Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cycling the Alps with a Polo Bike

Cycling the Alps with a Polo Bike.

Not recommended.

But it is not as impossible as some people thought.

Since leaving China in June I have made some fairly intense journeys, considering distance or time or both. Such as riding the train for seven days over 9,000 kilometers across Russia. I could have just as easily flown over the continent saving time and even a little bit of money. But flying is like driving through an extremely long tunnel, looking out of the window you don't get to see much. Although many people figure I could have spent the extra time exploring more of Moscow, how many people can say they have watched the entirety of the Russia countryside cruising past their eyes. That means a lot to me and my feeling towards travel. I feel the same goes for choosing to ride my bike from Vicenza, Italy to Munich, Germany. It took the same amount of time as the Tran-Siberian Railroad did, but only to cross 477 kilometers. But despite hardships and mishaps, I can't think of a greater way of spending seven days of my vacation.

Plus how many people can say they cycled through the Alps on their polo bike?? Not many I bet.

7/19/12 (Rini's House, Bassano, Italy)
     Day 1 [Yesterday] was very easy, just 40km or less in lovely weather. not getting lost or going over any huge hills. The touring handle bars Stefano and I put on to add comfort are more uncomfortable than the polo bars. Today I will adjust the angle of the bars and raise the stem a bit and hope it si better, if not tomorrow I go back to the polo bars. Shifting the weight of the luggage a bit. I'll wear the backpack with a few things in it, put the tent on the front rack.... I still have way too much stuff, going uphill will be impossible without walking, but the only things I could get rid of to significantly reduce the weight are my tools, which I need, my tent, which I need, or my computer which I want. Or I could get rid of absolutely all of my clothing, but I am still worried that once I camp up around Innsbruck [Austria] it will be so cold that I'll need to wear every article of clothing I have while sleeping. Today is 80km to Trento, camp on the lake, or stay at Laura's friend's house.

7/20/12 (Joseph's House, Trento Italy)
     So Joseph is the ex-boyfriend of Julia who was friends with Laura who is dating Stefano, quite a few degrees of separation, but he still hosted this dirty polo bum and showed great hospitality, introducing new friends, making amazing dinner, taking me out drinking and offered up his house. He just left for work and let me here alone to take my time and relax. The hospitality of the Italians is amazing, without which I would not have gone far in the last few weeks.
    The adjustments I made to the bike yesterday worked well. Raising the stem, adjusting the angle of the bars, taking the the weight off of the front rack for better steering. It was 80km from Bassano to Lake Caldonone. There were small streets winding through Italian villages tucked between walls of mountains following the river upstream. Flowers and flags of the region hanging from all of the balconies, it was a colorful and beautiful scene. I made it to the lake after 6 hours of riding. I went for a swim and laid in the sun while my muscles rested. I had planned on camping next to the lake, but Laura surprised me saying she found me a place to stay in Trento (I didn't even know she was looking) the problem was Trento was another 20km away on the far side of a huge mountain. One could go north or south around it and it was still 20km. but what I didn't know is the southern route was 600 meters of climbing while the north was a much easier incline... I went south, and got lost somehow! Ended up climbing up a different mountain even further south, but in the end it added only 10 extra kilometers, but all the extra climbing did a good job of spoiling what was before a perfect day of cycling. I even lost my favorite black cycling cap. I know exactly when and where it fell off of my bike, but by the time I noticed it was already 2km behind me down the hill. There was no way in hell I was going back for it, because there was no way in hell I was going to climb 2km back up the mountain. 
     Tomorrow should be an easy day to Bolzano. 50km north along the river with no hills to speak of. There I can meet Danielle, a cycling guru who is friends with the Vicenza polo guys as well as friends with Morgan. He'll help me plan my attack of the Alps.

BICI & AGRICULTURA 'Cycling and Agriculture'
Most of the cycling paths through Italy
cut through farmers lands.
7/20/12 Bolzano, Piazza Matteotti
    Uneventful day of riding. Took about 5 hours to go 50kn including breaks and my first flat of the tour. There is something wrong with my back rim because I keep having blow-outs in the same spot, but when I inspect itI can't find anything wrong. In Bolzano I need to get a spare tube as well as glue for my patch kit. Once I rolled into the city I checked a map to find the closest city square. I've learned most squares have food, beer and coffee close by and they are good landmarks to navigate or meeting spots. I have texted Danielle and let him know I've arrived and now just waiting to hear back while drinking cans of beer from the kebap stand and relaxing.
    This region of Italy is very interesting. All the signs are in Italian as well as German. It is one of Italy's 5 autonomous regions. I've heard the people would love to be a part of Austria again like it was 100 years ago, but apparently the Austrians don't want them back...
Peanut butter and dry oats.
Good quick snack.
Cycling paths even have tunnels
under mountains. 

