Friday, August 15, 2008


And like that, the trip is finished. After getting back to Bishkek, the situation in Xinjiang province got even worse, with some terrorist bombings in Kuqa city. All the western land borders were closed, going into and out of the country, so the only way to get around would have been by air. However, this simply seemed too expensive and too much of a hassle. I'd have had to fly to Urumqi to get to China, and then rather than riding directly into northern Pakistan, I'd have had to fly again to Islamabad, and then likely have to take yet another flight to get to where I wanted to go within Pakistan itself. All this while trying to figure out which airlines will take bicycles, paying extra cargo fees, etc, etc.

I just couldn't believe it all became so complicated. All I wanted to do was ride maybe two weeks from Kyrgyzstan through a small slice of western China, to northern Pakistan and do a month or two of hiking. Is that so much to ask? But alas it just wasn't meant to be. Add to that, I then realized that Ramadan was going to start in early September, meaning almost everything was going to be shut down in the daytime for the entire month. And that was the end. A few days looking for a cheap air ticket, a long flight through five airports, and I'm home.

In conclusion, I'd have to say that even with all the complaining, the bad roads, the pollution, the traffic, the roadblocks, the heat, the cold, the long days with nothing to see, the flat tires, and everything else, it was still a great trip. The bad days are now all good memories, and the good days even better. I do wish that things had worked out better toward the end of the trip, but, well, that's life. I hope to get back to that region eventually, but I'll just have to put that K2 base camp trek on hold for the time being. And, as far as future bike trips go, well, I really do think I'm done traveling for a while. I might try to do a summer-long western states ride in a couple years, but as for my prior visions of a one-year Patagonia-to-Alaska bike ride, I really don't see that happening in the foreseeable future.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Stuck in Bishkek Blues

So I did make it to Kyrgyzstan after the previous post, and, eh, did OK for the first couple weeks. I signed up for three weeks of Russian lessons, applied for my Uzbekistan visa, and things seemed to be going pretty well. I think I ended up staying too long in Bishkek, as I got my visa sooner than I had expected (I had heard it would take up to three weeks, but it only took less than half that), and by the time my Russian lessons were finished (which were largely inneffectual -- there are a few languages that one might be able to pick up a meaningful amount of in a couple weeks, but Russian is NOT one of them), I had already become so lackadaisical that it took me another week or so to get my ass moving again.

But, finally I did get my ass moving again. Biked down to Song-Kol lake over the next few days through some gorgeous terrain, and the lake itself, at over 3000 meters above sea-level, with nothing but livestock, mountains, and the occasional yurt (the Central-Asian version of a teepee) to be seen.

I stayed there a couple days with a Basque biker couple that I met on the road. After that we split up and I planned to go in the direction of Osh and then on to either Uzbekistan or China, I hadn't decided yet. However, once I got down to the southern valley from Song-Kol, I found that the road to Osh had just been recently regraveled, and the gravel was layered on several inches thick. I don't know if that sounds so back, but it was terrible. I had no traction at all. My back tires couldn't push, and my front tires couldn't steer. The first 30 km of the road was on flat terrain though, so I decided to go forward and hope that the conditions got better before I reached the start of the mountain pass. It took me OVER A DAY to ride (or mainly push) those 30 km, and by the time I got to the start of the pass, I saw that the road was going to be the same condition the entire way up and over, and that there was no way I was going to be able to do it on bicycle. Fuck. Let it be noted here that in sparsely-populated Kyrgyzstan, there are only a handful of roads, such that if the one you want is impassible, you're faced with a really long way around, if there's an alternate route at all. In my case, it meant going all the way back to Bishkek and starting off in the other direction on the main trunk to Osh, which I avoided the first time because other cyclists said the traffic was a nightmare.

So, begin the long journey pushing my bike back over the 30 km to get off this road (also note this is in the desert, in July). Once back on the main road I was desparately dehydrated. I had managed to find water here and there, but simply couldn't seem to drink it fast enough to keep up with the heat. Anyway, the first main town was another 100 km down the road, which took me way longer than I had anticipated; I think I was just physically and, perhaps even moreso, mentally exhausted and my body was refusing to do what I told it.

