Monthly Archives: September 2014
***We did it. We rose to the challenge and made a dream a reality. As of yesterday we reached the fundraising goal of $10,000 to help build a classroom and complete the school in Guang Ming, Sichuan, China. It is an amazing feeling and I would like to thank everyone for their kind support and generous contributions to make this dream come true. From my family & relatives, friends near & far, the communities of Smiths Falls & Perth, Ontario, acquaintances and some kind people unknown. It is not the size of the donation that matters, but the involvement in a worthy cause. To be apart of something that counts so much in the lives of the children. In just a few short months 78 donors contributed to reach the goal for the school in Guang Ming, just two days before I finish my ride through China. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Amazing! Pictures and updates on the school as classes get underway to come soon. Can’t wait, thank you once again! Click “HERE” to see the charity page.***
“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” ~ T. E. Lawrence, Writer/Colonel
(See below for all new travel pictures)
The road lay ahead, beckoning me onward like a whipped donkey. The sun scorched the dry Earth and my tight skin. The wind scratched my face rough and raw as sandpaper. My beard tangled with dust and fingers brown with the daily grind. The parts left open to the elements showing their human weakness in their coarseness. At night it was cold and the wind flapped my tent throughout the evening. In the morning a peaceful calm would emerge. The coldest part of the day poking it’s head to welcome me into it’s misleading opportunistic glow. Towards a polished blue sky and dusty brown Earth I rode.
During this time I struggled through a mental and physical slog. On my right side long stretches of empty scrub with towering snowcapped monsters blowing their cool winds. Empty. Endless emptiness to my left. If you walked either direction from the road, there surely was no hope of emerging on the other-side, if one was foolish enough to enter unprepared. The stops between cities are long and few. In the desert things are simple. Survival is the key, there are few other distractions. Sandwiched in-between the Takalamakan and Gobi desert sections of the Chinese Silk Road I powered on at a minimum 130km a day. If I didn’t push myself each day I felt like I would never make it. Through legendary cities with histories more complex than I have had time to fully wrap my mind around. To dirty truck stops with a predictable grime and gritty feel. I was but a rolling speck amidst all the vastness. (See all pictures below)
As I left Zhangye I watched the landscape change by the day. From a region inundated with trees and water in southern Gansu province to the empty desert scrub of the far western area. I went through towns that reeked of onions to road stops selling dried dates and nuts. I ate delicious noodles and was welcomed by Muslim hospitality. Here and throughout most of (rural) China life takes place outside. A man sips his tea after a day of hard work. A women wrangles a young child running around with their bums out the open flapped pants. A bearded man plays his favourite tunes on a small wooden whistle. Garbage burns listlessly in a ditch. I watch and stare in wonder, the favour returned three times over.
I came to the ‘end’ of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan. Complete with a fantastic fort that safeguarded the Hexi Corridor from invaders and processed the weary merchant traders that came from the far reaches of the known world. At 8,800km the wall stretches across the Northern reaches in all it’s majesty. I climbed the reconstructed end of the wall and took pictures of the smoking power station below. A dichotomous trend of old and new, rich and poor I have seen throughout China during my time here. As I left Jiayuguan, I was please to see the wall stretch much further onwards in a crumbling state. The wall, now only a relic of a glorious past, is still representative of China’s protective nature.
After more wind whipping and questionable camping spots I came to the famed Xinjiang Province. Known in recent news for Uyghur dissatisfaction and terrorist acts throughout China. Propaganda or truth? Hard to say. The control noticeably stricter, the Han Chinese large and in charge of regulating the population while locals struggle to make a living in the arid region. The beauty and simplicity of the Xinjiang region rivalled the rest of the country as my favourite part. Maybe because it is just so different from the rest of China. So ancient in many ways. A living history can be gleamed from the faces of the people. For thousands of years they remained right there doing the same things. The Uyghur people are strong, proud and largely misunderstood.
I zoomed into Hami, where I ate deliciously roasted naan bread and lamb kebabs. Hami melon, was one of the naturally sweetest things I have ever eaten, due to the cold conditions at night and scorching daytime heat. As I stopped drinking water a man simply walked up and gave a Hami melon to me and said “Thank you come Xinjiang.” It is not the mountain views or ancient vistas, but moments like this that make it all worthwhile. Kindness without any expectation of return. Some of the most touching and humbling experiences on this trip have come from the little gestures that make us human.
