We are two Scott Traveling Fellows from the Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning department at UC Berkeley. We are on a 6 month bicycle tour throughout the Asian continent to study bicycle culture in SE Asia, China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
So this is it. Delhi was the last blast in a string of unfamiliar worlds. We’ve biked through these worlds and soaked up the landscapes and cultures, trying to let them change us. Yet all of them remain foreign, because each experience was fleeting. That’s the thing about a trip like this; the nature of a bike tour means that there’s no place to miss. All it is, really, is a lifestyle. We decided to live a certain way for six months. Almost every day we moved, and if a routine set in it didn’t last. Every day we woke up in a different place, and experienced a different world of people and climate and roads and hills and emotions and even the ‘change’ changed. Will we miss the lifestyle? Time will tell, but as our taxi lurched through the city on the way to the airport neither of us felt any qualms about saying goodbye. Strangely in a daze, we didn’t really feel anything at all. We’ve amassed a world of experience, and the proof might be in the photos, but the truth of it will only be felt by those who know us, because even we can’t identify if and how we’ve changed. In the end, that might be the only thing that matters. Continue reading →
In India, one is faced with the realization that in order to survive here, you have to love human beings a lot more than the average westerner. Indians, possibly due to necessity, are blessed with an unconditional love for humanity that binds them together. There’s an affection between people here that simply doesn’t exist at home. Maybe that’s the great Indian mystery that everyone here seems to be searching for. But there’s a darker side that we would soon witness on the highway; the harsh realities of a massive population living in difficult conditions results in an almost fatalistic attitude toward death. Western cultures have an innate fear of death. In India, they embrace it. Our fear of dying means that death is hidden away, tucked neatly out of sight, forgotten. Not so in Varanasi, where bodies are publicly cremated on the bank’s of the Ganges, the sacred Mother River. And even less so on the roads, where dying becomes a public act, played out in front of the unsympathetic masses.
Three crazy countries, three crazy cities, fifty million awesome people
In the past few weeks we’ve come from a world dominated by landscape, through a world defiled by human destruction and development, and now into a world that is defined, almost wholly, by the thickness of humanity itself. A place like this can only really be explained by its human relationships, and none of the other feelings we could describe (besides, perhaps, that of affection) actually matter. We recently biked away from Dhaka, by some accounts the densest city on earth, in a dazed state of reflection. I was still recovering from a high fever, and both of us suffered from the water. Happy to be on the road again and out of the chaos, but sad to be leaving our new friends and one of the most amazing cities that either of us has ever seen.
Tibet. From the couch on which we’re sitting inside an apartment in Chengdu’s southern suburbs, the Forbidden Land feels far away and remote. But less than a week has passed since we crossed over our final pass of the Himalayas, snow-covered and freezing, and descended down 13,000ft through alpine valleys and along rain swollen rivers into the gray, smoggy crush of urban China. In many ways, that descent was a tragic loss of the high-altitude harmony of Tibetan culture that we discovered and relished in for the past 4 weeks. But it also brings with it a promise of change and forward momentum, for we have left the solitude of the rough, demanding highlands for good, and now will face a different kind of challenge: unyielding human density, mega-cities, and a whole new level of traffic insanity. South Asia looms large in the horizon of our imaginations.
