Sunday, December 24, 2006

Part 2: Post Kathmandu

From Tibet to the Tropics
So we're here. Sweating and schvitzing, moist and perspiring. Yup, it's tropical. "Toto, I don't think we’re in Tibet anymore." And it's definitely not China. And how do we know?

We came out of the organic moldiness of Nepal and the chaotic consumerism of Kathmandu to the warm hospitality of the Thai people. Bangkok is more like LA than Thailand, but even there, people were out-of-their-way helpful, and certainly not trying to rip us off at every turn. Well, maybe the tuk-tuk drivers- the three-wheeled motorcycle taxis that lurk at tourist haunts to overcharge their passengers for a thrilling ride through traffic. But most of the merchants asked a fair price and were willing to bargain. We spent six days there, in Bangkok, far longer than we wanted, because we had to wait for an available seat on the train north. We had a relaxing time at the Atlanta Hotel where we met several engaging women: two Swedes returning from Burma where one, a journalist, carried a hidden microphone for the Swedish Public Radio piece she was working on. A mother-daughter Canadian pair in the social work, behavioral medicine fields also became instant friends. Interestingly, 3 of the 4 of them were Jewish. I'd never met a Jewish Swede before. She said there were only 17,000 of them, but they made a lot of noise. She also interviewed me for another piece she was doing on health care. It was fascinating to her to hear about my visit to Bumrungrad Hospital where I underwent a comprehensive physical exam. Why would I make a special trip to Bangkok just to get a check-up? Simple. I'm an American. And since I'm on a leave from my job, I have no health insurance. But not to worry: we may have inadequate health coverage, but we have plenty of weapons of mass destruction.

As relatively nice as Bangkok was with its clean, air conditioned rapid transit, and delicious 50 cent street food, it was nice to finally get out of the city. We threaded the bikes on foot through the congested, humid streets downtown to the main railway station for our overnighter north. The train differed from the Russian and Chinese trains I've traveled on- larger sleeping berth, no free food. We got out before Chiang Mai at Lampang, and headed north on a route that should have taken us to the elephant training camp. At least according to two maps. We started in the wide shoulder lane of Highway 1 before crossing over to the quiet, hilly and winding backroads. A pleasant ride, and 45 kilometers later, we were back in Lampang where we learned that the elephant camp had been moved, to near Chiang Mai, where our tickets were meant to take us in the first place. Highly reminiscent of leaving Kashgar, going in circles. But this time we had consulted the map. At least we had a beautiful tour and then some local men helped us to flag down a bus and reach the night's intended destination, Phayao. We stayed at the locals’ hotel for 4 dollars, en suite. An overhead fan was enough to keep moisture and mosquitoes at bay. Next morning, we caught the bus to Chiang Rai where we started cycling in earnest. We rode the small roads for 82 kilometers, and were able to sleep in a small village bungalow. A shop girl pumping gas from her family's local barrels- atop 50 gallon drums sit three-liter, plastic graduated cylinders into which the fuel is hand pumped and out of which it is gravity fed into vehicular tanks- told us about the guest house. When she had difficulty drawing a map that we'd be able to follow, she said to wait a minute, disappeared, and then returned with a motor bike. She led the way back to our pleasant sleep for the night. The next day, 60 easy kilometers brought us to the border town of Chiang Khong where we could catch the slow boat to Pakbeng, Laos. We over-nighted in this tourist town complete with Mexican food and high-speed internet, in a multi-leveled, old fashioned house made of rich, dark, hardwood planks. It was lavishly furnished with traditional pieces, complete with hammocks and a fountain in the main lobby/guest lounge living room. Spacious, creaky, traditional, and with a large diameter tree growing right through the place- all for about six dollars. The next day, we shuttled to the other side of the river in a long-tailed, outboard motor boat to officially enter the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos, and head downstream on a pleasant, five hour voyage. Loaded with about 120 backpacker tourists and a few locals, we motored downstream, even through some rapids, on a 70-foot long, six foot wide, wooden river boat. The 6-cylinder, diesel motor was attached to a hand-cooled transmission. A teenage boy was no doubt going deaf from his job which was to wet down the old, greasy bath towel which was wrapped around the gear box with water scooped from the bulge with a 1-liter plastic bottle lashed to a three foot long, bamboo pole.

Indian food for dinner, banana pancakes for breakfast, and we were off. Along small roads, banana trees sported bright red flowers, harvested field stubble surrounded the thatched-roof, raised shade platforms scattered throughout the cultivated land. Dog-faced, doe-eared cows ate their fill from the lushness of Chiang Rai province. Back in the saddle again, I was brought back to the last days of Tibet, recalling when I was full of the sense that we were in the theatre but the play was over. The lights were on, but everyone was gone. The stage was empty. The place was cold and abandoned. Even the stones were frozen. In contrast, this was everything easy. People said our route would be hilly. But it seemed to be more down than up. And the wind, when it wasn't at our back, brought a gentle cooling to our untaxed cycling bodies. Coming down from the Tibetan Plateau last month, our first day was more up than down, and always struggling hard against the wind. "This isn't the movie we came to see," I told Chris. You know how you go into a multiplex and a few minutes into the film you realize that you are sitting in the wrong theater? "We're supposed to be seeing The Longest Downhill in the World. This is the wrong movie!" But no mistake in Thailand. It was merrily, merrily, the ride is but a dream. The road was smooth, with a wide enough shoulder. The drivers all seemed to know where they belonged, and stayed there. Chris noticed that we didn’t hear any horns. An occasional gentle toot was just for the wave, the thumbs up, the "good going". Clearly, we had entered another world.

So, how do we know we are not in Tibet? Well the food here is delicious. The air is relatively clean. We are not coated with dust. Our noses aren't runny. There is litter, but no garbage. People have toilets and know how to use them so we don't have to watch where to step. The hotel beds don't have springs protruding and unmentionable dirt in the corners. Children don't try to grab the bikes as we pass.

"People smile here," I said to Chris. It’s really amazing after going so long without. When they say hello and then laugh, it's because their mouths feel giddy from the foreign words, not because they are mocking us.

But the main way we know this isn't Tibet though, is how we are dressed: we are wearing sandals!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hard Earned, Well Done

Going DownTibet SideThe Nepali Side
In a matter of hours, we traveled from dead winter to a cool humid summer; from the sterility of the Tibetan Plateau to the moldy chaos that was Nepal.
Six weeks have passed since we first ascended to the Aksai Chin; barely a word have I written. Can I recall now, the stress, the struggles and ultimately, the sense of accomplishment of that dream, that severe dream, that never-ending emptiness that was the road to Kathmandu?

