Distance Skateboarding in ChinaDistance Skateboarding in China

At some point towards the beginning of my skate across China in 2008, I wrote the following piece for the www.skatefurther.com forum. I happened to come across it again after all these years, so I thought I would share it here. Somehow I managed to capture well the trials and tribulations of those first few weeks there in China – a distance skater’s paradise.


Greetings from the Gobi desert in northwestern China,

I arrived in China on the 14th of April 2008 in the sprawling city of Shanghai. I flew in from Los Angeles, where I had just completed an unassisted solo distance skate across the US. The plan upon arrival in Shanghai was to complete a distance longboarding journey across the breadth of China, from the Kazakhstan border in the northwestern most corner of China back to Shanghai. Like the trans-US trip, this would be unassisted and solo. The difference between the trans-US trip and this one would be that I would be pulling all my travel gear (tent, clothes, food, water etc) on a trailer attached to my longboard, rather than carrying it all on my back.

From the orderly streets of Los Angeles and the land of regulations that is the US, I arrived to complete chaos in Shanghai. I unpacked my boxed up Longboard Larry longboard and trailer (made from an old Rollsrolls deck) in the People’s Park Subway station in central Shanghai. Super efficient subway cleaners swarmed around me to remove the packing material and boxes for me.

Unpacking in the subway in Shanghai, China

Soon enough, I had my rig ready to roll. I dragged it up the steps and into the chaos that is Shanghai. I was in my element, the longboard and trailer rig slithering past slow-moving cyclists, dodging pedestrians, eating up the buttery smooth pavement as I cruised with the mass of electric mopeds. Cyclists, car drivers, people on the street, they all pointed and smiled at this tall white guy on a longboard. Stopping at traffic lights, people would give me the thumbs up.

In Shanghai I took part in a podcast with another humanpowered traveler. In the podcast I am asked why I chose to come to China to continue my longboard journey. The answer was easy. Smooth roads!

Fast forward to northwestern China. I took the 36 hour train ride from Shanghai to Urumqi, the biggest city in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the northwest. From there, I took an overnight bus to Khorgos, the border town situated at the border with Kazakhstan. What took me three days by public transport would now take me three months to retrace by longboard – a total of 4,500km following China National Highway 312.

At the China leg beginning at the China/Kazakhstan border at Korgos, Xinjiang Province, China

The first day of skating was more walking than skating. Around 75km of highway was ripped up in a massive reconstruction effort that made skating impossible in parts.

National Highway 312 under construction near Korgos, Xinjiang Province, China

In these cases I would detatch the trailer and pull it and the longboard behind me.

National Highway 312 under construction near Korgos, Xinjiang Province, China

It was hard work, but eventually the road construction gave way to smoother pavement. It was a hardcore start to a journey – road construction, and a 2300m high pass (starting at 600m) all in the first two days.

Grunty climb to the top of the 2200m pass near Santai, Xinjiang Province, China

I am now in week three of the journey, and it has been difficult so far to find a rythym. Local interest in the mode of transport never ceases…

Interested highway construction workers on National Highway 312 near Liangtai, Xinjiang Province, China

There have been amazing downhill stretches on silky smooth, brand new expressways with the occassional slow-moving truck ever 10 minutes…

35km downhill from Santai, Xinjiang Province, China

I have been invited in by locals to stay and share culture with…

Enthusiastic Kazakh family in Gotsugu, Xinjiang Province, China

The adjustment to the new country, new language, new food, and new topography has been slow and tough. I am much more tired here in China than I was in the US. The Chinese people are an interesting bunch. At times I have been frustrated with their intrusively curious behaviour, their staring at me, and just the overbearing presence they convey. At other times I will meet others who will invite me in for a meal, or be genuinely caring. This is a land of contrasts, of no regularity.

The haze of the Gobi desert near Turpan, Xinjiang Province, China

The northwest region of Xinjiang in China is also a challenging place. It is a desert region, and the wind always blows, hard. From all directions. The roads are long, straight, and flat.

