Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pushing on Through

Definitely. Check it out: two weeks ago I was riding through rural, extra-superrural Guangxi Province in SE China. Two days ago, I was suspended in midair in an airplane. And now, here I am in Australia. I got a job that pays more than twice the Oregon minimum wage, I got a phone and soon I will have an address. Life moves fast, this is just a simple example. It moves so fast that:

The last time there was any post on this website, we were in Xizhou, in Yunnan Province. Xizhou is the capital of Baba and BBQ which means tasty food for Nate and Jaco. We left this capital in pursuit of roast duck, but we were held up in Dali, because of a curse on Jaco's knee. He tried everything from accupuncture to stretching to red flower oil given to him by a guyu named Sea Dragon. So while Jaco waited to find out what in the heck was wrong with his knee, I sorrowfully continued riding through Yunnan, in the hopes that Jaco would join me again in Bamei, a LEGENDARY village at the end of Yunnan in Guangnan County.

The first time I heard of Bamei I rolled my eyes. Jaco informed me over a year ago of Bamei's existence. He said, "Hey Nate, are you down to go to this village in SE Yunnan that's only accessible by a boat that goes through this cave?"

I said, "Yeah Jaco, whatever," not really believing him. A village in super-populated SE China that is only accessible by boat through a cave? Yeah right. China has a way of exploiting tourist sites that will make the most positive optimist look down at strolling feet and feel the weight of this quickly developing world. So I didn't really believe him when he told me about this place, nor did I believe Head Royce Jayhawk Rochelle when she confirmed his story. I was prepared for disappointment. A disappointment that quickly vaporized upon entry to the cave. A man pushes you with his bamboo pole through the obscurity of the darkened cave. You can't see a thing, but finally a slam of light hits you hard.

And this is Bamei. Staggering with maladjusted eyes, I made my way through the village. It was exactly as advertised. Karst. Karst. Karst is rocks that extend purposefully from the ground, and sometimes trees grow on them. It is column, or kolumn, after kolumn through valley after valley of incredible rock formations and misty mountain tops. There was sugar cane and palm everywhere. Jaco and I stayed 2 nights in Bamei, soaking in the absolute paradise, and pessimistically and realistically imagining what the town would look like in 10 years. After all, they only got electricity 3 years ago and now everyone watches terrible music videos from Germany in the mid 90s. And it was being developed.

This is where we split. Jaco's knee kept him off the bike, and I was left to do the homestretch solo. The karst turned into rolling hills, which are incredibly frustrating. You just can't find any rhythm. But I continued to cruise and cruise, and before I knew it I was below 500m and making my way straight to the coast: I would hit water in 2 days!

The riding was rural, and the locals were thoroughly entertained at seeing a foreigner in their town. The dumplings were unnamable and rich, and the roast duck was unavoidable. It was good. And finally I was in Beihai. North Sea, that is to say.

Beihai is projected to be the fastest growing city in the world. Upon arrival, one is struck by the construction. It is everywhere. There is a hotel that they're building that has an ad saying, "like the dragon, world domination". Definitely. I rode as fast as I could past that hotel until I hit the sea, into which I walked then ran. I jumped in and screamed. I looked back at all that land to the West, and "I crossed every pass, rode through every long valley, and got hit by all the snow that came at me!" I was ecstatic, and swam and swam and swam. Then I feasted on roast duck and pomelo, a combination which comes with my highest recommendation. And I missed Jaco enormously. It didn't feel right. This wasn't a solo mission, this was very much a joint effort, and to finish alone on account of a bum knee just didn't feel right. Encouragingly, Jaco was having a great time elsewhere, but I was lonely there on the coast.

But I would soon rejoin Jaco upon reentry into the developed world. I took a bus from Beihai to Guangzhou, a city of 10,000,000 outside of Hong Kong. I had my last roast duck in China, then split to Hong Kong on day 90 of my 90 day visa in China. I made it! Soon I was on my first metro system since Uzbekistan, hurtling at post-bicycle speeds towards Jaco, at a place called Sunny Bay. At Sunny Bay I got turned around. "Can't ride bikes on this road, sir". This was my first experience with the closedness of Hong Kong. Can't sit there, can't spit there, but you can shit at one of the 100s of public toilets in the city. Hong Kong is not China. In China you can spit anywhere even indoors; you can sit wherever you like; and there is nowhere to shit. OK, maybe there's a hillside somewhere in town.

Hong Kong seemed like the land of restrictions compared to the anything goes atmosphere in China. However, by a huge stroke of luck we were invited into the home of Siu Ming, on Lantau Island. She had banana trees growing. This was very nice. She also had a massive garden, of whose fruits she was so generous to share. We stayed two nights here, then headed into Central Hong Kong to Occupy Central Hong Kong. This was a disappointing experience, due to the lack of communication and structure at the camp. But we met some cool people, and bided our time there until Jaco's parents arrived in Hong Kong. Then everything was excellent.

We ate dim sum every day, and had some roast duck in between. For me, this was the last bit of unexpected hospitality shown my way. It was an appropriate, Berkeley bookend to a great trip. After so much time staying with total strangers with whom it was almost impossible to communicate, it was great to have a strong dose of familiarity to end it. It made it quite comfortable, and I hope that someday I will be able to treat my child's friend to such hospitality.

And then I got on a plane to Australia. Here I am, in Fremantle, a suburb of Perth on the West Coast. Two weeks ago I was riding through rural China, two days ago I was on a transcontinental plane, and two hours ago I was hired to work in a cafe. Here I begin my way home, via sailing vessel, to the Americas.

So far so good. I may start another blog, I may not, but if I do I'll give the address to this one. Jaco continues to travel in SE Asia, and hopefully will make it down to Australia in time for me to knee him in the knee.

I sorrowfully and nostalgically end this last blog post,

Nate

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Charity Update

For anyone who attended the charity lamb roast back in December, you can now rest easy with the knowledge that every dollar ($1346 in total) was donated to the SOS Children's Village organization when we were in Uzbekistan. We tried to get an address for one of the "villages" in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan so we could visit, but didn't get a response until a couple weeks ago when it was too late. The organization operates in China, but nowhere near our route. Hopefully, I'll get to visit one in Southeast Asia at some point and take some pictures, but as my plans are very poorly defined, I can make no promises. Inshallah. Thank you again to everyone who contributed!!

Up Periscope! A Breach in the Wall!

Friends, strangers, censors alike, welcome!

After nearly two months' absence, corresponding to nearly two months
in China, a breach has been found and exploited in the so called
“Great Firewall of China”.

Until now, for reasons of national security, our blog was blocked and
we couldn’t access it and couldn’t update it. Thanks to some
cybersappers in Manassas, we are now able to log in once again, and
spread our seditious news to the world outside China, and maybe a few
other countries, I don’t know.

Two months without updating this blog leaves a big, high altitude
blank spot in this internet version of our trip. While the football
scores load in the other window I’ll try not to be too distracted, and
do this incredible section of our trip-from Dushanbe to
Xizhou-justice.

And why not do it backwards!

I’m writing from Xizhou, where Jaco and I are staying. We’re camped
out on a kingsize bed in the Linden Centre, the number 1 hotel in
China no joke. Jaco’s friend Rochelle works here, and as part of her
new contract she was able to swing in two free nights for some
weirdoes on bikes. There is one of China’s best antique collections
here, and as I write I’m flanked by two Taoist statues, an epic
painting of some dudes in clouds, a big vase and a bas-relief of some
dude sitting on a rock. I’m holding a steel string guitar in my lap to
pass the time as the pages load, as the connection here as slow as the
waters passing through Erhai Lake.

Rochelle and Jaco met when they were the youngest of teenagers, at
Head Royce Middle School, home of the Jayhawks. The commute from her
home in Alameda to the lofty mountaintop campus of Head Royce must
have inspired Rochelle to greater cycling goals, and she met us in
Shangri La, and rode with us for 10 days through Yunnan Province back
to her home in Xizhou. This ride was incredible, but it was only the
last spur of an even greater ride, perhaps the greatest on the entire
supercontinent: From Budongquan to Xizhou.

