29 August 2005 The Daily Dosage: Our cycling trip to Tian Chi (pronounced: ‘Tanchur’) PART I:
I’m up early as usual (0600)… I pack Ms. Fiets as much as I can, and move it out to Lee’s door (down the hallway). The two rear bags I wait until we’re outside to afix.
I’m living on the fourth floor of a six-story hotel, and thus four flights down and up. Additionally, the lobby is crowded with only a narrow passageway to get a bicycle through… It could hardly be a worse situation for getting the bike out or up to my room (although there’s a young Chinese guy who likes to show off and carry it up—which I let him.).
We carry all the gear down stairs, it barely light outside . We get everything loaded and lashed and I’m about to head out when Lee tells me he must have breakfast. O.K., we go a few doors down, where he gorges on dumplings and tea. I abstain, knowing better. He ties (in a plastic bag) what dumplings he doesn’t eat to the handle bars of his Chinese bicycle.
Off we go, me leading, as I know my way around Uremqui better than he actually (even though he’s been living here for several years). For one thing, I have researched the route to Tian Chi—I don’t leave such things to chance!
I get to know a new city quickly via a map and exploration. I don’t wait to find out, getting lost at the wrong time (like later when you’re on your way to Ti’an Chi)! Thus, many times I know how to get around better than others who have lived wherever longer.
We stop and rest at one place where some older Chinese men have gathered. They want to know all about our trip, which Lee conveys.
Onward to Miquan, one of the two fair-sized cities we will pass through on our way. Of course, ‘Miquan’ is the Pidyin (anglicized) way of spelling the Chinese characters (sounds/meaning) that mean whatever.
Here in Miquan (about 20 KM north of Uremqui) we have the first problem with Lee’s Chinese bicycle… The seat… He’s, at my suggestion, raised it, but it won’t stay even after tightening the bolt. Ah, it needs a new bolt, which costs all of 2 Yuan / .20 cents. A crowd gathers, as I always attract attention on ‘Ms. Fiets’ especially when fully loaded. I try to give the bicycle-stall owner a tip, but he won’t accept!
It’s amazing… It’s the poor, good people who won’t cheat you, won’t even accept a tip they’ve earned! These, the one’s who really need it! I love these people, not for saving me a pittance, but for their integrity; their loving kindnesses!
We’re about 20KM further, now between Miquan and Fukang (the second city of size), when his ‘piece of shit bike’ (excuse me) develops the second problem… The right pedal coming off. He has no tools, but I’m able to tighten with my bicycle tool (thank you Brian!). We crank on, now mid morning.
Suddenly I notice we’re among a group of touring cyclists, and older Chinese guys no less! I’m pleasantly surprised. Lee finds out they’re also cranking up to Tian Chi. I indicate to Lee that we should join them if possible. So, we kinda of tag along. They’re like me… Got the good bikes, the clothing/helmets/gear… Turns out they’ve done this trip many times before. I suddenly don’t feel so ‘alone,’ or unusual ‘out there.’
Up ahead they stop for a break and we join them. Lee introduces me and explains. Of course, they’re very curious about what I’m doing, about ‘Ms. Fiets,’ and how I carry my gear. I too, was curious about their bikes and gear: They all had geared mountain bikes, mostly of the ‘Giant’ variety (Taiwan). I didn’t see any ‘XLR’ quality Shimano, however.
We took a group photograph before taking off again (see in ‘Gallery’ at www.cyclingpeace.org)
The two oldest were 67 and 76 years old! The 67-year old was a Traditional Chinese Doctor. The 76-year old I stayed with at the rear of the pack as I wanted to be supportive. He was slow, but I wonder how fast I’ll be at 76 (Eric K.?) if I make it with this body that far? Later I lost him, as I think he stopped for the night much before Tian Chi. Actually I never knew what happened to any of them, because of Lee’s pedal problem!
Between Miquan and Fukang we’re out in a very desolate and barren desert—it reminds me for some reason of the Imperial Valley of southeastern California (that I grew up driving through). The highway here is great, however, plenty of good ‘shoulder’ to crank on (as good as anything in the U.S.). I’m impressed with the Chinese infrastructure… They’ve been constructing things, and constructing things, and constructing things in the last seven years (to catch up, I guess)!
So, far it’s been a ‘breeze’ for me… A 2-3% grade downhill to Fukang (the lowest point on the route).
However, Lee is struggling with his ‘No good’ one-speed bike. But, he’s a ‘game’ guy, and I always appreciate someone willing to try! We ‘fail’ our way to ‘success!’