Pushing through endless desert near Turpan, Xinjiang Province, China

In one moment, you feel overwhelmed with awe at the incomprehensibility of the the hugeness of your surroundings. In the next moment, you must try to switch off your mind and find a zone where you ignore the miles and miles of featureless terrain ahead of you. Ignore the incessant headwind. Ignore the insidiously shallow grade uphill that cheats you into thinking that the road is flat, and you are going slow just because you are weak…

A gorge of contrasts on highway G312 on my way to Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

And then the open land gives way to a narrow gorge. Highway G312 snakes up through a valley of contrasts. Your mind is awake and refreshed again. Your legs strain at the effort of the uphill, but your mind is awake to the physical challenge. Give me a stiff uphill anyday over a mindless flat stretch of road. With an uphill, there is promise of reward.

A gorge of contrasts on highway G312 on my way to Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

Skating in China reminds me anew that solo distance longboarding is not a holiday. It is a physical and mental challenge that takes everything out of you. I skate for up to five days and then rest for two. For the first two days of the five, I am feeling good. The following three days are a matter of perserverance. I skate for five to six hours a day. The first three hours of the day are great. The following two or three hours are tough. I love it and I hate it.

Beginnings of a fierce (way fun) sandstorm on my way to Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

At present I am still making my way across the Gobi desert. I have at least another 1,000km of desert to cross before hitting more arable, populated areas in Gansu Province. The daily temperatures continue to rise, and even now I am having to start skating before day break. I skate from when the horizon just starts to glow, for about 6 hours (that’s about 4 hours actual on-the-board time). Around midday, when the temperature hits 40 degrees celgius, I shelter under the road in culverts, or under trees for up to 6 hours, until the day cools off enough to begin skating again.

Sleeping spot 45km from Jinghe, Xinjiang, China

Access to skating equipment is very limited here in Xinjiang Province at least. In bigger cities, you can find shops selling scooter and cheap skateboards for kids, so if worst comes to worst, you can always find at least crappy bearings to keep you rolling if you run out of your spare quality bearings. I now use industrial grease in my bearings, which makes them run a little slower, but saves the hassle of having to clean them out every time they get just a little wet. On one occassion I realised that my bearings were runnind dry, so I stopped in a one of the many road-side truck maintenance shops, and to the workers’ great interest and joy, began dismantling my bearings. I washed them out in petrol, used their compressed air to blow them out, and used some grease they gave me to get them running smoothly again. Great fun for all involved.

Relubing Rig’s bearings in Kuitun, Xinjiang, China

In Shanghai, there is an extreme sports goods distributor that also sells high end skate hardware, including wide longboard trucks (Independent). Funboxx (http://www.funboxx.com) is their name, and they have helped me out a lot with logistical assistance and some gear that I needed.

As to whether or not the trailer is an asset or a liability, the jury is still out on this. Certainly I enjoy the freedom of being able to move about on the board more, without the weight of a pack on my back. I do notice however that it is more strain on my calves. I am essentially pushing a 20kg skateboard. It is a very simple setup however, and so far I think it is worth it – especially in the desert where I am carrying up to 6 litres of water. To have to carry that on my back would be a mission. Furthermore, coming up in about 600km time is a 150km stretch of desert without services. I will need to carry all my water and food, enough for two days. To have to do this with a pack would be tough going.

The rig on a plateau near Santai, Xinjiang Province, China

Day 805 – CHINA (SHANGHAI): Couch potato

For the last three days I have done little but sit on the couch. Highlights from the couch so far include:

  • I put together some random footage of Michele (my host here in Shanghai) and I skating around Shanghai (above). Youtube version of the same video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O36qc1ufk9o
  • Read Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys. If you’ve got no prospect of actually getting a hold of a hard copy of the book (like me), you can read the whole thing online for free. A very good read. He cycled around the world over a 4 year period. Good solid back to basics low budget get-out-and-do-it who-cares-about-the-limitations adventure. Many experiences of Alastair’s I can relate to.
  • Met up with Keen Footwear Shanghai PR person Yoyo. Keen have been a great help by offering to replace my worn out sandals that I used for the latter part of the China trip.
  • Met up with Tommy Zhao from Funboxx to talk about my trip across China.

