Monday, March 26, 2012

Slowly and Silently Cycle On.

Panoramic view of the First Bend.

Slowly and Silently Cycle On: Our Trip to the First Bend of the Yangtze River.

I started out by re-patching my front tire. The previous patch failed the night before. Then pulling off the back rack I used for our tent and sleeping bags while biking to Dali the weekend before. I even cut off my handle bar grips and replaced them with a new set. I wanted my bike to run smooth for the days adventure so I made sure the tires were inflated all the way, tightened the brakes, and cleaned the dirt off of the cog and chain. I was a ball of energy that morning and I needed to do something, I needed to go somewhere. I could have gone anywhere, Yulong Snow Mountain, Wenhai Lake. But I figured the day was as good as any to finally make it to the First Bend of the Yangtze River. It was an 80km there and back trip. Easily doable despite the huge mountains I would be passing through and despite that I was starting the trip at 1 in the afternoon. Brandon was still humming and hawing about whether or not he was going to go. I told him he had me eating a sandwich’s worth of time to suss it out, because after that, I’d be flying out the gate putting these two twitchy legs into motion. He ended up coming and I was glad he did.

Right as we got to the main road I was off. Within five minutes I had already put a good distance between Brandon and myself. I was not worried about us getting separated as there were only two roads that we would be riding the whole trip. I didn’t bring my iPod. I was stick to death of having to fiddle with the cord so that the right or left ear bud wouldn’t short out. Or if it were too loud I couldn’t hear the traffic well enough. I just wanted to listen to the sounds around me, be them honking cars or buzzing bees. Not that I was totally without music. Aware that I didn’t bring anything along my subconscious pulled through and produced the most perfect of tunes to plug right into my head. Bobby Ellis’s ‘Step Softly.’ I couldn’t have picked a sweeter soundtrack to ride to even if I had brought along my iPod. The piano and bass first lay out a slow, still, mysterious little intro and you’re not really sure what’s gonna come next. Then the drums kick in; DAT Boom Ba Boom! And the horns start singing a sad little melody. Each time I hear it, it brings up visions of a herd of elephants or caravan of camels trekking through the dessert in that never-ending search for water. The beat is a slow one, but its a rock-steady one, one that can put me in a trance so I can just keep moving moving moving and soon I forget that I’m cycling at all and I just notice the road moving beneath me and the trees passing by me. I was in a trance and I was moving.

Leaving Lashihai behind wasn’t any trouble. After wrapping around the south of the lake we started up the hills which led west out of the valley toward the First Bend two valleys over. I came across a beekeeping farm and stopped a moment to admire the 30 something hives and countless something bees that droned about above them. It was a good spot to sit a moment and let Brandon catch up. I started talking with the beekeeper, asking what kind of bees they were, when he harvests the honey, how does he do it? At the center we have our own bee box, but no one with the knowledge of taking the honey. He didn’t provide much more advice other than “Open the box and take the honey combs out.” I guess it was as simple as that, and I had just expected a long, convoluted explanation. The man had kept bees for 20 years, so I took relaxed approach as an absolute truth. It then struck me that the life of the beekeeper is a life I would easily choose for myself. No better way to observe the natural way of things.

We kept going on and soon found a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery over looking the valley. It was more of a tourist trap then place of worship. One could get a picture taken with a hawk that was tethered up near by while wearing traditional clothing of the region. As well as pay for prayers for yourself and loved-ones. We stopped just long enough to eat a snack and take some photos. I’ve never had much interest in Buddhism, but the art and flags have always drawn me in. I tend to lift a flag or two whenever we visit a site such as this. Brandon pardoned away my thievery as the redistribution of Tibetan Buddhist culture to otherwise Tibetan cultureless places (your welcome Oakland.)

Now it was time to start flying down the hillside into the next valley. And fly we did. Some spots without traffic I got going so fast that when a 180° turn approached I almost couldn’t slow down in time before entering the turn. With the speed and how hard I was leaning into each turn my back tire’d start skidding out from under me, but I was able to keep both wheels on the tarmac. At one curve I pulled off to the side of the road to wait for Brandon and get another view of the valley. We could see the Yangtze far down below. We weren’t able to see the First Bend. That was hidden behind a mountain range separating that valley and the next one. The thought of turning back was brought up then. It was getting late and the fact that with each minute of screaming downhill would come 20 minutes of panting uphill. It seemed daunghting. There was a moment of indecision.

