A Change of Plan
May 3: Heibi Province Mountains
I'm alone in the mountains again, passing peasants hauling sticks in handcarts, forcing the big sidecar motorcycle around hairpin turns on a narrow road teetering along a rocky cliff. So when I come around a corner and have to break behind a long line of cars, I'm surprised. Until now I've only seen a handful of private cars, only government sedans, taxis, and trucks. These are small cars in candy colors.
On a two-wheeled motorcycle I could squeeze past traffic, but the sidecar is about as wide as the cars. On a two-wheeled motorcycle you can fly, shifting your hips and the weight on the footpegs to glide gracefully around curves, but this thing requires upper body strength. My biceps have already popped egg-shaped muscles.
We're all headed to the top of the mountain, and by the time I get there my left leg aches from shifting between first and second gear and my left hand is cramping from squeezing the clutch. It's relief to get off the bike and walk around. I pull over at the side of the road where cars are parked randomly, straight in and parallel, some blocking others, and join the crowd waiting out the traffic jam. Strolling to the edge of the dirt lot I am eye-level with an ocean of mountain peaks. They are green and lush. The weak spring sunshine barely warms the chill in the air. I'm still cold, despite the fleece and the snap-in lining under my heavy black leather motorcycle jacket, so I stomp around and shake my hands, cracking my bones and loosening the muscles in my wrists and forearms.
When people catch my eye I greet them, but only get blank stares in return. Back at the bike a small crowd of people stand a few feet to one side, and a young woman sits primly on the seat, with her beau leaning on the fender. I'd been wrong to assume that having a Chinese motorcycle would help me fit in. Most people ride small bikes - 125 and 250cc "ag" bikes popular with farmers. Bikes like mine are rare. The black license plate is unusual as well.
I wouldn't have minded the girl sitting on the bike, but her spike heels are jammed into the rubber air hose. She just stares at me when I motion politely to get off. I try again, with more dramatic hand gestures, but she just shifts in the seat and jabs her heels deeper into the rubber. Finally, I lose my temper and shout at her, with little effect. It's possible that she has no idea the bike is mine.
The girl finally slithers off and disappears in the crowd, but now others come by, attracted by the action, and guilelessly take their turns working the clutch and brake. One woman even lifts up the sidecar cover to take a peek inside.
All attempts at conversation are received with blank stares and it's pissing me off. After I've slapped a woman's hand away from the brake lever I notice that a man who has squatted down to look at the engine is playing with the idle screw. After I swat his hand I realize that's I'd just better get out of there. Getting pissed off is never a good thing to do in a foreign environment.
Traffic is still stopped going down the hill, so it's silly to keep riding. But across the street a row of shops and a restaurant are tucked into the cliff. I spot an empty parking spot and putt through the two lanes of cars that are still inching along the road, insisting on crossing despite their best intentions to close the space between bumpers. I pull in and a man sweeping the steps smiles and extends his hand. He helps me tuck my things in the sidecar and holds my elbow as we step up the rough wooden staircase into the restaurant, which is quiet and cool, and so dark it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust.
There are three large round tables in the center of the wooden floor are crowded with customers twirling the rotating trays in the center, picking from dishes with their chopsticks. High-backed wooden booths hug the front wall by the windows, each of them roomy enough for eight people.
YOU ARE READING
The China Road Motorcycle DiariesNon-Fiction
Adventure travel writer Carla King rides a cranky Chinese Chang Jiang sidecar motorcycle through China, alone, and illegally, breaking down on backroads in mountains and desert, and follows blue supply trucks that trundle along riverbeds when the ro...