“Nothing is black or white, nothing’s ‘us or them.’ But then there are magical, beautiful things in the world. There’s incredible acts of kindness and bravery, and in the most unlikely places, and it gives you hope.” ~ Dave Matthews, Musician/Songwriter
On my journey I have been recording each act of ‘Kindness’ and ‘Unkindness’. In China alone there have been 24 specific acts of kindness towards me. These range from giving me a place to sleep for the night, to free bicycle parts and acts like the Melon Man’s. This does not include all the people that let me fill up my water bottles on a daily basis, the free meals, friendly ‘Hellos’ and directions given. In over 5,500km cycled through China there was only one unkind moment, when someone stole my travel towel in a hostel. I didn’t let it bother me in the least, as I know that it is not indicative of the population. The hostel feeling so bad gave me my 3 nights free of charge as a result.
From there I struggled onwards, past Bactrian camels quietly staring in the midst of mountains. The road always seemingly uphill and into the wind. Onwards to the desert oasis of Turpan. One of the pinnacles on the route of the Silk Road. At last I came to the downhill to Turpan. And what a downhill it was. Turpan being the second lowest point on Earth, next to the Dead Sea region. I sped down through massive canyons, by impressive sand dunes and past vineyards. Famous for grapes, Turpan smells of an endless variety of raisins, roasted bread and availability of cheap wine. I visited the ancient city of Jiaohe and wondered at the weary travellers who once traded and rested here before moving onwards.
At this point I needed to make a choice. My Chinese Travel visa was fast expiring. I needed to get out of China. From my location I could either head to Urumqi and wait a week for a Kazakstan Visa; or take a bus to the amazing historical Chinese Turkestan city of Kashgar and from there travel visa free to Kyrgyzstan. I’ve always wanted to go to Kashgar for years. I chose the later. The reality of long distance cycling in countries that are dauntingly big and have visa restrictions, is accepting that you cannot do it all yourself. Hopping upon a sleeper bus we departed late and broke down soon after. I was awoken in the night by a man shining a flashlight in my face asking me if I had the tools in my bicycle bags to fix the bus. Sure I’ll get out my Allan key and change that tire right away for you. They were unprepared to say the least. 28 hours later we arrived in the sensory explosion that is Kashgar. This was not China. I explored the fantastic Sunday markets where you can buy everything from camels and rugs to spices and antiques. I navigated small alleys. Ate delicious bagels, Marco Polo noodles, kebabs and spiced yoghurt. The old town is a picture into the past. My favourite ‘Chinese’ city by far.
China saved the best for last though. I took a ride up the Karakoram highway to the China/Pakistan border with two other Canadians. The road took us out of the dust storm surrounding Kashgar and up between beautiful mountain peaks, lush green valleys and endless horizons. The mountains of the Himalayas in plain sight, towering at 7,500 metres. Camels, goats and yaks grazing on the picturesque plains below. It was one of the most visually stunning places I have ever been in the world. We then returned to Kashgar down the beautiful mountain road from the Pakistani border and I prepared for my final assault on western China. I made the necessary preparations to cross the barely cycled Torugart border pass in Kyrgyzstan to begin my next adventure.
With country number two on the horizon I am more than excited. As I look back through my journal on my trip across China, I am amazed I made it at all. Starting out in China was a struggle and terrifyingly large task. Everyday was a new learning experience as I settled into my haphazard routine. I struggled some days more than others. But each was a new adventure, a new town, a new camping spot and a new friend. Everyday is new. Everyday is a problem solving situation. I loved all of it.
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ~ Dalai Lama
It is hard to accurately describe the experience of cycling across one of the biggest countries in the word using but a few words. I have called China my home for the last two years and have experienced a world over. There is still so much left to discover in such a beautiful, complex and ancient civilization. It will always be apart of me and I will always come back. I’m not done with China, it still has many secrets to tell me. To the next chapter.
“A time comes when you need to stop waiting for the man you want to become and start being the man you want to be.” ~ Bruce Springsteen, Musician/Writer
As I set out into the chilly morning I was content. Content with who I was becoming on my ride and where I was going. Each day when I pack up my few things and load up my bicycle, I really have no idea what I am getting into. Where will I sleep tonight? Who will I meet? What will I eat? How far will I go? All questions that are slowly answered as I pedal on and unlock the day. It is completely freeing. The road is my compass, my bike is the ticket and everyday is what I make of it.