Outside of Fukang the Chinese group stops for what I think is ‘lunch.’ So, I let Lee eat (I’d tried to explain to him about this… eating and then exerting). I have an apple. We’re only about five kilometers out of Fukang. I had made the assumption the group is frugal, but I should have know better with older guys and eating…
We crank on and it isn’t long until we’re in the throbbing, pulsating heart of Fukang. The highway has turned into a very broad boulevard, a city of some size it appears at first glance. Later I find out the population is 20,000.
Note, there’s no such thing as a ‘small’ Chinese settlement (town, city, etc.). Think about it… 1.2 billion people in a country only slightly larger in square ‘miles’ than the U.S.
I’m with the old guy and Lee, the pack way ahead. The old guy, his ‘mobile’ strapped to his wrist like a ‘Dick Tracy’ watch, makes a call to find out where they are…? They’ve gone ahead and are waiting for us at a restaurant. After the usual loud and long Chinese telephone conversation, he says ‘follow me!’ or I should say he indicates such in an international language (thank God, or I’d be even more ‘out to lunch’).
And lunch at a restaurant is just what we stop for (again). Here they gorge themselves on noodles, and ‘zhau fan’ (Uyghur ‘rice pilaf’), drinking liters of ‘flower tea!’ Lee has dumplings and liters of flower tea. Then he smokes ‘a pack’ of cigarettes!
They (Chinese men) all smoke like ‘chimneys’ (although I’m not sure I saw the doctor smoke…?).
While we’re at the restaurant, of all things but some local is making a ‘video.’ I mean what are the odds that I (a filmmaker) would stop at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere (far northwestern China) and have this happen…? The scene they’re ‘shooting’ is a wedding party getting off a bus to go inside for the ‘reception.’ Thus, there’s live music (drums and flutes). They ‘shoot’ this scene over and over! It does liven up our ‘lunch’ time, however! I also meet two Polish guys while going to the ‘W.C.’ They’re on their way to ‘Ti’an Chi,’ on a bus. 90% of Chinese people travel on public conveyance, although now’s there’s a fascination with the private motor vehicle (like America had in the 1950’s). ‘See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet,’ Dina Shore used to sing!
My group of cyclists is shocked when I don’t eat, only drinking my coffee concoction (Nestles, soy powder and brown sugar). In the midst of slipping such, the doctor suddenly grabs and tests my leg—I take it that he’s curious as to my stamina, me not eating and such. He says something to Lee in Chinese, which I never quite understand… I think maybe it’s something like, ‘Oh, this guy is terminal, and won’t live out the afternoon!’ Later outside he beats hard on my back, and indicates some bobbing head movement I’m to do! Afterwards all I get out of Lee is that I’m ‘thin!’
We’ve been resting, stopping for lunch too long, and I’m wondering if Lee and I should just head out… Finally, however, we take off in a hotter afternoon, the Chinese group having to stop almost immediately for the usual reasons… Lee and I continue past, waving…
I’m feeling strong. But, poor Lee is falling further and further behind as the windy-hot minutes drag on, the group beginning to catch up with us. I’m now wondering if he can make it all the way to Ti;an Chi (roughly 100KM / 80 miles from Uremqui). It’s getting really hot too, the sun ‘raining down’ like a shower of arrows! Note: This is high desert country where they raise/use camels to haul loads. See photographs of some in the ‘Gallery’ at www.cyclingpeace.org
I had originally, and wisely I might add, thought this was a two-day cycling trip (‘The Lonely Planet’ says it 115 KM)—me not having been on ‘Ms. Fiets’ much in six weeks, and Lee with no experience at all (and a ‘shit’ bicycle besides). But, then we met up with the Chinese group and got all caught up in ‘their’ energy… Maybe it was the full moon! Anyway we keep going, until…
…Misfortune (or ‘fortune’) strikes! Lee’s rubber pedal falls off! He’s just ‘ground’ it off cranking—no repair possible! We have to walk/push. O.K., that’s fine with me, as the group passes, all except for the 76-year old (I wonder if he’s stopped for the night?). Lee and I continue to push/walk up the highway! Lee exhorts me to ride on, but I say no, ‘We started together, and we will finish together!’ (Him not understanding my English explanation, of course!) ‘Me, know little English!’ is his constant refrain.
Note: This is an old ‘rule’ with me… I don’t normally cycle with other people. But, I believe if you choose to do so, you should stick together, no matter what! I don’t abandon people! Concomitantly, I don’t expect to be abandoned either (if trouble).
