China 03/20/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: china, laowei, vietnam, winter, xinjiang, yunnan
It’s been too long since my last update. I should have more to say about winter but I can’t seem to make it sound right.
All I saw were frozen rocks. Wind and snow and ice. I never knew where I’d sleep or find my next meal. For two months it was the same, and in that time I had only three conversations.
I struggled every day, with myself as much as the miles. Neither make much sense right now.
There is reason in self-denial. I see none in deprivation. One gives me strength, the other made me an animal. I’m not as proud as I thought, not nearly as kind or tolerant. I’m tough and stubborn and this time I think I went too far.
It wasn’t worth it because I can’t let it go.
Southern China is a different world entirely, all lush mountains and sunny skies.
I’ve seen things I could never imagine: hundreds of paper lanterns floating into the night on Chinese New Year, pandas snacking lazily on bamboo, a sitting Buddha, carved from the side of a red-rock cliff.
The welcome here has been with open arms. Villagers invite me into their homes, to their tables. I sit with them as dozens of tiny faces press against the window, jostling for a better look at the laowei.
It all deserves a tone I can’t give it right now. I see it, but all I think is Xinjiang.
I guess I still need more distance between me and the cold. Today I leave for Vietnam, and I think that will help.
It’s time to start a new chapter.
Tian Shan 12/20/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: blizzard, camping, china, kazakhstan, mountains, tian shan, winter, xinjiang
Things changed after Uzbekistan. Nightfall became something ugly, the darkness was interminable. I couldn’t sleep. The sounds I’d always ignored now echoed through my tent, squeezing my throat tighter against a pounding heart. My nerves were shot.
Kazakhstan didn’t help. I’d only been in the country a few days when a car skidded to a stop in front of me. The driver stumbled in my direction until his nose nearly touched mine. He was yelling.
I remember wondering why liquor never stinks until it hits someone’s mouth.
When I turned away the man grabbed my beard and nearly pulled me off my saddle. I pushed his hand back, but when I started pedalling he threw me into a guard rail, bike and all. I think he startled himself sober because he just stood there gaping at me sprawled on the road.
I dusted myself off and biked away. I never saw the guy again.
There was no sense to be made of it, no lesson to take away. The randomness hit me harder than he ever could. It’s tough knowing that careful isn’t good enough. Sometimes strength or smarts don’t count for much. The world spins on dumb luck – the only thing we control is whether we want to take a ride.
I did when I left. Now I wasn’t so sure.
I thought about packing it in, boxing my bike and heading home to hide. I’d be secure in the road behind me, rolled into good days and bad, bound with all the faces in between. No one could take it away from me.
But that can’t work, at least not for me. I go crazy unless I have something to fight for. A chance to sit around and reminisce certainly isn’t it. I need the promise of what lies ahead, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand it over to some worthless thugs.
I made a choice that night. I will never go looking for trouble, but the next person to bring it will find all they can handle in me. I cut a branch from a tree and carved it into a billy club. It’s been strapped to my handle bars ever since.
I’ve only had to use it once, and perhaps that’s the strangest story of all. One night, after crossing the Chinese border, I heard a terrible crash in the woods. I squinted through the firelight until five figures emerged from the shadows.
At first I thought they were sheep late for the dinner bell. Then I saw manes and tusks and realized I was staring at wild boars. They sniffed and grunted, closing around me until the biggest one lowered its head and charged.
When I shone my flashlight in its eyes it stopped dead in its tracks. I grabbed my club and ran yelling through the trees, chasing it away. The others scattered in a squealing mess. They were not happy. For an hour I could hear them huffing, circling my camp. But they stayed away.
I wasn’t scared. I get animals – they play by rules, and even if they attack, there’s a certain fairness about them. That night made more sense than dozens that had come before it. I slept soundly. My nerves haven’t bothered me since.
Afterwards I made my way over the Tian Shan mountains, a range that began in eastern Kazakhstan and seemed to stretch on forever. It took me weeks to reach the top. Each day was colder than the last and the gaps between villages grew longer and longer.
