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May 09, 2005

Motorcycle Madness (or, The Fantastic Voyage)

aka: The Longest Blog Entry Ever
Photos from my motorcycle journey can be found here.

Alright, well, I've kept the whole thing under wraps until now to prevent all of you from worrying too much, but it's time to come clean: I've purchased and have been gleefully riding a motorcycle for the past month here in Xinjiang. And not some wussy bike either! A full-fledged, testosterone-powered hog. (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration.) Not only that, but I've just completed a journey so fraught with peril, so immense in its scope, so mind-blowing, so beyond the limits of sensibility that you're bound to come to the conclusion that I'm either an utter fool or some kind of super-man.

In short, I've just returned from a 2,300 km roundtrip motorcycle journey that began in the cosmopolitan comfort of Korla, took me across the vast sands of the Taklamakan Desert, and down into the remote southern regions of Xinjiang, namely the Uyghur city of Hotan (Hetian). Along the way I suffered two sandstorms, three worrying mechanical breakdowns, and four run-ins with the jincha (that is...the cops, police, fuzz, or whatever you call 'em). I'm proud to report, however, that despite having worked up a decent sunburn, I survived the trip and came out a stronger man. Whatever doesn't kill you...right?

Day 1
I ended up leaving Korla a couple of hours later than I had hoped, mainly due to the fact that I hadn't counted on the time it would take to tie up some loose ends: filling-up on gas, bungeeing my bags to the bike, buying a map. I also noticed that the motorcycle's left foot-support was wiggling around a bit, which didn't seem like a big deal at the time, although I did take a few minutes to tighten up a loose screw. So, at around 6pm Beijing Time (4pm Xinjiang Time) I set off westward towards my first stop, Luntai, the northern terminus of the Cross-Desert Highway.

It became clear fairly quickly that my initial estimates of the speeds I could achieve and the distance I could cover were wildly optimistic. I had been figuring on averaging somewhere between 80 and 90 km/hr, but I actually crawled along somewhere near 65 km/hr (about 40 mph), reaching the outskirts of Luntai around 10pm. About 10km outside of town, however, the first of many mechanical problems brought my progress to a halt as the available light quickly faded. It seems that I hadn't quite tightened that left foot-support screw enough, and to my surprise the constant vibration of driving had dislodged the screw completely...lost somewhere in the previous 180km. What I was left with was a dangling, swinging foot-support, which in itself wouldn't have been a big problem except for the fact that I could no longer shift gears (yes, I've finally learned to use a clutch).

Determined to get some dinner and a good night's sleep in Luntai, I pulled off the road in front of some single-room Uyghur houses to try to figure out how I could patch things up enough to keep moving. While curious Uyghurs peeked out through their doors, I looked for something that could hold things together just long enough to get to a gas station, finally settling on the only thing available to me: a small stick. By wedging the stick into the hole where the screw had been, I was able to start up and shift into first and then second gear, at which point the stick broke. That wasn't a problem, however, as I found a service station just a few minutes down the road.

With a bit of luck, I found out that a Uyghur mechanic lived right behind the station, and that he just happened to have the screw I needed on hand. Thirty minutes later, I was riding into Luntai, where I ate a dinner of beef noodle soup. After a short visit in my room from the curious local police, I quickly fell asleep.

Day 2
Having arrived later than planned the previous evening, I woke up late (at around 8:30am Beijing Time) on the second day of my journey. After a freezing shower (although the hotel had said it had 24-hour hot water) and a quick bite to eat, I was strapping down my gear as an SUV full of police pulled up next to me. I played it cool, and although they looked me over thoroughly it seems that they were in search of breakfast rather than some crazy, motorcycling laowai (foreigner). Not wishing to press my luck, I high-tailed it out of Luntai before the cops could come back.