In early September, all the talk in the Western China bike touring
circles was about Qinghaii and Western Sichuan, and whether the roads
were closed to foreigners because of unrest in Tibet. We had heard
that this region, which is ethnically Tibetan, was closed, and more
than that, all roads heading into Tibet were also off limits. This
left us with two options: Take the low road through Qinghai Province
and Sichuan, which is heavily populated and passes through massive
Chinese metropoles; or risk fines and expulsion, and take the high
road through the Tibetan plateau. We asked ourselves, “how would the
mightiest of eagles soar?” and decided to take the high road. To cross
the checkpoints, we disguised ourselves as Chinese cyclists and shaved
and covered ourselves completely. We thus joined the hordes of Chinese
cyclists riding into Tibet, which for them is allowed. At dusk, we
passed the checkpoint in our fine disguises, and, either because the
road wasn’t closed to foreigners (more likely) or because our
disguises were so convincing, we soared on eagles’ wings through the
checkpoint and got ready to climb climb climb our highest pass yet.

We spent two days on the pass to acclimate to the Tibetan plateau,
which sits at an immodest 4000-5000 meters (multiply by 3.3 for feet)
above the salty domain of fish. We finally hit the pass in the
afternoon, and were introduced to the inclement pattern of giant T
storms meeting us on every single pass we hit in Tibet. The wind the
rain and the thunder roared as if mighty lions were perched on the
bolts of lightning that zigged their horrible zag directly at our
tempered steel frames. When there was no roaring, it was silent as
there was nothing to make noise at this altitude. The only sounds are
of yaks grunting and the music that Tibetans play at great volumes as
they ride their motorcycles across the plateau. They all have sub
woofers mounted on the backs of their bikes, and blast traditional
Tibetan music, which is pretty cool. We didn’t look nearly as cool,
but they still welcomed us into their houses and tents, usually for
tea, sometimes for tubs of yakmeat, both of which we found warming and
delicious. And it was important to stay warm here, as everything at
this extreme altitude is difficult. From my journal:

“Yesterday was clearly the most difficult 70km day we’ve had so far.
The road was muddy, often inches deep, and full of rocks and potholes.
I can’t believe that nothing broke on either of our bikes. There was
of course a big, steep pass in the middle of the day. That means that
since our last rest in Serxu, 3 days, 4 passes, all over 4200m, with
snow on the top of all of the passes.”

Every time I thought of the altitude, I would think of the summits of
the familiar mountains back in California and Oregon, and that we were
well above all those summits. The idea of being warm again was
inconceivable. I even used my only pair of shorts as rags to clean my
bike, assuming I would never wear shorts again (not true, I’m wearing
shorts now, and bananas are growing). The people who live in these
regions are hardy folk, and yaks are legit beasts. If anyone is
looking for a difficult, beautiful road through western China, this
road was the best that I could ever dream of. The craziest thing is
that thanks to plate tectonics and an aggressive Indian sub-continent,
the Himalayas and the Plateau are getting higher every second, as fast
as your thumbnail grows.

Before that, we were in the Pamir Range, on the Western spur of the
Himalaya in Tajikistan. We had been thinking about the Pamir Highway
since we started thinking about this trip. The Soviets called it a
“trakt”, and it appears to be the second highest international highway
in the world. Indeed, it was high, dry, and bad. The highest pass was
at 4655m, and Len Collingwood, a 60 year-old Scottish bicycle tourer
who was riding from Mongolia to Scotland who we met at the summit
declared this pass and the whole Pamirskiy Trakt to be “a scalp that
must be taken”. Ride on, Len. There are hardly any motorized
vehicles on this road, and many days would pass where we saw more
cyclists than cars, and more marmots than cyclists. In the afternoons
the winds would scream up from the valley and we would stop, because
they were too heavy to ride into. We preferred to make the most of
our campsites here, and ride in the mornings and early afternoons,
when the wind wasn’t blasting at cosmic speeds. From my journal:

“We decided to cut today short on account of a huge headwind on a bad,
washboarded road climbing up to 4300m on the Kyrgyz border. We didn’t
want to get stuck in no-man’s land, and the riding was simply
miserable. Trying to draft on such a road was the hardest drafting
I’ve ever had to do. So we’re camped here in a gully providing good
shelter from the wind raging down from the North.”

The first part of the highway traces the Panj River, which forms the
border with Afghanistan. We skirted this border for 300km or so,
never climbing too much, never descending enough, but always in view
of the steep, barren mountains that make Afghanistan. We met a few
Afghans on the Tajik side of the border, who were happy about the
American military presence in Afghanistan, and said it made the
country much safer. Most of our interaction with Afghanistan though
was from across the terracotta Panj, staring in awe at the sheep paths
switchbacking impossibly up the cliffs, and at the villages built
wherever they could find flat enough land. This was usually where a
stream would scamper down from the mountains and join the Panj, which
instantly absorbed the clear mountain water into its muddy chaotic
flow.

Before the Panj we had a few days of basically normal riding.
Highlights were drinking Belgian ales from some Flemish folks driving
an old military jeep to Indonesia or something; riding in a
bulldozer’s shovel through a flooded section (Jaco tried to cross and
got all muddy and wet to his knees!); and climbing the dreaded Kalai
Kum pass, 3600m of nasty nasty road and dust, eagles, and perspectives
of distant peaks.

Whoof, that was hard to write. This section has been, for me, the
most interesting and challenging part of the trip. The scenery and
wildlife have been superb, and the food has gotten at least 900x
better since entering China. The road conditions and oblivious
drivers sometimes make being on these roads maddening, and I don’t
even want to mention the honking, which I think has traumatized me
forever. I’m getting nervous simply writing about it. Most special,
and most memorable though are the people we’ve met, foreigners and
locals alike. The people traveling in this part of the world all have
incredible trips, outlooks on life, and good travel advice. The
locals continue their humbling hospitality, a refreshing pattern that
we have enjoyed since Portugal. Just yesterday for breakfast, in a
tiny tiny village called Meidi in Yunnan, the 70 year-old couple who
had invited us to stay the night with them made us deep fried pork fat
with chillies and Sichuan pepper, a melon salad, and leafy greens.
They loaded us down with 8 of their massive pears that they insisted
on giving us, and invited us back at any time. All this because Mr.
Wong, the husband, saw us riding down the road looking for campsites
around dusk. And to think that this has become normal.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part III: Baku, Crusher of Souls

Riding through the desert to Baku was like riding through a wind tunnel that passed through the sun itself before hitting your skin at 1000 degrees. It was hot and windy. So windy, that although we were actually descending to the Caspian Sea, we were going as slowly as if we were climbing great mountains. That's 7 km/h, which is a brisk walk. Downhill. Plodding along the desert we were. Shrubs would have provided us shade, had we been bugs. Yet had we been bugs we would not have seen the Caspian Sea, finally, stretching before us hazy and blue! When we hit the sea we turned North, and Borealis, the great Northern Wind himself redoubled his strength and blew even harder, slowing us down to 6, even 5 km/h. At least we were on the sea, right? Wrong! The Caspian south of Baku totally sucks! It's full of oil derricks and refineries and pipelines and gas stations and cars cars cars who don't give a damn about you. All this is hard to think about though when you're riding into a 4000 lightyear headwind. We did think about getting off our bikes and getting onto a bus, and we turned those electrical impulses in our head into electrical impulses in our muscles, and were soon standing in the aisle of a bus bound for Baku. What wind?

Our first day in Baku we went to the Embassy of Turkmenistan, to get our onward visa from Azerbaijan.

"The consul is on vacation, so there will be no visas issued until he returns."

"When does he return from vacation?"

"Two weeks, maybe three? I don't know."

I would at this point like to congratulate the Turkmen Ambassador to Azerbaijan on his excellent communication skills. He gets a Blue Ribbon at my Communications Faire, definitely.

On our second day in Baku we went to a travel agent who had been recommended to us by the very nice, efficient travel agency we had worked with in Tbilisi. We found him in a back alley, his office was marked with Olde English style writing stenciled in spray paint on the wall of adjacent buildings with arrows pointing to it. We entered his office which had two or three women sitting at desks on the ground floor, then a loft level above. One of the women called him on the phone. A male's voice from the upper level responded, and they continued talking on the phone even though they were in normal conversational range. Awkwardly, we were sent up to Anar, the agent. Anar had shifty eyes, and seemed worried all the time. He woefully asked us what we wanted from him. We told him that had had been recommended by a travel agent in Tbilisi, and that we were told that he could help us with our visas to China. He said, "hmm, yes", then spent the next hour making phone calls to "people at the embassy" and increasing the prices for various reasons. We debated over whether we could trust him, and if it seemed like he was telling the truth or just plain ripping us off. In the end, because we absolutely needed our visas to China, we gave him our passports and a lot of money. He told us that in 8 days we could come pick up our passports, and the visas would be there. Fine. The corruption was evident, and we did not feel good about what we were doing, but damn, we needed those visas and we saw no other way. Now we had to fill up 8 days in Baku. So we called up Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague, Tim McNaught.