7/21/12 Vipinteno, Italy. 7pm
     Shit did today suck. Rain, flat tires, confusing as hell directions, head winds. Combination of 4 days biking all taking their toll on various parts of my body, just to get to this crappy little town, one that shuts down at 6pm on a Saturday, one that doesn't have a supermarket, or even an mediocre market so I can buy some beer. I have to camp tonight and I don't know where exactly, I'm saving that headache for later tonight. Now there is nothing to do but drink crap beer that costs way too much from a little cafe. F@*&.  Only three more days till Munich. Today was hump day. Tomorrow I cross into Austria, and after tomorrow it's down hill into Germany. 
     These are the days that I am embarrassed by how I react. I get way too easily angry and frustrated.

7/27/12 Munich, Germany
[Tour Days 7/22 through 7/24]
    That night in Vipinteno I found a small forest on the edge of town right next to the cycling path. I sat in the trees for a while reading waiting for it to get dark before setting up my tent. I don't know why but I was very paranoid that night about someone finding my tent in the middle of the night and messing with me. Just paranoia. to one side of the woods was a parking lot with a small kebap/pizza stand. They were closed when I came in, but they would still sell me some beers. The rest of the evening I sat back and relaxed. That night was miserable. IT was the first night I camped the whole tour. Even wearing all my clothes and wrapped in my Ikea blanket I froze half to death [I didn't have a sleeping bag on the tour]  It was so hard to fall asleep, and if I were lucky enough to, I would wake back up soon after.I think I woke up 4 times... The only upside to these sleepless camping nights is that I am up early the next day and start biking soon after i clean up camp.
     That morning of Day 5 I was on the road again at 7:20am. Miserably pushing on like a zombie. It would be another day of rain and bitter winds, plus the steepest climbs of the whole trip. But apart from the days hardships it was one of the most beautiful rides. Between spats of rain the sun would creep through the mist and send rainbows arching across the vallies below. The cycling path lead me deep into the mountains far from the highways and roads. For hours I was totally alone, not even others cyclists because I started out so early. After four hours of battling the the most bitter struggle with the Alps I made it to Brenner, the last city in Italy before Austria, and to my delight, the peak of the mountain. It was all down hill from here.

Austrian border
     I stayed in a cafe for an hour eating and drinking coffee before crossing the border. I was so tired and famished. I just wanted to fall asleep in the cafe. The road started to decline right at the border. I was so happy. The only problem was there were no longer any cycling paths. From Brenner, the 40km  to Innsbruck would all be on the two-lane highway with cars zooming by coming closer and closer to clipping my luggage racks. Also my back wheel had been making some awful noises for the past few days, and when I would coast downhill something in the freewheel would snag forcing my pedals to rotate, that or if I held them in place a terrible crunch would occur.  I was getting nervous that if my freewheel bust on the mountain I'd have nothing but the 16-tooth fixed-gear on the flip side of my back wheel to get me to my destination. Lucky for me it wasn't till the first night of playing polo in Munich that it finally failed on me.
     Getting into Innsbruck was gorgeous. It is tucked between two walls of mountains. In the city center I found some beer and just sat for a while waiting for the hostel to open at 5. I was too exhausted to move or explore the city. I couldn't bike another inch if I wanted to , and even if I walked around I still had to carry all my luggage on my back. No. I would sit, I would drink and I would people watch.  I met two interesting people from Iceland. They were in a rock band on a European Tour, but they had run out of money and were stranded in Innsbruck for 5 days trying to make enough money for gas and food by selling their CD to tourists. I saw them for two hours but that didn't sell one CD. Looks like they'll be sleeping in the gas-less van another night. On the tour I planned on relying only on camping or crashing with friends. But i knew no one in Innsbruck and after the freezing sleepless night in Vipiteno there was no way I could risk a second night in a row, or I might not have been able to make it anywhere the next day due to pure exhaustion. At the hostel I found hotshowers, food, clean beds and another travelers to talk to . I met two cyclists who were riding the opposite direction as me. We exchanged maps and tips about the roads ahead.