The summit was a wasteland. At nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, I saw no trees, not a single hint of life. There was only a thick blanket of snow and a howling wind. The road was iced over so I joined vehicles in a snail’s pace as I walked my bike to the top.
It took me all day to get there, and as the daylight faded so too did my courage. The top of a mountain is a very bad place to spend the night. There’s no shelter, no firewood and the temperature drops much too fast.
I was frantic at the peak. I bundled myself in all of my clothes and started the descent as fast as I could pedal. It didn’t do any good. My shirts were frozen solid with the day’s sweat. I couldn’t stop shivering, couldn’t feel my hands or feet.
But sometimes dumb luck swings the other way. As the last traces of purple disappeared from the snow I spotted a three-building village in the distance. Those on the other side of the mountain had all been abandoned, but I didn’t care. This one was going to keep me warm.
The first building was a crumbling auto garage. I poked my head inside, ready to beg for a corner to lay out my sleeping bag. Instead an old woman put her hand on my shoulder and led me down a hallway with numbered doors. The place doubled as an inn for truckers.
My room had a wooden bed, a faded velvet card table and an old coal stove. I have never been so thankful in my entire life. A star was shining over me somewhere that night.
The next day I cycled 80 km over a plateau, never making it out of the snow or below the treeline.
But I’d been smarter about it. I was dry and wrapped in my warmest clothes – six shirts, two jackets, four pairs of pants and three sets of socks. I camped in a culvert to stay out of the wind. I had no reason to worry.
That changed in a hurry. By the middle of the night the wind became a gale and then a full blown blizzard. Snow whipped into the culvert, covering my tent, pressing down on all sides. I woke up half buried, sure that my tent was going to collapse.
As I opened the door, all the powder that I was going to brush away poured into my tent, falling over my sleeping bag and blanket. I got out anyways, trying my best to push the weight off the tent poles. I was covered in snow by the time I zipped everything shut. I knew I was in big trouble.
There was nothing to do but wait until morning when I hoped the storm would ease. It only got worse. At dawn I found one end of the tunnel completely blocked by snow and the other closing quickly. I dug my way out to get my bearings but couldn’t see a thing. It was a total white out.
My water and cooking fuel were frozen. I had no food and no idea how long the storm would last. If I stayed put, I would be trapped. I needed to get down the mountain, and fast.
Dragging my bike and gear through waist-high snow was almost impossible, but after three trips and a lot of cursing I managed to get everything back on the road. Thankfully the wind was going my way, so all I had to do was get myself in the saddle and steer.
I biked 60 km through the storm, never able to see more than a few meters in front of me. I had to use my boots to stop because my brakes were iced over. My gloves froze around my handlebars.
In all my winters on the Prairies, I’ve never seen another blizzard like it.
Halfway down the mountain I reached a town called Balguntay. The people there wore fall jackets. The earth was wonderfully brown. For the first time in days I saw trees and a river that flowed.
I didn’t have the energy to celebrate. There was no whoop, no fist pump. I just sat on a curb and buried my face in my hands.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing everything right or making every mistake there is.
Message from China 12/07/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: china, holidays, winter
WordPress is banned in China so it may be a long time before I’m able to post a proper update. My stories will have to wait.
In the meantime, please know that I’m healthy and safe as I make my way towards the southeast coast. Winter has been tough, but I have wool socks and a bushy beard. I’ll make it.
I want to thank everyone for their kind words and encouragement over the past year. Whether you sent an e-mail or posted a quick comment, your support means more to me than I can possibly say.
You are what keeps me going. To each of you, I wish a wonderful holiday season and all the best in 2011. Bye for now!
p.s. Facebook is also banned in China. E-mail will have to do for now.
p.p.s. A BIG thank you to my sister Lisa for posting this message for me.
Breakdown, it’s alright 01/29/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: exhaustion, portugal, repairs, wind, winter
Being on the road every day has nothing to do with strength. It’s a question of stamina and sometimes I feel as though I don’t have the answer. Some days I’m a ghost, a cycle drone, squinting at painted lines and exit signs. So much rolls by and yet I’m amazed at how little registers in my mind.