We met Tim at "The Brewery". This is a microbrewery. Apparently some Austrians thought opening a microbrewery in Baku would be a good idea, the British oil workers would flock to it. They imported an entire brewery to Baku and trained an old Soviet engineer how to brew beer. Well, he brews fine beer, three kinds as well (Dark, Medium, Light). Even if the oil workers aren't quite flocking to it, the beer is hecka good. We took a tour, and drink fresh beer straight from the vat. That was cool. Also cool was Tim.

Tim is posted in Masazir, which is a suburb of Baku. His official Peace Corps job is working at an eye clinic, but because this doesn't entail too much work, he also spends time working with an economic think tank in Baku, and being a TV actor. I exaggerate. Tim was on TV a few times, and the Azeris apparently loved it. The first time, he played a few traditional songs on the saaz, not the tasty hop variety from the Czech Republic, but the stringed instrument from this part of the world. Tim said that for a few weeks after the show people recognized him on the street, and would dangle their right hand at their belly and hold their left hand out straight, as if playing a saaz. He laughed as he told us this, and his stories warmed our minds as the "Medium" warmed our bellies. We said goodbye for the night as he had to catch his bus back to Masazir, and made plans to meet again the next night.

We woke up, and had to change our living situation. We had been staying with a couchsurfer, but we had to leave there because he hadn't communicated at all with his roommates about anything, and it was becoming very annoying. So we made our way to Baku's only hostel. When we got there, a man in front jumped to his feet and said it was full, but lead us to his house, where we would pay the same rate. It later became clear that he was simply poaching this hostel's clientele, and taking their prospective guests to his house.

Dishonesty and lack of communication were big themes of our time in Baku. From Anar, the snakey travel agent to our couchsurfing host, it seemed like people would rather give you false information than no information. It's as if people are embarrassed to say, "I don't know," or "No, I can't help you". It quickly became very frustrating. And we still had a week left to kill in this place.

After 2 nights in this guy's house, Tim invited us to stay with his family in Masazir for 2 nights. We rode the 30 disgusting kilometers on the freeway to Masazir. Once we got there it was a paradise of relaxation. Tim's family was incredibly hospitable for letting us into their home in the first place. Tim gave us his room and the whole family slept in another room. We were again, like so many times before on this trip, completely humbled by the hospitality and warmth of others. The second evening there Tim, Jaco and I took a bus out to another microbrewery and then the Caspian, where I bathed, and marveled at the sensation of floating in water. After two mellow, relaxing days there, it was back to Baku, where we stayed with a friend of Tim's, Mohsen.

Mohsen is an architecture student from Tehran, who wanted to study abroad in Europe but couldn't get the visa, so he picked Azerbaijan instead. This made me feel silly for getting so frustrated at my own visa hassles, as I am just a tourist who wants to go visit these places. Nothing in my life really hangs on whether or not I get my China visa. It put things in perspective. Nonetheless, it was really frustrating not getting visas! Hopefully, we told ourselves, this time we'd get it. It was getting to about time to call up old Anar and see if he had our visas ready.

"Tomorrow," he said "and you have to come to the embassy. The consul wants to see you to make sure it's your passport." OK, that was fine, but it was frustrating that we'd have to wait another day. Just more contradicting information.

Our plan for leaving Baku was to take a boat to the other side of the Caspian Sea, to Kazakhstan now because we couldn't get a Turkmenistan visa. There is a ferry, but looking online and reading other travelers' accounts of taking it is very discouraging. This was one of the parts of the trip to which I was looking forward most, and missing it would be crushing. Finding the boat and when it leaves though, would be difficult, plus we couldn't even begin the process of a Kazakhstan visa because we didn't have our passports. Luckily, when Jaco was buying a kebab one day, a man bounced down with a baby on his back. He turned out to be Phil Cruz, Baku cycling extraordinaire, and extreme help to Nate and Jaco. We met him the next day and he rode with us literally all afternoon in the nasty heat looking for information on this ferry. The most progress we made was that the place to buy tickets was 10km or so away from the port. Phil's help was crucial, as he spoke fluent Azeri and knew the town well after 7 years living there. So we planned on going the next day to the ticket office, after meeting in the morning with Anar the rat to get our visas.

We walked into Anar's office at 9am, with plans on getting to the embassy at 10am. He said that the consul only wanted to see us, and everything would be fine. He picked us up in his black Benz, with expensive custom plates, and drove us to an office that said, "Chinese visas" and made up some story about some friend that I don't even remember. We continued to the embassy and parked, and waited for 30 minutes. We were waiting for his friend, and he wouldn't explain, and kept saying he'd be there in three minutes. Lies lies lies spewing from his mouth. We walked finally into the embassy, where his friend was cutting people in line and saying he had American passports. It was embarrassing. In his hand were our passports, and two unprocessed visa applications, the kind we had already filled out so many times in our previous attempts to get this visa. It was clear that they had not done any work with the embassy yet. They were simply hoping the money would work. Finally the consul came to our guy, and he refused to accept the application, because we were not residents of Azerbaijan, which was the whole reason we were paying Anar in the first place. He said he could get around that requirement. Liar.

To the least of Anar's credit, we got our money back, he is not a thief, unless you count the time wasted in Baku because of his inability and dishonesty as stolen time. I was livid. He drove us back to his office, but I couldn't stand to be in the car with him. I asked to be let out, and went to the hideous beach promenade they have recently built in Baku with new concrete and benches you aren't allowed to sit on. I paced angrily for a while, and contemplated the remaining options. I think my favorite one was riding back to Portugal. Jaco and I met back up again, I was calme, and we decided to buy plane tickets to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where we were able to get the remaining visas for our trip, including the China one in one day for the normal price. But I'm jumping ahead.

Baku was a city where we met liars, like Anar, and cheats, like the guy whose house we stayed in when we were looking for the hostel. The downtown shopping area is new, and it is difficult to find food. It is full of high-end clothing stores. The beachfront is ruined by the pollution of the oil industry, and the view is ruined by a tacky statue and oil derricks. It is hot, and the police poke you with their sticks when they see you lying in a bench in the shade. Sitting on the grass in the shade is out of the question, although Jaco managed to drink a whole beer on the grass without any problem. Nobody is reading any books in any of the parks. There's no chess anywhere. Even backgammon is hard to find. In the rush to develop, quantity has been achieved-there is a lot of new nice looking stuff-but there is a total lack of quality. I explained this to an Azeri youth, as I was writing about this in my journal. He came up to me in the park and asked, "Can you say happy birthday in Italian?" I said no, and he said, "Well, here it is," and showed me the word cached somewhere in his phone. "We're finding foreigners to say happy birthday in as many different languages as we can for our friend's birthday." I told him I would say it, but he would be better off finding someone who could actually speak Italian to say these words. I explained to him the difference between quality and quantity, using a continuum I had drawn in my journal to illustrate this. He laughed, opened his fancy camera phone and said, "OK, can you say it now?".

I could end there, but this post would be unfair to Baku if I didn't point out the tremendous people we met. Tim McNaught. When I worked in France, I only worked 12 hours a week, and my biggest problem was that I had too much free time. I struggled to fill up this free time, became bored, and slept a lot. I admire Tim immensely for how he has managed to use the free time that his Peace Corps schedule allows him, and for taking advantage of the many resources that he has. I hope to share an IPA with him in his hometown, the glittering, shimmering city on two rivers, the City of Roses, Tualatin, Oregon.

Mohsen Moghadam is Tim's friend who we stayed with for many nights, 5 or so in Baku. We met him for one night at a cafe with Tim, and we got along well. He offered to host us, and held true to his word, even though his studio was small and he was hard at work finishing a project for school. His help was so crucial, and I hope someday it will be easier for Iranians to get visas to the US and vice versa, and I can host him in my small studio somewhere.