You'd think that finding the Cross-Desert Highway would be easy from the city at which it begins, but hey, I can't really read Chinese and there aren't exactly any road signs with me in mind. Heading in the general direction of the highway, I came across a group of Uyghur men waiting for passing motorists to give them a lift to the edge of the Taklamakan, where they would be picked up for manual labor jobs out in the desert. I asked (well, more gestured) if someone could guide me to the highway, and as my motorcycle has room for two, a young man jumped onto the back and pointed me in the right direction. Twenty minutes later, I was happy to be at the beginning of the 600km long road across the desert, and my Uyghur buddy was happy to be one step closer to a day's work. At 11am, I was once again later than I would have liked, but nonetheless happy to be turning south into the sands of the desert.

For the first 100km from the point where the Cross-Desert Highway begins near Luntai, the desert isn't quite as impressive as what you see in the tourist books. It reminded me of the Kalahari desert I'd seen in The Gods Must Be Crazy(a favorite childhood film of mine)...certainly dry, sandy, and generally hostile to living creatures, but not the endless dunes I'd expected. And then, suddenly, you're in an ocean of sand as far as the eye can see.

I'd never been to a desert desert before, the sort of place you picture when someone says “Lawrence of Arabia”. The American West is certainly dry, but it's nothing like the endless dunes of the Taklamakan Desert. Unfortunately for driving conditions, there was a bit of a wind that first day in the desert, and things were not as clear as they could have been. Nevertheless, I stopped often to take photos and explore, with the result being that I was once again traveling much slower than I'd planned. My original plan, to leave Luntai at 6am and make it to Niya (Minfeng), on the other side of the desert by nightfall, began to seem out of reach.There's only one place in the desert to buy gasoline and sleep for the night...a refuge for truckers, oil workers, and prostitutes called Tazhong, which literally means “middle of the Taklamakan”. Reaching there around 6pm, I decided that there was no way I was going to make it another 230 km to Niya (Minfeng) before dark, and found a sparse ¥30/night ($3.50) room, where I had the best night's sleep in months.

Day 3
Waking up at dawn, I looked out of a small window and was happy to see that the desert had calmed considerably since the day before. After splashing some water on my face and brushing my teeth, I fired up the motorcycle and headed south into the brisk morning air.

Only an hour or so after I'd started driving, I noticed some figures up ahead on a sand dune off to my right. They were certainly larger than most Chinese, and their hair was too light in color for them to possibly be Uyghurs. There was only one other conclusion that I could think of, and the convoy of SUVs parked by the side of the road confirmed my suspicions: laowai! Scrambling up the side of a dune to see who these strange creatures were, I found a group of Austrian biologists who had spent the previous week in Nanjing attending a conference. They had flown into Urumqi two days before to meet their tour guides, were driving through the desert, and would fly back to Urumqi from Hotan the next day. While I certainly envied the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles, I did get a certain amount of satisfaction from telling them how much more hardcore I was than them...hah! My solo drive across the Taklamakan must have at least made them envious, or so I like to think.

Anyway, while the desert is really beautiful, the endlessly repetitive landscape really makes you want to reach the other side, if just to see something different. Perhaps a small river, some grass, animals...whatever. I was driving like the wind, anticipating perhaps and hour more of sand, when my rear wheel started to make an awful noise. A loud click every couple seconds was accompanied by the whirring sound of metal on metal...not comforting at all out in the middle of nowhere. I began to worry that my wheel would fly off at 80 km/hr, or that the friction would cause some sort of irreparable meltdown. After peering under the bike for 15 minutes or so and spinning the wheel with my hand (click, click...hrmmm), I was no closer to understanding the nature of the problem. It seemed to come from somewhere inside the wheel, beyond my prying eyes and certainly beyond my miniscule knowledge of motorcycle mechanics. Left with the choice of withering like a raisin in the desert or hopping on the bike and tempting fate, I got on and kept moving.

The clicking and whirring continued for a while, and then all of the sudden the problem seemed to have self-corrected. Of course, any problem that doesn't seem like it should correct itself - and then does - doesn't quite leave you satisfied that things are hunky-dory. But I had places to see and things to do, and little time for worrying.

