Sunday, October 30, 2011

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.

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