"You know," I said to Chris, who lay shivering in his sleeping bag next to me on our last night at 4800 meters, before I buried my face in my bag, choking back tears.
"What's the matter?" Chris sounded concerned for me in our fragile environment, our tent hastily erected in the dark, single digit night. We had crossed the last two of the plus-5000 meter passes in a Chinese apple truck, headed to the Nepal border. Although we had paid for a ride about 135 kilometers, the falling darkness alarmed me and I was suddenly possessed with the sense that we should not descend off the Plateau under cover night, in a rattly but warm, orange colored truck. In my desperation to escape the wind, I had lost sight of what was important to me, what I had come for. Besides the opportunity for endless eating- when food was available- I wanted to ride "the longest downhill in the world." I was sure I'd regret this forever, after all the struggle and time it took to get where we were, if we just anti-climatically coasted on in the dark without seeing, without experiencing, without savoring the transition. Chris, on the other hand, had been done with Tibet for weeks, and was ready to take the lift the full 280 kilometers to the Nepali border. But ever agreeable and accommodating, he agreed in the moment to stop the truck and get out, before we'd lost any more precious meters of elevation.
Under the dim beams of our headlamps, with frozen fingers and brilliant stars, we scuffed the ground at the side of the road looking for a place somewhat level and free of large rocks. There'd be no hiding from the wind. The wind which sent us hitching in the first place, scrapping our grand dreams of tackling those last two passes and making the final 7 day stretch from Lhatse to Kathmandu under our own power. The wind which nearly defeated us on our first pass out of Lhatse- a lung-busting, 1200 meter, 31 kilometer climb (after a week below 4000). The climb which started out dreamlike: a paved, moderately graded, smooth new road with a tailwind, but turned into a nightmare as our tailwind turned on us 10 kms from the top and caused us to walk, to stagger dizzy, and to stop and hold our footing when it gusted up to 50 mph. We perservered that day although we never made it to the comfort of an indoor night. We toughed it out in a hasty camp, erected after pedaling hard downhill into the headwind, and managing only 10 kph. No way would we reach Shekgar that day.
We did arrive there the next night, after more battles with wind and the added demon of sand gusts. Sharp grains blasted full force in the face until we'd surrender motionless, pursing lips tight against the grit which tried to find its way into any available crevice. At least the scenery was dramatic. Every turn of the road revealed a changing view of variously hued sandstone peaks with caramel ridges and a brilliant blue sky.
    Ruins Wicked Wind of the West
On the third day after Lhatse, things were no better. Our steady climb was on a deteriorating road- the perfect pavement having ended the day before, and the vistas flattened out into monochromatic hills. The occassional ruins that punctuated the view were not enough to sustain us in face of the relentless and powerful headwind. The Wicked Wind of the West. We hid for an hour in a dry bend of a monsoon drainage, jumping up to hitch at the few passing vehicles while we ate biscuits and our last crisp Chinese apple. Finally we faced the music and got back on the bikes.
So when the orange apple truck came by, neither of us hesitated to pay the $25 dollars the driver wanted to get us away, far away, from this trial of effort. And as we saw the condition of the road- ever sandier from the deposited blow by, ever corrugated as it went up- we were pleased to be riding in our last Chinese truck.
     Bike Up Last Morning on Tibetan Plateau

I couldn't answer Chris, choked up as I was. I could only shake my head.
"Nothing's wrong?"
I shook it again.
"Those are happy tears?" He was confused. I nodded, butI was silent. "Tell me what's going on so I can try to understand."
After a time, I was finally able to explain. "You know, I am so glad that you agreed to get out of the truck," I started. And I went on to tell him how emotional the whole experiece was. Of realizing that we had come to the brink, to the edge, and after this night, we would be coasting down, off the Tibetan Plateau, our home for more than a month and a half. How glad I was to be able to extend the end for one more night, under the billions of stars, in the freezing ruins of our last camp.

Truthfully Tibet
We've Arrived!
What I have to say here are my truthful thoughts about Tibet. I feel a bit remorseful expressing them, because some people will shout at me and tell me that I shouldn't say what I don't know. Well, I admit I know little about the political situation- we heard that jobs go to Chinese, not Tibetans; we met a Tibetan girl schooled in Nepal who was denied the opportunity for university study in Lhasa; we met a Tibetan driver who was not allowed to sleep in the Chinese hotel with his foreign tourists and interpreter - but I do know my impressions and my feelings, and that is what I report here. Of course we met other travelers who felt much differently about all this. But that's them.

So the truth is, we really didn't have a good impression of the Tibetan people. As I wrote previously, smiles were free but hellos cost. A common greeting was, "Hello. Money" Sometimes just, "Give me money." Often people didn't wave with their arm raised and their palm forward. The hand would be out, palm upward. The give-me-money position. Probably the hordes of 4WD tourists who've been passing this way in recent years have felt a compassion or duty to these oppressed people, and have freely haded out small notes of Chinese yuan. But we found it offensive and irritating. And the lack of any hospitality was clearly disappointing. Only once were we offered a cup of tea without strings attached, from two shepherds huddled by their dung fire who invited us to join them for a cup of their salty, yak butter brew. In stinging contrast was the family who housed us for a night when we crested a 5200 meter pass in the toe of a snowstorm to find no descent on the other side.
"How much?" the man asked when he showed me the mattresses in the barn-like room, two skinless animal carcasses hanging above the makeshift beds. We agreed on a price and then he showed us into the family's main room, with a warm fire in the center stove. They were drinking tea which we only were served after Chris fished our own cup out of the bike panniers. Did they really have no extras? Or did they just not want to wash one. It seemed that when their dinner was ready,was when they ushered us out into our quarters. And for the rest of the evening and again the next morning, different family members and neighbors took turns staring at us at a close distance, and after I yelled at the kids and scolded the parents, observed us by flashlight through the window. A most unpleasant night that sent us riding away early, long before any breakfast found its way into our hungry bellies.
It was no better in towns. Being overcharged for everything got old. As did egg fried rice, pork fried rice and noodle soup for breakfast. And on the road- especially on the section between Lhasa and Kathmandu known as the Friendship Highway, we tired of dodging the children playing in the road. Their favorite game was a version of Red Rover. They'd stand holding hands across the road, a form of group Chicken that invited us to aim right at their joined hands. They'd of course, scatter when we didn't swerve away, and then immediately chase us down and try to grab hold of our bikes. Chris would just ride faster and get away. I resorted to using my scary voice, getting off the bike and making threatening sounds. It never quite got to rock throwing, but it did get as bad as rock picking up. One time, I found myself swatting at them. Me! A teacher who actually really likes kids.

