High-elevation riding

The beginning of my third leg had me exhausted before it all began.  All I could think about was eating chicken with vengeance after a 6am wake-up call from a rooster.  I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t so got up to do route research and double-check on information.

I had been eager to start the prior day, however was not feeling energized for the morning start. Yesterday evening had seen a loud thunderstorm that stirred me from rest in addition to the early morning beak alarm. My doubts worked in cahoots with the fear factor of not knowing anything about fuel stops along some of the greater stretches and then there was the fear of more crazy interactions with drivers.  All these unknowns were grappling and attempting to choke the  throttle to my trip instead of revving for open road.  I knew what I had to do.  I was emotional and called up a dear friend seeking support. I cried. I did. I had been alone through my journey and although you meet wonderful, new people, I sought familiarity through my new fears.  “I don’t want to die…..” I told my friend, remembering all the insane near-misses of drivers who just didn’t have a clue or care.  After a bit of comfort, I called my parents.  I live a loner life and they are pretty used to it when they haven’t heard from me.  I got ready to leave and then I was…..well, ready.

Before I left, I picked up my bike from my friend Kevin’s garage.  I met Kevin Slasky two nights before during a slew of celebratory introductions at his stunning, custom-renovated, traditional Tibetan residence.  After the party where riders were aplenty, I felt safely armed with information.  Then, the day after, I picked Kev up and he hopped on the back of the XTR-250 with me to visit his mechanic friend. I got the oil changed (I changed it at every stop for a measly 50yuan) and had the bike checked.

“Man, you need to slow down girl!” Kev said as we were heading back and stopping for a quick meal permeated with all sorts of yak meat – a true Tibetan meal.  He asked to try out my bike as we rode back into the gu chun (old town). I suspected I had frightened him with my piloting although I felt totally comfortable and I had ridden men much larger than his frame on the back of my bike (but not a bike so tall actually – which felt the same as long as it was moving).

“I’m driving too fast?” I asked.

“Well…..yeah… for China! And none of that weaving in and out in the cities…I tell you…you just never know when a car is gonna come out and BAM!” he said in his animated Kevin-talk.

“Okay…ok, thanks….” and I began to think of each “incident” I had up to then. First, was the 6-foot drop off the road, which was not due to speed but due to not familiarizing with the balance of the bike when I dismounted to take some photos. I honestly felt that was one of the best lessons I could have had early on in the flatlands surrounding Dali because by the time I reached the mountains, if I had parked to the right on the shoulder, stepped off the bike and it had gone off-balance, I would have rolled off the 4,000meter cliffs. I couldn’t have been more grateful for this lesson so early on as it created a careful consciousness of how I would dismount and park my bike every single time.

I thought of the ride in the rain when the massive work truck was coming at me and how I swiped and slid quickly, nearly having my helmeted head crushed by the back tire of the truck. I was going too fast – I know it. Even though it was the truck’s fault and he was not in his lane, if I had been going slower, I believe I could have prevented the whole thing; so grateful for that survival and the next incident where, driving without my front brakes on rough road, my boot couldn’t feel the back brake and I again, nearly slid into an oncoming truck; going too fast.

I thought of the near-misses from coming around the tight turns of the mountain passes, these trucks just didn’t see me…wtf was their problem?

I’m making pretty good time but it’s becoming a deathly situation. I am so used to having my 600cc underway and at a pedal’s push, accelerating smoothly. I would go as slow as possible at this point around the blind curves – and I noticed the difference. Oncoming traffic had time to avoid me although I was at a snail’s pace on the turns and now had less time to stop and shoot photos.

Okay, enough contemplating…I really must leave.
Retrieving the motorcycle, I bit Kev a goodbye and also said my goodbyesto a Russian couple travelling the world for several years that I had been sightseeing with.

I drove out toward the center of ZhongDian’s town. My northbound path was marked by a bronze horse statue that I would make a right at and continue on for the longest leg yet (over 200km). The first 30-40km was beautiful. I lit up from the remote mountain passes….this was inspiring.  Energizing. There wasn’t much traffic.  One thing however, the roads were more narrow and the oncoming traffic was still driving ridiculously fast around the thin bends.

