The photos below are from the China part of the trip, with captions a from which day (chapter) in the book/audio book/journey they relate to.
That’s the route, the dream. I’ve got a month long visa, a bicycle, a little local language and no whiskey.
We decide to walk to Dragon Pool Park. It’s a picture-perfect place that, it turns out; you’ve probably seen it too. It’s the image on the calendar you have stared at while counting down the minutes until your Chinese meal is ready to takeaway. The curved white marble bridge with five arches, reflected as circles in the lake, standing next to a three-storey pavilion, all set against the backdrop of that Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with its 18,000-foot peak.
It’s a bit overkill on the beauty – I mean, what am I supposed to do now? This sight has something for everyone, from fisherman, architect, mountaineer, tourist, local historian and the person responsible for the interior design of Western Chinese restaurants. Talk about condensing your attractions. Thank god it’s not autumn, like the picture on the ticket stub, as we’d be bombarded with the golden colours on the hillside, mirrored on the water.
Even the rubbish bins have turned-up canopies like some temple of refuge.
Much like the days here, the water in the shower takes a while to warm up but when it does it’s glorious, and I don’t want to go back to my room. So I sit in the courtyard and drink tea, one after the other, then toast is offered and I stab a knife into my solidified Marmite and put little brown piles on the bread.
The Naxi being an ethnic majority in this region, not only run my guest house but, it would appear, the town too. I don’t feel like they dress for the tourists, it seems more like tradition. In the square today there is a meeting, apparently a daily ritual, to keep up with the day’s events, they probably haven’t mastered the internet yet. An elder holds court and conducts the proceedings, which seems to be something between gossip, chit-chat and catching up. Their dress is thick, coarse and predominantly blue, and they all have a basket or decorated bag on their backs held in place by a white cloth that intersects on their chests. The white cross on a blue background gives them a distinctly Scottish patriotic appearance, which I’m sure is not the look they were going for.
Lijiang is a metropolis; beyond the parameters of the old town is a nondescript city. Still with Chinese traits much like Kunming but, ultimately, it’s little more than high-rises, wide streets, bus stops and shops. However, this canyon of commerce is still in shadow, the time on the clock is just a number that seemingly refuses to be adhered to. The day will be dictated by the sun not by what Beijing says the time is.
The world map is where this dream germinated, the yearning began, and the criteria constructed, I wanted to witness this part of the planet but alone and independently. I didn’t want to walk, a foreigner is not allowed to ride a motorcycle in China without a chaperone, I knew nothing about horses, so a bicycle became the obvious option. Next I attempted to learn the language, first at night school while still living in the US and later through cassette tapes as I delivered lettuce nocturnally in the UK, a means to an end. When the loose ends were tied up, I packed up and was ready to proceed. Flew to the far east, procured a bicycle, proceeded to China and, bam, here I am. I may not be a winner but sometimes I’m undeniably an achiever. I could have been a dreamer but I’ve been working towards this feeling for nearly two years, and I didn’t even quite know where I’d find it, it’s not a specific point marked on my map but I know I’ve got here, I’ve found it. And to prove it I take out the tripod and capture myself and my bike against this ambitious backdrop, then have a Marmite sandwich. I’ve done it, it’s surreal, I’d love to tell someone but I probably never will. My blank page of possibilities is now full of first-hand viewpoints, I’m at that spot on the atlas I pointed my finger at. And right now my feelings and that photo are more than words, written or spoken, I don’t think I can convey this sensation to someone who never made a dream come true; like looking down on a canyon, you have to be in it to get it.
Where the trees cast shadows over the road there is ice and snow, if I was in a car I’d have to get out and touch it. On a bike I can feel it but, still, it’s hard to believe that I’ve come so high that there is climate change. Snow and ice? I’ve got to get the camera out again.
I stop for my second or third snack of the day and calculate I should begin my 35-kilometre descent soon. That can’t be Daju down there, can it? A discolouration on the valley floor among a patchwork of attractive arable land, and the only access is a steep and gravelly road. However, I will have to keep above 10kph to get there before dark. I can’t brake or lean on gravel, this requires high concentration, careful negotiation, every hairpin has skin-splitting potential.
. My eyes are open for the day even if nothing else is. The valley is in shade but the shadow stops halfway up a massive mountain. The peak is bathed in morning sunlight: it’s the place I rode down from yesterday afternoon. Imagine waking up to that sight every morning. I assume imagine is all they do, as no one else is actually awake to see it.
But the point is I’ve made it here, and after an 8-kilometre cobblestone dip and climb, the daily sweat and strain, I’m at the end of the road, but not by the river. I buy my ferry ticket and what do you know? Lo and behold, for all my reading, research, gaining of information and knowledge, I’ve gone to the wrong ferry. If I had just bothered to look at my map before I left this morning … Looks like another change of plan – in fact, why do I even make plans? Some people go blindly into situations ending in predictable predicaments, they get what was coming to them. I on the other hand go slowly, informed, and researched, hitting rocks on the way, and end up in predicaments beyond my predictions that still somehow seem inevitable.
