DOC Is Back From China

I think the video says it all. So, after nearly some 7 months, I am reunited with my bike after it’s roundtrip journey across the great Atlantic to Shanghai and China.

 

Finding Stories Behind the Doors of Beijing’s Hutongs

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No matter where I travel, between the nooks and crannies of local culture I always find an expat community—either thriving, starving, or simply lost. While one might argue that I’m an expat hanging in the world, a more descriptive moniker might be a traveler, explorer, or even a nomad.

I’d define an expat (short for expatriate) as someone living or working in a single place outside their native country for at least six months—though perhaps time is less of a qualification than would be some calculation that combines mindset and immersion.

Usually, I prefer to travel alone. As a solo traveler with a very open and outward personality, I am more approachable than if I were traveling with others. I’m also more likely to approach others and learn more of the local language. While one can find comfort in familiarity, I find it challenging, exciting and rewarding to learn and adapt how to be comfortable away from familiarity. So I focus on the locals and resist getting sucked into the all-too-easy trap of familiarity.

Playing Mahjong in Beijing

Sitting in on a game of Mahjong and amusing the locals inside a small liquor and cigarette shop.

I find, however often, within those expat communities the opposite. I imagine that most who choose to embark on an expat adventure, do so with excitement and intent to integrate, live as locals, and immerse in the culture. Then something happens. I’m not sure if it’s frustration, boredom, or some seeping dose of homesickness, but at some point the novelty and excitement wears off for these expats. Soon they seek refuge and comfort in familiarity and they begin to cluster and build not only their own communities, but in some ways, walls around themselves distancing themselves from the surrounding culture.

As part of my journey through China, I thought it would be interesting to tap into what appears to be a thriving expat culture. I sought to not only learn how to wade through my Chinese challenges, but also as a conduit to Chinese culture and connections. With limited time in China, and without the luxury of a “fixer” I thought expats might help me find unique stories, meet local craftsman, artisans and business people.

British telephone booth in Ningbo China

A gentrified and cobblestoned development in Ningbo that seems to be frequented and populated by expats.

So I set on my journey. First in Ningbo, then Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned, however, that the strong connection among the local expats could possibly creating a disconnection with locals—culture and community. Often, if expats cannot find those comforts of home, they find a way to bring them into their community.

In Ningbo, a small development I found seemed void of anything Chinese: merchant and restaurants signs were all in English as were all the menus  customers and the language. There was even a classic red British phone booth marking the entrance of this development.

In Beijing, while wandering the infamous Gulou hutong area I met a British musician in his mid-30’s teaches English during the day and plays trombone for an R&B band at night. Daniel explained that the opportunities he finds in China would be unavailable to him in England.

Daniel and a group of expat musicians jam while I try to sit in on percussion!

Daniel and a group of expat musicians jam while I try to sit in on percussion!

“We just finished recording music for a Mini television commercial,” he explained with excitement. Eager to share with me connections he’s made during the six months or so he’s been living in China, he was at a loss when I asked about meeting a local musician, chef, or artist.

“I don’t really know any local Chinese musicians,” he said, but was able to bring me deep into the Beijing expat community, which some say numbers more than 20,000—people from all over the world.

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Daniel from the United Kingdom, finds opportunities in China not available to him in the UK.

With an endearing and snappy English accent and the enthusiasm of a young child at his first day of school, Daniel paraded me around expat-filled hutongs of Beijing where I met Max and Micku, a New Jersey couple who met here in China and have opened a burgeoning meatball restaurant, The Meatball Company: Eat Our Balls borrowing a page from a famous New York eatery. Neither speak much Chinese, but a burgeoning delivery business is attracting local customers in addition to expats hungry who want to eat balls—even some with a bit of Latin flavor—meatballs with chimmichurri—yes, in China!

Next, I met Wilson Halley, a 20-something Texan who has lived in Beijing for several years, married a passionate local Chinese coffee connoisseur, Emilie Xu, and recently opened a pie shop that serves high-end artisanal coffee along side Wilson’s homemade American-inspired pies. Got a hankering for apple or pumpkin pie while in Beijing, get over to Rager Pie and try the cold-brewed coffee drawn from a tap.

Daniel, motorcyclist and restauranteur shares a bit of inner Beijing

From Duluth, Jimi has found comfort and opportunity amongst both the local Chinese music and food scene and the expat community.

Our parade marched through the hutong in search of Jimi, an expat and fellow motorcyclist from Duluth, Minnesota who may have come to China with the love of a woman, while that relationship soured quickly, he quickly found another true love—China, and hasn’t found a reason to return to Duluth in several years.

Unlike many of the other expats I meet, Jimi is a bit of a chameleon, adapting himself to not only different pockets of the expat community, but to the local Chinese music scene—particularly Chinese punk, as well. A few years ago, starving for a taste of Minnesota and home, he opened tiny grilled cheese stand, “The Corner Meltl” tucked down a hutong alleyway.

