It was very cold as we departed from the hostel, but we soon got our blood pumping. It had snowed the last two nights lightly and there wasn’t much left on the ground, but it foretold of things to come in a big way, and it began, fittingly, on the first of December. We ran another toll, which I don’t even remember; honestly, I can’t be sure of the chronology of our encounters with police anymore. There was hardly any traffic on the road, and three or four police cars passed us without stopping. The snow was lovely. We began to climb gradually and mountains rose on either side of us. The snow got thicker and the traffic consolidated into one lane, but we forged through it alright until late afternoon. At this point Cody popped into the road, to the chagrin of every passing vehicle. He tends to ride with half of him sticking out into the right lane anyways and we get a lot of honks to begin with, so it wasn’t so much of a change. I told him that if I were riding by myself, I wouldn’t have heard one fifth of the horns we had. Cody surged ahead as I struggled through the snow, unwilling to ride in the road. To be fair, he has good knobby tires, having replaced his front one recently, which is the important one for stability. His are also wider and softer than mine, so he feels more comfortable in these conditions. Traffic seemed to be dying down though, and the shoulder was tough riding, so I thought I’d try the road. I waited until the road was clear and gently turned toward the naked pavement. There was a layer of ice along the snow’s edge, however, which became known to me as the bike slid out from under me and I went tumbling into the middle of the highway. I was up in a flash, without time to register any injuries, absolutely convinced that the shoulder was the place for me.
At this point I realized we were in a precarious situation, in which what I was doing seemed quite foolish. Well, a new level of foolishness, at least. Riding this road seemed to be an unnecessary risk that could very well cut the trip short. Not only could one be hit by a truck, a good fall against the guardrail or an awkward fall to the ground could break an arm or a wrist, injure a knee. This trip is inherently risky, but I immediately felt the desire to get off of the road. Meanwhile Cody shot ahead, sticking to the pavement. I lagged in the snow as far away from the trucks as possible, laying the bike down again, this time without falling myself, and precariously sliding on hidden ice a number of times. I reckoned it was better a higher risk of slipping with no chance of finding myself in the road than a lower chance in the road.
I passed a small rest stop, but because Cody was not making tracks, I couldn’t tell if he took the exit or not. We were headed for a rest stop in the next few kilometers, but this one seemed too small to be it, so I kept going. I could see the town yet unnamed in maps.me, where I knew there to be an international hotel and made note of this. I also noticed that we had passed the closest exit and it would require a backtrack to return, but I was already resolved not to ride much further in these conditions as night quickened.
In 3 kilometers I arrived at the rest stop. Cody was there and had already ordered food for us. I shambled in, preparing for a discussion about the road conditions. I could go into detail about our opposing perceptions, but for the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that Cody did not feel endangered by the conditions and I did. However, in mentioning my discomfort I managed to infect Cody with my desire to call it a day. We looked at the map and saw we were 40k from a questionable “guesthouse,” which was an intitial goal. I also found we had passed the hotel by 4 kilometers, which wasn’t much, but that it would take some exploration to find a way to backtrack to it. I mentioned this hotel and its proximity, but of course Cody’s response was, “F that, I’m not going backwards.” He may be cycling every bit of the way, but he will not waste his energy going backward. Ah well, we could still ask the restaurant if we could crash there for the night. I was hoping to stay there, because I knew that otherwise Cody and I would be forced into a debate at the least, splitting up at the most, if our respective stubborness were to be tested. They did not seem interested in letting us sleep there, but pointed directly across the road, and as we followed their finger, discovered that the rest stop across the street appeared to be a hotel.
I’m not sure where my prayers went, but I sent them. We had to wait a bit for someone to find the receptionist, and after an anxious wait, she showed up and accepted us, shrewdly neglecting to ask for our passports. Crisis averted!
After a contented rest and a lovely $2 buffet breakfast, we hit the road, emerging into a very wintery landscape bathed in bright, young sunlight. It was incredibly cold. As we climbed back on the highway we marvelled at the cold and the incredible beauty of such a hostile environment. The road was at least as dangerous as the night before, although the visibility was excellent and the new day convinced us that things were going to be alright. I followed Cody into the road, fed up with the inefficiency of riding in the snow and wondering whether I was being melodramatic about the danger. I was fine until the first truck passed. After a few more, my heart was thumping so bad that if a truck didn’t kill me, an anxiety attack surely would. I bailed back into the shoulder with profound relief. How Cody feels safe doing this, I do not know. Sharing the road with cars and trucks is hands down the most dangerous part of the trip, and now he was in their lane, riding along a line of icy snow.
