An American Abroad

Enduro Madness

“Take your pants off,” said the pretty Thai woman standing in front of me. “Shirt and socks too.”

I don’t have much body modesty, but even so I hesitated for a few seconds before complying. When in Pattaya, do as the Pattayans do, right? So off came the Levis, the T-shirt, the socks, all the way down to my skivvies.

The woman dropped to a squat right in front of me, eye level with my JCPenney briefs. I was only a little miffed that she didn’t have the courtesy to check out my junk. Instead, with the practiced efficiency of a nurse, she strapped knee-and-shin protectors onto my legs. Riding pants were next, followed by a jersey, a back brace, and a complicated mesh jacket with armor at the spine, shoulders, elbows and forearms. She indicated to me to pull on thick wool socks and then fitted my feet into heavy boots with steel soles and toes and more armor around the ankles. She handed me gloves, googles, and a helmet and indicated that I was all set.

Wait, I thought. There’s a vital piece of anatomy unprotected here.

“Um,” I stammered, “a cup?”

The woman looked puzzled.

“You know. A cup,” I repeated stupidly, as if doing so might somehow bring forth a miracle of comprehension.

She stared at me blankly.

Obviously, English wasn’t going to get the message across, so I resorted to charades, reaching down and curving my hand protectively around my privates.

“Cup?” I repeated, hopefully.

The woman shook her head. “No need,” she said.

No need. OK. Did this mean that there is no possible chance of getting genitally maimed doing enduro? Or did it mean that, in her estimation, there was nothing there worth protecting?

As it turned out, like so many millions of guys before me, I was unduly worried about the wrong head.

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The woman repeated the dressing ritual with my fellow rider, a young Israeli named Yoab, who had recently completed his IDF service and was now vagabonding his way around Thailand. We were then led to our machines by our “instructor,” a thickset tattooed Thai guy who spoke no English.

I climbed onto a Kawasaki 250 with knobby tires and fired up the engine. It felt good to be astride a bike again after six months of pedestrian life. I had signed up for three hours of enduro riding with an outfitter appropriately named Enduro Madness. I was here:

With our “instructor” in the lead, we pulled out and rode down the streets of the outskirts of Pattaya. Our “instructor” demonstrated his prowess at popping a wheelie and maintaining it for a quarter mile down the road. Impressive, yes, but neither instructive nor reassuring.

Then, without so much as a warning, we veered off the road and onto a dirt path through some scrub flats near the seashore. This was my first-ever experience at riding off-road. We curved through the trail, which changed from hard dirt to light sand to deep sand. I was riding second, behind the “instructor.” I held onto the vain hope that we were going out to a meeting spot where our real training and practice would begin.

And after about 45 minutes of riding, we did pull into a clearing and stopped under a tree. I had been pretty tense, doing this kind of riding with absolutely no instruction, but now I relaxed. I had made it clear, in words and writing, that I had no experience whatsoever with off-road riding. Yoab was just as inexperienced as I. Now, I thought, we would finally be taught some of the dos and don’ts.

But this did not occur. After about five minutes, the “instructor” went to mount up again.

“Wait,” I called out. “It would be nice if we could get some instruction here. I mean, this is my first time doing this.”

Yoab seconded my motion, which I then reinforced with gestures that I hoped showed my puzzlement at how to ride.

The “instructor” came over to me and indicated that I should sit forward more, keep my knees hugging the gas tank, and keep my elbows out slightly. That was it. Nothing about gearing, breaking, turning, balancing, or anything else. Oh, but as we took off again, the “instructor” did pop another wheelie, just to make sure we knew how cool he was.

For the first two hours, I was very tense, but did OK. We tackled some gulches and hillocks. I knew enough to understand that speed was my friend on these obstacles, and the torquey little Kawa responded well. Jumping over those obstacles felt a lot like horseback jumping, something I haven’t done in decades but apparently still have muscle memory of. It seemed impossible that I would get through some of the gulches, but I goosed the throttle and flew. What a kick.

Far less of a kick, though, was turning. I’d never done much turning on dirt or loose gravel before and had always gone out of my way to avoid it. Each time I felt the Kawa break traction, my body would involuntarily tense up all over, prompting me to tell myself out loud to relax. Deep sand was the worst. Knowing nothing about how much to rev the engine, what gear to be in, or anything else for that matter, I stalled out a few times and had to rock the bike back and forward to get moving again.

We rode along a beach, where the knobby tires did a good job on the wet sand, and then curved around to slightly higher ground where there was a settlement of sorts. There I saw a black village and the cruelest poverty imaginable. There were large rectangular pits dug into the sand, where the people who lived in the settlement were burning wood, presumably to make charcoal. Everything about the settlement was flat black from the smoke, from the houses made of sticks and plastic bags to the people themselves and their children and dogs. The air was thick with woodsmoke, making visibility almost impossible. I felt dirty, more figuratively than literally, joyfully zooming through such a place on a recreational lark.