The curiosity of grilled cheese sandwiches captured the attention of Lei Jun, the frontman of Misandao, a legendary Chinese-punk band and founder of the Beijing Punk Festival. Amazingly, the two connected and developed a strong bonding over grilled cheese sandwiches. Together they planned to open a new restaurant.

You see, Lei Jun along with his wife MaYue once operated a local eatery, Noodle, a short lived venture.  Jimi and Lei Jun collaborated on a new venture.

Sadly, earlier this year Misandao broke up, and more devastating, Lei Jun died of a heart attack in May. The news shocked the local music community. But just as I left Beijing Jimi and MaYue were still going ahead with the new venture:  a restaurant in homage to the local punk music scene and, ironically, now for one of its iconic leaders, Lei Jun.

We set amidst the sawdust and architectural plans for the new venture, “Punk Rock Noodle.” Our conversation, I’m hopeful, will be part of the new travel documentary series I was filming while traveling through China by motorcycle.

IMG_0011The hutongs of Beijing date back hundreds of years, though during the last 30 or so, in the rush of development, economic prosperity and the opening of China to the world, the ancient courtyard living quarters that make up a massive maze that winds through the city have been leveled. Massive buildings have taken its place in some areas, while in others more modern housing with the modern conveniences hare popped up.

Proudly displaying his collection of cultural revolution era propaganda

One of the legends of the Beijing-style noodle services up freshly made noodles in a cramped space in a Beijing hutong, and proudly displays a collection of cultural-revolution-era propaganda.

 

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I wandered into a small hutong courtyard and met this young family just as they were preparing dinner. They showed me their modest homestead and offered cool water and conversation

Bulldozing and raising the Beijing Hutong

Many are trying to stop the bulldozing of historical hutong districts in Beijing; it’s controversial and both sides have good arguments.

Still in other areas there is an ongoing gentrification that appears to be in the guise of preserving, and in some cases restoring some of the hutong, especially in the inner ring of Beijing. Prices rise, commerce rings loud, and the tourists, Chinese and the world crowd the alleys. Some of the elderly residents who’ve watch the change over the years are disgusted, while others feel with the change comes economic opportunity. In China, some divulge to me, it’s true: with more money, the people can be more happy.

Jimi and I bantered over China and change. He then connected me with an elderly local, a passionate Chinese opera singer who once spent some ten years working in one of Chairman Mao’s “work-camps”, apparently for speaking out against the regime. He thought, perhaps, it would be interesting to chat with someone who lives in the futon, has lived through the revolution and the cultural revolution.

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At 92 years old, his energy and passion seemed more alive than much younger other people, I’ve met on this journey. He adorns his hat collection with a random and esoteric collection of bling. During our conversation, his daughter and granddaughter, who provided me with translation, kept him tight-lipped while we sat in a small coffee and cupcake shop just doors down from Rager Pie. In one moment tears welled as chosen on his words and then started singing, from deep inside his heart, to answer one of my questions.

Beijing, China or elsewhere. It’s stories I seek, people’s stories, their lives. Locals, expats, and even wayfaring wanderers, like me. This is why I travel. And this is what I will always share here.

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Enjoy these and other photos from some of our wandering through the hutongs of Beijing

Cranes, Change & Tai Chi

IMG_6033During my last visit to China, in 2004 just over a year before I embarked on my life-changing motorcycle exploration of our planet, I was eager to blast out of the madness of the SARS-paranoia of Guangzhou to the countryside and home to the minority-populated Guangxi province; specifically I wanted to visit Guilin and Yangshou.

That journey, perhaps equally enlightening as my epic three-year journey, provided me with just a glimpse of the China I’m now experiencing. What’s more, traveling with a film crew and laden with a firm deadline and, in some way, objectives and deadlines, I’ve been taken back, ruffled, and my balance a tad upset.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I’m quick to admit. It’s a thing, nonetheless.

Beyond the difficulties and disappointments of importing my motorcycle and other failed promises, I’ve learned, in my years of travel, the importance of practicing patience and arming oneself with the perspective of positivity and practice of perseverance.

Those who know me will attest to my tenacious ability to do such—with passion!

IMG_9702While in Suzhou and Shanghai, in the company of new and eager friends, I was happy for an invitation to speak, and to be translated by Chris, to an exclusive event in Yancheng, often referred to as the Chinese “Salt City” due to its proximity to the salt harvest fields which have been harvested for nearly 2000 years.