Phil Cruz took an entire afternoon in the heat with us cruising all around Baku dealing with unfriendly ticket agents and dock workers. He rides like a man inspired. He has a full suspension free ride bike, and drops huge curbs and stairs and stops cars in their tracks, even in bicycle insensitive Baku. He had us over for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, and made phone calls for us to frantically try to extend our Azeri visas. May his baby daughter grow strong and healthy.

The one episode I forgot to mention in this post is the Green Bikers Club of Azerbaijan. They are a bicycle advocacy group who have got a lot of hard work ahead of them. Jeff, another Peace Corps Volunteer we met through Tim, invited us to their conference where we talked about our trip, and answered questions. It was a blast, and I wish them luck in their long battle to bring bicycles to Azerbaijan. Oil runs deep there.

And finally, none of this would have ever happened without Clarissa Chan's vast network of Azerbaijan Peace Corps friends. We were lucky enough to catch her for a couple nights in Baku, and tell her of our time between Balakan and Baku. She's working on the GRE now or something, which is way scarier than riding a bike over the Himalayas. Without these people in Baku, our time would have been absolutely MISERABLE. No visas, 11 days in a terrible city, and not even a single good time to show for it.

So we left. We put our bikes in boxes and flew away to Tashkent. I'm sitting in a brand new hotel lobby in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, watching a Russian play "El Condor Pasa" on a recorder with a bunch of puppets around him on TV.

We collected 3 visas in 6 days in Tashkent, and powered through Uzbekistan. It was hot. We took a side trip to Bukhara, where they have beautiful tilework on big buildlings. We stayed at a guesthouse in Samarkand through which passed 14 transcontinental cyclists. Suddenly we outnumbered the non-cyclists. Who's crazy now!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part II: The Valley of the Heat and the Doom

We left Balakan in the morning after filling our bellies and water bottles with food and water. The map on Stephanie's wall indicated about 150km to Agdash, where we had a connection in Becca, Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague who teaches English there. We said goodbye to Clarisa and set off in the heat, which was dampened by the plane trees lining the country road descending from the Caucacus into the great valley that cuts through Azerbaijan. Some have named this valley, "The Valley of the Heat and the Doom". Heat and Doom, however, are no match for plane trees, and Jaco and I did well in the shade. The shade ended at about kilometer 100, at about 3pm, when the road crossed the river, then made a 90 degree turn southeast. We ate a whole watermelon, and asked a man at a bus stop in Russo-Turkic how far it was to Agdash.

"120km," he replied with confidence.

We chuckled, and asked someone else.

"120km," someone else replied with confidence.

We did not chuckle this time, and called Becca and told her we would not be arriving in Agdash that night, but made plans to meet up for lunch.

We camped a few kilometers later, and asked a mounted shepherd if we could sleep on his land. He had no problem with it, but told us to move our sleeping bags away from certain bushes where there were snakes. We moved our sleeping bags and started cooking dinner. The shepherd and his brother rode away unconcerned on their horses. We cooked, then ate. At about bedtime thirty, the shepherd's brother came charging down the hills with a flashlight, and began shouting at us in Azeri and shining the flashlights in our eyes. For some reason, he was worried about us sleeping there. Our tired minds were in no mood to move our stuff again, but he seemed really concerned. We had a hard time understanding why we had to move. His efforts to communicate were poor and were not working. He didn't use any gestures, and to make his point stronger, he used the ancient technique of raising the volume of his voice and the more modern technique of shining his flashlight in our eyes. This was frustrating and grated on the senses, but in the end we packed up our stuff and walked with him to his house, where we understood we could sleep. Once we got there there were tea and bonbons waiting for us, as well as fresh honey and fresh warmed milk. The shepherd was there too, and told us that they were so worried about 2 meter long cobras as big as your arm that they had to come get us. An unlikely occurence, but it would have been very nice if they had told us this before, so we wouldn't have had to pack and unpack and trudge our bikes through the tall snake infested grass to their home. In the end we slept in a spare room of theirs. We were woken up two hours before they had told us they would wake us up for no apparent reason in a flurry of the same shouting in Azeri and lack of gestures that had happened the night before. In total confusion, we left, and continued on the road to Agdash, mystified at why we had been woken up so early, but glad to be riding in the early morning cool instead of the mid-afternoon inferno.

A tailwind picked us up, and we soared as if on eagles' wings the 100km to Agdash. We were there by noon, and were greeted by a crowd of 20 or so Azeri dudes. We asked if there was a pay telephone nearby, and suddenly there were 20 or so cell phones being taken out of pockets. We called Becca, and Jaco serenaded them with a fine rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" while we waited for her. When she hopped out of the taxi, they couldn't believe that 3 Americans had congregated in Agdash, and were playing guitar and drinking tea with them. We left after a tea, and had lunch a ways down the road. In a side note, I had to leave lunch early, because I took my first solid poos since Tbilisi! About 3 in 30 minutes! It was quite a sensation.

In Agdash I was also mistaken for first a Pakistani, then a Saudi. This is what beards mean in Azerbaijan. While eating lunch some Azeris told me I needed a haircut, so I got my first professional haircut since 2005. It came with a shave! It was very nice, and made the Heat and Doom in the Valley a bit more manageable.

By the time my haircut was over, the earth had turned sufficiently to ease suffering caused by the Heat and Doom, and Becca mentioned that she thought there was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Ucar, city of dreams in the hottest region of the whole country. The heart of the Valley of the Heat and the Doom. She hadn't met him though, as he had arrived a year after she had. Being so well connected though, she made a few phone calls, and soon had his number, and called him up. She introduced herself and us. Dan, the volunteer, said he would be happy to put us up for the night. Ucar was 25km away, and off we went in the early evening blaze.

"Ucar is a ghost town where the people haven't left yet," quoted Dan from the guide book he had bought before arriving in Azerbaijan. Dan has the unenviable position of being posted in the hottest region in the country. He is the only volunteer living in Ucar, and said he spends most of the day trying to avoid the sun. While he is avoiding the sun he works on his project, which is setting up and maintaining a network of bike clubs for kids in Azerbaijan. He coordinates and leads rides throughout the region and the country, and is promoting bicycles as a means of recreation and transportation in a country that is swimming in gasoline. He has a big house with a pomegranate tree in the garden, and a cool, Old West style porch. He has a french press, and coffee from Seattle, his home town. We drank beers from the standard plastic bottles they come in here, and had a fine dinner in Ucar with Dan, and slept well. He had a full size guitar, and songs about cows walking in trash heaps. We had a fine time, and were humbled by the hospitality shown us. Dan had accepted us with only a few hours' notice, by a phone call from someone he hadn't ever met. The Peace Corps network is alive and well and in Azerbaijan.

In the morning I reawakened my coffee habit, and we left at around noon in the heart of the Valle of the Heat and the Doom. Baku, visas, and the Caspian Sea were only 2 days away.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part I: Balakan

The visa to get into Azerbaijan was difficult to get, but finally on our third try in Tbilisi with the help of the dedicated and friendly staff at the Culture Popularization Centre in Tbilisi we got our visas. We could now ride on to Azerbaijan. And on we did ride.

We left Tbilisi in a ferocious traffic storm of Ladas, Audis, and minibuses who seemed more concerned with dodging potholes and honking at each other than being considerate to bicyclists. Once out of the city, the riding was a cruise through wine valleys and small towns. We slept in a castle. On our second day out of Tbilisi Mr. Sun decided to really beat down, and we had to stop just short of the border to Azerbaijan in a town called Lagodekhi. We were treated well in Lagodekhi, and had a feast at the home of Jega. We drank his homemade wine, ate well, and gave him and his large, Green Day loving posse a concert. It was bike touring deluxe. We slept well, and prepared ourselves for our grand entry into Azerbiajan the next day where we were due in Balakan, the first town across the border where we had planned for months on meeting Ms. Clarissa Chan.

Clarissa Chan. Clarissa Chan went to Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. King is right between Hopkins and Rose streets in North Berkeley, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's an inspiring place, definitely. I went there. I even took a cycling class there in 8th grade. Well, Clarissa went there, and graduated the same year. She then went to Berkeley High! Hey, so did I! So did Jaco! What a coincidence! After Berkeley High though, like so many people in whose company I grew up, I lost touch with Clarissa. It had been years. Last summer though, my friend Hannah told me that she thought Clarissa was living in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan! I had just started to think about planning this trip, and I said, "holy smokes, I should get in touch with Clarissa!" For this reason I joined facebook, because this was the only way Hannah had of getting in touch with her, and I sent her a message on those white and blue waves of facebook netsurfing. Sure enough, she was living in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and would be in the city of Balakan on the same day that we were to enter Azerbaijan.

