because I can't seem to get it to render in English. So you get what you get...

In the heart of the watermelon jam

Team China helps fix a flat tire. 22 mins: not bad.

The whole posse after the free oil change at a Qingqi dealership

Some bridge in the middle of China

Taking advantage of a typical audience gathered at a routine orientation stop

Having to re-neg on our most grueling off-road ride yet

More in next post... they only let me do 5 pics I think?

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

We got the guns but they got the numbers

The day of my last posting turned out to be a two-cop day. After the pleasant wake-up call from the cops, we eventually had to hail them ourselves later in the afternoon. During the drunken karaoke escapades the night before, David inadvertently left his cell phone at the KTV. We figured it'd be a quick stop back there to pick it up: either they'd have it or they wouldn't. So we got all geared up on the bikes and parked right in front of the front door of the KTV. I waited outside, as it takes me entirely too long to get in and out of my helmet/glasses/jacket/shoulder bag/gloves. It was only supposed to be a minute. and a minute later, George and David emerged from the entrance with solemn looks on their faces. Apparently some attendants had taken them into the room and couldn't find it. As they walked down the stairs in front of the KTV, however, George called to a woman who was also coming down the stairs. She had a black Moto Razr in her hand, one just like David's. George asked to look at it, and the desktop picture was different and the writing was all in Chinese, so he handed it back. She giggled and said "ha ha sorry!" in an almost mocking way before hailing the first cab to pull by.
"Wait a minute... she could put in her own SIM card!" George realized, and ran over to the cab to talk with the woman again. Some discussion turned to tense conversation and then turned to loud shouting. Within seconds, a large crowd had gathered to observe the sweating white guy having it out with the Chinese lady whose shouting sounded like a pissed off Pomeranian.
I was asked by the others to manage the bikes so I saw the majority of the melee from a distance, but with each passing minute the crowd grew larger and the barking grew louder. Apparently all George wanted was for the woman to show him the battery in the phone, under the theory that if it had English writing and no Chinese on it, it was David's phone. A reasonable enough theory, but the lady was steadfast in her refusal to show the battery. So George and the lady agreed that the cops should help sort things out. This, of course, led to an even larger audience, and I peeled off my layers realizing this wouldn't resolve any time soon. In short, the cops came, and they said they'd need to send for the special tourist cops to help bridge the language barrier, and the nearest such cops were a town 45 minutes away. So we waited, the crowd, for some reason having absolutely nothing better to do than to watch us sit in the sun and wait, hung around.
George began to get concerned, though, with the new cops coming. To elaborate on our legal status with the bikes: in general, foreigners aren't supposed to own motorcycles in China. We own them, with papers, and with our hero document, but there is always the possibility that someone will stick to the letter of the law and take them away. We wouldn't be arrested or anything, but the rest of the trip would be by train.
"We're fucked." George told me. "Once the cops get here, they're going to ask why we're in this godforsaken town, and then they'll ask how we got here, and then it's all over."
When the cops finally arrived, George decided to finally acquiesce and drop the issue rather than push his argument any farther. He apologized for causing the fuss and for accusing the woman. In the end, we drove away on our bikes and she quite possibly had a brand new Moto Razr. But George's mouth... his resistance to letting things slide: I suspect these are dangerous traits on this trip. I will have to watch him.

Each of us brings our own problems and value to the table however. Barkelew has been shining through with his ability to fashion anything out of anything. He rigged up his own helmet cam to capture footage of the drives, which has created some cool movies, and of course attracted some confused looks from the locals. And then today he created a tattoo gun out of a battery powered toy car, a pen, a sewing needle and a handful of paper clips. Amazing. Between George's fast talking and Bark's ability to create anything out of anything, what trouble can't we get out of? Each day on the road brings new and unique challenges and sights. One day we wound through hundreds of kilometers of roads lined with weeping willows, the next day hundreds of kilometers lined with tall trees creating a 200-foot-high green Gothic arch above us. Bursts of wind sent down flurries of green leaves like giant snowflakes. There was Garlic Land, a garlic-growing region where slippery piles of garlic skins were a constant road hazard. And of course, ricey conditions exist. In China, it's the people's road, and the people use the road however they see fit. One of the road's uses is to dry out rice. Most roads have a wide paved shoulder for passing and for slow vehicles. When those areas are used to dry rice, it doesn't pose much of a problem, but when an entire lane of a 2-lane highway is a covered in patches of rice, well, sometimes it's our lives versus their dinners.