It’s hard not to notice the massive development and infrastructure building in cities such as Yancheng, Suzhou, Ningbo and onward. I usually play a game with myself—as I travel alone in developing countries: how many cranes can I count that dot the skylines of such cities. In China, I lost count. More than I care to admit. I’m told that the 10-30 story buildings built in the 70’s and 80’s, now are all but being torn down in the guise of new development and a showing of economic prowess, and were not equipped with elevators. The new buildings replacing and amending the old, are fitted with “lifts.” The svelte physiques of the struggling stair-climbers of the past, I’ve heard, may give way to a less fit and belly-burgeoning population of China’s future.

Truth or speculation, it doesn’t matter. China is changing, and the cranes the crowd the city skylines are just hints of evidence.

Though I travel via a fossil-fueled, gas-powered motorcycle, it’s hard to find the same in the scooters or motorcycles scuttling the streets of major Chinese cities—a far cry from those I’ve seen in Rome, Cairo, Bangkok and beyond.

IMG_2429Electric bikes are the norm in China, as new cities are born and old cities re-born, the sputtering internal-combustion engines of old are rapidly being replaced by the hum and whir of electric motors and the batteries that power them. There is a norm and familiar layout of most Chinese cities, the wide e-bike lanes separated by a strip of foliage or billboard laden medains—at least they have their own lanes, sort of.

Though it seems that everyone has an e-bike, or electric scooter; if not, they walk. Getting a license plate for a “true” motor vehicle in the bigger cities is something only those with connections or cash can acquire. Yet pedestrians and e-bikers run the biggest risk of injury or death — or, perhaps, deafness.

The horn is king in Chinese cities. Despite the efforts of many to post signs and levy fines for the overuse of such things, the Chinese use horns much more than they choose to use brakes. One elderly woman crossing the street, was nary alarmed as the huge diesel powered horn blared within a meter of her, then nearly knocking her flat to the curb. Me, just 20 feet away, nearly jumped out of my skin, found myself yelling at the driver, “Be careful,” yeah, right. Good luck, Allan.

 

Sunday morning jam

Yet, even with the chaotic road scenes, burgeoning development and seemingly madness pace of city life, I found a tranquilly, and peace in the homes, alleys, or hutongs of Beijing or other cities. I soon learned not to judge, but rather to adapt, to learn, and to embrace—to embrace a culture and spirit, that’s not my own, and not mine to judge or ridicule, but rather mine to learn, and as difficult as it might be, to enjoy.

taichiSo as I rose early one morning in Beijing, to hang with the locals, in the park aptly known, for hundreds of years, Temple of the Heaven, I enjoyed and learned to “let go” and embrace those things that can help in such endeavors: tai chi, dance, and music.

I’m coming back. I’m in China, and here’s the peace and solace in the midst of the chaos and madness. Let go, let live, and love.

 

Please check out the photo gallery below.


No Bikes In Beijing

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The IMG_4135Chinese refer to their infamous cities in order. First cities are Shanghai and Beijing, second cities that are candidates for first  include Shenzhen, Guanzhou and others. Third cities perhaps include perhaps Ningbo, Wuhan, Suzhou and so forth. There is no formal classification, but it’s estimated there are more than 160 cities with more than 1 million population.

While Beijing is the capital, the greater areas of Shanghai, and arguably Guangzhou exceed more than 25 million. So moving from Shanghai to Beijing has given me a taste of the difference between northern and central China, but I’m still yearning for the the countryside.

IMG_0192Even more, China has some of the most beaurocratic motor vehcile laws I’ve ever encountered in my years of traveling. Most important to me is that motorcycles are technically not allowed in the city centers of Shanghai and Beijing. Though it’s possible, with a fat wallet, to purchase a license plate that identifies a bike as legal for such city centers. These plates, I’m told, are more of a status symbol than they are as practical. That is, the people that can afford the ¥100,000 (approximately $16,000 USD) just for the plate, are generally not the riders you may catch riding within the first 4 rings of Beijing city. Plates that will allow motorcycles to ride outside the 5th ring of the city are cheap, I’ve learned, and easy to get for even the poorest residents. Similarly, it’s expensive to own and operate a bike in Shanghai.

All of this plate nonsense is to say that I’m unable to ride my new motorcycle within the city of Beijing, so my exploration must be on foot, via taxi and mass transit. To get to inside the 2nd ring, I’ll have to truck my motorcycle into the city.

IMG_4154The other problem with owning a motor vehicle in Beijing, is that those that may be lucky enough to ride a motorcycle or drive a car must contend with the law that one day each week, drivers cannot drive or ride their vehicles. The license plates are coded as such so law enforcement officials can recognize this and take action. However, in cities with more than 20 million residents, it would be impossible to enforce such vehicle laws. However, the Chinese have thought of this. There are cameras everywhere. On big boulevards, toll roads, national roads, small alleys and more. When driving under these cameras a mass of flashes startle me; my taxi drivers points toward the sky at the massive pipe arch that extends over five lanes of one of Beijings major boulevards: yes, they are watching. Drivers that violate the laws will be fined and assessed points.

