Friday, July 13, 2007

Day 95-100: The perfect End

I left Chengdu for Beijing well-rested, ready for new impressions and experiences, but slightly concerned about flying with the bicycle domestically. However, no issues surfaced, although I was surprised not to arrive at Beijing’s international airport. Instead, the aircraft landed at an unusually small airfield, apparently in the vicinity of the larger airport. Immediately after I stepped off the plane, I spotted my bag and bicycle on the conveyer belt only meters from the aircraft. I grabbed my belongings and approached two other western travelers in hope of sharing a taxi to Beijing. An hour and a half later and plenty of negotiations, we were all dropped off in a narrow alley of crowding restaurants and hotels near the Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. As I checked in at the Far East hotel, I ran into Harel, a quiet Israeli gentleman I had met briefly in Lijiang. Although its exceptional size, China seems smaller when traveling, and I have often met the same people in various locations throughout the Yunnan and Sichuan province, but to reunite after almost a month in one of the largest cities of the world is very rare and almost frightening. We were placed in the same dormitory with four other backpackers in a nicely air-conditioned room for an astonishing 60 Yuan (6 Euros - more than double than any other dormitories I had stayed), and headed out for dinner. On our way we ran into another Swede, Carina, who was in China for her second time to explore more of the country. Together we went out for our evening meal to celebrate our first day in Beijing and share plans and ideas.

Beijing is an overwhelmingly large city where you can spend weeks sightseeing and touring in and around the capital. Its population of over 15 million people does not even begin to describe how huge it appears when walking the streets among thousands of other tourists. As a result, I felt a bit stressed over what parts to visit and explore. After consulting Carina, Harel and other travelers in Chengdu, I decided to focus on the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and a cycle tour around the metropolis, prioritizing the Great Wall since I had seen a great number of temples, monasteries and parks throughout Yunnan and Sichuan provinces already. Also, the Great Wall is probably one of the most famous, celebrated and spectacular sites of the world. In point of fact, the 5000-kilometer wall is visible from the moon, which speaks for itself. With all that being planned, I had a hefty schedule to live up to, thus early the next day I woke to rush out into the street, heading for the Forbidden City on my bicycle. Before I entered the holy site, I wandered around the adjoining Tiananmen Square. The Square is full of walking tourists, taking pictures and buying souvenirs. Amazingly, it is large enough to house them all, hence it never feels cramped. As a matter of fact, it is the largest public square in the world, making ‘Stortorget’ (eng. translation: Big Square) in my hometown appear minuscule. In every direction of the Square there are other famous sites – to the north the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’, which is the entrance to the Forbidden City, to the east – ‘Museum of Chinese History’, to the west – ‘The Great Hall of the People’. In the middle of the Square stands the ‘Monument to the People’s of Heroes’, surrounded by red and gold Chinese flags and guarding soldiers. Not surprisingly or unintentionally, it felt extraordinary communistic and propagandist. Nevertheless, the Tiananmen Square was impressive. After an hour, I crossed over the square to the north and entered the Forbidden City, once home to two dynasties of emperors and the largest and best-preserved groups of ancient buildings in China. The site is not so forbidden anymore as thousands of tourists crowd it everyday. Just to buy the ticket I spend half and hour queuing and later pushed my way through packs of Chinese tourists in matching outfits of different colors. There was the orange team, the blue team and it seemed as if the entire spectrum of colors were present. Just as I left a crowd of orange dressed children fascinated by me and my camera, I ran into a student from Beijing University. He took me to the gallery of the school and presented some remarkable art work. It way have been part of a huge tourist scam, but I enjoyed the gallery and his engagement, as well as his fascinating work, thus bought two traditional Chinese paintings from him. I continued to fight my way through the swarm of tourists for two more hours, having walked through most of the site. There were so many temples of various sizes and purposes that I forgot the name of most of them as I left the area, stopping for some dumplings on my way back to the bicycle. The Forbidden City, named so because it was off limits for 500 years, certainly is an impressive site, but the current restorations for the Olympics and great number of tourists made it a less astounding experience for me. Half the day had passed but I had yet another large site to conquer – the Summer Palace of Beijing. This immense park is located about 20 kilometers north of the city-center and is dotted with palace temples, gardens, pavilions and bridges around the Kunming Lake. Not having notably cycled for a few days since I pedaled to the Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu, I pushed on with full force and arrived quickly at the park in the early afternoon. I spent two hours in the Summer Palace, walking around temples, crossing bridges and finally taking a boat across the mirrored, clear lake. Unfortunately, clouds were hanging low over the park, resulting in small showers and obscured views. Just when I left the park, the clouds had become too heavy and released rain with full power. Wet and exhausted, I arrived at the hotel just before supper, and made plans for the evening with Harel and Carina.