I relaxed somewhat myself, but each time a truck passed Cody my heart lilted and I was compelled to consider horrific possibilites. I was significantly more frightened than he was, which highlights the difference of personality better than anything. At one point he stopped, and I thought his derailleur was frozen stuck again- we had to chip away a large build-up of ice that had accumulated on his front derailleur when his shifting failed to respond the day before- but everything was fine, his hands were simply too cold to continue. He asked me if mine were cold. They had been painfully so as we started riding, which was fairly normal. They had soon warmed up, so I thought. Turns out, my hands had just gone numb, and now that we were stopped they began to thaw, throbbing painfully. I hadn’t felt this sensation for years before this trip. On a snowshoeing trip out to Waldo Lake in Oregon I had experienced the worst cold of my life and I have since done my best to avoid being that cold again. Well, I felt it back in Kyrgyzstan, and stated that I never wanted to experience it again…again. Here I was. That acute, insistent ache as your extremities return to functionality, how I despise it! Meanwhile, Cody was searching frantically for some handwarmers he had stashed somewhere, but they were buried deep. He cursed himself for his neglect and we carried on.
A bit of a headwind blew at us and the road followed a mild incline. We moved slow, myself falling behind as I churned through the snow, but the sun finally gained strength and warmed us up. I watched Cody like a mother hen, worrying myself to pieces. I did not like this situation one bit, but there was nowhere else to ride. I imagined writing this part of the trip, actually, and I wondered whether any of Cody’s relatives ever read this. Then I began thinking about what would happen if something serious happened to him, and realized that in a nightmare situation, I would have to call his family and tell them that their son had been seriously injured or killed in my company and found it was my duty to convey my concern to Cody, on behalf of his family as well as myself. When we stopped next I told him that I would consider the day a success if I didn’t have to call his family. I went on about his funeral and how it would ruin my trip because I would have to wait for his family and then fly back to the UK for the service and whatnot. He got the hint and was somewhat more cautious, maybe because I joked about his sisters needing consolation and how his parents could at least find solace in anew son-in-law. I felt I had done my duty and, conscience clean, I left him to his fate. The snow was thinning out, and Cody must have heard some sense, for whenever it was somewhat clear he would get out of the road.
Out of nowhere the remnants of the Great Wall popped up. We rode along the ruins all day, which was awesome! I really wanted the authentic experience, and we got it. They had to cut a piece of it out to make room for the highway at one point, that’s how intimate we were with it. It is in various stages of decay and disrepair, of course. This part of China is strange because you see lumps of dirt and caves and have no way of knowing how old they are. As piles of dirt go, they are brand new, but in the scope of history, these indiscernable mounds that were once impressive and formidable fortifications or large homesteads.
When we passed the point where the guesthouse was supposed to be, we realized it would have been disastrous had we tried to continue riding the night before, as there was no guesthouse, the road was steep and we would have had quite a challenge trying to find a warm place to sleep. As it was, we began to get worried about our progress, which was too slow if we wanted to make it to Yongchang at a reasonable hour. The problem was the long climb we seemed to be tackling, which we had not anticipated. We climbed and climbed. We turned left slightly and began, slowly, to plateau. I could tell by the lay if the land that we were climbing a small pass through the mountains, and began to hope for a good descent.
It came. After climbing to a height of 2,550 meters (8,364 feet) we dropped down towards Yongchang in a magnificent descent that sent us hurdling down the last 30k into town. After crawling all day this was a blessing. It was strange to arrive into town before it was dark enough to turn the lights on, it was surreal! Cody was a bit behind and was stopped by the police, but he explained he was going to Yongchang and they tailed him the last 500 meters to the exit. We found the hotel, which was cheap and luxurious, our favorite combination, and it was lovely to finish at a reasonable hour. We decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, which was a bit spendy, but in an excellent location.
We had a very long and enjoyable conversation that night, about a range of things. Cody is a sharp fellow, and a skilled dialectician. It is nice to hang out with a writing major who also happens to be living according to his spirit, a critic of the status quo, and passionate about alternative living. We waxed long, and once we were satisfied, made our way up to the cashier. Our bill seemed off and as I took a look at the bill, which was in Chinese, but finally figured out what was funny: the tea was as expensive as our meals! Normally free, our teas cost us an incredible 6 dollars. We did not argue for long before it was removed from the bill, however, and we swaggered out like high powered… hobos. I sometimes feel like I am exercising some sort of Western privilege sometimes, but Central Asia has made me wary. There are people who take advantage of travelers. Compound this with the high potential for things to be lost in translation and one must be wary.