To be fair, there were some exceptions. We stayed in a hotel in Sigatse, the last main town before Lhasa, some 260 kilometers to the east, having arrived there hours after dark. We had set out from Lhatse (140 kilometers to the west)early that morning, intending to make the two-day ride in one day by hitching late in the afternoon instead of camping. It was perfect- a goorgeous lake at the top of the small pass, and an empty flatbed truck stopping for our outstretched hand at the 67 km point, where Chris had just fixed a flat. Or so it seemed. The driver's eyes made me suspect. His chain-smoking and freezing wide window opening added to my concern. His eye-rubbing prompted me to suggest he put a cassette in the tape player and turn up the volume. But when the oncoming truck flashed lights at us as we drifted stright towards him, and I saw the driver slumped over the wheel, my cries of, "Wake up! Wake up!" caused Chris and I to look at each other and make a new plan. At the top of the next pass, at the yellow and back road sign indicating a steep descent, we spontaneously told the driver to stop and we got our things out of the flatbed as politely and quickly as possible. Better to ride what we thought would be 37 downhill kilometers in the dusk than to risk rolling off the road into the great beyond. The driver was very confused. But we were certain, and we quickly dressed for the evening descent. Which turned out to be mostly uphill after we came off the pass. As we were headed east, we had the long glowing sunset behind us. And when it became truly night, we had the luck of a road recently paved and newly striped. Chris was able to follow the white line, and I was able to follow his rear pannier reflectors. We rode in synch, he blocking the (of course) headwind and leading the blind through the night. Approaching the town of Sigatse, illuminated in the plain below us as we crested the last of the climb, I occassionally had to stop to regain my balance. Without visual reference to passing grass and trash on the roadside, I found riding downhill in the dark to be a perceptual challenge. We arrived to a lighted strip and began the task of trying to find a hotel in Chinese in the dark without a guidebook or a map. Following successive pedestrians' kind directions, we were on a promising street when we asked a soldier standing by his fuel tank truck. As we couldn't quite understand each other, he chose another way to explain. "Follow me," he indicated, and he jumped into the tanker and fired it up. Only 400 meters down the road he pulled over and waited on the street with Chris until I had the chance to check out the rooms and he knew we were satisfied with the hotel. The young woman administrator, a Tibetan girl who knew some English, proved to be one of the exceptional people we met. Not only did she give us a refund after we paid the agreed upon discounted price when we checked out the first time, and let us leave our cycles in a staff bedroom for the three days we went to Lhasa and back, by bus. Now only that, but she opened herself to us so that we really felt the friendship. We stayed there again for one more night after returning from the Tibetan capital. And when she saw me scraping the last of the lipscreen out of the tube, she ran next door and bought me a delicious smelling, Chinese lip gloss as a gift. This kind of encounter was truly appreciated. But it was not enough.
I guess in the end, it was like Chris said- he was tired of having to fight for everything. Fighting the wind, the cold, the dust, the wind. Fighting for a fair price, for correct change. Fighting harassment by everyone wanting a handout. Fighting altitude. Fighting sand and washboard roads. Fighting for every meter of forward progress. Even fighting hunger and discouragement. We fought the good fight. But as we went down and down, off the plateau; as the sight of green returned, and the scent of vegetation came towards our ancient smellbrains; we reawoke to the land of the living.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Images From The Road

Here are a few photos from the road. You can see more pictures on flickr at

Going Up

Hoodlums?   Man on Road
Pushing It    My Common ViewFun Descent 照片 105 Sansung Detail Hor Chu Laundry

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Saga of Saga

Top of the Kailash Kora
October 31; Saga, Tibet.
Happy Halloween. The five French Canadians in the hotel are ready with costumes, but I might miss my favorite holiday since there are two competing interests this evening: having my first shower and shampoo in two weeks when the hot water comes on between 7 and 10 pm; or sleeping before cycling tomorrow morning to help me make it the 60 or more kilometers it might take to reach an indoor sleeping site. Because I didn't sleep much last night, crammed in the back row of a stinky short bus with four other travelers riding with 15 other Chinese citizens, most of whom smoked through the night, "resting" against the ice-encrusted window, trying to keep from freezing beneath a PRC army coat. But at least we arrived in one piece this morning, scraped the centimeter of dust off the bikes and settled into a fairly snazzy $15 hotel room with hot water for three hours each night.
The past two weeks have been full of ups and downs. I wrote little more than a list of topics to cover, because for some reason, Tibet muzzles its pilgrims. So here are a few of the thoughts that reverberated through my troubled mind during the past fortnight.

Frying and Freezing
The thing you notice when you travel east in October on the Tibetan Plateau is My Left Foot. That's the one that perpetually rides in the shadow of the front panniers and never wants to warm up during the day. The right foot is quite comfortable, full sunshine penetrating the worn canvas of the the old summer hiking boots. In fact, the sun innudates all parts on the right side, as that is the direction of south. You can't really say that it all evens out- the right ear, the right cheek, withering and burning if you don't continually reapply sunscreen. Part of the challenge of the road.

No One in SIghtIMG_1672Too Frequent

If It's Not
If it's not the cold, it's the headwinds. If it's not the headwinds, it's the dust. If it's not the dust, it's the sand. If it's not the sand, it's the gravel. If it's not the gravel, it's the washboard. If it's not the washboard, it's the gradient. If it's not the gradient, it's the altitude. If it's not the altitude, it's the cold... That's on the road.
In the tent. If it's not the smelly feet, it's the stinky gas. If it's not the gas, it's the B.O. If it's not the B.O. it's the garlic breath. If it's not the breath, it's the feet. Part of the acceptance of the trip.

Dogs, Doo-Doo, Human Excrement and Garbage: This is Tibet?
It has been hard to come to terms with what we see every day here. Disillusionment with some mythical anticipation of what Tibet would be. Prayers wheels, stupas, gompas, bells and colors on women's thick woolen garments, sweeping skyscapes. Yes, those things are to be seen. But more impressive, albeit in a very negative way, is the refuse everyhwere and the lack of concern of those who deposit it.
I'd heard of the vicious dogs present in Tibet. Well, canines are abundant, especially around the ubiquitous garbage heaps that punctuate every village road and path, but even the feeblest three year old is adept at tossing stones which these pups abruptly heed. Even waving your arm or growling at them causes thes four-legged creatures to take their tails away with them. Of course their doo doo remains. But this is of little consequence. When walking in the open- and here it is mostly open- you quickly learn to train your eyes and plot your path carefully. Yak and sheep and the occasional goat turd is not the least bit of a nuisance, especially as it often warms your sleeping room in a sweet-smelling heat stove fire. So avoiding the dogs' waste is second nature. And when nature calls, they tend to move off to an untrod place. Not so, the humans. Inexplicably, the local poplulation finds it appropriate to stop and squat in any and every place. And if they do decide to use the constructed facilities, they leave their deposits anywhere near or about the intended hole, making it nearly impossible to find safe footing to correctly aim yourself. If you dare enter these public facilities. And so you likely also head out to anyplace you dare to do your business. Feeling more animal and criminal than human and wondering how people can be so casual and unashamed.

Ali Full of Cyclists
That is the heading that Rich, the green card carrying Slovakian encaptioned a recent photo on his fantastic website ( of several late season riders on the 219, as the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is labeled, whom we first met him in Gilgit, Pakistan, at the end of our time there. In addition to Rich, nearing the end of his 6-month circa Himalya solo sojourn, is Nikolai the Dane who befell an unfortunate fate when he fell, alone before the crest of a 5160 meter pass and seriously injured his right hand. A sleepless, freezing and scary night sent him hitching to Ali where we met him for the first time, a few days later. He'd already heard of us from John, the kitchen-sink carrying Bostonian who combines hitching and cycling in a generous way. He makes Americano coffee and shares his oreos with good humor and kindness. He rolled into Ali on the bus which he'd flagged down en route, black-faced with diesel soot and cigarette smoke. And then there were the unstoppable French, Delphie and Ivan, who start riding at first light each day, and only stop for breakfast when the sun has climbed to a warming height in the sky- just about when Chris and I would be eating in the tent. It was great camraderie to meet with others at the winter-end of the Tibet season. And for the past two weeks we have been leap-frogging and reconnecting as we ride at our different paces or sometimes hitch to the same places.