It makes my achievements even more remarkable … or perhaps accidental would be more accurate. I do though, even here, have choices. I’m in Tiger Leaping Gorge with two pedals, as opposed to being up shit creek without a paddle. If I were at my intended crossing I wouldn’t have to carry my bike down a kilometre and a half of steep, unrideable steps to the river’s edge. I have plenty of time to consider and reconsider this as I embark on the arduous task of rectifying my mistake. If I could just channel this annoyance into a more useful energy … but I can’t. Then just as the tide of self-blame begins to subside, I meet some Chinese tourists coming up who say to me, ‘This no good for bicycle, will you give up?’ Give up researching and making plans? Give up looking like an idiot? Give up the frustration of my miscalculations? Maybe, at some point, but cycling? No, not yet.
My tide of emotions and moods are not dictated by the moon but by the road: being on the right one, in the right direction, not hitting anything, what I see from it and whom I meet on it. I’m on it now, I’m in it now, the trail that will take me through the most scenic parts of Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s a peaceful path and I have it to myself. On the opposite side of the valley the hills have been sculptured into rice terraces although the area is sparsely populated. There is little in the way of accommodation, must be a long walk to work, but there are worse commutes. Further down the valley a haze lies in the hollows, it’s a gentle beginning, a gradual introduction into the diversity of the canyon.
I sit looking out at rocky mountains, eating walnuts and drinking green tea. I take off my shoes and socks and bathe my feet in what’s left of the sun. I’m think I’m getting a bit ‘gorged out’ but that’s the point, I want to leave not wanting more. It’s not a sunset by any standard, it’s just shadow, the light no longer shines down this crack in the earth, but the sky is still blue and the evening is young.
The summit is announced with a viewing point which seems like the ideal place to take a break. Just as I pull in, four South Korean girls get out of a minivan. They are all very attractive, not windswept or road-worn, and have clearly been close to hot water very recently. They don’t give a shit about the view, they are all over me and my bike like a dust storm, only cleaner. They all want photos of themselves with me – actually, I want one too. All four of them jostling to be the closest to me. Easy girls, calm down, there’s enough to go round. I think it’s going to be a spectacular photo, can’t wait to get this film developed. The tallest, who is wearing a bright red coat and lipstick to match, purrs, ‘Ooo, you so strong.’
I fill the bath and throw in my clothes. The water is black, not discoloured, not dirty, not brown, no, it’s black. Like diesel exhaust fumes – undoubtedly, one of many pollutants that has impregnated the threads. I stomp up and down on the soaking clump, then rinse and re-rinse until there is nothing left but clean water.
The streets are dirt and cobble, the two-storey houses are of basic design and near-terrace attachment. Stone and slate, it’s not unlike a Lowry painting but a little less industrial. There is a tower on the hill surrounded by bare trees and pines, low cloud hangs below the hilltops and snow lies on the rooftops. I see no chimneys and no smoke, frigid accommodation, suspended animation, and the streets are empty of people. Parked cars, street and traffic lights are a hundred years away. It’s not a ghost town, just a poor, sleepy and ancient one, power lines are the only things that date the place. In the distance is a temple with a turned-up roof. If I wasn’t so damn cold I’d stay here on this elevated vantage point and watch the day come to life.
I don’t think I need anything from the butchers, bits of yak are hung from hooks, still hairy but very dead, although in this temperature probably quite fresh. There is a horned skull on the pavement outside, just in case there is any doubt as to what the proprietor sells. Can’t imagine his business has ever been hindered by a vegan demonstration.
. The landscape here is so Tibet: bleak, void of any trees, the ground a yellowy brown from dehydration. Predictably, cycling without panniers is a flight of fantasy, if only I could travel this light permanently. Renounce materialism like I did my bottle of Bushmills last month. I’m stopped in my dusty tracks beside a dried-up lake on plains of winter-dead scrub. On the hillside are white Chinese characters which probably don’t say ‘Hollywood’. Whitewashed houses congregate around an imposing structure, none are more than two storeys high as if kowtowing in respect. Rising above the scattered accommodation is the monastery, like Lhasa lite, but still significant.
Up close, the walls, tapestries and statues are full of symbols, the ironic swastika, a Buddhist sign of peace that tends to provoke a double take initially. The Tibetan knot of eternity with its tattoo temptations. Chinese dragons guard the entrance, or perhaps the pile of sandals and woollen booties outside, reminding me it’s time to dirty my Smartwool socks. A 300-year-old monastery – still, it would seem, with some of the original inhabitants. They are very friendly though. Perhaps they remember the Long March coming through here last century, those whippersnappers running north away from the army of the Chinese Nationalist Party. Anyway, the monks’ three-century occupation has certainly given the place an aura, not something that can be done with a trip to IKEA.
