logo piaggio wide



Giorgio Bettinelli was the world’s most remarkable Vespa traveller, an adventurer who was romantic and courageous, eccentric and passionate. His scooter trips, from 1992 to 2008, were memorable. Ten years ago, in 2006, after four long journeys on a Vespa through 134 countries in the world and more than 260,000 km on the saddle of the celebrated Italian scooter, he embarked on an “all China Tour”. In 2004, Giorgio had begun a new life in China. He bought a house on the banks of the Mekong river and married YaPei. He seemed to be beginning a new and more placid season in his life. But the “elsewhere and on the move syndrome”, which had driven him to discover new places and people, hit him again. His fifth journey began in May 2006. This time, he was travelling in just one country, China, going to all thirty-three geographical areas that make up the immense Chinese mosaic: his China Tour later became a book (his last, published by Feltrinelli), entitled “La Cina in Vespa”. In this video (posted on Feltrinelli Editore's YouTube channel), Bettinelli relates his extraordinary experience, at the start of the economic explosion of the Asian giant that has marked world history over the last ten years.

Giorgio Bettinelli presenta "La Cina in vespa"

Video’s English Translation: “Unlike my four previous trips with the Vespa, this fifth journey had a special characteristic: whereas the other four, in 260,000 km, took me to 134 countries – twice round the world – the fifth was in just one country. It lasted a year and a half, during which I zig-zagged, although I planned the least zig-zagging itinerary, but in the end it was schizophrenically zig-zagging. Because the intention was to travel exhaustively through just one country, to visit all the capitals of its 33 geographical areas (or 34 including Taiwan according to the Chinese, the Taiwanese don’t agree). So let’s say the 33 geographical areas that make up this huge Chinese mosaic, which it is now fashionable to call the great question mark of China, economic boom, about which I, like so many people in Europe or Italy, still know very little. If you say Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, everyone knows what you’re talking about. If you say Hubei, Hebei, Hainan, Hunan, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, which are provinces as large as the American states, if not much larger, people still know very little about them. I had already been living in China for two and a half years. As soon as I managed to get a Chinese driving licence, they don’t recognise the international licence, as I slipped it into my pocket the idea came to me: why not organise a trip. Later, people told me it had never been done, either by a Chinese, because the country’s historical and economic conditions meant it was not possible, far less by a foreigner. People often ask me, what do you feel when you finish a trip? Well, first of all I’ve always travelled, it’s almost pathological, because at 14 I hitch-hiked from Crema, where I was born, to Copenhagen, not just with the blessing but also with the money of my father, at 15 I went to North Africa, at 17, I had my baptism on the road. Baptism, confirmation, military service all at the same time, and that brought me a magic pass, with a group of hippies who were travelling from London, Amsterdam, there was a place for me starting from Trieste, and that was my first real trip. In 1972, at 17, I went to India, which is very different to India today, but then I was too. There were other journeys, and then these four, now five, trips on the Vespa. The common denominator, especially of the most recent adventures, once I reach my destination, and cross the mental finishing line, is the “yeah, yeah, I’ve done it” syndrome; sometimes when you talk about crossing Africa on a Vespa, with a route from Tangiers to Cape Town, from Cape Town to Djibouti, 33 African nations, of which 15 at war, brutal war, with machetes; Sierra Leone, Liberia, I didn’t enter the country, but I travelled along the border, Angola in 1999, that may have been the most hellish country, the worst country for a child to be born in. And the same thing always happened: on each arrival, apart from the explosion of joy, which to be honest I never experienced, the most powerful feeling was melancholy because the trip was over, and it was particularly strong after the first trip from Rome to Saigon, when I didn’t know whether I would be able to go on other journeys. Meanwhile, there were other trips, but this sadness with an aromatic tinge has always been there. If you leave for a short trip, a week or a month, you can leave everything at home and concentrate on the journey ahead, whereas someone who’s been travelling round on a Vespa for 16 years also has to focus on their life, on what’s happening inside them, not just on what’s going around you, which is much easier to document. And China is an incredible country with its stimuli, things to think about, its often tragic history, but at the same time these things were happening to me too. At first, I thought I should censor the personal part, and just recount what my eyes saw, and then I said, no, sincerity is the duty of someone writing about their life as a traveller, and I’ve really exposed my soul talking about what had been happening to me – in quantitative terms it accounts for perhaps half of the book, in a Chinese context because I’ve been living there for four and a half years now – and with little self-indulgence, sometimes with stubbornness, recording with my heart on my sleeve what was happening to me inside and out, with the frankness of a sincere person, or a lunatic, depending on your point of view. And I hope you’ll like the book that’s come out of it.”