I was in awe of all the work that had been done cutting the roads into the mountains. I could see them extend forever…like how you look into the face of a mirror being reflected by another mirror and the reflections are infinite. Those mountains carried that thin, unending line, my path, tattooed into its emerald skin. I saw very few cars/buses/trucks…although I did see them. After one stretch of smooth road, I hit dirt. Pebbles, rocks, pits, bumps, dust were all part of the mosaic path. By then, I had to hit 14-20kph in some parts. Got up to 40 in some parts. It was just continuous bumping and grinding for over 80km. I couldn’t decide which had deceived me: was it the horrible path that enticed me to see the beauty of the mountains? Or was it the mountains that had invited me onto that burly path? Either way, it ended up balancing because once I got up and up and up and was higher than most of the peaks, my vision just exploded with the regal beauty of our natural earth.  My mind was numb. I thought how right religions were to believe a God exists after such a sight….no wonder people have worshipped God for Earth’s beauty…whether it be the Atacamanean groups that gave up their dead to volcanoes, or Tibetan villagers that send their dead off into a lake they’ve made “sacred”. No wonder people have been so inspired to assigning such religious importance to nature and associating it with such environments.   As we move into this new epoch of man and our sights are blinded from our tallest skyscrapers and state-of-the art architecture made from our own hands; blinded by our own self-awe, there is no doubt that we will receive a huge reminder on why we shouldn’t imagine ourselves greater than who has created us.  I see the power of our Earth in all the visions I ride past and recognize where I come from and the might of my creator.

I continued on my journey in a pattern of beautiful weather, uneven path and incredible sights.  I felt lucky the day was working for me and thankfully, due to climbing, my forearms weren’t feeling the pain that I would otherwise have. My ass was the real victim in this case as it took to cushioning each surly stone and problematic pit’s jarring but the view – the view took all of those distractions away eventually as I passed areas laced with prayer flags blessing my journey and I continuously ascended up and up to about 4,000m.  I felt my small existence in this immense world from this platform.

During the descent, I glided down in neutral for kilometers at a time and enjoyed the silence with just the wind whispering its welcomes and “jia you”s of my foreign presence. Thank you for allowing me to be here is what I wanted to communicate in return.

Solo remote riding such as this has its rewards. There are great risks definitely present – what if I should need help? But at the same time, the quiet that cushions you allows you the deafness from your own thoughts and emotions. Your inner thoughts scream at you as there is no one else to chatter with – there are no cars causing backed up traffic from conversations with yourself. There is nothing more freeing it seems.

After about 160km I’m estimating, I had descended to a bridge and a well-worn, beautiful rustic Tibetan village. Dusk was soon to come and I was about 40km from XiangCheng it seemed. But OH! There was an adorable, sweet little boy that crossed my road to peer at me curiously.
“Ni hao?” I greeted.
“Ni hao……” he mimicked in a way that made me thing he just liked the sound of it.
He continued to say it over and over which confirmed it. At about three years old, he was just too cute to leave immediately. I took out a Snickers bar…a little fattening piece of America’s obese infatuation with sugar (terrible, I know) and let the chocolate goodie land in his grasping palm.

Lil cutie; Tibetan boy in a very small village as I neared Xiangcheng

I continued to pelt him gently with easy Mandarin conversation but it seemed he didn’t understand at all. He examined the wrapped bar and instinctively used his teeth to attempt to open it. He didn’t manage to open it but did manage to run back to his home and voice his exotic endowment to his family who came out to greet me. I observed them for a little bit but realized that daylight was slipping away through the cracks of my concern for time and competing interest to stay. I’d best be on my way. At this point, I had just come off of an excruciating high (must be the altitude?) and really didn’t care if I had to ride in the dark or camp out.

The scenery began to change from remote to dotted with white, blocked habitats – Tibetan villages – all slightly different in each of its own ways. I was in absolute awe. This was my first day riding amongst the villages and along with the traditional homes, surrounding them were flat plots of virescent fields and a large river that darted next to it to outline its life-inducing presence. I was in LOVE. Speechless. Awed.

As I continued on, the road turned back to dirt as camps of workers took to the side of my path and then it was black. I had no working headlight. Shit, okay. That would have been nice to know. I tried turning on the highbeam and that at least worked but I had to keep one of my fingers pressed upon the lever while I negotiated harmony with the clutch and steering. I finally hit deep pits and dirt at one part where a work truck was in front of me and cars were in the back. I had stopped traffic as I struggled trying to keep the light on, get through this narrow ditches and over big rocks – it got a bit hairy but at the same time, it wasn’t something that panicked me as a later road would (my worst nightmare…yet to be told).

I eventually made it into Xiangcheng at around 10pm, parked and asked about a guesthouse and was led further into the city near the main square. I stepped off the bike, went into another store and asked about the guesthouse when I saw a white guy pass buy – a backpacker.

“HEY. You there….are you going to a guesthouse right now?” I said.
“I’m looking for one now.” He says in a voice only a Brit can have.
“Cool. Me too. I speak Chinese so let’s look together.”
I adopted the traveler and we soon found a spot, put away our belongings and went for a bowl of late night noodles while sharing stories that..well, only vagabonds could share.

‘Twas a fine finale to the 200+km journey.

At around 4,000 meters

Light rain....

Reaching the end of the 80km of the crazy, bumpy unpaved trail....not quite to Xiangcheng though.