Leaving Langmusi I pushed out on a cool morning. I hoped to have my next day off in Lanzhou a few hundred kilometres ahead after descending from the Tibetan Plateau. The road went up and up, green fuzzy looking hills stretching out in the distance. Winding my way onwards the temperature began to decline. 15 degrees, then 10 and down to 5. “How can this be August here?!” I thought out loud as a flakes of snow floated in front of me. I am glad I’m not planning on sticking around for winter. Well, the snow turned into heavy cold rain with wind. Even through my gloves, my fingers were frozen. I pushed on and eventually found a small shop to warm myself by a stove, drink tea, eat noodles and dread the outside. After an hour of feeling sorry for myself, I knew I needed to move on and stop being a wuss. I went back out, tossed on my classic rock playlist, tapping along to Bruce Springsteen and The Who as I climbed a hill in the cold rain for two hours towards the next town.
The following day I set out towards the Tibetan town of Xiahe. It was only to be a short ride, so I took my time. I met an Italian cyclist on the road and we talked of our journey’s so far. It was nice to meet another long distance rider again. I felt bad for him as he had a 30km hill to tackle that I had just came down. I couldn’t tell him. I then was met with my own climb not long after and made my way up to Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery. Mountain rivers flowed below, people harvested their crops with the ending of the season and small trucks trudged up the hills. I enjoyed Xiahe. Spending the day exploring the monastery, watching monks laugh on cellphones, eating Momos (dumplings) and wondering at the old weathered faces of the Tibetan people. You can immediately see the difference in culture both physical and in their spirituality from elsewhere in China. To be Chinese is sometimes hard, but to be Tibetan is even harder. Not only do the Tibetan people have to deal with the harsh climate, but also an ever-changing doctrine of rules and regulations on their comings and goings.
The next day saw me bombing back down the road I came and onto the main road towards Lanzhou. This day was one of transitions. I went from one of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism in Xiahe to Linxia, the ‘Mecca of China’, in just over 100km. As I rode mosques began to poke their heads above the trees and present themselves on the horizon. Beautiful buildings, amongst smoking vehicles and dusty streets. I really enjoy the Muslim style of noodles as well as the hospitality you receive when coming into their shops. The noodles are always handmade with skillful stretches of the dough before being dunked into water right before your eyes. I always leave full and with my water bottles filled. There is less poking at me with the typical ‘questions’ I answer over 15 times a day as well. Good tea, nice noodles and peace.
From Linxia I prepped myself for a long day and left early. The day wore on through little villages of Muslim Chinese with big sunglasses on rickety bicycles, roadside card games, loud markets, hockers selling sunflower seeds still in the sunflower, music and more dust. Shop entrances covered by thick curtains to keep out the dirt. A man gave me a heap of flat bread upon reading my ragged ‘Magic Letter’ in Chinese, that proves to inspire bigger smiles the further west I go. The heat had also returned with my decent to lower altitude. Being too hot is better than being cold though. My day was going the way it should have until the slow mountain road separating myself from Lanzhou presented itself. My gateway to the Hexi Corridor and the start of my Silk Road journey. It was slow and my legs were tired after a week of riding. A headwind came up and rain started as I made my way up to the top. It was getting late, but I was still on par to make it to Lanzhou with the light of the sun. Finally, I crested the mountain and let gravity take over as I barrelled into a tunnel.
Well my bad luck with tunnels continued. Tired from the long day I was coasting quickly down the decline in the poorly lit tunnel. At the last second I saw a massive hole. I smashed it. I knew my bike was in trouble. I couldn’t stop, my backrack had collapsed (again) upon my brake line and the front tire blew. I stopped using mostly my feet in the dripping wet tunnel. I walked my beaten bike out the next kilometre as trucks screamed through the tunnel at me. I said nothing and got to work, almost as if I expected this to happen. I replaced the tire and tube with my spares. I unhooked my back brake and saw that the rack could make it to Lanzhou, but I would need a new one.
