China

Text: Doris Wiedemann • Photography: Doris Wiedemann

Delicate white lilac blooms and the rosy blush of peach tree blossoms herald the arrival of spring in Beijing. Some Chinese residents have helped me with the importation of my motorcycle into the country, and now my new friend Pai and I are strolling in the glorious garden of the New Summer Palace. After the long, cold winter I spent in Germany, the sun feels good and I am looking forward to the next three months of travel in China.

The space above the main entrance to The Forbidden City is dominated by a huge portrait of Mao Zedong, who victoriously proclaimed the dawn of the People's Republic of China there in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949.

In the small alleyways and traditional neighborhoods (hutongs) fanning out around this great center of power, there are endless diversions and attractions, and we join the many others gravitating toward the trendy atmosphere in the renovated pubs and cafes around Lake Houhai. Nearby areas, rundown in comparison, are slated soon for destruction. The phenomenal growth of China's economy has spawned a construction boom that is taking its toll on traditional architecture.

Wangfujing is a famous shopping street purveying international luxury brands, but I am only interested in finding maps of the 22 Chinese provinces. Traveling from Mongolia to Beijing, I realized that English maps are helpful for planning routes but almost useless on the road. Most Chinese cannot read city names written in English and I cannot pronounce them in Chinese. Therefore, unless I can show them the place names on a Chinese map, no one will be able to give me directions.

The next day, with Hebei province laid out on my tank bag, I follow Route G 106 south to Dezhou where I stay overnight at a cheap rooming house. A narrow stairway leads from the old inner courtyard to a gloomy room with a small, dirty skylight, a dusty TV and a rigid bed. For a bathroom I have two thermos bottles of water and an enameled bowl. The toilet is a red plastic bucket. Green as I am, I overpay, but feel partially compensated by the dinner invitation my host extends.

Heaven's Gates

In Shandong province I compare the characters on the map with those on the road signs to get to Tai Shan, the most famous of the five holy mountains of Chinese Taoism. To ask the god of the mountain for patronage, I begin climbing to the top, like uncounted pilgrims before me.

The path winds its way from the First Gate to Heaven through a landscape still trapped in winter's grasp to the Second Gate. Here one can ride the rest of the way on a cable car. Not knowing that most of the 6,000 steps to the summit still confronted me, I allow my sportive inclinations to bind me to the staircase instead.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2008 back issue.