“Tomorrow is not a good day for traveling” he warned. My friend Ma Che and I had spent much of the afternoon at the Nomad Cafe in LiJiang’s old town of Su He chatting; he practicing his English, me, my Mandarin. We had met in Dali and he had made his way up to LiJiang with friends by car so we had time to meet and chat again.
“I imagine if we were to read these predictions daily, one would never leave their home.” I responded. He nodded in agreement.
“I don’t believe in this….” we both said.
As if a harbinger of what was to come, I woke up the next day not feeling too well. I was very tired and at the same time, found it hard to leave all the amazing people I had met and connected with although I realized that I was putting myself way behind schedule (wait…I have a schedule?) or rather, behind on my loose plan. Initially, I was only going to stay in LiJiang for two days and I stayed almost six (same happened in Dali). I had one last lunch with my “family” there at the guesthouse and gave a solemn look to Yen Zi who had been my best friend during my stay; someone I was with daily. She and I were inseparable and as she pointed me to the cobbled path to exit the town, she touched my arm as a blessing and a goodbye.
Soon after, I was taking each hard turn on the windy road up and up, still feeling like the green tea’s effects had not been potent enough. I focused on the road, took in my music and felt a little better as my route became more concrete but then it began to rain. It wasn’t too bad but I realized that when it rains, the roads are almost foamed over in oil and other liquids from cheaply-done home mechanics so whenever I hit my brake a little too hard, I’d swerve. Much more severe than the roads at home. I rode out one long (… fun) swerve then decided I needed to be more cautious. As I got up high on the beginning of the mountain pass, I almost couldn’t believe what my eyes were witnessing. A large semi-truck was coming directly at me…as if I was a vision of open-road. The rule in China is to ride in the middle of the road if there is no oncoming traffic (it’s on the test for the license) but he was well over his space and into mine and still aiming for me. The buses and trucks have done this many times before but I got used to their insanely close drive-bys. This was different. I had only the mountain side to my right and felt no option but to brake because at least I thought that the impact would be less..well..impacting. The wet asphalt initiated a harsh swerve that I couldn’t ride out. I lost control of the bike and I slid down while he swerved last minute but not too much because to his right was the forever-drop off the mountain. I saw his back tire on street level and my head barely missed rolling under and the truck behind him stopped in time not to hit me.
“Why am I doing this…” I whispered almost breathless to the asphalt. Not a question, a statement.
The truck driver kept moving about twenty more meters past my crumpled form but because the traffic had stopped to watch and wait to see if I would get up, he then stopped. I got up stunned and made sure everything felt like it was working. One thing wasn’t at that point: my patience. I was angry. He got out of his truck from the other side of the bend and proceeded to scream at me. What the F$%^. Are you serious? I was about to be creamed on either the grill of his mammoth vehicle or a mountain road and he’s yelling at me. He looked and acted a bit drunk. Whatever….this is China. This is real life. You don’t take down license plates numbers and sue people here. You don’t call the police to say, “Help, help….some guy was an asshole on the road to me.”. Forget the “Wild West” of the US this is the “Wild East”. You don’t come here to be babied in a country where there exists simple lives and fights for survival…you come here to see real life, laceless and pitiless. If you want to ride a motorcycle across China and you get injured or die, is it everyone else’s fault? No, it’s your own decision. Although, of course, that is not the goal I have in mind. It’s a pretty phenomenal way to travel by motorcycle into foreign territory although it can be a pretty difficult way to travel at the same time. On the other side of that coin, I feel that US breeds an attitude where things are expected or owed to someone just “because”…and that is not healthy either. For example, the “sue-happy” habits going on and to award people millions of dollars because they’ve burnt themselves on coffee or food that’s too hot, etc.etc. We’ve all heard the stories. It doesn’t give people a sense of taking on responsibility.
“Are you hurt?” is what everyone asks in my, now-frequent, accidents. Nothing else matters.
“I’m not hurt….” I smiled. Thankful for their concern. I then praise and give thanks to the knee-guard God as again, the protective, hard plastic saved my joints. I recover and continue on the 214 a bit hesitantly but not letting this tarnish my confidence although I’m learning that driving in China is not about having confidence and skill. You can have ALL the skill in the world – that isn’t going to stop a guy from plowing straight into you while you are adhering to the right and safe manner.
I eventually see the Chinese characters for “Tiger Leaping Gorge” and stop at the bridge that hovers over the incredibly powerful Yangtze River. This upper area of the river is named the “Jinsha” and the area surrounding it is still mainly inhabited by the Naxi people (as LiJiang is). I am still in quite a mood so I stop to take photos. I love that the focus of my lens can assist in refocusing my mind. There are three cyclists smoking cigarettes on the bridge and I see them peering at me but I want to be left alone at this time to contemplate what had just happened and think about all my “what if’s”. Finally, as if seeing a girl alone with her pack-weighted motorcycle was just too much, one man comes over to me to ask me where I had just ridden from. I respond a bit shortly and take my camera equipment out. He continues and asks me where I am from. I respond a little more this time, appreciating his interest but still shaken and feeling upset over what had happened. I leave and walk over to where I’ve taken interest in about thirty pigs piled on top of each other on a massive delivery truck and by the time I go back to the bridge to shoot the Jinsha, one of the cyclists has his own camera and asks to take a photo with me. I feel warmed up and distracted from the prior incident and soon ask where they are from (Guanxi province), where they are going (Lhasa, Tibet) and how many kilometers they had ridden (over 1,000+km by bicycle with very small packs). Just incredible. I am so, so cheating with this motor.