We've each had our close calls with various obstacles. It seems like everyone and everything in China wanders into traffic with the same astounding complete lack of concern for their surroundings and the obvious assumption that the other guy will sort things out and not hit them. The wandering goat, well I understand: he's not a smart creature, but the man on the motorcycle? He merged into my lane and then just kept merging, as if he wanted to take the spot where I was driving. Leaning on my horn and screaming every profanity at him finally caused him to relent. I was inches away from kicking the motherfucker away from me. And then there was the stray dog who I was gaining on as he moseyed into traffic. I honked and slowed as quickly as possible, and got so close to him that over the din of the motorcycle and through the insulating helmet I could hear his claws scraping asphalt when he finally decided to shake a leg. When I finally reached him, I think I was going at a speed at which I could have killed him and ridden right through, and I would have had little remorse in doing so.

In a small town where we stopped for lunch, I broke off from the others for a few minutes, and was invited to share a few slices of watermelon from a group of locals sitting at a table along the road. I ate more than my fill and was amazed at their seemingly limitless supply of watermelon...
We had some of our most technical riding to date that day, not owing to road conditions or heat, but to a unique phenomenon: the watermelon jam. One region seemed to subsist on watermelon commerce, of which this particular day was clearly the culmination of their season. We suddenly hit stand-still traffic and being smaller and more agile than the other vehicles on the road, we snaked our way through the gridlock. Anything was in bounds: the shoulder, the muddy ditch, the oncoming lane, the driveways of residences along the road, and finally the source of the gridlock: the driveways of the watermelon farms. Some assholes had pulled over to load up their three-wheeled truck with melons, and the next assholes in line had just stopped right in the middle of the road and waited. Each successive truck took a cue from the last, left no room for other traffic to pass, and just stopped. So we wound through numerous kilometers of this traffic to finally break free. And then, just a few minutes later, encountered the same exact traffic at the next watermelon farm. We passed several such scenes where it was the same exact story. The ground was littered with discarded melon shells, and the creek along the road ran red with watermelon juice. When we finally broke free from the last entanglement, I noticed that there were no full watermelon trucks moving with us, and no empty watermelon trucks heading in. Everyone, from the truck drivers to the passengers in cross-province buses, had simply resigned themselves to the situation. Rather than trying to solve the traffic mess, and overlooking the jackasses that caused it in the first place, everyone seemed to simply say "Fuck it. Gimme another slice of melon."

We rolled into a town for lunch that day, knowing we needed oil changes. Sure enough, there was a Qingqi dealership in this random town and we created the requisite hubbub when we rolled into their driveway. Some of George's fast talking got us free oil changes and some other repairs to the bikes. So far, I've dumped my bike three times, all losing my balance at a standstill. With the bags tethered to the back of the bike, it's difficult to regain balance once the stationary bike starts to tilt, and given my lack of long-term investment in the thing, I really don't care whether it takes a few scratches. I broke my mirror off on the most recent dump. In any case, after setting us up with repairs and oil and a series of photos with the staff and manager, we were on our way again.

That night, we left indelible memories in the minds of the night-owl residents of some tiny town as we convinced a three-wheeled cab driver to drive us around their tiny town with Bark and David hanging off riding skateboards. George and I hung out the windows shooting photos while the others launched off the cab and carved big turns under an orange moon. After the show was over, the locals each took a try on the boards, with a few shins and toes the victims of the endeavor.

We weren't to escape Johnny Law for long. The next night, after settling down in an outdoor restaurant in a bustling little town full of reveling partiers, we were approached by an unassuming man and woman. The man asked a few general questions in Chinese; where we were from and what we were up to. He handed over some photoless credential that we weren't sure what it was. Then he explained. He was a cop and wanted us to go with him to register at the station.