Once I got to Naryn, I went to the local CBT (Kyrgyzstan's national travel agency) office. I had known that there was a possible short-cut to China not far from there. It's a border crossing known as the Torugart Pass (famous as Marco Polo's route into China), but is officially only open to Kyrgyz or Chinese citizens to cross. However, with a certain expensive document, it is also possible for foreigners to cross that pass as well, presuming they have a licensed Kyrgyz courier transport them the 100 km from Naryn to the border on the Kyrgyz side, and have arranged a licensed Chinese courier to meet them at the border and transport them the 200 km from the border to Kashgar. Complicated stuff.

So, talking to the agent, it ended up that it would cost around $440 all told. WHAT? $440 for a taxi ride! For something I could do on my bike for free! It would even be cheaper to fly, if I ever got back to Bishkek. (Let it be noted that I had even been considering simply flying out before I even left Bishkek originally). I simply couldn't stomach it.

However, that price was per taxi, not per person. I asked if there was anybody else that had inquired about the trip, and he said that he hadn't heard of anyone, but that usually once per week or so a group will cross, and sometimes they will have an extra spot. Faced with indecision, I let the waiting game start.

Meanwhile, I've been staying with a local Kyrgyz family that invited me to stay in their home when I arrived in town (a common occurrence in Muslim countries). It was fairly nice; actually perhaps the best part of the trip for me. They gave me food (bread, jam, an occasional soup) and tea, and I was helping their kids learn English. It was a bit annoying at first because the eldest brother (23) would not stop pestering me about how I could help him get a job in the US. I guess they don't understand the idea that you can't simply bribe an official and get whatever you want like you can in Kyrgyzstan. However, after a couple days he chilled out a bit and I got to enjoy rural Kyrgyz family life.

It was fairly nice. The have a cow, five sheep, a house with three rooms, a small TV, outdoor squat toilet, two cars (?!?) and a dump truck (the father is a "driver"), and live close to the river where they make daily trips to wash up and get fresh water for the house for the day. The girls take the animals out to pasture, the boys were working on an additional room for the house, mom was mostly in the kitchen, and dad was out driving either his taxi or his truck (both of which always seemed to have to be towed back at the end of the day). Food, like I said, was very simple, usually just home-made bread and jam and something halfway between lard and butter, and lots and lots of tea. I remember being so enamoured with the simplicity and the from-the-earthedness of the food initially that I had decided that when I get back to the US I'm going to start eating exactly like this. However after several days of nothing but the same crappy homemade bread over and over and over again, I could hope to never see another piece of bread again in my life! Regardless, it was interesting to see how they lived.

The highlight probably came when they sacraficed a sheep for me. Yup, you read that right. Wake up early in the morning, do a couple quick prayers, grab a sheep, tie its ankles together, and go crazy on that jugular. It was fascinating to watch. Supposedly a hit to the jugular releases certain endorphins in the brain that immediately calms an animal down for impending death. And that seemed to be the case. The sheep really didn't seem to experience that much pain, and it was really only a couple seconds from the time it was a living breathing animal to the time it was a piece of meat ready to be dissected.

And they wasted no time with that, either. The skin came off, then the digestive organs came out and mama had the work of cleaning those out. The head and hooves came off, and papa started taking to them with a blowtorch. And then the other internal organs started coming out one-by-one, and finally the meat was hacked up into its portions. Not so much as an eyelash went to waste. You can guess that lunch that day wasn't quite as limited as usual (with a big roasted lamb skull sitting on top). Ultimately the whole experience really did reveal some of the essence that exists in the millenia long balance between man and the earth. I recommend everyone to have a sheep sacraficed for them someday.

Anyway, back to practical matters. So finally Monday I learned that there would be two guys going over the pass on Wednesday. Okay, $150 is certainly more palatable than $440. Even still I was feeling leery -- they had actually arranged things through a different agency and something told me that there would be a problem with my bicycle and the taxi drivers. Tuesday I found another bicyclist that wanted to go over the pass, we finalized the details on coordinating with the other two guys, we made sure the taxi drivers were taking minivans capable of holding our bicycles, we confirmed that all the documents were finished and there would be no problem at customs and finally I was able to sleep easy. After a whole trip that seemed nothing but roadblocks -- from the four flat tires I had that forced me to Beijing, to the hassle of the Trans-Siberian railroad that prevented me there, to the dreariness and mosquitos and cost of everything that turned me around in Sweden, to the visas and general malaise that kept me stuck in Bishkek, to the gravel at the pass at Ak-Tal that forced me back there, to now the border hassles at the Torugart, after all the self-doubt and second-thoughts about whether this trip has been worth it or whether it ever will be worth it, or whether I should go back home and get back to work, or whether I should have never come on this trip in the first place, it suddenly seemed like the rest of the journey, from Naryn to China, the Turpan desert and the alpine lakes of Kanas, to Pakistan and all these great, well-paved mountain passes to the highest reaches known on this planet and humble old cultures of the northern areas, and on to India, the desert remenants of the Royal British Empire in Rajastan, the ancient pilgrimge centers all along the Ganges, the national parks, and even crazy modern Indian Bollywood style all the way to Calcutta were so wide open, so free, dependent on nothing but me and my bicycle, away from all this beaurocratic bullshit that had been taking away everything I wanted to do, and yes I slept well that night. Then finally, on Wednesday, I woke up to find out that there had been riots in Kashgar and all the land borders from Kyrgyzstan to China were closed. Take that, asshole.

