Do we plunge in to the story at hell on two wheels, that darkest hour of our seven-day motorcycle trip in China, surrounded by thousands of coal trucks whose rumbling masses left the road veiled in black dust and gouged with potholes the size of small children?
Or do we dive in somewhere a bit more celestial – a quiet sunrise over the Great Wall, where we spent the night in a tent next to centuries-old remnants of an imperial construction project that refuses to crumble? Or a dinner drenched in baijiu, Chinese hard liquor, toasting the motorcycle clubs whose members – government functionaries, a police officer, an electronics wholesaler with a flair for poetry – persuaded us to abandon our plans on the promise that Inner Mongolia is a drunkard’s paradise?
Or do we simply start at the beginning, with three friends meeting in China, intent on riding adventure motorbikes through a country with endless lengths of beautiful asphalt and no shortage of places to discover. “China has a wilderness and an emptiness like no other country on earth,” Ryan Pyle, a Canadian who rode nearly 19,000 kilometres across the country for a show, Tough Rides: China, now on Amazon Prime. “To those looking for adventure and exploration China is the ultimate paradise.”
But China has been little explored by foreign riders, in part because doing so is an intimidating task. There are vanishingly few places to rent motorcycles – we could not locate a single one in Beijing – and bikes are saddled with restrictions. Some gas stations refuse to fill motorcycles, others first require real-name registration. Many highways ban motorcycles altogether.
In China, a friend once told me, nothing is easy. But, he also added, nothing is impossible.
And so I found a motorcycle dealer who agreed to order in new motorcycles, rent them to my visiting friends for $200 a day and take them back at the end of our trip.
Then came the job of getting temporary driver’s licences, which China promises to visitors. This, too, proved complicated.
But after multiple hours of taking pictures, completing health checks in multiple locations, choosing Chinese names (Latin characters are not permitted, but no one will stop you from choosing the Chinese characters for “Warren Buffett”) – after all that, my friends possessed 60-day licences, issued by a government bureau where the wall bears the slogan: “to satisfy every guest is our eternal pursuit.”
We set off, first through the rolling terror of urban Beijing streets until, in the time it took to turn left onto Highway 108, we emerged into the world we were seeking, the tight turns and breath-catching views that slip through the mountains on the city’s western flank.
We had roughly sketched a route that took us along sections of the Great Wall that stretch inland before the stone barricade marches along the Yellow River. We would press westward to Ordos, China’s most famous ghost city, before reversing course back toward Beijing, camping where we could and stopping whenever we found a bizarre attraction, such as the five-storey hammer and sickle flag at a Communist memorial spot not far from Beijing.
As dusk approached on our first day, that night’s destination revealed itself in the distance: the rock-brick citadels of Wulongguo – Black Dragon Gully – strung together along hilltops between chains of stone wall. A friendly villager offered to let us park our motorcycles in the courtyard of his nearby house (for $1 a bike), marvelling at the size and cost of our rides. “I could buy 10 of my motorcycles for the price of one of yours,” he said. He wasn’t far wrong.
The villager pointed us to a dirt path, and soon we had ascended to a 600-year-old stretch of wall with an unusual concentration of guard towers, a castle that marched through the horizon. Were we closer to Beijing, we would have shared this place with a few thousand people. Here, we were alone to set up tents and, as the evening sky faded to indigo, sip whisky and gorge on a local restaurant’s still-warm takeaway food: dry hot pot green beans with Sichuan peppercorns; diced chicken and vegetables drenched in spicy oil.
In five years of living in Beijing, I’ve learned that China’s size and variety reward those willing to leave the normal tourist maps. (Even without a motorcycle, renting a car is surprisingly easy and ubiquitous high-speed cell networks make cell-phone navigation a breeze in the country’s most remote corners.)
This is doubly true because it’s virtually impossible to find a bad meal in a place whose truest national religion, arguably, is food – although if you’re heading outside Beijing or Shanghai and don’t want weak beer or tongue-melting local spirits, you’re best to bring your own booze. We packed enough gin and bourbon to get us back to the city.
From Wulonggou, we rode toward Wutaishan, one of the country’s most famous religious sites, where thousand-year-old temples sit atop mist-drenched peaks. Pilgrims still come here, although they arrive by freeway.
We tried to follow the same route, until we turned toward the on-ramp, where the toll-booth attendant refused to open the gate, telling us motorcycles are barred from freeways in Shanxi province. China has the world’s largest motorcycle industry, but a kind of two-wheel-apartheid nonetheless plagues the country, a vestige of the days when the only bikes were sluggish agrarian steeds ridden by farmers and urban workers eager for a status symbol of new wealth. Authorities saw them as a blight on the image of a modern China – one with cars.
For us, it meant that as night fell, we faced the prospect of banishment to local roads, adding hours to our trip.
But I’ve learned that there is no more valuable currency in China than a grin and some patience.
So we smiled and begged the attendant to ask a manager. Then we waited, knowing we were blocking the freeway to cars gathering behind us – and knowing this would be to our advantage. When the honking started, we were hurriedly waved through, claiming victory for the broader cause.
Even greater triumph came the next day, at the entrance to the east peak at Wutaishan, where a cheery request persuaded security guards to lift the gates for us. We throttled our way up a dirt road to an ancient temple site normally accessible to pilgrims only by a dirt path. At the summit, one monk showed us a Buddha first installed a millennium ago, while others served us a meal of fried mushrooms, boiled beans and stir-fried peppers, asking only that we keep quiet and offer a donation in exchange.