"Not a-fucking-gain!" George cursed. He did some more fast talking, insisting that we take his number and call him in the morning, when we were awake and felt like talking with him. The next morning they woke us up early anyway. The hotelier shouting and his female companion egging him on. I was beginning to feel ill and this was just what I needed: more hassle at some ungodly hour in this ungodly heat. In the end, they drove George off to the station with our passports in hand. He just had to fill out some papers with our basic information. We finally got the pattern: this province had more stringent rules for visiting foreigners and required that they register with the police in any town, rather than simply filling out papers with the hotelier. Some provinces have just opened up travel to Chinese residents in the past few years, let alone foreigners, so we need to be expecting these incidents and hope that the question of how we're getting around isn't broached. In any case, we were getting tired of being constantly hassled, so it was time to make a run for the border.

As some of you know, there is a list of about five negative events that occur on each of my international trips. Might as well cross 'getting sick' off the list early on, no? I was fine in the morning, as we took a detour toward some mountain. We wound through some narrow dirt trenches behind and around tiny stone homes and under low railroad trestles. When we could finally see the mountain through the haze, we saw that it was a plateau with a grey road appearing to run straight up the side of the mountain, with no switchbacks.

"Probably a stairway that we'll have to pay to climb," George said, but he was wrong. As we approached, we saw that it quite literally was a road that ran straight up the mountain. From the top, next to a stunning pagoda, I could make out the city and its several, nuclear cooling towers amid the smog below.

We wound through some gorgeous mountain passes throughout the afternoon, and I finally saw, nearly 2000km into our trip, the first patches of land that weren't completely occupied by humans. They were just small clumps of trees, nothing you could call "woods" or "forest" but they stood out to me because every other square inch of land in this country is otherwise touched by humans: cities, homes, crops, or man-made forests in gird patterns.

But things got nasty in the late afternoon. First, let me explain my gear. I opted for safety over comfort and convenience when gearing up for this trip. I have mesh pants with internal armor; a perforated, black leather jacket with armor; a full-face helmet with a few vents; perforated leather gloves; and low-rise hiking boots. Of course, I have to manage to squeeze my sunglasses or regular glasses under the helmet at all times. Not only is the array of gear an incredible burden, from weight and process of getting it all on or off, but it's obviously very hot. I learned very quickly that it made no sense to wear anything under the jacket and pants aside from boxers. That way, I only sweat through one pair per ride and sweat through another that night after riding. We'll have to see how the jacket and pants hold up to this abuse. Maya is invited to play the Smell Adam's Pants Game when I return.
So imagine the daily hell of wearing all this gear. Then add to that a creeping fever. Then, the sudden shock of a sharp pain on the inside of my left wrist: a bee had gotten caught up my sleeve and stung the hell out of me right where my main vein runs up my wrist. By mid-afternoon, as my body began to ache at every joint along with the spreading sting from the bee, we came upon our last stretch of road before we'd hit a town we could sleep in. 60km that seemed to take days. We were heading due west, with the sun burning down directly upon us. There were no trees shading us on this road. And just when things were getting really uncomfortable, we hit construction. In China, construction means kilometers of pure loose dirt roads, gigantic trucks belching out carbon monoxide, and slow moving due to traffic. By the time we reached our city, I was in meltdown mode. A suffering only matched by being stuck in Jack's car in the Arizona desert with the heat on full blast. As we went through the painful process of George talking with numerous locals to find an affordable hotel with secure parking, I lost it and just couldn't push on any farther. We finally arrived at a hotel, Bark had to carry my stuff up to the room, and after a quick rinse and rehydration, I passed out for the next 16 hours. I'm much better now, having taken a few naps after that marathon session, and we won't hit the road again until tomorrow.

Oh man, the girl running this internet room just doesn't even know what to do with me. All I need to do is look her general direction and she covers her face and starts giggling uncontrollably. She just came over to hand me my bag that I'd set next to my chair. and then skipped off to go tell her girlfriend what she'd done. I am constantly amazed at how novel we Caucasians are in this country. Granted, we're spending most of our time in tiny villages, but tonight I am in Shi Yan, a relatively developed city. I mean, it's got two McDonald's!

