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The Yanks may have broken down China’s political wall, but it was a bunch of Aussie motorcyclists who made the first ‘kultral’ breakthrough

By 1990 Australia’s relationship with the former ‘Yellow Peril’ had improved significantly. So much so that our friend Michael Wu was able to persuade the Chinese Presidium permitting a mature group of renowned adventure riders  “to explore eastern China’s un-open, off the beaten track, interesting places, never seen by westerners and to get lost in a number of remote mountain ranges inhabited by innocent ethnic groups to discover some forgotten old civilisation” would considerably enhance rapprochement.

This formal proposition may have lost something in translation, but to us it sounded very much like an adventure ride in the boonies.

At a factory in Hangzhou we were each presented with a brand spanking new X-H XIHU 250 B-C motorcycle to evaluate and praise accordingly. We had a little difficulty adapting to a seat height of 600mm and a twin-shock suspension designed for 60kg riders, but readily agreed with the factory spokesman that USD forks, five-speed gearboxes and disc brakes were but a passing capitalistic aberration.

Only later events would confirm the need for a factory technician to accompany us on our celebratory lap of the Province of Zhejiang. ‘Spanners’ (aka Shunhu Zhang) brought sufficient spares to construct at least three replacement bikes.

Zhejiang Province was home to a number of regional – and very parochial – breweries. In addition to assessing the merits of the new XIHU 250, we’d also been requested to appraise the latest brews from each of these local establishments. Having been assured that this task would not involve any tedious visits to bottling lines and that adequate samples would be delivered to our lodgings at sunset each evening, we were delighted to oblige.

We were set to go. But not without licences, said the authorities, though this involved no more than a lecture on Chinese road rules and a few cartons of imperialist cigarettes. Yet, despite this high-level police briefing, there was no evidence at all of any road rules. Worst of all, our Chinese mate Michael had no hesitation passing traffic on the inside, even to the point of slaloming through the roadside markets. “It’s okay,” he professed, “I’m Chinese.”

Having reverted to a Chinese perspective on road manners, Michael did not share the intense sense of peril we carried constantly. He was the first to highside, though we all saw it coming long before he did. Sadly he was to remain in the support van for the remainder of our adventure.

Despite Michael’s misfortune and any number of near misses, we’d become inoculated against the idiosyncrasies of other road users and the vagaries of the XIHU mechanicals. Both brake shoe assemblies were arse-about, the front brake with no retardation whatsoever, and the rear prone to instant locking. No amount of adjustment could rectify the problem and consequently the gearbox copped a hammering, with the clutch plates – which appeared to be made of papier-mâché – requiring regular replacement. Spanners was kept frantic day and night.

The scenery was breathtaking, the spectacular mountains studded with tiny whitewashed dwellings nestled along the steep-sided river valleys as the narrow roads twisted ever higher. The breathtaking aspect of the ride was enhanced by the use of raw sewage to keep the rice paddies and orchards productive.

As we headed away from the coast and into the mountains, the more it became evident that westerners were an unprecedented sight. At provisional checkpoints, the militia were completely taken aback when we removed our helmets, their relief evident when our tame lieutenant, Ho Ding, arrived with official permits from Beijing.

Unlike Wenzhou, which had three breweries, our next stop Lishui was but a one-brewery town, but their beer was the best we’d ever tasted. We’d concluded that Dong Yang beer was better than Xianji beer, which was far superior to any of the brews from Wenzhou, which in turn couldn’t compare with the beer from Leqing. And now, here in Lishui, we were enjoying the best beer in China – even though the next day’s would be even better.

And it was. Chun-An was a spectacular town on the shore of a magnificent lake. The chain-smoking manager of the hotel was so ecstatic about hosting such a significant occasion he arranged a 37-course feast plus a bespoke cake (it was Patrick’s birthday) and, of course, representatives from the Chun-An brewery; in addition to the rice wine vintners from neighbouring Xin’an Jiang. As the sun set over the lake, it was certainly one of the happiest of happy hours with Patrick undoubtedly the only Australian XIHU rider to experience a birthday in Chun-An.

The following morning, quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves on a ferry crossing the lake, the reason being that the roads north were ‘uncertain’. But on disembarkation it was obvious all was not well with our leaders. Michael’s only admission was that, because we were entering Anhui province, our journey may take a little longer. Rather than lose any 

face, our interpreter Wang Zhigao put on a brave one. Yet an hour later we were lost. “They speak a different dialect in this canton,” advised Michael. “It’s difficult to get directions. We’ll just have to wait while Ho Ding and Wang find out how to get out of here.” Thus began an afternoon haunting damp, unkempt roadside stalls.

At every delay we were besieged by curious onlookers and, when Bob took the opportunity for a quick visit to the barber, the shop was packed, snippets of his hair quickly scooped up by giggling children while we were all gently prodded and closely scrutinised.

