Following Green Lines

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August 1st 2012
Published: August 1st 2012
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Note (again): This blog is also photoless thanks to the myriad of incompatibilities between Travelblog and your average Chinese computer. We are presently unsure whether this relationship is the intention of some saavy censorship body or merely innocent technical difficulties. Assume what you will but, as we will endeavor to highlight, censorship in China is broad spectrum and actually quite lacking in intention and daftness.

Reading a map is a martial art. It is easy to understand the idea of cartography, but difficult to replicate that ideal on the surface of a spheroid. Add to that the complications of rivers and mountains and major pieces of information become obscured on the surface of the paper. Multiply that with the changes of human development and false information enters the fray to make navigation something not so firmly embedded in science. Intuition comes into play and the game takes off on the magic carpet of the artistic. What a sublime, exciting, frustrating, and exhaulting ride it has been to get to here, back on the pavement.

We have been privy to sophisticated maps in countries like Mongolia and Ethiopia where topography greatly dictates the (sometimes ancient) human routes. In a rapidly changing country like China, such detail would be little more than a waste of time. New roads spring up monthly and old routes are abandoned as fast as you can relocate a minority village. In the case of eastern Qinghai and western Sichuan, natural disasters have moved countless thousands (literally, noone is counting) into tent cities as new, cookie-cutter metropolises rise out of the dust. Leaving Golmud behind we followed a "red line" road at a striking pace to the east. A twenty knot tail wind pushed us along at 180 kilometers a day on fresh, inky-black pavement. We had arrived in Golmud on a "green line" road with similarly glassy asphalt a few days earlier and we were convinced that the recent onslaught of development in Qinghai would find us on mostly smooth roads all the way to Sichuan.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Two days into the stage we came to the junction with another green line in our Qinghai atlas. We were a bit surprised that the beginning of the road was washboarded gravel and we confirmed our location with several locals and the GPS. More out of instinct than logic we loaded up on a few supplies and headed east on what we believed to be a shortcut that would save us 700 kilometers of riding on flat roads with industrial traffic. We could deduce from the shape of the drainages that we would be crossing a pass and the thought of leaving the flats of the steppe for some high mountain action sounded great. Local people could confirm that the obscure road led to several villages on our map but as we inquired about locations on the other side of the pass, the responses became more vague. Most people cannot read a map here and many Tibetens have never even seen one (or wandered more than 100 kilometers from their appointed place of residence for that matter) but we found it odd that noone could relate to the existance of a massive lake a hundred kilometers to the east. Also worrisome was the way the road just ended on the GPS after a town a days ride away. We have learned that our GPS knows more about the road systems than any local here and often more than the companies that publish road atlases of China. However, it is just one piece in a multifacted navigation system and we try not to solely rely on the information on the tiny screen. Our map showed a road to the lake and on to another red line and so off we went, changing to fat tires at a lovely camp just an hour up the road.

It is worth noting here that we were not looking for a heroic effort, or a first bicycle traverse, or anything like that. Had we an image at that moment of what lay ahead, we would have ridden to Xining and caught the red line south from there. The unexpected is often a key element in great adventures and in this case we rode into the hardest ride of our lives totally oblivious to the struggle ahead. The police who manned the checkpoints we passed in our first day on the road probably wondered where we were going but they did not get the chance to ask questions. We have developed a habit of picking up speed before police stops and blowing through without making eye contact. Cops are everywhere in China and they are mostly too lazy to do something brash like jump up and chase a few foreigners down a dusty road. They might have to stop texting, playing video games on their smartphones, or even (gulp) put out their current cigarette. The first vehicle to stop and talk to us told us that the bridge was out just ahead. We rode on and found that, while the bridge had indeed been compromised by the flooded river, the piece of it that spanned the main channel was still intact. We stripped our lower bodies and caulked the wagons for a Mongolia style river crossing. It was pretty straight forward but the current was really moving following a few weeks of constant rain and we warmed up with some ramen on the other side.