So, now I'm back in Bishkek. How things change. Now I hate this city. I started looking for flights home. Cheapest one I've found yet is $2000 and leaves in eight days. Eight more days in crappy old Bishkek. But of course another part of me is saying I can't let this stupid border incident mark the end of this trip, or rather of this part of my life, since I do feel pretty unwaveringly that this is going to be my last long multi-country trip like this in a long long time and have felt like that since the days when I planned it. The three guys I was going to go over the pass with are catching a flight to Urumqi on Tuesday, and I'm increasingly feeling like I might join them. If for no other reason than to try to find a few more cheaper options on flights home from within China. And who knows, maybe once I get to China I'll start feeling a little better about this trip again.

Anyway that's my current position. Until next time.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Belated account of Sweden

Actually right now [last month] I'm in Sweden, but hopefully getting ferried off to Kyrgyzstan tomorrow. I gave up on the trans-Mongolian railway when I was in Beijing and started really researching it and realizing how much of a pain in the ass it would be to get my bike on and off the railway at all the various stops I wanted to make in Siberia. I booked a flight to Stockholm thinking I would just ride from there to Moscow over the next month, but two days into it I realized it was the exact opposite of China -- perfect roads, no traffic, peaceful and quiet, and not even a hill to speak of. In other words, boring as hell. I had been so excited to get here and ride through this region with nothing to worry about but going forward. But as I should have realized, with nothing else to worry about, doing nothing but going forward, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, stroke after stroke, seemed like so much more of a pain in the ass. Throw in that this region is perhaps the most expensive in the world, and the idea quickly started to lose its appeal.

After two days riding north I turned back toward Stockholm, and managed to get a reasonably cheap ticket to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and will hopefully be going in that direction tomorrow. I say hopefully because I really haven't made any preparations. I'll be biking to the airport, and just hoping that my bike can go on the plane as-is. This worked out just fine in Beijing, but I'm thinking Stockholm airport might be a little more prudish about what it will take and what it won't. (And I've read that most European airports require bikes to be boxed up before being admitted as luggage, and that some airports have packaging areas that'll do it for you and others expect you to do it yourself before arriving -- but I have no idea about Stockholm in particular. However I assume, just for the sake of optimism, that we'll be able to work something out. (Though this may actually be the result of too much time in Asia, where it's the case that you can always work something out. I keep forgetting that in western countries, rules are rules, and if the bike can't go, the bike can't go)). Not to mention I don't have a visa for Kyrgyzstan yet (though I've read that you can get one at the airport on arrival), and, em, I have no idea what I'm doing. Again, optimism. Yay.

I'm curious how this bike trip is going to end. It's kinda unraveling at the seams as we speak. It's entirely possible that I'll get back on track once I get to Bishkek. Bishkek was on my original list of destinations, though I wasn't expecting to get there until mid-August. So I could just hang out there for a month or two figuring out something interesting to do while I wait for my itinerary to catch up with me. Or it's just as possible that everything will unwind and I'll be back at home in a week. Which, I guess I'd be fine with that too. I've got a job that is supposedly waiting for me, and some ideas I left behind that I wouldn't mind getting started on. I haven't talked to my old boss yet about the prospect of coming back early. I guess until that happens, I'm still fairly committed to moving forward. But we'll see how things go once I get to Kyrgyzstan and have two months to look forward to with no idea what to do with myself.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Month 2 - Sichuan to Beijing

Looks like I'm getting a bit behind, so let's catch up a bit. Just before the earthquake I was in an old Tibetan town called Songpan. Rode up into the mountains with some Tibetan guides for three days. Got some great pictures. It's funny - everyone in that town speaks Chinese, being taught that from birth, and it was nice to be able to converse a little bit with the guides using the basic Chinese that I know. But I was so surprised to see how big the smiles were when once I said thank you in the only Tibetan word I know (tashideleek). Anyway, here's probably my favorite pic from the trip.

