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.



WongDoc before setting up for my China ride


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.


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.


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.

8 replies
  1. Tim Madigan
    Tim Madigan says:

    Hello Al,
    It was great to bump into you, a fellow biker, in Pingyao, Shanxi Province China last week. When I first saw you on the bike I said to myself that is not real, a Westerner on a big BMW bike cruising down a back street in China! I waved at you as you went by and you waived back so must be real! Then to actually meet you in person, the same guy who was on the bike, inside the Ancient chinese city and find out that you were on the bmw, well what are the odds of that happening?! I might have to ask that question in my statistics class when we cover the chapter on probability! I am in Taiwan now for a bit and it is easier to get to your website otherwise I would have contacted you earlier. Let me know if you get my message.

    • allan
      allan says:

      Tim, Great to meet you and sounds like a fascinating case study in probability! Have fun in Taiwan and enjoy Wufan (sp?) I’m winding my way south and looking for adventure and connection! Best!!!

  2. CD
    CD says:

    Driving through China without a license……..sounds like a trip papered with baksheesh.
    Good luck and safe driving.

    • allan
      allan says:

      Ha! Hey Derek—there’s little of that, but there’s always a bit of distractions and smokescreens that I can throw to the wind—hoping and pleading! 🙂

  3. George Walther
    George Walther says:

    Great “riding along,” Allan. I’ve been saying “This is Africa” since moving to Cape Town. Was all set to ship my Harley over for the great riding here, and fortunately discovered … fortunate because it was before the crating and shipping … exactly what you’ve discovered with your bike. South African bureaucrats won’t let me ride it here, and certainly not sell it when we move to Argentina next year.

    • allan
      allan says:

      So great to hear from you! China is not easy to navigate without some help. I find that Guangxi and Yunnan are some of the most beautiful places in China. Zhangjiajie, in Hunan is beautiful but you cannot ride your own vehicle inside the park.


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