Winter took a heavy toll on my body – day in and day out every ounce of energy was spent on simply staying warm and dry. There were times when my fingers were so cold I couldn’t tie my shoes, and my feet froze so badly in France that I still have no feeling in my big toes. But the options were go on or go home, so I lowered my head, made the miles and biked to Portugal. It took everything I had, and now, under blue skies and shining sun, I find there isn’t much left.
A break is what I need. I can’t say when or where, but at some point in the next month or so I want to find a place where I can relax. Recuperate.
I find it so very strange that my bicycle should run out of steam at the same time as me. I had what you might call a catastrophic breakdown in central Portugal, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally managed to resolve the problem.
As I was biking up a pitiless hill, my chain lost tension and I was left without any forward momentum. What happened next was kind of a blur, but what I do know is that my loyal steed bucked me into a gutter and then fell on top of me. I emerged from the ditch mad as hell, swearing a blue streak and kicking gravel everywhere. Luckily, aside from my bruised pride, the only casualty was a plastic Gladware container, which shattered into a million microwaveable and dishwasher-safe pieces.
Oh, and my ride had some serious issues. The bike’s transmission was completely worn out, and for the next 40 km of rolling terrain I was left with exactly one gear. Not the easy gear, mind you. That would be too . . . easy. I was stuck in tailwind mode, which was heaven on the downs and a nightmare on the ups. After a few hours I managed to cycle to Torres Vedras where I was exceptionally fortunate to find a bicycle shop owner who spoke English.
And the service! The head mechanic was like the Mr. Miyagi of bicycle repair. What would have taken me a full day of hammering and cussing took him about 30 minutes of serenity. When I waved goodbye, gears clicking beautifully, I was the proud owner of a new cassette, small crank wheel, chain and derailleur cable.
Unfortunately, my luck had another hiccup when I left the city. My derailleur cable came unhooked from the shifter, and once again I was down to one gear.
The ride to the next major centre was horrible – two hours of bucking wind and dodging honking trucks. My mood was rotten when I arrived in Vendas Novas, and it didn’t improve much after that.
The first shop I found was without its mechanic for the day, so I followed a paper napkin map to the only other place in town. There the owner informed me that he would not fix my bike because I didn’t buy it in his store. He didn’t suggest anywhere else for me to go, just that I go away. So I did.
I biked 25 more kilometres to Montemor-o-Novo and finally found someone with the tools and know-how to fix my bike. It was a kid working at a motorcycle shop, of all things. He wasn’t as experienced as my bicycle guru in Torres Vedras, but he did an excellent job and only charged me 3 Euros for the repairs.
I wasn’t back on the road again until nightfall, but I still hoped to find my turnoff and camp somewhere outside the city. Navigation is tricky in the dark, though, so I wandered over to a small café to ask for directions before I inevitably got lost.
Once inside, I was devoured by a gaggle of old men who were shining with wine, singing arm in arm and watching the Portuguese version of The Price is Right. Being from Canada, they thought it very important that I sample the vino tinto from Lisbon. Again and again and again. For two hours they kept buying me drinks, shoving food in front of me and asking about every detail of my trip. It was such a treat after the previous few days that I could have died smiling right there.
By the time I zig-zagged back to my bike, the only directions I needed were to a cheap hotel in the city centre. There I slept like a baby and had a shower for the first time in 11 days. And today, today I treated myself to lunch at a restaurant, which put a bit of spring back in my step.
Now all I need to do is get my feet back on the road.
Snowflakes and flu bugs 01/12/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: blizzard, compostela, couchsurfing, health, portugal, spain, winter
It seems those Basque-ards to the east have a lock on sunshine in Spain, and the country as a whole has provided more challenges than I ever expected.
First, and always most important for me, has been the weather. I chose the northern coast because it historically goes without snow in the winter. Most kids have never seen it and adults vaguely remember the white stuff from a storm that fell 20 years ago. It was a good plan, but now it´s buried somewhere near Vilalba under about a foot of powder. There I found myself in the middle of a full-scale blizzard – blinding snow, howling winds and Spanish drivers spinning summer tires to no avail.