     If day 5 was the roughest of climbing, day 6 was the roughest just for distance. That day I completed 110km from Innsbruck to Rosenheim, Germany. There was nothing too special about the ride. Cycling paths started up again just outside of Innsbruck, and it was all flat through agricultural fields. It did get confusing once in Germany because the signs for cycling paths change, and the German bike routes are a lot more complex than the Austrian and Italian.
     People suggested that I stop in and stay in Kufstein, the last city in Austria, but it was 2 in the afternoon when I arrived there. To stop then just seemed like I'd be wasting the afternoon, plus I really wanted to get into Germany. I figures the further I got into Germany I got that night, the less I would have to ride the next and day, the final day, to Munich.
     I finally got into Rosenheim, another city that closes all of its shops a half hour before I show up. I found a pizzaria close to a park that I decided to sleep in later that night. The owner was Italian and he was kind enough to entertain the poor Italian I learn the month before. He was happy to see and American on such an ambitious cycling tour. It seemed like he used to be a cyclists as well. We chatted about my trip for a while. I read and drank until it got dark then I went back to the park to set up my tent. The Italian gave me a discount on my beer, filled my water bottle and wished me luck.

     Sleeping outside that night wasn't nearly as cold as before, but without a sleeping bag or mat it is hard to get comfortable. I was awake by 5am and figured that was as much sleep as I would get. I was packed and cycling towards Munich by 6:30am. It was agony. I felt like I had not slept a single minute. Six days of riding had taken their toll. My body had not recovered and I wasn't sure where it was getting fuel from. But I just kept crawling along. For two hours I wasn't moving any faster than 10km/hour. My neck was cramped from holding my head up. Nerves in my back were pinched under the weight of my backpack. My arms were exhausted from supporting my torso and the palms of my hands were bruised and raw. My lower back was stiff as a board. Besides the dull ache and creaks in my knees and ankles, everything below my waist to my feet was completely numb, and I swear my toes had long since fallen off my foot and were just rattling around in the bottom of my shoes. But still I was able to mindlessly push on. It was only 60 more kilometers to Munich but it took me 6 hours to get there. There was a bit of confusion as I got closer to Munich. Looking at my map printed online, I had mistaken the small suburbs of the city as totally different cities. I was biking for an hour getting angry that all signs indicating how far it was to Munich had vanished before I realized I had already arrived!
    I made it. I was in Munich and now I just had to get through this labyrinth of a city to the city center, the place where I realized long ago was my best bet to find internet, food, coffee and beer all in one spot. Finally I was in touch with my contact. A polo player from New York who'd been living in Munich for 7 years. He was also friends with Morgan, but as I am finding out, there aren't many polo players around the world who aren't friends with my brother.
     Not long after I was sitting on the steps of the Bavarian 'Statue of Liberty' eating a pretzel, drinking a beer from the oldest brewery in Europe and watching a construction crew assemble the miniature city that will soon become the center of the Oktoberfest celebrations in three months. Well if that is not a perfect intro to Bavaria I don't know what is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Conquering of Wenbi Mountain.

On Sunday Brandon and I finally conquered Wenbi Mountain. We talked about it enough, and even attempted it last week but did not succeed. We were determined not to fail this time, but success was not easy. I'd say this was the one of the toughest hikes I have ever done. It was about 3,000 ft of climbing, which isn't too terrible, and took about 6 hours to reach the peak, which isn' that terrible either. The hard part was that there was little to no trails. Most of our trip was straight bushwhacking through the dense forest. If we were lucky enough to find a path it would disappear after a few minutes. We got the impression very few people hike this mountain, and at least not the route we took. But so long a we could make out the peak of the mountain between the tall trees we could forge a path through the tangle of branches, vines and bushes.

First we had to bike about 15 minutes south of our village. After locking up our bikes by a construction site we set through this tunnel into the wilderness.

For the first two hours there were some trails cutting through the foothills. We could tell that these trails were not used for weekend hikers because there was no garbage on the path (sad but true) We figured the only other people that might use these trails were people searching for herbs, roots and fungi to be used for traditional Chinese medicine. These kindly folks are steeped in Buddhist and Daoist philosophies and would never upset the balance of nature on purpose.

