Beginning from Here, No End
Words and pictures by Zhang Qiang
Before the National Holiday, I was informed that I would be interviewing a motorcycle group. After further contact with the organizer, I was surprised to find out that a group of Americans would be driving Harley Davidson bikes through Shandong. I was very excited at the name of Harley, and, immediately I thought of the cool image of Schwarzenegger riding a Harley bike in the film "The Terminator." This was the first time that Americans would come to China to ride their bikes.
Every man has a dream to own a motorcycle, a car, a tank, or a fighter jet and become a driver and machinist with excellent skills. I am not even good at driving a bicycle, but I just cannot resist the temptation of Harley bikes. Every man falls in love with its beautiful lines, nude steel parts, and the sounds of a loud exhaust.
Ride to Confucius
Jinan was the starting point of this trip. I hurried to the Shandong Hotel at 8:00am on Sep. 29, only to see that 13 new Harley bikes were waiting to be started.
There were 13 Americans coming to Shandong, 12 of whom drove bikes and a beautiful girl followed the group to do the auxiliary work. The riders' ages ranged from 50 to 70. I was worried that they would not be able to handle riding so many kilometers every day, and my expectation of seeing "Schwarzenegger" vanished. I began to imagine the four old funny riders in Wild Hogs.
At around 9:00 am the action began. Twelve cowboys and a representative from China Harley-Davidson drove their Harley bikes, starting from Shandong Hotel, on a journey through the province of Shandong. They first arrived at the Jinan International Convention Center to hold a brief opening ceremony, followed by a visit to Baotu Spring. Wherever the riders went, they never failed to gain 100% attention from passers-by and the local citizens, who would then approach them for a photo.
When the riders started their bikes after visiting the Spring, all the surrounding sounds were drowned out by the roars coming from the 13 Harley bikes. Standing among these bikes, I could feel the roar beat fiercely on me like heavy metal, with my heart in the danger of stopping from the excitement of it all. I felt an energetic impulse to fly out of the atmosphere.
After lunch, the riders drove to Furong Street to experience "a sea of faces." Because it was the first day of the national holiday, the densely populated Furong Street was occupied by almost 10 people per square meter. I wondered if the people were as bothered by the crowdedness of the street as I was. Saying goodbye to Jinan, the riders drove towards Qufu - the hometown of Confucius - to start the first stretch of the Shandong tour.
Knighthawk Tours (USA), was the organizer of this trip; the chief executive officer, Jeff Ji, is a Chinese American. According to Jeff, only three of the Americans who came to Shandong for this trip had ever visited China. As for the others, they anticipated their visit to China with much eagerness and anticipation, though they knew little about this great country, especially, Shandong. When the Americans were told that one destination of this trip was the hometown of Confucius, who had been known to most of them, they had planned to design one motorcycle to name after him. However, this plan was given up when they learned the bikes were to be provided by Harley Davidson, China.
The birth of this activity dates back to a visit in November, 2006. At that time, a Shandong delegation paid a visit to the USA, and through their contact with U-Combination Technology (USA) Inc., they came up with the idea to hold a Harley tour in Shandong. Back in China, the information center of Shandong Tourism Administration began organizing this activity while a group from the USA also came to China to explore the routes in Shandong. It was the first time that such an event was organized for American tourists to drive Harley bikes in China. For this reason, it was very tedious to complete the necessary inspection tour, receive approval for various procedures and coordinate with the many organizations involved. Fortunately, with much effort, this trip materialized and the 13 Harley riders had a chance to ride on the road from Jinan to Qufu.
The road was not very ideal. The riders, who had been used to driving on the highways in USA, had to adapt on the first day in Shandong to the new driving conditions. However, the police car, leading the way in the front drove so fast that the riders struggled to keep up with the speed of about 110 kilometers per hour (80 kilometers per hour is comparatively appropriate). The riders even drove through a dusty road that was under construction, and since most of them wore a helmet without face shield, the dust-filled route was definitely something that had not expected.
In the evening, the riders arrived in Qufu. On the first day of this trip, the riders had realized their dreams of driving to Confucius.
The Magic of Harley
On September 30, Harley riders left Qufu for Tai'an. When they passed through the dusty roads again, the journalists and the staff joked about these cowboys being "vacuum cleaners" who sucked all the dust from the road. They felt bad for the riders as they vacuumed the dust; but the Chinese saying that the "onlooker is clear-headed," was not always accurate because the cowboys were indeed enjoying themselves among the dust.
Some Netizens have described Harley bikes as being expensive heavy iron lumps, which can not run fast, are not easy to stop, usually go bad and have low configuration, operate poorly, and are dull. Although this comment might generally be true, Harley bikes are not being deserted because of these attributes. On the contrary, they attract more bike lovers. Rationality doesn't work here because Harley bikes are irresistibly magical.