I'm still trying to make sense of this country. That we're poised to be entering the China millennium seems a huge stretch to me as we see far more primitive hamlets than modern cities. Any country that has any combination of the following, I have trouble seeing as anything other than being in mid-development: three-wheeled vehicles, squat toilets, way too many horns honking, complete and utter disregard for notions of sanitation, food in the roads, and stone homes (100 million of China's 1.3 billion live in caves. Caves!). But there are those pleasant aspects of life abandoned in the process of development and modernization, from the ample cheap street food right down to the people who are able to manage sitting around in their underwear watching the world pass by all day. I do know that China is separated into manufacturing provinces where the true development is taking place, and we're generally avoiding big cities, so maybe I am getting a skewed view. It is worth noting that I see very little poverty here. There are those that subsist on a few yuan a day fixing shoes and living in tiny hovels, but I have seen literally no beggars. They're doing something right. In any case, my impression so far has been that China consistently surprises me in how non-developed it seems. No matter how you slice it, the power of their numbers is obvious: from the thousands of trees planted along the roads to the buildings that appeared along the Beijing in the few months since my previous visit. As China relaxes it's grip on the people, and assuming that they can begin to think for themselves, a topic I should write about later, they definitely have the potential to accomplish a lot. We got the guns but they got the numbers. A millennium is a long time, and who's counting if China is a few years late in really staking their claim to this one?

As we headed to dinner tonight, we were stopped by yet another cop, this one asking to see our driver's licenses. Our hero letters got us off the hook right away. We've decided it is time to get out of this more populated city and head for the hills of Szechuan. "Gonna go fishin' for catfish, gonna fry 'em up over a fire, gonna camp under the stars" Barkelew was mumbling to himself in anticipation this evening. Time to rest up and then get on the road again.

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If you've got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in

