May 28, 2009

Adventure Cyclists

[So I've gone back and fixed this post which was during a time when China has blocked blogger and I had someone very dear to me post it via email - Kyle 9.05.09]

Hey yall!
So from time to time China, in it's infinite communistic wisdom, has been know to censor certain information from it's general population (case in point; preventing the entire country of China from ever accessing Youtube!). This week it appears as if they have a personal vendetta against Blogger (with sighs of frustration) Nonetheless I'm itching to share some here we go.

These past 10 days have been nothing short of hardcore and as such, we have decided to change our descriptor from cycle tourists to adventure cyclists. We have been in a nonstop battle with every possible element (sickness, extreme cold, sand blizzards, howling winds, near famine, snow storms, insane altitudes, the crappiest roads ever constructed...just to name a few). I think the theme of this posting will be based on quotes from these past 2 weeks that have stuck out in my head....

"What kind of hotel collects money at 11:30 at night?" - Spencer

Our hotel decided to raise the price from 35 yuan ($5) per room to 35 yuan per bed and strategically collect the money from us at 11:30 at night (after we repeatedly tried to pay for the room earlier that night). We got the police involved and the man firmly stood his ground without budging, given the fact that we were comfortably wrapped in blankets next to our personal yak dung fire. We then did something that no one would have ever imagined 4 foreigners would have done....we got out from under the covers, we got our money back, we packed our bags and we entered the blizzard of a snow storm that awaited us outside at 14,000 ft. We jumped on our bicycles and with our headlamps barely illuminating the road, we cycled to the outskirts of 'town', until we found a field to set up our tents.

Us: 1 Hotel trying to rip off foreigners: 0

"That's the beauty of being self sufficient" - Spencer

This is where we ended up

So we spent the past 10 days cycling through No Mans Land and by that I mean the sticks, the middle of nowhere, the boonies, absolutely no one would hear a tree if it were to fall where we'd cycled (if trees actually grew at this altitude). The road was noncompacted mushy gravel/sand and instead of the usual going up the hill and back down the hill routine, we just topped out and stayed at the top of the mountain/plateau. Whereas before we would top out at 15,000 ft and all stop for a picture and maybe a victory snack, we didn't even think about stopping because the entire 400 km was a huge series of passes that fluctuated between 14,500 ft and 16,000 ft and the wind and horizontal snow was relentless (not to mention the cold). So here we are in the middle of nowhere bundled up in every piece of clothing we have (we did just cycle pass the equator a few months ago), with a gailing wind blowing snow in our faces at an extremely high altitude. It was like trying to cycle on the beach....

One night we set up camp near some bluffs to protect us from the wind. That night ended up being a battle against one of the nastiest sand/snow storms I've ever experienced in my life. The wind literally filled all of our tents with sand (I was bailing my tent out by filling up a cup and emptying the sand in a ziplock baggie). Then the wind ripped my rain fly completely off my try to picture this.....I made a barricade inside of my tent with my panniers to protect me from the sand. Then my rainfly flew off (literally ripped my stakes out of the ground), so I've got one arm outside of my tent, preventing my rainfly from flying into the abyss, the rest of my body is crouched behind my internal barricade with my eyes squinting from the blinding sand storm. Then came the snow....or more like hail....and I had about 15 seconds to reattach my rainfly and makeshift some stakes before the snow absolutely pelted us. It was one of the longest and hardest nights we've had and we awoke the next morning feeling like we'd lost a nasty fight with a gravitron machine. Here's what we looked like in the morning.

"I'm taking the next truck to Golmud" - Breckan

It didn't help that we were barely able to pedal 40 km per day due to the nasty road and even nastier weather, which made it seem like we'd never get out of that stretch of vast nothingness. On top of the weather, there were no more than 2 vehicles passing us each day and none of them were willing to stop for our waving arms (still not exactly sure why they wouldn't's not like 4 people on bicycles were going to rob them or anything). Regardless we were in it for the longhaul. On top of that...we were carrying all of our own food, which tasted more or less like cardboard.

"I thought China was going to be nothing but eggrolls and sweet and sour chicken"

"I haven't found a single egg roll nor Mongolian beef...I'm actually surprised if the restaurant has fried rice!"

"You know the food is bad when you're in China and you crave Panda Express!" - Spencer

This was our conversation after inviting ourselves into a Tibetan house, where they put us up in their barn with drying yak dung and their ancient grandmother who had a cough that sounded like death itself. Here we are in the barn

So after 10 days of slugging through some of the worst cycling environment possible, with our backs and butts aching from the neverending ruts in the roads and our faces chapped and windburnt, we finally reached pavement!

It was a glorious moment and we were so excited that the next day, Charlie and I pedaled some 120 miles and in the process dropped off the Tibetan plateau and into the surrounding desert (enter instant warmth). It was the first time we've dropped below 14,000 ft in nearly 2 weeks and accordingly, it was the first time I'd take off my patagonia polypro longsleeve to expose my forearms in nearly 2 weeks. I'd been riding with long john bottoms and 3 layers of wool socks, those were instantly peeled off and we were back to riding with shorts and t-shirts within 1 hour of dropping off the frozen mountainous terrain. We also saw our first trees in almost two weeks.

So we reached Golmud which was surprisingly not a lot like Vegas. In the middle of the desert (and the middle of nowhere) there is a quaint little town with 2.5 million people and best of all....a Dicos. It doesn't take much to please cycle tourist....I mean adventure cyclist....just a cheap hotel, a decent grocery store and access to something that resembles western food.

"You know the toilets are bad in China when you would rather squat in a ditch than use the toilets" - Charlie

I've cycled a grand total of 2415 miles thus far...and we've just begun!

And once again, here's some pictures....