So we crossed the border, had an ice cream cone with the border guard, answered that no we had not been to Armenia, and rolled pleasantly on the 20 downhill kilometers to a gigantic flag of Azerbaijan in the middle of town. A crowd of about 20 gathered as we rode in and got off our bikes, and we asked in Azero-Turkish if we could use someone's cell phone. Everyone in the crowd whipped out their phones, and we picked one. We called Clarissa. She picked up, and met us in 5 minutes. She was in the same square, paying her respects to the Azeri flag. So after spending every school day from 1997 to 2004 at the same school then losing touch completely, 3 B High Yellowjackets were standing there in a big square in a small town in the Caucasus Mountains in Northwest Azerbaijan. It was about 2pm, and the sun was high. Clarissa said, "yeah, if you guys want, some Peace Corps people are playing baseball in the afternoon".

Heat stroke is a serious issue, which Clarissa clearly had not thought of when she delivered this news. I fainted, and dreamed of turning double plays and smashing base hits and drawing walks on full counts. When I came to we were walking to Stephanie's house, who was the Peace Corps Volunteer who would be putting all of us up in Balakan. They had bought ice cream, and it was good. I showered in the cold water pumped from the river, and felt refreshed and ready. We had a few hours until first pitch, and Clarissa told us of her Peace Corps experience and connections.

"So I kind of planned your route for you through Azerbaijan," she said as she unrolled a small map of the country, "one of my best friends lives here, in Agdash, and you should really call up the Frantzes, in Kurdomir. They have air conditioning. Here's Tim McNaught's number in Baku, but he lives kind of outside Baku."

Clarissa planned our route perfectly, as it corresponded exactly with the route we had eyed out before. Lots of people to call, lots of inspiration. We drank cold, gravity filtered water, played a full size guitar, and finished the ice cream. Then it was time to go see how the ball carries through the warm evening air in Azerbaijan.

Some background:
Every summer the Peace Corps runs summer camps in Azerbaijan. Those who want to travel to the region that is putting on a given camp at a given time, and help the volunteer who is running it. Stephanie, who was posted in Balakan, was in charge of this one, and there were 8 or 9 volunteers who had assembled here to help her. This is what Clarissa was doing. Also, a few years ago some Peace Corps Volunteers made it their project to start a baseball, well, softball league in the country, and every new group of Volunteers has continued it. If they want, they coach teams in their town or region, and every year they travel across the country to participate in games and tournaments. For a lot of the children, it's the first time leaving their small village, and meeting children from other regions of their country. They have a lot of fun, and are producing better hitters than the A's minor league system seems to be doing. The children, boys and girls, were all excited about the game, and soon we were playing nine on nine.

I played pitcher and third, and batted 1 for 3 with a single. I was told by a 4 foot tall Azeri boy to, "pitch like a man". I struck him out. I got robbed on my last at bat, a long, soaring drive to left. I was aiming for a randomly placed, rusting watch tower. Jaco did really well: 2 for 2 with 2 triples, 2 runs and 4 RBIs. Nice work, Jake.

After the game, we goofed around for a bit with the children, played some guitar and were treated to a version of the Azerbaijan Eurovision Champion song. Then we went back to Stephanie's house, and ate real bacon and had real Chianti from Italy, brought by Matt, who had just been there. In the morning, we set off for Agdash, where we were to meet Becca, Clarissa's good friend who was living there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Getting Up to Speed

Since we have done a terrible job regularly updating this blog, I will now attempt to summarize the last 6 weeks of travel in brief and witty paragraphs, organized in chronological order.

Albania:
A fantastic and bizzare country, indeed. There are concrete and rebar bunkers all over the country, hundreds of thousands of them, put there by their insane dictator of 1944-1985, Enver Hoxha. They are designed to withstand a full frontal tank assualt, and the designer was obliged to hunker down in one while it was assualted. He survived. We rode past dozens of these on our way to Koman. While riding across a bridge in the rain, a car pulled up next to me. It was Leo, an Albanian who lives in London who spoke great english. He gave me a beer, and said to stop by his brother's bar in Koman, where we would drink more beer. We rode on through a torrential downpour, on a road that wound through steep green mountains along the man-made Lake Koman while huge fog banks lumbered through the gaps between the mountain peaks. Finally made it to the bar, where we indeed drank more beer, then slept on the floor. We were up before 7, for a refreshig morning glass of raki with Edmond, Leo's brother, then boarded the Lake Koman ferry. Lake Koman was formed when the Albanian governement decided to dam a river that ran through a deep mountain valley, so there are huge mountains that cut straight down into the water. It's kinda like an artifical fjord. Met a lot of interesting people on the ferry, gypsies, polish diplomats, italian pacifists, then went up to Bajram Curri, a town high in the mountains, and one-time center of blood fueds and lawlessness (from about 1994-1997). We ordered lunch by going into the kitchen and pointing at things, which became the pattern here, the climbed a big hill and camped. The road quality declined drastically after this, and it was slow going, through mud and dirt roads with huge potholes and puddles, many of them actively being worked on. Good for the future, terrible to ride on right now. Contrary to popular opinion abroad, Albanians are actually quite friendly people. Multiple people offered rides when I was fixing a flat tire, we were invited for coffee, some guy gave Nate 3 liters of multivitamin fruit juice, thus fulfilling a long-overdue promise made by the flakey bum A.C. Delmer, and we generally enjoyed many a pleasant interaction, except for one pair of children who threw rocks at us just inthe last 10 km before the border. They missed though.

Kosovo:
We really saw very litle of Kosovo. Rode into Prizren into a gnarly headwind on a busy, often dirt road filled with clouds of exhaust, stayed for 24 hours, ate grilled meat, and got my atm card eaten by an atm (then spent a few hours getting it back and calling my bank), then cut out. A huge climb amidst snow capped peaks led to one of the sweetest descent of my life. Fucking primo-ass shit, as they say... clear, rushing mountain streams, high altitude meadows, snow-dusted pine trees, rocky snow-capped mountaintops all around, no traffic...

Macedonia:
Also a short visit. Arrived in Skopje at night and stayed for two days. It was okay, not the prettiest city out there, and then we rode for a day and a half. I had to go back to get my passport, and Nate stayed in Kriva Palanka, which you can read all about on his earlier post.

Bulgaria:
A great country with lots to see and do, but we didnt see or do any of it. We were too busy tearing the Bulgarian Central Valley a new asshole, riding across the country in three days. The first night, we ended up staying with a half-gypsy, half-bulgarian family, Desi and Ivan, and their unruly son, Alex. They were very nice, though when we didn't understand Desi's Bulgarian tongue, she would just shout the same sentence at us again. Incredibly, we still didnt understand. There was no clear divide between inside and outside in this house, no true separation between mud and cow shit and the floor. They didn't seem to notice. Very friendly people though, we had a good time. They warned us about gypsy thieves when we left.

Greece:
Planned on cutting through Greece for about 50 km, but the border crossing we wanted to use turned out to no longer exist, if it ever had. So we took a very indirect and stupid route, along an empty freeway that had a fence running the entire length of it, which made camping very annoying. When we crossed from Bulgaria (a European Union member state since 2007) into Greece, a huge billboard read "Welcome to Europe." Ridiculous. The countryside wasn't too exciting, and we met few people, so there's really not much to say. The border crossing into Turkey was pretty intense, many machine guns and soldiers, and a bridge over the river that had a blue line and a red line drawn right next to eachother, right in the middle of the bridge. On the Turkish side, we were met by friendly greeting, and the border guard asked seriously if Nate was my boyfriend. Only in my dreams...

