A New High: A Layered Meaning

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September 17, Xinduqiao, China

Bob:
Yesterday we rode Zippy to the highest elevation ever for us. We started at 8,500 feet in Kangding and topped Zheduo Pass at 13,900 feet in 35 kilometers, or 21.7 miles, all under construction/repair. For our Olympic Peninsula friends, that’s like taking the Hurricane Ridge Road, raising the sea level start to 3,000 feet above the Ridge, loading 70 pounds on your tandem before beginning. Oh, I forgot, put 1,000 people and hundreds of trucks and equipment on the now gravel/dirt/broken concrete road.

We had some concerns about the rapid elevation gain from low Chengdu. Other cycle tourists had told stories of riding for a few meters, resting, pushing for a few meters before riding again because of the lack of oxygen. Others reported terrible headaches and lack of muscle strength.

Near the pass we were stopping for short rests every half kilometer or so, during extra steep sections. We had a little dizziness and mild headaches, in the steeper sections. We topped out in a good mood; although there were moments along the way of despair.

We dropped off into a beautiful Tibetan valley, unfortunately with only a few kilometers of newly paved road, and arrived in town much later than usual. We are taking another acclimatization day, at about 11,000 feet. There are some higher passes to come. Today we took a walk through the village and enjoyed the Tibetans in their beautiful land.

Claire:
I’m not sure which part was the most trying of the day; the construction was a nasty surprise, sometimes the route looked more like a mud track than a major highway. I asked directions more often than our Azeri taxi driver did on the run for the Georgian border. Going up into the fog was pretty demoralizing, partly because it was eerie and also because I didn’t want it to get as thick as it did on that Iceland Hellisheidi Pass. It didn’t, and ultimately may have been better for us because we couldn’t see how much farther up we had to go. Overall, the worst part may have just been the unknown, but really, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Dealing with whatever happens. We put ourselves here for just this type of experience, and though it can feel harrowing at the time, the intensity of the day becomes a part of us. In retrospect, yes it was hard, but for me, my resolve came from a continual mantra of: “We’re doing it, we’re still moving forward, we may be slow, but we’re doing it.” And both Bob and I kept good spirits and good strength the whole day through. We’ll need that for the 7000 foot climb to 15,000 feet soon.

Bob:
I’m not surprised that Claire touched on what I intended to end with. I am sure some of you new to our travels are saying to yourselves, “What would possess them to do put themselves through the things they do?” I’m pretty sure a lot of Chinese are saying that to us, we just can’t understand them!

Here’s a major part of the answer. Creating challenges for ourselves, and facing them together strengthens the bond of our marriage. Couples often allow the romance fade as the years progress. It’s easy to become immersed in career, children, differing interests and circles of friends, and put the partner in a secondary position. We said some vows nearly twenty years ago, and our habit of creating challenges for ourselves, and meeting them as a team, has helped us keep those vows, and kept the romance alive. We may seem crazy, but the rewards of our mutual struggles are great.

Stupa at first pass into Tibetan lands

Stupa at first pass into Tibetan lands

Into Tibetan Lands

The Himalayan foothills are turning vertical and Zippy’s long wheelbase and weight is making it difficult to hold a straight line, especially when a bus screams at us with its ear splitting high pitched horn, and the captain reacts toward the 100 ft. drop off into the river! So far so good, and the old reflexes will soon come back. The first weeks are the hardest, and these mountains are really really hard. We might have kept these mountains for the end of the trip when we are fit, but then the passes are snowed in; there is a typhoon approaching the coast, and we might get it even now. Hope not.

We have taken a day off at 8.000 ft. to acclimatize, catch up on getting some protein in; you have no idea how hard it is to get good quality protein in the small villages, and our bodies are craving it. Last night we bought a can of some kind of strange fish with a very strong flavor, and some black beans mixed in; wonderful. We have boiled eggs for morning and a bunch of greasy (tasty) pastries for the climb.

We are getting into Tibetan prefectures and seeing the dress and features of the minority population. After a 13,000 plus pass tomorrow, they will no longer be the minority. We are already seeing prayer flags flying, and old women turning prayer wheels as they walk, men dressed in huge leather cloaks with cowboy style hats and daggers. Everyone is friendly, and the air is finally clear!

Here are a few photos from the last couple of days:

Lucky Studies His First Prayer Flags

Lucky Studies His First Prayer Flags

Corn Husking Party

Corn Husking Party

Market Day

Market Day

Our Constant Companions

Our Constant Companions

A Few Minutes We Were Pedaling Up That Switchback

A Few Minutes We Were Pedaling Up That Switchback

View From Our Binguan

View From Our Binguan

Buddhist Rock Paintings

Buddhist Rock Paintings

Food

Food

The Tea and Horse Route

Picking Tea in Sichuan

Picking Tea in Sichuan

We have been interested in the Horse Tea Route, Tea and Horse Route, and other translations, of an ancient trade route that rivals the Silk Road in importance for China and Asia. We first heard about it from a friend, Cindy, and wondered if our route would take us near the ancient route.  It must have been a slow brutal traverse of the Himalayas, from what we endured, in the foothills today on the “modern” route.

Horse, Symbol of Ancient Tea Horse Route, and Tanker Truck, Symbol of the Modern Route

Horse, Symbol of Ancient Tea Horse Route, and Tanker Truck, Symbol of the Modern Route

As we were leaving Ya An today, we saw some beautiful, larger than life, bronze statues of horses and men carrying heavy burdens. A sign nearby indicated that it was a memorial to the ancient route that took tea to SE Asia, India and Lhasa, in exchange for trade goods, and horses from Tibet. We are roughly following the southern route that was supposed to go to Yunnan (Shangri-la) and into present day Laos. We hope to find out more as we get deeper into the mountains. If we are lucky, maybe we will see a bit of the original.

For now, the modern route is challenge enough, with landslides, constant mud and water on the road, trucks, buses and all manner of smaller vehicles competing for a narrow deteriorating road surface, often with precipitous drops into a burnt sienna river raging with rapids. The captain’s shoulders are tired and the stoker’s nerves are frazzled.

The Kimberly in NW Australia, at risk from oil spill

We rode our tandem a few thousand kilometers across and through the middle of Australia, through the Kimberly, in the far northwest. The Kimberly region is the size of California with 41,000 residents. Think of that. We rode for two to three days without seeing human habitation. There are bulbousbaobab trees and bush fires on the land, crocks and huge snakes in the billabongs and camels stomping around the tent in the night. Lovely.

We arrived in Broome probably the most remote town in the English speaking world, just in time for our anniversary, so it holds a special place in our hearts. The coast there is like all the coasts in Australia, spectacular. But the Kimberly coast is special for it’s remoteness and the austere red rock beauty and beautiful, but often violent weather.

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