You can visit the Great Wall of China at many different locations. It stretches east-west, 5000 kilometers from its speckled remains in Liaoning province to the Gobi desert. Simply summarized, the closer you are to Beijing, the more tourists you will encounter, and the more restored the Wall might be. As a result, I wanted to get as far as I possible could from Beijing in order to visit the Wall in solitude, and be able to witness parts of the Wall unrestored. I had heard of the possibility to camp in one of the many towers consistently positioned every few hundred meter on the Wall. The idea quickly appealed to me and just as swiftly I convinced Harel to join me. With our sleeping bags and my one-person tent we headed for Jinshanling, about 110 kilometers north of Beijing to hike the Great Wall for 10 kilometers to Simatai, where we would climb the challenging last way up an extremely steep section of the Wall as far as tourist are allowed. On the way we planned to find an appropriate tower to camp in. After a subway ride, bus trip and an expensive taxi fare, we were finally in Jinshanling in the early afternoon, starting our hike towards Simatai. Before we could climb up on the Wall and get on our way, we had a few hundred meters to walk. Tensely, I paced the last meters up on the Wall, curious of what I was about to witness. Once there, the beauty and magnitude of it took me by surprise. Although I had seen several pictures of it and its colossal scale and length, I was still in chock of how enormous it appeared as it twisted its way over the mountain tops. The fact that human slaves had built this Wall with their bare hands was an unattainable thought. Amazed, we continued to walk east towards Simatai, up and down the Wall, always on the top of the mountain chain. The surrounding environment of layers of mountain peaks also stroke both me and Harel as exceptionally stunning. Clouds were softly floating between the mountains below us or creating a mystic, dramatic light above us. In front, the Wall swirled its way under our feet through the spectacular landscape. We walked slowly, stopping to take pictures, too often or too seldom, we could not tell. It all was too beautiful. After three hours the drizzling rain turned into a heavy downpour and we decided to stop for the day in the third tower from the tallest peak we had crossed during our 3-hour walk. We figured we were close to Simatai and would easily walk there the next morning after sunrise. The main reason I had desired to camp was to watch the sun set in the west behind the Wall, and rise over the mountains in the morning to the east. Unfortunately, as the rain continued to pour down and the wind grew stronger and stronger, my hope of seeing the sunset completely diminished. We settled down in the tower, Harel putting up his hammock, me pinching up my small tent, prepared our dinner of bananas, cookies and beer and gradually made ourselves comfortable. As we were sitting chewing on Chinese Oreo cookies, I saw an orange spot of light emerging on the stone wall behind Harel. Can it be true? I yelled out something incomprehensible, jumped up to run to get my camera, scaring Harel almost to death. The clouds had mysteriously cleared at the horizon, behind the Wall where the sun was slowly setting. The golden rays were so strong they filled the sky with a delightful orange color, leaving the Great Wall as a silhouette in the foreground. Not only did we get to experience the sunset over the Great Wall, but I also witnessed the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. Very satisfied and excited over our mutual experience we sat and talked until the sun had disappeared completely, only leaving room for darkness. Shortly we were both asleep. We woke up the next day to an even more stunning sunrise with soft clouds lingering in the valleys of the mountains. Again, the sun was casting golden rays, illuminating the sky in orange hues, the Wall barely visible in the morning hazy mist. The landscape took a dreamlike appearance I had never before experienced of endless layers of golden mountain peaks with translucent clouds hovering in between. Again, me and Hajal stood startled, orangey illuminated, and amazed by the beauty of nature and the Great Wall. As lightness emerged, we walk towards Simatai for about an hour until we reached a guesthouse which served us a very essential nutritious meal before we were about to tackled the steep climb of the Great Wall of Simatai. By now I had cycled over 3500 kilometer and completed few treks, thus, frankly, the climb was quite easy, although I had heard stories that told otherwise. At the top, where visitors where not allowed to proceed, we could see the Wall stretch as far as the eye could see. Now the day had fully arrived and the sky was clear and vivid blue with no clouds to obscure the view. Again, we took a few moments to try to grasp the magnitude of building the Wall, an undertaking which took 2000 years to complete, before we headed back down and walked the last kilometers to Simatai. The way back to Beijing was as complicated and tedious as our way to Jinshanling, but will not interfere with the memories of hiking the Great Wall – an experience I will never forget.
