June, 1998: Last Dispatch
Flying Under the Radar

by Carla King


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No, I was not broadsided by a big bad diesel-dripping coal-flinging blue Chinese truck. I did not slide off the silk route into the Wei River along with the pieces of the shale cliff that knocked chunks out of the soft new asphalt. I did not catch a rare Asian flu and I did not fall in love with a goat herder or decide to shave my head and become a Buddhist nun.

I've been flying under the radar, and no one is going to stop me from completing this totally illegal trip. The traffic cops are more frightened of me than I am of them, and don't ask me for my papers, which are nonexistent anyway.

Right now, finding a fax machine is an ordeal that I can no longer face. After six weeks in China I still cannot identify a hotel building so that is another ordeal. When I do find one, getting them to let me hook my laptop to the fax machine line is an exhausting exercise in creative improvisation. Why don't you use a normal telephone line, they say. I tell them that my computer is a fax machine. I tell them that the computer would explode if I hook it to a normal phone like. I make explosion noises and don't laugh but they don't believe me. Still, their curious and the let me slide. They don't understand analog vs. digital telephone connections. They've never seen e-mail. They don't know what the Internet is.

I've decided that it's too difficult to do alone, this kind of traveling... the maps aren't quite right, the roads turn into deserts or riverbeds and they leave me exhausted, dehydrated, in a permanent state of low-level panic. Then the bike loses an electrical connection, or I fail to realize that a road is closed, or darkness has come earlier than expected. It never ends, but this is what I've found works best: stop worrying and go with it. Put yourself at the mercy of the place you land and someone will always save you from considering the whole place a hellhole, the whole race a collection of dead-eyed gaping idiots.

This sounds a little unfair, but let me tell you, the first time I stopped in a remote country village I thought it must be the place they kept all the retarded people. They approached walking slowly, blank-faced and wooden as daytime living dead. The living dead, mechanically placing sunflower seeds between their teeth. They spit out the shells some land on their chins and stay there while they gape. More gather, and the air thickens. A hand darts in to work the clutch lever. Another tests the brake lever. The crowd murmurs in approval, and someone enters the circle to bounce on the seat spring.

This happens in every village. I learn to choose the tiniest ones where there are old people. The elderly protect me, I eat in their shops while they shoo the crowds away.

So here's what has happened. My 40th birthday passes, a schizophrenic experience involving sledgehammers, coal trucks, and a one-kilometer long series of Buddhist caves that blow my mind.

Well-dressed Chinese tourists insist I pose for photos with them. They run around excitedly, quickly glance inside the caves, shout to one another, flick their cigarettes on the ground, and leave within an hour. Five young Chinese women capture me for a photo session and I am rewarded with a snack wrapped in a corn-husk package.It is sweet sticky rice hiding a pitted date. They watch me eat, clearly astonished at their incredible luck. When we are done they give me tissue to clean my hands, they smooth their dresses, freshen their makeup. They they do not visit a single cave.

I spend five hours here, in the Yungang Buddhist Caves, trying to absorb the historic and spiritual importance of this place while Chinese vacationers whirl around laughing. To them it is an amusement park. One of four major Buddhist cave groups in China, this is the most sacred space I have ever visited in my life, more sacred feeling than any cathedral in Europe. But the stench of urine reeks inside the last caves. Coal dust from the factory across the road collects on the Buddhas inside.

Inner Mongolia

After Datong it isn't long until I am irretrievably far from Beijing and stuck with a bad piston in Inner Mongolia, eons from anything the western world might call a city and certainly far from a hotel and hot water. I am dragged behind a little blue diesel motorcycle truck to the town mechanic who is a very young man with a young wife named Lily. Their two year old girl, after five minutes, accepts my foreignness unconditionally and climbs into my lap, playing with a set of accordion-fold postcards of San Francisco. They have never heard of San Francisco, but by the third day they are all calling me Auntie, even the neighbors, and there is a banquet in my honor during which I teach them to say "cheers" when drinking beer (it comes out "cherws") and then I must graciously consume all the glistening slices of fatback that is generously flicked from their bowls into mine.

