After riding 5,000 miles through the Western States on CSC’s RX3 mini ADV motorcycle I figured the gig was up for me: Motorcycle manufacturers are usually left unsatisfied and hollow feeling whenever I butcher a motorcycle review. On that ride the RX3s ran fine and had nothing else to prove. So who’d be crazy enough to foot the bill for another long distance 250cc ride?
It turns out Zongshen, the Big Daddy of Chinese motorcycle manufacturers and supplier to CSC motorcycles in California, was crazy enough. Zong fired a 40-day, 9000-kilometer (5600-mile) publicity-seeking missile directly into the heart of the Middle Kingdom that vaporized the standard paper-magazine road test. These guys are serious about changing your opinion of Zongshen motorcycle reliability. When the smoke cleared we rode more of China than the most hardcore Chinese motorcyclists will ever ride, visited more legendary archeological sites than an eighteenth-century British nobleman’s ne’er do well son and generally blew through as much of Zong’s money as possible until they tossed us out of the country.
History’s thin, ragged tear through time will record the early twenty-first century as the era when the American airline industry began its final descent. It’s a sad situation when a communist, government-operated airline’s economy class seating far exceeds our capitalist, free-enterprise first class passenger service. So I was well-fed, hopelessly compromised journalistically and as rested as could be after 15 hours in the air with CSC’s public relations sensei Joe Berk when we stepped out of the airplane into the welcoming embrace of Mr. Luo and Tracy, both employees of the Zongshen motorcycle company.
Mr. Luo walked us in ever-widening circles around the huge, glass-enclosed Guangzhou airport while Tracy admitted in passable English that neither of them knew where the heck their minivan was parked. Mr. Luo tied a lucky red ribbon on the bumper of the Buick minivan, took us to our luxury hotel and loaned us wads of Chinese money. My positive inclination towards Zongshen motorcycles grew into near zealotry. One of these days my travel-greed will land me in trouble, but until that time, my admiration for motorcycle manufacturers who invest in the literary arts will be both bountiful and heartfelt.
The Chinese venerate university professors, authors and military veterans – so Berk, who is all of these things, is quite a celebrity in Chinese motorcycle circles. We killed two days in Guangzhou honoring him with the local RX3 club, eating huge, 15-course meals and participating in tiny-table, spill-the-tea drinking rituals. Half the tea brewed is wasted, dumped through the varnished wood grate of a specially made tea tray. The pots and cups stand elevated above the ever-deepening swill while we stand knee-deep in gifts of clothing and food. Every Chinese person we met thought highly of us. It was downright embarrassing and proved excellent nourishment for our budding rock-star egos.
After many, many fetes we flew to Chongchen where we toured Zongshen’s modern research and development shop and saw a sweet-looking 400cc, EFI, liquid-cooled parallel twin stuffed into a furry-bearded hipster’s brat-style frame. We made a pass through the robotics section on the factory floor and saw blue-clad Zongshen workers fitting up motorcycles on torrential assembly lines. We probably covered 5% of Zongshen’s vast factory/employee housing complex situated in a park-like industrial setting. High in the surrounding hills, Zuo Zongshen, the founder of it all, is said to live.
Our departure from Chongchen was delayed a day while Zongshen finished building new RX1 models that will also be tested alongside the RX3. I hate to use a cliché but Factory Fresh is accurate in this case. These motorcycles rolled off the assembly line and onto the highway. The RX1 is the baby air-cooled 200cc version of the fire-breathing (compared to a 200cc) RX3 250 that everyone agrees is a great bike.
Along with us for the adventure were an assortment of Chinese riders selected by riding ability and social media savvy: Leen, Dong, Lou, Mr. Tzo, Won, King Kong, Fooshen and Mr. Zuo. It was an awesome group of riders. And I never call anyone awesome, preferring to save the word for descriptions of myself.
