I’m a fan of traveling light, but it’s a stretch to say we’re doing that on this long-distance bike trip. Lugging over 80 pounds of gear each from Canada to China is an adventure in itself, and after three different flights, countless luggage surcharges, and three separate midnight taxi rides, with bike boxes falling out of car trunks and us totally confused as to our intended destination, it was a miracle when Ben, Mel, myself and the bikes finally landed in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Through it all I never quite believed the bike trip was really happening. Only when our bikes were assembled, when we were out on the street with our route memorized, when we took that long-dreamed of first pedal stroke did it hit me: this was very real, and this was going to hurt.
Prior this trip, Mel and I had adopted a strict training regimen consisting of “interval tapering” and “bulking up”, as explicitly advised by a long-distance cycling trip guidebook – who were we to argue with the experts? The best way to get fit for biking for 6-8 hours a day over mountainous terrain while hauling a load of gear is to…actually bike for 6-8 hours a day over mountainous terrain hauling a load of gear. Or so we figured. That first day we rode just 50 km out of Urumqi, and despite biking all last summer, I had totally forgotten how cumbersome a loaded bike is, how impossibly far a kilometer can be, and how grueling a gentle grade can feel on unfit legs.
But despite the initial shock to the system, it was amazing to fall back into that rhythm of cycling life – riding, wandering, wondering. Just a day’s journey southwest from Urumqi along “highway” 216, and we found ourselves in a different world. A world where donkeys and sheep jockey for room on the road, and mud-brick houses and yurt dot the landscape. After riding through the arid flatlands we were soon weaving our way through the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. The next day, these grass-felted slopes morphed into a hauntingly beautiful cathedral of craggy peaks, scowling and snow-capped. In the words of Alexandra David-Neels, “a gust of wind welcomed us – the violent, icy kiss of the austere country whose severe charm has held me so long bewitched…”
The three of us decided to break ourselves in slowly by tackling a 14,000 ft pass in the first few days of the trip. This was a humbling and empowering experience – humbling because the altitude, below zero temperatures, and polar wind chill factor had us huffing and shivering pathetically for a couple of days; empowering because somehow we made it up, over, and down alive. It took three days of solid climbing to reach the base of the pass at 11,000 ft. From this already-high base, all we could see above us was an intimidating series of Zorro slashes on a mountainside.
One of the perks of biking up mountains, rather than hiking up, is you are rewarded for all the energy you invest in climbing with a gravity-assisted cruise down. In China, alas, this was not the case. When the road up the pass wasn’t honeycombed with potholes, it was ribbed like a starved man’s chest or wincing with dagger-sharp stones. The road down the pass was just as relentless. The whole ride down I felt dangerously out of control, like I was skidding down the debris field of a landslide. During the climb and descent we wore all our mountineering clothing, balaclava included, but swaddled as we were our faces still froze beneath a slurry of snot and sweat, and our fingers and toes were icy nuggets by the time we hit horizontal ground.
But to be honest, I loved every minute of it. Once in a while it’s nice to remind yourself that you have a pulse – and thanks to the altitude, a very quick one.
So far we have camped in some delightfully absurd settings, from mud-walled ancient ruins to a cold slab of concrete beneath a bridge, where the peace was punctuated hourly by the screeching of trains passing overhead. On day 2 of the trip, we were climbing higher and higher in the Tian Shans and camping possibilities were looking more and more grim, with sheer vertical rock on one side of the narrow road and a sheer drop-off into a river gorge on the other. We finally spotted a flat chunk of grassy ground, only it was down in a gorge and on the opposite bank of the river. Since we were each hauling those meddlesome 80 pounds of gear, this posed a bit of a problem. With no alternative presenting itself, we ended up stashing our bikes on the mountainside, and then spent about two hours ferrying all our gear down the cliff and fording the glacial river to reach our camping sanctuary. Then we woke up the next morning and reversed the entire Sisyphean process.
After descending from the high mountains, we’ve stopped for the day in Korla, an oil money city at the toe of the Tian Shan range. Having a shower and eating ice cream were experiences bordering on divine, I’m already hankering to flee the clamor and confusion of this place: bring on the dust and desolation of the Taklamakan desert. For me at least, the charm of China lies in the forgotten places, the empty spaces between the fume-choked, horn-honking cities. In small villages and remote communities, you begin to get a sense for how people really live here. While the Chinese dominate the cities, other ethnic groups populate the countryside, and that’s where the real legacy of the Silk Road endures. So I’m give me the crooked winding backroads again. After I eat one more ice cream cone.
But I will walk the road however hard it is, because only on the road can you see that yesterday lies behind you and tomorrow waits on the path ahead. The road measures life in distance. The further you travel the longer you live.
-Ma Jian, Red Dust