Both me and Harel agreed that a hike of that enormity deserved unrestricted celebrations, thus we met up with friends to share some Chinese rice liquor and beer. A new friend that I had met in Chengdu, Tim, joined us for the party. Tim added greatly to the celebrations with his stories of life in the state of Lousiana in the U.S. and surviving Hurricane Katrina, as well running a few businesses, practicing a rare kind of martial art, speaking several languages, and traveling, all while smiling and spreading positive energy around him. This 23-year old man had enough stories to fill the entire evening with laughter and excitement. Tim is a charming and intellectual character that you do not meet often in life. Be prepared, though, to listen more than speaking. My last day of my journey consisted of treating a hangover, shopping, packing and again, dissembling the bicycle for the plane ride. The day was quickly over and at the end of it I was sitting with ten other travelers, some older friends, some new acquaintances, around a big wooden table in a typical Chinese courtyard with red lanterns lighting up the patio, drinking local beer for 2 Yuan (0,2 Euros) a bottle, trying to grasp that my journey was over. People were singing, playing guitar, making jokes, sharing travel stories and laughing as if time stood still. As the evening progressed I thought more and more about my experiences over the last 100 days. It seemed as if I had been traveling for an eternity and my experiences felt infinite. Everyday I had been presented new experiences that would last in my memories for years to come, some as long as I will live. I felt as if the last 100 days had extended my life with 100 months, having encountered countless unique and new situations. From every experience I learned something valuable, something new about the world that would broaden my knowledge and perspective of life. I realized how easy it is to get trapped in the routine of life and lock yourself to one way of thinking, forgetting that the world is greater than your backyard. Nevertheless, life is also about routine and familiarity, which leads to close friends, relationships and family. With that thought I retired to bed, not only extremely pleased with my travels, but excited to get home to family, friends and my girlfriend.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Day 85-94: The end of cycling

Just south of Emeishan city lies the village of Baoguo. Here travelers gather to prepare a 2500 meter vertical climb to the peak of Mount Emei. The mountain is covered with thousands of concrete stairs, all leading up to the summit, at 3099 meters elevation. Along the stairs are various Buddhist monasteries and temples, sadly most of them under construction or newly renovated, but still add to the atmosphere. The main motive to climb the mountain is to witness the sunrise or sunset over the bed of clouds that surrounds the summit almost all year around.

After two weeks of cycling more then 1000 kilometers, and few resting days, I was reluctant to climb the thousands of steps leading up to the summit of Mount Emei. Also, the monotony of walking up stairs did not appeal to me, thus I decided to take a bus up to 2500 meters elevation, walk two hours, climbing the most evil part of the stairs, find a place to stay and rise early the following morning to catch the sun breaking the day over soft layers of clouds at 3099 meters above sea level. As a result, on my second afternoon in Baoguo village, I caught a bus with the party of Chinese tourists in matching clothes, hats and flags. The bus wove its way up the steep road, a very familiar sight, but now I was comfortable seated on an air-conditioned bus opposed to pedaling up the mountain. After two hours the bus stopped and all passengers rushed to pull their jackets out of their bags and cover themselves in the chilling temperatures of 2500 meters elevation. The quick ascend made me slightly lightheaded and caused a mild headache. Nevertheless, the two hours passed quickly as I marched my way up the concrete stairs through the forest, monasteries and temples. By the time I found a small house along the path that could serve me my last meal of the day and provide shelter, it was after seven o'clock. After dinner I retired to bed early to prepare for a two-hour walk at the crack of dawn. The cramped room felt primitively simple, just large enough to house a bed and a TV, with an external door that would not shut or lock, adding to the uncivilized experience. Ironically, for the first time since entering China, the TV displayed a perfect digital picture and provided numerous channels, including a few English speaking alternatives. The odd mixture of old and new was shortly lived when my alarm clock buzzed quarter past four, three hours before sunrise, making my entire body shudder in disapproval. Slowly I made my way out the door, stepping into the dark, silent forest. Immediately, I was startled by the open, clear night sky, dotted with billions of brilliant stars, visible through the tree tops. Never before have I witnessed such a bright, vivid and clear starry sky. Breathless, I stood paralyzed by its beauty and scale until my balance lost orientation. I advanced up the stairs into the darkness of the forest, the beam of my head-flashlight leading the way. After an hour and a half I reached the summit. To my surprise, I was alone, wandering through the temple grounds in complete obscurity and silence. The stillness