After this, well, of course the earthquake. Here are some pics of the earthquake in action.

In the last one, you can see the wall that fell over in front of me. Initially that was my only indication that something weird was happening. I saw that wall fall, and was expecting to see some construction equipment behind it pushing it over, but saw nothing but a few people that seemed to be direly confused. Then I myself started to feel some shaking. Thinking oh crap I broke a spoke, I got off the bike to look at what was causing the shaking. Of course as soon as my feet hit the ground I realized what was going on.

And here is one that I think is far more interesting -- two days later once we got a generator working, watching the news on TV:

From here was the rush out of Sichuan and into Gansu province, which I still find to be (by far) the most beautiful of the Chinese provinces, especially for bike touring. Great roads, no pollution, and while it lacks some of the giant peaks of its southern neighbors, many great hilly regions, somewhat reminiscent of New Mexico or Utah. Blue skies, green trees, and a Santa Fe brown to the earth. I really didn't get a ton of pictures here, as I was somewhat in a hurry, and somewhat too overwhelmed by everything to stop and take some crappy pictures.

That feeling mostly continued on into Ningxia province, the small niche that the Chinese government carved out for the Muslim people (though 80% of Chinese muslims actually live elsewhere) (Bonus points for anyone who knew that China had a sizeable Muslim population) (Yes, most look exactly the same as Chinese, but just dress a little differently, at least in Ningxia province. As you go farther west, the Uigher muslims look a lot more like Afghans, supposedly, I haven't been there yet).

From there, on to Shaanxi province, which was mostly desert in the area I went through (and I can't believe I actually went through Shaanxi province without going to Xi'an -- it was perhaps the most important city in all of Asia for over a thousand years, and I just skipped it). And then, into Shanxi province. This is the province that contains the heart of modern China. Coal. Lots and lots of coal. Lots of huge loud coal trucks running you down on the expressways. Lots of roads that have been torn apart by way too many, way too heavy, aforementioned trucks rumbling down them. Coal in the air, coal on the ground, coal on just about anything that lies anywhere within the remotest blowing distance of that province. These were long days that consisted of not much more than avoiding trucks and banging across roads that looked like they had been clusterbombed, trying to look any which way but straight and getting coal into my eyes, which needed huge gritty coal boogers peeled out by my black sooty fingers every thirty seconds.

I remember entering the province, and thinking how ugly it was, and how dirty I got at the end of the first day. As much as I had been complaining about the rest of China, this was something on a whole different level.

I couldn't believe that day two was actually worse:

And then there was day three. . . .

That got me to Fenyang (the beautiful city in the above two pics), from which it was an easy 40 km ride over a fairly nice road (not on the main coal route) to the old historic walled city of Pingyao the next day. I got to play tourist there for a couple days before heading north, again over not-so-terrible roads (though still not great), theoretically toward Mongolia.

Now however I'm in Beijing. On the fourth day of my ride toward Mongolia, I somehow experienced four flats in under 48 hours. This, having only had one flat in the entire 70 days prior. I'm still not sure what happened, as some of the punctures are on the rim side of the tube, not the tire side, yet I've run my finger all along the rim many times and can't feel any protrusions. I'm wondering if perhaps the first flat was a regular puncture, a nail or whatever (I just threw the first tube out without checking where it was punctured), and maybe a piece of metal or glass or something somehow got caught between the tube and the rim when I changed tubes, which could have then caused the subsequent flats. Anyone that knows much about bikes feel free to speak up here.

Anyway, in Beijing I did manage to find two new tubes for my wheels. Note to any other prospective cross-Asia bikers: when selecting a bike, take rims that fit schraeder valves. Had my rims fit schraeder valves, I could have gotten new tubes on virtually any street corner in any small town in China. However, with prestas, even in Beijing, I've so far only found one shop that sells them, and they had two in stock.

So, I've managed to find a couple more bike shops online, and I'll stop by those tomorrow and see if I can pick up some more tubes. Then, time to see if that fixes the problem, or if I'm going to have to revamp my wheels completely. Yikes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Earthquake update #2

Hi all. I just wanted to say thanks to everyone for their thoughts, their prayers, and their efforts to find me. I'm now completely safe and out of the affected area completely, in a city called Tianshui in eastern Gansu province.

