How This Trip Began
I’ve ridden motorcycles all over the world, from South Africa to the UK, Sardinia to Germany, Spain and even Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and across the United States.
Despite having studied Chinese language and literature in college at USC and Oberlin College and having traveled extensively all over China (as a tour guide for InterPacific Tours International and then for work), I had never ridden motorcycles anywhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
I celebrated a significant birthday in 2017 and thought the time was perfect to right this wrong and ride in China. When I first got this idea, everyone I talked to about it said it was impossible. My Chinese teacher recommended that I not even bother trying, and others told me it was way too dangerous. Motorcycle touring just wasn’t a thing in China, and motorcycles in general are unwanted there (in the big cities, motorcycles are not allowed on the freeways).
I didn’t let that stop me. After doing some research, I booked our tour in Yunnan Province with Jah She at Ride China Motorcycle Tours. Yunnan is an area of China I had never visited (the farthest west for me had been Chengdu, in Sichuan Province). Ride China is a one-stop shop — Jah takes care of everything (bikes, route, hotels, meals and more) — all we had to do was pay and show up in Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring, our starting point.
The Gang of Eight
I didn’t want to do this trip alone, so I invited seven of my best motorcycling friends in the world to go with me.
They were: Kalen R. Strandberg (a TV post production supervisor living in Hollywood, and my son), Evan K. Strandberg (the business development director for IQ Credit Union in Portland, and also my son), Doug Funk (the owner of an excavation company from Pennsylvania), Paul Benkley (a managing director from Geneva), Yvan Arpa (the owner of ArtyA Watch Company and my sparring partner, from Geneva), Mike Kirkham (a property manager in London and my roommate during our South Africa motorcycle trip) and Thomas “Doc” Geracioti (a psychiatrist and my best friend from childhood — we grew up riding minibikes and then motorcycles together). This was an eclectic group from disparate backgrounds, but I was sure that we would all get along.
We would certainly endure some hardships along the way, which have a way of bringing people together.
I knew that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I wanted to cherish every minute of riding in China and sharing this experience with my friends and sons. To do this, I brought a selection of watches of significance with me. I was anxious to put them through their paces and see which watches the riders would prefer.
Armand Nicolet L09 Unique Piece
ArtyA Butterfly Tourbillon Unique Piece and ArtyA Red Dragon Unique Piece
Bovet Sportster Chinese Zodiac
Bulgari Octo Solotempo
Ernst Benz Chronoscope PEK
Shinola Lake Erie Monster
Tudor Heritage Black Bay
And so, after months of planning filled with visa applications and securing travel insurance, vaccinations and international driving permits, we were ready for our adventure. From around the globe, we were all flying to Kunming, China.
We were a mix of riding styles and experience — everyone had a great deal of time in the saddle, but Doc, for example, hadn’t ridden a motorcycle in more than 30 years, and his longest ride ever had been only 100 miles! On the other end of the spectrum were Mike and Doug — long-distance riders who think nothing of riding hundreds of miles a day. Doug and I did several 1,000-mile days on our Harleys, crossing the USA, and Mike and I had crossed Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. So, we decided right away that this wasn’t a race and we should stick together, going at a pace everyone was comfortable with.
On that first morning, during his briefing, Jah explained the rules of the road to us. First off, go slowly and keep an eye on every direction, because anything you can think of appearing on the road (drivers going the wrong way, cows, chickens, horses, water buffalo-pulled wagons, dogs and more) has every chance of being there in China. The next piece of advice was to honk if there is any doubt, just so everyone knows you are there. The way Chinese traffic works is that the biggest vehicle on the road wins. In other words, if a truck is bearing down on a four-way stop and looks like it isn’t going to stop, no amount of honking is going to help, so yield.
We were riding in the Three Parallel Rivers region of Yunnan Province, from Kunming to Dali, then to Lijiang, Shangri-La, Kawagarbo Mountain, Feilaisi Town, Shaxi and then back to Kunming. The ride was to be a total distance of 1,300 miles/2,100 kilometers over nine days.
We started off from Kunming, expecting the unexpected and we were not disappointed (though we were often surprised).
The bikes we rode were an interesting collection. There were four Chinese-made Jialing 600s, two Shineray 400s and two BMW F650GSs. They were in reasonably good condition, but one of the Jialings was very old, as was the Shineray I was riding.
After a quick introductory ride, we headed out to the highway for the ride to Dali. It took a long time to get out of Kunming, which is a city of six million people. The traffic was a bit chaotic, but we followed Jah and made it to the highway. The ride to Dali was a perfect way to break everyone in, and we settled into a good rhythm. We stopped for tea about 100 miles in, then found a great Chinese restaurant off the beaten track, then rode the rest of the way into Dali.
And Then There Were Seven
On the second day, on our way out of Dali, we hit a section of slippery, painted concrete and two of our riders went down. Evan was unhurt, but Mike landed hard on his shoulder.