was interrupted as I climbed the last stairs to the Golden Summit as other hikers made their entrance. At the edge of the cliff, looking out over the dark clouds, I stood for an hour and a half as lightness emerged, watching and hearing hundreds of Chinese tourists entering the famous site. It is widely recognized that Chinese people constantly, openly and loudly clear their throats, spitting whenever and wherever possible. The phenomenon is especially noticeable in the first hours of the day. Adding the early morning exercise does not exactly relieve their eccentric habit. One after one they came climbing the final stairs, panting and wheezing. The constant noise soon transformed into an orchestra of hawking and spitting in various tones. It truly was disgusting. When the sun made its entrance, all sounds came to a stop, and every visitor stood in awe, watching the sun rise over the sea of clouds, turning the sky into a rich orange and yellow color. The entire temple site was illuminated in golden hue. To the west, the Gonga Mountains appeared in the far distance as the sun continued to rise. The 7500 meter glacier peaks are rarely visible, even on the clearest day, perfecting my visit to the Golden Summit of Mount Emei. Climbing down stairs from an elevation of 3099 meters to approximately 500, I highly underestimated. It required stepping down thousands and thousands of tedious steps. Fortunately, I found company at the top. A British traveler, named Damien, had actually climbed the entire way up, and was determined to step all the way down as well. Together we started marching down step by step after the sun had risen over the Summit. Just before lunch an appearance of a group of Baboons broke the monotonous stride. They are known to linger the area in hope of finding or stealing food from passing humans. Their large size and sharp, long teeth are slightly frightening. Excited, we quickly pulled out our cameras, squatted to get a better camera perspective, but before I had time to press the exposure button, a large male Baboon ran towards Damien at an alarming pace. As Damien instantly stood up, the Baboon reached down into his right pocket, trying to grab a package of biscuits that had popped out when Damien bent down to take a picture. Frantically, the Baboon was trying to grab the food, pulling and jerking Damien’s shorts. When he reached down to stop the fearless monkey, it snapped at him, hit his hand and displayed its vicious teeth. Seconds later the Baboon was eating what was left of the crumbled biscuits, not willing to share any with the rest of its fellow Baboons. It seems that the monkeys of Mount Emei would do anything to fill their stomachs. During lunch, as we started to alleviate our hunger, another brave monkey entered the restaurant. It jumped up onto the table behind us where a woven rise bowl was place, tore the top lid off and desperately began to stuff rise into its mouth. I stood up, shouted and chased the Baboon out of the restaurant, laughing at the exceptionally awkward scenario. The Baboons, not the walk down the mountain, had made my day.

The next day I was scheduled to cycle 50 kilometers to Leshan, a large city to the east, along the Dadu River. However, I woke up early with severe pains in my calves, questioning my ability to pedal. Despite their growing size and strength, descending thousands of steps had left them impaired. I was able to walk with short, tiny steps while biting my tongue in pain. To undertake any kind of stairs was nearly impossible. To my relief, cycling was the least painful of the three; walking, climbing stairs and cycling. Thus, I headed for Leshan, moaning and cursing. On the way I planned to stop at the "1000 Buddha Cliffs", near the city of Jiajiang 30 kilometers north of Emei Town. But after entering the site, having paid the entrance fee and discovering a series of stairs that swirled up and down through the hundreds of Buddha statues, I immediately turned around. I literally could not climb stairs, let alone walk down them. Instead, I cycled the last 25 kilometers to Leshan, and found a hotel on the bank of Dadu River, in the heart of Leshan. I had only one obligation in Leshan; to visit the Grand Buddha of Leshan, the largest Buddha in the world. 71 meters high, carved into the cliff overlooking the Dadu River, it is an overwhelming structure impressing hundreds of visitors everyday. On my first day in Leshan, I cycled a beautiful road along the river to the site early to miss the Chinese tourists. I wandered the site impressed by its scale, unenthusiastic about my sore calves. I spent two days in Leshan, cycling around town or traveling by "cyclo", avoiding walking as much as possible. I found the city charming and its people unexceptionally friendly. The outdoor servings along the river provided a cheerful atmosphere, and I spend both evenings there eating and drinking local beer, one night with the company of a Dutch traveler and a Chinese family playing a traditional Chinese game. On my last night I went swimming in the mighty Dadu River as is surges along the edge of the city. It seemed to be a common evening practice among the locals, although they were floating more than swimming, wearing floatable rings around their waists. I, on the other hand, was convinced I could stay afloat on my own as I entered the water to swim with the force of the river for a few kilometers until the stream weakened and I left the river, proud and excited about the experience.