Dec. 5th- The Other Great Wall
We enjoyed yet another luxurious breakfast, the highlight of which was the hot orange juice; I was dismayed at first, but quite enjoyed it in the end. They also had coffee, a rarity! Having finished breakfast and trashed the storage room with a combination of tube switching and blackened puddles of melted snow from the day before, we set off, satisfied that we had given the staff something to do, which they seemed to be in need of. We were intent on getting back on the G30, but, as usual, this involved running a toll booth. The one on the way in seemed like a longshot, so after some study, we decided to hit the next one, a kilometer South.
Well, we hit it, slowly. An uphill run on a straight road, our approach was seen and prepared for. The toll man was outside his booth and waiting for us. Despite this, Cody tried to run it anyway, yelling, “We have to go! We have to go!” as he pressed on. When the guard realized he had a lawless madman on his hands (or perhaps, an impressively ignorant foreigner), he got down into a stance and stood right in the path of Cody’s loaded bike. At the last second he sidestepped, and as Cody passed, he latched on to the back panniers and, though unable to hold on, knocked bike and rider aside into some cones. I sat at the gate, driven to hysterics by the look on Cody’s face and the absurd scene. Cody was quite offended by the whole affair, which was the majority source of my uncontainable laughter, and gave voice to what he felt was an unforgivable affront. I knew we were licked, and as I watched my riding partner consider trying to make another dash while another toll booth agent ran over to assist, I told him to give up. If we got onto the highway, we could expect a visit from the police momently anyways.
Defeated, we turned around and hopped on the G312. Cody was peeved and rode on ahead while I giggled behind, unable to stop. When I caught up with Cody, his frustration had passed, however, and we had to admit that the toll officer was extremely dutiful and devoted, not to mention fearless. As usual, the man had performed his job thoroughly without any personal, vested emotion. It is difficult to anger these people.
As it turns out, the G312, which the day prior was an icy, degraded road, hardly more than a dirt path at points, had transitioned to a well paved, quiet road lined with trees. We realized we had been done a favor, and enjoyed a mild morning, racing along with a strong tailwind. We made such good time, in fact, that we elected to stop for an early lunch.
Satiated, we emerged from the little cafe to a different world than the one we left: clouds obscured the sun, the temperature had dropped, and the wind had shifted. Nonplussed, we cycled on, albeit a bit slower than before. Another good conversation engaged us as we slogged into the wind and a light snow began to fall. We were discussing Cody’s riding etiquette, particularly his habit of running intersections, which frequently obstructs traffic. He gets angry when cars block him or pass too close, regardless of whether or not he has the right of way. The dicussion encompassed the concept of social contracts, the dual nature of a bicycle as pedestrian and road vehicle, the consideration from the perspective of the people who do follow the traffic rules, which are sensible and facilitate freedom of travel in a way that is fair and equal (one of the few sets of laws that actually make sense and are without prejudice), the danger involved, and how it relates to being considerate and seeing others as yourself. I believe we also discussed Cody’s inclination to ride on the white line with half of him sticking out into the road and his preference for riding in the road when the shoulder is covered in snow along with an in-depth analysis of the actual danger involved, as well as the nuances of what he claims is a calculated strategy for all of these daring and peculiar habits. He has made it this far without incident, to be fair, but I think I convinced him to be more conservative. By the time this conversation ended it was about 4 o’clock and the snow was picking up quite a bit. I espied what looked to be a hotel, and mentioned that perhaps we ought to check it, but once again, Cody dismissed the idea immediately- we had a goal.
This immediately put me in a mood, and I told him that he would eat crow when we found ourselves riding through a snowstorm at night, uphill. I do not like to ride in bad weather after dark. Who does?
As if on que, the snow picked up. It made beautiful trails as it was swept up by the wind or caught in the wake of the cars, betraying the shape of the air as it slithered in little streams above the pavement. It was mesmerizing, exquisite in its fanciful beauty. Cody put his light on and kept in the road, but the snow was blowing heavy enough that I couldn’t make out his light at all until I was within 10 meters of him. The traffic was slow, but I kept to my snowy shoulder. It was not long before Cody stopped at a building to ask if it was a hotel, but no luck. The weather was only getting worse. He struggled to get up the ramp he had descended to ask at the gate about lodging, then slid out as he crossed the road, going all the way down. He was up in an instant, unharmed, but it seemed like no kind of weather to be out in as dusk settled. I was battling with myself about knowingly skipping out on the hotel I saw, hoping in secret that Cody would admit he was wrong. I knew this was a petty wish, a sly, selfish demand of the ego to be coddled, and managed to suppress the feeling and take the situation in stride. I realized that I was just trying to control him, and took a good look at this impulse. In doing this, I realized that the motivation for this was the desire to teach him something, to help him. I disagreed with a lot of his actions of late and his rationale for them, and realized that I cared about him and wanted to impart something to him. This sentiment may sound a bit more noble, but it was still based on my assumption that I was right and he was wrong- a historical weakness of mine- and this was just another example of me trying to control the world based on my own ideas and opinions, which is a flaw not unique to me by any means, but a decidedly unpleasant one, whichever side of it you are on. Unless, of course, someone is clearly right, which happens very seldom unless one is teaching a professional skill to an apprentice or some such. As I get older I have less and less patience for this weakness and am increasingly stern and alert when it rears its ugly head.