Turkey:
What a country. Good Lord. Istanbul was mountains of delicious food all the time, my friend's wedding, a huge hip hop diss music video, and lots of Efes and going to bed at 6 in the morning. I had a great time. Bought a guitar, played reggae with Masai warriors, hung out with Cuban dissidents, and looked at rivers, fisherman, and enormous mosques all day. I also visited the neighborhood where my Grandmother was born almost 100 years ago, though I imagine the city has changed pretty dramatically since then.
Those first white roads after Istanbul were insane. Sometimes we were climibing hills as steep as the top two blocks of Marin, then descending the same thing, then climbing more of them, all on dirt roads. For people not familiar with North Berkeley streets, that is fucking steep. Maybe 14 or 15% grade? Generally, we climbed a lot in Turkey. The altitude gets progressively higher as you go East, so it's kind of like climbing on giant hill, with lots of little hills along the way. We passed throguh many kinds of terrain, sometimes dry, Utah-esque landscapes of red rock cliffs and river valleys, other times rolling farmland and enormous plains, alpine forests and vibrant green hills, Capadoccia's otherwordly rock formations and caves (we camped inside a fairy chimney the first night)... As we went further East, things generally got more epic, bigger mountains, higher altitudes, more expansive landscapes. The land is often fairly barren, not many trees to speak of, which means the vistas can sometimes be too big to take in, you can just see so much land. The East is also markedly poorer We followed a river from Elazig to Pulumur through a dramatic canyon with sheer rock walls and waterfalls, slept on the Euphrates river the next night, then cruised through enormous green valleys surrounded by peaks for a few days. Turkey has given us many great campsites, remote locations and spectacular views. We stopped at Ani, the former Armenian capital from about 1000 years ago, just across a river from Armenian soil, ate honey and cheese in Kars, then went north into Georgia, through Posof. We hit the highest pass of the trip so far at 2550 meters, then promptly lost about 1200 meters of elevation in 10 minutes on the descent.
Turks and Kurds are the most consistently hospitable people we've met so far, and we were constantly being invited for tea or just to come kick it. We had to decline half of those offers, just so we could get out of the fucking country before winter, but it was impossible to avoid getting waylaid less than three times a day, talking to some shepard or gas station worker or group of old men just kickin it on the road somewhere. We drank roughly 800 liters of tea, and payed for maybe 5 glasses of it. Every little village has some nice, shaded tea house, with lots of old men sitting around, wearign mousatches and fiddling with prayer beads. Every gas sation has gallons of tea on hand, ready to be drunk by anyone who passes by. Every shopkeep has time to hang out for a minute. Sometimes they bust out some raki and hot peppers, apples, chives, and salad, and you get completely wasted while they tell you about Islam and Turkish politics. Sometimes you stumble upon a bunch of guys slaughtering five lambs at a mosque, and leave with a kilo of big chunks of fresh lamb. Sometimes you just hang out on some pass somewhere and eat dried apricots with a guy and his 200 cows and sheep. You point to a cow and say "kuzu," which means cow, and he nods. You point to a sheep and say, "adana kebab," and he laughs. Now you are friends. It's a great country. Fools around here know how to kick it, for definitely.
Lest anyone be confused, there are huge numbers of Kurds in Turkey, mostly in the East, who are equally friendly and welcoming. I would guess that a little less than half the people we met were Kurds. They are distinct people to be sure, Kurds having been in the area for centuries before Turkic people came, with their own language and culture, some of them practicing their own religion (they are Alevi), but to be honest, I couldn't really tell the difference just by looking. Turkey has such a mix of ethnicities, and they all have moustaches anwyay.

Georgia:
We are here now, in Tbilisi, in a hostel. I took my first shower in 9 days last night. My clothes, which all smelled terrible, are now clean. Georgia has been good to us so far, people are still very friendly on this side of the border. We stopped to hang out with some old guys, who offered us raki. I declined, and pointed to my stomach, which has not been feeling very well for a few days. "Problem," I said. They nodded, understanding. Five minutes later, they poured us both shot sof raki. Lo and behold! I drank it. Felt great for half an hour, then much worse. The road was awesome, down a river through thickly wooded mountains, a marked change from Turkey. There are castles everywhere. We've seen about 12 since crossing the border, some well preserved, some in ruins, on random hilllsides and riverbanks that we've passed. National boundaries are crazy. It really is like we're back in Europe again, a claim I've long read about the Caucuases and doubted, but this place is quite similar to the Balkans in many ways. Two liter plastic bottles of beer are back on the menu. Grilled pork abounds. Turkish food, mosques, muslim style of dress, tea, etc., all vanished instantly. Coffee is back, old communist cars and rows of identical block apartment buildings, hallmarks of the Balkans, are quite common here. The Georgian alphabet is a significant difference, a really cool and unique script, but there is also plenty of Roman and Cyrillic script to be seen. So far it's been great. We hope to get visas and then go into some fatty mountains.

So there it is. The big update. Now all of our devoted fans can sleep easy. We hope to upload more phtoos while we're here, but we need to create more flickr accounts, because we have a lot of photos and can only put up 90 per month on one account. And this has been quite enough computer time for me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Canyons: Bonus!

On our map, roads are either white, yellow, red, orange, or other colors that I don't even know because those colors whatever they are mean freeway, no bikes need attempt.

We left İstanbul following a white roads. We got lost and soon were on dirt roads with signage for the small villages that these roads served that weren't on our map. We ended up on a yellow road, about 30km behind where we expected to be. Yellow roads got bigger and turned into red roads, which would in turn get bigger and turn into orange roads, back to red to yellow to orange again.

We rode through Ankara, failed to get visas; through Kapadokya, megarock formation region with ancient frescoes included; through Malatya and its oceans of apricot orchards; took a ferry across a lake with a castle; then WHOA! CANYON TIME!

After Tunceli, a small city known for its furniture stores with kitchens on the second floor cooking food for Nate and Jaco, we found ourselves in a massive canyon! Our necks were soar from looking at the eagles and the cliffs surrounding us!

A lightning storm soon hit, but we managed to stay nearly bone dry taking shelter in the ruins of a restaurant that had apparently been bombed out ten years ago. We spent a few hours there waiting out the storm with several groups of Kurds. Some were cooking and shared their tasty saç kavurma with us. Some knew mayors of nearby towns and wrote a letter for us to give to the mayor. Some were English teachers and didn't believe that we were riding our bikes to China. Everyone was happy not to be in the gale.

Which let up eventually, and Jaco and I were canyon cruising again on our way to Pülümür. The setting sun gave us enough light to land in Pülümür, and after several big welcomes we were directed to the mayor, to whom we produced our letter. He directed us to a cafe and a restaurant and a hotel, where our efforts to pay were refused. That made it our third free meal of the day, hotel accomodation, and a fine time in a fine city.

The next night we camped on the Euphrates River!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Large Quantity of Photos

nate 824nate 800nate 799nate 746nate 745nate 742
nate 720nate 717nate 713nate 711nate 709nate 708
nate 707nate 691nate 695nate 770nate 769nate 765
nate 758nate 755nate 752nate 751nate 837nate 828

Check out all these photos! Mostly Albania. One of the Portuguese coast snuck in there.

"We are atheists, we don't have beards."

The amount of hair on my face has played a large role on this trip. It was a bit of a surprise, but at the same time, I can understand, because for a long time, I looked like an asshole:

In the Balkans, I looked like a lunatic:


In small towns everywhere, there has been very little variation in the way people dress and present themselves, but even in big cities, the reactions I ellicited were often extreme. With a big beard, it was really absurd. Cafes full of people would suddenly fall silent as I passed, and entire tables would turn to stare at me unabashedly. Old Italian ladies would literally stumble when they turned the corner and saw me there, and would then look at me like I was a convicted rapist and hurry past. These were not isolated incidents - this was an everyday reality. It was ridiculous. I was called Osama bin Laden on a regular basis, especially after his death was announced. In places where I expected some people to have beards, like Northern Albania or Kosovo, I found none. Indeed, it was something of a symbol there, and I got a lot of confused looks. The quote that titles this blog entry comes from Tush, a guy we met in Bajram Curri in Albania. With the moustache, surprisingly, I actually got fewer looks, though I think it was just because people didn't notice as immediately. In most cases, I would wave, say hello in whatever language was appropriate, or perform some other salutory gesture, and usually the people would snap out of their shocked state and return my greeting. Sometimes they would just stare open-mouthed. In any case, by the time we arrived in Istanbul, I was pretty tired of being a zoo exhibit all the time, and cut a combined total of 14 inches of 'stache off of my face. I got a haircut, too, and did laundry for the first time since Macedonia, and was born again.