And not much else, really.

Day 802 – CHINA (SHANGHAI): Chilling out in Shanghai

Without adue, footage of the final 1,200km or so of the longest journey by skateboard. You can watch it on the Vimeo video below, or see the Youtube version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O36qc1ufk9o. What’s the difference? On some computers, the Vimeo version can be a little jerky and slow loading. But, it is much better quality than the Youtube version, which loads quicker…nothing like more choices to make life more complicated, aye?

I have really been enjoying spending time with Michele and other English speakers here in Shanghai the last couple of days. I have loved skating without a heavy trailer attached to my board. I have relished in spending some time cycling around central Shanghai while Michele skates on my board. I have devoured delicious western food. I feel revived with some cooler weather for a change.

On a bike for the first time in months in Shanghai, China

Fisheye extreme at the Bund Creative Center in Shanghai, China Michele Travierso showing how it's done in Shanghai, China

Day 800 – CHINA (JIANGSU): From Luxu to the end of an era

Today’s distance / ???????: 48.1 miles / 77.4km
Average speed / ????: 7.8mph / 12.5km/h
Time on skateboard / ????: 6h 10m
Total skateboarding distance to date / ????????????: 7,168mi plus 386mi (?) / 11,537km plus 622km (?)
Ascent / ??: n/a
Descent / ??: n/a
End-of-day GPS coordinates: N31°13′58.8″, E121°27′52.1″

I arrived in Shanghai today. People’s Square was my goal. Right in the guts of the sprawling city.

I almost couldn’t have been a better day to finish this ‘era’ of my journey. The sun was shining, it was clear and crisp, blue skies, no pollution, cool…and a headwind. But hey, what’s new.

I left Felix’s place at around 7:45am. It was great to get on the road. I knew I only had around 60km to skate today, so I took it easy, drinking in the surroundings. I felt alive. It was as if everything was sharper than usual. The air was lighter. Sounds were vibrant. Colours were crisp. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. Nothing like any sort of rush of adrenaline or joy. Just a stillness in my heart.

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Steve Ruelle on his bike about 30km from Luxu. He had started much later than me on his bicycle, and apparently was hoping to catch me before he had to stop to get a bus the rest of the way into Shanghai. He met me just as I was about to pass the intersection that he was intending to turn at. The chance meeting resulted in us finding a great pizza restaurant nearby. My first taste of real western food for almost five months. My feeling of satisfaction continued to glow inside me.

Crossing the border from Jiangsu Province into Shanghai district was like going through a time warp. I felt like a neanderthal being transported through the ages into a modern society. The roads were immaculate, there was much less garbage dumped on the roadside.

Arriving at the Shanghai District border at last, China

I’ll be honest and say that the above photo was well and truely posed. I did tear up a little when the large ‘Welcome To Shanghai’ sign appeared, but I can’t put a finger on any particular feeling that I felt the moment I crossed the border. Just that same sense of satisfaction. My muscles and mind felt relaxed.

It was by no means an easy day however. The headwind kept my speed down, and I had to take frequent breaks.

From the Shanghai border to People’s Square in the center of Shanghai it was another 67km. Most of it was in semi-urban outlying areas. I was thrilled to see the French sports/outdoor store Decathalon about 20km out of the center of Shanghai as I was skating past. My trousers (that I am wearing in the photo above) were bought at a Decathalon store in Italy more than a year ago, and were now only held together by some sort of miracle. I was able to buy another pair similar to them at the Shanghai store for 15 Euro. I paid for the new trousers, went to the store toilets, changed trousers, chucked the old ones in the rubbish bin, and carried on skating.

About 16km out from the People’s Square, I met a German guy out for a Sunday bike ride. We chatted as we were waiting for the lights to change.

“You’re out for a biek ride?” I asked.

“Yes, just biking home now. Where are you from?” he asked.

“New Zealand. And yourself? Do you live in Shanghai?” I replied.

“Yes. It is a nice place to live. Good roads, and nice enough people. Are you travelling around here?” he said.