Any final lingering nuggets of doubt as to whether this trip was the right decision were banished immediately after hitting the road. We decided to head south east towards Qufu and wound up taking a route that George had never tried before. We had to worm our way through some nasty traffic and lung-clogging construction zones, but once we broke free we were treated to the most incredibly beautiful mountain road. It was a long series of switchbacks snaking up the mountain with, of course, blind corners, sheer cliffs, and no guard rails. But we took it at a leisurely pace and I am very generous with the use of my horn, so there weren't any close calls.
We stopped for a quick rest in the midst of the turns and David looked down to notice that all of the weeds growling along the side of the road were of the cannabis variety. Apparently it isn't harvest season, but in a few months, it's likely to be a rather illicit mountain pass.
I immediately realized, as we wound through the mountain, that it is going to be nearly impossible to convey the details of the beauty that we've seen on the road. It passes so quickly- each tiny moment of a smiling old man's wrinkled face, a family bathing in a reservoir, a waterfall cascading down a brick wall, the stunning greenery of the mountains- there is no way to photograph them, and there are so many of these flashes of beauty that I will never be able to remember them all either. And I feel very pretentious documenting endless lists of adjectives to convey in type the things I've seen, so it will be frustrating, my inability to share all of it.
It's astounding to me that the bikes attract as much attention as they do. China has tons of motorcycles, plenty of them laden with luggage on the back. Ours aren't nearly as loud as the local bikes, and with the exception of me, we don't even honk as much as the locals. Yet everywhere we go, we are noticed. Groups of men sitting on little wooden stools along the road, wearing only shorts and fanning themselves in the sticky heat smile large toothless grins as we rumble past. We get double- and triple-takes as we weave through traffic in town. Maybe it's the fighter pilot helmets the other guys are wearing, maybe it's the fact that there are four of us on matching bikes, whatever it is, we are noticed. Crowds gather when we stop, and people are giddy with excitement at the opportunity to help us with directions or sell us food. It's a funny thing in China, the technology: I'm accustomed to traveling in third world countries where locals are baffled at the LCD display on my digital camera. In India, everyone asked me to mail them photos I'd taken of them. Not email, snail-mail. But here in China, even in the tiniest food-stop town, once word gets out, the locals whip out their cell phones and start snapping photos of us.
All of the attention is perfect by me. Everything being relative, and with the oppressive amount of attention I received in Ethiopia at one end of the spectrum, I find the amount of attention pleasant here. Of course it strokes the ego, but hey, it's fun. Yesterday we took our hoteliers' daughters out for a spin through the city after they carried on for so long telling me that I am beautiful and interesting. After doling out compliments like that, it was the least I could do! These same girls had been a source of comedy our entire stay in Qufu: at one point I went down the hall and could overhear them in the lobby practicing saying "good-ah morning" so they could say it to us in the morning. And after we'd settled into our rooms for a few minutes, they showed up at the door with bug spray in hand, sprayed a few already-bugless places on the wall, giggling all the while, hardly covering that they really just wanted another chance to see and interact with us.
Each day on the road has a different set of hazards. On the whole, again with everything relative, the road conditions and traffic dangers are far less than I had feared. I last traveled in India, I've driven a motorcycle in Saigon; while China is insane and always dangerous, I have definitely seen worse. Nonetheless we are always on. One moment it is the truck barreling the wrong way down my lane, and the next it's the old man in the motorized tricycle deciding to suddenly stop in the middle of the lane. I had a conversation with my dad about the perils of patches of gravel on concrete after his friend dumped his Harley recently. But we didn't talk about the perils of entire multi-mile stretches of freeway dusted with a sprinkling of gravel. We're always on. Pick and move, pick and move.
The influence of 1403, the name given to the three guys I'm traveling with, originating from the address they lived in a few years ago, is apparent and definitely something to watch for. While my standards of hotel cleanliness have increased over the years, and I don't mind spending a whopping $6 per night for a decently-clean AC room, these guys came from 1403: a home that I swear was eerily replicated in Fight Club. They are accustomed to filth, and need to be careful with money, so squalor it is. I'm becoming accustomed to touching nothing as I go about my tasks in these rooms and bathrooms. But it all works together: I get off the bike drenched in sweat and covered in road dirt. Washing it off only lasts a minute as the humidity and filthy air reapply it instantly. So what's the big stretch from just letting facial hair grow due to a lack of hot water? Or of having to close the eyes and breathe through the mouth when in the toilet? Rather than fight the filth, I will have to embrace it. And for some reason, the local girls get all giddy when we make eye contact, despite the grime. We had the motorcycle company create documents that say something to the effect of "These men, (our names) are American Heroes who are here to ride these motorcycles across our lovely country. Don't arrest them; help them." So maybe that's how we roll: we come in thinking we're heroes and the locals pick up on that and want to treat us like them.
I've always drawn a tight connection between the thoughts and behaviors of 1403 and Fight Club. It was in the back of my mind when I decided to take this trip, and only reinforced as I re-watched it on the flight here. I knew it was just a matter of time, but sure enough, with a few bottles of baijo, beer, and Stoli in us, I found myself exchanging punches with David in an alley last night. It isn't me, at least the me at home, but I knew it would happen and I rolled with the punches, if you will. It was fun. So on top of the sore back and neck from the riding, I have a few bruises on my shoulders to add to the collection. All of the pain blends together though: already, I long for a portion of my ass that doesn't hurt from the hours in the saddle, I have to stretch my neck and shoulders all the time due to cramping, and a soft bed is still a few months off, so what's the harm in a couple more bruises?
After all of the fighting and carousing last night, I awoke this morning to the hotelier opening our door and walking in. All I could do was give him an expectant look. He was followed by two cops. We were all pretty hazy on how we got home last night... there was the KTV karaoke joint that we rocked and probably blew a few speakers in, there was the carrying-on with the group of drunk local twenty-somethings on the food stall street, there was the drunken ride in the three-wheeled taxi where we hung out the windows, soaking in the humid night air, and of course there was the fighting in the alley... what did these cops want? They started talking to me.
"Ting bu duong" I repeated over and over, one of my most practiced expressions: "I don't understand". The cops were talking, the hotelier was talking. Bark, in the other bed, just kept blinking.
"Wo de pong yo" I said, pointing towards George's room. "My friend." Eventually they got it that I didn't understand but my friend did. So I listened around the corner while George was rousted from his state of lip-smacking, muttering and snoring, and was brought back to consciousness. After some back-and-forth, he learned that they wanted our passports. I came in with Mike's and mine, and they filled out a large pile of paperwork on us. George explained that he was pretty sure they weren't allowed to have foreigners in this hotel and they just needed to get our information, possibly fining the owner, but he, like the cops, seemed very calm and civil. It was quite a sight, though; George in his bikini briefs with a cop standing next to his bed and another sitting on the bed next to him. As the cops left, one patted one of the motorcycles on the seat and smiled a humble grin at the bike. George marveled at the situation: apparently it's a grey zone as to the legality of foreigners owning motorcycles in China and tearing around their very cagey country at will, but perhaps they figured that if we were able to get them, we must have worked out all the details. So they came in to make a big deal of how legal it was for us to stay in the hotel, but glossed right over the bikes. Par for the course in China, I'm learning.
So I have no idea what city I'm in at the moment, and it took some debate between Mike and I to determine that it is Tuesday. What matters is I am alive, and loving it.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Final Countdown