Shangri-La, Xiangcheng, Daocheng, Yading, Litang – 400km and feet on the ground
Litang, China. At 4000 meters we’re out of time and out of breath. Literally, short on oxygen and we don’t know why. From the lowlands we had climbed onto the Tibetan plateau feeling like super heroes. We’d conquered big passes over and over again, a bit wobbly but without ill effect. It was surprising even. Katrina, a traveling German doctor, had advised us earlier that there are two ways for the body to produce more red blood cells for higher altitudes. One: slow acclimatization; and two: smoking cigarettes. I had a third theory though. Could it have been the exhaust that prepared us? We were living in it, and undoubtedly had been deprived of oxygen. Our blood must have been kicked into high gear. We’d been acclimatized early, aaaand we’d found our golden ticket: black exhaust cigarettes, all the benefits of tobacco without the addiction. But what’s happened? After two weeks of biking and hiking at altitude we’re left sore, beaten down, breathless, our hunger for the road diminished…
Kunming to Dali, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-La – 2 weeks, 900km
China overwhelms and assaults the senses. It’s also a land of contradictions that has you groping for air from the terrible truck exhaust one minute, and gasping in awe at a 10,000ft deep gorge the next. In the past 2 weeks we’ve been through bike-touring hell and back, but are now perched on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, giddy with excitement at what the next 2,000km and 4 weeks will bring. We sit in blissful high-altitude comfort in the mythical town of Shangri-La surrounded by initial glimpses of Tibetan culture, and the joy of being in the mountains makes it especially hard to reconcile this new wonderful China with the same China we escaped from only 5 days ago.
We’re here; we made it, the big daddy, the second leg: China. At 5,000 kilometers and after a crazy 12 days of riding since Hanoi, we’ve hit the next of the big cities on our route – Kunming, China. Population: 6 million. Neon lights, friendly people, bike lanes and eerily quiet electric scooters everywhere. Silent killers, those things. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
It was time to leave Hanoi. We’d been there 10 days, recovering, waiting for visas, repairing bikes. More to the point, it was time to leave Southeast Asia. Continue reading →
Hanoi is not like it used to be. Talk to anyone who is familiar with the classic Hanoi of the 70s and 80s, and they will lament the loss of the quiet, bicycle-filled streets that were characteristic of this ancient city. Up until the early 1990s everyone used to commute by bicycle, but they’ve since been replaced by motorbikes as the predominant form of transportation. (Just as in every city we’ve visited aside from Bangkok). But that’s not to say that no one rides bikes here anymore. As soon as we crossed the border from Laos to Vietnam, we immediately started seeing more bicycles. And as we descended from the tumultuous, tortured mountains of western Vietnam, the number of cyclists increased inversely with the landscape’s slope, until they reached maximum concentration in the poorer cities surrounding Hanoi. Thankfully, this means that there is no shortage of bike shops to help out the stranded bike tourer with a broken rim. Topping that long list of shops is Mr. Quann. Continue reading →
Thakek, Lak Sao, Paksan, Phonsavan, Middleofnowhere, Hanoi – 790km
Laos is a country that reminds you that you love life. In many ways, Laos is why we bike tour. It beats you to the breaking point, but then erupts in beauty, and the contrast makes your mind fly. One minute you’re negotiating a flooded bridge – water flowing past your knees, gaps between the planks threatening to suck you under. The next, you’re rounding a bend to descend into the most picturesque village you have ever seen, again. And then you watch the entire village hiccup. All activity stops for a brief moment of silence before the kids empty out of their houses in a sprint for the banks of the road to watch you pass. The whole village of people puts their eyes on you, open-mouthed, and if you’re lucky they let out that wonderfully complex and gorgeous Laos grin. Immediately, your experience shifts from being punished by the terrain to undeserved celebrity. This post is particularly tough to compose. Each day on the bike is a new adventure, filled with stories that are too complex to share, and that taken as a whole rarely combine to form a common theme. Continue reading →
Pakse to Paksong, Xekong, Saravan, Taoy, and Samuoy. And back. 450km – 6 days.
Bike touring, like all things truly worth doing, is not easy. Sometimes, on hard days, the constant hunger and sore butts, the rattling and shaking from rutted tracks, and the realities of living on the road in a foreign culture become difficult to bear. Thoughts of the comfortable life at home creep into your mind. But then you turn the corner to see emerald mountains bathed in the orange glow of sunset, and you realize, for the fifteenth time that day, that bike touring is unmatched. Nothing else can compare to the complete immersion in both landscape and culture that the cyclist’s view affords. This is the ultimate way to travel, and now, after sampling the alternatives, we can say that with complete confidence. Continue reading →