“Uh…yeah, you could say that. Actually, I’ve just skateboarded across China,” I told him.

He nodded and smiled. A moment passed. A frown appeared on the man’s face. “What?” he asked hesitantly. “You only travelled by skateboard? Nothing else? With all that gear? But the roads must have been terrible. All the roads are terrible outside the cities in China,” he informed me.

I explained that the roads were actually the most consistently smooth of any country I have been to. “Wow, that is amazing,” he said.

The lights turned green, and we said our farewells. He charged ahead of me on his road bike to beat the hoards of noisy squealing-braked shopping bikes.

Before long I was well and truely in Shanghai proper. Massive skyscrapers dominated the skies around me. Three story traffic interchanges sucked vehicles in one side and spat them out in all directions on the other. I pushed on past the no-cycling signs and stayed on my direct route to People’s Square. I wasn’t keen to take any detours. One wrong move and you’d be lost forever in the cluastrophobic maze of steel and concrete and asphalt.

At around 5:30pm I had made it to within three or four kilometers of the square. I kept on pushing on along the main street. Traffic police and traffic wardens on street corners blew their whistles and waved for me to stop. If only they knew where I was coming from. I blew past them. I had come 12,150km, and only had a few kilometers to go till I was finished. I was not stopping for a whistle. The whistles and half-hearted calls for me to stop faded behind me. 1km out from the square, I began to recognise where I was. I recalled walking the area with Marija five months prior. I homed into the direction of the square, traffic and pedestrians funnelling into my wake. I was now oblivious to the stares that I had come to despise.

462 days ago on the 25th of June 2007, I left Leysin, Switzerland, alone. Today I arrived at People’s Square in Shanghai, alone. I had emailed newspapers in Shanghai to let them know I would be arriving. I got no response. Other contacts I had in Shanghai were on holiday, since this was the beginning of a 10 day national holiday. Hence there was no one to applaud my arrival. I asked a passerby, a stranger, to take my photo in front of the People’s Square sign. He was Chinese, and spoke no English. After taking a photo of me on my camera, he asked if he could take my photo on his camera. I agreed. He took my photo. And then he left. Just some guy on a skateboard at people’s square.

A 12,000km skateboard journey ends at People's Square, Shanghai, China

There was one person that came to meet me at People’s Square however. Michele Travierso, an Italian guy I met when I was here in Shanghai five months ago. We had arranged for me to stay at his place until my flight out on the 7th of October. I called him from a payphone, and we met outside the Starbucks at the square.

Did the final moments of this journey meet my expectations? Should there have been a large group of people there to greet the world’s farthest travelled longboarder at the end of the longest journey by skateboard ever? The longest in history?

I achieved what I set out to achieve. I question whether ambition, one of the largest motivating factors in me skateboarding across China, was a valid reason for sacrificing so much of myself for this mission. But I am done. Whatever the motivations were, I am done.

From comments and emails that I get, I am encouraged that my efforts have not been in vain. Readers and viewers of my journey online have been inspired. People that I have met have been moved. To me, that means so much more than the single moment of arriving in Shanghai.

As for me, time to take a break, me thinks.

Day 797 – CHINA (JIANGSU): In Luxu

At the very sensible suggestion of Felix, I am taking it easy here in Luxu. There is no huge hurry to get into Shanghai, so I’m spending some quality time here chilling out with natives. Native English speakers that is.

With Steve Ruelle and Felix Hude in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

Yesterday I visited the Sino-Canadian school and spoke to four classes of high school students about my journey. They were short sessions of about 15 minutes, but the students seemed to enjoy it.

Speaking with students at the Sino-Canadian high school in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China Speaking with students at the Sino-Canadian high school in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

In the evening Steve, Felix and I rocked the town with some street-side karaoke…well…Steve did grandly. He was the only one who could sing any Chinese songs.

Steve sings up a storm at the streetside karaoke in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

The current plan is to skate into Shanghai to the central People’s Square tomorrow. The weather has cooled off, so I am looking forward to the last day’s skate.