We passed through a few charming little towns, and I reveled in the lovely landscape. It felt akin to scenes one might see at home, and even a dash of Christmas spirit was easy to sense for one accustomed to the holiday. It was not to last. I was further provoked when I caught up with Cody, trying to convince myself that all was well. Unfortunately, the first thing he said was, “We need to be averaging ten kilometers an hour to get to Gulang before dark.” I was surprised by this, as I knew when we skipped the hotel at four o’clock that we wouldn’t make the 40k to Gulang before dark. “It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “we’re out in it now. Can’t get much worse.” He disagreed with this, and the whole situation suggested to me the possibility that I was not travelling fast enough because I found riding in the road too hazardous. Compounded with the slight desperation implicit in his factual statement that completely failed to acknowledge the fact that we should have stopped when we could have (i.e.- that I was right and he was wrong), the iota of equanimity I had so graciously scraped up was completely destroyed. Though I resisted it, I watched myself progress from a state of annoyance to that of one egregiously offended. I jabbed him about the first hotel I mentioned, but he turned the tables by downplaying the situation and chastising me for my negativity. I let it pass, ashamed that, once again, not only was I guilty of feeling negative, but was unable even to hold my tongue.
Cody forged ahead, swifter in the exposed road. It got darker and the snow fell heavier. We passed through some much less inviting towns, full of decaying industrial machinery and utilitarian, shanty-esque establishments. I was riding alone now, no sign of Cody to be seen. One town seemed as if it may have some rathole we could nestle up in for the night, or at least a shop to warm up in. My feet were cold, though not yet extremely uncomfortable, but I was eager to get inside. I slowly rolled through the town, keeping an eye out for Cody’s bike or any building that could be a hotel, but found myself outside of town without having seen any signs of promise. I was a bit worried I had missed him, and grew increasingly uncomfortable as I traveled deeper into an increasingly dark, empty, and snow-swept environment. Despite the cold, I stopped and put my lights on, then checked the map. Still 25 kilometers from Gulang. Surely he pressed on- I did too. Snow was piling up in my hood, on my shoulders. I shook it off and rode into the night with tight lips and a forced ambivalence. I began eyeing empty builidngs and even a cave, considering my options in case of emergency. There were always the cars that passed by in decreasing number, enough so that I too took to the road, which was also covered in snow by now. I never think of bailing out of a situation until things get really hairy though, so hitching a ride never crossed my mind, I would be more likely to camp.
Though not in any real danger, even remotely, really, I do not like having to begin shifting to this mode of thinking. To me it means I made a mistake that is best to be avoided in the future, something to learn from. I think of it like driving: when you get down to a quarter tank, you had best stop at the next gas station if you do not know where you are headed. If you let it get below a quarter tank, your warning light comes on. Still you have a few gallons left after that, but when I see that needle dipping below a quarter tank and I do not know when I will come to the next fill-up station, I begin to get anxious, and I don’t like the sense of irresponsibilty nor the risk of getting into a bind. At this point I felt like the needle just dropped below a quarter tank and I had left calculation and entered the house of risk, that place between ease and desperation.
I pedalled on until I saw a sign indicating that I was 12 kilometers outside Gulang. Alright. Maybe another hour to go. I thought this as I climbed into a little town, and was pleasantly surprised to see Cody’s bike, lights flashing to get my attention, parked outside of a gas station. Relieved, I pulled up, turned off his lights and proceeded to pull out my wallet and shed my helmet and gloves. Cody, all smiles, greeted me and I was too relieved to be angry. We had a little shop and warmed ourselves. I was worried about warming up too much before braving the cold for another hour, but to my great pleasure, Cody informed me that there was a hotel right around the corner. We paid for our snacks and cruised around the block to a row of shops at the intersection. We asked a fellow where the place was and were directed to the owner of a restaurant who ushered us over. I set my bike down and took a few feeble swings at the language barrier. The fellow insisted on showing the room and I followed him. It was a simple affair, two hard beds in a heated room with plenty of electrical outlets. Perfect. When I asked him how much it was, I was quoted 30 yen, which is about 4 dollars. Perfect. I came back downstairs. Cody was making some noise about needing a hand to set down his bike, which I had ignored to follow the proprietor upstairs for a tour. What did he need a hand with his bike for? He said it was in order to get it under the eaves of the building. I asked why, the owner had signalled that we could take them around back. “Screw that,” said Cody, “I don’t want to leave my bike in the elements, I don’t want it to get snowed on.” I stared at him incredulously. Didn’t want to get snow on the bike for what, 2 minutes, after four hours in a snowstorm? Our little- and only- drama kicked in from there.
