I am free but I am a prisoner

 Posted by on January 14, 2014
Jan 142014
 

Let’s try that again shall we? Sorry for everyone who read the first version of this post, slow internet caused half of it to go missing in the wires. Hopefully this one arrives with you all in one piece. Enjoy.

All those months ago when I was making preparations to leave Alastair Humphreys sent me his mappazine “There Are Other Rivers” which documents his walk across India. Full of nervous anticipation I enjoyed browsing through the text and pictures thinking about what lay in store for me over the coming months. One paragraph in particular stood out:

“Life on the road is a mix of paradoxes. I am free but I am a prisoner. I am a prisoner but I am free. I hate it but I love it. My days are routine, and yet I can never predict what may come along. I am free to turn left or right at the fork in the road. It does not really matter which I choose. Except that the choice will change my life.”

Throughout China these words have come back to me time and time again. For nowhere more than here has that fork in the road had such an impact on my life. Right or left is the difference between falling asleep peacefully in a secluded camp or cursing traffic throughout the night as it roars metres away from my tent. Ending the day happily or feeling shattered and finding my nose filled with black goo from the pollution. Riding relaxed or thinking only of the next truck about to bristle past my panniers. There have been times when I have hated the confounded two wheeled machine which I live on for all the awful roads it has made me endure in China. There have been times when I have utterly adored it for the freedom and openness it has provided and its ability to conjure intrigue in every passing local.

China is hard. The number of people, the language barrier, busy roads and the economic revolution which has destroyed so much of their natural heritage make it the most difficult country I’ve travelled through. Nowhere have I been able to completely escape the wave of construction work which occupies every nook and cranny of this country. Everywhere I have been there is always somebody digging up a river bed, mining a cliff face, damming rivers and manipulating nature at the expense of complex ecosystems and social structures. The shortsightedness of it all is tragic to watch, but in southern Sichuan and Yunnan provinces I’ve finally found an area where the roads are awful, climbing relentless, and life is ever so slightly slower than the bustling lowlands.

As Chengdu was feeling quite warm I thought it might be a good time to gain some altitude again and escape the crowded lowlands. I was wrong; at 2000m it was cold and snowing.

As Chengdu was feeling warm I thought it might be a good time to gain some altitude again and escape the lowlands. I was wrong; at 2000m it was cold and snowing.

There's a 7500m peak up there somewhere, but something told me it wasn't going to show itself anytime soon.

There’s a 7500m peak up there somewhere, but something told me it wasn’t going to show itself anytime soon.

jh

So I descended a little and continued, muddling south along the smallest roads I could find. Often cycling until dusk in search of a quiet camp.

kj

Just as often failing to find one and pitching up in villages where the locals would build me fires and keep me company. Roasting potatoes, practicing english or just having a chat amongst themselves. And doing much to rekindle my motivation in the miserable conditions.

Moving south I'm told that my chosen road is snowbound and there's no way through. But it was Christmas and was keen not to spend it on another busy road so I headed in to explore. After all, I thought, maybe the snow isn't so bad and I can just drag my bike through.

Moving south I’m told that my chosen road is snowbound and there’s no way through. But it was Christmas and since I was keen to spend it somewhere quiet I headed in to explore. After all, I thought, maybe the snow wasn’t so bad and I could just drag my bike through as I’d done on a few previous passes.

jh

Locals know best. The snow was deep long before the pass, so I stashed the bike and went for a walk instead. Enjoying the peace and quiet and catching a glimpse of the first eagles I’ve seen since Xinjiang.

kj

On the retreat a small crowd gathered to watch me gobble a late lunch. Fascinated to see I could use chopsticks, puzzled to see I was wearing shorts in the cold and baffled by the hair on my legs. Out of the crowd a man came forward, placed his hands flat together, set them against his tilted head and closed his eyes – a sign that seems to have followed me through small villages wherever I’ve wandered. He pointed away from the noodle bar jumped on his motorcycle and we were off. Zigzagging on a steep track high above the town to his village which lay just below the snow line.

