By Roberta Strickler
A dozen men from central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland flew 14 hours to China in late September of 2008. They left their own motorcycles at home and borrowed demonstration cycles, courtesy of the Harley Davidson Corporation, from their dealer in Beijing.
After arriving in Beijing they took a high speed (120 mph) rail to Ji Nan, picked up demo Harleys and began a ride to 8 other cities, most of them in Shandong province (see www.travelShandong.com for a map and itinerary).
Shandong province is to China as central Pennsylvania is to the United States in geographic location, according to Jeff Ji. Shandong lies between Beijing and Shanghai, much like the York/Lancaster area sits between New York City and Washington D.C. on the east coast, said Ji, who founded a computer technology company that does business in the China and the U.S. However, Shandong province holds 93 million people, one-third of the population of the U.S., he said.
"Harley-Davidson is a lifestyle there as it is here. It's much more than a motorcycle."
The men ranged in age from late 40s to late 60s, according to Wayne Block, former owner of Block Business Systems in central Pennsylvania. Born Boomers, each one of the travelers jumped at the chance to take on a bigger-than-any-one -continent adventure. "The 12 slots filled very quickly," said Block. Most of the 12 men had owned small businesses or were retired corporate executives.
"Only a Boomer is old enough and secure enough within himself to handle the public relations aspects of this kind of a motorcycle/lifestyle tour in China," said John Spittle, a financial consultant from York. "It was full of ceremonies, motorcades and absolutely exquisite food - an adventure on many levels."
Not easily afforded, the trip cost each person about $4,000 plus airfare, according to Spittle. Many meals involved ceremonies and welcoming events so that meals and some hotels were complimentary.
Celebrity status rode with them every day for nearly two weeks, said Spittle. "The main drag is 12 lanes wide and is absolutely empty except for these dozen guys on motorcycles," he said. "At each county line, one group of county officers would drop off and another group would join us. There might be 200 to 300 policemen at major intersections. Their police motorcycles are tiny little things. A regular motorcycle in China is up to 150 ccs (engine capacity). Harleys are 1100 to 1800 ccs.
"Contact with Chinese people was maximized. It was a holiday week. Every time we would pull up to park, a crowd appeared" continued Spittle. Everybody has the latest camera technology in cell phones. Even though there is a big language difference, you signal them to come over and they are eager to have pictures taken with you, especially when you signal them to throw a leg over a motorcycle. We had national newspaper coverage."
Will they do this again? And when?
Paperwork, financial investment in the motorcycles and permitting and planning are intense, according to Block. He first got involved in November 2006 when 15 officials of the Chinese government-run tourism bureau visited the United States on a whirlwind tour of 15 locations in 15 days. "They came to see how we do things because they are eager to improve foreign tourism into China," said Block.
"My business partner, Jeff Ji, invited me to join him in hosting this group. In York, we had a little extra time so we took them on a tour of the Harley-Davidson plant. After that, at every opportunity their conversation returned to the motorcycles. They were interested in the manufacturing technology but they were intrigued with the Harley lifestyle.
"At that time I hadn't ridden in 30 years. But the Chinese revere their elders. I'm 60, gray-haired, so I fit that role very well. Soon I was the honorary chairman of Knighthawk Tours and on my way to China." He and Ji took a planning trip prior to the September 28 to October 7 trip with the group.
Fortunately, the Harley Davidson Corporation was amenable to supporting the endeavor by providing a motorcycle for each of the men during their stay. That was of great help to Knighthawk since the logistics of paperwork and transportation of motorcycles into China can be a time-consuming process, according to Ji.
In China everything moves on two - or three - wheels: mopeds, bicycles, hay wagons, tractors, one day they passed a camel on a local road, according to Spittle. Country roads are unpaved.
Drivers in China have been licensed for fewer than 10 years. (The Americans started their tour with a Chinese driver's education class to understand signs and rules.) Planning a pioneer trip of such scale takes a great deal of time and attention to detail, according to Block.
But Chinese-born Ji knows the way and he knows that tourism is of great importance to the Chinese government. He also knows that several women ride motorcycles and want to join in the adventure. Ji has his sights set on another Knighthawk tour to China as early as April 2009.
See www.KnightHawkTours.com for details, itinerary and logistics.
This story first appeared in "Boomers," a publication of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on December 28, 2008. The writer can be contacted at Roberta.Strickler@yahoo.com