Yesterday I peeled the shrink wrap off a brand new Qingqi motorcycle. We tore around the city buying all of our last supplies; an amazing feat considering the amount of bureaucracy of acquiring the bike, the number of directions needed to find anything in the city, and the insane traffic.
Traveling through the city was like some mad video game. We wove from the main streets to parallel "bike" lanes, congested with pedestrians, lorries, bicycles, and rubble. The video game had various levels, from open highway to packed arterials to congested side streets to construction zones to stretches of pure mud. "On this street we need to watch out for cops," George told us. That was the cop level.
I've got the hang of the bike. Well enough, anyway.
George just passed out our bayonets. For safety.
"OK, now that we're ready to go, where are we going?" George just announced from the other room. The cicadas outside have raised their hissing to a deafening level and peals of thunder are rolling over the city. It's time to go!

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Friday, August 04, 2006

First Wave, Intact

Whew. I finally made it to Jinan today. Within a few minutes of arrival, we threw around a few potential routes for the trip; variations that could include Laos or Vietnam, but it sounds like we'll stick with the original plan.
After a group dinner at the Cracked Table, where they serve the best god damned Kung Pao Chicken on earth (George knows the proper name for it in Mandarin this time around), Mike and I did some practice riding around town.
We started with a pretty technical off-road trail that wound up a mountain in Jinan. We cruised around hairpin turns along sheer cliffs with no guardrail, but the road was completely devoid of other traffic. A perfect environment for getting my motorcycle legs.
Cicadas brought on waves of bizarre screeching sounds. As we rounded a turn and the yellow sun glowed through China's haze with all the strength of the moon behind clouds, I couldn't help but howl in excitement.
We crested the mountain and sat at the top amongst a handful of laborers with pickaxes who were contouring the hill and planting cedar trees.
I led the two of us back down the mountain and onto the highway. I picked a random neighborhood marked by a handful of gigantic buildings under construction, which were hiding behind them a filthy, ancient neighborhood. We picked our way up a rather technical and incredibly muddy track, weaving through garbage dumps, a few incredibly long deep and stinky puddles, and past an array of barking dogs, towards a set of tiny brick houses. The whole neighborhood stunk like the back alley of a Chinatown restaurant, plus a whole lot of flowing sewage. I'd arrived.
On the whole, I am incredibly happy with the bikes: they are shorter, lighter, and much easier to control than Matt's. Plus they have a speedometer, tachometer, and display indicating which gear I am in. I quickly got the hang of the bike, and feel pretty darn comfortable on it. The leather jacket, full helmet, etc are pretty miserably hot when we stop riding, but are totally tolerable at speed.
I've got a great feeling about this. We're on the cusp of a hell of an adventure.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fits and Starts