I was soon to receive my karmic payback.

We climbed away from the shore into the woods. Sometimes the trail was so narrow I feared that the Kawa’s handlebars wouldn’t fit through the gap. I was relieved when the trail widened again.

And then it happened.

I still don’t know why, of all places, I wiped out at that particular spot. There was nothing especially technically difficult about the terrain; it was dirt jungle floor. It was on an incline, a very modest one. There was a slight curve to the trail, which I may have misread. Or maybe after two hours of anxious riding I was fatigued. Or maybe this was just my payback from the black village.

To one side of the trail was a steep slope that led to a ravine maybe fifteen feet below. My front tire somehow slipped over the edge and the Kawa dropped sharply beneath me and came to an abrupt stop as it was grabbed by the jungle undergrowth of vines, saplings and tall grass. I flipped and flew over the handlebars with my feet in the air and dropped down, landing face-first with the full weight of my body behind me. My neck snapped back hard. Well, I thought, THAT’S not good.

Everything stopped.

Yoab stopped his bike on the trail where I’d flown over the edge and was making his way down to me. “Don’t move!” he yelled. I knew that was good advice, but I still experimentally wiggled my fingers and toes. Everything wiggled properly. My neck hurt, but I didn’t sense any grave injuries there. Had I not been wearing a full-face helmet, I would have been a lot worse off. After about two minutes of assessing myself and noting with satisfaction that various parts of me were starting to hurt, I sat up. Nothing drastic happened.

The “instructor” by this time had reversed course and found us. He said nothing to me, but set to work at excavating the bike. With Yoab’s help, they pulled it out of the embankment. The “instructor” set to work unbending the various parts of the bike that were bent. I felt shaky and achy, but was probably on an adrenaline high. I indicated that I wanted to ride on.

I fell two more times in the next ten minutes. I could blame that on the deep sand, but I think more to the point was the fact that I had lost my confidence. No more flying over gulches for me today.

We turned around, slowed the pace, and headed back to the riding facility.

From Ohio to Vietnam, I’ve had some excellent motorcycle instruction in the past. I have gone on tours with outfitters who stressed safety and technique. I guess I’ve been lulled into the assumption that all motorcycle tour companies adhere to those principles. I’m not sure I learned much about enduro in Thailand, other than it is in equal measures terrifying and fun. But I did learn the importance of asking a lot of questions before putting my life in the hands of any old motorcycle outfitter.

Vietnam: Hoi An Motorcycles & Beaches

We engaged the services of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures to lead us on a five-hour ride through the countryside surrounding Hoi An. They provided us with Tony the tour guide and an 80’s-vintage Minsk motorcycle.

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The mighty Minsk has an interesting history. It began as a German design and was produced during the Nazi period. Then, as Wikipedia describes it,

[a]fter World War II the documentation and equipment of the German DKW factory in Zschopau were taken to the USSR as war reparations. Production of the RT 125 model began in Moscow under the M1A brand.

By the Order No.494 of the Ministry of automotive industry of the USSR dated July 12, 1951 the production of M1A was transferred from Moscow to the Minsk Motorcycle and Bicycle Plant (MMVZ, then Motovelo).

M1A became the basis of simple and reliable classic Minsk models, the history of which continues to this day.

This is every motorcycle you’ve ever seen in a World War II movie. It’s similar to the bikes used in the motorcycle chase sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (though those were actually Dneprs, I think). It’s powered by a small two-stroke engine and sounds like a chain saw. One of its quirks is that the kick starter is on the left side, which prompts many (including me) to start it before mounting so the engine can be kicked to life with the right foot as god himself intended. It was a blast to ride.

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One of the most fun parts of the trip was riding across a floating bridge. I was determined not to go over the side and into the drink. With Spencer on the seat behind me, I rode out onto the bridge and felt it bob beneath my weight. I made a conscious effort to keep a steady speed and stay off the brakes and made it across without incident.

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Back at The Saltwater Hostel, I was caught admiring the motorcycles parked by the pool. One was a Minsk, though much older than the one I’d just ridden.

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There was also a 1967 Honda that belonged to the bartender. He saw me admiring it and offered to let me ride it. I jumped at the chance. It has a tiny 50 cc engine that sounded like a model airplane motor. My trip down the road and back felt like riding atop a steel rail with a seat and two wheels. I loved it.

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On my last morning in Hoi An, I went to the beach. The ocean there was warm and clean. When I reluctantly headed for the airport later that day, I thought to myself that this is a place I could have spent much more time in.

