Malcolm Forbes and his team of motorcycling and hot-air balloon enthusiasts have become the first non-Chinese to roar across north China from Xian to Peking.
In fire-engine red vests stenciled with ''Forbes hails China-US amity'' in golden Chinese characters, Mr. Forbes and his five teammates (plus two television cameramen) bestrode their Harley-Davidsons for a 10-day, 1,460-mile ride on highways never entirely opened to foreigners since the founding of the People's Republic 33 years ago.
Mr. Forbes is chairman of the board of Forbes Magazine and an enthusiastic promoter of the Western free enterprise system.
It took two years of repeated applications and the personal intervention of Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, to get permission to motorcycle and raise a balloon in China. Once authorization was given, the Chinese ''couldn't have been nicer,'' Mr. Forbes said in Peking Wednesday. ''We had a ball.''
Mr. Forbes, who is in his early 60s, and his teammates, who included his son Tim Forbes, flew from Peking to Xian in northwest China, then motorcycled to Yanan, Luoyang, Shijiazhuang, and back to Peking.
He thought he had authorization to undertake free balloon flights at major stops along the way. But as matters turned out, all his flights were tethered except for the first one at Xian - ''and that was the result of a misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese,'' Mr. Forbes said.
Xian is a center of China's military aircraft industry and of other defense-related factories, so the Chinese were understandably nervous when Mr. Forbes proposed to go up over the city in a hot-air balloon costing $30,000 and with the Forbes logo emblazoned across it.
(These balloon and motorcycle trips are tax-deductible. Mr. Forbes figures they have popularized the image of his magazine throughout the United States and Europe, including the Soviet Union, and boosted circulation by several hundred thousand copies. He sees no reason why things that ''are fun to do'' should not be as tax-deductible as more Calvinistic endeavors.)
In Xian the authorities first gingerly gave permission for a tethered balloon flight over an outdoor stadium. Mr. Forbes and his teammates demonstrated how beautifully the great balloon could rise as it filled with a combination of nitrogen and propane.
''Now can we have a free flight?'' he asked in all innocence. And the Chinese , apparently mistaking the meaning of the word ''free,'' nodded acquiescence. But as Mr. Forbes and his companions, including a cameraman dangling by rope from outside the gondola, untethered themselves and gently wafted away from the stadium area, their walky-talky crackled with urgent messages ''inviting'' them to return to the stadium as soon as possible.
Alas, once adrift on air currents it is not possible for a balloon to return to its exact place of origin - the margin of error may be anywhere from half a mile to 10. Mr. Forbes and his companions swayed along, enjoying spectacular views of the countryside full of temples, peasant houses, and all the bustling activities of the harvest season, while the messages on the walky-talky grew ever more anguished and peremptory.
In time Mr. Forbes found an appropriate field and brought the balloon down. It was the first free flight by a non-Chinese in China, and apparently so far the only one. Later during the trip, local authorities mellowed, but on each occasion there was too much wind for a safe attempt. Mr. Forbes said he was impressed by the huge crowds that lined the overpasses on the highways he traveled, by the friendliness of the people, and by the tremendous logisticaleffort made by the All-China Sports Federation, which sponsored the trip, as well as by authorities along the way.
''In China you don't just pull up to a gasoline station for gas, or to a hotel for the night,'' he said. ''Everything has to be coordinated in advance.''
Mr. Forbes says he hopes his visit will help open up China as motorcyclable country for other enthusiasts, but concedes this may not happen tomorrow. He is contributing three of his five Harley-Davidsons and his balloon to the All-China Sports Federation.