A few kilometers later we encountered the cops again. They were friendly but really wanted to see some official documentation allowing foreigners to be in our current position. We proudly displayed the map of our ride from Bishkek, told them the bridge was out, remounted and rode off. They caught up with us a bit later in the village where they were based but this time they just accepted the language barrier and our big smiles and made us some ramen. They also showed us sattelite TV images of a China under water. It seems that the rainy season has been bigger than normal and we were happy to be up high where the water runs fast but narrow as opposed to down low, below the confluences, where whole towns were disapearing under chocolatey muck. The police also told us that we could not leave the village because of another river crossing but assured us that "tomorrow the river will be lower". Given the imposing clouds and the forcast, this seemed like the stupidist thing we had heard in days and we were not in any position to trust the authorities on any level. Chinese police are not third world goons looking for a bribe from average folks. Rather they are like lazy teenagers, desperate to prove that they are doing something important. This, along with a general misinterpretation of the chain of command and the associated lack of guidance that comes down from above makes law something of an unpredictable beast here. Nobody knows what is going on so one can never be certain exactly when they are in the wrong. We were not taking any chances and so on we swam across the next river crossing with the dismayed officials and a random drunken Tibeten standing, slack-jawed, by the water's edge. On the other side we waved goodbye, fully satisfied in leaving the police in a watery jail between two raging torrents.

That night left us in a classicly bad position. We had been between 2-3000 meters for a week or so following a long stint at low altitude. Our hydration was good and we were moving slow but the fall of night found us just below the pass area, pushing our bikes on a small, muddy yak trail at just under 5000 meters. Just as we made it into the tent the rain came and then the snow. We ate our fifth ramen meal in a row along with some snacks and tried to sleep despite the predictable headaches. In the morning the weather was socked in and we did not know enough about the terrain above us to move with confidence. Our rations were running low as the preceeding towns did not offer much in the form of resupply but we had plenty of water running from every direction. Our escape plan was to retreat back to a small Tibeten camp a few hours back but we knew now that they were more stranded than us at this point and we did not want to ask them for precious food. We did not have the ability to comfortably biv for an extra day but we braced ourselves to starve a bit if necesssary. The GPS showed the large lake within a days walk but over what terrain we could ill discern. When conditions began to clear just before noon, we decided to try to get over the pass and we were glad we did.

Several stream crossings later we rolled up a cattle path to a random gate in a fence at a pass marked only by a small cairn and a giant mud hole. It was the hardest ride of our lives and we felt moved to look out over the green valleys below us. After a few dozen ritual pushups and some circles around the cairn we started down, trying to minimize hard bumps for the sake of our aching brains. We passed a few small (mostly uninhabited) hamlets and forded several more creeks along our way. The weather turned out to be gorgeous and we were exuberant when we rolled out into a huge valley inhabited by an impressive population of antelope, fox, marmot, burro, and millions of very cute, pika-like critters. We had hoped to find the lake here but did not and so decided that we were either greatly off route or the body had gone dry. Two Tibetens rolled by on motorcycles as we made camp but they had never seen a map it seemed and were too bewildered by our very existance to do anything but smile and stare. This pattern would become a familiar one as we continued deeper into Tibeten territory. While your average Chinese person wants to know how much our fancy, American bikes cost, the average Tibeten slowly squeezes the brake levers and looks hard for the motor. Tibetens fall victim to many of the shortcomings of ethnic minorities in China. They are grossly uneducated and seem to have grown up in a box. They do not fit into the go-getter attitude of modern China and seem to want to insulate themselves within an antique lifestyle. But they are a warm, big-hearted, widely smiling culture and we have felt welcomed by them wherever we have roamed in the past weeks. Their houses are immaculately crafted and fearsomely imposing on the landscape with high, windowless north walls giving way to great wooden beams with intricately carved, colorful trim on the south. Many of the modern Tibeten villages attempt to mimic the grand Tibeten style. This seems like a good natured attempt on the part of the government to house a displaced people in a way that pays homage to their traditional asthetic but they are tin boxes compared to the palatial palaces in the older villages.

Assuming our route faulty, we started to backtrack motorcycle tracks that crossed the valley. We slowly became enlightened to the error of our ways and we were not surprised, albeit relieved, to roll over a hill and see the huge, blue lake open up below us. We were reasonably sure that a good dirt road would lead from here to the pavement and we were right. We took some time to enjoy our surroundings on a perfect day and to celebrate the success of our traverse. A man that looked like Michael Jackson rolled up and gave us his greetings, we were exhaulted. A few hundred meters from the pavement we stopped to do some pushups, pee, and reflect on the road behind. The food and pavement ahead were calling us but the carless world behind was not to be forgotten. It was a nice moment to feel thankful for all things and for all changes.