Right now I'm struggling a bit with the reality of the whole thing. With no electricity and no outside information coming in, I obviously had no information at all the first couple days to give any impression that this was anything more than a local temblor. I had heard that seven people died in some gold mines somewhere, and I knew that some landslides had blocked the roads and so for the first two days that was all I knew. Some kind Muslim people took me in and let me stay in their restaurant, and generally life went on pretty much as normal, just quieter. The third day, I heard the roads had opened up north, so I decided to make a move for it, figuring I'd be out of the affected zone within a couple hours. A few hours into that ride, I met some English speakers and learned that it was a magnitude 7.8 that decimated some towns to the south. Since then, it's been mostly biking as far as I could each day, and slowly picking up more and more information. Last night I finally got to a town with electricity and was able to see some of the images on Chinese news, but it isn't until right now that I've been able to really read and see what has been going on.

I think it was the day before yesterday that I heard that the epicenter was a place called Wenchuan, and it was totally destroyed, wiped from the planet. Looking at my map, I realized I had stayed the night in that town on 5/5. For a quick second, that stupid feeling of self-whatever that just comes as a matter of being so closely associated with something so huge. Then a second later, a long, base, barfy feeling that still hasn't gone away. The laoban at the noodle shop that absolutely refused to let me order the "regular" beer -- only premium for his special guest. The elementary schoolers that were trying and trying to speak to me in English but I simply couldn't understand no matter how much I tried. The old ladies line dancing in the town square. The girl at hotel reception that spoke so clearly that I almost understood what she said, but always 10% faster than I could keep up with and always in paragraphs instead of sentences so that I would only catch the first few words and then fall hopelessly behind, and when I asked her to repeat herself, would say the exact same paragraph at the exact same speed such that it may as well have been a recording. The other girl that came to our rescue and blithely translated everything for us and then disappeared just as quickly as she had come. Well, who knows. Maybe, hopefully, they all somehow were among the survivors. I really can't think about it much anymore.

Perhaps fittingly, in all of this, I've had by far the best three days of biking that I've had the entire trip. The weather, the scenery, the roads, have all been beautiful.

Anyway, from here, I'm just gonna take a couple days to rest and regroup. Definitely need the rest after going over 10 hours / day the last three days. And as far as regrouping, eh, I've learned just to hope for the best for the faces I remember, and that has helped a lot. And then, just press on, likely to Ningxia in a couple days and then start heading east toward Beijing.

Thanks again for everyone's support.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Earthquake update

I'm okay after the earthquake. I was about 75 miles from the epicenter in a town called Wen Xian. It was about a 6.5 where I was. I was stuck there for a couple days because all the roads were blocked, but I got out today unscathed. I'm using someone's private computer right now so I'll write more later.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Week 4: A great ride, giving up, and the train to Chengdu

Week 4 was a pretty good one for me. Leaving Lijiang, I had definitely my best ride of the trip so far. One day through some magnificent mountain scenery, air slightly crisp, excellent roads, and at 3100 m, my highest altitude to date. Excitement was welling within me. Up to 3100 m now, an additional 1400 m to ascend those Tibetan passes seemed like child's play. The only thing that stood in my way was the concrete possibility of getting turned around by PSB transport patrol. Or so I thought.

Enter Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the world's deepest crevasses, a pristinely beautiful chasm chiseled out of the Earth by millions of years of the Yangtze river, a huge draw for hikers in China, and directly in my path. After getting up to 3100 m, the road started to descend a little bit. And a little more. And a lot more. And after descending to 1700 m, losing 1.4 km of vertical progress in the mix, there it was. Another 300 meters below me the Yangtze river, the gorge trail off to the left, and the promised (per my map) ferry going across the river. Great! Except,

The one thing my map failed to mention was that the ferry and the 300 meter descent down to it (and 500 meter ascent on the other side) was for foot traffic only. It was a steep, narrow trail along a sheer cliff that seemed would give even a mountain goat the shivers. In addition, the cold front that I had been waiting for came in a blast of wind and rain that drenched the trail and caused the temperature to drop from short-sleeves to three-layers-plus in a matter of minutes. I figured I was done for the day, and after a surprising amount of time searching, finally found a hotel in what eerily seemed to be the end-of-the-road concrete ghost town.