I'm put to bed and wake on Christmas Day to snow. It's assumed I'm not cycling in the conditions so I'm treated to a day on the farm.

I was put to bed and woke on Christmas Day to snow flurries. It was assumed I was not cycling in the conditions so I was invited to help out on the farm.

First job's first give grandma and the baby a hand taking the cows out to pasture.

First job’s first give grandma and the baby a hand taking the cows out to pasture. Lobbing the odd rock when they get out of line. I aim to miss, she hits every time.

Then it's down to the fields with mum and the kids.

Then it’s down to the fields with mum and the kids

to spend the day picking and bundling radishes. Nibbling on a few as we work.

to spend the day picking and bundling radishes (big ones). Nibbling on a few as we work.

The farm is a beautiful place, but for these ethnic minorities most of whom don't read Chinese it's a difficult life

The farm is a beautiful place, but for these ethnic minorities (many of whom don’t read Chinese) I cannot even begin to appreciate how difficult their lives must be.

Back on the road I mulled the experience over in my head for hours. In so many ways it was beautiful to get an insight in to life in such a remote place and see how people genuinely enjoyed my presence simply as an interesting and fun change from their routine. But so much of what I saw saddened me. The poverty was overt and it was clear that they didn’t have much choice, but to continue to farm.

Back on the road I mulled the experience over in my head for hours. In so many ways it was beautiful to get an insight in to life in such a remote place and see how people genuinely enjoyed my presence simply as an interesting and fun change from their routine. But so much of what I saw saddened me. The poverty was overt and it was clear that without an education for the adults or children it was unlikely that any of them would have the means to leave the farm. On leaving I gifted them all the non-essential clothes I was carrying (those being the only thing I have to give) and hid some money where they might find it in a few days time. That was the only Christmas present I gave this year.

Escaping the mountains on back roads, which turn to icky mud in the drizzly conditions.

Escaping the mountains on back roads, which had turned to icky mud in the drizzly conditions.

The inevitable. Time to take the mudguards off.

The inevitable. As mud clogged up it was time to take the mudguards off.

Mud glorious mud.

Mud glorious mud.

Ever present infrastructure in a country trying to build its way out of poverty.

Ever present infrastructure in a country trying to build its way out of poverty.

lkjh

Until now I’ve never been caught out for a place to pop my tent. But as the climb rose, conditions worsened and mud deepened I was reduced to walking. With a cliff to the right and steep slope to the left there was nowhere to escape. So on I plodded with my head torch faintly illuminating my path and scooping mud out of my wheels to prevent the bike becoming an immovable object.

lkj

A road worker found me wide eyed and plastered with mud from head to toe. We laughed at my ridiculous appearance before he invited me in, thrust a bowl of noodle soup into my hands and gestured that I could sleep there for the night. Once again I’m rescued by the kindness of a complete stranger.

lkjh

I’ve long stopped caring about the cleanliness of where I sleep. I stripped off my outer muddied layer, then dived under the sheets, wriggled until they were warm and fell fast asleep.

Happily snoozing amongst worker's clutter.

Slumbering happily amongst worker’s clutter.

Finally some sun to replenish my spirits.

In the morning the mud finally ends and the sun makes a long overdue appearance to replenish my spirits.

But it’s short lived. For some time now (ever since those dusty days in the Kazakh desert) my cable housings have been accumulating dirt and grime so that my bar end shifters break a gear cable every 5,000km or so. After that muddy session the friction got so bad I broke both gear cables. I thought I was prepared with two spares I’d picked up in Urumqi. However, unbeknownst to me, some cables made in China are so hopelessly useless it’s depressing to think any metal was used up in making them at all. In quick succession – *pop* *pop* – off popped the ends of the new cables. Bugger.