Three hot Inner Mongolian afternoons are spent napping on the kang listening to Lily's snore mingled with the roar of blue trucks going by, most of them blowing their horns. So many blue trucks. Big ones, little ones, every single one of them is blue and they will be blue all the way to the Tibetan plateau and back to Beijing even though I will keep my eye out for white or gray or even something bright like red. But one blue truck after another races along the smooth asphalt between potholes and breakdowns. They carry their designated loads like a line of dusty determined ants, one accepting the load of another if it is injured or dead. I pick up drivers when they are stuck, and take them to the next town.

Lily, so far, is the only person that has saved me from thinking of this place a big human ant colony. Lily's flat Han face is wide and round, her eyes black and slanted, her nose small and her body thick. Her eyes are brighter than the others, I think, but I wonder how long it would take to know her well enough to pick her out of a crowd.

Three days of blue trucks continue passing the highway, beeping at nothing. The sheepherder stops to let his flock pick through the pile of garbage. His staff is a long stick with a curved hollowed out end that allows him to scoop up rocks for hurling great distances. Flies buzz, and it always, always smells dusty.

The baby clutches the accordion fold of San Francisco postcards in one hand, displaying the Golden Gate Bridge and the crookedest street in the world and Chinatown and Haight Street, as she plays and squats and gets into mischief with her father's tools. Will she be illiterate like her mother? Maybe I should send her books. But who would read to her? The long illiterate learn to communicate using other methods. When Lily looks at me her intelligence is clear.

What does Lily think about all day when she stands in the doorway watching the blue trucks go by? The government TV broadcasts a soap opera about the troubles of the wealthy, another is an ongoing, highly-produced historical saga, and the rest is propaganda. It is all propaganda. None of it has anything to do with Lily's life. Lily stands behind the colored strips of plastic in the doorway and watches the blue trucks go by. Sometimes her husband's customers come in for a cigarette and to gaze at the television while the little repairs to their motorcycles are made, but mostly they stand watching him, engrossed by the mystery of his craft. 

The Yellow River and the Tenger Desert

It takes three days to fix the bike. Acquisition of the proper parts is difficult, but I have a feeling they aren't hurrying. One day we hike in the nearby mountains. Mostly I read maps, and follow Lily around and write in my journal. I don't dare show them the computer, it would be too much.

By the map, I figure the highway by the Yellow River to be a main trade route with good roads, so day four I am on my way, following this route west through Inner Mongolia. Everything is lush and green, the landscape is a patchwork of fields tended carefully by peasants in rags and pointed hats. I am so happy buying produce from them, and they seem happy to see me, but at Shapoto the desert suddenly appeared. I never saw it on the map but there it was. 

The desert is called the Tenger and the fine yellow sand is moving in on Shaanxi Province like the Sahara is moving in on Senegal, piling up in dunes right into the river. The Gobi sits just over the dry brown mountains to the north. This is the first time I am really afraid. How far to the end? How long will it take to cross? The map doesn't tell me. 

The wheels of the motorcycle disturb the ribbons of sand that snake across the road. A lazy hot wind shoves at my right side and the sun glares as if it wishes to fall from the sky and obliterate me. 

The motorcycle engine overheats, forcing me to stop for a twenty minute cool-down period. I hide under the motorcycle cover from the sun and stinging sand, wait, and start again. There is no traffic for an hour and I wonder if a weather warning has been issued. Did the sign I passed 20 kilometers back say "road closed due to dangerous weather conditions?" Was there a radio broadcast that the truckers listened to? For an hour there isn't a burro or even a single blue truck carrying coal to the next place. My skin burns pink from sun and heat and I use the last of my bottle of watered down tea to hurry the engine cooling. I'm not supposed to be here. A herd of camels appear, shimmering in the heat waves in the hollow by a nearby dune. It could be a mirage, but if they are for real the camel herders are Muslim men. I flee, fearing Muslim men in general, with their strident disapproval of women without veils. 