“I want to keep going.” I said with all seriousness after some moments of pondering. That morning I was spontaneously struck with a mission to do something that would push my body and remind me of the rewards of stress and struggle. “I want to keep going.” I repeated to make clear. I knew we had options of getting back up the hill that night. We could harden up and bike back, take a bus or taxi from the Bend, or even call Chan Laoshi and he would come rescue us. But I wasn’t going to Not go all the way just because of the hardships of getting back. I was on a mission. I relayed this to Brandon and he agreed to go on. “That’s what I like to Hear!!!” I was so full of joy and adventurous spirit that day he must have wanted to punch me. With that I pulled the flag I lifted from the monastery out from my backpack and tied it to my backpack. I wanted a blur of red and yellow streaking behind me as I flew down the rest of mountain.

Soon after we got to the second road of the two-road journey. A provincial highway that went north around a mountain range then twisted back south leading finally to the Bend. I became ecstatic as we got closer and closer. I could see signs for the Bend and I knew we’d be there within the hour. The roads kept descending lower and lower into the river valley. I was ripping past tourist buses and rigs in front of me. I couldn’t stop or slow down and I didn’t want to. I would catch a fast glimpse of faces within the bus as they saw me cutting through two-lane traffic down the hill and I felt sorry for those folks who couldn’t appreciate Travel as I could.  I started to whoop and holler. I was standing up out of the saddle. I was already at such speed that I couldn’t pedal to go faster even if I wanted to. I was a ball of pure excitement. My legs weren’t spinning so I had no way of releasing it so I started singing as loud as I could, loud enough so people in their cars could hear me and understand what they were missing out on. My tra-la-la’s could be heard all the way at the First Bend, and if they couldn’t be heard, then the folks there missed out on some pure joyous inspiration.

As we veered south and started to get glimpses of the Yangtze, patches of clouds opened up and bright columns of light poured down and reflected off the rippling water. The hills were dotted with huts and small villages tucked between terrace upon terrace of rice and wheat fields ascending the hillside like great steps.

We didn’t stop much to take a look at the view. There was no need. The whole valley and river were right there in front of our eyes. The snapping of pictures only interrupts views like this. The pictures you take can’t even compare to the reality. Each moment looking through a lens is one less moment of the gorgeous spectacle being burned into your memory. A patch a green forest sprang up from around a corner. I looked back toward Brandon, but I didn’t need to say a thing. He was already yelling out “Do you want to go down there?!?”

The first opening in the bushes we pushed our bikes down a short steep hill into this shaded forest on the bank of the river. We walked through the trees and started over the dried flood plain of the river. There were huge, deep cracks in the soil. At the waters edge were rock pebbles and of course trash. We had high hopes for a river in pristine condition, unaffected by the thousands of miles of industry and pollution the Yangtze flowed through before passing Shanghai and emptying its black waters the Pacific. But even this far into the lesser developed and unpopulated west the casual and irresponsible waste management habits of China were clear to see. “This is probably as clean as it gets.” We confirmed. But I was used to China by now and didn’t let it bother me. At the rivers edge my shoes and socks were quickly off, followed by the shirt and pants. I took one step toward the water and then the thought of biking 40 kilometers uphill in soggy undies flashed through my head.  So I excused myself to Brandon and the underwear came off as well, and I ran giggling into the cold cold waters of the Yangtze. The water flowed one thousand miles off the Tibetan Plateau to greet me where I stood, then continued to flow three thousand more miles to the Pacific. The water was fast, and me not being the best swimmer, I was easily carried down the river until I managed to doggy paddle to the shallows where I could manage some backstrokes upstream. In 1966 Mao Zedong, then in his 70’s, swam about 15km, over an hour in the Yangtze. I lasted about 3 minutes of the freezing water and strong currents before I returned to shore and pants returned to my legs. But it felt good. I felt great and walked happily away wringing the last drops of the murky water from out of my beard. 

At the actual site where the river flowed south then took a 180° turn to the north we ate a much needed lunch and talked about being back in the States, going to concerts and living the life we were used to. But no matter how home sick we were or impatient to get back to the life we were used to, it was obvious the experiences we’ve gone through on this side of the world would only changed us for the better, thus making going to concerts again and hanging with our friends in the same old places a bit richer than before.

It was already passed five in the evening and we had a long way to go so our dinner was brief and we were on the road heading back before we knew it. The trouble with a river is it flows at the absolute lowest elevation it possible can. Like the Tao, it settles in the places people avoid. Ergo, the climbing of hills started immediately, and quite literally did not cease for 40km until we descended back into Lashihai. Before we found a place to eat we thought of perhaps having to catch a bus home after a blind merchant on the side of the road told us it’d be impossible to make it back home that same evening. He under estimated my drive. I knew what I got myself into, and I knew what to do to get home. Right from the get-go I was pushing ahead. Brandon could handle himself and so I got into a rhythm and just kept moving moving moving. I was already 7km uphill from the river valley. I was all alone and already fairly exhausted from the climb. I pulled off to take a pee in the bushes. I had too much momentum to wait for Brandon to catch up and he was nowhere in sight. I called him to see how it was going at his end. “I’m fine.” he confirmed. “Just go on ahead. I’ll find a car back if I need to.” I knew he was wily  and could easily take care of himself. I pulled my shades out from my shirt collar and whipped the sweat from my chest of off the lens and put them on. With Brandon’s blessing I’d go it alone. So then I continued to do what I do best, slowly and silently cycle on.