The road brought an immediate shock as we found that an adjacent construction project filled the road with trucks. The party line is that the new road is needed to rebuild the Yushu prefecture which was destroyed by an massive earthquake in 2010 in which more than 20,000 lives were lost and whole towns reduced to piles of rubble. The gold mines along the Qinghai, Sichuan border are a more likely cause however and most of the (Tibeten) residents in the region are still living in cheap, uninsulated tents, two years later, in a place with a climate similar to central Montana. The remaining towns are dusty/muddy, filled with beggars and miscreant children (many wearing monks clothing) and absolutely disgusting in every way. We quickly adopted long, wooden pikes to defend ourselves from dogs and learned to get in and out of towns as well as possible. It is a direct contrast to the villages where Tibeten life has gone on, seemingly unmolested for countless generations.

As opposed to the Uighers, the Tibetens are very open with foreigners in this region. Many of them, along with Chinese people and rare foreigners who have travelled through the actual Tibeten Autonomous Region (Tibet Proper or TAR) say that this region, traditionally called "Kham" is the most Tibeten place in China and this is easy to believe. They are outspoken about their feelings and many welcome us to "Tibet" by buying our lunch or inviting us in for tea and cakes. We went for days on end without encountering a single Han and the feel in the region is very distinct. As a result, we made our way around on eggshells, never really knowing where we were and were not supposed to be. The entire region was shut down to foreigners untill earlier this year and the government still views people like us with suspicion. For example, westerners are not allowed to access the internet in many towns (although our phone has had access the whole time) and many who try to come from the east by public transport are denied tickets. As usual, the bicycle has been our ambassadorial frontrunner and we have made it through without even showing our passport. In the past few days we have hitched through sections of mud and construction at the advice of other riders and we have found people (of all races) more than willing to endure the annoyance of inherant cultural differences in these situations.

Presently we are preparing to ride out in the morning from the town of Zhongdian. This was a relatively unknown place until a decade ago when so-called experts decided that the town was the actual "Shangri La" of Hilton's Lost Horizon. If you have ever been to Leavenworth, Washington or Dinkelsbuhl, Germany you will understand the cheesiness that has ensued. But we Tahoeites know that the money that flows from tourists, while a bit fickle, is no less real and the clean streets of a shiny, new town are a welcome reprieve from the river of feces that flows through the musty enclaves of Western Sichuan. The internet cafe we are now writing from is a familiar Chinese institution. Hundreds of youngsters cut each others throats on video screens and smoke cigarettes. The security is the same fascade, the people at the front counter insisted on seeing our ID's, only to write down the numbers from our old, 2009 visas. The cops playing video games in the corner were too busy blowing each other's heads off to notice. To love this coutry is to hate it, and visa versa. We will not soon forget the warmth of the Tibetens but it is time to move on and nothing helps more than good food and fast pavement. As we changed our rubber back to slicks this morning, we felt the wonderful winds of change; a common feeling for everyone in this place.


2nd August 2012

Shambala and Shagri La
Tashi Delek! Oh, boy! So how many momos have you eaten this month? Thupa(sp?) noodle stew? Endless glasses of Yak (Gak) Butter tea? See some nice Himalayan turquoise to rival the Navajo kind? I AM JEALOUS, but no way in heck could I pull of what you are doing. I'd be the backpacker tourist on the bus denied passage. Looking forward to seeing the photos; though your words paint quite the picture. Wishing you safe journey.... love you guys!
2nd August 2012

Exciting Stuff
What an exciting adventure! Glad to hear all is well!! Thanks for the updates! I've got a good supply of bike parts I'm dropping off to Kevin that will be waiting for you on your return. Keep on pedaling and I look forward to giving you guys a hug when you return what I know will be an incredible winter wonderland this year!
3rd August 2012

Amazing, you guys! Better than NPR, better than the New York Times, a really astonishing and strong account of the peoples and regions that you\'re cycling (!) through. Get back safe. I understand that you\'ve thrown yourselves into the ocean for the sake of the waves; but seriously, this is one hell of a tale you\'ve already told and more to come. Your writing and insights are superb--I don\'t know how you do it on the fly. Write up a final version when you\'re home and I\'ll be proud to sell it in our bookstores here in Berkeley. Honestly though I think that your story has national appeal.

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