China: Keeping up with Indiana Jones

Text: Joe Berk • Photography: Joe Berk

Riding across China is a motorcycle adventure like no other. Our China journey includes the Tibetan Plateau’s frigid mountains and grassy plains, the Gobi Desert’s towering pale beige sand dunes, and the Central Basin’s sweltering heat and humidity. We cover it all on small displacement Zongshen motorcycles, sharing the road with goats, camels, cattle, people, and unbelievably dense city traffic. Exotic, forbidding, foreign, and magnificent, China is all this and more.

The Silk Road and More

When Zongshen asked if I wanted to join a group of riders on a 37-day trek across China last summer, my response was a quick and emphatic yes. With seven other Chinese motorcyclists (all Zongshen 250cc RX3 owners), and one other U.S. journalist, my good friend Joe Gresh, completing the party, our ride starts at Zongshen’s manufacturing campus in Chongqing (a city of 34 million people in the central Sichuan area) and heads west to Chengdu, another megacity centered in China’s panda country. From there, it’s northwest into the mountainous Tibetan Plateau where we ride at altitudes exceeding 14,000 feet. We push into Dun Huang and the Gobi Desert, and loop farther north before turning southeast into Islamic China. 

China’s Silk Road (today, the mighty G-30 expressway) takes us east as we parallel the westernmost reaches of China’s Great Wall. China’s interior serves up oppressive rain, heat, and humidity, which at first provides welcome relief from the frigid Tibetan Plateau. The rain is pervasive, but the silver linings are impressive rainbows and photo opportunities. The tunnels carving through China’s mountains are many miles long and, in some cases, it is raining when we enter the tunnels and the sun is shining when we exit. The little Zongshen motorcycles take us northeast to Beijing and then southeast to China’s east coast, where our ride ends in Qingdao. 

Our adventure includes 100-mile stretches of muddy trails (made worse by near-constant summer rains), dirt roads through ancient villages, Tibetan mountain twisties, densely trafficked megacities, alternating tunnels and bridges through rugged mountains, and modern expressways. On the Tibetan Plateau, the twisties are the best I’ve ridden anywhere. The challenge is fending off altitude sickness. China bans motorcycles in many major cities, and when we enter cities, it is very much us against them (with “them” being cars, trucks, and buses). The drill is to dodge and weave, stay on the horn, throw in a few cuss words, and hope for the best. 

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2018 back issue.