At the next checkpoint it was clear that the permits Ho Ding was carrying did not provide authority to be in this region. After much gesticulation we were allowed to pass, our minders trying unsuccessfully to keep a positive spin on proceedings. The weather closed in with constant drizzle and intermittent showers. When darkness fell it became apparent the electrics on the XIHU 250 had been designed by Joseph’s oriental namesake – Confucius Lucas. Spanners was only carrying two gross of assorted fuses and this supply was soon exhausted. However, at the next repair stop Michael called from the dry interior of the backup van: “Ho Ding asked if you could all go a little faster. The road over the mountains is not supposed to be used at night. It’s very dangerous to be out here.”

What about your instructions, we asked in jest … the riding will be at sightseeing speed, do not race subconsciously. If you find yourself the last one, don’t panic, the van is still behind you, loaded with petrol/oil/food/drinks and some simple first aid.

“There’ll be no sightseeing and the van will go in front,” yelled Michael as the van departed. The following hours were not pleasant, the constant rain making it suicide to exceed 40km/h. With the van speeding off every time we caught up, there was no opportunity to discuss our options. Possibly because there were no options.

The temperature dropped rapidly as the road climbed ever higher, passing through a single tiny village. When we finally reached a substantial town the van powered on – only to be stopped at a military outpost where the heavily armed guards made it very very clear that everyone was to remain mounted, keeping their hands in sight.

Now suffering signs of hypothermia we wanted to know why we hadn’t stopped at the large town we’d so neatly bypassed, but Wang would have none of it and insisted Shexian was ‘just down the road’. And when one of the guards clicked off the safety on his machine gun we had no option but to move out in the direction indicated by the muzzle.

The best part of an hour later we were delighted to dismount at the bottom of a staircase leading to a warmly lit foyer. Only to meet Wang who insisted our hotel was but a few blocks away. Two refuse dumps, a quarry and a construction site later we gazed at the tall dark building at which the van had stopped. The three-year-old hotel was of the standard design constructed by the Socialist Secretariat of Corrective Services. Luxury items such as tiled bedroom walls, window glass and power outlets in the shower recesses had been added in the hope of a post Tiananmen Square tourism boom. Dank, decayed and riddled with concrete cancer, the hotel had as a showpiece a stainless steel urinal in the foyer. But the 18-course feast prepared on very short order and served by a staff of 14 was, as ever, magnificent. And of course the beer in Shexian was a far superior drop 

to that available in Tunxi. Or so Wang claimed.
It all seemed a little unnecessary when we could have finished in Tunxi at 10pm rather than
Shexian at 1am.

“In China you must be flexible,” counselled Michael. Over yet another breakfast of chicken dumplings, goat’s milk and bean curd we questioned the meaning of flexible only to learn when used in the Chinese way, flexible has no direct translation.

Now back in familiar territory Wang and Ho Ding reasserted their navigational confidence but refused to provide any explanation for the previous night’s confrontation with the military, even though it was obvious we’d breached some curfew in taking on the mountain pass. There was more than one reason it was very dangerous up there.

Fortunately the day was crystal clear for our ride through the magnificent Huang Shan Mountains. In a region unsupported by heavy industry, the roads were not cluttered by the usual legions of trucks and we soon arrived at the base of the highest peaks. Thankfully it had been an easy ride, for the fleet of XIHU 250s was now bereft of all electrics, mostly clutchless (and missing a number of gears), while the engines had multiple oil leaks; though the drum brakes were watertight. This wasn’t a problem as we’d long since learnt braking by Zen. We left Spanners to ponder why the water that had penetrated the brake drums wouldn’t come out.

Yet another spectacular multi-course feast was presented that evening, though it was disappointing to find there was no brewery on the mountain peak, the local brew being shouldered up from Taiping.

Our final day’s ride of almost 300km crossed several more mountain passes before descending to the richly farmed countryside towards Hangzhou. Our lap of Zhejiang was thus complete and a ‘Beggars Banquet’ had been prepared by the city fathers for our return. “It’s the real thing,” lectured Michael, “not like you get in Australia. First there’s sliced sea slug, chicken claw and noodle soup, green slimy thousand-year-old eggs, yellowskin eel, sliced calves bladder plus all the usual dishes. Then there’s the ‘Beggars Chicken’ itself, covered in succulent Chinese cabbage leaves and left to decay in a sealed earthenware pot for 12 days. It’s delicious.”

Like Beggars Chicken, the rice wine is an acquired taste but when I declared the Hangzhou Pilsner the best yet it prompted the brewery representative to pop the tops off another brace of longnecks.

Our final repast was held with us happily hosting our support crew who had remained stalwart throughout the 13 crazy days. Spanners, after assembling spare parts in the rear of the van by day and rebuilding the bikes by candlelight each evening, finally explained the XIHU’s brakes.

“We make the bikes so when the rider puts on the brakes before hitting the bus, the bike hits the bus first, so the rider slows down before hitting the bus and does not get so hurt.

“If I make the brakes your way then when the rider brakes, the rider flies through the air and speeds up before hitting the bus. Then the bike hits the rider. Gets very hurt. Maybe kill.”

We’d survived 53 consecutive Chinese feasts, each consisting of no less than a dozen exotic dishes. We’d also survived some 2000km over 11 chaotic days and one very daunting dark night, but we were not surprised to learn the Chinese don’t have a word for survival, the nearest translation being ‘to return from a very dangerous place’.

And that we did.