It was an experience unlike those I have to come to expect in a country where rules are rampant and, in the big cities at least, attitudes are often unbending. But the farther we moved from Beijing, the more we discovered people ready to agree to our crazy schemes.
On the roads, we felt vulnerable to the predations of drivers with their own definition of road manners. But everywhere we stopped, travelling on two wheels made us instant objects of local affections. So when we asked about camping next to a particularly picturesque stretch of Great Wall at Guangwu – where the bricks had been pillaged, leaving a gravity-defying vertical dirt palisade – we were met with an enthusiastic yes. That night, we dined with our feet dangling over the edge of the artfully illuminated stretches of what was once China’s most important defensive installation.
We were once again surprised when the keepers of Laoniuwan, Old Ox Bay, a historic site on the banks of the Yellow River, eagerly endorsed our plan to set up tents nearby on a bluff overlooking one of China’s most important waterways. The next morning we chanced upon the remarkably well-preserved packed-clay remnants of a circular fortification, a sort of round castle built on a bluff overlooking the mouldering Great Wall. Although tourists arrived by the busload to the reconstructed ruins at Laoniuwan – the kind of ancient theme park that discards authenticity for profit and a raucous restaurant – here and elsewhere our reward for venturing afield even by a few hundred metres was a chance to experience a piece of untrammelled history in silent solitude. Later, we swam in the Yellow River, alone in the eddies.
That’s not to say we fully succeeded in dodging the maelstrom of the world’s most populous country. Planning our trip to Ordos, I had scoured digital maps for scribbled undulations, cartographic shorthand for scenic and thrilling roads. I had failed to consider what might be on those routes in Chinese provinces famous for their coal production. That realization didn’t dawn on us until we turned onto a highway and found ourselves wedged in a line of blackened trucks, a slow-moving transportation train that extended largely without interruption for at least 100 kilometres – a place so apocalyptic it became scenic in its own way.
The road out of Laoniuwan, descended to a bridge across the Yellow River before climbing the cliffs on the other side, its full length jammed with coal carriers. The procession cast a funereal industrial pall over what might otherwise have been a pretty spot: diesel exhaust leadened the air while dark wisps of powdered coal danced over potholes a half-metre deep. Heavy loads had polished the asphalt into glowing ebony. The trucks barely moved, but passing them felt like a dance with death’s maw. It was a roaring, acrid plunge into the underbelly of the modern era – so grim as to be great.
The ugliness only served to magnify the surprise when we arrived in Ordos, where we checked in to a lakeside hotel. Luxury accommodations at motel prices are one of the pleasures of distant Chinese cities, and our suite at the Tulip Inn did not disappoint: four-poster carved rosewood beds in a building designed with Imperial-style roof decorations for $169. Better yet was its location.
The Kangbashi district of Ordos has arguably been China’s most famous ghost town, a place envisioned as a new cultural capital at the height of a coal boom that brought more Land Rovers to local streets than taxis. When coal prices went bust more than a decade ago, so too did the dreams of greatness. But by that point, large parts of the city were already under construction, including enormous performing arts centres, stadiums and neighbourhoods designed to evoke European cities – colonnades, arches, peaked roofs. Locals say the city’s homes have all been sold and therefore can no longer be called empty, although concrete barricades block pristine six-lane streets and stoplights in parts of the city stand unlit, with little traffic to control.
The lake, too, stands largely empty, an artificial nine-kilometre-long reservoir at the heart of the city initially filled by tanker trucks. Decorated with extraordinary sights – giant murals of Genghis Khan, a bridge whose suspension cables transformed into a 750-metre wide television screen at night – the lake offered all manner of symbolic value, as a watery icon of hubris or ambition or insanity.
It was also a place of unforeseen serenity. At night, we sat along its shores, sipping the last of our bourbon and marvelling at the images of horses silently galloping on the bridge wires. Then, the next day, we found ourselves actually on the water, in a small dinner cruise boat normally reserved for dignitaries and Communist Party officials.
This was a surprise. We had booked a brief stop for an oil change at a motorcycle shop before planning to turn back toward Beijing. But word of our arrival had reached a club of bike enthusiasts, who invited us to lunch and then set upon convincing us to abandon our plans. “Stay here and drink with us!” they said, then knocked down all of our objections.
When we finally agreed, those gathered – by this point, a small crowd in a Mongolian restaurant surrounding a table sagging with two dozen dishes of lamb and other delicacies – erupted in cheers and calls for another round of baijiu.
The hours that followed proceeded in a mildly hallucinogenic blur: being driven at 160 km/h to the mausoleum of Genghis Khan where an unexpectedly honest tour guide acknowledged, in English, that the great Mongolia leader wasn’t actually interred here, and that his original helmet had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution; then off to cruise the lake; then to another restaurant where we spent hours eating and drinking more baijiu, all the while toasted by hosts who commiserated about the poor treatment of motorcyclists in China before reciting classical poetry and regaling us with song; then off to a new hotel, which they booked and paid for.
“Inner Mongolians are the most warm-hearted people in China,” they told us, obliging us to eat the entire plate of cumin-seared lamb ribs – one of another two dozen dishes brought out for dinner – as their guests of honour.
Then, after all this, they got up early the next morning to shake off the cranium-pounding remnants of the previous night and escort us to the highway.
We rode back to Beijing, bellies still full of lamb, minds tingling – and not just from the baijiu.