Two hours later than expected (the last 30km of the Cross-Desert “Highway” is actually a bumpy dirt road), I was eating the best bamian I've ever had for lunch in Niya's Uyghur bazaar. I was tired, satisfied at having made it out of the desert alive, and tempted to find lodging for the night. But Niya is still 300km east of Hotan (Hetian), and the prospect of another complete day of driving wasn't appealing to me. Keriya (Yutian) is 120km west of Niya, and I decided after lunch that I would make it that evening's target destination.

A few hours later I'd made it to Keriya, found even cheaper (and cleaner!) lodgings than the night before (¥25, or $3.00). I ate perhaps the worst Sichuan meal I've ever had, quickly typed up the previous entry on this blog at an Internet cafe, and went to sleep.

Day 4
Immediately after setting off the next morning towards Hotan (Hetian), things started looking up. The road west of Keriya was markedly newer and smoother than any road I'd been on since Korla, and driving at or above 80 km/hr didn't produce an uncomfortable level of vibration. In addition, the highway began passing through some beautiful Uyghur communities with green farms and interesting mud brick architecture. I imagined that Uyghurs had been living in dwellings like these for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Things turned exciting, however, when I was waved over to the side of the road by the police at a road block. They asked for my license, and not having one, I decided to play stupid. I gave the officer my passport and New Jersey driver's license (big hair!) like it was standard procedure (you gotta keep a cool face). Confused, he took a look at my visa, took a look at my license, and handed them back to me. I'm not sure if he didn't know what to do, or if he just didn't want to make his life complicated, but he certainly surprised me by waving me on! Phew! By 1:30pm, I was passing over the almost completely dry White Jade River, the eastern border of the city of Hotan. In the shallow pools of water that remained below the main bridge, dozens upon dozens of Uyghur little boys swam naked to escape from the heat.

Let me make it clear at this point that, although Hotan was the destination of my journey, it wasn't the point of my journey. The point of my journey was to do and see things I'd never done and seen before. Also, and please correct me if you have any information to the contrary, I believe that the trip makes me the first foreigner to ever have driven across the Taklamakan...certainly the first to do it alone on a motorcycle. That having been said, my first impression upon finally reaching Hotan was that the place is not that unlike many other Uyghur cities in Xinjiang.

After finding a swank hotel (¥160/night, or about $20) and taking my first hot shower in days, I hopped back on the bike in search of lunch. I stopped to eat some kebabs and a nan bread, and upon receiving my meal discovered something horrible! Unlike northern Xinjiang's kebabs, the ones in Hotan are not covered in delicious spices. In fact, the ones I was eating seemed to have been marinated in some sort of citrus juice. I knew at that moment that I'd come a long way.

My plan for the afternoon was to visit some of the workshops where Hotan's famous carpets and silks are made. By using the Uyghur word for carpet factory (gillam karakhana), I was able to get pointed in the right direction towards an area outside of town, back across the river. Much to my surprise – as my Uyghur language skills are almost nonexistent – I found the factory without a problem.

I was not only surprised at the beauty of the carpets I saw being made in Hotan, but also at the awesome size of some of them: as big as 25 feet across and perhaps 50 feet long. These carpets are said to be the finest made in Central Asia. Working from patterns posted on the wall, teams of approximately seven women wove each individual colored bit of yarn into a backing layer. Perhaps twenty teams were working at a time on the massive looms, and they were more than happy to let me photograph them and their handiwork.

Another 10km down the road was a small factory where atlas silk was being produced. Atlas silk, which is tie-dyed before being woven in a difficult process, is particularly popular with the women and girls of southern Xinjiang. The material creates bold, colorful, shimmering dresses that pop-out at you against the drab, sand-colored background of the desert. I was able to see every process of the silk's weaving: the boiling of silk-worm cocoons; the extraction of single, almost invisible threads from the cocoons; their combination into a heavier, white thread; the tie-dying of small clumps of this thread; and, under the swift hands of a Uyghur master-craftsman, their final combination into the distinctively-patterned silk cloth.