After a good night's rest, I got out and looked at the trail again. I realized that the gorge was so deep, that what looked like a frighteningly precarious trail from a distance, was actually moderately passable. It would be a struggle guiding my bike down a third of a km and then pushing it back up a half km, but doable. The hotel owner confirmed that the trail was indeed more traversable than it seemed from the precipice.

However, the weather was still frighteningly cold, and if I was already cold at 1700 m, I knew that going higher would only get colder. I only had one more thin layer of clothing to put on. Things didn't seem good. I ended up spending one more day in that eerie ghost town pondering what to do. The next morning, I woke up, it was cold, rainy, windy, and an easy decision.

Damp and shivering, under-equipped with only four thin layers of clothes, a three-season tent, (and virtually zero-season experience), I decided that a solo journey of at least fifteen days across the largely unpopulated high-altitude plateaus of western Sichuan was probably beyond my capacity, technically and (perhaps more important) psychologically, and booked a minibus back to Lijiang.

From there, I figured since I had already broken the ideal of going all the way across China without using public transport, I may as well go ahead and save myself two weeks and booked a bus to Panzihua, and from there a train to Chengdu. It was an interesting experience getting my bike and all my luggage onto all this public transport. Not something I'm gonna want to do very often if I can help it!

Anyway, I've spent a couple days here in Chengdu doing nothing but relaxing and drinking various fruit smoothies from yuppie-ish smoothie shops downtown (needed to soothe my stomach after the real-deal extra spicy Sichuan hotpot I gorged on when I first arrived). Oh, and seeing the pandas at the big conservation outside of town. A fairly livable city by Chinese standards, though it'll definitely be a lot better once the subway is done.

So, I'm planning to take off tomorrow and start all this again. I'll be going up into northern Sichuan and once again trying to get into the Tibetan highland regions once I reach Gansu. Though these regions are almost as high altitude-wise, they're a lot more populated and thus a lot less intimidating. Also if I get turned around either by PSB or weather or whatever else, Xi'an is only a hop a skip and a jump away; there's no way to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere like in western Sichuan.

So, that's the story for now. The good news also is that I'm back on track by my original map. (Actually the train I was on rolled into Chengdu at 11:40 PM on April 30, so I'm officially 20 minutes ahead of schedule!) All in all, I'd have to say things are going pretty well, and I'm definitely more than ever looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Until next week....

Friday, April 25, 2008

Week 3: Dali and Lijiang

Good week this week. Not much to write about. Ran into the two German bikers that I met just outside of Hanoi. Odd, I was just stopped at a high point looking at my map trying to figure out where I was, and they came riding up behind me. We spent the next two days getting up to Dali, but I haven't seen them since. Had a good 160 km ride to Lijiang from there. (If you're ever in China and trying to decide between visiting Dali or Lijiang, GO TO LIJIANG! There's no comparison). Tomorrow I'll be starting possibly the toughest part of the trip. Up to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and then to Zhong Dian at 3200 meters. From there to the passes into western Sichuan that top out over 4500 meters. I'm assuming it'll be pretty much impossible to continue all the way into Qinghai province given the Tibetan troubles (I've already read one guy's blog that tried and got turned around), so I'm pretty sure I'll plan to simply ride straight down to Chengdu once I get to that road. Hopefully that's not closed too, as the only other way around would require backtracking all the way down to Panzihua, which is long and supposedly not very scenic at all. Anyway, I've also read that the PSB may be opening all this stuff up on May 1, so there's a chance that the route up to Qinghai may yet be possible after all.

So anyway, the biking is getting easier, the weather is getting better, and the roads have been much nicer, so we'll see how long this will last.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Week 2: South-central Yunnan

Well, week two of this ordeal and so far there's not so much to say about it. Two weeks of roads that look like blast zones and blazing heat, and I'm about five or six days behind schedule already. Great.

The last few days at least the roads have been a little better (except the one that was completely out between Honghe and Yuanjiang, and cost me a four-day detour), and there have been a few nice vistas of rice fields and mountains. But overall I'd have to say, compared to Eastern Europe and Turkey, there's simply not all that much to see. Poland and Romania each had beautiful old churches and castles seemingly every 10 km, and Turkey had some of the most mindblowing landscapes you've ever imagined. But here, there's really been nothing but identical smelly crumbling town after town, with the occasional concrete monstro-city to round things out. And as far as personal interaction goes, it's pretty much limited to every time I try to stop and take a break dealing with millions of kids and men that want to come up and shout "HEL-LO" and then carry on conversations in whatever their native language is. (I've come to the conclusion that it's better just to claim complete ignorance and not respond at all, than to waste a bunch of energy trying to carry on a meaningless conversation in my limited Chinese). Ugh.