Kailash Dawn
Mt. Kailash

Clearly the high point, both literally (5660 meters) and figuratively, the walk around this holy and significant peak. It is near the headwaters of four of Asia's most important rivers. And Tibetans believe that circling this massif brings blessings proportional to the number of circuits. For me, it was a beautiful a nd quiet time in the clear air, surrounded by colored flags which create prayers as they flutter in the wind.

From Darchen to Saga
About 500 kilometers. 10 days riding or maybe 2 hitching. After our trek around Kailash, we decided we would just ride east for one day, because there was a village (read warm (?), indoor beds with no need for tents or campstoves in the wind) just 42 kms. away. After that, we would hitch to Saga where villages would then be spaced just a day's ride apart. It's not that we don't like sleeping on our inflatable Thermarest mattresses and eating instant noodles three times a day. Well, maybe we don't love that stuff. But our tent zippers are failing and the stove is very tempermental and the winds are wicked cold and the scenery, while beautiful, varies only slowly. And more importantly, the very few villages we passed through were mostly run-down, small, and not the best place to meet new people or make local friends. Better get going and get to a more southern locale. So we set out for our one day of riding. Less than a kilometer on the bumpy morning road, and a dump truck came by. Chris made an instant decision and within an hour we bounced into Hor Chu, having collected the Dane on the way, who got about 8 kilometers out of Darchen. We spent the rest of the day hitching, which is how we realized it was very unlikely anyone would pick us up. That evening, at the Chinese restuarant which would be our home for the next 5 days (we slept in comfy beds in the "motel" in the back), our hosts told us a bus would come. It came the next day, going the wrong way, but we paid a deposit and waited til the day after tomorrow for it to get us. Well, it broke down somewhere on the way back, and it was only on the 5th day the we finally got to spend a jarring, freezing, sleepless night on the way to Saga.

Waiting, Day 3 The Bus is Here!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Road to Ali

4980 meters

The Road to Ali

The road to Ali has been long, high, difficult, cold and full of compromise. The day of reckoning came on October 11th when we crossed the 5190 meter Khitai Pass. The ibuprofen I had taken in the morning to reduce the shoulder-neck pain that I'd been having had worn off, and I was greeted at the top by a wicked headache. The lowest point we could reach that day- and for the next 10 days- was 4830. We past an icy, sleepless night in a sort of foxhole campsite. The temperature was in the single digits (Farenheit) and my years old REI down bag was rated just to +20. I resolved to end it there. Not my life, but my riding. Ahead of us were four more passes each over 5000 meters. Probably we would have been safe, but I was unwilling to face the lack of oxygen and the lack of thermal units. We rode and camped one more day, as the elevation increased very little there, and we had a long and difficult discussion as to what to do. It was unfair to rob Chris of the chance to cycle over the highest passes in western Tibet. I was prepared to hitch 260 kilometers to the town of Domar at 4380, and wait for him to join me. We slept one more night, our tent erected inside a deserted Mao era building, serenaded by Tibetan Mastif Ducks. By morning, Chris had resolved to keep the team together, and we began a 3-day hitch that carried us 450 kilometers over the four high passes, and to this well-supplied, Tibetan town of Ali.

Our First Hitch   too common

Our rides were with Muslim Uighurs, Hui Muslim Chinese, and Han Chinese. We rode in a fuel truck, a coal truck, and a road construction electrician's truck. We slept at night in simple dormitories, and ate our fill after dark, as our Muslim benefactors were observing Ramadan, and we were reluctant to eat in front of them.
It was painful to enter Tibet in a vehicle, although it would have hurt worse to ride through the snow and sleep so cold and high. It was especially crushing on the second day, when our truck drove us around the shores of the beautiful Pangong Tso Lake, bordering India. The day was pleasant, the water was turquoise, the road was inviting and we were in a vehicle.

But it was a pleasure to be protected in the work truck with the electrician when we passed through 60 kilometers of hellacious wind and sandstorms in the long stretch of eroded road construction. Our driver, the electrician, stopped to do some work, and during our 3 hours of waiting, we helped erect an insulated canvas tent, and looked around at the rock crushing equipment. But mostly we snacked and read, well protected in the thin metal hull of the truck.
Now we are filling our last hours of civilization with internet, errands and shopping. Tomorrow we head out with a Danish guy as we join forces on the way to Mount Kailash, nearly 300 kms distant. Beyond that it's another 500 to Saga at the intersection of the Friendship Highway- the road to Nepal. Our plan is to ride to Kathmandu, but before that, to visit Sigatze and Lhasa before back-tracking to Saga. I have found some warm additions to my sleeping bag, and so with these reinforcements, we hope that the cold won't deter us again.

Leaving AliLeaving Ali

Two Weeks Ago
More than halfway to Ali and I really haven't written anything. I haven't had a voice. This part of the trip since leaving Kashgar- I'll have to tell you about that comedy of errors later (Four left turns brings you right back to start!)- has been very inward. Clearly, Xinjiang has not been about culture or people or scenery. It's about challenge. And acceptance.
The places we have been riding for the past 800 kilometers have been high, cold, desolate. The roads, when we finally left the crazy-making, horn blowing, dust spewing, speeding trucks flying over the asphalt, have deteriorated into corrugated washboard littered with gravel and sand, sometimes deep. The passes, and there are a dozen on the way to Ali alone, have gradually increased in elevation. Tomorrow is our first one over 5000 meters, as we cross onto the Aksai Chin Plateau and meet some of our greatest altitude in western Tibet: 5440 meters.
Today is our 22nd day of riding without a break. That's also how many days since my last shampoo. I've gotten good at bathing out of a one liter hot water bottle. Last night we actually slept inside in a warm dormitory in the last town before this next 188 kilometer stretch without a village. There were about 25 very friendly soldiers watching China Cable Television and feasting on delicious hot plates prepared for them by the efficient husband and wife proprietors. Maybe it was some sort of R+R- after dinner and CCTV, they left around 9 pm. Chris and I ordered five plates of food for the two of us- plus rice- a typical cyclist's dinner portion. And if our cookstove ever starts working again, we'll reheat the few leftovers for tonight's dinner.
We are holed up at 4680 meters, in an abandoned road matintenance station, 24 kilometers below 5190 meter Khitai Pass. As there is no water for 31 kms past here, we plan to cross tomorrow and sleep at a spring at 4930. As you see, life these days has become very mathemeatical. We take care not to go too high in one day so we have time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen in the air.
There have been days when I think repeatedly: there is nothing else I'd rather be doing; there is no place I'd rather be; there is no one else I'd rather be with.