Stranger than the surprise storm was the fact that the falling snow inexplicably made me happy. Giddy. It made me feel very much at home in a place where I have trouble using the payphones. The highways were completely empty and the weather wasn´t cold, so once I got started I found it was a perfect time for travelling, provided I cycled in a straight line and crossed my fingers on the hills.
On one of those hills I came upon a German cyclist making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. His gear was ramshackle, his blue jeans soaked, and he was walking his bike because his feet were frozen. I liked him immediately. We cycled together for three days and partied until 5 a.m. to celebrate his arrival to Santiago. It was a crazy night that I´ll always barely remember.
Despite the fun, I never really felt at ease in Santiago. There were too many tourists looking up and too many locals looking down. I had no regrets about continuing south to Pontevedra, but on the way my stomach started doing flip-flops and my forehead was burning up. I thought I was just a bit hungover, but it wasn´t the same feeling at all. After my third mad dash to use the facilities at a coffee shop, it dawned on me that I might have a stomach bug.
And how. I spent the next two days sitting on the can with my head in a bucket, wishing that someone would do the right thing and shoot me. Luckily I´d arranged a CouchSurfing host several days earlier, so at the very least I had a comfortable and warm place to rest between yak attacks.
I look like a twig in the mirror, but after a bit of 7-Up and some toast this morning, I think I feel strong enough to take to the highway once more. I´m less than 60 km from Portugal, so I should be able to cross the border by this evening if all goes well.
This trip certainly isn´t getting any easier, but in a way that was never the point. Starting in Belgium, and now especially in Spain, I´ve stopped considering the trials as either good or bad. They´re temporary and that´s all. Lately I cycle the same whether I´m climbing a hill, facing the wind or dragging my bike through six inches of mud. I don´t know if that means my mind is clear or I´m a vacuous idiot, but it sure helps me stack up more kilometres.
Freezing my festicles 12/17/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bordeaux, camping, france, holidays, paris, winter
This is the first year that I could recall the exact moment when winter wrestled the sunshine from autumn. I was leaving Bellegarde, heading south, when a frosty gust of wind swept across the road and when I looked up, the blue skies went grey. And that’s the way they’ve stayed for the better part of a week.
Living on the road is an entirely different beast when the weather is difficult, and there have been times when this monster has roared. I’ve had frozen toes, icy food and so much frost on my tent that I’ve had to wiggle free like some kind of freakish Arctic worm. But I’ve also learned a lot – about myself and how to, y’know, not die – so the last few days have been uncomfortable but perfectly tolerable.
Thankfully, my bike is headed in the right direction and I’m nearly in Bordeaux, in the southwest corner of the country. Slowly but surely I’m making my way to Spain, the thought of which is what keeps me going when I’m climbing hill after hill with numb feet. I’m no meteorologist, but I’m certain that it must be warmer there.
It’s a pity that I’m forced to rush for the border because France has been incredible. Far from the snotty French I expected, the people are exceptionally warm and are not only happy, but excited to offer me assistance whenever possible. One couple even filled my water bottle with a litre of cabernet sauvignon – not the best frosty treat, though a nice gift all the same. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that my French has gone from dismal to slightly coherent. I can’t exactly carry conversations, but I do manage to give them a good nudge. It’s a work in progress.
And what of Paris? Amazing. Biking down Avenue Charles de Gaulle, past the Arc de Triomphe, weaving in and out of the crush of traffic was an experience I will never forget. For awhile I forgot I was even riding my bike – I was just a part of an enormous metropolitan creature, an atom in an artery, and I simply arrived exactly where I was supposed to be. Time got away from me and all I wanted of the lights and flavours and sounds was more, so I criss-crossed the downtown streets until nearly midnight. Magic.
I don’t know when I’ll be near a computer again, so I want to take a quick moment to thank everyone for following my trip. It gets a bit lonely on the road sometimes, but all your kind words have kept me going over the past six months and 9,000 km. To each of you, I wish a Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year. All the best!
A latitude adjustment 12/07/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: belgium, france, rain, vimy, war, winter
1 comment so far
Although this is my first update in a long time, it’s pretty easy to describe the past few weeks. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Everything about Belgium was spectacular except the weather. At one point I had nine consecutive days of rain, and with soggy feet and a runny nose, the novelty of biking in a new country quickly disappeared.