What Seems Like a Curse May Be a Blessing

There was a sheep with a bell wandering somewhere. There were birds singing while the streams met and decided to be a river. The sun rose weakly and intimidated, afraid of the clouds at dawn. It blushed and went away.

'Fuck!'

Jaco is awake, I gather. I look over from my rock on the river, watching the bugs no more I hear Jaco frantically unzipping zippers. One. Sleeping bag. Two. Tent. Three. Rainfly. He doesn't even look my way as he rushes to his panniers. I am watching him now. He is gunning through his panniers.

'I left my passport at the hostel'.

I guess we're not going to Bulgaria today.

And it rained. We rode to the nearest town, where we planned for Jaco to take a bus to Skopje, which we had left the day before, while I would wait for him in the town, Kriva Palanka.

Harmoniously, everything worked out and within minutes of finding an ATM in Kriva Palanka Jaco was on the bus and I was left alone at the bus station with the two fully loaded bikes, no cash (we had spent all our Macedonian denar the day before, thinking we would be arriving in Bulgaria, which was 10km away), no plans, and a lot of time. It stopped raining.

I ate the rest of my Kosovar peanuts, and changed into my jeans, which have still not been washed as I write this. Then the children began to circle.

The manager at the bus station began to take up a curiosity, and stared at me in confusion.

More children came.

'bicikla?'

'da.'

'kade?'

'portugalska to kina'

'kina?'

'da.'

The morning manager, whose name unfortunately I cannot remember, pointed to a cafe overlooking the bus station.

'macchiato?'

'da, ali'

I pointed to the bikes, pointed to my eyes.

'Nema pirata, [macedonian]'

Glory! There are no bike pirates in Kriva Palanka! Pirate! The word I had been searching for for months! Pirate! Indo-European for thief, thievery, stealing! Corsairs, privateers, buccaneers! None of them here in the mountains.

'Nema denara, imam bankomat?'

'da. Damian!'

And so I was accompanied by Damian to the ATM. I withdrew some denars, and climbed up to the balcony cafe, with Damian and Mary, my friends. Despite my insistence, they didn't want anything, expressing themselves in English. One macchiato, then two. A drawing of the bus station. Goodbye Damian and Mary. A third macchiato!

Damian came back. And left. And came back again. We went down to my bike to play chess. Damian made up his own rules. His friends came, and they broke the fence. They got yelled at by Boro. It is raining now. Goodbye Damian.

I sat under the awning for awhile, amused at my new friends. I hadn't played chess with ten year olds who made up their own rules in three months. Before that though, I had played a lot of chess with ten year olds who made up their own rules.

Damian is back!

'I'm mad at my friend, he hit me,'

Yes. They had gotten into a tussle. Damian's face was red, and he had been crying. I gave him a baseball card. Billy Ripken, Baltimore. He asked me to autograph it. Nathan Roter.

I am freezing. Goodbye Damian, do what your mother tells you.

Hello Boro. Boro was the new bus station manager, working the afternoon shift. He had a fire in his office, and he welcomed me in. In my improving Macedonian, we passed the hours. Damian, profesor, came in and stayed for 15 minutes at a time, then would leave for 5 minutes, every time sorrowful as if it were the last time that we would see each other.

In the warmth Boro told me about Macedonian monasteries, and tasty fish from the mountains.

It is 6pm. Where is Jaco? The bus from Skopje was due at 6. Boro was anxious and confused as well. Where is the bus? It was raining hard now. Boro angrily got on the phone.

'defekt, sedam ili osum' he told me and pointed to his watch.

Late Jaco. Defekt bus Jaco.

Hours.

Jaco arrives from the rain. Boro, Damian and I were discussing sleeping options for the night.

'Manastir Sveti Joakim!' said Boro with a touch of his thumb and forefinger to his pursed lips.
'2 kilmetri'.

Rain coat, rain pants, low gears, and the climb to the monastery. 2 kilometers later we were eating sausage, ajvar, fresh cheese and fresh yogurt from the monastery with homemade rakija and wine with Aleksander, an aspiring priest and head of the monastery.

Aleksander did not know Boro, nor did he know Damian. He knew much about hospitality, and Jaco and I were glad to be warm and among friends in the mountains in Macedonia. Bulgaria would have to wait til the morning, and the rain fell while we dreamed of eagles.


In other news, we are in Istanbul, my rack broke and has been replaced by Paris's newest Delmer, Adrian C. Big thanks Adrian! By some counts, Istanbul is the end of the European continent. Boy, to have ridden across two continents! Jaco bought a guitar here, our bikes are clean and ready for the long lovely ascent of the highest mountains in the world.

Let the dogs bark but not bite.

Let the wind howl at our backs.

Friday, April 29, 2011

a few essentials

Here are some pictures we wanted to get up before too much time elapses...


Us with the legendary Bostjan (middle right) and his friend Marco, two great guys


Another great guy, the infamous Drazen. Unfortunately, I can't spell his name quite right on this computer (the Z is supposed to have a little caron over it).


Of much less importance than the people we meet, but also pretty cool, this is one of those very old books we saw in Verona

Approaching the Land of the Eagle

Yes, friends, the time is near. We will soon breach the frontier of the fabled Shqipërisë, better known in the Western world as Albania, the Land of the Eagle. An exciting time, indeed.
For now, we're kicking it bigtime in Budva, Montenegro, the Land of Black Mountains. A huge black storm is thundering around in the mountains above the town, but we're down by the beach, untouched by the fury of this meteorological outburst.
We left Mostar in good spirits, powered by the miraculolus energetic properties of burek, a stuffed pie usually filled with meat or cheese that has the strength to rise 10,000 Lazari from their graves. I ate three of them yesterday. We cruised thorugh a few valleys until dusk began to fall, then asked a farmer if we could camp in his wild thyme-filled fields. He said "Da," and we gave him huge daps. The next day set off on what was supposed to be our first Century, where we ride over 100 miles, but alas, it ended in (relative) failure, if you can call riding 90 miles through scenic valleys and over epic mountains a failure.
First, we crossed into Republika Srbska, a semi-autonomous region of the bizarrely arranged political entity called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You could tell you had crossed the border by the big Serbian flag and Cyrillic signage. The landscape changed a bit too, with sharp, pyramidal peaks replacing the more rounded mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina proper.

Nate slogging through Srbska


Demographic boundaries are marked fairly clearly here, often by flags and national colors (i.e. a bar we saw in Stolac, a town in Republika Srbska, was pretty clearly owned by a Croatian, as it was covered in Croatian flags and pictures of Ante Gotovina, a former general who was recently sentenced for war crimes committed during the Balkan wars in the early 90's). Tombstones are another way to tell. Muslims have stone turbans or crescents adorning their graves, Croatians a cross and Roman script, Serbians a cross and Cyrillic.
There's also trash all over the place, in all parts of the country. Strange that people would fight so fiercely and so brutally for their land, and then throw garbage all over it.
As we rode through a wide valley between two sets of sharp peaks towards Trebinje, black mountains became visible in the distance, shrouded in fog. It rained for a little while. We passed a fourth-century monastery. In Trebinje, we ate stuffed cevapi and sausages, potatoes, and two loaves of bread. Stupidly, we didn't eat any burek. Heading out of town, we followed a river upstream, up an extremely beautiful valley, lush with greenery on both sides, ever-higher mountains surrounding us, the river rolling smooth and blue below the nearly empty road... We took a small road to a border crossing we had been told was open. It would have been great if that was true, because it would have saved us about 2000 feet of elevation gain, and cut through another fatty boombatty mountain valley, but for some reason that we never really understood due to our undeveloped Slavic language abilities, we weren't allowed to pass. I think it may have been open onto to Bosnian and Montenegran nationals. In any case, up we went, up a huge climb through fucking epic mountains. I hung out at a flower-studded alpine meadow for a while, listening to goats, crickets, birds and a dog making their respective noises, watching clouds envelop mountaintops then reveal them again as the wind pushed them along. There were probably eagles nearby, but I didn't see any. By the time we go to the top of the pass, the fog had really come in, and we could hardly see down the sheer mountainside into the valley below.

Welcome to Montenegro


durn

Montenegro is really spectacular, there's hardly any flat ground that we've seen, just mountains rising out of every acre of land. Occasionally we would pass through a small valley ringed by peaks, but that was about it. We camped in one of those, as you will see if the pictures I'm trying to upload right now actually work. It's going very slowly.