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Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 2

[Read Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 1 here.]

There were no tourists at Chau Srey Vibol. None. No ticket booth, no tour guides, site maps or plaques either. It was just an ancient pile of stones about 75 meters behind a Buddhist temple at the end of a badly rutted dirt road. I had the place all to myself, save for a couple of saffron-robe clad shaved-headed monks from the temple who briefly came over to check me out.

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When I was a kid, I used to build cities with Jonathan Poneman in his basement. We’d use cardboard boxes, Lego, Hot Wheels tracks, pieces of wood, erector sets, alphabet blocks, and anything else that struck our fancy. Our metropolises were very elaborate. Then, in a frenzy of joyful destruction, we would kick over all we had so carefully built, scattering blocks and boxes and buildings like angry and capricious gods.

That is what Chau Srey Vibol looked like. There were pediments scattered like Lincoln Logs, window frames strewn about like Lego pieces, enormous stone blocks tossed about as if they were 1,100 year old pieces of styrofoam.

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After taking about 100 photos, I got back on my moto, feeling wonderful. I rode along singing Steeley Dan inside my helmet at the top of my lungs to no one but myself: “Bodhisattva, won’t you take me by the hand?” Children coming home from school, dressed in immaculate blue pants and white shirts waved at me in delight. And I waved back.

Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 1

I went to the outskirts of Siem Reap to pick up my moto (which is what people here call anything with a motor and two wheels). I was handed the key to a battered Honda Dream, a Frankencycle of a scooter’s front end and a motorcycle’s back end.

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At the garage, a greasy guy lurched toward me and offered me a Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle. A little early in the morning, I thought, but why not? I reached for the bottle, but the guy pushed by me, flipped up the Honda’s seat, and poured the contents of the bottle into the gas tank. This is how a Khmer-style gas station works.

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Once I left Siem Reap, the pavement gave way to deep red dirt. I rode slow, given that the previous night’s rain had left muddy patches, but the Honda held to the track surprisingly well. About 10 km out of the city, I looked across rice fields to see the three towers of Angkor Wat way in the distance.

The Cambodian countryside was peaceful, lush, and compared to other rural areas of Asia I’ve seen, relatively prosperous.

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I passed by many houses built up on stilts and painted dusky red with dusky blue trim. The ground floors are concrete pads that are used as garages, porches, and patios. There are stairs or thatched ramps leading up to the living areas.

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I don’t romanticize poverty. But there are different ways of living poor. The Cambodians seem to do it artfully. Their houses are clean and tidy outside. Things are built and arranged with a strong aesthetic sense.

Around lunch time, I saw a sign for BBQ and stopped. I was led down a path through the jungle to a single guy who had a fire going. “Meat or no meat?” he asked. “Meat,” I said. I was led further down the path past several outdoor porches built on piers over a small lake to the very last one.

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This was my private dining room. It had some hammocks, a bamboo floor, and straw mats. I snoozed for a bit until the cook brought me a plate of grilled chicken, pork, and sausage–delicious and far more than I could eat.

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I ate while looking out over the lake.

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Then I was on my way again. I stopped for gas here . . .

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. . . and decided to go with the Johnnie Walker Red this time.

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I passed various Buddhist schools, temples and monasteries. Several of them had similar murals painted on their walls that looked like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. A Buddhist conception of the torments of hell?

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My destination was Chau Srey Vibol, an unrestored temple complex built in 900, i.e., 200 years before Angkor Wat. It was not easy to find and the roads were bad, but I made it — and it was a highlight of my trip.

Read about it in Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 2.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2

[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1.]

Further along the canal was a beautiful wooded park with a few pavilion-type buildings.

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There were some temples and shrines there dedicated to a god I couldn’t identify.

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By this time it was mid-afternoon and we were all hungry. We found a lakeside restaurant that was devoid of customers; the tourist season here opens with May Day. The lake was window-clear, though the skies were hazy there due to the numbers of field fires that the local farmers had set to clear their land.

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After a delicious lunch of fish and pork, we saddled up and headed back to Yuxi.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1

I had such a good time last week motorcycling out to Fuxian Lake that I thought I’d do it again.

This time, I narrowly managed to avoid going to the hospital and going to jail.

And I took photos at some of the villages that are built on canals that run into the lake. It was another great day.

My colleagues Paul Rushton and Daniel Dugger accompanied me. Our first stop was a motorcycle supply shop here in Yuxi to get Daniel a helmet. This proved to be a wise investment.