One of the riders, Mr. Jeff Ji, told me a story about one of his friends and his wife who had come to an agreement before marriage. First, his Harley bike was to be placed in the kitchen in the winter, and his wife was not to complain; second, his wife was not to stop him for any reason from joining the 1-week Harley party that is held once a year.
Where is the magic of the Harley bike?
Mr. Jeff Ji told me that in the USA, Harley was the symbol of a lifestyle, which belonged to common people in the USA, but this is not something common to China. Even in the USA, Harley is not always a daily necessity, and it is not the most common transportation tool, but it is a toy that is specially designed for adults. This beautiful toy is suitable for collection as well as play, but above all, it has an unbeatable feeling when you ride. You can imagine that you are surrounded by the open wind on a vast plain, a country road, or the open highway, leaving others behind while sitting tight on Harley bike cruising at the speed of 80 kilometers per hour. Just as what Kerouac said: "because I have nothing, I am not afraid to lose."
This is freedom. Just like the cowboys passing through the western wilderness who experience dust, thirst, hunger and tiredness when they travel, Harley bikers also experience freedom.
Harley is the symbol of a lifestyle and culture. The Harley bikes that are produced in the factory can be customized to fit your personal wishes. It is rare to see two of the exact same Harley bikes in the USA. Loyal Harley fans can cover themselves from head to toe in Harley products because there are a lot to choose from, such as rings, cups, shoes, pants, jackets and even tattoos. It is said that if one collects all the products of Harley, he can open a department store.
On the morning of Oct. 1, the riders took a cable car to the summit of Mt. Tai. To their surprise, they found a very prosperous town (Sky Street) at the top of the mountain. However, there was a small setback as they headed down the mountain. The fattest rider, Robert Estill, was lost and all the people hurriedly looked for him. At last, we were told from the police on duty that he had already gone down the mountain to wait.
After lunch, the riders began the longest ride of this trip, leaving Tai'an for Weifang by way of Jinan and the bikes would get fueled in Jinan and Zibo. It was 7:00pm when the riders arrived in Weifang, therefore, the speed had to be reduced to about 40 kilometers per hour because of darkness. The riders could only keep their distance by following the taillight of the bike ahead, which made everyone nervous. Because they did not expect to drive at night, the riders only wore sunglasses, which drastically decreased visibility. When they arrived at the hotel, the riders sighed with emotion. It had been a real challenge, but they had survived this experience, as Harley riders in China.
Having experienced the adventure and thrill of driving at night, the riders had a very close touch with the folk culture in China on the second day (Oct. 2).
In the morning, the riders came to Yangjiabu, the folk and custom village and the art grand garden view, which created another sensation. The local tourists were not only interested in the Harley bikes, but also American bikers. Pretty girls enjoyed taking photos with John Schriver, because he is very handsome, and Nathan Richard, who was also very popular, maybe because he was very kind. The funniest was Robert Estill. While watching the land boat performance in the folk and custom village, he could not help putting on the props and getting into the land boat, which caused a roar of laughter among the audience. At that moment, both Arthur Ray and Frederick Harris stepped into the donkey costume to help entertain the group with Robert.
Besides the land boat, the riders learned the kite making process and viewed a collection of New Year pictures. In the workhouse, Robert curiously began to make the New Year pictures himself with instructions from an old qualified worker.
That afternoon, the riders arrived in Nanshan and Yantai. There, Arthur Ray became the most popular biker as many girls sat on his Harley to take photos with him. Apparently, his beard was very sexy. The handsome men attracted beautiful girls while Nanshan Buddha figures attracted cowboys. The riders showed great interest toward Nanshan Buddha figures and displayed a rare initiative to take many photos.
During the trip, Harley riders attracted many local motorcycle lovers and some passing motorcycle groups which followed them curiously down the road. In Tai'an, some bike lovers from China had come to the hotel to witness the motorcycle display and talk to the American riders. When the Harley riders reached Nanshan, they learned that a local motorcycle club had followed with great enthusiasm, all the way to their next destination.
That night, the riders were housed at the Moonbay Seascape Hotel. There was no welcome dinner and everyone was very relaxed. James, the team leader, was greathearted and drank wine with everyone. Robert, the fat laughing Buddha, embraced the director general of Shandong Police Administration, Mr. Sun Zongping, who called him brother again and again.
Break Down No Problem
On the morning of Oct. 3, the riders drove to Penglai from Nanshan. Not far away from Nanshan, the riders stopped to refuel. Unfortunately, one bike refuse to start up again. It is very common for vehicles to break down, which is also part of the Harley culture. Don't worry, the mechanic, David Lee Laugerman, took his turn to save the day.
"Harley Tour in Shandong" prepared 13 bikes, two of which had been transported to Qingdao from Weifang in advance to take part in the Qingdao dealers' opening ceremony. Although there were only a few riders, there was a clear division of labor among them. For example, James was the team leader, Frederick was in charge of safety, and David Lee Laugerman was the mechanic. During the trip, the riders were divided into two rows, forming a staggered pattern on the roads. The team leader drove in front to clear the way while Frederick drove in the rear of the formation to protect the other riders. The team leader would make gestures at the corner, road-blocks, traffic lights, gas stations, etc. and each rider would duplicate the signal one by one down the line.
