Kevin Foster was 12 when he caught his first glimpse of the Great Wall, an ancient fortification snaking 1,500 miles across China. In 1972, he and his sixth-grade classmates had to watch TV coverage of President Nixon's historic visit to China. Pretty dull homework--until the wall flashed on the screen. To Foster, it looked like the longest bike path he had ever seen.
The next day, he told his classmates, "I'd love to ride my bike on the wall." They laughed, but Foster was serious--it just would take him an additional 18 years to make it happen.
Three months ago Foster, a 30-year-old Ojai resident, became the first foreigner--and probably the first person--to ride a bike from one end of the Great Wall to the other. It was an epic undertaking. Aside from braving 130-degree heat, hailstorms, sandstorms, flash floods and the treacherous wall itself, Foster had to get permission from the Chinese government, no easy feat of bureaucratic maneuvering.
"I've never seen a guy as tenacious--every obstacle was thrown in his way and he overcame all of them," said Charles O. Hyman, National Geographic Society book division director who was instrumental in helping Foster get into China.
Foster, a professional actor, was doing Shakespeare in summer stock a few years ago when he came across the National Geographic's 1982 book "Journey Into China." Hyman had been director of the book project, and Foster was not shy--he had been calling the organization's 800 number since his preteen days--so he phoned Hyman, who put him in touch with China's version of the National Geographic Society, the Institute of Geography.
Foster also enlisted a U. S. senator from his home state of Connecticut, Democrat Christopher J. Dodd, to help cut through the red tape.
Two years ago, Foster thought he had permission to make the trip in the summer of '89, but the student protests and the June 4 massacre outside Tian An Men Square closed China to the West.
After waiting an additional 10 months, Foster, who trained for the odyssey by riding along Ojai mountain ridges, flew to China on April 27 on China Airlines, which he talked into contributing $25,000 in transportation costs. On May 9, wearing a long ponytail and razor-trimmed Fu Manchu, he rolled south out of Jiayuguan, a Gobi Desert city once visited by Marco Polo.
Followed by a five-man support team, including two members of the Institute of Geography, Foster rode for a total 1,174.8 miles, toasting his achievement with a bottle of champagne on June 29 in Shanhaiguan, a city on the Yellow Sea.
Foster was allowed to travel all but a few hundred miles of the Great Wall, which is not as great as it used to be. Begun more than 2,300 years ago by Imperial China, the wall was testimony to China's vast resources as well as its desire to isolate itself from the world. Over the centuries, the wall has been plundered for its bricks and made obsolete by modern warfare. Today, much of it is in disrepair, but it is still the only man-made structure that astronauts can see from space.
After the first 1,000 miles of his journey, Foster and his colleagues had to board a train in Fugu--he was not permitted to cycle through sensitive military installations in the Gobi--and picked up the Great Wall again in Beijing. The last leg was only about 170 miles of actual riding but, Foster says, he had to carry his 25-pound bike an additional 300 miles to traverse gaps in the wall.
Foster's most harrowing experience occurred 200 kilometers outside Beijing in a mountainous region called "Nine Dragon-Gate Pass." While parts of the wall--the parts the tourists see--are wide enough for a car, others are either frightfully narrow or so overgrown with bushes that Foster had to hack his way through with a machete. In Nine Dragon-Gate Pass, Foster confronted "Heaven's Ladder," 150 yards of nearly perpendicular ascent with a sheer drop on either side.
"The wall was one brick wide," Foster says. "I had to walk my bike. It took me an hour. If I fell off, I would have wound up in the valley a mile below."
Foster had arranged for that possibility. He told his support team, "If I lose my life, try to bury me here. I don't want my body shipped back to the States."
His body made it back to Ojai in one piece but not in great shape. "I'm shot," Foster said. Twice during the 52-day journey he was hospitalized, once for exhaustion, another time for a cracked rib sustained when an earthen section of the wall collapsed under him. The rib is healing, but Foster now has problems with his kidneys.
"The doctor told me I didn't drink enough water in the Gobi," he said. "I drank 2 1/2 to three gallons a day, but I should have been drinking six in that heat."
Foster often camped on the wall with his support team, then left them for a day's ride, rendezvousing with them late at night. They also stayed in remote villages, dining ceremoniously with local officials. "I had food you wouldn't believe," Foster said, mentioning pork lung and ox penis, which "tastes like escargot. You get used to it after a while." He also drank beinju , potent wine he calls "Chinese rocket fuel."
Foster came in contact with many rural Chinese, whom he says were suspicious and curious. "In one town they lined up outside my hotel window to get a look at me," he said. "There were no curtains on the windows and I couldn't even get undressed." In local municipalities, he said, he had to bribe wall guards with cigarettes, even though the Communist government and the military supposedly had cleared the way for him.
Those Chinese who got to know him "got to love me--I was the crazy American," said Foster, who speaks enough broken Chinese to get by. Because of his long ponytail, they called him erizi , which means "half-man, half-woman," he said.
Foster rode through areas of China that seemed untouched by the 20th Century, but he often was surprised. In one village, he heard familiar sounds--electronic beeps. A video game? He peered into a hut and saw a kid playing Super Mario Bros., one of Foster's favorites. The kid was playing badly, so Foster gave him a lesson, drawing a crowd as he got through all eight levels and saved the princess.
"I was their hero," Foster said.
These days, Foster's life is a lot more mundane. He can be found in his Ojai back yard tinkering with "the bike that conquered the Great Wall," he said. Displaying a capitalistic flair that Chairman Mao would frown on, Foster is prepping the Cannondale for an Anaheim bike show, part of a marketing plan that also includes a video game, a possible article in National Geographic and a book.
Foster puts the bike in a tool shed and removes from a gym bag a pancakelike stone artifact that he said he found in the ruins of a Buddhist temple. Then he unwraps his prized possession, a 30- to 40-pound brick from the Great Wall. The brick is embossed with Chinese characters, which, Foster explained, say that the brick was laid in 1,578 A. D. in Shendou Province during the reign of Emperor Wan-Li.
Although Foster's wife, Anna, was enthusiastic about the trip, his parents were not thrilled. But he could have predicted that. Over the years, Foster's larks have alienated his parents, who live in Waterbury, Conn. "I'm the black sheep," he said. "My father calls me the bum."
His quest to ride the Great Wall came to symbolize, he said, what they thought was a life wasted on trivial pursuits.
"I was the oldest of four, expected to set the example. Get a job. Make some money. They didn't think this was a good example," Foster said. He persevered in pursuing his cycling adventure, he said, because he kept "hearing my mother's voice. She's saying, 'You're--fill in the blank--years old, what are you going to do with your life?' That compelled me to keep going."
Even during the years Foster battled government red tape, he did not endear himself to his parents by getting a job. He decided to use the time to try to break a Guinness world record by riding the entire New York subway system in the shortest time. Using computers and consulting math whizzes at Ventura College, Foster plotted his course over the 750 miles of underground track. He made the trip in 26 hours 21 minutes 8 seconds and didn't even get mugged.
If Foster comes across as a little strange, well, that's because he admittedly is. At least he has been since the age of 8, when he touched a high-tension wire and was zapped by 65,000 volts of electricity. Nearly killed and not expected to walk again--"I was Jello," he says--he made a full recovery, and even claims that the jolt raised his IQ.
The accident had a profound effect on his life. It made him grow up early, he said, and become a loner. It also gave him an early sense of his own mortality, which turned him into a risk-taker. "I don't care about death," he said. "Once you've died once, you don't think about it."
What next for the intrepid adventurer? "I've been invited to do the first east-west crossing of the Sahara Desert" in 1991, he said, adding, "on a camel."