On the way back to Hotan, I took a side road that led to the bed of the White Jade River, hoping to maybe find a piece myself. It quickly became apparent that finding jade takes a little know-how and a whole lot of back-breaking labor. The men who I saw digging pits deep into the dry river bed were a rough, but friendly, group. They certainly don't have much in the way of physical comfort while they work: I saw one man take the shovel he'd just been digging with, dip it into a muddy puddle of water at the bottom of his pit, and lift it to his lips to drink. Forget about me. That's hardcore!

Back in Hotan, I parked around the corner from Renmin Guanchang (People's Square), and decided to take a look around. The first thing I noticed was the massive statue of Mao Zedong shaking an old Uyghur man's hand...an image you might be familiar with from my Korla, Vol. 2 images. I'd seen a similar statue in Keriya (Yutian), but this one was far bigger. This fact also brought into focus the fact that, at least in southern Xinjiang, the farther you get from Beijing the bigger the tributes to Mao get. Niya (Minfeng), has a simple pillar in the center of town adorned with a profile of Mao and one of his famous sayings. Keriya (Yutian), 120km to the west, has a decent-sized statue of Mao shaking the old Uyghur man's hand. Hotan (Hetian), another 180km west, has a much bigger, and shinier statue of the same handshake. Kashgar (Kashi), 500km northwest of Hotan, has China's second largest statue of Mao, which you can see in my Kasghar gallery. Makes you think...hrmmmmm.

Anyway, I went to grab some zhuafan for dinner at an excellent Uyghur restaurant around the corner, and came back to find a big Uyghur song-and-dance show just getting under way in the square. I'd seen these sorts of spectacles on XJTV (Xinjiang TV) before, but watching live in person was a thrill. Impressive Uyghur, Tajik, and Kazakh-themed group dances were interspersed with pop singers and stand-up comics. There's something infectious about the beats of Central Asia. (Ali G's Borat theme-music is played in night clubs here.) A crowd of a few thousand crowded around a stage set up at the base of the Mao statue. When everything ended just before midnight, I headed back to my hotel and went to sleep.

Day 5
I decided that I didn't want to push myself too hard on Day 5, as I'd start the return trip back to Korla the next day. I spent the hours before lunch browsing through the line of jade shops across from People's Square...there literally must be 30 shops in a row. Besides checking out the wares under the glass counter, you can also see jade carving going on in the back of many shops. They really do some beautiful work, and I couldn't resist buying something for my sister and some souvenirs for friends back in the USA.

After lunch, I decided to try to find the ancient city of Melikawat, located about 30km south of Hotan. It wasn't quite as easy as finding the carpet factory, and in the end I had to pay a cab to let me follow him on my motorcycle. It was tough keeping up with the cabbie as he rocketed at breakneck speeds down dirt roads and through busy bazaars, but I made it in the end. Well, not exactly. See, I made it to a point across the river from Melikawat where the cab could no longer get any closer. The driver told me to just drive across the wooden bridge, then across the river bed, and I'd be at the site. However, about 30 seconds into my trip across the river bed, my bike stalled. Not only that, but I couldn't get it started up again. No way, no how. Brrap, brrap, brrap, brrap...nothing. I got so worried about the status of my motorcycle that I gave up on the idea of visiting Melikawat (less than 1km away), paid two Uyghur boys ¥1 to give me a push, and didn't stop 'til I arrived at a motorcycle repair shop back in Hotan. Thankfully, they were so happy to have their first-ever foreigner stop by that they patched things up for free!