At this point, I've already decided to at least give myself the option of removing India from this trip, which would bring it down to just over six months left. And having been going nearly two weeks already, that means I'm getting pretty close to 10% finished. Phew, I think I can almost handle that.

As for the near future, I'm going to head up toward Dali and Lijiang, both of which are big tourist areas, so perhaps I'll have a little more opportunity for having some fun there. And then if the government re-opens the highlands to foreigners (A lot of Tibetan areas outside of the political Tibetan boundaries were closed to foreigners last month too, but will supposedly be reopening May 1), head into western Sichuan for a taste of Tibetan culture and some 4500+ meter passes. (I'm super-excited about the passes, given that at the start of this trip 50 meters would almost kill me, and already I've got two 1000-meter climbs and several 500-meter climbs under my belt). I just hope the weather doesn't suddenly drop to below freezing at that altitude.

And after that, I'll probably head through Qinghai and Gansu (again, assuming the government opens it up), on to Xi'an, Pingyao, and at this point I'm starting to lean more toward going on to Beijing and taking the train to Mongolia instead of biking all the way. (Most people say Mongolia is fairly monotonous, and I seem to have read a disproportionate number of bike blogs where the bike gets stolen in Mongolia too).

So, am I enjoying myself? Eh, not really. But I've been planning this for well over a year, and don't want to give up yet. Hopefully plodding along I'll be able to make something out of it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

One week: Hanoi to Yuanyang

So far, can't say so much for this idea. Spent five days in 95+ degree heat and 100% humidity through Vietnam's worst roads (think the worst potholes you've ever seen, cover the road in 2" of mud that sticks like concrete, and every 1/2 km or so put a one-lane ramp made out of big rocks and sand and mud that you have to wait in line as 5 trucks in front of you fight about who gets to go in which direction first). Then so far two days in 95+ degree dry heat with no shade and more potholed roads in China, with *zero* scenery (at least Vietnam did have the occasional decent vista or two), as it seems since entering China I've somehow been riding through the world's largest gravel pit.

Today at least was my first, maybe, eh, two-star day. I managed to climb from 45m to 1265m, which quite honestly I thought I'd never be able to do at this point (my previous max was less than 200m, and almost killed me). But even at the top (Yuanyang, supposedly one of the most beautiful vistas in Yunnan province) it's just all pollution and noise. Must have been gorgeous at some point -- there are seemingly infinite slopes of rice terraces and the sunrises and sunsets were surely incredible. But these days you really can't even see more than a mile or so past all the pollution, and nothing is pretty. Anyway I made it to the top today, so two stars.

After the long climb I'm going to take my first well-deserved rest day tomorrow and take in all of the 2.7 trillion cubic feet of air pollution that I figure I can see from here. And hope for cooler weather.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Pre-trip Anxiety

It's funny, I keep going from incredibly excited to incredibly pessimistic about this trip. Went through a terrible pessimistic streak the last day or two, wondering why I want to do this again, why I'm throwing all this money and career advancement out the window just for the sake of going back to a continent that I've already explored the bejesus out of. Especially when reading what's going on, not only in Tibet proper, but also in a large part of Central China, which could force me to take a massive detour. (see this article on the BBC and this Lonely Planet Thorn Tree posting). Not that I mind taking detours, but that takes me out of the highlands, which was a completely new culture and landscape that was fresh and exciting to me, and into the polluted dregs of mainstream central China, which, while they'll all be new cities, I feel like the Chinese city tour is something of which I've already had my fill. Add just the standard pre-trip "do I have everything I need" anxiety (not to mention finishing my taxes and finding I owe well into five figures) and I was pretty in the dumps.

Hmm, I was going to say I rode my bike around a bit this morning and got all excited again. But now after writing this ... hmm.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Leaving time!

Cool, so I got the tickets to Hanoi leaving CVG on April 3. So it's final now. Got the new bike too, and the panniers and racks are on their way. I'll be leaving Houston and going back to Cincinnati on Friday for Easter, and staying up there until I leave. (My parents were nice enough to offer to store my car there while I was gone). So everything is falling into place. The only major things left are to make sure all the touring stuff fits on my bike okay, go through my camping gear and figure out what needs updated, and of course finish my taxes. (Looks like I'll be paying out the nose this year -- blech).