Our host motioned for me to follow him down a ramp, which he and his wife cleared of powdery snow with large brooms as I descended. It opened into a courtyard and I was led into a garage, where I could store my bike inside. I did so, and when I returned, Cody had not moved. “Follow him,” I said.
“No. No way am I bringing my bike down there.”
I had acted like a child earlier, I thought, but now I was being outdone. “There’s a garage back there, it’s a good place for the bike.”
“Nope. I’m going to put my bike inside the hotel.”
I stared at him, in awe. “Why do you think you get special treatment? Do you think you’re better than everyone else?”
“No, I am just not going to take it down that ramp. I slipped getting up that ramp earlier today, and it will be a nightmare tomorrow morning.”
I looked at him condescendingly and told him I would bring it up for him in the morning. I even went to take it down to the garage for him, because our host was out there, in the snow, waiting for us to bring the other bike down and I mentioned this to Cody. He told me not to move his bike, he wanted it inside. There was a baby in the room and I pointed at it, informing Cody thay he was acting about two years older than then the little chap, and as I made my way out to notify our host that he could return inside, the man was already at the door. I watched, ashamedly, as Cody asked about storing the bike inside, but to my surprise, the man immediately consented, and we brought Cody’s bike in and set it in the hallway. I was disgusted. I was raised to be more courteous and less particular about this kind of stuff, I thought to myself. Good enough for the locals, good enough for me. I adapt to where I am, I don’t ask for special catering to my own tastes or preferences, I think it is demeaning and presumptuous.
Of course, Cody was not being so unreasonable as I am making him out to be. I am only recording the events as they happened from my point of view at the time. I do not feel any of this right now, I have absolutely no residual frustration as I write this, and this telling is even dangerous, because it is not a typical or accurate portrayal of either of our natures. We are both pretty easy-going, strong-willed, conscientious, tough people. This was the darkness of our winter, the very reason we are on this trip: we had been pushed past a limit and we had each developed cracks in our visages that are otherwise very difficult to expose, but they are there. Only the extremity of the situation had pushed us to betray our weaknesses to each other, in an ugly, but very healthy process. People throw themselves into challenges because it is the only way to grow and overcome weaknesses, expose flaws and face them. We faced a few, and I hope you will not judge us too harshly for our glaring humanity. We chose to put ourselves here, to ride every bit, despite the desolation and freezing temperatures, for something other than pleasure and sight-seeing. This stuff is the meat of the trip, the concentrated suffering and the squirming of the ego, the battling of dragons, the slaying of demons. I haven’t even gotten into the real ugliness yet: my own.
We sat by the stove, Cody calmly and contentedly warming himself- as if he owned the place, in my eyes. I could not let any of it pass. I tore into Cody, starting passively, pettily. I said something about how rough it was riding in the dark, the cold, the snow, baiting him. He said that it was all behind us, we were sitting by a stove now, nice and warm, that we made it just fine. Hate poured out of my eyes. “A night like this is wasted if nothing is learned,” I said, and gave him an escape: “as long as you learned something, it was worth it.”
He quickly and calmly denied this, deftly countering my attack: rather than admitting a fault of any kind on his part- which I think he believed, on a superficial level- he questioned my negativity, pointing out that we needed to make time and distance to get across China and we were never in danger, never even that uncomfortable. I told him this was not the point. I elaborated on the concept of “unnecessary suffering,” explaining that had there been no other option, I would have simply put my head down and done whatever needed to be done, possibly even cheerfully, but we had willfully and needlessly put ourselves in a silly and foolish position. It is one thing to brave the unavoidable, but it is another to be needlessly foolhardy. He derided my concept of “necessary suffering,” reduced it, fallaciously, to an extreme: either in thoughtlessness or with incredible gall he told me that “ALL this suffering is unnecessary, if you wanted to be comfortable then you never should have gone on this trip.” My eyes burned as I listened to a man toss these words at me after I had ridden 20,000 kilometers across a large swath of the planet over the course of 9 months. It disgusted me. I did not fail to acknowledge that this little bastard (he’s half a foot taller than I) had the same gift of dialectics that I have been cursed with, and was well capable of frustrating, if not always convincing, others with his words. He was harping at an old hand though: I was as devious to myself and others at his age, and saw right through his diversions and evasions. I remembered too, that when I was younger, my arguments always convinced me more than my adversary, and that I mistook superior skill in debate to be proof of my point, which ultimately crippled me in my path to understanding, for it barred me from actually listening. I am not sure if he even noticed the signs that we were in for a rough night when I had initially suggested the hotel. He later claimed that he didn’t even see the hotel- but back to the dialogue:
He went on and mentioned that the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the main cause of the misery and suffering of humanity. I was annoyed by his rash words, despite the obvious evasion of the argument. If anyone on earth has any right to criticise me, it is this fellow- one who has gone through a similar experience- but this was too much, too much for me to take seriously. If he only knew. It was such a ridiculous statement that I simply stared at him dubiously and said: “Do you really think I got where I am today by indulging my comforts?” By this I meant everything that I am, much less this particular journey. “No.” he replied. Correct answer.