We’ve now managed to get to higher ground with shade and trees, a cooler area (higher) where vendors are selling fresh peaches by the road side. The Chinese group stops to partake of… Lee and I push on…
We ride or push (I forget which) through two places where high/fast Spring water had washed out bridges (Note: We knew about this from information we had garnered at the cycle shops in Uremqui beforehand. It turned out to be no problem, however.).
I remember suggesting, after seeing Lee struggling along, that he might consider hailing a bus, and riding up to Ti’an Chi. He said that wasn’t possible! I wondered why at the time…? But, many times I’ve learned it’s just a communications problem—you’re not understanding one another…
‘What we have here is a failure to communicate!’ One of the greatest lines from a movie ever! Marty will know from which!
It wasn’t twenty minutes later, that a bus stops right in front of us! He is suddenly excited (maybe exhausted more likely) and exclaims such! I suggest he goes for it! There’s some tension, some deciding, some rushing, but suddenly he’s on and gone! I’m left alone on the road, but feeling confident! It’s actually a lovely afternoon, although getting late (about 1600 hours / 4 P.M.). I’m happy to be able to ride again. Pushing a loaded bicycle is no fun!
But, now the highway starts up! For the first 80KM it was downhill and/or flat, with only one hill I can remember… Easy riding basically. Now, however, I have to gear and slow down, way down! I’ve now been on the road something like nine or ten hours! Your ass goes first! I stop and rest near a rushing stream, glad to be in the mountains (wherever in the world)!
I make the entrance to the Park, thinking to ask ‘Where do I pay?’ I’m just gestured through, and I know to do as told! They ‘wave’ the fee for struggling, anglo cyclists with loaded bicycles (I guess?)! Lee is surprised about this later as he had to pay the fee on the bus.
I have to dodge a herds of sheep and cattle (being driven down the highway), this part of China is beginning to remind me of Big Bend, Texas. Turns out the Kazaks, which inhabit this area, are the ‘cowboys’ of China! ‘Honky meat breaths,’ an authentic Ninja once described meat eaters (this way back during my Army training, circa. 1964). They eat nothing but shiskabob (lamb/goat). And worse don’t treat the lambs and goats very well while they’re alive (I observed). Typical ‘cow’boys!
I have to keep going up, but I’m not really enjoying it at this point… I want to have something hot to drink, and sit and stare at the mountain stream. I do stop near a Kazak yurt, resting on a bridge ‘embuttment’ (interesting about words… I have no idea what you would call the cement thing I sat on, so I just ‘made up’ one… I think it’s ‘abutment,’ but what is that?).
I continue on up the good, but narrow, two-lane highway. I have no choice, I told Lee, ‘Wait for me!’ Thus, if I didn’t show, he’d not know what to do. It’s now about 7P.M., although no problem with daylight as it doesn’t get really dark until about 10P.M.
Up we continue up, relentlessly, I’m guessing the grade at this point to be something like 06% (not too bad)! But, I’m losing my humor! Something that did cheer me, however… a Chinese guy in a motor vehicle coming down… When he saw me he honked enthusiastically and gave me the ‘thumbs up!’ People who know (possibly have done it themselves) appreciate what you’re doing ‘out there.’ This guy was probably a cyclist himself!
So, we continue up relentlessly, somewhat encouraged (by the man appreciating us)… But, the words ‘Relentlessly up,’ reminded me of something…
I remember a backpacking trip up Yokum Ridge on Mt. Hood, Oregon, U.S.A. (my partner that day will too, Dick Hammerstrom). We were carrying too much of course, like cold beer! But, that was twenty years ago, and I was but 45-years old (more energy, fewer smarts).
Yokum Ridge, the trail up was a bitch, one of the harder one-day hikes on Mt. Hood (11K ft ASL). But, once there it was heaven-like, so we endured. But, the first day we ever did it, the trail seemed to be endless. So, wanting the trail to stop and the top to appear, we asked a couple coming down… ‘How much further to the top?’ His last words were, ‘…but it’s relentlessly up!’ And to this day both Dick and I remember these words, because he was right! By the time we got there we fell down exhausted! Of course, when we recovered we broke-out the beer and everything else—‘Miller Time!’
This day, I had no cold beer but probably was cranking too much weight. I have a tendency to carry too much whether on a bicycle or trekking. I had to have my coffee and/or tea hot drink, and fresh fruit on this trip. Some things I’m not willing to give up and leave behind… So you pay for it in many ways!
Life is a compromise, isn’t it…? You take what you can, but you also take what you can do without (fooling yourself at the time), but paying for it later! Sometimes I wonder why I do it…? The only answer, I’m a masochist! Of course. Stupid!
