Riding a Motorcycle in Asia (TL;DR omg)

For those of you unaware, I have been living and working in Asia since September of last year. The reasons for this journey are too much to go into here, but needless to say I am looking for some kind of reason or meaning in my life. This means I am a bit prone to doing crazy things, such as buying a motorcycle and take it all around China. I guess most people would think this is crazy and that I must have no value for my own life, and maybe that is true, I don’t know. Anyway, this is from my diary (I keep a written journal), and I thought some people might enjoy reading it. It is very long, so I’m splitting it up into three parts because I’m too lazy to type it all in one sitting, and as it goes from pen to word processor, I naturally feel the inclination to edit some things. I realize I don’t really explain much and it’s all over the place, but this is after from a journal, and I generally tend to write to myself in the future. I also use way too many rhetorical questions in my journal writing. Other than that, hopefully you will enjoy it.

<b><u>Part 1: Mental and Physical Preparations</u></b>

Ever since a young age, as early as I can remember really, I have been obsessed with traveling. I don’t mistakenly use the word obsessed either. I did not just like to travel, I was totally overwhelmed and fascinated by it. Every summer my mother and I would make the drive to Minnesota to see our family. I would bring a large, spiraled notebook with me on these excursions to draw all of the road signs I saw on I-94. I suppose that to my young mind, the fact that they could somehow accurately determine from any point in the endless sea of grass, cows, and corn of Wisconsin how far Minneapolis was and slap the number on a big, green sign. Minneapolis: 274 miles away. Did some guy actually measure that out? Honestly, I still don’t know exactly how they do it and I don’t really care either. Of course, at the age of seven I barely had any concept of what exactly a mile was, but I definitely saw something in those signs beyond a giant slab of green metal propped up with lots of white words and colorful images on them, and I don’t think it was natural.

My impulse to travel manifested itself in many forms as I was growing up.  I took every opportunity that I could to try out some new way of getting from point A to point B.  I rode trains.  I flew on airplanes.  My dad took me on a trip in a semitrailer.  I went to Canada in my uncle's RV.  I took a boat down the Mississippi (well, part of the way).  I took helicopter rides.  I even rode in the goddamn Goodyear blimp.  Road trips were an inevitable part of my late teens.  I rode by myself through the Great Plains to Vancouver and back.  My friends and I drove to Detroit, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC.  I inevitably donned my backpack and headed for Europe.  England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic...knocked all of those off the list.  I still can't say what has driven me to do all of this.  Many other people have visited all of the same places that I have, but that only adds to my confusion.  Why do people travel?  To see sites of historic interest or great natural beauty.  Or to just relax somewhere for a while away from work and family.  Maybe they are just really rich and have nothing better to do.  

I have yet to quench my thirst.  Within months of graduating university, my bags were yet again packed, destination Asia.  I like the feeling of packing, especially for a long trip, potentially one that will last months or years.  It feels good to fit your entire life needs into a couple bags weighing a maximum of 50kg.  Anti-materialistic, that's the word for it.  It's good not to be too materialistic I think.  Some clothes, a few books (read ones can be traded in for new ones along the way), laptop computer, camera, MP3 player, passport, pen and paper.  What else do you &lt;i&gt;really&lt;/i&gt; need?  The rest is just filler, the product of a sedentary lifestyle.  Already, I look around my apartment and I see too much crap.  I've only been in this apartment for three months.  Even in my nomadic state, the stuff just piles up.  It's hopeless I sometimes think.  

It has been said that the true traveler has no destination.  I'm not quite sure what this means yet, though the vaguest illusions of an answer have lately started to sprout in my head.  Does it mean that a true traveler has no ultimate destination? Every traveler must have some destination.  A place to spend the night, somewhere to eat, fill up on gas.  Is the so-called ultimate destination any different from this?  It occurs to me that a traveler must have some destination, else he is just a wanderer.  I would also imagine that a true traveler is a smart traveler and brings along a map and a compass, implying some kind of foresight to his travels.  I'm not sure I'm ready to call myself a wanderer yet, though maybe that is the word I'm looking for after all.  But maybe what that person was trying to express was that the destination is not important; it is the act of movement itself that is important to the true traveler.  The words make sense but there are layers of meaning in that statement that I have yet to penetrate.