There’s a good reason for all of this plate nonsense, photo control and such: traffic in these cities is maddening. Going just a couple kilometers can take an hour or more by taxi or driving. Mass transit? Subways are packed tighter than any I’ve ever experienced.

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Pan our co-director takes the skins for a jam session with some of Beijing’s most colorful expats.

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No guitars this evening so I jam out a bit of vocals colored by a hoarse voice thanks to the Beijing pollution and lots of second hand smoke.

 

IMG_0128You can move around these cities, it’s time consuming, often uncomfortable and frustrating.

Though this is easily managed with a bit of patience. I like Beijing. If it weren’t for the lack of sunny days and lung challenging pollution, I could hang here for a while. That’s why the expat community here is so strong and vibrant and why locals who’ve lived in the dwindling courtyard homes of Beijing’s hutongs still live and wax nostalgia for “the old days.”

 

This Is China.

This is China. People keep reminding me of this with each challenge I’m faced. These people are typically expats, people who’ve made the decision to live here despite the challenge. When things don’t go smooth or expectations are far from realized, it’s a simple, yet, hopeless moment of throwing one’s hands up in the air, “Oh well, this is China.”

Never one to give up, and I’m not willing to toss fate into the wind of helplessness—language barrier notwithstanding. Yet, at every turn in Ningbo and Shanghai, I find myself running into impenetrable red tape— impossible to tear—not unlike the Tyvek® variety. Bottom line: the only way the crate that holds my motorcycle, dozens of copies of “FORKS”, spare parts, tools and other essential items for my bike, will leave the port where it’s currently held hostage, is when it’s shipped to another country.

So not only will Doc not log miles on Chinese roads, I’m unable to gain access to anything else I preciously packed in that crate so long ago.

 

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WongDoc before setting up for my China ride

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WongDoc with Happy Trails racks equipped with Mosko Bags.

Good news is, I’ve picked up my new motorcycle: a 2007 BMW F650GS Dakar—the WongDoc, as I fondly refer to it now. New Mosko soft-bags are attached thanks to Mosko Moto and Happy Trails. There are new Continental tires, a Garmin Nuvo GPS equipped with Chinese maps (in Chinese) and I’ve got my BMW riding gear, Schuberth Concept 3 helmet, SENA wireless communication system and legendary Westone in-ear monitors—all hand-carried in my luggage from Vancouver—and thankfully not packed in that hostage crate.

As I sort details of legalizing my “new” bike, WongDoc, for riding in China, I connect with new friends and old. In Suzhou, Chris, the hotel owner, helps me relieve my riding depravation by letting me straddle and cruise one of his Harley’s to a local village and restaurant on Yancheng Lake—famous for its “hairy” crabs .

IMG_9580-1Over several nights Chris weens slowly weens me off wine by offering a few bottles of Bordeaux while introducing me to what Chinese call “white wine” — Baijiua—a 40-60% white liquor distilled from a blend of grains.

“Ganbay!” he’d yell while raising his glass, toasting mine, and then banging it on the table before draining his glass. Seems this booze isn’t sipped, and you don’t drink it alone. Raise a glass, then down it.

The Chinese likely discovered, invented, or stumbled upon the process of distilling spirits—think whiskey or vodka—much to the chagrin of the Irish and Scotch—though the Greeks, in homage to my friend Pan and co-director of our new television show, may argue that notion.

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IMG_2971Chris lived in Vancouver for several years, but has chosen to return to China to run several businesses that include this hotel, a number of restaurants, several mines and other investments. He invited me to speak at a conference of businessmen in nearby Yancheng where afterword I presented a copy of my book “FORKS” to one of the top government officials at a formal dinner. Five government representatives along with about 8 members of the conference committee dined on dozens of dishes set on a massive glass rotating platter, not unlike a “lazy susan”. Nearly 15 of us sharing regional dishes as servers brought more. Soon, so many dishes filled the platter that they were stacked on top of each other.

IMG_2648In China, it seems, one person orders the food, and everyone shares. Eat what you like, as much as you like and “Ganbay” often. Here each of the government administrators walked around the huge table holding a bottle of Chinese white liquor, pouring a bit for themselves and each person, one by one, with a toast and a “Ganbay”. After a while, trying to keep my head from spinning, I poured water in my glass. No one could tell and I walked out of the restaurant without stumbling nor slurring my few words of Mandarin. This is China. And I’m liking this.

In Shanghai my friend Wen, who I met nearly ten years ago at the infamous international Canton Faire in Guanzhou and who since I connected with several times in the United States. Her friends, who I’d never met, brought gifts of regional food, high-end liquor and good will over several meals. Since motorcycles are not allowed in the city center, her friends connected me with a driver so I could explore the sites and experience Shanghai with more convenience.