They tell me my journey is respectable and brave. I scoff at that statement and say they are ten times as hardcore. We go back and forth arguing and then in essence, it really doesn’t matter. We all have different journeys and each one presents unique challenges. And again, I think about the purposes of mine – knowing the risks and thinking of what they might go through on their bicycles. After a bit of strawberry sharing on their part, I get suited up to leave. They head off before me and soon after, I pass them with honks and appreciative waves for that simple road-pal connection. It threw off the bad energy I had gained at the scene of the accident and I was glad to exchange a bit of our life’s goals with each other. It was inspiring.
As I push farther north longitudinally, I become aware that I am also getting pushed up in elevation. I could feel the cold’s betwitching fingers digging into my skin to grab a hold. Today was a day of many temperatures. Warm and sunny at start, rainfall next, chill on the last part…… but still, the view was so beautiful and numbed my senses more than the cold. The verdant mountainous backdrop with even farther granite mountains topped with snow posted behind them was so heavenly that I thought the shell of my soul had actually been left 100km back where I had been laid out while my spirit just kept insisting to pursue this dream. I pass villagers that looked as if they had never seen water and soap. I observe them come out of or latched around their shack/tent/humble home passing their day and I think to myself, ‘Although it’s simple, it must be nice to feel that familiarity of “home” right now…regardless of what and where it is. It’s a bond.’. I have my “things” in my pack but honestly, if I had to ditch them, even my cameras, I would. I think of my home, Red Rocks, where I really haven’t spent much time the last few years but still with the detachment, there is still attachment. I think of the people in my life who I feel attached to yet in a detached way. I think of my mom who I’ve blocked from reading all of this and my facebook updates so she won’t be stressed out. I think of my climbing friends who I miss, a culture in its own right. I think of a man. Boy, it’d sure be nice right now after all this time being on the road. I appreciate that people can understand my lifestyle and choose for me to remain in their circles. It’s truly a gift.
I pass, I smile and although I wear a helmet and cover my nose/mouth with a scarf, my eyes communicate to the local men, women and children. I wave and they smile and wave back. The road got better, the rain stopped, I picked up speed to average about 80-90kph and my mood was lifted. THIS was the type of riding that was nice; no traffic and clear roads. I lift my visor to enjoy the cool air …Ahhhh…and feel something unGodly painful hit my eye….a fat fly, an anorexic rock or maybe even a midget. I am tearing and cursing that I will never lift my visor again but keep driving on. The air and temperature shifted to cooler as I neared Shangri-La. The Tibetan style houses appeared more on the scene as the familiar Naxi houses of LiJiang dissipated. Both styles characteristically seem to be trademarked by intricately carved wood sidings. Just fantastic pieces of work, art and culture. People’s features began to change the farther north I rode….darker skin, Han-less features but still, keeping true to the form of almond-shaped eyes.
I finally arrived into Shangri-La. Overall, the trip was much slower this time due to the windy, rainy start, the small accident and of course, picture-taking. I also began to realize the extreme importance of the first 6-foot fall I had off of the road. This time, as I parked to the right side along the roadside to shoot photos along the higher mountainous region, I observed that if what had happened to me that first leg happened to be now, I would have been in a much worse situation – if I existed at all at that point. The drops were steep and fell into nothingness with very few walls/protection. If I had dismounted here and the bike went off-balance, both the bike and I would have fallen down the cliffs. I could not have been more grateful for that difficult but gift of a lesson at the start. Every time I dismount, I do so with more caution than if I was using some sharp tweezers to get a piece of dust out of my eye.
Ultimately, I thought of my goals. Living was the top one. I want to pursue this type of exploration in South America, the Middle East, Africa, Australia….I don’t want my first ultra-long distance ride to be my last. My goals haven’t been to just “cross China” but I’ve been accomplishing much of what I wanted to experience from chatting with the rice plantation worker, Mrs. Yang, tasting the various spices and flavors of different regions, eyeing the regal snow-topped mountains live, investigating Yunnan’s renown and important Chinese tea culture, learning basic words from languages that may soon be extinct, witnessing the Yangtze’s fury for myself and meeting and connecting with people I now call “Big Brother” (“Da Gu”) and “Little Sister” (“Xiao Mei”). Additionally, I’ve expanded my Chinese vocabulary and I can’t stress enough how quickly you learn to read certain characters by driving around China. Another incredibly important learning experience for me has been pushing myself in my photography and even filming….from shooting the Bai, the Naxi, the Hui and now the Tibetans. It energizes me as I am able to capture them within their time-worn traditions in our modern world. I was speaking with a Russian couple I’ve befriended here in Shangri-La about how incredible it is that there probably has never been a time in this world’s history that it’s seen cultures/lifestyles at such extreme ends; from tribes that live off the land still and have a spear in the hand rather than an iPhone or a laptop, typing an email back and forth to NASA on logistics to orbit the Earth in a spaceship. We are not all at the same stages and in observing and learning about so many areas in China, you can certainly view this much more than you can in the US. So regardless if I am able to “cross” China, my ultimate journey is actually to understand it in all its faces, forms and hats to be able to share these experiences and gain ground on understanding each other. I believe there hasn’t been a time on this Earth when it’s needed more.
Additional photos from the journey:
Note the stacks of wheat that the farmers put out on the road for cars to “thresh”. It can get deep and it’s not pleasant to ride through.