I sent the group ahead to Lijiang and took Mike to the local Chinese hospital. Mike’s shoulder was well and truly broken and he would need surgery within the week. We booked him on the first flight out the next day, loaded up on painkillers for him and put him in the chase van for the ride to Lijiang. We stashed his bike at our hotel in Dali and by the time I saddled up to follow the van on my Shineray, the rain was really coming down.
It was a slog to Lijiang and I almost went down once on a particularly slippery section of highway. What was promised as a beautiful ride was foggy and wet, and the vistas were more like a sedate Chinese painting than the promised sunny, spectacular views.
When I got to Lijiang, I found out that Doug had gone down at a toll booth, but was unhurt. The rain was the kind that made you think it would never stop falling. It was cold and wet and our waterproof gear was proven not that waterproof — my gloves were soaked and my boots and socks were wet through and through.
Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the biggest tourist attraction in all of China and home to the Naxi people, as well as other ethnic minorities. Lijiang has a 1,000-year history and feels like a movie set with its beautiful historical wood buildings and the river running through it, crisscrossed with arch bridges.
The rain finally stopped when we got to the start of Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the most beautiful sights we had seen so far. The Jinsha (“Golden Sand”) River cuts through a deep gorge which gets its name from a rock in the middle of the rushing river — legend has it that a tiger crossed the river here, jumping from one side of the river onto the rock, then to the other side of the river.
Once we got to the gorge, the skies cleared and the sun came out bright and hot. We rode to the tourist area of the gorge and walked down to the river side to get up and personal with the Jinsha, bought a prayer trinket and tied it up to the railing, then continued to the part of the road the tourists never see.
We stopped for lunch after an hour of breathtaking views and sweeping turns, then continued riding in the gorge after lunch. The trip was now really starting to get good.
After seeing every curve of the gorge, we headed for Shangri-La, near the Tibetan border.
We had spent a great amount of time in the gorge, so it was a bit of a race to get to Shangri-La before dark, and all the while we were climbing. The temperature was hovering around freezing as we rode and, though the views were fantastic as the sun set over the mountain, the warmth of the day was completely gone. By the time we pulled into Shangri-La, the most Tibetan city in China, we couldn’t feel our collective fingers, but it had been an incredible ride.
Shangri-La is named after the mythical paradise and is a stunningly beautiful place. Set up high on the steppes with views of the Himalayas, a hilltop collection of temples and an enormous prayer wheel towering over the center of the city, Shangri-La feels different from everywhere else in China.
On our rest day, we toured Gandan Sumtseling Monastery, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China, which was an incredible experience. Huge and impressive, the monastery was established by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1679 and now houses more than 600 monks. Jah told us that many families who can’t afford to raise their children give them to the monastery. We watched the monks during one of their prayer/chanting sessions. The dichotomy between the ultra-serious older monks and the playful younger ones was truly a sight to behold.
When you are on a motorcycle tour, you can find yourself focusing on the distance that needs to be covered every day and not on the experience of the ride itself. Time is perceived in a totally different way when riding — it is mileage, not hours in a day, that matter. Getting up in the morning and knowing all you have to do that day is ride is a fantastic feeling — no meetings, no calls, no responsibilities, just riding. The watches we wore served as reminders of this, allowing us to laugh in the face of normalcy.
We rode through amazing countryside, seeing a side of China I had never seen. We were riding in places where foreigners rarely visit, so many townspeople came up to take pictures with us, as if we were celebrities. In China, motorcycles are beasts of burden and not for pleasure, so motorcycle touring is still an oddity and we definitely stood out in our day-glow riding gear.
Experiencing China is easier on bikes, because you see and are in touch with the land, making you feel closer to the country.
Unlike many who visit China, we generally stayed away from cities — we were out in the countryside most of the day, making our way across the great expanses of China.
I was pleasantly surprised by how modern some areas of China were. For example, we had Wi-Fi in every hotel and every restaurant and the roads were very good most of the time. We also appreciated that the traffic in between towns was light and sometimes non-existent, the food was fantastic and the people were extremely friendly. Everywhere we went people were willing to help, and in some cases went far out of their way.
The Himalayas had been tantalizingly off in the distance for most of the ride, but now we were climbing towards them. We rode uncluttered roads with snow on either side, then headed ever higher on the way to the White Horse Pass.
That was where the Doc went down. Yvan, who was riding right behind him, said that twice he steered straight into the snow, laying his bike down both times. Seeing the other riders go to his side made me fear another one of us had been badly hurt, but luckily Doc was fine and the bike was no worse for wear.
We think it might have been oxygen deprivation, which can make you do strange things. Doc picked up his bike and rode to the pass, where we posed for pictures and took in the awesome view.
Then we started down, riding great roads with sweeping curves and beautiful vistas, all the way to the base of Kawagarbo Mountain, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world (6,740 meters/22,110 feet).
Believed to be the spiritual home of the warrior god of the same name, Kawagarbo is a sacred mountain to the Tibetans, and 20,000 people a year make a pilgrimage here to walk around its base (240 km/150 miles), prostrating themselves every step of the way.
