So I guess I should begin at the beginning. In the summer of 2006 I traveled to Hong Kong and Beijing as part of a course I was taking through New York University where I was getting my Masters in Public Economics and Finance. It was my plan from the beginning to travel across China by motorcycle despite having no idea how I was going to do it. In addition, and the reason I begin here is that part of my trip included a research project in which I conducted a survey that helped me better understand China as it is today.
June 4th 2006 was the 17th Anniversary of the College Student's Protest and Government Crack Down in Tiananmen Square. As I walk around there is nothing that I would consider unusual: scores of Chinese tourist take pictures of Moa's Portrait atop the Forbidden City, children are flying kites, one is driving a remote controlled car, still others are simply laughing and enjoying the weather as today is one of the clearest since I've been in Beijing. What I do find odd is that despite the Anniversary there are no signs, no protesters, and no mention of what happen here 17 years before.
Its actually a bit chilling to imagine. As I look out across the vast square I can only think of one thing--there is no where to hid. Completely exposed and without protection the fear that must have gripped those young students as the first shots rang out, or the screams of those rolled over by tanks must have been terrible.
Its odd because Ann, who was a 20 year old Chinese student at the University I am staying had never knew anything about Tiananmen Square until she heard about it from foreign student. She shared a story with me about how when she asked her Professor about it, who was in college at that time that he remembers the News Anchor coming on and describing what was happening. Not long into her report and as she wept reading the account of the day's events the TVs went black all over China. Her Professor said that the anchor was never seen again.
My trip was an endeavor to better understand the Chinese people and culture. I believe this story is relevant because it was part of my experience and it help explains how I was able to accomplish my trip.
Motorcycles are prohibited within Beijing City limits -- this includes scooters. So it was odd that the only place I see them is being driven be westerns studying at the University I am staying at. It is a French student named Blondine, who is studying Chinese that takes me to buy a motorcycles as she claimed to have seen when she purchased her scooter. I learned quickly that the rules do not fully apply if you are a westerner.
So it was on a little street in a place called Wu Doa Koa in the northeast part of the City that I purchased a Honda CB 400. They had a lot of bikes for sale there--I even saw a BMW GS. I bought it for about $1500 US about as much as I was willing to risk not knowing if the police will grab me the second I leave the City. The bike has no plates and I haven't anything other than a passport and my international drivers license which is not recognized in China. I did some research and found that pretty much every source said its not allowed. I applied the reasoning that its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Lunan the young 20 something chinese guy that sold me my bike road a Yamaha 1000 that looked huge on him. I believe that his attitude toward me was largely shaped by the fact that he knew I was going to ride the bike to Shanghai. I can't say for sure but I think the idea excited him into giving me a fair and honest deal on the bike.
I spent a few days riding around Beijing--traveling on the ring roads and breaking every traffic law that I could with no consequence. I packed a backpack with everything you might need for such a journey--everything but tools to repair the bike should anything go wrong with it. I strapped it to the back of the bike and armed only with a map I bought at Barnes & Noble before I left of China and a compass I set out alone.
I must say at this point that the lack up preparation on my part was offset largely by the kindness of the people I met along the way--that and lot of luck. Riding in China is dangerous for several reasons. The roads are often in poor condition which I learned my second day out when I tried taking a secondary road of which there are three kinds. Highways are marked with tollbooths that will not let you on if you are riding a motorcycle. I exited Beijing via one of these monsters. You can drive as fast as you want--I learned that a little CB 400 tops out around 180 to 190 kph. It is possible to get on these road only when you are committed to dodging the tolls. Any hesitation and if they see you coming they will stop you. It is only when you are stopped that the police will grab you. I never once saw or did they attempt to pull me over while I was moving.
The second type of road is a primary road. These too have tollbooths but they allow motorcycles to pass on the side without paying the toll. That is because all motorcycles in China are restricted to 250cc's and you can't do much other than town hop with a bike like that. These roads are crowded with trucks. Huge commercial trucks with 3 drivers that take turns so they only have to stop to eat. They are road hogs so if you are traveling on a two lane highway be ready to hug the shoulder.
Finally, the secondary roads which is what I ended up on my second day. It was about 40 kilometers of nothing but dirt, rocks and deep rain channels that grabbed at my tires trying to topple me over. It was the first and last time I took a secondary road by choice.
This led me to a tiny village for the first time where there are no hostels, or hotels. No university or an english speaker to be found. So I take care of my most pressing need, food. After a day of riding I am starving. As most people already know riding long distances is physically demanding. Prior to trip I was on a regular routine of 150 push-ups, 100 sit ups and 25 pull-ups every morning. I was also a runner and would average between 5-6 miles on a run. Needless to say I was in good shape but nothing prepares you for the physical demands of traveling for a month straight.
So I find a restaurant by simply looking in the window of the shops until I see a row of tables. I pull over, drop my gear and am greeted by a young chinese girl. She appears to be in shock and does not say anything. I use the one or two chinese words I know to ask for food. She giggles, turns and runs into the back. I'm not entirely surprised but I'm not sure what to expect next. Moments later 3 more young girls all wearing the same red top come barreling out of the back room, followed by an older chinese women and then a man.
They welcome me and throw me down at a table. It is a chinese BBQ where they boil the meat for you at your table. As I sit trying to get my food down I am surrounded in 4 directions by the young girls, each take turns mocking and giggling at me. One starts by saying what sounds like "what's your name?" and then they all laugh and begin an exchange that lasts for about a minute. They all take turns repeating the one english phrase they know. After I finish my dinner its time to start thinking about where I'm going to sleep. I turn to one of the girls and in my travel guide point to a phrase in chinese that says "do you know a place to stay for the night?"
She laughs uncontrollably and points up stairs. My first thought is she's joking with her friends--suggesting I spend the night with them. I am right but not in the way that I was thinking. It turns out that almost every restaurant or store has extra beds that they rent out to travelers. I think they are mostly for truckers who have to make the long journey across China and often need a place to stay. But as I realize through my travel there is not easy way to get from one place to another. To cross any long distance in China is impossible unless you have a car or travel by train. These rooms I come to find are cheap and always available to a lonely travelers like myself.
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