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With Lily at “The Bund”

In the aftermath of Shanghai’s heaviest rainfall in 50 years, I met Lily, an English teacher, who walked me through Shanghai’s creative artist district, then through the infamous Yu Gardens and to the Bund, as I like to say the bend in the river that separates old Shanghai from new—across the river where the second highest building in the world. Though completed in the last year, the observation deck has yet to open for visitors. So we climbed 100 floors to the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) referred to by locals as the “bottle opener” due to a walkway that spans two towers creating a large opening at the top of the massive glass building.

Perhaps most fun is walking through an older, more impoverished section of Shanghai. Midday men walk around in pajamas at 3pm or pull their t-shirts up to their breasts, to catch a cool breeze, relief from the muggy summer air. It’s here I find a barber, and his hairdresser wife trim my hair and bears and then take me in, walk me through the local market where we pick the ingredients for a tasty lunch the barber cooks for me in his tiny kitchen with nary a hotplate and an outdoor sink.

Each of the half-dozen dishes he cooks for me and his family, one-by-one, is served on a small table next to the futon I sit, which many hours later will be his bed. He’ll then take a bamboo ladder from the wall, and lean it against a small opening just above my head, where his son and daughter will climb and sleep on a thin mattress in a cramped loft. They all work and sleep in these meager quarters, barely 100 square feet. And just hundreds of meters down the road, tourists and the Chinese elite shop in boutique shops for luxury brands like Hermes, Gucci, Dior, Omega and many more.

Shanghai is a city of contrasts where life is far from black and white and despite the choking smog, impossible traffic and crush of 23 million people, I find the smiles and openness that gives me energy to journey on. This is China, and it’s time to ride.

Shanghai Dreaming?

IMG_2429It’s 4:30—Wake Up…

I press the electronic dimmer for the window from my seat on Air Canada’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I’m on flight 25 and the pilot just announced we’d be landing in Shanghai thirty minutes ahead of schedule. As the window magically brightens we descend through the low lying clouds, water beads dot my window.

I’m  not dreaming. I’m minutes from China and one of the largest cities in the world.

“Has your adventure started?” a friend texts me. “Yes,” I respond. It started in early April when I packed up Doc, my motorcycle, and sent it to China.

Doc arrived here in Shanghai on April 25th. It’s been hanging in purgatory since.

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Exploring Vancouver British Columbia

I arrived in Vancouver on May 15th. And until about 13 hours ago, the future of “Doc”, riding any motorcycle in China and this television project has been in question.

I’ve wanted to get to know Vancouver for many years, though didn’t think I’d be forced to wander the city for three weeks in a state of wonder. Not that I wasted time there. I worked with the production crew almost daily discussing strategy, tactics and route options. Late nights spent with our executive producer communicating with China—during its business hours.

And I’ve reconnected with a number of friends, many I haven’t seen in years. Stephen Buckley lived next to me in the “pad of altercation”, as we called it during my days living on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula. He’s a film animator, having spent more than five years living in New Zealand while working on Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in Malibu while working for Sony Pictures, and now in Vancouver working for Digital Domain on a number of Hollywood blockbusters.

 

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Connecting with Wolfgang back in Canada years later.

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Laughing and sharing as if we’d seen each other yesterday, legendary Stephen Buckley

IMG_9372The last time I was in Vancouver, I was riding “Doc” and on my way to Alaska—on the journey that inspired my book “FORKS”, and on my way through the vast and large province of British Columbia, vibrations from the rough roads caused one of my keys to spin off its keychain. The uniquely German Touratech GPS mount used a very unique key—one that I couldn’t find in the bustling BC city of Prince George.

My only key was lost. No duplicate, no backup. And no exact blank. This was a challenge Anne, a local locksmith, accepted and handled with ease—creating a new key from scratch. While she crafted her magic, I chatted with her partner, Wolfgang. Though I spent just a few hours with Anne and Wolfgang, the connection sustained—through my trip and beyond. I hear from Wolfgang who now lives in Vancouver. We reconnected over great sushi, beer and conversation. Sadly, Anne was sick and couldn’t join us.

Vancouver surprised me again when just the night before my flight, I connected with Johanna, founder of the Travel Eater blog—we connected during my Kickstarter campaign after she wrote a very nice overview of “FORKS.”

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It’s wet in Shanghai. News here is there is no way I’m going to see or ride “Doc” in China. Perhaps with a fat bank account and closer connections to government and customs officials I could trim the more than five weeks process it would take to legally temporarily import “Doc”. So we are buying another motorcycle. It will be cheaper and faster, and we can begin filming this show.

“WongDoc” is a 2006 BMW F650GS Dakar, the same as the right, or original, “Doc.” I am on the way to inspect and, if all is in order, pick it up today. While we are waiting for the new license plate, the local BMW dealer in Shanghai will help me service the bike and outfit it the best we can for my Chinese adventure.