Still, I was able to visit all the spots I wanted – Antwerp, Brussels, Gent and especially Ypres. The latter was a vital point in the Great War and it was fascinating to tour the battlefields and cemetaries.
After getting soaked for the last time in Belgium, I happily crossed the border to France and explored the city of Lille. By explore I mean I got lost in Lille for an entire afternoon – very educational.
Then, purely by accident, I happened upon Vimy and ended up camping just below the famous ridge. Sleeping on the top would have been a poor choice indeed, because to this day there are still undetonated explosives littering the plateau, and the battlefield itself is guarded with an electric fence.
But what a place! The monument, a few kilometres from the trenches, is overpowering in its size and significance. Canada has a reputation for being modest, for never celebrating our heroes, but in this case we artfully (and rightly) honoured the memory of our soldiers. Visiting the site was sobering, but also reason to look at our flag with pride.
Tomorrow is Paris, and then it’s south to Spain as fast as my little legs can pedal. It’s getting cold!
Hurry up and wait 10/22/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bus, delay, duluth, freighter, great lakes, minnesota, trans atlantic, usa, winter
Lake Superior looms cold and grey, and even the froth of the waves seems eager to jump to warm land as it laps against the port.
The harbour has been socked in with rain and snow for the past several days, which means the longshoremen can’t load the wheat that’s supposed to fill this enormous freighter – the m.v. Irma, 200 meters long, fitted with three cranes and Polish as a block of golka.
I arrived in Duluth last week, having taken the Greyhound from Brandon to make sure I arrived for the ship’s scheduled departure. My bike was boxed beneath the bus and I felt like a huge fraud every time I looked out the window and saw the colours of autumn whizzing by. Minnesota is stunning at this time of year and I really wanted to cycle the highways, but I wasn’t sure I could bike 800 or so miles in only a week. There was no way I was missing my boat. Given the weather, it turns out I would have had almost 10 days to pedal, though I had no way of knowing that beforehand. Oh well.
I’ve resolved it in my brain by promising myself that I’ll bike through the northern states when I eventually make my way home. That way I’m not cheating, just . . . um, delaying. Semantics.
I’ll post a picture of the Irma when I get a chance, but suffice to say it’s already been an interesting experience and we haven’t even left port yet. The crew is entirely Polish and a bit shy, although some speak a bit of broken English. The captain, who reminds me of a wonderful mixture of Michael Gross and Fred Penner, is a hilarious guy who spends our encounters by alternately teasing me and making sure I’m perfectly comfortable.
So far so good. My cabin is bigger, much bigger, than the dorm room I had in university, plus it comes with an attached bathroom. I kind of feel like a fat mess in the shower, however, because I can’t turn around and it takes a Houdini-like effort to raise my arms and wash all of my 2,000 parts. These quarters are so cramped they’re almost squeezed into eighths. But it doesn’t matter. Most of my baths have been in lakes this summer, so the prospect of washing in clean, hot water is one I’m not about to pass up.
The food has been fantastic so far, but the trouble with eating Polish food, to kinda-quote George Miller, is that five or six days later you’re hungry again. We’re talking meat, eggs, meat and eggs, eggs and meat and sometimes bread. I’m trying my best to eat mortal portions, but I suspect I’ll lumber off the boat more than a few pounds heavier than I boarded.
Hopefully the added pounds stack up in the cranium department too. My first day on the ship taught me a stinging lesson about the differences between 220 volt and 120 volt electrical outlets. It turns out the plug adapter I borrowed from my sister did not include a power converter – hardly a problem until my electric razor exploded in my hand and spat fire and soot onto my exposed stomach. I don’t need to go to the Shriner’s Hospital or anything, but I do have an ugly burn and a maimed Remington.
The worst part of all was that I’d only managed to shave half my head before the fireworks started. I had to Bic the rest with a wholly inadequate blade, and though heaven knows my head isn’t that big, the job took me about two hours. It was either that or walk around like a Sex Pistol, but given the disposable razor carnage that litters my bathroom, I’m not sure I would have chosen the same course again. Live and learn.