Two Weeks Before That
It's an island here, Kashgar, for me. Coming back for the second time, we know our way around around, sort of. How and where to cross the streets. Where to get a godd lunch. How to get to the bank, the bike shop, the supermarket. How much a slice of melon costs. And the names of the key hotel staff. It has also been cooler than when we first arrived din August, so we've been able to enjoy our days and haven't had to suffer from hot, sleepless nights. But more than the familiarity, Kashgar is a respite from the vigilant state required when traveling in the Muslim world of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, pakistan. Of course, the Uighur Autonomous Republic is also predominately peopled by Muslims, but here it is tempered by the Republic of China. Here I can comfortably walk around in a tank top, and could even wear shorts if I wanted to. We did meet one young shopkeeper who that the Taliban is good and Bush is bad. We agreed with him on the latter, but couldn't on the former. We looked elsewhere for yogurt next time. But the point is, it is a relaxing moment for us, poised between the world of the "stans and the forbidden lands ahead.
With cyclists daily depating "east" as we are calling it, we can only believe that we will be successful as we aim for the 5000 meter high plateau. With enough to eat, proper clothin, sufficient knowledge, a comprehensive medical kit, cleaned and tuned cycles, rested and trained bodies, we are in a positive position for success.
Of course, it is not guaranteed. Riders have died on this route- from stubborness or ignorance. Others have been hurt. We hope to be prudent and deliberate in our actions and decisions. We are willing to go only 20 kms in a day if the altitude warrants. We are also resolved to make our progress. We are experienced in cold environments. And we have the prayers of many of the faithful supporting us. Enshalla, we will arrive at our destination healthy and glad, if a little bit lean.
With cyclists daily depating "east" as we are calling it, we can only believe that we will be successful as we aim for the 5000 meter high plateau. With enough to eat, proper clothin, sufficient knowledge, a comprehensive medical kit, cleaned and tuned cycles, rested and trained bodies, we are in a positive position for success.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

21 Days in Pakistan

We are still searching for our purpose here in this country. Maybe the value of our time here isn't to collect astounding photos or make lifelong friends. Chris may have nailed it last night when he said that maybe the reason we are here isn't for us at all. Maybe it's for you. So that as your eyes and ears we can tell you what you see here- that this is not a country to fear. That the people are warm and friendly. They are kind towards us. They practice their religions diligently and take seriously hospitality to strangers. People were eager to meet us, and when they learned that we were Americans, they were accepting of us, patient to listen, and understanding of the fact that the citizens are not the government.

Day 15

The scenery is compelling. So it's hard to admit I am getting tired of terraced fields on the steep mountainsides with corn, wheat, potatoes and beans, forming tidy geometric patterns on the irrigated alluvial fans streaming wide at the mouths of deep canyons: twenty captivating shades of green leveled against the sandy, tan, grey and brown stones slopes that are the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, the Himalaya. Farther north, the views are punctuated with the drama of crisp, peaks, all far higher than Mt. McKinley, soaring more than 4 miles up to pierce the sky. Down here,all is dusty, coated with the dryness four rainless months have brought. Only the glaciers still flow, feeding the fields through an ingenious system of high canals, bringing water from the frozen sky to the roots of every plant. It is beautiful. But I am jaded.
There is only so much scenery to see. You adapt quickly, so what is jawdropping and rubber necking, soon becomes a familiar backdrop and you want more. But I think we bit off more than we could chew.
We somehow sidestepped the careful planning that has gone into our trip, and set off with our bikes to cover about three weeks worth of touring in only eight days. We expected to hitch segments of the route- to save time, to pass more quickly through areas we were cautioned against, to avoid riding up the most rocky and steepest sections. But we didn't expect to be hit with such debilitating diarhrea that has taken its toll in forward progress, with time on the bench. So last night, in our flea and bedbug inhabited hotel in the very charming town of Chitral, we had a late planning session. It became clear that our options were three: rush on by vehicle to complete our intended loop through Dir, Swat,and Kohistan; delay our push-off to Tibet by a week, starting around September 20; or enjoy some time at the Kalash Valleys and then return by jeep the way we came. It seems as if the third will be our chosen alternative.
Some of the sections I wouldn't want to repeat, such as where the road is winding and narrow and rocky, scratched right into the rock wall and hanging precariously over the edge of a deep gorge below. I especially don't like when other overloaded jeeps come at us and someone has to back up to allow room for two vehichles to pass. But the latter parts, getting closer to Gilgit, were so beautiful, they returned to my sleeping dreams. Picturesque villages along a bouncy, blue-green river. The essence of summer, with relaxing sandy river beaches and the king of roads with downhill, smooth pavement. If we have to go back, it won't be so bad.

What Are We Doing in Pakistan?
Here it is, 10 days into our time here, and I am feeling apprehension and dissatisfaction. We are riding and hitching a great distance in a short time, making a loop through several of the Northern Areas: Ghizer, Chitral, Dir, Kohistan, Swat, but not having any real contact with locals; riding through emptier places than we expected; and being in much more of a hurry than any other time in these two months. Our purpose here is elusive.
In Kygyzstan, clearly it was about experiencing the environment and everything in it- nomads, sheep, horses, yurts, flowers and the color green; enjoying activities: hiking, mountain biking, horsetrekking; and visiting friends and favorite places. Tajikistan, for us, in contrast to the stony, barren and silent landscape, was about hospitality: tea, lunch, overnighting, weddings, hotsprings - people bringing us into their homes and lives. China was all about riding; transit through empty spaces, from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan, from Pakistan beyond. And China was about good food. We like eating in the Peoples Republic. But what are we doing in Pakistan?
I am sitting in the morning tent in Shandur Pass, site of the world's highest polo grounds, all but deserted in this early fall season, save the few soldiers in the barracks behind the small mounds to our east, and the yaks grazing nearby to the west. Chris is trying to cook our corn mush and date breakfast on the last of the bad Tajik fuel which we bought from a five gallon bucket in Murgab. I am typing away, trying to make sense of my time here in Pakistan.
We entered the country with some difficulty. The Chinese bus we boarded in Kashgar, we expected to get off of at top of Kunjerab Pass to ride the 86 downhill kilometers to the border town of Sust. But the Chinese driver refused to let us out. He claimed that about a month ago he had let two other foreign cyclists off at the pass so they could ride down. When he arrived in Sust without them, he was made to go back and retrieve them. I doubted his story. When we arrived at Immigration, I lodged a complaint against him. He was brought in to the chief and told that he should have let us out. It helped that it was a misty, drizzly day with poor visibility and a slick, broken road. But it was already done.
We had already arrived in a town of men. Only traders, hoteliers, cooks, shopkeepers, barbers and chicken-killers - there are fresh birds everywhere to be bought, feathered or plucked - were to be seen on the streets where we spent our first night in Pakistan. All dressed in the baggy pajama-style shalwar kamiz, which is local dress for men; Chitrali hats, wool caps with a rolled brim; and facial hair consisting at a minimum, of a moustache.
I'm wondering. Originally the plan was to take two weeks riding on the Karakoram Highway (KKH), stopping off at the great places along the way in the Northern Areas, ending down in the the town of Gilgit, as I had done nine years before. We moved quickly, and had five great, scenery-filled days of high activity and elevated moods by the time we reached there.