I find a guest house, a detached bungalow with a pitched roof, set against grand mountains and a sky with a blueness so deep you can see where the night comes from. It’s beautifully constructed, attention to detail, decorated with paintings and engravings. The obligatory eyesore plastic chair sits outside, although it is at least blue, positioned to take in the view, while trying to blend in.
As soon as I’m out on the road a miniature tractor with a tiny trailer comes past and stops. The man is wearing a suit and it seems he too has suffered recently from limited laundry options. I can empathise, but he could at least have brushed his hair, this tractor is not so fast as to ruffle a mane. But I’m grateful all the same, not just for the lift – a friendly gesture like this can last all day. I sit in the trailer inhaling the fumes from his stack exhaust as we trundle up the centre of the road to avoid the snow on each side.
Around a corner, the Meili Xue Shan range comes into view. Sometimes it’s actually OK not knowing what you’re going to see, I was not expecting this at all, it’s bloody brilliant. Annoyingly, the driver turns off into a field, this apparently is his line of business, not a tourist taxi at all, and to this end he won’t accept payment or even a tip. He does accept my hand though and we shake, the transaction, the transport, the transition complete. Embarrassingly, I walk the wrong way and he has to turn his tractor around to come back and slap some sense of direction into me. ‘Thank you,’ I say in Chinese, although it will take more than that to stop him thinking I’m some kind of simpleton, and even if his judgement were more generous he might be wrong.
A 4×4 stops, might be some kind of authority, there is a blue light on the roof. I’m taken all the way to the chortens. Oh right, now I know what they are, stupas, that’s what I know them as. They are a kind of Buddhist tombstone, only more upbeat, white, decorative and dome shaped. They contain relics and sometimes remains and in my experience are generally positioned somewhere scenic, or at least that’s where I come across them. Here there is a row of six or more, making the view even more stupendous.
There are enough prayer flags to satisfy every wish anyone ever had: world peace, end to famine, environmental harmony and my very own pony.
The lyrics of ‘Kashmir’ come to me, although those lines were inspired by a location at the other end of this range. Robert Plant still sang of Shangri-La in the Led Zeppelin song, and the emotion that track evokes is what I’m feeling now.
As I recite the song in my head, the beauty of the lyrics matches the mystical majesty of the scenery. Obviously, I’m unable to sing it better, but I can’t even say it better, feel it differently or see it in any other way. I can only list the sights, unable to convey the combination of what surrounds me and the textures of all I’ve been through to get me here. It is literally the pinnacle of my journey; the swansong of my route north. I think one of those flags has my answered prayer on it, or perhaps the threads have blown across man-made boundaries, over ranges, through valleys and woven a dream that I’ve made reality.
I meet the Toms of uncertain suffix and citizenship. The hotel entrance is locked, everywhere is shut but the restaurant is open although empty. I make myself a cup of tea, just to try and keep warm, that will have to do. Just as I’m ready to head out the staff turn up and make beef noodle soup … slowly. So at 9.45 I’m ready to leave again. The three of us cyclists have a photo together, they are going the other way, or perhaps I am, it’s hard to say, but I don’t think they will be doing 300 kilometres today.
A slow descent begins, down an icy road and down and down, until I meet a river and run parallel with that. A slow, winding descent and no traffic, I don’t care now where it’s going, this is the right road for me today. The air warms, but remains fresh from the river, through valleys that trap the smell of pines in the air. The other trees have leaves again and I feel I’m coming back to life. Still the road goes down, there is a little apprehension – what if I have to come back up again? – then a solitary sign lays my suspicions to rest.
This must be the budget back road, perhaps there is a toll highway alternative for the fast, sleek and shiny and they chose not to queue among us. We are frequently stopped at irregular road blocks, to catch up and exchange crazed grins. I catch my breath as I go back to the front to begin the next leg. It’s so much fun, good-humoured, friendly and filthy. I’ve never felt so disappointed to get back to a hard surface. My wacky-racing competitors all overtake me a final time. I’m last, left alone, and glide into town, so glad I’m not on the bus.
There is one last experience I want, and that is ‘Crossing the bridge noodles’. The story behind the dish is that the husband liked to work undisturbed on a tiny island in a lake by his house here in the city. His wife would bring his lunch to him, but by the time she crossed the bridge the food was cold. So she devised a way of putting a layer of chicken fat over the boiling broth to keep the heat in, and the noodles and vegetables were kept in a second dish. Once the two dishes arrive, in this case to the customers table, the waiter mixes the two bowls together and adds a raw egg.
From somewhere an orange materialised and the Kiwi’s mate began offering it to her like some token of carnal commitment. That was some very irresponsible drinking but, to be fair, it wasn’t the quantity but the strength.
