Zach Naimon has lived in China for several years and he rode his motorcycle from Beijing to Kashgar, China’s westernmost city. This year, Naimon rode through China again as part of his trip to raise money to end Alzheimer’s disease. He is riding 35,000 km through 30 countries and is documenting his trip on his blog, No Sleep For The Cure. He has also ridden through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Naimon is currently in Russia.
With a mother from Afghanistan and a father from Israel, Naimon experienced a diverse range of cultures by living in China and learning Chinese, both written and spoken. He spoke to the International Examiner by email about his experiences living in China as an American.
International Examiner: Please tell us how you ended up studying at a school in Beijing? Was there something that drove you to pick up Mandarin so quickly and so proficiently?
Zach Naimon: I’ve always been fascinated with China and the Chinese language. Going to highschool there seemed like the logical next step — I picked up the language quickly because I had no other choice. My classes were all in Chinese, and all my peers were locals. Before I was proficient, I often felt extremely frustrated with myself, which in turn drove me to learn faster.
I.E.: Taking a 16,000 kilometer motorcycle journey seems dangerous—why pursue your adventure on a motorcycle?
Naimon: Last year’s 16,000 kilometers trip was inspired largely by Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, a book about his jeep trip across China. I wanted to do something similar but also unique, so I elected to learn how to ride and subsequently did a similarly long trip by bike instead. Little did I know that I’d stumbled upon a potentially lifelong hobby. Unfortunately, the trip ended three hours prematurely with a crash, requiring a few corrective surgeries. I began planning this current trip across Eurasia at that time.
I.E.: In your travels throughout China, you’ve seen a great diversity of the people there. What are the observations that strike you the most in terms of this diversity? What can you say about any social-economic disparity that you’ve come across?
Naimon: China is an extremely diverse place, and it’s impossible to really understand this in the context of only its eastern metropolises. The language disparity is possibly the most striking thing I witnessed as I traveled west. As soon as I entered Xinjiang, the spoken language on the street abruptly changed from mostly Mandarin to mostly Uyghur. This difference paired with the more Turkish-inspired architecture gave the entire region an entirely Middle Eastern feel, differentiating it further from the rest of China. The wealth disparity is enormous. Then again, it’s important to remember that the rural villages aren’t extremely well connected to the big cities, so the entire outlook on life is different. People have different concepts of money and possession. The worst disparity I’ve seen so far has actually been Kazakhstan — More G-Wagons and malnourished youth per capita than anywhere else as far as I can tell.
I.E.: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your adventure across China?
Naimon: The China portion of the trip reaffirmed what I’ve thought since my first day in the country — China is an enormous and largely unexplored place. Even with the terrific highway infrastructure, you can drive 1000km through Xinjiang or Gansu without seeing another car. The country has everything, from snow-capped mountains to deserts, to enormous cities. You can’t find any other country nearly as vast and diverse. Crossing Russia, though it’s a larger country, didn’t feel nearly as large or beautiful.
I.E.: What motivates you to raise money for Alzheimer’s research?
Naimon: Alzheimer’s is an absolutely horrible disease that has affected and continues to affect millions of families including my own. Despite its large debilitating impact on so many people, the amount of money dedicated to researching it pales in comparison to Cancer or similar. I want to raise money for a cure to Alzheimer’s so that I can ensure my own ability to share my stories on the road with my children and grandchildren in the future.
I.E.: The International Examiner is a 44-year-old community newspaper in Seattle’s International District founded out of the Asian American and Civil Rights movements. As a newspaper and news website, we focus on covering social justice and civil rights activism issues as well as Asian Pacific Islander news, arts, culture, and heritage. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Naimon: Thank you for your interest. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, don’t hesitate to reach out. My website is also a good resource for more pictures and stories from the road: http://nosleepforthecure.org