Our campsite in Dragalj

The Monetnegran night crept up on us while we were still 10 miles short of our Century, and we were forced to camp. It was a wise decision, because the next day we smashed down some huge descents, back to the sea, to the fjord of Kotor, and it would have been quite stupid to do this at night. I mean, we would have missed out on all these fat views.


Fjordian waters


You can see one of our roads snaking down the mountain


Churches on island in the fjord

We stopped in Kotor for long enough to eat three bureks, drink several beers and some coffee, and marvel at the ridiculously epic fortress they have there, then went a whopping 30 kilometers to Budva. Budva's not a bad place. There's a carnival starting today. Double dang. I might have to go buy some Jelen.

Italia

Okay, this is actually France

The last bit of France

Now we're in Italy
Our pirate camp site
Feasting in the foothills of the Alps
We took a detour through Hell

Nate surveying the Underworld


There are a lot more pictures, but man, this is taking forever

Monday, April 25, 2011

Space on a Bicycle, Another Frontier

'When you meet the stranger, invite him into your house, and give to him food, and drink'.

Words spoken from the head of the Easter Sunday table by Tony, quoted from the Bible, translated by his son Dražen, who sat at the other head of the table. Dražen and one of his customers had seen Jaco ride by and as they ran out of Hemingway's Café in disbelief and confusion at the sight of a lunatic on a bicycle, they turned their heads to see me. I stopped. Dražen asked me in English where we were from, and I explained that we were riding our bicycles to China. I asked him where an ATM was so that we could withdraw some Konvertible Marks and spend them on grilled meat or burek. A few minutes later, we were in his cafe having espresso and multivitamin fruit juice. We quickly understood that on Easter, in Hercegovina, you can't get grilled meat. That was okay, we had somewhat prepared for that, and we had enough extra food to get us to our destination, Mostar. Dražen though asked us if we were hungry, we admitted that we were, but this wasn't hard to guess because we had been talking mostly about where to get food. He made a phone call, then came back to us and asked if we would like to go to his parents' house, outside Posušle for the Easter meal. This was a very difficult offer to refuse, and we were soon shaking hands with Tony and sitting down at the table. From there it was a mish mosh of German, Croatian, Italian, and English as we feasted on stuffed cabbage, rakija, bread, wine, ham baked under a loaf of bread, roasted lamb and potatoes, and soup with dumplings. This was all homemade, we ate it, and it was good. Communication wasn't at all difficult though, because Dražen spoke perfect English, which he had learned from watching TV and listening to the radio, and was happy to translate. When we were done we got up and left, as Dražen had to get back to open up his Hemingway's Café for the afternoon. Hemingway's is the finest cafe in all of Posušle, a mostly Croatian town in Bosnia just past the border with Croatia. If you go there now you can see a genuine 4 time Worlds Series champion and former Oakland Athletic (he was traded in 1988 for Bob Welch, to the 1988 Dodgers) Alfredo Griffin baseball card.

We came into Posušle tired and without any money, and we left with full bellies, and though there may or may not have been a tailwind heading into Mostar, we rode quickly, on eagles' wings.

Now we are in Mostar. Tomorrow we leave, and head back over the mountains to Kotor, in Montenegro, which is an old Venetian outpost at the head of the largest fjord in the Mediterranean. A fjord is a bay created by a glacier, as it slides down the mountain into the sea.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Slovenian, Orel means Eagle

Avast!

They say the Dalmatian coast was long ago a haven for pirates, and mountebanks. Its coves and inlets made it easy for these sneakies of the sea to hide themselves behind islands, then strike like coiled snakes at ships sailing to and from Venice.

Indeed. We have sailed these seas ourselves, and luckily, made safe passage. Maybe we saw a dolphin? We are in Croatia, on the island of Krk (there is a town called Vrh on Krk), in the town of Baška. There are cliffs on both sides of the valley, and great rocky islands everywhere in the bay. Buildings are plopped down in a strip by the sea, with a long promenade protecting the town from the harsh realities of coastal living. Like pirates.

We are injury free!

We tore like oiled lightning through the Alps and across the plain of Lombardy. We visited a microbrewery in Piedmont called le Baladin, and it was good. We took a rest day in Verona, home of Romeo, home of Juliette, home of some of the first printed books in the world, which we stumbled on upon first arriving, in a library kept by Capitelli monks. There were manuscripts and sheet music that were printed by the first printing presses that arrived in Rome, and Venice. All this because the person outside whom we asked if there was an internet cafe somewhere happened to be the library's director.

We crossed into Slovenia at the edge of the plain, and were invited into the home of Bostjan Vodopivec and his family, after asking him if it was okay if we camped on his land. We were treated to delicious homemade strawberry wine, and two great salames that seem to be cut from ancient mammoths. They are fantastic, some of it sits in my belly now as I write.

I can't figure out how to upload photos onto this computer, so those will have to wait. As will we for our ferry, which leaves at 5pm.

Until then, we are in Baška and the sun is shining and it is Spring.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jake's Big Adventure continued

Oh boy, what a week it has been.  Like an eagle in search of prey, I have been cruising alone for the last week, leaving Nate to fend for himself against Achilles' terrible rage.  Meanwhile, I have had the less enviable fate of riding along a flat,paved road next to the picturesque Canal du Midi, watching flamingos balance one-leggedly in coastal marshes, and camping like a bandito on the lam.  I took off out of Toulouse for an easy afternoon ride, and camped just outsied of Castelnaudry, where they have a bridge dedicated to Thomas Jefferson. Just before Carcassone, I ran into another bike tourer named Ann Wilson, who complained about the path on the Canal, which had deteriorated quite a bit in the last 20 km, and was now rocky and rooty and generally pretty slow going and monotonous.  "By Jove, she's right!" I said to myself, and soon left the canal in search of smoother asphalt and exhaust.  Ah, and what a feeling, soaring down the tarmac at three times the rate of that blasted canal!  I trod on to Beziers, to meet my father's old friend Pierre Bayou, who graciously let me stay with him and plied me with a huge piece of meat to build enormous muscles. "Sugar and fat make energy!" he cried, "But to build muscle, you need protein!" He was absolutely right, and with my meat-enhanced leg power, I set off the next day for more adventures.
     It sounded like a great idea: ride out across a little spit of land that cut between the sea and a big marsh area, save myself some 20 km and get a great view.  In practice, it was fairly grueling.  I started out at the end of the spit on a nice road that eventually became unpaved and a bit sandy.  Then the road got rough, but at that pointi was already a good ways out on the spit and was extremely reluctant to turn around.  Besides, i could see that the road was fine after 40 feet or so, so I picked up my loaded bicycle and carried it over the sand, set it down and rode some more.  I passed some more sandy sections, some bulldozers and very confused workers, until I reached a point where there was no road at all, just huge piles of sand. Fuck.  Left with the choice of backtracking, then riding the long all the way around, or pressing on in the hopes that the road picked up again, I chose the latter, and dragged my bike along an empty Mediterranean beach, right next to the water, for probably about 2 miles, cursing like a sailor the whole way.  But I made it, ate some bread and cheese and drank some wine and felt like a new man, new in the sense that I was much more exhausted than I had been an hour before.
    The next days were less exciting, though no less enjoyable.  Lots of tiny little country roads, coastal marshes, and seaside towns that look like they have hordes of tourists in the summer and not much else.  One was bizarre, with futuristic looking buildings made of white concrete and not a soul around. La Grande Motte. Hit the first climbs in several days getting into Marseille, white stone peaks jutting out from shrub and pine-covered mountainsides. A huge fog bank engulfed me and the mountains as I screamed down to the sea.

Jake's Big Adventure


Very pretty, but alas, the wrong path


Ideal riding on the Canal du Midi
Carcassone

A hungry, hungry Jaco

Beziers

The world-famous Pierre Bayou

mooooooo

get that fuckin camera out of my face, fool

unidentifiable industry

This is where the road got rough

because of these assholes!
so i had to carry/drag my bike down here for 2 miles

that's not a good place for a bike
at the end of my day at the beach

La Grand Motte.  City of the future in 1972

I ate lunch here

view from campsite near Fos s/Mer

epicness near Marseille