On the third day in country, Chris got the chance to cross one of the famous and freaky suspension bridges near Passu. I couldn't bring myself to do it again, and was content to play photographer. Early that evening we arrived in Karimabad, the tourist capital of Hunza, where we met Mercedes and Enrique, Spanish-speaking cyclists into their fifth month on the road. We relaxed there, did some tourist shopping, paid too much for dried apricots and would have paid too much for walnut cake and Hunza museli too, if the power hadn't been out for the past two days.
The next day, we had a late afternoon ride through winding village roads, through the frenetic strip of business that was AliAbad, to the pleasant village of Minapin. The hotel at the top of the hill hadn't changed much: the apple trees were thicker and there was a new high-end wing on the hotel. There was a new proprietor, although the previous one was around, and we remembered each other and the tea and chips (thick cut fries) were as good as ever. Only the welcome had changed. Four kilometers back, begining at the turnoff to the village, was a barrage of signs on walls, stones, buildings, bridges. Down With The USA. Kill Bush. Crush Israel. It seems recent events in Lebanon had provoked this outcry. This did not reflect our experience anywhere else, as we were often greeted by children giving us pears, teenagers grapes, men apricots, grandmothers apples, to welcome us to the country. Likewise, some group is responsible for painting other signs on stones: Love Nature, Educate Your Children. Peace is Wealth. Help the Tourist.

We had our best day so far, trekking 4000 feet to the Rakaposhi Base Camp. I had hiked to this 12,000 foot lookout before, but it had been snowing, so when I got to the viewpoint I saw only the sharp jagged teeth of the glacier below. This time, we emerged on the ridgetop in full afternoon sun to a rising wall of snow and ice full in our view. We giggled and laughed at the crisp blue sky and clean white faces rising another 12,000 feet above us to their 7740 meter heights.On the fifth day, we struggled in the heat and arrived in the hectic, crowded, trafficky city of Gilgit, just at the close of dusk, after 92 mostly smooth, uphill and downhill kilometers. The Madina Hotel was a welcome garden haven in the midst of the madness. The owner Yakoov, is a gentle, practicing Ismaili Muslim man. His ethics and demeanor were inspirational. An added joy was the reunion with Karim, a local man still affiliated with the hotel that I had kept in touch with sporadically since we first met in 1997. He was able to bring deep insight into the local culture and politics.So, five great days in Pakistan. And then what? Armed with Mercedes’ suggestions and trip notes, we decided to spend the next 10 days on this counter-clockwise loop, exploring some new and reportedly friendly regions in the North West Frontier Province. Two days into it, why am I so unhappy?
"I don't want to do this anymore," I cried, curled up on the the ground, sucking warmth from the dirt, hiding from the wind behind a big rock, hiding from the reality that I was somewhere in northern Pakistan and just wanted to be done with all this. Sobbing, I was really wondering why I thought I could do this bike trip in the first place, and how I was going to get out of cycling across Tibet. "It's too hard. I have no energy. I'm too lazy. I can't do this."
"It's OK to have a bad day," Chris soothed. "You can cry if it makes you feel better." Chris brought me a drink and the crumbly yellow pad to rest on. He was treating me so kindly, despite my ineptness, I felt even worse: weak, lazy and undeserving . I had really wanted to make the 48 kilometers to the top of Shandur Pass. We'd only gone half the distance but I knew that I was finished. All I wanted to do was lay down with the last pages of the novel I'd finally cracked and read until sleeping at the early failure of light, now around 7pm. Just then a vehicle came by.It would have been one thing if I were really sick. Raging fever. Vomiting. Then I could easily justify getting off the bike and into a Landrover. Sure, my stomach was queasy and noisy and caused me little appetite resulting in poor nutrition and lack of fuel. Too, I had a bit of a tickle in my throat and too much mucus in my lungs. The dramatic drop in barometric pressure, replacing blazing sun with clouds and coolness, and maybe a bit of hormonal deficiency- I guess these things were all contibutors as well as maybe road fatigue. A bit of apprehension travelling to slightly questionable areas. Maybe a sense of disingenuousness at travelling so far and cycling so little. to my lassitude. But I couln't excuse myself for my poor performance.
The driver took us to the top of the pass, site of the world's highest polo grounds. Mercedes raved about the place, saying you could spend days there just relaxing. We found it a bit bleak and uninviting even though there were tall mountains and it was very quiet. We later learned that early July is the green season when the place was crawling with national tourists. We got the tent up in the cold wind, and Chris prepared a macaroni soup with the last of our Kyrgyz dried tomatoes. We had mistakenly left most of our food in China when we set off for this brief Pakistani holiday, so we had very little of interest to eat. But we had arrived at our resting place for the night, Shandur Pass, where I retired early with The Life of Pi. Catastrophe averted, and we are on track again.

It was a delightful and rewarding descent from the top of the pass into the village of Laspur. Not for the first time I was glad that I have a mountain biking background, as it was actually a somewhat technical descent. In fact, we met a medical French couple in the Kalash valley, several months into their two and a half year world bike tour, and Chloe remarked that it was a very difficult ride down for her. We thought it was great fun. Well, maybe Chris wasn't so thrilled after he realized that the thunk he'd heard was his water bottle flying out of its cage, and he had to run back uphill retrieve it.As we contined along the rock strewn, dusty road, there was a sudden reversal of fate as Chris sought rapid relief, at first behind the cover of large boulders, and eventually just anywhere off the bike. Our progress slowed as we neared the village of Mastuj, happy to rest early in the Merecdes recommended hotel. What she failed to indicate was the four kilometer climb to the village proper, up a steep, loose gravel bed, and up some steep, sandy sections. During the next 24 hours, Chris managed to find relief a total of 30 times. I guess that qualified as severe diarrhea, warranting a course of Ciproflaxcin.
It also warranted an unscheduled layover, the bright side being that our hotel proprietor invited us to join him at a neighbor's son's wedding the next afternoon.
It's hard to understand, but as in Tajikistan we were treated as special guests. Festivities were already underway when we arrived to the big tent in the neighbors' yard. We were ushered across the central clearing, stepping through the ring of men and boys, five deep on the perimeter, and given three of the very scarce chairs to sit on, which were vacated by less worthy souls. In the center, in turn, small boys and then grown men danced- solo, or just a few at a time, while the males forming the ring clapped to the rhythms of the paid musicians. Where, you may ask, were the women ? Well, some of the girls were peering over the back of the courtyard wall, close to the home where they were relegated. But for the most part, all the females were crowded into the house and courtyard, away from the men, away from the music, away from the central celebration.

We witnessed this because when they saw our cameras, the hosts asked us to come to the house and photgraph the bride and groom. I was glad to be able to interact with the grandmas and the girls. But I was baffled at the men's idea of a good time. At least in Tajikistan, the men got to dance with the women, and the women got to show off their finest for the men. This day was the beginning of dismay for me at the intensely patriarchal society that prevails in much of the area we visited.
Our stay at the wedding was relatively brief, as the dancing ended and heaping plates of pilu (rice pilaf with mutton and carrot) were served. They specially placed us at a table with chairs, and even brought us spoons, as food is traditionally eaten with washed hands. Just as fast as they were fed, everyone filed out or the yard, to return in the evening for the real party. We opted for a decent night's sleep so we could be on our way in the morning.
By jeep. The next day we were in Chitral. By the time we had been to the Kalash and back, we were ready to head back to Gilgit. It was joyous to cycle again along the Ghizer River. Gemstone aquamarine blue green water under the cacaphonously clashing azure heavens. Armies of school girls bouncing home in their sky blue or turquoise green shawls, separate from the troops of boys in their gay blue, button down collar shirts.
"How are you? We are fine. What is your name?" Shy giggles and smiles and a bold girl daring to speak English out loud to the foreigners. The same in every village. The same passing each of the many schools.

