Part 1 of 3
Born in Malaysia to a Chinese mother and American father, Parker grew up in a upper-middle-class neighborhood in Virginia. After studying philosophy and linguistics, he considered joining the Peace Corps but finally accepted a job offer with Dianzi Keda. Lured to Sichuan by its proximity to the Himalayan Mountains and Tibet, he has been teaching English in Chengdu four-and-a-half years and has just recently become a student at the Southwest University for Nationalities "because it's embarrassing being illiterate."
It was in the U.S. that he nurtured his passion for motorcycles; it was in China where he used that passion to travel and start creating larger photographic and cinematographic projects. His first film, what he dubs a "motography" work, called The Return, was released December 2007. Aimed at a North American audience—the largest motorcycle-entertainment market—the film is currently available for purchase. Parker's parents, working out of the States, operate logistics of taking and filling orders.
For more information on Carl, to watch the trailer, or to purchase a copy of the film, go to carl parker's webiste or Motocyclops.
What sites would you recommend visiting in northwestern China?
If you were just going to hit the cities:
• Turfan. At 150m below sea level, it's one of the deepest points in the Eastern hemisphere and home to ancient cities 2,000-year-old Gaochang and 1,500-year-old Jiaohe as well as an ancient karez canal system—a marvel of ancient technology in China. "It's incredibly arid, and it was so hot there that my left boot sort of melted off. It also has amazing grapefruits, melons, dried fruits."
• Transtakamakan Highway. "One of the most amazing roads in China. It's probably 600, 700 kilometers, but it runs right through the center of the dessert, and they keep the road going by installing groundwater pump houses every 4 kilometers. Dessert plants run all the way down the highway with these blue and red and yellow pump houses in the middle of nowhere. It's an amazing feat of engineering."
• Hotan. "It's got a pretty wild animal bazaar there on Sunday that's supposed to be the most authentic, and I'd have to agree. Most of the women wear the head scarf. Most people there don't speak Chinese. You are better off with English."
• Kashgar and the Karakorum Highway. "Tianshi is a pretty touristy, developed place already, but it's nice and beautiful. And then there is a whole northern horn or triangle of Xinjiang, and that's supposed to be absolutely phenomenal like eastern European alpine forests."
What rides have you done, and what drives you to ride a motorcycle by yourself off into the wilderness?
It's been three long trips—one each summer, with the exception of last summer. 2004—Sichuan, Tibet, Qinghai; 2005—I tried to make it out to the Khunjerab Pass, the border between China and Pakistan. And then in 2006 I actually made it into Xinjiang.
Everything about the experience is just, you're on. As soon as you sit down, you fire it up, and your vacation starts. No, like, 'Ah, I gotta take my bags, and I gotta wait in line and what if they type my name wrong on my ticket and I hope I can find the bus and this taxi guy's gonna rip me off and then I dunno where I'm gonna stay.' You don't have any of that ... your home is on your back.
When things are running OK and you can be in the zone ... you reach a point where you're not thinking about, 'Oh, look at that mountain—it's just mountain, wow—and you come around the corner—it's just, wow, beautiful; it's "wow"; it's just this constant state of wow.'
It was in the 2005 trip when you had an accident that brought you back to Chengdu before finishing your route. What happened?
It was out in the middle of nowhere—there's a road called 315. You can take that all the way to Xinjiang.
There is a place called Manghai which is known for very high winds, and I didn't know about this. I never heard anyone talk about this region of China before because there is really nothing out there. There are no towns or cities. I was actually going to stay there [in Manghai] that night, and I arrived there about 8:30—plenty of time before the sun went down. The place they marked as a medium-sized town was a brick wall surrounding some tanks selling gas and that was it. It was not a place where I could take off my boots and relax—it was like, you can't stay here. And where is the nearest place? 150, 200 km away, and there's nothing in between.
The road was perfect, but it was late at night, and I'd been riding for 12 hours. I had no idea where there would be gas and water. I brought enough for one night, but that's just my stupid [fault]. Too tired, going too fast, I wasn't thinking right, but I really didn't have much of a choice. There was nowhere to stay—I'm not gonna pitch tent in a sandstorm at night. There was a pile of sand on the road which the workers placed there and of course they didn't mark it—there's no warning cones or anything.
What happened after the accident? How did you manage in such a remote area?
I got a GPS, and I had a mobile with me. Right after the accident you're not really thinking about mobile stuff. You get up, walk around, it's dark. It's a pretty strong visual experience: You're out in the middle of nothing, and the headlight shining. You don't know where you are, and you're totally dazed, and you walk in circles.
Where the crash happened was Huatugou—it's a small town of 2,000 people, mostly road crew and oil workers. I arrived at the hospital still dazed. I didn't feel anything had been broken. There was a really small hospital. [My shoulder] was broken into three pieces, so it had to have a little Terminator-piece of six screws, wires, bar-titanium kind of thing in there. They had to drive me from that hospital to Dunhuang. I was sitting in the hospital in the middle of nowhere for four days—they can't touch you unless someone is there to translate for you when you sign the agreement to have the operation. That was weird.
My girlfriend—she and I weren't going out technically, just kind of really good friends. She came out, helped me out, and then shortly after getting back we just decided to be together, and now I'm married.
You talk in terms of traveling solo and privacy on the road, but when you encounter people in remote regions you invariably interact with them. What's that like?
When you get way out there, the people are your friends, it's very obvious that people need each other, support each other. And this is an attitude they carry throughout every day.
When you are riding, you are constantly in touch with your environment, and there is no way to escape that. When it's cold, you're cold; when it's wet you're wet. The other people in the very rural areas you talk to and meet, they recognize what you're going through. When you arrive you're chewing on sand in your teeth, and you don't even know how you got there. These people see that on your face when you pull up. And they're like, 'C'mon in, have some tea!' As a solo arriver you are in an unthreatening position. It's not like as a tourist, you arrive in a bus with 20 other people, open the door and this cold cloud of AC air rolls out of the car along the ground and then a lot of people just come out and start taking picture of people like they are animals in zoo.
Do you keep in touch with people you've met?
No, not really. Some of these people I've met and stayed with or even just met briefly, I think about them [and] I wonder what they're up to ... . A lot of the people that I met, there actually would be no physical way to keep in touch with them. I mean you go out, and you're in a place, and it hardly has water, much less a mail system. That's the other thing ... you meet these people, you have a good time with these people, you share something very deep and very eternal with these people, but ultimately your worlds are so different ... . It may be real sad sometimes, but I just figure I'm lucky to have ever had a chance to meet them at all. And you just kind of wish them well and you continue. The rhythm of life.
In part 2 we talk to Carl in more detail about the making of The Return.