I also respect my fellow ‘masochists!’ I admire Lee, my new Chinese friend because he didn’t know what he was getting into that day with me… He just trusted me. That’s why I tried to forewarn him while still down in Uremqui. Then, on the other hand, the only way to find out is to do it yourself! He did, and I admire him for it! By the way, he never complained either—which I really appreciated!
And there he was when I finally arrived where the buses stop, I guess you would call it the ‘Bus Park.’ This is also where the headquarters to the National Park is located, an imposing building (we later investigate on a ‘Zhua Fan’ quest). This is where the cable car begins, for those who prefer to take the easy way out, up to where the lake is, yet another six-kilometers / 4-miles (up the highway).
When I found this out, I thought they were kidding… Another six kilometers? Will we ever get there…?
But, Lee had reserved a yurt for us (‘Up there!’ he kept gesturing), and ‘what to do?’ I knew I’d have to push, not ride, as the grade is something like 7-8%. It’s a switchback, curvy thing too, ‘snaking’ under the cable-car line. But, thank God for a good, hard-surface highway (yea, Chinese government!)! And the weather/light was still good at 2000 hours / 8P.M. Relentlessly up we push!
I think Lee, by now, was in somewhat of a trance, as he went way faster than me, and ended up way ahead of me! We’ve been on the road now for 12 hours, somewhere losing the Chinese group (they probably were smarter than us and rented a yurt down lower). I think he was like a horse nearing the end of a hard day, the ‘smell of the barn,’ in his mind. You get to a point where you’ll do just about anything to have it end. I’m sure 40-week pregnant women are the same way!
At about 3 KM (halfway), I see a car stop up where Lee is a man getting out. I can’t figure out what’s going on, but he turns out to be the yurt-keeper’s helper and he’s down searching for us with light running out. The vehicle continues down past me, the man pushing Lee’s bike up the highway. I finally get up to where they’ve stopped for a cigarette!
The man, Lee explains, is a part of the Kazak-yurt community where we’ll be staying and has come to show us the way. Great! He, thank God, grabs my bike and starts pushing it up the highway! I don’t normally allow this, being a purist, but you also get to the point where you’ll allow anything! I can barely walk myself!
On up, and up, the day no longer so much fun! By now we’re up in fir and pine trees, and view of the desert to the north (where Fukang is located) a stunning view in the setting sun. I keep thinking to myself… This was a two-day deal, just like I thought… Crank to a yurt below, spend the night, and then fresh, do the hard up the following morning. Next time, as we’re already ‘here!’
Finally, in the distance some buildings… I think the ‘hotel!’ No sorry, ‘another ten minutes walking,’ I’m told. This is just a commercial area (shops and restaurants that we frequent later)—where the cable car line ends. Another fifteen minutes and the lake (Tian Chi) appears somewhat anticlimatic. I’m too exhausted to appreciate it! Actually it’s quite stunning, Bogeda (Ti’an Shan) as a backdrop in the declining twilight.
I appreciated the view more and more as the days went on (we ended up staying a total of four).
‘O.K., where’s our yurt?’ I can barely gasp, Mr. Young and Strong Kazak man, who wants to ride my bicycle? I say, ‘No, maybe tomorrow!’ Suddenly I’m pushing it myself, following him pushing Lee’s! ‘O.K., not tomorrow you fucker!’ We’re now winding up another hard-surface road (thank God) off the main one. This can’t last forever, I keep telling myself! Plus, it’s cool, and I’m in ‘my mountains’ (after two years). You get to a point where you’ll do almost anything to get where you want to be!
And behold we’re suddenly in a ‘yangle’ of yurts, a veritable ‘community’ of them with some permanent structure as ‘office.’ We have turned off the road and are now on a wooden-planked path. I don’t care, about to fall over! I know I can’t go much further on any surface. Around us kids are playing ‘football,’ women cooking dinners, and men drinking and talking.
We’re suddenly the ‘hit of the show’ too, as they gather around to welcome us! We’re finally at our yurt, the little gnome-looking Kazak yurt keeper there to greet us. The young and strong Kazak man carries ‘Ms. Fiets’ inside, which surprises me! I thought I’d have to lock outside, but I wasn’t thinking too well at that point—not knowing much about yurts! There comes a point, as most mountain climbers know, where you stop thinking very well! This is dangerous when high on some a mountain!
We sit down on the yurt floor, me barely having the energy to make my coffee concoction. I know if I don’t, however, I’ll pass out on the floor (scaring everyone)! “Mr. Hutch,’ as Lee has taken to calling me, ‘Can I help you?’ He must be concerned, with the look on my face. I can barely say, ‘No thank you.’