There’s something odd about cycling on a mountain. I am often completely unaware of my surroundings. While racing down a mountain the scenery seems to pass by so quickly, almost too quickly for me to take in. While pushing up a mountain the only thing I can pay any attention to at all is my front tire slowing rotating as the kilometers take eternities to pass. The lively operatic arpeggios of my heart that I had belted out at the top of my lungs and the gushing winds that deafened my ears only hours earlier had been replaced with low grunts and long heavy breathes in tempo with the clack-clack of the bike’s crank arm, the constant squeal of the chain and the next to silent sound of the tires rubbing against the road.

There is nothing to do except to keep pedaling. I didn’t bring enough snacks for fuel. The orange and energy bar I brought along I had already eaten on the way to the Bend, and we didn’t get anything more before we started heading back. All I had on me was 1 kuai RMB, about $0.16 USD. Even in China that’s not a lot to barter goods or services with. I had to get off the bike and start walking up one steep incline. While walking I just about finished all of my water. At this point I was praying for a slow rolling rig or tractor to pass by so I could piggyback up the hill, but no dice. After 15-20 minutes of shuffling along I was a bit more rested and hydrated. I was able to get back in the saddle and keep pushing. The sun was starting to dip behind the clouds above the mountains range to the west. Part of me didn’t worry too much about having to race the sun to get home. The way I calculated, so long as I was constantly raising in elevation that would offset the ever-setting sun, keeping me on a well-lit road. By then I had painfully made it back to the Tibetan monastery. It was deserted and the sunset was amazing. I stayed a while to re-gain my vigor.

I knew I was closer than not to the top of the mountain. I could see the peak above me, but with so many switchbacks on the road I knew better than to claim success just yet. I could still be easily beaten. But as I soldiered onward and upward on the final stretch, providence sent forth a mighty rig of a truck rumbling up the hill in my wake. I heard it long before I saw it. I knew the timing had to be just right to find something to grip onto as the truck passed. It was still too far behind me to gauge and we were coming up to a flat spot. I knew that the driver would drop the gear and speed up right when he got the chance, which meant I might miss mine. As the truck pulled up next to me he was slowly pushing me to the side of the road. Worrying about not being driving off the road into a ditch, keeping in pace with a passing semi-truck and finding something to grip onto to is indeed worrying. And right as the truck hit the flat stretch of road and I was in line with the rear end of the truck I grasped the hinge of the back gate just as the driving put he motor in a lower gear and we jolted off together. Like a minnow in the shadow of a shark or an oxpecker on the back of a rhino I stuck to that truck and glided up the steep incline. This glorious ride lasted only 3 minutes. It would have been about 30 had I biked it. The truck was hauling sand, and each time the truck jerked while switching gears it would start cascading over my head and arm. I was caked in sand by the time we got to the top of the hill. But I didn’t mind. Dirt isn’t dirty I confirmed to myself, and besides I had made it. I was thrilled.

And then, when I thought my joy and jubilation could not possibly be any greater, I was met at the top of mountain by the last thing I expected. A few hundred meters in front of the semi I noticed a colorful speck pulling a bicycle out from the back of a Jeep. Brandon. He later explained that he had also been busily biking away behind me until he decided; “That’s it!” got off his bike and started hitchhiking. He had stopped two cars that demanded money in exchange for a ride before a family greeted him on their way back to Lijiang who were happy to give him a lift for free. He planned on taking the ride all the way into Lashihai, until in the distance he noticed a colorful speck on a bicycle hugging the back of a semi-truck and said that a lift to the top was the hill was plenty and thanked the family for the assistance. It was a perfect and unlikely meeting. There was nothing more but easy roads ahead of us. The sun had just set and the sky was still blue and purple. It had only gotten dark during the final stretch. After 7 hours, 80 kilometers and over 1,000 meters of climbing we had made it. And we were home.

goodbye truck...

... hello brandon.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a bonk!
    It's one of the reasons I"m glad I ride a folding bike - if I get too tired and need to catch a bus (or a ride) back, taking the bike along is no problem.