In his distinctive style, with a touch of irony and an abundance of detail, the multi-talented and warmly remembered Giorgio Bettinelli (journalist, author, singer-songwriter, actor and traveller, who was born in Crema, Lombardy, in 1955, and died in Jinghong, China, in 2008, at just 53), immerses the reader in the great contradictions of China ten years ago (which still persist today). From small provincial villages to huge urban conglomerations, from dirt tracks to multi-lane motorway intersections, from endless deserts to western-style shopping malls. Giorgio travelled for a year and a half and rode 39,000 km, meeting nouveaux riches and peasants, bureaucrats and beautiful women, the young and the old, and absorbing some of the infinite scents and colours, sounds and silences that make up daily life in the territories of the ancient Celestial Empire. The idea was to investigate the roots of the “Chinese miracle”.

AN UNEXPECTED GIFT. Everything began in 1992 in Bali, where Giorgio was living in a bungalow on the coast: an Indonesian friend gave him a rusty old Vespa scooter. He had the two-wheeler refurbished, got on the saddle and began an extraordinary “second life”. Because that surprise gift was the original spark, as he himself recounts in his book “In Vespa. Da Roma a Saigon” (Feltrinelli Editore, 1997, a publishing hit with ten reprints) about that first lone trip on a two-wheeler (preceded by an exploratory tour of Sumatra, which sealed his love affair with the Vespa, a symbol of liberty). In the summer of 1992, he left Bali and returned to Italy, where he proposed his tour project to the Piaggio company. Piaggio provided him with full support: logistical (through the many dealers and service points around the world, alerted by Piaggio as Giorgio rode through their countries), bureaucratic (through embassies and consulates, to obtain the border documents and permits for the scooter) and economic, by supplying the two-wheeler. Piaggio continued to help him during his subsequent trips; and everywhere he went he attracted great attention from the media, which soon began describing him as the “Vespa ambassador”. Riding a new Vespa PX 125, Giorgio left in July from Mentana, in the province of Rome (where he was living at the time), and seven months later reached Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City), in Vietnam, after riding 24,000 km and crossing ten countries: Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Giorgio Bettinelli - Italia Vietnam in Vespa

EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEYS. After that, Giorgio never stopped: in 1994-1995, he rode 36,000 km from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America; in 1995-1996, he travelled 52,000 km from Australia to Cape Town in South Africa; his fourth trip, the “Worldwide Odyssey”, was a three-year expedition, from October 1997 to May 2001, leaving from Tierra del Fuego bound for Tasmania: 144,000 km through Alaska, Siberia, then into Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar, Djibouti, Cape Town, riding across southern Asia from Yemen to Indonesia and Australia. The most hazardous episode was in Congo, when he was kidnapped and robbed of his possessions, but survived. Giorgio’s extraordinary adventures continue to capture our imagination in his books. And what about the Vespa scooters that were his faithful travelling companions? The four PX scooters are on display in the Piaggio Museum in Pontedera, a few yards from the factory where the world's most famous scooter was created 70 years ago.

The Vespa PX scooters ridden by Giorgio Bettinelli all over the world, on display at the Piaggio Museum. On his last journey, in China, Giorgio rode a GT.