There is one form of travel I had yet to indulge myself in before coming to this continent, and that is the motorcycle.  The mere mention of that word inevitably causes a flood of preconceived notions to enter the listener's head.  Dirty, unshaven, muscle-headed leather dudes driving Harley Davidsons hanging out in roadside bars listening to Def Leppard, or maybe equally muscle-headed but perhaps more clean shaven jocks comparing muffler noises on their Hondas.  Either way, muscle-headed, or perhaps more generally, they must be crazy!  I'm not sure what inspired me to buy that motorcycle.  An old, blue 1995 Suzuki 400cc street bike with too many kilometers.  Some Indonesian guy was selling it for about 800 dollars, a steal really but maybe only to someone with fucked-up priorities.  The body was in pretty bad disrepair, but the internal parts were all relatively well-kept: engine, clutch, brakes, etc. no problem.  I gave it a nice oil change, changed the filters, new battery, shocks, tightened some loose things here and there.  A few months later, she was driving like a new bike, or at least what I assume a new bike drives like because I've never driven one.

My destination: Chengde, a small provincial town of 700,000 in the mountainous regions of Northeastern Hebei province.  I know you are thinking that 700,000 is not a small town, but you must remember this is China.  I suppose the fact I had a destination in mind meant I wasn't a true traveler, but is anyone?  After all, the word true implies the perfection of form, and humans just generally don't fit the mold, even if such concepts make for good idols.  There is no special reason I chose this destination.  Some other English teacher told me about it once while slightly intoxicated in some nameless bar.  It simply fit the general mold of what I was looking for: a mountainous town about 250 or 300km from Beijing.  This was to be my first long-distance bike trip, and I didn't want to go someplace too far away that I would be helplessly stranded in case of disaster.  

I could do the trip in a couple of hours if I drove straight, but of course that was not the goal.  A beautiful new four lane expressway had recently been built connecting Beijing to Chengde, but that was out of the question.  It was old highway 101 for me, all the way.  The thought of riding along an old, potholed 2 lane highway in China seemed a little frightening, for Chinese drivers have no real concept of things like staying in your lane, signaling, or driving remotely close to the posted speed limits, but there was really no other choice.  Expressways represent everything the traveler hopes to avoid: they follow the most economical path of least-resistance to reach their destination.  If given the choice of tunneling through the mountain or winding slowly up and around it, I would of course choose the latter path.  Why?  I suppose because one never knows what interesting sights or people might be discovered along that winding path up the mountain and simultaneously just not caring how long it takes to find out.  I believe the essence of traveling is located somewhere in that sentence.

It is a particularly bland Wednesday morning.  The sky is cloudy, but the cloud line is high so I don't fear fog.  I have overslept about half an hour, but I am not pressed for time.  My hotel in Chengde will hold my reservation until eight, but even if I am late, I doubt they are booked out in the midweek.  I pack my backpack lightly for I do not want the weight to burden my back on the trip.  One change of clothes, some hiking shoes, a map, some food, water, a flashlight, some emergency tools in case of disaster, and finally a copy of &lt;i&gt;Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance&lt;/i&gt; by Robert Pirsig, not because it explains how to repair a motorbike or because I am searching for Zen.  Honestly it's just a coincidence I'm reading this book now.  I strap my camera on top of the backpack and head downstairs to make sure there are no last minute problems with the bike.  Everything seems fine.  I start the bike and begin my journey.  Within thirty minutes, the insane hustle of Beijing makes way for the more complacent country life.