We checked into our hotel only to find that it had absolutely no heat. I asked the landlady about heating and she said, matter-of-factly, “We don’t have any.” Excuse me? I reminded her that it was already freezing outside. She just ignored me and went downstairs.
Fortunately, all the beds had electric blankets and thick down comforters. Surprisingly, no one complained about the lack of heat, we were just happy to be there.
The next morning, we walked up to the Mingyong Glacier on Kawagarbo, which was an arduous climb of more than a mile and a half, up steep steps. We were feeling pretty good about making it all the way to the top when a lady appeared with a huge pot on her back. Turns out she climbs the steps every day to deliver lunch to the workers who are extending the steps, and she was not a bit out of breath.
I told her how hard we thought that was, and she replied, “It’s the workers who have it hard.”
Feeling put in our place, we walked back down the steps and got on our bikes.
In direct contrast to the Himalayas, we also rode alongside two historical and famous rivers, the Yangtze and the Mekong. While riding along the Mekong River, watching it snake between mountains and the beautiful villages as we roared by, we almost became one with the rushing water, flowing from one curve to the next. At one point, a landslide had blocked the road completely, but being on motorcycles we were able to make our way to the front and watch as the bulldozer rolled the boulder out of the way and let us through.
The Mekong is a lazy river in this part of China, wide and light brown, and the road follows its gentle bends, which allowed us to get into the flow of the ride, keeping a challenging pace while our minds entered a bit of a Zen meditative state. We were concentrating on the road and the beauty of our surroundings, but time was lost and the problems of the world, big and small, seemed simpler.
We rode to the Great Bend of the Yangtze at Stone Drum Town, then followed the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a mountainous area that provided great riding.
Shaxi was a bit like Lijiang but with less obvious tourism. The Old Town of Shaxi’s Sideng Market Square, on UNESCO’s World Monument Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Cultural Sites in the World, is impressively authentic, filled with old guest houses, quaint restaurants and coffee shops, and it has a great old temple right in its center.
It was a pleasure to walk through the warm, sunny village, enjoying the calm and the old-world charm.
The Last Day
The trip was drawing to a close, and I was frankly dreading the last day of riding, which was going to be an almost 300-mile highway slog of at least six hours. At breakfast, though, I talked myself and the others into enjoying every last second of our last ride in China, and it actually ended up being one of the best riding days of my life.
The road out of Shaxi, climbing through the mountains to the motorway, was spectacular, and once on the highway it was traffic-free for the first three hours. The views were absolutely amazing, from mountains and lakes, deep valleys and everything in between.
I just kept saying to myself, “You’re riding a motorcycle in China!” over and over again.
Then I’d look at the riders around me, my two sons and some of my best friends in the world, and realized how fortunate I really was.
As we got close to Kunming, the traffic picked up and the scenic cruise became a roller-coaster ride of racing around trucks and slower traffic, bombing towards the city.
We made it back sooner than we expected and took the bikes back to Jah’s garage, saying a melancholy goodbye to our loyal steeds for the past nine days.
We all met for a farewell dinner that night in a spectacular Yunnan restaurant. During a toast to our intrepid group of motorcycle adventurers, I honored their resilient nature.
Riding in China isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it worth the effort. I’ll never forget the hotels with no heat, the tumbles, the extreme cold and the welcomed warmth, the walk up the Kawagarbo Glacier, the incredible vistas, the friendly faces and the camaraderie of doing this trip with my sons and friends.
We could have gone to Southern Italy, where the weather would have been warm, the hotels luxurious and the food excellent (and familiar), but the memories would not have been so strong, so deep and so… memorable.
Combining the true loves of my life — motorcycles, watches, family, friends and all things Chinese — resulted in a trip that I will never forget.
Having the watches along for the ride reminded me to cherish every second of every day of the journey, and now every time I see the pictures from the trip I am lost in my memories.
The Riders Speak About Their Favorite Watches
Doug Funk – I loved the Ernst Benz – I liked the red dial, it was easy to see the time, the black case and the overall design of the watch was classy.
Evan K. Strandberg – My favorite watch was the Ernst Benz Chronoscope PEK Limited Edition. This watch just felt like it was meant to be worn on an adventure like this. The bold red color stood out and it fit perfectly. I also loved the Bovet, which was comfortable, stylish, and looked great next to the motorcycle.
Kalen R. Strandberg – The Tudor Heritage Black Bay was my favorite. Most comfortable by far, simple and it had a classic look.
Paul Benkley – While all of the watches were beautiful and performed flawlessly, for me, the Bulgari Octo Solotempo won the day by virtue of its simple elegance. The clean lines and minimalist display of the Bulgari made it easy to read at a glance while perched on my motorcycle. And, while it’s true that the sophistication of the Bulgari far exceeded that of many of the remote areas that we visited on our ride, the contrast didn’t bother me in the least, and I’d gladly volunteer to strap it on again for our next adventure.
Thomas “Doc” Geracioti – The Tudor Black Bay was cool, sleek and was the most every day wearable of the collection.
Yvan Arpa – My favorites were the ArtyA, of course, because they are all about passion, love, good vibes and high watchmaking in unique masterpieces.