 

Walk With Me Around A Chinese City:

I will replace the stock BMW side panniers with Mosko Moto 35L Backcountry Panniers, soft bags. Sadly, I will not be able to use the best hard luggage in the world, my aluminum Jesse Luggage Odyssey Bags. Thanks to the good folks at Mosko Moto and Happy Trails, I received racks and luggage just yesterday.

The soft-bags will serve me well in China, especially with Mosko’s superb waterproof design with its removable dry bag and compression and expansion features. Mosko panniers can attach to many different soft and hard luggage racks, but the Happy Trails SL racks are custom designed for the F650GS, are light and easy to install. This experience proves to me that every adventure rider should have two sets of panniers in their arsenal: a solid hard bag system like the Jesse, and a soft-bag system such as Mosko’s Discovery.

IMG_9522.JPGI’ve practiced incredible patience over the past three weeks, and I refuse to dip into angry bitterness over the situation. I’m not sure where “Doc” will go next. I’d like to get the bike to Vietnam or Cambodia to use for the next episodes of the show. We are trying to sort through the logistics of moving the bike from the Chinese port. Perhaps later today, I’ll have good news.
In the meantime, I’m happy and ready to roll. I’m inching closer to Shanghai and see the massive modern skyline through the grey mist and haze. I’ll start my adventure there, on foot; Shanghai, like many Chinese cities, forbids motorcycles.

It’s true. I thought by now, I’d be beginning my last week of adventure in China. Feeling a bit shaggy, my first stop might be a Chinese barber and then perhaps a crash course in Mandarin. Shanghai calls, but I’m yearning for the countryside.

The Chasing China Challenge

chinese-flag-300x2001Not long ago China, comfortable hiding behind its wall of isolation, for the most part, closed itself to foreign visitors—and most everything else. In 1949, Mao Zedong, after conquering Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War, formed the People’s Republic of China. In the process of socializing the country, foreign investors were kicked out and land owners were forced to redistribute land for communal use by peasants and farmers, yet land ownership was prohibited.

China began to slowly open up in the 1970’s when a number of events brought about evolutionary changes, from the historic visit of US President Nixon to the formal end of the cultural revolution and the death of Mao, China ushered in economic reform policies including the ability of local provinces and municipalities to invest in industry and manufacturing. These reforms paved the path to the further opening of China and the explosive growth that transformed China into the country I’ll be exploring soon.

Soon? I hope so. Though I’m learning that China as open as China has become since Mao, it’s still may not be open enough to let me bring in my bike.

We crated and shipped my motorcycle “Doc” in early April and it arrived in the port of Ningbo (south of Shanghai) on April 27, 2015. Since we shipped the bike QE Productions personnel have struggled with Chinese customs officials and clearing agents to get Doc released. With nearly a month of negotiations behind us, it appears China is open to my visit, but is less open to the temporary visit of my motorcycle..

There is no question that the Chinese require visitors to follow certain procedures, processes and formalities; just as any other country I’ve brought my motorcycle. However in China, the reasons that Doc hasn’t been released to the QE Productions office in Ningbo keep changing. First, we were told that it could not be released until I secured a proper Chinese driver license. International Drivers Licenses are not recognized there. So, I will take a test, in Chinese, upon my arrival in China next week. Next, we were told that the vehicle is too old. At barely ten years old, our executive producer, Randolph Paul Kelman, sighs in disbelief at the hypocrisy of the situation as he looks out the window of his office where he sees old motorcycles and cars zip by every day—many which should have been taken off the road twenty years earlier.

Then customs officials informed us that the bike should have been inspected before shipping to China, yet it is unclear as to where in California I could find a certified inspector

I contacted my friends at BMW North America who connected us with BMW corporate officials from both Germany and China. BMW China worked through no less than three clearing agents who all failed to get authorization to release “Doc” from the port, including a plan to reroute the bike to Yunnan province or Vietnam, and temporarily import the bike from there. This will not work.

A local Israeli expat who owns a Ducati in China found a possible solution that would require us to refuse the shipment at the port and re-route it to Hong Kong where a Chinese company would register and secure the necessary paperwork and permits—at significant cost. Sounds good. So just as we were ready to the pull the trigger and choose this option, we were informed that it would take 35 days to get the bike to Hong Kong (no more than a few hours away by ship), and it would take another 10 days to process and get the bike back to mainland China.

Time is money. And in movie and television production, time is exponentially money. At this point we’re burning it and not getting anywhere.
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We are exploring the possibility of borrowing a bike from BMW China, renting a Chinese dual-sport motorcycle (Jialing JH600), or finding a preowned BMW dual-sport that is already legally imported into the country.

So the adventure in China has already started and I’m still sitting in North America.