My Ride with some dog pissing on it in 古北口 (gubeikou)

Passing through 密云 (miyun), a town on the outskirts of 北京 (beijing) that will hold some of the 2008 olympic festivities)

Winding mountain roads in 河北 (hebei province)

Giant Temples

Huge Bodhisattvas

Finally, the vast expanse of 长城 (the great wall)

How did you overcome the language barrier, though? Did you study Chinese extensively in college?


Man, that’s pretty cool Zepp.

And well, damn good philosophy. Makes me think.

I’ve had a similar yearning for a while now. I want to live in another country for a year or two to see how life is like there. Of course that also means I’ll have to establish a career based on travelling, or work in an international company and request transfers every couple years

Random thoughts…

  1. I’m so glad to know that the written journal hasn’t become obsolete.
  2. What sort of work have you been doing in China? I realize I’ve never known what you do.
  3. I’m very excited about reading more!

Chengde? Beijing?
Have you meet the sand storm there?

You can’t really overcome the barrier, I’ve just had to try learning the language. I never studied it before. Though this being my fourth language now, it comes pretty quickly. Chinese really isn’t that difficult to learn just basic conversational stuff. On the surface, it’s a much more simple language than Western languages. It has no articles or tenses or things like that, but that also means it’s a highly contextual language. So complex ideas go right over my head, but I’ve learned the basics to get by.

I haven’t really been doing much “work.” I teach part time at a primary school right now, and I do some private classes on the weekend. It’s not a lot of money, but money goes a long, long way in this country, and I certainly make much more than the average Chinese person. At least, it’s enough to buy a motorcycle and travel around. But i only work maybe a total of 15 to 17 hours a week at the moment.

Yes, but I didn’t think it was really that bad. I had expected worse.

I hate you for being able to write down what you are thinking. I always poke around my head (metaphorically mostly) and when I reach a conclusion, I don’t want to describe a process I’ve already left behind.

Ah, Socrates syndrome.

Your text’s interesting, keep at it. You could name it “Thoughts and Adventures on an Eastbound Journey”. Or not.

Edit: Have a good time (of course)

Glorious, sir.

Can we dub this thread The Motorcycle Diaries?

Wow, real people actually do stuff like that. I’m impressed.

zeppelin isn’t a real person.

Holy shit, are you serious? How did this happen, exactly? Did you first go to China and then enroll in some language courses? In that case, were you only able to communicate with your students in English? I’m interested in how this process works.

Do you teach good students who know enough English to hold a conversation and just need help on grammar?

Your avatar is the worst pun I’ve ever seen and I hope you get shot by the zombie corpse of Mao or something. >:(

I envy you though. It must be incredible to just get up and go exploring a place that’s so ancient it makes the entirety of Europe look like a recent colony.

<B><u>Part 2: Chinese Thermodynamics</u></b>

China is a country so loaded with immediate and striking confrontations that I believe the glaring disparities of rich and poor can only be explained through the laws of thermodynamics. That’s quite a statement, especially considering I’m a sociologist. Allow me to elucidate. The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system, entropy (the scientific measure of disorder) will increase over time to a maximum value. The easiest example to understand is a glass of ice water. One starts with a glass of lukewarm water and then adds some ice cubes. The ice remains floating on the surface of the water, separated from the warm water underneath. In this system you have two clearly segregated elements. Over time, however, the ice begins to melt, cooling the rest of the water with it. Eventually, you will be left with only a glass of cold water: this is thermal equilibrium. In other words, the segregated system becomes, over time, a uniform system due to the second law of thermodynamics.