The Kalash

If you've heard of them, you know thatthey are some Other People living in a remote valley in northwestern Paskistan. The women wear black cotton dresses, heavily embroidered at the shoulders and hem, and tied with a broad, bright, handwoven belts of hot pink or bright orange color. Their necks are draped with 50 or more strands of yellow and orange bead strings. A top their heads are a too-small beaded crown with varieties of metals bells, plastic buttons and white seashells added to make intricate patterns with strong, bright beads. An 8-inch wide tail trails down from the center of this crown, three more pounds of trinkets beaded into a continuation of the headband. These head pieces are balanced on theskull, resulting in excellent posture among these girls and women. They are trained to wear them beginning around the age of three. Their bangs are long and combed forward, and then braided into three different width plaits right at the front crown. These long tails are then turned and pulled back behind the head to trail below their headdresses. The rest of their hair is cut very short.
Begining at seven years old, girls get their first tattoos- simple stars, circles, crosses and dots - on the forehead, the left cheek, the chin, the right. They marry young and live with their families in slate and log houses- rectangular, dark, and seemingly suspended among the cliffs.
They are farmers, growing grain and beans and vegetables. The are arborists with walnut, pear,apple and other stone fruit fruits. And they are enologists, making wine.
An enclave in a Muslim land, they have their own culture and society. They are friendly and welcoming to strangers. And in the warm months they receive many. Not only foreign tourists make the journey out to this distant valley, but local Pakistani tourists come out, especially young Muslim men. For where else can they drink their fill freely of wine when they live in the dry province of the Northwest Frontier?
We got a ride back to Chitral town with one such carload of 2nd year engineering students from a village four hours away. One seemed comatose in the front, another riddled with head pains in the back. They insisted the driver was sober, but an hour into the ride I was eager to change vehicles, so when the students stopped for a short break, I flagged down another car and we quickly piled in to a gasoline fume saturated jalopy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
We had had an overnight stay in the valley of the Kalash. Not enough time to get to know the people or their animist religion, but enough time to take pictures, teach a girl to juggle, and teach an 8th grade class about my home state and its animals. After the vocabulary-geography-art lesson was over and we opened it up for questions, there was just one. A confident boy in the back asked, Why is America so harsh towards Muslims?"

Tidbits and Snippets

Four in Ten
Four countries in the past ten days.Maybe that's why I've become so grumpy. Adjusting to four different kinds of food, money, roads, languages, time zones and activity levels.

Pakistani Chicken 1
I wondered what those empty cages were for. they looked like bird cages.
and so they were. empty between deliveries. filled by trucks from rawlipindi. emptied one by one as customers chose a dinner bird.
plucked or feathered?
at least you know the meat is fresh.

Pakistani Chicken 2
some people take their half out of the middle,
and so it goes with Pakistani drivers.
narrow roads,
sometimes winding
and hanging above bottomless gorges.
nevertheless, the driver holds his ground in the center of the road,
often horn blowing a warning to potential oncomers behind blind corners,
but rarely moving aside for the eventuality of meeting.
when the opponent appears it's a game of nerves:
who moves left wheels off to the gravel side
and who keeps all four tires centered on the pavement?

Pakistani Chicken 3
it's a chitrali specialty, chicken karai.
chopped, marinated in masala, bone-in chunks of chicken
are added to a small, hot wok, rich
with sizzling garlic, fresh tomato and unnameable curry blends.
served with fresh, hot chapati.
when it's good,
there's nothing tastier.

Pakistani Chicken 4
call to prayer to the followers
followed by the call to layers by the cock.
the imam, the rooster
sing the pre-dawn serenade.
no oversleeping for this flock.

Pictures unwritten
If Kyrgyzstan is nomads, horses, sheep and green; Tajikstan rocky, barren, hospitality; then Pakistan is vertical canals, terraced landscape, 8000 meter peaks.

These are pictures I didn't take:
Having a Smoke with Friends
four men in bright clean shalwar kamiz,
sitting in the full, late afternoon sun,
as I flew past, downhill, to the highway center of AliAbad.

Petro Hydrology
water running running uphill
in canals
impossibly high
on the mountainside, collecting
glacial runoff, transporting it to life.
irrigation ways. stone works:
skinny steps up alongside the cascade down.

full ripe pumpkins suspended
by sturdy vines over
the edge of the terrace wall.

piled high, top-heavy,
trucks wobble under the arms and legs of a dozen men and boys,
clinging to the frame, perched on the sacks,
riding kamikaze on the front bumper.
daring transport on one-lanetracks,
coated with dust
glowing in the afternoon sun

a lone cow
tried to a shady tree
in the middle of an empty terrace.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Riding the Mysterious KKH

Chris Writes

Beware the Boys on the Road
Entering Pakistan, I had been warned of the children; particularly the
boys who at times enjoy throwing rocks at cyclists as they roll by.
Cycling into the village of Passu, we encountered two boys sitting
atop a wall several meters above the road. The boys waved and yelled
”Hello!” though, as we passed them, we heard the unquestionable sound of
small stones hitting the pavement behind our wheels. The both of us
immediately turned around, rode back and yelled at the boys. Once
Sage picked up a softball sized rock and asked how they would like to
be the target, the two young lads realized we ment business and
quickly left their lofty post and ran for the cover of trees.

The following day, as we cycled through a small village, four young
boys who were dilligently working beside the road sprinted ahead of us
and to our horror picked up large sticks. We quickly assumed our
positions but to our surprise, two boys started beating the trees while
the other two collected the apples mid-air as they fell. Enthusiastic
and hardly able to contain their eagerness, the boys ran to the road’s
edge, and with outstretched hands offered us more apples than we had
space for.

Several days later, while riding through the tight, stone wall lined
streets of Minapin we encountered 10 or 12 boys playing a game of
cricket. Once we were spotted, the boys came running, shouting any
English word that came to mind. We were soon besieged. With their
bright eyes transfixed on our dust covered bicycles and their questions
being asked with so much enthusiasm, we were afraid that a few of them
might explode from excitement. After a lightning round of questioning
the boys then dug deep into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of
uncracked walnuts, insisting we take every last one.