The bikes were kept in order at a steady speed. Although the riders were very old, they had rich experience and were in excellent physical condition. When I asked them in Weifang whether they were tired, all of them replied with a sense of humor that they were not tired and that only young people get tired. Every time we reached a new destination, I was surprised to see that the men left no indication of exhaustion on their faces.
David Lee Laugerman was the most silent among the riders and never drank, which I appreciated. He came from York, Pennsylvania and has worked for Harley-Davidson for 35 years where he will continue to work. In 1949, his father opened a Harley specialty store, which was less than 1 kilometer from the Harley factory. Dave's store buys about 400 bikes every year. As for many men who dream to become a mechanic, Dave is a good example. He has collected about 10 Harley bikes that were produced before 1970, and is considered one of the five most skilled Harley mechanics around the world, and drives several thousand kilometers every week in the USA.
After a careful check, David Lee Laugerman found out the cause of the breakdown. It was a broken starter valve that prevented the engine from firing. At last, the broken bike had to be towed away because there were no spare parts to fix the problem.
Two persons were left to tow the broken bike while the others headed towards the next destination-Penglai.
As they approached Penglai, the weather worsened with brisk sea wind and dark clouds. The cowboys stayed in Penglai Pavilion for a short while before driving towards Yantai. At 3:00pm, they got to Yantai Eastern Emplacement, only to find that there were a great number of motorcycle lovers waiting for their arrival. Despite the dark sky, a wonderful lion dance, organized by the local tourism department, was performed on Eastern Emplacement, an area surrounded by two cannons, to welcome these American guests.
There Is No End to Travel
On Oct. 4, the trip was coming to an end, as they reached their final destination. In the morning, the riders drove from the hotel to visit Zhangyu Winery Museum. Haibin Road was so full of wedding cars that the riders had to weave through them. They were very excited to see so many brides and grooms. After visiting the winery, the riders drove to Qingdao, the last stop. They had lunch on the way and arrived there at 4:00pm.
When we reached our final destination, I found myself wishing that this tour wasn't over.
Regretfully, I had not gotten the chance to experience the feeling of riding on the bike for myself. Everyone was shocked by the freedom and ease, and filled with emotion as the procession of bikes left them behind. I was told that in the USA, tens, sometimes even thousands of bikes are frequently organized to travel down the highways. You can imagine how spectacular it is.
Mr. Jeff Ji has plans to continue running these tours, a unique project between Shandong and the USA. "There will be no problems attracting riders because more than 50 Harley lovers jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this tour. Since this was the first time to organize an activity like this, we could only choose about 10 experienced riders to join us. Many Americans dream of a chance to ride in China and even for these Americans riding in Shandong, they have been very excited and moved."
But it was difficult to plan this in such a short time." The general manager of Shandong Travel Service, another organizer for this activity, said: "I also intend to continue with this project and because the winter is coming, the next ride will be organized in April."
He also mentioned that the riders were too tired because they had to drive from one city to another in such a hurry. As a result, the guests had no time to rest and not enough time to visit and relax. He thought that it was better to change the riding mode, centering on one city and radiating the surrounding cities, so the riders could take short distance riding in the day and go back to central city to rest at night.
At night, in the bar on the second floor of hotel, American guests complained about the limited time and hoped to stop to enjoy the beauty in a more relaxed setting on the way. Just as Robert remarked that it would be better if they could stop occasionally to buy some apples and take photos with camels (all riders said they had seen a camel while passing Zibo, but actually, we didn't find any. Maybe it was illusion of theirs).
James, the team leader, said that from the angle of tourism, it would be more relaxing to stay at one hotel for two or three days. Surly, we could stay somewhere a longer time while somewhere a shorter time.
Arthur, who came from Washington, wore smiles all the time and told us that he loved children and kittens very much. He said that it was the dream of each Harley fan to ride in China someday, and while he had been to several places, this perfect trip was the most unforgettable and the most impressive of them all. Finally, Arthur was so happy that his eyes glistened with tears.
As for the size of the group, the riders thought that, in order to avoid the procession being interfered with by traffic lights and other unexpected incidents, it would be better if the number of bikes on the next trip was lowered to 10 with two team leaders and two persons in charge of safety respectively.
Another problem they discussed was that they preferred to chat more with the passersby while still enjoying the scenery. Just as James said, during the HOG event, there is a tradition where thousands of bikes got together to do three things more important than riding: eating, drinking and chatting. Besides just riding, HOG groups strengthen the exchange of communication with different people.
I had finally come to conclusion that the riders had a strong passion to learn about China's culture. They were just as curious to learn about us as we are about them. In addition to government and enterprise, civilian tourism is the best way to strengthen the communication between countries. With the development of globalization and increased travel opportunities, communication among countries will surely improve.