One can use this same law to explain the social and economic geography of China.  My thesis adviser would fail me for even making such a comparison, but I'm not in college anymore so fuck her.  Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if more sociologists thought like scientists, and more scientists thought like sociologists.  As I ride out of Beijing on Highway 101, passing the fifth ring road into the suburbs, I enter 顺义 (shunyi) county, a bizarre mishmash of international resident compounds and dirt-poor Chinese laborers that can't afford to live within the city proper.  Whereas the slums in Beijing are hidden along small alleyways and train tracks, hidden from the naked eye, the slums in the suburbs are almost smacking you in the face.  Whereas the gated communities in America are separated from the poorer elements of society through miles and miles of red lined zoning laws, the slums and gated mansions in shunyi have reached a bizarre homogeneity of friendly neighbors.  The rich and the poor alike traverse the same streets, view the same scenery, maybe even shop in the same supermarkets.  The slums are undeniably still a depressing reminder of the hundreds of millions of hopelessly poor in this country.  Nevertheless, the lack of physical distance between rich and poor is a shock to my geographic sentiments.  The only explanation I can assume is that China, being the oldest continuous civilization in the world has reached some sort of thermal equilibrium the rest of us have not.  

Continuing past the airport, the sixth and final ring road, I enter 怀柔 (huairou county), and the billboards advertising lofty villas and estates that cost more per month than the average Chinese person makes in a lifetime begin to dissipate.  There is little to see now in this outer suburb other than a few spotty patches of trees, filling stations, and small communities of questionable structural integrity.  I stop at a small store to get a bottle of water.  The air is cool today, maybe only 15C, and though I have dressed accordingly, the dry, cool air of Beijing smacking against my lips has made them hunger for liquid.  I rest for a minute on my bike drinking.  A few young waitress girls at the restaurant across the street are giggling and pointing at me.  “Get over it China,” I whisper to myself, but then I doubt many foreigners come out this way.  Highway 101 at this point is still a four-lane highway with heavy local car and truck traffic.  I have heard that the road to Chengde is one of the most beautiful in Northeast China, but the bleakness of the Beijing suburbs after only an hour of travel has already lessened my spirits.  I continue onward.  A gigantic traffic circle splits the road in two, with Highway 111 heading toward the vast deserts of Mongolia splitting off to the North.  My lowered spirits combined with the inner wanderer flicker thoughts of taking a new path through my head, but I remain strong and continue along my path.

I enter 密云 (miyun county) now, the last stop before entering the mountains of Northeast Beijing and Hebei.  I can vaguely make out the outline of the mountains in the distance, but it is a heavily overcast day and visibility is poor.  I enter the city of miyun and I am quite surprised by the prosperity of this place.  New office towers and apartment complexes dot the landscape, and the highway opens up to a beautiful, tree-lined 6-lane boulevard.  The physical proximity of rich and poor might have reached a state of maximum entropy in China, but the cities themselves remain an undoubtedly closed system.  I cross over a river and stop the bike for a minute to get a view of the city.  I can see a couple of old Chinese men down by the side of the river fishing.  No matter how small or how polluted the rivers are here, you can always spot some old guys fishing.  I suppose they just don't care if they catch anything or not.

On the other side of the bridge I can see a massive park, so I chain the bike up at the end of the bridge and head over to take a look.  If there is one thing China does right, it's parks.  Upon entering the park, the first thing I notice is a gigantic 5-ring Olympic statue and a large gymnasium.  That explains the recent prosperity, I suppose.  This outer city must be home to some of the Olympic games in 2008.  I stroll around the park blunderingly and rest for a moment next to a basketball court.  A group of teenage boys is furiously playing a game.  Basketball is quite the phenomenon in China.  My Chinese friend told me the reason is because it's a very cheap game to play: a group of 10 people just needs to buy one ball and head to the court to play.  I suppose that might be true.  A couple girls who were playing tennis have stopped and are looking at me.  I wave to them and they wave back and giggle to themselves.  One of the boys playing basketball looks at me.  Is that contempt in his eyes?  For God's sake, get over it China.