The heat rises in waves and the sand covers most of the road and it doesn't seem quite real, in fact I think I am in a disbelieving dream trance, maybe even a mental state of shock (Can this really be happening? How long will this desert last?) until I almost hit the ancient Chinese woman leading a burro through the storm. She leaps off the road to land in the ditch but the burro only flickers its ear when I bush it with my left hand mirror. The right side of the road is invisible, and I continue down the middle looking in the rear view mirror at the woman righteously shaking her hoe after me. Where is she going that she needs a hoe? There is no use for a hoe for 100 miles.

Tibet... almost

The further west I head the more bizarre the surroundings and the people. I pick up a hitchhiker on the way to Yinchuan, the whackiest person I have met in China, and then get stuck in what quickly becomes Village from Hell because, once again, my machine is failing me.

I know. I have not got a good history with machines. I don't choose well, I chose local transport when I ought to have imported some fancy precision instrument made for all-terrain, all-weather motocrossing, one of those Paris-Dakar specials from Germany or Japan. But I chose a Chinese motorcycle to take me to these extremes, from fields to deserts to high mountains and back. It is a slow machine but even so the trip has been going too fast for my psyche. Perhaps one needs to walk in order to take it all in -- the Yellow River lush and green one moment, nomadic Muslim camel herders the next, and not too much further on a stream of Tibetan monks falling prostrate every ten steps on their pilgrimage to the monastery. Rounding a corner I nearly hit three of them but they get up quickly, orange robes all a flutter, and keep walking. Around the next corner I brake hard for a herd of yaks led by a Tibetan woman swathed in brown wool. 

After only an hour through pine covered mountains the Tibetan plateau appears. The air becomes thin and cold and even in the sunshine my fingernails freeze. Can I tell you how I feel now, after having been through that horrible dry desert to find the pine scented mountains so near? I'll try to communicate it, this relief that came from the gut, the realization that no plan is going to make any sense at all because I haven't any idea, despite my guidebooks, what is coming next. The only thing to do is surrender to the resignation that I am not in control, and to simply absorb what comes next. Planning ahead is simply futile.

The solution? To get to the next place as if it were my only goal. This requires only a small effort. One can always get to the next place. 

It consumed me, that thought of "getting to the next place" with its myriad of complications that have more to do with instinctual survival than wit or intellect or planning. The path was difficult, but not impossible. I'll try to tell you all that this simple phrase has meant these past six weeks. It has meant the basics of life which are food clothing shelter and a tolerance for bodily aches and a mind that loops only in upon itself. This mind has no time for mulling over the sacrifices one has made before one boards a jet plane to land on the other side of the world. 

A Moment to Think

In Xiahe I found other tourist and a hotel room that had hot water between 9 and 10 pm. During the day I visited the monastery, shopped for trinkets, and met other foreigners. Here there were the luxurious moments to think about more than the fact that my thumbs no longer worked properly. About the long stretch of land I'd just crossed, and whether or not to continue the trip south to Burma. At 25 mph average because of bad roads and mechanical failures, I decided that no, I couldn't do it. Not by myself. I want only to return to my ivory tower on the other side of the world. It was a mistake to come alone. I am definitely on the wrong side of the world, and all the way back to Beijing I am grateful for every little thing because I am headed home home home! Today, on the other side of the world, ten thousand raindrops hit the earth I am grateful for the ping of cooling metal that means the engine won't overheat. A stack of rattan containers appears and I am grateful for steamed buns and then I am grateful for somewhere to crouch for a moment in privacy. I am grateful for the gas station that sells the right kind of motor oil and that there are only three broken spokes on the sidecar tire from when I hit that last big pothole, that the brakes are holding, that there is water to wash my hands and face and someone who knows of a town a couple of hours up the road with an inn. A couple of hours later I am grateful that I was not too exhausted to get here. When you travel you are never too exhausted, I remember later, just before I go to sleep. Whenever there's no other alternative, you can do whatever it takes to do whatever you need to do.