Day 795 – CHINA (ZHEJIANG and JIANGSU): From Nanxun to Luxu

Today’s distance / ???????: 32.8 miles / 52.8km
Average speed / ????: 9.5mph / 15.2km/h
Time on skateboard / ????: 3h 28m
Total skateboarding distance to date / ????????????: 7,120mi plus 386mi (?) / 11,459km plus 622km (?)
Ascent / ??: n/a
Descent / ??: n/a
End-of-day GPS coordinates: N31°03′01.7″, E120°50′56.9″

Great pavement and finally a tailwind! A good one at that. I am still tired however, and after an hour of pushing I need a break. A tailwind, by the way, is both a blessing and a curse. The wind helps you along, but in a hot place like the oven that is this part of eastern China right now, it also deprives you of any cooling from the wind as you skate. You are cocoonned in your own little bubble of muggy hotness.

Watermelons were my friend today. Although being twice the price of those I was eating in Gansu Province (Gansu: 0.06 Euro a kg, Jiangsu: 0.16 Euro a kg), I was not going to pass them up.

Mini watermelons for sale for 0.16 Euro a kilogram near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

Mini watermelons for sale for 0.16 Euro a kilogram near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China Mini watermelons for sale for 0.16 Euro a kilogram near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

I was following a river for most of the day. Very therapeutic.

A boat on the Yellow River near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

A boat on the Yellow River near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

A boat on the Yellow River near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China A boat on the Yellow River near Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

I was very happy to finally catch up with Steve Ruelle, a Canadian teaching physics at the Sino-Canadian High School in Luxu. Luxu is a strange little satellite town to Shanghai, and Steve lives in a massive hotel/holiday apartment complex. The place is deserted however, and it is a mystery how the place makes any money.

On the door at Steve's place in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

I was also thrilled to meet the one and only Felix from Felix and Mr. Pumpy fame. As coincidence has it, Felix is working at the high school, and only started a few weeks ago.

In the evening I caught up with other Canadian expats working at the school. Steve and I visited Lauren’s place, where a group were gathered for none other than…Fantasy Hokey!

Fantasy Hokey with the Canadians in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China With expat Canadians in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

With expat Canadians in Luxu, Jiangsu Province, China

Day 794 – CHINA (ZHEJIANG): From N30.59.11.4 to Nanxun

Today’s distance / ???????: 37.8 miles / 60.8km
Average speed / ????: 7.8mph / 12.6km/h
Time on skateboard / ????: 4h 50m
Total skateboarding distance to date / ????????????: 7,088mi plus 386mi (?) / 11.407km plus 622km (?)
Ascent / ??: 130m
Descent / ??: 140m
End-of-day GPS coordinates: N30°52′25.1″, E120°24′18.5″

Righto…I’m feeling a darn sight better than I was a week or so ago. Things are looking up, and I am on the homeward stretch to Shanghai. Only 120km to go till I wrap this thing up.

Blog updates will be sporadic over the next week or so, as I catch up on missed entries. This is just as much for my records as it is for your enjoyment, so I apologise if things get a little confusing with present updates getting mixed in with previous ones and visa-versa and sometimes around the other way…confused? Good.

So today (being the 24th of September 2008) was a great day. Once again a headwind, but a great day nonetheless.

On a tangent, I think there is a greater power working against me. You may recall my week of horrid headwinds in Holland at the end of my first leg of this skateboard journey. You may also recall the horrid headwinds I encountered at the end of the second leg of this journey in the USA approaching Los Angeles. Why is it that I always get headwinds at the end of a particular leg?! Honestly, it has been blowing steadily out of the east for the last two weeks non-stop. It is laughable. Which is good. Laughing is good.

Anyway, the thing that made today so great were the frequent warm downpours. I was skating with no shirt on…just ploughing straight through these heavy downpours. It was the first time I had ever experienced warm rain, and I loved it.

My brother Chris worte to me in an email that water has healing properties. Well this rain was all that. Fantastic.

The only thing marring an otherwise perfect scenario was the incessant traffic, the ever-present noise of the roadway, and of course factories pumping great plumes of junk into the clouds, making me more than a little weary not to open my mouth and drink the liquid sunshine in.