I prepared for this trip in about the same amount of time as I have my other trips: about 14 days. There was a ton to do, but I have travel prep down to a science. Geeky, I know, but years ago, I took an Expedia spec template and reworked it into a trip preparation template. Now, I just crack the most recent trip open, make some changes to fit the next trip, and I'm on my way.
And, like my other trips, I didn't sleep the night before the flight. I took a 1.5 hour nap, when my eyes just couldn't stay open any longer, but I was looking at about 1.5 hours of 28 between getting up for my last day of work and my flight's intended departure.
Intended is the key word, because my flight was delayed an hour for a mechanical inspection. And then another hour, and then another. And I tried my damndest to keep my eyes open but was really struggling... I had to ask an attendant to keep an eye on me so that she'd wake me if the flight ever did leave.
We were told that the repairs on our intended plane would take numerous more hours, so we were to be transferred to another plane at another gate. Which was easy enough, except that it too needed to be inspected and repaired, and was delayed repeatedly as well.
After so much sleep deprivation, the brain moves into some odd territory. As I tried to manage moving from one gate to another and negotiating for a phone card and trying to work out the logistics of my delay, I began to have small hallucinations. Little furry animals that didn't really belong in the airport were catching my attention from the corner of my eye. My brain was moving incredibly slow, and figuring out who to call, when, and what to tell them was a feat of its own. My reliance on my cell phone bit me in this situation as I realized the only phone numbers I know by heart are my parents'. I should really jot down a few other numbers in case my return flight is as messed as this one.
A friend and coworker, Linh, had offered to pick me up at the airport and get me a train ticket, so I needed to communicate to her that I wouldn't be at the airport when she expected. The train ticket would need to be rebooked, and I had no idea when I would actually arrive in Beijing. I had to have my parents send an email to her just saying I wasn't going to be there on time.
Eventually, I boarded a plane, leaving the small furry animals behind in Seattle, bound for Tokyo. After clearing immigration and picking up an unintended Japanese stamp, we were guided to a set of buses waiting at the curb. Business class went to a Radisson, and we coachers were headed to a Hilton. Hiltons are generally nicer than Radissons, in my experience, but the disparity became self-evident as we drove 1.5 hours from the airport to the hotel. The hotel was incredibly nice, and situated in proximity to Tokyo Disneyland, but there was no time to explore Tokyo or Disneyland. I had just enough time to work through getting a laptop, sending an email to Linh, thanking my parents, enjoying the heated, fully-automated toilet, and getting a few hours of sleep before the bus left again at 6AM. And of course my flight left at 10:30 so I was getting up at that ungodly hour for no reason of my own. And while I specifically changed my wakeup call from the default 4:30 to 5:30, it still rang at 4:30 and I didn't realize it was an hour early until I was halfway dressed.
The fun continued as I finally arrived in Beijing, was unable to find Linh, had to buy a phone card only to find her mobile phone just rang without a voicemail, had to wait 45 minutes for a seat at the only internet cafe (people here seriously seem to be here just to use the internet: no one's catching a flight, they are all just dinking around on stupid anime games) and finally, after god-only-knows how many hours of travel and running around, I finally found Linh on instant messenger. I haven't asked her yet, but it sounds like she never got any of my emails. I was able to communicate only for a few minutes until I inadvertently switched into Chinese characters and couldn't figure out how to switch back. So I had to start communicating with emoticons, which Linh thought I was doing to be funny:

Linh in Beijing 说:
is there another time?
Adam 说:
Adam 说:

Adam 说:
Adam 说:
Linh in Beijing 说:
Linh in Beijing 说:
i can't read. duh
Linh in Beijing 说:
i'm all talk
Linh in Beijing 说:
Linh in Beijing 说:
ok. gotta get back to my meeting.
Linh in Beijing 说:
driver is going to call again for me to give him better info on you. simultaneously, i have them getting you a new ticket. you know how to get back to my house.
Linh in Beijing 说:
Adam 说:

Linh in Beijing 说:
glad you got online
Linh in Beijing 说:

Linh in Beijing 说:
i was worried about you.
Linh in Beijing 说:
Adam 说:
! ! !
Linh in Beijing 说:
ok. bye
Linh in Beijing 说:
hang tight there
Adam 说:
ok sorry, I couldnt get it to type english, so was trying to communicate with emoticons. Attendant just helped me. ok, thanks for taking care of me! I will aim to be at the starbucks in about 45 mins unless you say otherwise. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Whew. So I am finally off to meet a driver who should take me to Linh's apartment. So far, my well-oiled machine of travel has been off to a sputtering start. I really hope that my next post isn't a mundane retelling of nightmare airport stories like this. But there is definitely room for more error: last night from Tokyo I IMed George to tell him that I would be a day late. I think the message got through, but there was apparently a fair amount of booze present and multiple people claiming to be him using the keyboard, as every other sentence from him was about how much he enjoyed munching men's nuts. Let's hope I do actually make it to Jinan and have someone to fetch me from the station.
And let's hope my next posting is about motorcycles, fortune, and glory, rather than tired, tardy and tense.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Here we go...

If you're here, you probably know what I am about to do, but here's the synopsis:
- From Aug 1 - Oct 9 2006 I will ride a motorcycle around China
- I'll be traveling with La Casa Bourassa, Mike Barkelew, and David Poh
- La Casa convinced a Chinese motorcycle company, Qingqi, to sponsor this ride
- Our route begins and ends in Jinan, Shandong province and will likely stretch as far west as Sichuan, on the Tibetan plateau
- Qingqi wants our photos and footage to turn into an advertising campaign
- I hope to post to this blog regularly to keep people apprised of our progress
...stay tuned!