Day 6
Wanting to make the trip back to Korla in two full days, rather than the half-day, two full days, and another half-day that it took me to get there, I pushed hard on Day 6 to get from Hotan to Tazhong. That's about 550km, which is pretty f'in' tough on a motorcycle. To make matters worse, as soon as I got past Keriya (Yutian), I ran into the biggest, baddest sandstorm I've ever seen. It felt at times as if my skin would be ripped off by the wind-driven sand, and that wasn't even the worst part!

Sand is really like a million little, tiny rocks...and the visor of my helmet is made from some crappy plastic that wasn't made to stand up to threats like that. Over the four hours or so that it took me to get from Keriya to Niya (Minfeng), the constant scratching of sand gave my visor a sort-of frosted glass look. I really couldn't see anything, and rather than risk my life any more than I already had been, I decided to break the visor off with my foot and put on my Ray-Bans. This did wonders to improve visibility, but my face was now fully exposed to the ravages of the sandstorm. To make a long (and painful and tiring) story short, I arrived at Tazhong at around 9pm. Cleaning the sand out of my hair and ears - and cleaning the sandy mud out of my nose, eyes, and mouth - took about 30 minutes. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the sand out of my camera...so if you wanna be smart, don't take photos in a sandstorm! Completely exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.

Day 7
I awoke on the last day of my journey to find that the previous day's sandstorm had completely disappeared, like it had never existed. The sky was blue, and the sands were completely settled. This was actually the first time in four days of desert driving that I'd seen a perfectly blue sky.

At 7pm, I arrived back in Korla dirty, exhausted, but feeling "very man", as a certain Mr. Han here in Korla likes to say. I was so tired of riding my motorcycle that I didn't start it up again for three days, preferring to take a bus or taxi. I've come to one conclusion about motorcycle travel: it may be manly, but it's really tough and I think I'd prefer cruising around in the comfort of my own SUV. THE END.


posted May 09, 2005 at 02:24 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | HaoHao This!


Wow, I've always wanted to to something like that. That is hands down one of the coolest things I've read ever!

The comment above was posted by Max at May 11, 2005 12:25 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Man, I always wanted to buy a motorcycle here and do just that... unfortunately it never happened. Rock on!

The comment above was posted by davesgonechina at May 11, 2005 05:37 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Wow, what a trip. Now I am very clear why I have never taken a motercycle trip through the desert in a sandstorm. Better you than me.

Great writing, also.

Did you get the camera back in working order, or was it sacrificed to the gods of the desert.


The comment above was posted by Norm at May 11, 2005 10:36 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Well, I guess those motorcycle trips I took you on when you were an infant have come back to haunt us all! I still remember when the cop in Oakland pulled us over and gave me an earful for having you on the bike. Yeeeesh!

The comment above was posted by dad at May 12, 2005 11:30 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Can you explain what limited you to speeds of 60 km/h? Was it the traffic, visibility, speed limits(?), the power of the bike? Can I ask how much your little suzuki cost?

The comment above was posted by Aaron at May 12, 2005 12:24 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Well, my bike may look like it's got some power, but it's still only 150cc's. That's probably about the power of some top-notch lawnmowers back in the US. And although my helmet is made my Suzuki, my bike is made by Yinxiang, in the city of Chongqing. It cost me 5,000rmb, or just over $600.

The comment above was posted by manning at May 12, 2005 04:27 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Wow! What a great adventure. I'm at work so I had to stop at day 4. Can't wait to continue on. Love your sense of adventure and your writing. Glad your dad forwarded your blog entry - stay safe & happy.....love, your cousin Susie

The comment above was posted by Susan Bora at May 12, 2005 10:26 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

I am highly jealous of your motorcycle adventure. My scooter is also 150cc! Though I lack a giant foreign desert to ride it across, I would do it in a second.