After a few hours we made it through the foothills to the actual mountain. The road quickly turned into a steep incline of loose soil. But everything was covered in moss, and it was very beautiful and magical.

From the lower peak, a view of our home Lashi Lake.

Looking out toward Lashihai.

Practicing my Crane-Kick

At the top of Wenbi Mountain is this Buddhist shrine. The peak is about 11,400 feet.

Brendan, Buddha, Brandon.

In the end, it got too late to go back down the way we came. Trudging through thick forest in the dark without lights wasn't too appealing. We decided we had to descend down the Lijiang City side of teh mountain instead of the Lashihai side. Only problem was that we locked our bikes up on the Lashihai side. But during our walk down the mountain I flagged down a nice farmer and he agreed to take us down the hill in the back of his tractor. It would have been an tiring trek to the bottom after having already hiked to the peak. Then we made it home and passed out out of exhaustion. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What can be done?

I often go running in the forests and foothills of Horse Saddle Mountain. I hadn't been out there for a few weeks because I had spent some time in Beijing, but yesterday I went running again and found that in my absence one of the many horse corrals surrounding Lashi Lake had poured concrete paths through the forest to make improvements to their tourism industry. I thought the forest was fine with just a dirt path, but I don't guide horses for a living so what do I know. What really sucks about the situation is after the workers were done the they just threw the used cement bags on the side of the newly paved path.

Today Brandon and I went back to take some photos and pick up the old cement bags. It was kind of a useless gesture as there was still a bunch of other trash strewn about the place by who-knows-who?

I have always been frustrated by how Chinese workers mix their cement. They dump the dry cement mix into a pile on the ground, make a little pit on the top of the mound to mix in water, and work their way down till the cement is finished. But what is left over every single time is a hard concrete slab the size of original cement pile, leaving that patch of ground absolutely useless. Me and Brandon had to break one apart that was left in our backyard after some workers came and built us some walkways. 

Brandon is not happy at all. Notice in the background that the trail just stops suddenly? Most of the trails didn't seem to start and stop with any purpose, they were just put there to be there, almost like the horse corral had a bunch of cement bags laying around and didn't know what else to do with them.

They also put up these beautiful new signs naming the different trails that tourists get to ride on. This one is named the 'Wild Flower Valley' 野花谷. Sounds beautiful doesn't it? But did anyone think about how beautiful it would to see a bunch of trash and cement bag along the trail? Probably not, and I am not surprised. These forest trails are covered in garbage, mostly thrown by the horse riding tourists. Cigarette packs, water and beer bottles, candy wrappers... But these tourists might get their cues from the locals who visit one of the many cemeteries in the foothills bringing with them paper money to burn for the dead (chinese tradition) Not only are the cemeteries absolutely littered with this sacrificial money, but every inch of trail before and after the cemetery is also covered with. If you were to spend just one day picking it up A.) there would still be plenty left on the ground B.) you would be filthy stinking rich in fake ghost money.  Oddly, the fake notes are labeled as Hell Bank......

We picked up 15 bags, and counted 5 cement mixing spots. We are sure there are more cement bags that had just been blown away by the wind. Lots of the bags we did find we pulled from out of the trees. Now at each one of the 24 horse corrals around Lashi Lake (and we have been to all of them) is a sign from the local government listing rules and regulations, one of which is it is illegal to throw your garbage on the ground. As of last year in China it is also illegal to smoke in public indoor places like restaurants and hotels, 
but anyone living in China today knows what a hilarious joke that is. There is absolutely no enforcement. Like it says in that above article 'The costumer is God.' If they want to smoke inside they can smoke inside. When we interviewed the 24 horse corral owners (at least the ones who would answer our questions) they said it would be rude of them to require their clients NOT to litter on the trails they are visiting for the afternoon. And so making these laws are simply an act, feigning an attempt to keep the public healthy from second-hand smoke, same as making littering illegal. No politician actually cares about protecting the environment, but it looks like they do.