160 kilometers separates Leshan from Chengdu. I had originally planned to take a bus the last stretch of my journey, but since I left Kunming in Yunnan I had made a promise to myself to not step on a bus when I could cycle. Therefore, I intended to reach Chengdu in two days, dividing the 160 kilometers accordingly. However, a wild idea occurred to me when I was in Leshan, sitting comfortably by the river, looking at the water passing by. Why not end my cycling with the longest stretch of the journey? On a flat, smooth road I could easily average 20 km/h, and I could also cycle over eight hours, that I proved to myself when leaving Lijiang to Ninglang a few weeks ago. Therefore, I could hopefully manage 160 kilometers without too much difficulty. The plan was to divide the day into four two-hour "spinning classes", and between each "spinning class" I would break to eat and drink. Each two-hour "spinning class" would transport me about 40 kilometers. 40 times four makes 160. The plan worked as I uneventfully pedaled to the outskirt of Chengdu city on smooth tarmac and crowded roads. My bicycle computer correctly displayed 160 kilometers and 21,5 km/h average speed as I entered the city. The remaining 15 kilometers until I reached the guesthouse on the north side only slowed me down, but did not pose any problems. Having cycled 175 kilometers, I stepped off the bicycle enormously proud of my accomplishment; ready to put the bicycle away for this time (but for small excursions around Chengdu and Beijing). After a well-earned hot shower, I sat down to order food at the atmospheric, pleasant guesthouse (Mix Guesthouse) and met another cyclist - Ian from England. He had seen my bicycle parked inside the lobby and curiously asked a series of questions. I answered and proudly explained that I had completed 175 kilometers today to finish a 3500-kilometers bicycle adventure. He congratulated me as well as enlightened me that he, too, was a dedicated cyclist. Further, he informed about his latest journey which had started in Istanbul, and was not going to end in the next years to come. Ian had traveled by bicycle for the last twelve years, cycling mainly in China but also other places in the world. In China alone he has pedaled 58,000 kilometers, further than the distance around the equator of our planet. My 3500 kilometers from Saigon in the south of Vietnam to Chengdu in central China suddenly seemed insignificant. Nevertheless, I tried to celebrate my endeavor, but after two beers I stumbled into bed, postponing the celebrations for another night.
Chengdu is the capital city of the Sichuan province. With close to five million inhabitants it is a large, modern, commercial city of clustered high-rise buildings, busy streets and loads of western influences. McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and several western well-known clothing brands are present in every large department store. Still, the city offers a taste of Sichuan culture and history, and one can easily find small, lively streets and markets where men and women sell various traditional foods and goods. I had several days in Chengdu to rest, relax, run errands and sightsee. There are many attractions and places to visit in and around the city. I started with handling most of my errands, such as pick up my flight ticket to Beijing and exchange money. Secondly, I cycled around the capital to get an overview of the central metropolis and experience the atmosphere. I visited the famous Wenshu temple, Chengdu's most well-preserved and largest Buddhist temple. Its tea garden made a perfect place to update my journal, read and observe monks in their daily life. When my bum had had a couple of days of rest, I cycled to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, 15 kilometers north of the city. Here, about 50 Pandas are housed and the site is world-known for excellence in panda research, breeding and nursing. The park is also the largest in the world of its kind. It reminded me of a big, standard zoo, but only consisting of pandas. Walking through the park, seeing tens of pandas sleeping or eating (that is all they do) was exhilarating. Never before have I been so close to these endangered animals. Despite their large size, they are overwhelmingly adorable. Their movements are slow and childlike, fumbling as they stuff themselves with heaps of bamboo; their main source of food. Often they strike an awkward, charming pose as if they know how to get the crowds of tourists to fumble with their cameras, trying to seize the moment. I continued to visit various sites of the city, some interesting, some dull and ordinary. Despite my active engagement of the city, I have had plenty of time to hang around the guesthouse, doing nothing, reading, watching movies or speaking to other travelers, sharing experiences and stories. I have slept more than usual, a sign of relaxation and relief. The massage parlor across the street, offering a professional full-body rub down for 20 Yuan (2 Euros), might play a small role to my peaceful state of mind. My last day in Chengdu will be uneventful but for packing and the tedious process of dissembling my bicycle, preparing it for the plane ride. In a couple of days I will arrive in Beijing to enjoy my last days of my journey.