The comment above was posted by Mike at May 13, 2005 03:35 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Hey Michael, your dad sent me your story, I am a friend and resident of Lafayette Morehouse. I was thouroughly entertained by your honest, straight forward and laugh out loud funny writing. I related to your story. Of course I do think that you are a bit insane...I know your dad and see where you might have acquired similar traits! When I travel, I also travel on "a wing and a prayer", some friends say. It is a general trust of the universe that things eventually turn out in your favor...so why waste moments worrying? Right on! Great way of viewing the world! Thanks for sharing your experiences...I would like to hear more about any hot Chinese women that you might have "come across", so to speak...(maybe another story) I traveled Europe during the summer of 1991 by myself with little money and bags of balloon animal balloons...My journal is called, Ballooning Through Europe...Take care, man. Have fun, and I look forward to reading more.

The comment above was posted by michael goldstein at May 13, 2005 03:49 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

shalom mike. you have some unbelievable survival skills i must say (and communication skills), to master a road trip like that. you are real man. how's the food? the chinese desert ladies? can't wait to see the photos. and rememeber to send me an email when you get to the next internet connection.

The comment above was posted by avi at May 13, 2005 07:38 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Hi Micheal
It sounds like you had one of those few in a lifetime experiences.
It was fun reading your journal. It brough back memories of my round the world . How do you like teaching over there.
Keep on doing outrageous things when they appear, for the time passes fast. Please keep us up to date on your wild adventures

The comment above was posted by dave Stewart at May 18, 2005 08:55 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Well now I know who to consult if I ever plan on taking an insane journey through the desert. Too bad about not getting to see that ancient city.

The comment above was posted by CPH at May 19, 2005 11:08 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Dear Michael,
That is SO cool~! Now i have something even more amazing to brag about than my brother just living in China. Big whoop. I hear you bought something for me.... Oh Michael i promise i deserve this jewelry sooooooooo much.

LoVe xoxoxox

The comment above was posted by Lauren at May 22, 2005 11:39 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Well Michael, as your mother, I feel a responisibility to comment on your recent motorcycle trip. While i am glad that you had fun, and had some mishaps that ended happily, it sounded like what you chose to do was frought with danger. You could have broken down in the middle of nowhere and died a terrible and painful death of dehydration. You could have been knifed at the truck stop/ brothel, by a drunk nutcase. God knows what else!I'm glad you're okay, and having adventures.Love, mom

The comment above was posted by Mom at May 22, 2005 11:45 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Hi Michael! Your dad sent us the link to this site, and we've enjoyed seeing what you've been up to. Wow, was this trip ever an adventure -- very fun to read about. (What's next???) Hope we get a chance to see you when you return -- you have some good Mark Group fodder! Best, Lynne @ NY More.

The comment above was posted by Lynne Goodman at June 2, 2005 03:12 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

What an incredible undertaking you chose! Riding through dirt roads is taxing enough, what more through the desert? I admire your bravery. As a fellow biker and motorcycle enthusiast , I salute you and your cojones of granite!

The comment above was posted by Rufus at October 5, 2005 06:36 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

You people should check out this website sometime...
free government grants

The comment above was posted by government grants at April 25, 2006 11:30 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

What an excellent website and story about this ride....I left my motorcycle behind in WA but you've inspired me to pick up one and ride out to visit you from Shenzhen :)

I definitely plan on linking to your site from ours, take care....

The comment above was posted by Des Koval at May 7, 2006 05:16 AM unofficial Xinjiang time.

Hey, my buddy and I rode Chinese motorbikes from Kashgar to Hotan then to Urumqi last month, would be interesting to exchange stories, send me email to dedyaga (at) yahoo (dot) com :)


The comment above was posted by Michael at August 1, 2006 01:30 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.

I am also proud you, Michael.
Your dad ?
Good luck with your new trip!

The comment above was posted by CHEN YU RONG at October 10, 2006 09:08 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.


Good stuff. I read your site often.

I'm teaching up in Hami and may motorbike Xinjiang this summer... did you need a special motorbiking license to do the province (and if so, what docs did you have to present to get it)?



The comment above was posted by Damion at April 3, 2007 01:15 PM unofficial Xinjiang time.