Power plants in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, China

The rain showers stopped after lunch however, and I was left with the stinking damp oven that is eastern China. It is so hot. So so hot.

Despite feeling better than I was a while back, I am still now at all interested in speaking to Chinese people. Sunglasses on, I pushed on. A small river to my right showed the never ending progress of this nation.

Riverboats near Nanxun, Zhejiang Province, China

Arriving in Nanxun, I was spent. I have left my shirt off for just a tad too long, and was getting rather pink. I checked into a small hotel and was done for the day.

Day 793 – CHINA (ANHUI and ZHEJIANG): From small town at N30.58.37.5 E119.07.41.1 to city at N30.59.11.4 E119.53.33.8

Today’s distance / ???????: 53.1 miles / 85.5km
Average speed / ????: 7.7mph / 12.3km/h
Time on skateboard / ????: 6h 56m
Total skateboarding distance to date / ????????????: 7,050mi plus 386mi (?) / 11,346km plus 622km (?)
Ascent / ??: 275m
Descent / ??: 305m
End-of-day GPS coordinates: N30°59′11.4″, E119°53′33.8″

I wasn’t feeling the greatest this morning, but decided to try to push on for a bit. By the end of the day I was feeling a little stronger.

Smoggy start to the day near N30.58.37.5 E119.07.41.1 Anhui Province, China

It was a scorching hot day, cooled slightly only by a stiff headwind. I was on the expressway until the Zhejiang border (mid-morning) before I was kicked off by the police at a toll booth. The alternative G318 highway was still very nice, and much quieter.

My body is still weak, but my apetite is returning, although I still cannot seem to fit much food in. Rice in particular seems to fill me up much faster than it used to.

I ended up skating until about an hour after dark today. There were no places to stay until the city at N30.59.11.4 E119.53.33.8. I checked into the first inn I came to, even though the room was dusty and smelly. At times like this I wish I had my tent. On the way to the inn, I had passes countless orchards where I would have happily camped, lulled to sleep by the crickets.

Day 792 – CHINA (ANHUI): In small town at N30.58.37.5 E119.07.41.1

I was intending to push on today, but decided against it. I woke early at 6am, and my stomach was crying out for food. In Japanese there is a phrase called “nido ne”, which means to “sleep a second time”, used to describe the act of eating breakfast and then going back to bed for some more sleep. This was my plan for the morning at least.

I found my way to a toasted dumplings shop and had a parge plateful of tasty toasted duplings washed down with sweet soy milk.

Back to my hotel and I slept until 9am.

I’ve never taken sleeping pills before, but today I decided that they may be the way forward. I only need them to get me some decent sleep until I get to Shanghai, I figured, so I visited the local pharmacy.

“I am not sleeping well,” I told the pharmacist.

He was a mid-twenties looking guy. Skinny, in a long dirty white gown. “How long have you not slept well?” he asked.

“About two weeks,” I replied.

The pharmacist took my hand and indicated for me to sit down. He laid my arm on the shop counter and began counting my heartbeat at my wrist. A minute of silence later, he stood. Went and rummaged on a shelf near the back of the shop.

He came back with a small plastic bottle of Chinese medicine. To be honest, I was hoping for some strong and nasty synthetic pills, but I figured that if the Chinese believed in this stuff, then it’s gotta be good. Looking at the ingredients, they all looked natural, so that would have to be bonus, I thought.

The price was 0.40 Euro for a five day supply. I was to take the medicine two times a day. It was in the form of little black pellets the size of small ball bearings. A capful of them two times a day.

I thanked the pharmacist, and nodded politely at the two old women who had been standing at the counter the entire time, silently observing the scene.

I took one capful of the medicine when I got back to my hotel at 10am, and took another nap. I woke up at 3pm.

I have my doubts as to whether the medicine actually caused me to sleep so long during the day, because when I tried to sleep that night, I had a terrible sleep once again, despite taking the medicince. So many random fleeting thoughts sprinting through my head…classic sign of burnout…