Hanging in Vancouver, British Columbia british-colombia-flag

 

afk-flies-droneMy time in Vancouver has been somewhat productive, however, enjoying great food with the family of co-director and producer Panayioti Yannitsos, cooking Ethiopian food using a recipe from my book “FORKS—A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection” and testing production and motorcycle equipment from the Phantom 2 drone, to SENA communications equipment, and my new custom molded in-ear Westone ES60 earbuds.

But I’d rather be in China—riding and shooting this new television show.

I will. Soon. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

What’s Next? WorldRider On Television?

“What’s next?” My friends and family asked when I returned from my original WorldRider journey several years ago.

I’d come to a fork in my road. I asked myself the same question, often.

People also asked, “Was your trip a life-changing experience?”

Sure, circumstances surrounding one’s life always change and evolve. Yet deep inside, I believe, we return from journeys not changed, but rather, we come back awakened, energized and feeling alive. Travel awakens our spirit and ignites our soul. Always inside and part of us is the essence of who we are, and those things that bring us joy and happiness, and where we hope to find purpose in our lives, are rooted early in life. The beauty of travel is its ability to bring back to life that which has been dormant.

For me, I choose not to dwell on problems or what’s wrong in our world. Sure, we can always improve and better ourselves and our relationship with others, but deep inside all of us is the essence of humanity. We are born with a curiosity to understand everything — especially each other—though as we age, we tend to lose, or forget that. It is our humanity that guides us–makes us good, compassionate. So when I travel, I look and see what’s right and beautiful. And you? Look for beauty, you’ll probably find it, too. It’s a choice we all can make.

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Back in the USA, I soon realized that the lessons I learned, the deep connections I made with the people I met, and the incredible beauty of our planet and its humanity were too much for me to keep to myself. I felt compelled to share. By day I supported myself by consulting with clients on digital marketing and branding, at night I scribbled and scratched and dreamed of ways I could share my journey and lessons and make it relevant to anyone.

With plenty of experience in delivering presentations and speaking to groups, large and small, I slowly transitioned myself from a “marketing and branding guy” to a “professional speaker.” I was confident that “what’s next” was clear: To get in front of audiences and share these stories, the beauty and the world and its humanity. It took time, and, for the first time in my career, by applying a bit of my “marketing guy” experience to work for me, I built a reputation and business based on speaking and storytelling—-sharing.

forks-cover-art-high-resWhile I love speaking as much as the audiences with whom I share stories, I realized that it could take thousands or more speeches to reach all I feel would benefit from hearing my stories. So I started work on my book “FORKS: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection.” Ironically, it took me nearly as long to write FORKS as it did for me to travel around the world on my motorcycle. Yet, last summer I finally published the book that truly captured the essence of my journey in photos, stories, and recipes from each of the 35 countries I traveled.

I’ve happy and humbled by the attention FORKS has received from readers and the media. While I never expected such a positive reaction to my book, I have always been confident that the stories, messages and lessons from my travels are important and relevant and could resonate as well have impact on most anyone’s life — in our relationships in business, through our personal lives, and in our communities.

With FORKS and a national book tour complete, many more people are asking me that same old question: “What’s next, Allan?”

Over the past several years, I’ve thought hard about getting back on the road. Sure, I’ve made several trips since returning from the journey that inspired “FORKS”, but to places I’ve already traveled. But I’m inspired by both the new and the unknown.

I’ve also thought about producing a documentary based on “FORKS.” Several producers contacted me during my Kickstarter campaign, proposing to script, produce and otherwise collaborate. After “FORKS” hit the shelves last year, several production companies contacted me with the idea of developing a television travel series. They asked me, “are you ready to travel the world with a television crew?”

nostrangersTo be honest, I like to travel alone. This is how I’m able to connect with people; I like to move at my own pace, take time. Even in my photography, I often desire to “wait for the light.” So the idea of having a film crew follow me and potentially upset my rhythm or interfere with the experience is unsettling

Yet, I love the idea-—IF it could be done with a small and intimate crew, one that could move and act swiftly and be invisible as possible.

After several in-person meetings, phone and Skype calls, email messages, I quickly realized that most of these companies move slowly. I also learned that some of these companies take direction from and pander to the desires of the television networks. Understandably, someone needs to pay for the programming and if a show cannot find and retain an audience, then there’s no chance for success. However, as an adventurer, entrepreneur, and speaker, I’ve always stressed the importance of stepping outside the comfort zone, to take chances and accept risk. This is the only way to innovate and see possibilities.

There was no way I wanted to compromise my trip, book or philosophy and turn them into a mockery or some formulaic reality television show concocted to the spec of a television network.

forks-backer-print-2315-3135280593To be sure, if I’m getting on my bike and traveling to the ends of an earth with a film crew shadowing me, the show must be of the highest quality—as I aimed to do with FORKS—and it must strive to pushes limits—even, with a dose of passion and persistence, strive to possibly redefine travel documentary television—taking FORKS to the next level and beyond.