I was keyed up, but Cody all the while was calm and collected. He has an amazing ability to convince himself of a level-headedness he does not quite possess, but I respect it. He suffers like the rest of us and has his own set of weaknesses, but like a good optimist, he keeps telling himself that the reality is not what it is. I suppose it is possible that he will make if if he fakes it for long enough. Acting positive does make one more positive, and the same for negativity. He talks big, but he don’t always walk. It annoyed the hell out of me that he wouldn’t eat his crow. I ate it instead. Serves me right, I could have insisted we stop and check that hotel, but I didn’t. Maybe we couldn’t have even stayed there, but we should have checked. He would not admit he was wrong, nor that he had learned anything, nor that my frustration was reasonable. I felt strongly that Cody was the way he was by getting his way too often when he was young and totally disregarding the perspective of others if it is inconvenient or non-positive. He didn’t give an outward sign that he cared one lick about the abuse I heaped on him, a diffidence that seemed childishly rebellious and overconfident, the result of someone shut off to any outside input. I wondered, naively, if it was a British thing or just peculiar to his family. If you knew Cody (or if you know me) you would see that sometimes you just get a wild child, to be survived as well as raised. You can see I was not too pleased to fling shit back and forth at a fellow composed, with the face of a saint, who a few moments previous seemed to be “throwing a tantrum,” albeit with British dignity.
Again, I betray more of myself than of Cody, appalled as I was by his youthful self-assurance because I have always considered the perspectives of others (if I respected them at all) to a fault. I am learning to be more sure of myself and to be more critical of the opinions of others after years of maybe leaving a little too much room for doubt and self-questioning. I realized that most people don’t know what’s going on, and I may as well listen a bit more to myself, as nobody knows better what I feel and need. Really he and I are just heading towards the same point from different roads, and I bet his has been a lot more fun. Chock it up to a difference in personality, exacerbated by a really trying day. Cody has evidently never taken much to figures authority, and here I was admonishing him. I got the dull indifference of a schoolboy in return. We’re really not very different in spirit. Can you believe cycle tourists are so stubborn and insane? Who’d a thunk it.
This whole conversation passed fairly quickly. Cody had succeeded in making me seem a little out of line. We were fine, we made it with only slight discomfort, relatively. It may have been avoidable, maybe not, but we made good distance and nothing went wrong. No harm no foul, I guess. I didn’t apologize, and allowed Cody to bask in his excusionary calm and tried to let it all go. I had no reason to let it ruin the present moment.
Incredibly, I drank a beer with dinner and just shook the whole thing off. For those of you that know me, or think you do, this is almost impossible to believe. There was just no sense in it. I was frustrated with myself for being frustrated, but I have come to anticipate this kind of backward process in myself and rejected the self-imposed judgement, which only creates more suffering. I a bit embarrassed for a day or two, for it felt as if a little wall had been built between us, and I never did apologize, but I will drop another note from the present moment, as I write this in a dark hotel room a day outside of Xi’an, that Cody and I are the best of friends and have no wals, no ill feelings, between us. Nothing- particularly an emotional state- is permanent. I learned more from this incident than I have the whole trip and successfully stomped another source of “unnecessary suffering” further into the ground. With each strain, new strength; with each threshold passed, a boundary expanded. My cage has gotten spacious and I am becoming ever more grounded.
A long day behind us, emotionally and physically, we slept contentedly in our warm beds and prepared for another day and another challenge.