After a lovely intermission I continued on. Using the front brakes I eased my broken bike down the steep hill. The rain had turned the dust into mud and covered me all the way to the city. By now it was dark and still 25 kilometres of busy and loud city to navigate through to the only hostel. Generally, only the expensive hotels accept foreigners in Western China. After a few kilometres I got a flat in the middle of downtown and patched the tube in front of a huge crowd of what must have been over 20 people. They watched the tired Lawaii (foreigner) get to work without ever looking up. What a show! That day I had also felt a little sick after drinking some dirty water that was not quite boiled. Well I took this opportunity to get sick everywhere on the road. That scared the crowd away rather quickly as I sat slumped on the sidewalk feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t find the hostel after searching for what seemed like eternity. It was 11:00pm, I had ridden over 165km, climbed two mountain passes, was sick, tired and dirty. I was eventually beaten into securing an ‘expensive’ hotel at 30 dollars. Well over my weekly budget for accommodation. I collapsed immediately in the soft bed.
“See the opportunities for adventures, not the constraints that get in the way” ~ Alastair Humphreys, Modern Day Adventurer
The next day saw me picking up the pieces of my life, fixing the bike, finding the hostel and eating, eating, eating. I was preparing for the long road across the Taklamakan desert to Urumqi. While I was there an acquaintance from a few weeks prior showed up after his jaunt from Chengdu. Ernest from South Africa. He has been cycling around the world for over 7 years. It is his second time around with over 122,000 kilometres logged. We got to talking about the adventures of bicycle touring, the roads we had taken from Chengdu and what might lay ahead. If your interested in his adventures click http://ernestonbike.blogspot.com to view Ernest’s website. A fascinating guy.
I woke the following day excited. It was time to start my Silk Road journey. I set out through morning traffic. A man on a bike even stopping me to give me some knee braces and a ridiculous floppy hat. How did he know where I was going? I spent the next few days navigating a scrubby desert road uphill all the way to Wuwei. The road eventually turned west and beautiful mountains began to appear. The road continued to climb up as I drove my way through the Hexi Corridor past wind turbines and empty road. The mornings were cool and the afternoons scorching. The sky completely blue, not a cloud.
Then I saw it. I had been looking for it for the last few days. It was coming over the horizon like a broken train. First nothing more than irregular piles of mud. Then turning into a more identifiable shape. It was the Great Wall! I cracked a smile and pedalled on. At over 8,800km, the Great Wall is truly one of the great wonders of the world. For the next half day I followed the crumbling wall along as I sped towards Zhangye. Great Wall on my right, snow capped mountains on my left. China truly is a fantastic country. If you ever have the chance to visit, take it. The people are kind, they’re curious and humble. The landscape has it all, offering stunning mountains, deserts, grasslands, valleys, beaches and rivers. The food is diverse, delicious and unlike anything ‘Chinese’ you eat back home. I could travel in China for years and never see it all. My cycling route and the last two years is but a slice of the pie.
“People travel to far away places to watch in fascination, the people they ignore at home” ~ Dagobert D. Runes, Writer/Philosopher
But, eventually the road blew through a section of the crumbling Great Wall and snaked onwards. From where I stand the wall still continues another 300km. I look forward to making my journey west with it by my side. I also completed my longest cycling day with a record 178km upon arriving in Zhangye. I felt proud. My legs were wobbly, but my mind was strong. I rewarded myself with a day off to visit the Danxia Landform outside Zhangye. Beautiful rainbow geomorphic rock formations that have eroded over the course of 65 million years when a salt lake dried up.
Now I prepare to tackle the next portion of my journey and the final leg of China. I head west into the Xinjiang region and the Taklamakan Desert. The name literally means in Uyghur, “He who goes in, does not come out.” Sounds like a challenge to me! Time to stock up on water and food for the long journey, just as the merchants of old must have done. Only I’m not carrying any precious cargo, besides pictures and dirty socks. There is now a defined road, it is much safer and I don’t have to deal with camels; just a creaky bike that has put back almost 4,000km in two months. I head now towards cities of old legend like Turpan (the second lowest point in the world), Urumqi and Kashgar. To the end of China. To a flat road and a hopeful tailwind. Into the desert I go.
***Thank you as well to all of the people who have contributed to my charity with Free the Children to help finish the school and build a classroom. The school is nearing completion and we are $1,100 away from reaching the goal of $10,000. Amazing! My Chinese Visa is set to expire on September 25th. I would like to challenge everyone to help me meet the goal for the school in Guang Ming before I have to exit China. I know we can do it. Thank you to everyone for your generous contributions since I began my ride. It is awesome to see what we can achieve working together. I can’t believe we are this close! CLICK HERE TO DONATE