Then there was the afternoon when, as we slowly climbed a small hill
before another village, some young men in a white car sped by yelling
something inaudible out the window. Once I got to the top of the hill
and started coasting down, the same car, now parked on the side of the
road, waited for me to pass and slowly drove next to me. Not sure what
to expect, I tried to keep my distance but with a rock wall on one
side and the car on my other there was not much room to negctiate.
After a long minute, the passenger stuck his head and
offered a polite greeting followed by an enormous handful of ripe
grapes. As quickly as the car had sped by several minutes ago, it
took off and was gone again. Again several kms down the road we
encountered the car and its occupants, on the side of the road and
again more grapes were thrust in our faces. This time the passenger
needed another to help with the load of grapes. With smiles and
profuse "thank you's" we moved on.
The warnings we had received before entering Pakistan about the boys
on the roadside rang true, except we never expected to run out of
storage space for the gifts that were given so freely and with so much

Modes of Transportation
Shortly after entering Pakistan you begin to see several types of
transportation typically used. For one, the motorbikes that scream
by, blearing their horns and carrying three grown men make any tourist
look twice and wince. The mass appeal of the small motorcycle can
only be understood once one travels through the country, with its
hellacious dirt roads, narrow alleys or roads so rutted that even four
wheel drive vehicles find it hard to pass, the motorcycle fills a
special nitch. Following the motorcycle, large 10 passenger jeeps or
mini-busses dot the landscape. These vehicles almost always are jam
packed with passengers on the inside and whom ever could not fit
inside is now sitting, hanging or somehow magically attached to the
outside. At times, 4 or 5 grown men sit on top of an over loaded
jeep's roof rack while another 6 hang off its rear bumper and for the
completely desperate, the front bumper is usually free and quite
available. Moving up the scale of motor vehicles one sees the large
and always highly decorated Pakistani trucks. With intricate, hand
painted decorations costing upwards of $15,000, these truck drivers are
serious about their 6 wheeled, rolling beasts. These trucks usually
sport not only beautiful landscape and flower designs but also have
hanging reflectors high above the cab and what seems like thousands of
small bells hanging from chains below the bumpers. The drivers are
usually curteous and always proud to show off their rides. These
trucks are usually grossly overloaded with burlap sacks full of
potatoes, wheat or what ever agricultural crop is in season, heading
south for richer markets.

Stationary Store on Wheels
While cycling through Pakistan one always encounters children, either
on their way to school, home or working in the fields. Passing by,
children usually stop what they are doing, wave, yell hello or come
running. By our third day in Pakistan we started encountering a few
children, in the small villages, that as they ran to the edge of the
road would scream "Hello, one pen, Hello, one pen". We would always
greet them and tell them we had no pens to give. By the fourth or
fifth day the greeting of many of the children changed from "Hello,
one pen" to "One Pen", "Pen please" or even "Give me pen". One
ingenious little boy started out with "One pen" and as we rolled by
the quantity of pens he was asking for increased with every meter
traveled. The last I could hear of him he was asking for "Five pen".
In the beginging, as the one pen chant was so new to us we disregarded
it as just an unusual greeting a few kids were using. But as we rode
further south the mantra of one pen became such a common sound and
nusiance, chanted over and over, with the kids running beside us
yelling at the top of their lungs that we started to devise plans on
how to divert or end the pleading early. Finally, as one over
enthusiastic boy started screaming the daily matra louder and louder,
with ever increasing intensity we decided to try and charge a few
rupies for each pen that was asked for. The starting price hovered
around 5 rupies (about $.09) and increased marginally until the
child realized that as they screamed and pleaded the price rose. Sage
continued to say under her breath "What do I look like, a traveling
stationary store?", which always offered me a bit of comic
relief in the midst of the one pen onslaught.
At times, we wished we had pens to give out, especially to the
youngsters who, so openly gave us apples, walnuts, appricots or
grapes. In the end we neither gave out any of our limited supply of
pens nor did we receive any money for a pen

Bridges to Prosperity
While in Pakistan one never knows what to expect when it comes to the
bridges. There are as many types of bridges as there are people. The
first bridge we encountered, crossing the Hunza River was probably the
most dramatic and the only one of its type. The bridge, the shorter
of two leading to a small village across the muddy, glacier fed
river, was at least 300m long, narrow enough to grab tightly onto the
two straining cables and employing so few wooden planks that at times
the distance between each step seemed to span over a meter. Before
stepping foot on the bridge, I had to inspect the anchoring systems,
the steel braided cables and slightly unsettling sight of partially
broken hardware used to hold two sets of cables together.
Attempting to cross such a bridge was truly a mental test. Hands
holding on tight to each cable, feet testing then stepping on the
remaining, and often to skinny planks and the eyes focusing not on the
planks but the fast flowing river below. My attempt to cross the
bridge was short lived and if I had lived across the river I may have
very well starved to death. But upon my the failed attempt at
crossing, an older woman from the nearby village climbed onto the
bridge and without any effort, fear and only one hand, started
traveling across the now swaying bridge, she seemed to glide, despite
the ever increasing span between wooden planks.
The second type of bridge common to many small and often remote
villages along the Karakoram Highway is the wooden basket hanging from
a small pulley that rides on one thin, well-used wire. The
approaching trail is often carved into the cliff side, so narrow at
times that two people coming from opposite directions could not pass.
The basket itself has an often torn and tattered rope attached to each
end and to the opposing banks. The basket riders, upon climbing into
the small and bouncing basket begin to pull themselves aross the
river. The first half of the ride is rather short as the wire slopes
to the center but the second half is usually slow and requires
substantial effort. Hand over hand, the individuals pull themselves
and sometimes their occupant and/or goods from the market to the
opposite side. Typically, a youngster from the village, seeing
someone crossing, will come running and join in the effort to pull the
basket and its occupants, making the progress twice as fast but
still too long to be suspended, mid-air above a raging, rock strewned
When it comes to bridges for pedestrians and motor vehicles alike
Pakistan has some of the most entertaining ones around. The country
is big on suspension bridges, often narrow, only allowing one car from
either direction to cross and only one car at a time. Our first
encounter with this type of bridge was upon entering Gilgit, late in
the afternoon and just behind a small car packed full of occupants.
As the car ahead completed its crossing, the car just in front of us
started its journey and so did we. Once the car drove onto the bridge
we could see and hear the super structure of the bridge groan and flex
along its entire length. As the steel cables lengthened, the wood planked plantform stretched and the entire bridge seemed to drop
several inches. Cycling behind a vehicle on a bridge that sways more
than than a lobster boat in winter waters proved to be an art that
neither of us had ever mastered. We wove from side to side,
stumbled when we tried to pedal as the bridge appeared to drop out
from under our tires but were having the time of our lives. With a
long bridge platform to cross and cars waiting on the other side we
had to keep close to the car ahead. Once that car drove off the
bridge, the entire mass seemed to spring skyward, ignoring the
miniscule weight we and our bikes offered.
Finally, as the traffic flow and population increases along the KKH
the construction of new bridges is inevitable. We passed four new
bridges, all in various forms of installation. Some of the bridges’
wooden platforms lay on the banks, being pre-cut while others simply
had the stone pillar uprights errected and slack cables, drapped over
the pillars, hanging in mid air. One such bridge, still in the early
stages of construction was already being used by the villagers despite
the wooden platform missing most of its decking and any guard rails. It
was so narrow it would have even given goats pause. But as the small
and now impractical bridges become replaced, the villages on the
opposite banks have the chance to grow and prosper.