In sleep my dreams are replays from events of the day. Peasants gather round to stare so dumbly astonished that they cannot return my greeting. They gather round until there is no more air, and I can't move without bumping somebody's face with my elbow. Why must they be so close! "Idiots," I mutter. "Move away!" I shout, and push the ones nearest back so that I can crouch next to the engine. They gather closer, delighted with my performance. 

In my dreams there is none of the anger I feel in daytime and I forgive them. I am the first foreigner they've ever seen. I am the last foreigner they will ever see. The only foreigner that they will ever see is a pale-faced green-eyed woman with wispy blond hair who rides a big Chinese motorcycle with Beijing plates. Beijing is where all the rules come from. The woman is obviously something that has dropped in from outer space. In my night dream I don't think of what I have done to them by coming here and simply passing through. I'm not responsible for what I've seen. China is China. They've been closed off for a million years so it is not the fault of the west, at least. Everything wrong here is their own fault. I got a look at it because I was flying under the radar. 

  Under the radar

Every traffic cop that pulled me over waved me on quickly, in obvious panic, as soon as they saw the blonde braid tumble from my helmet. They waved me on before they had to be obligated to admit that yes, they had seen a foreign woman on a Chinese motorcycle and she didn't have the proper papers. What would they do with me? There is no precedent. One of them saluted me repeatedly until I tucked my braid back under my helmet and rode out of sight. 

Were they following me, though? Sometimes I wondered. Clinton would be here in a few weeks and they surely must be following American visitors, to make sure they weren't spies. This, and other useless thoughts, followed me closely like a too-heavy passenger. 

"Now remember," one of the Americans advised on the day before I left Beijing, "don't get in an accident, because the Chinese will just stand there and watch you bleed to death." 

I saw plenty of blood. Truckers in a head-on collision and no one who knew what to do. 

What if I died here? 

There is something weird about being so alone in the midst of so many people. One point two billion people. For a long time I felt the fear, but in the middle it was suddenly replaced by freedom and I was able to let the road take me further and further away from the edges of country and the edges of issues and right smack into the middle of everything. In the middle my head emptied itself of everything but the moment and the moment contained the cabbage harvest and the sun bright on the tips of green wheat. The moment contained a small forest and the scent of trees being felled, small delicate trees with white bark that looked too fragile to build with. Most of the road was shaded with bigger trees, their trunks painted uniformly white four feet up the trunks and trimmed with a thin band of red paint. This goes on for miles in China. Kublai Kahn had once ordered trees to be planted by the roadside to give solace to travelers. It had become a Chinese habit. Solace was mine. Solace was everywhere. Peasants sawed laboriously, sending the fresh green dust into the air. Peasants pulled carts piled high with their green cabbages to market, smiling at the realization of the fruits of their labors. Peasants watered the green wheat. Peasants squatted on their heels and slurped noodles from steaming bowls. I was inside all this, through the forest and the village and then on a road that barely hung on to the sides of terraced mountains. A bee flew up my sleeve. I rubbed at the swelling place on my arm and kept going. 

Here, in the shade, is the place I can say that I became a participant and not an observer, when I stopped bothering my mind with the problem of how to send my words away and the problem of the words I might retrieve. Here there was no place for the disturbing bouts of expectation and longing that were only exacerbated when seeking an Internet connection.

  From now on the ride occupied all the mental space I was willing to spare. Food clothing shelter gas oil adjustments repairs. No room for disturbing thoughts. No room for worry, hope, disappointment, expectation, even joy. A resignation and a real emptiness came to take their place. The kind of emptiness that (I think) people go on meditation retreats to seek using breathing and techniques and rituals I know nothing about. I can access this space now, when I begin to think too much about how things might turn out, when thoughts just loop around without any possible positive result. What burdens I have placed upon myself! The gamut of emotions tossed around in my head like doomed ships tied together in a stormy sea, banging on each other til they sink, one by one, into depths, hopefully irretrievable. In the middle I lost them all. Then I was finished. I wanted tea and slippers, and then home.