It's a bit disappointing to be leaving right now, as our company has really overcome some big hurdles in the last couple weeks and the general feeling within the company seems to be a lot more optimistic than it has at any time in the last six months. We're closer now than ever to having a working product, and it's hard to leave when we're so close. But, that's the same reason I decided not to leave in January as I had originally planned, and things simply fizzled out. I'm not going to let that happen again. As one of my favorite old sayings goes, "nobody ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The secret

I get this a lot: you seem to spend half of your life on the road -- how can you afford this? Here's the secret. Save. Save hard. The general rule of thumb is that if you're saving 10% of your income, you're doing pretty well. Rubbish. If you're saving only 10% of your income, that means if you lose your job after 10 years, you have one year to find an equivalent job before you're on the street. Hmm. When I'm in the US I save about 70% of my income. Have since I graduated. And invest almost all of that. For the long-term, Benjamin Graham / Warren Buffett style. Last time I took a year off, interest alone paid for half the trip. This time, I'm hoping interest will pay for the whole thing, plus some left over. Save hard. Invest for the long term. Travel on the cheap. That's all there is to it. That's the secret.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The plan

Here's a map of the plan, with approx dates.

I'm certainly a lot less intimidated this time than I was for my eastern Europe / Turkey trip in 2006 -- worst case scenario I just ditch the bike and continue by bus -- but, emm, I wish I at least had a little extra time to learn a bit more about bike repair and whatnot. I don't want to be the type of bike tourist that just takes his bike to a shop for every single problem, or buys his way out of jams by throwing a bunch of money around. Cycling is about being independent, knowing your equipment, and getting where you need to go without having to rely on your credit card to bail you out. But even after a 3000km trip across eastern Europe and Turkey, I still don't know much more than how to fix a flat.

I've been reading a bit about bikes, maintenance, and accessories, specifically on this site that even includes some articles about how to make your own panniers and racks, in addition to standard articles about replacing spokes and brakes. Somewhat inspiring. At some point in the next couple weeks I need to go out and buy a bike, and all the accessories I'll need as well. Already starting to feel like a credit card tourist, but I guess we all have to start out somewhere.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

RTW, well, RTAsia 2008

Yeah, so after a whole year-and-a-half back in the US with only two brief (10-day and three-week, respectively) breakaways to Korea and Taiwan, I'm finally getting ready to take off again to my continent-home-apparent of Asia. Though I've been planning this for over a year now, I have to say, it just kinda hit me this weekend that this thing is really gonna happen. I've saved plenty of money, I've got all my visas until Uzbek, I've got all the guidebooks, I've found at least a few flights to choose from, and so from here on out it really doesn't matter if I work a ton or don't work at all. And I'm excited as hell!

Here's my latest itinerary, which has undergone umpteen million changes but is somewhat stabilized now at least by the fixed-date visas I've already secured. Hopefully I'll be doing the whole thing on bicycle, except for Russia, which will be by the historic (and ridiculously overpriced) trans-Siberian railroad. As it looks now, I'll be flying into Hanoi, or alternately Saigon, spending a couple days getting my bearings and filling up on Pho and French baguettes, and then head off into the hills of Sapa and on toward the Chinese border and Kunming. From there, it'll be on toward Chengdu, Xi'an, Taiyuan, Hohhot, and finally on through for a month-long ride around Mongolia. My Russian visa starts 1 July, so it'll be a hop across the border into Irkutsk, then the trans-Siberian across to Moscow and, time providing, St. Pete. I'll probably end up catching a flight to Uzbekistan at the end of the month, and spend August between there and Kyrgyzstan, with a couple other central Asian countries as possibilities if I can secure visas along the way. September will be for western China, and then in October I'll have to make the decision: Pakistan if the political climate there is OK, or Tibet and Nepal if it's not. Then finally a few months in India to round out the trip. I'm thinking some camel trekking in Rajasthan, Christmas in Goa, Diwali in Varanasi, and a little tiger spotting in Sunderbans, but the India itinerary is WIDE open. I might try to hit Indonesia and Hawaii on my way back home, or perhaps Syria, Israel, or some country in Africa if I go the other way.

Anyway, that's the plan in a nutshell. Like I said, this itinerary has changed a million-fold since I started planning it in '06, and I don't even have a ticket to go yet, but ultimately I'm just excited to be going anywhere right now and we'll see how it goes. I'd love to meet up with anyone along the way, so if you're gonna be in the area, give me a shout!