To do this, the production company would have to be willing to take a chance, accept risk, and step outside the comfort zone. Remember? That’s the only way to realize the possibilities.

While I continued my conversations with several productions companies and they continued looking for a gimmick, or on my mother’s birthday I received a message—a mention—via Twitter.

The Twitter message crossed the border of Canada into California and caught my eye.

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Over the next few days I learned that Panayioti (Pan), the sender of the message, worked as a director and producer for a Canadian production company, QE Productions. Over the next few weeks and a several long telephone conversations I learned that he and QE Productions’ executive producer, Randolph Paul Kelman, were looking to create a unique travel series. They had a concept and idea, but they were lacking a host, or character, who could help them realize their vision for a new travel documentary television show.

Pan shares the story of how they came to find and decide up on me in a recent blog post. Or, if you want to watch a cool, quick video of the team’s first trip to meet me, watch this.

QE-production-crewFor me, it didn’t take long to agree to explore the possibilities with Pan and QE Productions. It was clear that we both wanted to create something great: a program that would allow me to immerse and connect with people and their cultures without the overhead of an in-your-face film crew; a program that would be shot cinematically, yet still have the rawness of an adventure into the unknown; a program that would allow us to beyond borders and deeper into exotic locales beyond the usual tourist zones; a program that would change the way we look at travel on the television or computer screen.

Key to the new program will be my motorcycle, Doc, of course. The motorcycle is character in our new show. It allows me to travel where and when I want. Plus, the motorcycle is the perfect metaphor for how we should all travel: to be open and to let yourself experience a place using all your senses: see, hear, feel, touch, and small. For me, the motorcycle opens the world, me and the audience to the possibilities and the connections I will make. Also, true to my original journey, I will most always be with camera in hand, capturing the world through my lens, while Pan and the production crew will capture the entire interaction and experience through its lens.

To make this show work, I knew I’d have to connect with the crew. So, we’ve spent many days together as they traveled from Canada and stayed with me at my home in California. We’ve cooked together, spent hours laughing and strategizing. Our conversations continued as walked the beach; brainstorming and sharing ideas. We talked enough about technology, music and photography and production gear that would make any geek jealous or put most others to sleep.

We unrolled maps of China over my dining table while Dar, my ever present feline friend, walked across the map spanning the 22 provinces and 7 provincial-ties, or regions. We pored over guide books, Chinese language websites and the occasional blog post of recent travelers through China, searching for unique places far off the beaten track that might interest viewers and give me a chance to connect and tell revealing stories of the people and their culture.

We mapped several routes, considering contingencies as the Chinese government must approve and know where we will be traveling. In a short few days we were like buddies preparing for a new adventure. This one where we together aim to create a new travel show that will disrupt the genre, inspire viewers, and let audiences ride along and connect with the people and culture along the way.

For the pilot episode, I will spend the more than a month with these guys—most about half my age. As I travel I will be alone and riding at my whim, as always. They will try not to get in my way, yet when it comes to the incredible landscapes, fascinating faces, and curious culture of China, together we will cast our lenses, creatively capturing the the colors, textures, and sounds of the environment–the experience—so we can share it with our future audience-—and you!

In short, it’s serendipitous that Pan (producer, co-director), Izaiah (co-director and director of photography), Jamie (sound designer and recordist), Paul (executive producer), and I have connected. This is one of those cases where I know “it was meant to be.” We all get it. Our goals and vision for this show are in perfect alignment, harmony. I can feel it. We are going to create something great.

FORKS-Allan-Karl-ADVmoto-39The premise of the show is simple, positive, and intriguing. Plus, it picks up, in many ways, where my book FORKS left off: After significant changes in my life at home, I take off on my motorcycle to explore the world. I aim to learn more about the world and its humanity. Always curious and I am eager to connect with people and understand what brings them joy, what makes them happy, and where do they find purpose in their lives. I earn their trust and capture their essence and culture through the lens of my camera. From the most remote settlements to the busiest cites, I connect with people, often over food or by helping or participating in those things that give them purpose or bring them joy: fishing, farming, arts, entertainment, sports, public service and so much more. It’s making these connections with people and their humanity that bring me joy, and, in many ways, by giving them a global stage from where they can share their story, I happen upon my own purpose.

Each one-hour episode takes place in a different country. I will explore that country from border to border, in just thirty days and with limited resources–perhaps just $1,000 for the month. We start with the pilot in China and hope to take the show to Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bolivia, Greece, Macedonia and beyond.

As I bang out these words, my motorcycle, Doc, is on a boat heading to China. Next month we’ll all meet in China and begin the adventure. I’ll be blogging here as I travel, as well as posting updates on TwitterFacebook and Instagram, when possible.

I am overwhelmed with excitement, and of course, the possibilities!

What do you think about this new show? What would you like to see?

 

QE Productions & Allan Karl