The interior of the yurt (one of the first I’ve ever been in) is a variegated pastiche of quilts or rugs covering the walls. The rich red colors of so many flowers (printed on these ‘rugs?’) is shocking me awake (what a contrast to the green outside). Note: See photographs in the ‘Gallery’ at www.cyclingpeace.org I’m even more shocked that our yurt has its own TV set and DVD player! Where am I? I stumble out a 100-Yuan note to pay in advance, but I’m told not until we ‘check out’ (which turns out to be a big mistake).
I unload what I have to, roll out my pad, decide to use their quilts, rather than my sleeping, bag, and filled with hot coffee try to fall asleep! When I notice Lee turning out the one bare bulb, I observe my watch to discover it’s 2230 hours / 10:30 P.M. We were on the road for 13 hours! I’ve been up for almost 18 hours!
I stare up and out the hole in the top of the yurt, being able to see the stars in the clear night sky. Suddenly I feel O.K.
Around 12 midnight someone knocks on our yurt door, and persistently. In fact, this happens a second time, but I don’t answer, hoping they’ll, whomever they are, will just go away. They do finally. I think, who could this be…? I fantasize a comely Kazak woman wanting to give me a ‘massage!’
I doze in and out of consciousness all night long, bothered by music someone is playing in the community. It’s Saturday night, however, and they must be having a party! We’re not exactly secluded even though 100KM from Uremqui and up in the mountains. This is a National Park during the summer (money-making) season!
21 August, Sunday
I don’t sleep very well—I have leg cramps (‘Charlie horses’ we used to call them) which send me standing up and falling over in the dark. Additionally, there’s too much noise (partying), and maybe I drank too much coffee! Lee, on the other hand, sleeps like a baby hardly moving at all during the night. But, by the grace of God, he’s a Chinese smoker that doesn’t snore (I was concerned sleeping in the same space). I have ‘fond’ memories of sleeping in the same room/tent with Dick Hammerstrom!
We lie in our quilted cocoons until the sun comes over the hill at 0900. I’m amazed I’m not that sore!
We have coffee and tea without saying much, me trying to shake the cobwebs from my over-taxed brain.
The Kazak yurt-keeper comes and informs Lee we have to vacant between 11A.M. and 3P.M. –they’re having some kind of function in ‘our yurt.’ What is this? I’m thinking, and express dismay to Lee. He acts likes it’s usual and we shouldn’t get upset. I try to explain how westerners are, but have little success. ‘I know little English,’ he informs me (his week-long lament).
Lee and I go off to investigate ‘the Lake,’ in Chinese ‘Ti’an Chi,’ or ‘Heavenly Pool.’ It is, green in color (see photographs in the ‘Gallery’ at www.cyclingpeace.org ). It is a stunning mountain lake, but with too much traffic on it (tour boats).
I’m become aware that I’m a part of a large crowd of people (thousands actually). I forget this is a Sunday in a National Park. They’ve come in buses in droves to partake of some of China’s most stunning scenery—which it is Colorado like! The Kazaks know how to deal with this, dressing up in their native costumes, and selling everything ‘which way but loose!’
I get hustled by a Kazak kid who says I should have my picture taken with him for only 3 Yuan. We sit as Lee photographs us, my arm around the kid (in ‘Gallery’). I give the kid 1 Yuan for the ‘trouble.’ He departs unhappy about the amount, but Lee says something admonishing him. Ah, another stingy white face, the kid must have thought! I don’t do aggressive hustlers (kids in particular) very well.
I hardly gave the street kids in Kathmandu much. In fact, I would tell them, ‘If you come and work for me for one hour, I’ll pay you 50 rupees!’ They never took me up on such. Mind you, I’m the ‘King of the Beggars,’ in Kathmandu!
I rent a ride around the lake in a ‘speed boat.’ It costs 25 Yuan each, or $3 U.S. for what turns out to be ‘once around in a hurry.’ I’m made to put on a life-vest! I ask Lee if he knows how to swim? He tells me, ‘Yes!’ I’m beginning to think like a ‘father,’ when it comes to him… Interesting…
In the crowd afterwards I meet a Chinese woman from Beijing who speaks English. She’s there with her husband on a short vacation. She works for an American law firm in Beijing. We exchange email addresses.
I ‘collect’ people! You never know…
Lee and I walk to the Taoist Monastery 2KM around the far (eastern) side of the lake. But, the constructed path, a marvel really, what the Chinese have done… I’m impressed! They’ve thought of everything!
END PART I (to be continued)