We ate a big breakfast and set off into a wonderland of snow. Within two minutes our mustaches were frozen, and the cold was intense for the first few minutes, but as ever a little activity stirred our limbs and warmed the blood. The road was completely covered in snow and we accepted this, making our way leisurely up the road in the bright morning sun. We stopped in Gulang, the town we were shooting for the evening prior, and stocked up on drinks. Children were walking to school, and when we stopped at the shop, at least thirty of them crowded around to look at us. I went in to do the shopping, and the crowd pressed up against the glass storefront, literally caving in the door yet unwilling to enter, curious as to what I was buying and perhaps how I would manage to do so. Looking out it felt like being a pop star, it was ridiculous!
They parted like the Red sea as I exited the shop into a huge circle of curious children. Cody got a video of this, which does no justice to the size of our audience, but I’m glad he captured the moment (you can see this and other adventures with your own eyes on youtube at: Codysfullpowerbikeride). After this, we climbed.
And climbed. It was not too cold, nor too steep, but soon I left Cody far behind. Other than these elements, the day was somewhat uneventful. Near the top I stopped to wait for Cody. I ate snacks and studied the town at hand, and after a good fifteen minutes Cody met me there. By now I was quite cold, particularly my feet. We still had some climb ahead of us and the day was getting a bit late, it was four o’clock already. I grimly noted that despite my frustration with Cody the night before, it was necessary to have gotten as far as we did the previous day, otherwise we could have been stuck up there, at around three thousand meters, after the sun went down. This would have been true, at least, had there not been a hotel in the town I was looking at. One problem with travelling in China is that the place grows so fast, and eventhe places that are not exploding into being are poorly documented. We passed two hotels that day which were not on our maps. Had we stopped earlier the day before, we would have found ourselves in this town I looked at after a desperate climb into burdgeoning night. As it was, we were running out of daylight.
I smashed the rest of the climb, which only took me about half an hour. Yaks adorned the roadside, their suspicious stares and charmingly furry bodies brightening my mood. At the top there were a few shrines, and a sign written in two languages: Chinese and Tibetan. I joked later (it is true) that I could tell it was Tibetan from all the “exotic” tattoos I had seen of people who had found themselves in Shangri la or some such place, as if the Tibetan religion were not as desiccated as any other religion these days. I was not surprised though, what with the yaks, the snow, and the craggy landscape; this seemed like a fitting place to find Tibetans.
Although I wanted to share the summit experience with Cody, it was too cold to tarry. I passed through the saddle (mountain saddle, not mine)-which was strewn with the tattered remains of Tibetan prayer flags- covered my face, and hit the downhill. I was afraid of this descent; a patch of ice or snow in the road could really mess me up. I waited for the lorries to pass, then pushed downhill in the middle of the lane as fast as I could. The wind provided a chill factor of ten degrees or so, numbing my skull and providing me with a formiddable headache. I passed a ski resort with an international hotel and kept on towards the town we were aiming for, about 16k down the road. As I descended, I noticed a line of dirt running up a far slope and forgot where I was for a moment, thinking, “Gee, that kind of looks like the Great Wall,” as if I were, I don’t know, in the States. I was amused to remember that I was in China and that this was indeed the Great Wall. It is nothing more than a lump of dirt out here. True to China’s historical value of harmony with nature (which has been summarily thrown out in favor of “communist” efficiency paired with Western capitalism) it is difficult to tell sometimes what is a ruin and what is a natural lump of dirt, as it is all composed of the same stuff. It is funny to think, as you stare at such a squarish lump, for example, that it was once a sentry outpost, lodge, armory, stable, a home, something. In a land of dirt they built out of the dirt, and it is going humbly back whence it came, from its glorified, short-lived legacy as a human ramification back to its roots, reabsorbed into its far grander, inconceivably ancient environment. I passed along a narrow, crowded road through an avenue of trees, racing the sun as it set behind distant hills. The air was hazy, but far behind the immediate hills, massive mountains towered on the horizon, unlike any I have ever seen. They were Chinese mountains, reminiscent of one of their famous landscape paintings, with rotund crags lined up like a sequence of fingertips reaching toward the heavens. These obscured the sun at last, and then I was frozen. I do not know how cold it was, but my eyelashes kept freezing together and my extremities went totally numb. I could feel cold in the bones of my fingers.
I finally reached the town of Dachaigou, where everything is written in Tibetan as well as Chinese, and sniffed out the motel. I sat in the warm anteroom, sipping tea and waiting for Cody, hoping that he would find the place. I had absolutely no feeling in my fingers. The hot teacup was a dead thing, and I sat on my hands for ten minutes before the feeling came back. My feet took longer to thaw, and I registered the throbbing ache with gratitude, but also familiarity. The cold was becoming a part of life.
