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Forget About It

Everything we researched while planning this trip said forget about trying to ride motorcycles in China. "It's too difficult. It's illegal. You'll never get them into the country. There are only a few roads you can ride a big-displacement motorcycle on. It's too expensive." In hindsight, all of this was true to a degree.


What nobody tells you though, largely because not a lot of people have ridden "big" motorcycles through China, is that with a little extra coin, you can hire a small company by the name of Ride China, and they'll smooth out most of the wrinkles. Not all but most. We still spent a full day navigating the Chinese bureaucracy to get our bikes out of their shipping container, and then two full days in a local DMV making the bikes and ourselves legal to ride. This included local registration of the motorcycles and actual Chinese driver’s licenses for us.

Getting the driver’s license involved taking a hilarious verbal test. The local DMV proudly paraded us down every corridor through the offices to an upstairs conference room and asked us just two questions.


Question one: "At an intersection what do you do when the light turns red?" We looked at each other and turned red, resisting an explosion of laughter. We all answered in turn, "You stop?" "Correct" he replied earnestly.


Question two: "When you see white lines on the road what do you do?" Once again, we all looked at each other with looks that screamed, "You've got to be kidding me!" We answered, "You stay in your lane". He nodded "Correct" and got up and led us back downstairs, once again not taking the more direct route, but making sure that everyone there saw who he was with.


That was day one.

Day two was a full eight hours of trying to get the bikes titled and registered in China. This involved a tremendous amount of time just sitting while groups of people came up to take selfies with us or talk about our motorcycles, or just smiled, waved, and looked generally perplexed. We saw a whole cross-section of the local population filter in and out while our handlers worked out the details in hushed conversations, standing in and out of lines and without a doubt, paying people off.

When we finally got on the road, the irony was that those few traffic rules that were sternly impressed upon during the test were virtually absent. Riding in China is like navigating pure chaos. As Mike put it, "From high altitude, this must look like an ant farm". I added, "Yeah except the ants are more orderly". No one obeys a single traffic rule. If you were to do that you would surely be killed. The only rule is to go with the flow and use your horn frequently to let others know you're there. We didn't see a single accident the whole time in China.

What the research also didn't reveal is that the whole time we were traveling we were treated like celebrities. Everywhere we went (except for the tourist areas in Beijing), people wanted to take pictures with us, hold their babies, and sit on our bikes. Chinese people with very few exceptions are wonderfully warm and truly gracious hosts.

Our journey in China took us from Tianjin, a major port city south of Beijing, north to Erenhot on the southern border of Mongolia. On the way we had stops in Beijing, touring the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, then Detong in Inner Mongolia, and a final grueling 11-hour ironbutt ride to Erenhot.


On the way to the Great Wall, Mike's bike broke down in the rain going up a mountain. He came coughing to a stop and had to pull over to the side with virtually no safety margin as truck after truck sprayed us with water and nearly clipped us. After several spluttery attempts it started, and with our nerves rattled we limped up the mountain to our super-cool hotel for the night. The place looked like a repository of used furniture, but it was covered in plants and had a cozy soulful lived-in feel. Most importantly it had an internet connection!


We also rode through numerous ghost towns of over-development. Whole modern city centers are full of high rises the size of good-sized American downtowns almost devoid of life. China was swimming in cash so developers just built and built with the mentality of if we build it, they will come. They might be right!


We also passed through extremely poor and depressing villages in Inner Mongolia, the vast no man's land between Detong (where Nick finally fixed Mike's bike) and Erenhot at the border of Mongolia. All the money is concentrated in the cities so all of the former communal agriculture centers are left to die. After seeing essentially, the walking dead, I wouldn't be surprised if China doesn't experience another "Cultural Revolution '' sometime in the future. I thought the wealth extremes in America were bad but this was on a whole other level.


While on that stretch we encountered a massive sandstorm that had us scurrying for shelter. We saw the huge wall of dust from miles away, off to our left. At first, it looked like any storm on the horizon. We were riding parallel to it for miles and in the back of my mind I was thinking "I hope we don't turn in the direction of it". Sure enough, as soon as I had that thought we turned left and headed straight for it.

The storm wall got bigger and bigger, and we realized that it wasn't rain hitting us but sand. We came upon a gas station and Jon, our guide, pulled over and got out, and quickly went inside the building, I followed his lead in a panic. I'd never seen anything this massive and truthfully didn't know what would happen.


Mike and Nick were enthralled with it and felt protected in their motorcycle gear so they stayed outside and took pictures. A farmer with a truck full of frightened pigs was frantically trying to pull a cover them as Nick circled the scene with his camera. Mike coolly sat on his bike as the storm passed over, reducing visibility to just a few feet but then clearing to perfectly blue skies.

After an 11-hour ride, we pulled into Erenhot on the border of Mongolia. We were booked into a hotel that was also a strange spa and resort. In the lobby, as we checked in we were told about all of the amenities which included massages and spa pools. We all said in unison, "Sign me up!

After dropping our stuff off at our rooms a host directed us to the men's locker room deep in the bowels of the hotel. We were told to strip completely and were given some Crock-like plastic slippers to walk to the pool spa area. Inside the pool area were a giant hot tub with jets and an elevated platform that had a series of external high-pressure jets that you could walk under to (I guess) exfoliate. The room was full of other fully naked Chinese men, not a wrapped towel to be found. I'm not prudish in any way but it was a strange experience by Western standards.

After the spa all three of us were taken to a room and given robes and told to lie down on three beds that were right next to each other. Six women came in, two for each of us, and started to give us a massage. These gals were petite but strong and they gave each of us a full body massage (robe on and no happy ending) as we'd never had. At one point a woman grabbed each of our legs and in unison shook each of our bodies like you would whip out a dish rag. The perfect way to end a grueling 11-hour ride and the best massage I've ever had.

All told, the ride was worth the added expense and delays. We saw parts of China that few Westerners have seen. As we were crossing the border at Erenhot the border official told us that we were the first Westerners on motorcycles he had seen cross that particular border in his 20 years at the post.


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