Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher, said in the Dao De Jing that, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In planning my 5,000 mile bicycle journey from China to Italy, my first step was to outfit my bicycle with bombproof and field-serviceable components that would stand up to the abuse of a year on some very rugged roads.
While we waited by the side of the road in Sary-Tash for a truck to give us a ride north, we were approached by two French cyclists who had just come from the Pamir Highway. When we asked them about the road they said it was like cycling in a frozen cloud. The freezing rain was relentless, the roads were washed out and muddy, and the superlative vistas they had been promised were hidden behind thick curtains of clouds
We knew we had made the right decision to hitchhike when we passed a field of sunflowers who had all turned their yellow and black faces away from the scalding sun and were drooping towards the dry, cracked ground. The mercury in my keychain thermometer was pushing its way past 40*C but the turbulent wind crashing in through the truck’s open windows provided some relief from the heat. We were entering the Fergana Valley, one of the most fertile regions of Central Asia, which Kyrgyzstan shares with its neighbors, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
It wasn’t easy to leave the At-House in Bishkek. We were getting used to having a kitchen and a bathroom and were enjoying the camaraderie of our fellow cycle tourists. But we knew that once we had tuned our bikes and gotten our visas for Tajikistan, it was time to hit the road. The At-House was also getting a bit crowded. Word had spread that it is the place in Bishkek for cyclists. When we left there were 23 cyclists staying there.
Panniers are a cycle tourist's suitcases. They are the bags which clip on to a bicycle’s front and rear racks. For our trip, Erica and I are carrying all of our stuff in waterproof Ortlieb Front and Back Roller Classic panniers (two on the font and two on the back of each bike), Ortlieb Handlebar Bags, and a backpack strapped to my rear rack. We thought our family, friends, and other cyclists planning their own longterm bicycle tours might like to know what we are carrying in our panniers for our journey from China to Italy by bicycle.
The next morning we crawled out of our still-standing tent to see a woman herding some cattle up the gorge past our tent. She smiled at us and alternately squeezed her left and right hands in the air while pulling them downwards and we understood that she was going to milk her cows. She returned before we finished breaking down our camp and waved us down the hill saying, “Chai! Chai!” which we understood now to mean tea. So we loaded up our bikes again, the splinted tent pole sticking out the back of my bike like a bee stinger, and walked them down to our hosts’ tent back by the main road.
We arrived at At-Bashy in a light rain. Away from A365, the road deteriorated quickly and was pockmarked with muddy potholes. I stopped at the first official-looking building we saw and asked about a hotel. A man inside explained that he worked for the Kyrgyz Forestry Service and drew a map to a place called Hotel Tash Rabat. Perfect! At the Hotel Tash Rabat a little man came out and frowned at our muddy bikes and shoes.
After leaving Kunming, our first stop on the road to Italy was Kashgar, the cultural capital of the Xinjiang Province in China. Kashgar is a multi-ethnic place but Uyghur people are the majority ethnic group. To us, the Uyghurs more closely resembled Eastern European people than their Chinese neighbors. They also have their own language and use Arabic script. Taking all this in while wandering the streets of Kashgar's old town, surrounded by mud brick houses with ornate arabesque arches, Erica and I felt like we had already traveled a long way from China.
While using Google Earth to plan our route from China to Italy, I discovered that it can record a flyover of a preset route and export it as a video. So I decided to make a video flyby of the bicycle tour that my friend Sander and I did in 2014: 434 mountainous kilometers from Lijiang to Deqin in China's Yunnan Province. The blue line you see in the video is generated from GPS data that Sander recorded with his phone. I added distance and elevation data from Google Earth to the video but the elevation data may be off due to the China GPS offset problem. Then I spliced in some photos I took during the trip. My talented friend Jake provided the soundtrack.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Kunming about two years ago was how many stars I could see in the night sky despite being in a city of five million people. This might be because there is relatively less atmospheric distortion over Kunming due to its high altitude and dry climate. Or maybe Kunming just has less light pollution than other urban areas of comparable size. Whatever the cause, I wanted to capture Kunming's night sky before I leave China in two months to bicycle to Italy. So I decided to try my hand at star trail photography.
In March my friend Will came up to Kunming from Chiangmai for a visit. He had been traveling all around southeast Asia but hadn't yet seen any great mountains. So I decided to take him on a trek to the sacred Buddhist mountains in Yading, Sichuan.
China's Yunnan province is a land of extremes. Its sub tropical south borders on Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is one of the oldest tea producing regions in the world. Yunnan's rugged north is spiked with mountains, some over 6,000 meters tall. At the feet of these giants flow three of Asia's greatest rivers: the the Nujiang/Salween, Lancang/Mekong, and Jinsha/Yangtze rivers. For thousands of years and as recently as the mid-twentieth century, the valleys cut through the mountains by these mighty rivers linked trade routes between India, Myanmar, China, and Tibet. Porters carried their body weight in tea by foot along these roads to trade for Tibetan ponies. These trade routes are known collectively as the Tea Horse Road. In April, my friend Sander and I set out to bicycle between Lijiang and Deqin, two major towns along the Tea Horse Road in northern Yunnan.