The RX3 has been such a hot seller that even the Zongshen factory was out of them, so I rode shotgun in a chase-cage for the first 400-kilometer day of our China motorcycle tour. Chinese cities seem to concentrate motorcycle dealerships into a kind of moto-ghetto. We went to one of these densely packed retail areas in the city of Chengdu. Situated among 20 different Chinese manufacturers and behind a guarded entryway, the Zongshen dealership there rolled out a thoroughly-thrashed test-mule with at least a zillion kilometers on the clock. I’m guessing it was one of the first RX3s off the production line because the controls were held on by leather wrapped oak, not the stainless steel hardware I’ve seen on the other CSC bikes I’ve ridden.
Rough as it was the beater ran better than any of my motorcycles in that it actually started and everything seemed to work ok. Our ride-along mechanic, Mr. Ma, was stoking the beater bike’s boiler when Joe Berk pulled aside Shawn, the tour leader, pointed towards me and said, “You know this guy works for one of the biggest online motorcycle sites in the USA. Is this really the bike you want him writing about?”
Within moments a shiny-new RX3 rolled out the door. Showing only two kilometers on the clock, my RX3 was like minty toothpaste taken with a squeeze of lime. It still had clear plastic covering the seat. The battery cells were unfilled with electrolyte. The chain glistened in a well-lubricated, come-hither way. As Jeff Karr used to say on Motorcyclist magazine’s Last Page, it had that new-club smell, and it was all mine.
With eight riders, a chase van, and a staff car to get rolling, these promotional rides are nothing at all like a Lone Horseman roaming the prairie. I usually avoid group riding because I want to roll the throttle to the stop and feel the wind tearing at my clothing. I like to ride till my knuckles begin to smoke, slowly at first then bursting into spectacular orange and green fireworks as my speed increases. I want to go so fast my skin peels away leaving a comet’s tail of internal organs streaking across the sky like a bucket of week-old egg-drop soup hurled from a third-floor pagoda.
Chinese motorcycle riders, it turns out, don’t dig that style of riding. No one caught fire. No one tossed egg-drop soup from a third-floor pagoda. In fact, we stopped more than we rode motorcycles. Chinese cities are jammed with horrendous traffic overflowing onto streets and sidewalks like water from a burst dam and in that environment the Chinese riders rode like wild men. Chinese riders use their motorcycles to get away from excitement, to distance themselves from the madding crowd. Once out of the city Chinese riders like to take it easy.
On a typical day we are up by 7am for a breakfast consisting of a sugary bowl of water, deep fried bread sticks and pork wrapped in dumplings. After breakfast and a few cigarettes we hit the road by 8 am. Two hours later we can be found sleeping soundly under a shade tree in a gas station parking lot. After the mid-morning nap we ride another 100 kilometers to the day’s lunch stop where we wait an hour or so for the two chase vehicles to catch up. Once the whole team is gathered together we commence to eat twenty or thirty different kinds of food then smoke cigarettes while our digestive systems break down the trillions of energy bits into dark, horizontal streaks of light that flash by in a senseless data stream made all the more insignificant because nothing stays around for very long. Finally we collapse onto the ground in a twitching, belching, food-induced coma.
By 3 pm we are on the road again racking up kilometers towards our late-afternoon napping point, usually some 300 kilometers distant from our planned destination. At the late-afternoon break the team focus is on ice cream, Oreo cookies, and Red Bull. Our traveling day ends well after dark, the riders exhausted and 10 pounds heavier, which slows them down (only a bit) at the evening meal.
The eating continues late into the night along with beer drinking, shouting and more cigarette smoking. Huge platters of entrees both sublime and grotesque swish past right to left on a glass, table-sized lazy susan. It’s a run-of-the-mill day for Chinese motorcyclists, and Berk and I are finding it hard to adapt mentally and gastrointestinally.
Escaping the millions of souls in the eastern cities we ride west onto the Tibetan Plateau. Ten thousand feet high, sparsely populated valleys ringed with mountains roll by; the napping part gets easier the higher we go. Golden Buddhist temples, shining symbols of spiritual wealth reflect honey-colored rays onto our shiny Zongshen motorcycles, themselves reflecting China’s newfound technological wealth. In the breakdown lane True Believers rhythmically prostrate themselves: walking a few steps forward, then lying prone on the ground in a devoted, planking-fealty appeasing a God unknown in Christendom. They rise and walk forward until the master inside of their heads sends them crashing to earth again.