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It was a beautiful windy day. We got out of Yuxi quickly and zig-zagged our way up and down the switchbacks and into the countryside. The villages we passed were alive with people drying straw on the roadways, with families breaking up huge slabs of coal into usable-sized pieces, with farmers tending their fields, and with trucks hauling produce, boulders, coal, building supplies and foodstuffs along the narrow village roads.

We were going through the second village, me driving and Daniel riding bitch, when two trucks converged on us from both directions. I was forced to the side of the road where there was a lot of loose gravel and sand. Once I’d cleared the trucks, I pointed Zippy back toward the center of the road.

At that moment, the rear wheel slipped out from under us and down we went. Daniel jumped clear, landing in a crouching position. I fell onto my right side with the bike on top of me and slid across the gravel, picking up some pretty road rash, a few nice bruises, and a severe blow to my pride.

Daniel was uninjured. (Of course, he’s thirty years younger than me. He bounces.)

Zippy broke a front turn signal and had his crash bars bent a little. We hurriedly remounted, anxious to be away from the big trucks on narrow village streets. We stopped at the next village and I cleaned up my boo-boos with a bandana and a bottle of water and took a few pictures.

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At Fuxian Lake, we got onto the divided highway that runs around its perimeter. We hadn’t gone more than two kilometers when a cop at a police checkpoint motioned us over to the side of the road. There was much discussion about motorcycles not being allowed on this road because it “wasn’t safe.”

We were also concerned about potential and multiple irregularities in our licenses and motorcycle registrations. In such cases, the police have been known to impound motorcycles, which would have been pretty bad for us, being 50 kilometers from home. I found myself wondering if Chinese jails have cable.

After getting a stern talking-to by the head cop about how we were in China now and the rules were different, Paul abruptly changed the subject to lunch (a favorite subject for many Chinese). Suddenly, he and the cop were talking about local restaurants instead of local jails, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We were let go with a warning and told to get off the divided roadway as soon as we could.

Soon we were riding along a canal that first went through a small village with both a road bridge and a foot bridge over the waterway.

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[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2.]

By Motorcycle to Jiangchuan

On the map, the town of Jiangchuan looks to be only about 20 kilometers east of Yuxi via the Yujiang Expressway.

But when you avoid the expressway and follow the back roads through a dozen villages, ride up and down mountains, and savor the twisties of rural Yunnan, the distance is easily twice that. I rode there yesterday with my Shane English Yuxi colleague and boss Paul Rushton, who after seven years here knows the geography of the region in great detail.

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Zippy struggled up the hills and topped out at 70 km/h on the straightaways (and makes disturbing noises at that speed), but he floated over ruts and potholes and was very sure-footed on sand and loose gravel.

Out in the countryside, farmers worked their land by hand, oxen grazed in the wetlands, and rural graveyards stood silent on the mountainsides.

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In one village we discovered an ancient outdoor theater that’s been converted to a restaurant and junked up by more recent additions — but I can still imagine what it must have looked like back when it was the only source of entertainment for miles around.

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At another hamlet, we were welcomed by a group of older men who here hanging out outside what looked to be an old temple. They were friendly and curious; I doubt they see many laowais (foreigners) there.

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Jiangchaun stands on the shores of Xingyun Lake, a pretty body of water that’s being developed into a tourist area. We skirted Jiangchuan itself and opted instead to loop around the lake. Some of the villages that dot the shore have old canals running through them, with houses built right to the edges.

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We passed by steeply arced stone footbridges faced with dragon gargoyles, but by that time we were headed back to Yuxi for dinner, so we didn’t stop. I hope to explore these at a more leisurely pace next time.

Zippy

Zippy is a 2005 Zipstar LZX 125-6 motorcycle built by what was then called the Chonquing Zongshen Number Two Motorcycle Co., Ltd. and is now called Zongshen PEM Power Systems, Inc.

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Zippy used to belong to my colleague Matt, but since he is returning to Wales for an extended visit home, Zippy now belongs to me!

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Like almost every motorcycle in China, Zippy is small by American standards, with a displacement of just 125cc — less than one-fifth the size of my Kawasaki KLR 650. Larger bikes are very rare here because they are taxed very heavily.

After having a few minor repairs and adjustments made yesterday, I took Zippy for a three-hour ride this morning. We headed northeast out of Yuxi, initially tracking the bicycle route I took last summer. This time, though, I went a lot further. I passed through many small villages where farmers still till their fields with oxen and wood-frame plows. I rode up switchbacks into the mountains. For the most part, the road was smooth concrete, but this occasionally gave way to mud and gravel. Zippy’s light weight made for easy handling even on uncertain surfaces. I did, however, manage to plow through a deep mud puddle which undid the careful cleaning job I’d given Zippy before we left. But it was a fine shakedown trip–the first of many such excursions, I hope.

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