The Silk Road

I had two more hard rides, ahead. The first on an obscure silk route by the Wei River. The road was closed but I couldn't read the sign. I wondered why I was all alone until five hours later I saw a huge scraper completely blocking the road. It would be there til the next day, they said, there was no way to get around it. Huge ditches on each side prevented a drive-around. I would have a ten hour, maybe more, ride back and around to get to my destination. The men continued working. I walked up and down the road, through a small village, and found a place where, with help, I could get the bike down, around, and halfway up. Couldn't they hitch a rope to me and drag me the rest of the way? No. They simply picked up the motorcycle, ten men, and hauled it onto the other side. 

Alone again, lost in thoughts of Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn on their hunting trips -- this is where they would have come -- until an electrical connection rattled loose. Tightening wires didn't help, the spare coil didn't help, the voltmeter showed everything okay. The truck that picked me up was the only one that ever passed by, it brought the workers home just before dusk. Kindly they dragged me to a town with a hairdresser who wouldn't stop playing with my head and three mechanics who couldn't help me, but by the next day I was operational again and off over a huge mountain that again, wasn't on my map. Dirt road and switchbacks. Riverbeds and road construction. This was my life, day by day, so when I hit Baoji and the freeway I was, to say the least, surprised. Xi'an was only a two hour ride at 80km per hour down the road, and I made it to the outskirts of town before the gearbox started rattling. No adjustment would make first or third gear work, so I found a hotel without them and started making arrangements for getting the damn thing on a train home. I had finally had enough. The terra cotta warriors were the last thing I wanted to see before the Beijing railway station. This wasn't as easy at it sounds but a friend of a connection in Beijing at the National Sports Federation in Xi'an came to the rescue. 

Home, rescued, and back to my normal life, I am full of the emptiness I found in the middle of China and don't know what to do about it. What arrogance, to think I could do such a thing, and return to my normal life. 

I watch Clinton's visit with interest and amusement as he speaks of "China at the grass roots level" and hope that somebody will tell him that he's really not seeing China at the grass roots level at all. 

I've learned that it doesn't matter how often, how well, how thoroughly you're told about the lives of people in another culture, there's no way you'll understand unless you go there and see for yourself. Unless you've been there to imprint the place on your psyche you minght not even notice when those people are starving, are having a war, an economic crisis, or a soccer win. I cannot empathize with problems in South America or Australia because I haven't been there, but I physically cringe when I read of continuing useless slaughter in Liberia, the encroaching Sahara in Senegal, the hurricane in Jamaica... and now I will suffer when I read of problems in Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Heibi, Beijing...

Beijing to Burma. What a laugh! I was lucky to get as far as I did, at 25mph average and a bike that had serious problems every two weeks. To say nothing of the loneliness. Now I know why Maureen Wheeler of Lonely Planet Guidebooks looked at me in horror last year when I told her of my plans. She said she simply wouldn't do it. That it's the hardest place to travel in the world. I didn't believe her, then. I was arrogant in my confidence at doing the trip, doing it alone, and figuring out China. 

Home now, I don't even know what to answer when people ask my opinion of China. I have more questions than answers. Do you think that spirituality is an inherent human trait? What insights do the immigrant Chinese have about their country, now that they have the distance to see it clearly? What does Buddhism, Taoism, christianity, mean in China? What is really going on between Tibet and China, Mongolia and China, Burma and China, the United States and China? What will happen in 10 years? Will the door slam shut? Will there be a revolution? Is there a chance for communication? Is it even possible?

Carla King
July, 1998


Red = planned route | Green = actual route

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