Days of Buddhists, temples, eating and riding blur together. The 200cc/250cc adventure bikes descend the plateau. The scenery turns arid, looking like the American Southwest. I feel right at home. Except this is the Gobi Desert, land of rocket-shaped mosques and sleek bullet trains streaking over hundreds of kilometers of elevated concrete rail bed. For the first time on this ride our happy-go-lucky Chinese friends show signs of fear, not for themselves but for their two American charges. In the western desert things are not as carefree like the east side of China. Out here foreign tourists are rare and required to check in at the local police station.
We can only stay at government-approved hotels, usually damn nice ones that cost twice as much as the regular hotels. It feels oppressive and scary. “Leave your helmet on,” Zuo, our ride leader tells us. “Terrorists kidnap journalists here.” Berk and I give a nervous laugh and say, “Well, we should be safe then.” Zuo tells us, “Whatever happens don’t say anything or lift your face shield.” We Monty-Python our way into motels encircled by our Chinese brothers. They chatter and point, drawing attention away from the two helmeted aliens at the center of the scrum. “Stay away from the windows,” we are told as our Chinese amoeba divides and squirts Berk and I into our room. Creepy as it was, being thought of as real journalists was kind of cool. Hell, we were dangerous to somebody just by being alive.
Our riding buddies bring us take-out food (In China! Ha!) and after surviving unmolested through the night The Scrum hustles us out to our motorcycles to start another day. This cloak and dagger stuff gets old fast but I guess it beats having your head cut off because of a lousy Harley-Davidson review.
On the north side of the Tibetan Plateau elevations drop and temperatures rise. We ride east into hot and humid lands. We start to damp-rot, our asses chalk white from liberal doses of talcum powder. Berk and I swap a glutinous chest rumble back and forth as we swallow eight-dollar-per-fifty Chinese Amoxicillin. And still we ride. Every day, seven days a week the napping, eating and smoking continues. We ride to Terracotta Soldiers, Panda bears, Kung-Fu temples and modern mega-cities ringed by hundreds of canyon apartments. China’s human-energy is immense and overwhelming, producing five-hundred years of history in the last twenty years.
On a promotional trip like this, nobody rides for free. The little 200cc RX1s are paying the most, having rolled off the factory floor a day before we left and been pinned wide open since. The Chinese riders complain that the RX1 isn’t fast enough but the three 250cc RX3s on the ride never have to wait up for them. In China small displacement motorcycles rule the highways and the RX3 is a top of the line ride; you own the road with a RX3. Our group passes everything on the highway save for big, black BMW sedans.
The RX3’s are running fine, of course. My aftermarket Tourfellow top box had quick-release mounting issues from the pounding it took in the Gobi, but we managed to secure it using the original hardware in a slow-release configuration. My digital dash started fading out during a particularly hard rainstorm and displayed inconsistently afterwards. A couple of the RX1 riders broke their factory top boxes jumping the bikes and we had two flat tires, but mechanically the bikes held up amazingly well with all the motorcycles completing the distance.
Thirty days on the road without a break: Berk and I rebel. We will go no further. In what may be the only motojournalist rebellion in Chinese history, we tell Sean we are going on strike. The concept took some explaining. The idea of a day off, to ignore the itinerary, to disobey and be unproductive does not exist in the go-go-go free-market Chinese psyche.
But enough about Zongshen, who after all is only the financial muscle behind this motorcycle tour. Our ride ends much like it began, in the city of Quingdao being regaled and spoiled rotten by the local motorcycle club. We swim in the Yellow Sea, get soaked in a driving thunderstorm and drink misty-eyed toasts to each other over mountains of food. By god it’s the best time to be alive and no better people to be with because the real treasure of this long, long ride are our Chinese hosts and fellow riders. I enjoyed my time with them more than any motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.