What can be done? After seeing the cement bags and other garbage yesterday I had one idea of simply posting sign along the trails (just below the new signs posted by the horse corrals) reminding their patrons that they are Guests to Lashi Lake and to the forest and that they need to treat it with respect and not treat it like a garbage can. Well... I mentioned this idea to the director of our Environmental Protection NGO, and I was quite surprised that he shot the idea down faster than one of the horse corral owners probably would have. Hell one the horse corral owner might have even been in favor of the sign, you know, to feign an attempt to do the right thing but not actually make any effort to enforce it.
Our director was certain most people would see the sign and simply ignore it, which unfortunately in most cases would probably be true, but it would work for some people, and isn't that enough reason to go through with this amazing easy and simple plan????? "Besides, we are not a environmental watch-dog, we are an environmental educational group" he told us. Brandon and I thought it made a good bit of sense to use two strategies at the same time to be more effective. (we are putting up the sign regardless of our negative nancy boss)

One the way back from cleaning up the trails we run into these villagers cutting down trees, most likely to burn as fuel. In 1998 China issued a nation-wide ban on all logging. They government issued this just after the flooding of the Yangtze River that killed 3,000 people and left 14 million homeless,  The cause of the flooding was traced back to  Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces where excessive logging had stripped hills of their forest cover causing water to runoff into the rivers instead of soaking into the soil. This causes the rivers down steam to have more water flowing through its valleys (flood) than if the water had been absorbed into the soil up river.

Because most people use the trees as fuel in their kitchens an alternative fuel had to be found. Luckily it was already in existence. Biogas. I can't sing enough praises about biogas. Its amazing! You use the poop you get after eating, to create gas, that you use to cook the food to create the poop thats create the gas that cooks the food that will............... you get the idea, it's a brilliant little system that provides a free, sustainable energy source. The government subsidized the construction of over 6,000,000 biogas digesters, mostly in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces to be used as an alternative to cutting down tree to burn for fuel. But people don't like to use them, deforestation is easier than maintaining a biogas digester, which is incredibly easy to maintain if you know how to do it. Thats the other problem with solutions to problems within China. The government came in, build a bunch of digesters, then left without making sure people knew how to properly use them. So now days majority of the 6,000,000 biogas digesters in China go unused. We try to get people around Lashi Lake to start using their biogas digesters again, using the unimaginable amount of horse manure that paves each and every road around the lake. But it is more convenient to break the unenforced ban on logging, cut down the forest and wait for the Yangtze to flood again.

It gets harder and harder to give a shit when it seems like nobody else does.

If you are interested in learning about just how screwed the Chinese environment is/will become, I recommend reading this great/depressing book "When A Billion Chinese Jump"

In all fairness one can't be too upset with the Chinese mindset to consumer culture and neglect to the environment, after all China has only been in sync with the world economy for about twenty years and is just following the model of mass consumption and environmental degradation that was perfected for half a century by us in the western hemisphere.

Friday, May 11, 2012


One of our neighbors brought us some more fish today! So Brandon and I, now experienced fish gutters got to work. This family ran into some misfortune shortly after we arrived in Yunnan, and part of their house burned down while no one was home. The community and our NGO have done all we can to help out and get them assistance. The fish are one way the can thank the community for their help.
Freshly caught fish.

Freshly gutted fish.

Brandon enjoying gutting fish a bit too much..

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Going to the Farmers Market

Going to the farmers market is the best way to view the local culture and customs anywhere in the world. Each Thursday Brandon and myself go to our local market to buy our fruit, veggies and what ever else we might need, and we get a good look at the local Naxi ethnic minority. You can pretty much get what ever you might need while living on a farm. Tools to pesticides, meats to treats, shoes to hats. And something that Brandon and I noticed this morning at the market is that after three months the locals are starting to recognize us! Not that they didn't recognize us after our very first visit, we quite obviously stand out from everyone else, But people are saying hello to us and being friendly. Some of these folks are the ones whose fields we were working in planting corn a few weeks back.


Meat Market.
Doesn't that pig head look yummy?

Heres where ye buy yer brooms and baskets.
Cookies and sweet breads.

...Not to mention random horns from assorted animals.
Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Those are herbs and roots and fungi...

Tools of all sorts. Household needs.
Water jugs, hooks and hangers....

Ducks, chickens, pigs.
Traditional Naxi clothing. Aprons, shawls,
the while thing in the center is a sort
of cape most women wear.



Blue aprons, blue hats and blue anything is the signature style for the Naxi people. I fit right in with my blue sweatshirt.