Some random Tibetans and me doing the baseball pose

Tibetan kids that surrounded Charlie and I while we were fixing our bikes

Tibetan Ninja

The polygamist Tibetan rocking my headlamp and shades

One of the polygamist's kids

Charlie and I helped these yak herders (kids) get this yaks head dislodged from the fence

My bike sitting high on top of the Tibetan plateau

Me and some Tibetan (they know how to rock a stylish hat)

Four cute kids

May 10, 2009

"The best part about traveling by bicycle is not traveling by bicycle" - Spencer

While this is true most of the time (hiking through beautiful gorges, exploring monasteries) this time it turned out not to be the case.....

So in Litang we met Christian, an Austrian cyclist, who was on an epic adventure from Australia back to Austria by bicycle his website (it's in German...but the pictures are nice). He had been cycling solo for the past 7 months and happily agreed to accompany us for the next 4 days until we reached Garze. So we rode as a group of 5.

Christian added to the mix
A Tibetan town nestled in a beautiful valley
When riding in such a large group, you stick out like a sore thumb, which isn't exactly what we were hoping to accomplish as we were stopped at almost every military checkpoint. (At this point, we're permitted to be in such areas but our proximity to Tibet is such that each checkpoint consists of ridiculously long paperwork and stupid speculation intermixed with thumb twiddling). We prefer ducking under the checkpoint bars which saves us time and energy.

Stopped at yet another military checkpoint (it's a town spectacle)

So we arrived in Garze. Garze has undoubtedly had some recent riots because the entire town was on lock down. Cops were numbered on every corner, Breckan couldn't send mail back to the states, the banks wouldn't exchange US dollars and when we walked into the internet cafe, we were told that 'Monks and Foreigners could not use the internet'. Ok......

So our visas were going to expire within the next few days (hard to believe we'd been in China almost a month!) and we needed to extend our visas ASAP as the overstay penalty is about $70 per day. We took a trip to the Tourist Police department and were told that the closest place to extend our visas was some 400 km away, which meant we had to take a bus. We then asked the police man if we could use the internet and he wrote us a permission slip. I felt like we were getting excused from Social Studies class for a dentists visit....he then told us that we could use the internet for one hour and we couldn't tell any foreigners about the 'situation in Garze'.

So we had to take a bus....we arrived at the bus station the next morning at 6 a.m. (let the chaos ensue). We could find no bus to take us to Yushu, and on top of that most of our stomachs weren't feeling quite right, so after some frantic searching and trying to communicate with people through phrase books (most of which couldn't read anyway) we arrived at the conclusion that we would have to hire a van/minibus to take us there. So with as many complications as humanly possible (to put it lightly) our 4 bikes were strapped on top of a van and we were stuffed inside of said van with 17 large sacks of rice/barley and a little girl sitting on the console. (They know how to get every penny out of their trip as the pistons to space ratio was maxed out). We back of the van exploded open a few times, releasing all of our gear into the road. It was a hellacious trip and it ended with us being dropped off, not in the town which we had agreed on, but in another town where we could take another bus to our destination the next morning.

Packed like sardines and sick as dogs

That night was one of the longest nights of my entire life....somehow a tazmanian devil had made its way inside of my stomach and was wreaking some serious havoc on my insides. Almost like some deranged adolescent had somehow incorporated a blender with my innards and had his finger on the pulverize button all night long. I've had my fair share of sickness in my day, but never had I experienced anything like this before.
So needless to say, the bus ride the next morning was terrible. The bus topped out at 15,000 ft as my stomach tried to convince the deranged adolescent to take his finger off the blender. We finally arrived in Yushu and when we arrived at the office to extend our visas, we were told that they were 'out of paper' and would have to wait until Monday (currently Wednesday) to renew our visas. On top of that, our pockets were getting frighteningly low on cash and guess what....none of the ATMs worked and none of the banks would exchange US dollars. So we were broke, sick and about to overstay our visas (a slight predicament). So Breckan (being the brave soul and least sick) decided to take a 14 hour bus to Xining to resupply our money the next morning. The next morning came around, and Breckan was sick, so Spencer (being the brave soul that he is) took the 14 hour bus ride to resupply money. We were all bed struck with sickness and luckily we found a place that rented us a DVD player, and the visa/money predicament came as a blessing to help us recover from our sickness as there was no way we could continue riding (well I guess we could have....but it would have been disastrous)

So we started feeling somewhat better but the stomach problems persisted and after a week of rumbling stomachs and uncertainty passing gas, we decided that there was something living inside of our stomachs (maybe there was a tazmanian devil afterall). We prematurely diagnosed ourselves with Giardia (as the hospital had no way of testing for it) and after a fast run through the hospital, we were given about 500 pills that we were to take each day. I think this is how they diagnosed us; 'Your stomach hurts?' here's a pill for every type of stomach problem known to man since 1750. So we decided to take only the pills for Giardia (6 each day) and so far we're recovering right nice. Charlie pood his pants (sorry Charlie) but Spencer needed some vengeance. And we've caught up on about 25 movies, mostly Brad Pit collections, but hopefully all will go smoothly when we start riding tomorrow.....wish us luck. In the mean time, since I got such positive feedback from my last 'people' posting, here's some more people pictures....

A kid monk with my glasses (looks kind of like Matrix monk)

Tibetan girls in Garze
Chinese warrior on horse in Yushu

Tibetan girl who really wanted us to take her picture (we were sick beyond belief)

We gave these guys a bicycle tire patch for their flat motorcycle tire, they were grateful (grateful not depicted in photo...they brought their confused look instead)

Every kid in the neighborhood came out to watch us

I went to an English class in Litang and spoke/taught a classroom of Tibetan kids. It was a cool experience

I swear these people aren't outlaws from the wild west