Cody found me and we checked in. For what we got it was a bit expensive, seven dollars per person, but we had a warm bed each as well as the commodities that are basic human rights in China: hot water and bathroom slippers. It is a challenge to find water that is not tea temperature in China without buying it in a shop! I had to buy a thermos because they won’t fill my plastic water bottles in any restaurants. (My water kept freezing anyways, it was a necessary expenditure). After a good night’s sleep, we embarked on what we hoped would be our last frigid ride for a while, descending into Lanzhou.
Lanzhou was 160k (100 miles) away though. We started on the G312, but after almost getting squished a few times, I found Cody stopped at an intersection leading to the G30, which he had already decided we were taking. The traffic on the G312 was heavy, with a lot of lorries. Though the speed was slower, there was less room for us, and we were about to hit a string of towns. I did not mind so much, though I had almost been witness to the meeting of a bus and a cement truck from the wrong perspective, namely, the middle, and acknowledged the danger. Cody quickly rattled off his logic for hopping back on the highway, stating as he did so that surely the sun will have melted the snow off the shoulder, which I immediately recognized as a deception and an untruth, but Cody was, once again, not making a suggestion so much as a declaration. Before I could put up much resistance we were en route. I was tired of running tolls, the stress and anxiety was beginning to wear on me. The last attempt had been an impressive failure, which had even Cody a little tense as we picked up speed and the toll came into view. We had a downhill coming in, and although there was what looked to be a police station and numerous officers milling about, we were past before anyone noticed us. The chap in the booth may not have seen us either, a car occupied his attention and blocked us from view. Whew! We made it.
There was snow on the shoulder of course. Although the traffic was light, the luxury cars on the road were travelling way too fast. After a few days on a slower road, the speed of the highway seemed particularly perilous and I immediately regretted switching. The snow faded from the shoulder, at least, and we were making good time, but I decided I would avoid the highway at all costs from here on out. Towards the end of the day the road became windier, busier, and the snow reappeared. A police car pulled us over- we were surprised it had not happened sooner- and Cody was arguing with them as I pulled up. I stayed out of the conversation and daydreamd while he assailed them with his urgent and definitive arguments. He has a habit of making demands of the police and openly defying them that I find decidedly undiplomatic. It directly threatens their authority and imperils our goal, in my opinion. I tell him that he needs to build a fence around them with one open gate, and after guiding them there, allowing them to make a decision of their own volition, despite it being the only one. They can, of course, just do their job and kick us off. This officer spoke good English, for once, and also seemed genuinely concerned for our safety. He, in turn, was trying to lead us to his own gate and allow us to do so freely. He simply said, “ It is too dangerous. Please leave the highway at the next exit.” Cody looked at him. Cody looked at me. I looked at Cody. The officer looked at me looking at Cody, following my gaze, then I looked at the officer and the officer looked at me. I had said nothing up to this point, and now simply nodded my head and said, “Okay.” It was a strange exchange of very meaningful glances.
The police departed. Cody already planned to run past the exit, but I told him not to. I did not want any more trouble, I was tired of all the excitement with the police. We decided we would exit if the police were waiting for us, carry on if not. I felt bad, because I had sort of given my word to this fellow that we would leave, but when no one was waiting at the exit, it seemed that we really had been given freedom of choice. Surely he must have known Cody was not feeling cooperative, and it was negligent of the officer not to enforce our departure. Then again, maybe he took me at my word. I was considering this as I absent mindedly passed the exit, realizing a bit late. In any case, Cody was ahead of me and I could not abandon him. We stopped and took our bearings.
It was late afternoon and we were still 80k outside of Lanzhou. It had been bitter cold when we started again after lunch, and as ever I was content to stop and rest, but Cody insisted we press on and I followed. Soon we climbed into the mountains, and the highway became almost peaceful. Supposedly we had 500 meters of descent in Lanzhou, but after an hour of rolling hills- including a stop to chip ice off of my derailleur cables- any descent failed to manifest. It got dark and we set up our lights, taking a small snack break and preparing for yet another long night. The descent again was mentioned, and to my amusement, we immediately hit a steep climb of about 200 meters. I laughed, partly at the absurdity of it and partly at the knowledge that Cody dislikes climbs. Myself, I don’t mind climbs so much, particularly when it is freezing outside. We passed a tunnel and finally began our descent, now with a couple hundred extra meters of downhill ahead of us.
The rest of the night passed quickly. Before we knew it we were riding below scores of massive buildings, and once we made it down to the river (the Yellow river) we wandered about searching for an apparently imaginary hostel. We decided to eat dinner and asked them where the hostel was, but no one knew. We settled for any hotel that would take us, and it turned out there was a very reasonably priced hotel next door, which was about as far as we could carry ourselves. We happily checked in after a long cold day, but one in a series of long, cold days.