Outside of miyun, the road finally shrinks down to two lanes.  Signs warn travelers that mountainous areas are approaching, don't drive tiredly, and stay in your own lane.  Something tells me that I will see very little of this on the road ahead.  The traffic has thinned out considerably by now.  I am about 50 miles from the border with hebei now, and miyun was the last city on the trip.  I fill up the gas tank, check the oil on the chain, and continue on my way.  I ride straight for the next hour without much stopping or thinking.  The road steadily climbs upward, and occasionally I make a turn and a valley opens up to the side.  This is still Beijing, however, and there is little in the way of foliage along these dry cliffs.  I keep the bike at a steady 80kmh, though I could certainly go faster.  I am in no hurry, however, and Chinese drivers are not exactly known for watching where they are going.  Eventually, I come to a large tunnel blasted through the mountainside, and on the other side appears the town of 古北口 (gubeikou), a small town on the border of hebei province, the halfway point.  I look back over the mountain I just passed under and on top I can see a couple of decaying stone watch towers dotted along the cliffs.  A decrepit section of the Great Wall it must be.  Outside the wall now, I think to myself.  

I stop to use the restroom, and when I return I notice a mutt eying my bike strangely.  He lifts his leg and attempts to mark the strange new object his, but the juices just wouldn't flow.  Sorry pooch, I'm out of here anyway.  It is about 2:00 now and this mountain air is becoming frigid.  I cannot be that high up yet, but the thermometer reads a chilly 11C.  I can't imagine it will get much better, either.  The clouds seem lower now, as if the weathered peaks around me were pulling them down through the incredible force of their gravity.  I continue onwards.  At the provincial checkpoint, a somewhat startled looking girl waves me through without a question.  Most Chinese may not freely travel from one province to another, but a white boy on a Suzuki isn't worth the trouble I suppose.

The traffic is almost nonexistent now.  Highway 101 is now traveling parallel to the glittering new expressway linking the two towns.  Occasionally the expressway will blast its way through some mountains, and I will leave it for awhile, twisting and turning my way around the hills toward the pass, but I inevitably rejoin my fat new companion.  School is getting out now here in the countryside and I must be careful not to swipe the legions of young students making their way home slowly along the side of the highway.  Some of them are walking in large groups, others by themselves.  Some are riding rickety old bicycles, and one even has a nice electric bicycle.  

Seeing the children making their way home from school lifts my spirits again.  In a country with almost 1.4 billion people, most of these students will see no social or economic rewards from their education.  There are only so many good jobs, so many university positions, and even the best of the best of these country students will probably slip underneath the radar and continue their existence in the same little town they grew up in.  But they look happy, and really, there is nothing inherently wrong with their manner of existence.  This is how people have survived for thousands and thousands of years.  But they are still learning, maybe even studying English.  Education for education's sake.  I almost envy them for a second.  Intelligence without responsibility.  Is that what I'm looking for?  I stop at a small filling station and purchase another bottle of water.  I am higher and it has gotten colder and my lips feel like the desert.  A group of kids walking home sees me and stops dead in their tracks.  I wave to them and shout “hello!  How are you?”  They don't move, but one brave girl walks up and asks where I am from.  “America,” I tell her.  The other children slowly crowd around, wide-eyed.  Maybe I'm wrong about them.

Chengde! Haw, we’ve been there on a class trip in 6th grade, I remember. We stayed in weirdass little huts with no light or water where the doors just randomly fell off at night. good times.
And yes, you still get pointed and looked at. what do you expect? :o I’m surprised people didn’t fiddle with your hair since you’re blonde, especially on the great wall people tend to do that… sounds like a fun trip tho.

How come people can’t freely travel between provinces?

So, are you maybe searching for somewhere where you can have your knowledge but not the responsibilty that comes with it in the Western world?
Or do you just want knowledge for the sake of knowledge, without having to use it if you don’t want to?
These are actually two different questions, I’m asking in the second one about any general knowledge, and in the first one about some specific knowledge, like, for instance, teaching English.