Other than the ugly second water-bottle holder that is cable-tied to the frame it’s a picture of perfection. $55 is the total. It’s a little sad to say goodbye to my old frame, it was literally and intrinsically part of the bike and journey. However, like a snake shedding a skin, I’ve grown, and need this bigger frame to accommodate my increasing experience and racked-up miles. The old frame now fully revealed, relieved of all moving parts, actually is really very small and so light. I think that is where its value lies. I was told the make when I bought it, but now matt black and on its fourth continent, its history and identity has been long-lost over the murky miles. I think perhaps its unique shape identifies its make, but not to me.
The photos below are from the Thai part of the trip.
Someone is climbing a tree and hanging a rope from a branch, as I approach I realise it’s a string of Chinese firecrackers. I watch from a distance as the fuse is lit and the explosive effect races up the string of red volatility. It’s not a one-off, as I continue I see, but more often hear, this ritual ricocheting.
The sand is hard though so I cycle south along it and soon I’m in the privacy of seclusion where I can change into swimwear and cool off in the sea. I am absolutely loving this independence, to just pull off and go swimming – bodysurfing, actually
Trying to peel it off a wet body was too much strain on the threads and now my back tattoo is getting tanned. It’s getting really hot again, I suppose I am getting closer to the equator every day, it’s only just over 1,000 kilometres away. However, this is a significant latitude too, I’m at the narrowest part of mainland Thailand, it’s only 10 kilometres wide here, which is why all traffic has bottlenecked on to Highway 4. The road is straight but there are a lot of snakes on it, mostly squashed and dead, but not all.
My table for one is covered with a tartan table cloth, which in turn is covered with: [GF1] flowers in a vase, a chilled bottled water, condiments, napkin dispenser, a plate with eighteen tiny finger bananas on it, dishes containing garlic, peppers, prawns and mixed peeled, sliced fruit, and soup, a curry dish, rice and a grilled fish so big it hangs off both ends of the oval plate. I think it might be time to break my alcohol abstinence.
We turn off the road, down a dirt track past ‘Grandma’s’ house, and continue to the bottom of her garden, which is basically a clearing in the trees, and there, standing alone, is a thatched hut. Welcome to the jungle. Either I’ve died on the road or I’ve reached a state of hallucinogenic torpor. The place is secluded, a mowed lawn, trimmed hedges, its own banana tree, but only a 50-metre walk to the beach. It’s not cheap – crafty old goat – but I’ll take it, obviously.
My old hut is available, number six, the last token interwoven-bamboo-and-banana-thatch accommodation, the rest replaced by more substantial structures with bathrooms on the side. How nostalgic to be back in my little hut, the design I drew on the wall in leftover body paint is still here. The thrill of my marked territory, though, is no consolation for the company I just left behind, so focused on going back I forgot to look forward.
I consider my options, no matter how little the day holds there will always be something to deliberate over. Eventually, I decide to go to the hammock. The stoner next door is sitting on his cushion coughing from the first spliff of the day. I nod, he indicates gratitude that I took his comfort pillow out of the rain yesterday. But doesn’t offer me a token toke, can probably see I’m an artful wizard of enlightened enchantments and only a cauldron full of fungi would change my aura.
The train is delayed in the night, so I don’t have to get up until 6.30 a.m. That’s when the porter comes to turn the bed into a seat, where I happily sit and watch Bangkok lighten. As the train crawls from suburbs to centre, the traffic gets slower and life gets faster.
Then I just sit at a street café and people-watch, so much visual stimulation, but with more impermanence than what was on offer at the beach. The sole of my sandal has split in two – see, that’s what happens when you wear shoes, they wear out. It really must be time to go now.
I did an insomnia walk around the bay at dawn, flirted under a full moon that night, caught a morning sailing the following day, rushed and crushed in a minibus, all change and on to the train, rocked my way through the night to Bangkok, that was followed by breakfast on the streets with taxi drivers, cycling the city and boxing up my shit, drinking into another dusk, and awaiting a 2 a.m. flight, then a seven-hour layover in the Middle East, could have been Middle-earth I was that delusional, flew back in time to London, chatted to an Afghan, fight with a box of burden through the capital, rush hour, and finally I’m home. I’m no longer tired, it’s 5 a.m. on Ko Pha Ngan and three days later. I wander up the garden in the orange street-lit night to the bike shed. The pubs must have closed, I can hear the melee. Yeah, I could sleep in here, once I get all the lettuce crates unpacked, books, vinyl and CDs back on shelves. It’s with that exhausting thought that I walk back to the house, barely glancing at the boxed-up bicycle. I’m looking ahead, onwards and upwards … the stairs beckon, the journey stops when I hit the bed, it’s time to dream a new dream, the last one is now a diary-documented reality.