But it's short lived. For some time now (ever since those dusty days in the Kazakh desert) my cable housings have been accumulating dust and grime and every 5,000km or so my bar end shifters snap a gear cable. After that muddy session the friction got so bad that I snapped both front and back. I thought I was prepared with two cables I'd picked up in Urumqi, but unbeknownst to me some of the cables made in China are so hopelessly useless it's depressing to think any metal was used up in making them at all. In quick succession - *pop* *pop* - off popped the ends of the new cables. Bugger.

Back to basics. With my derailleur stuck in top gear I whittled down sticks to jam the spring open so I could cycle in low gears.

track

Bikes aren’t used in the mountains so it’s a two day struggle along bumbling roads to Zhaotong (famous only for the reason that it is shaped like an apple) where I can recable the whole bike.

Dirt

Now there’s a site for sore eyes. A half day of dirt leads me back into the mountains

dog

where life is slow, the weather warm

lkj

and villages are set in to steep hillsides.

Back on the ascent on a veritgo inducing road.

Back on the ascent on a veritgo inducing climb up to 3000m

And on to a new road.

and on to a new road

where Luo lets me camp outside his house.

which leads me to Luo who lets me camp outside his house.

which winds around buttresses disappearing into the haze filled valleys below.

Before it descends to Kunming the road winds around enormous buttresses disappearing into the haze filled valleys below, or is that pollution?

Even up here there's no escaping construction, but at  least these offer a glimmer of hope.

Even up here there’s no escaping the construction, but at least these offer a glimmer of hope.

  16 Responses to “I am free but I am a prisoner”

  1.  

    Alex – these are just fantastic. Can’t believe how far you’ve go and how quickly. Loved the derailleur repair. must remember to pack a pen knife next time I head up Box Hill! What an experience – we await the book! All the very best

    Steve

  2.  

    Wow – fantastic post. Keep it up mate.

    Where next?

    •  

      Cheers Jon, glad to see you and everyone else I’ve spoken to have had a tumultuous time in China too. I’m cycling as fast as my legs will carry me to Laos where cycling at a snail’s pace will be resumed. My phone is filled to the brim with jungle tracks that will take me south with only the faintest whiff of tarmac. Then on to Cambodia before packing everything up and calling it a day at the end of May. Not long now!

  3.  

    Wow hahaha! The exact same thing happened to me with the derailleur in rural Gansu province China. Made it to Chengdu (1000 km) with a small stick jammed, just like you.

    Found your blog today, great photography and nice reading! Keep it up!

  4.  

    Alex, Way to go… my brother Adventurer ! Fantastic to hear about your beautiful challenging Journey. i support you and all those crazy ideas you have about traveling in wild remote places ! Rite On ! Living on the wild Left Coast of North America, my adventures on the expansive Olympic Peninsula seem easy for what you have been enduring… Happy to know you are peddling your heart and mind thru a magnificent Growth ring of life ! Whopping Cheers Mate !

  5.  

    Derailleur stick jamming is ingenious! Interesting photos too! Your blog is keeping me going during PhD write up and helping me plan my escape this summer hopefully cycling round bits of Scotland. A smaller scale adventure but some of your earlier planning posts are a useful reference. Looking forward to the next installment.

    •  

      Scotland is amazing, I still haven’t really come across anywhere which is as beautiful as that place. Enjoy it! Would definitely recommend getting up to the North West coastal road and stopping in at the pie shop in Lochinver.

  6.  

    Keep going sir! Lovely photos.

  7.  

    Truly great Gandy! The photos and your descriptions are fantastic- I’m very jealous of your travels! I bet the day to day joys of Shaftesbury seems a world away! Look forward to reading your next entry! Take care.
    Rupert

  8.  

    This is a fantastic story wish I could have some great adventures myself .I’m a person who like to travel and go on mister ions adventures so I enjoyed and Love this story…and I didn’t even know I would come across it but I did and LOVED IT. I MUST say THANK YOU for sharing your story it’s like it’s not real but I know it is…..

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