Ten Tips for Beginning Travel Writers

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Ten Tips for Beginning Travel Writers

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Love to travel and reckon you might have the guts to start writing about it? That was me 10 years ago, hiking the Cordilleras mountains of the northern Philippines with notebook and camera in hand, anxious and excited and hoping to sell my first story. Since then I’ve written and photographed features from Europe to Asia to Africa to Australia, and while no sane person would characterise the road to building a travel writing career as easy, it is genuinely rewarding. See amazing places. Do great things. Share it with others. Hell yeah.

Want a bit of wisdom if you’re interested in walking that path yourself? Read on.

(1)   Get used to rejection

Here’s the reality with starting off as a travel writer: you’re going to get ignored. A lot. For quite a long time. With the advent of cheap air travel, fast worldwide internet, and inexpensive laptops and digital cameras, there are more ‘travel writers’ and more travel content out there than ever. And, unsurprisingly, most of just isn’t that good. Editors are busy people and, more likely than not, are looking for a reason to trash your pitch or submission, as sifting through the volumes that outlets typically receive takes heaps of time and energy that they don’t really have to spare. So don’t take it personally. Even amongst established writers, having a travel writing career consists in having 80 or 90% of the people you pitch ignore you, instead of 99 or 100%. Even if you get a ‘no’ reply from an editor, consider it a win: you’ve opened up a dialogue and made contact, and that’s someone that you can reach out to again with your next idea. Pitching is to some extent a numbers game, so (especially starting out) get used to sending a lot of emails and getting a lot of silence back. Any reply is a good reply. Keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks.

 

(2)   Learn to pitch

That word I’ve been saying over and over and, ‘pitch’? That’s the majority of the work that you’re doing as a working writer. ‘Pitching’ is simply the proposal or outline for a story, and job one in getting anyone to pay attention to you is learning how to write one. A number of outlets will give you specifics on how to pitch them in their contributors’ guide, and it’s always worth following their instructions if they do. Beyond that a pitch is, at its most basic, just a summary of a story: what it is, what happens in it, why it’s interesting or worth publishing, and the first paragraph or two of the story itself to show that you’ve got an engaging lede and a decent writing style. If you’ve got photos to accompany, it’s also worth sending a link to a selection (not every single thing you shot!) as well. Pitching is an art form, and writing a pitch for a story will often help you to figure out if you’ve actually got a good story to tell: the distillation process required for the pitch is also a useful one as a writer, and will help you to write the story itself once an editor actually commissions it. It’s a weird truth that as much of your time as a writer will probably be spent researching outlets and pitching them as it will be writing actual stories, but that’s the nature of the beast. The outlet research process is also useful for picking out publications that you might not have the right story for right now, but which you can keep in mind as a potential market for future work.

 

(3)   Build up a CV (and publish it online)

One of the main ways that you get up off the floor of the depressing sub-1% editor response rate is to get a CV (resume) built up. The more examples of already-published work that you can show an editor whom you’re pitching, the more likely they are to pause for the minute necessary to give your proposal some actual consideration. Having work already published is a rule of thumb that editors can use to see if you’re likely to have any idea what you’re doing. Obviously this is a massive Catch-22, as you tend to not get considered until you have some published work, but can’t get work published until you get someone to actually give it some consideration. Sure as a bear’s Catholic, however, you get a solid chunk of clips to show people when you make a proposal, and you’ll start getting more people to give you the time of day. The best way to make your travel writing CV accessible to the people you pitch is usually just to make a website (Wordpress is a good place to start), so that when someone searches for your work, that’s the first thing that comes up. This doesn’t have to be flashy or expensive (there are heaps of good free options), but it should look clean and professional and give people a good at-a-glance look of what you’re about.

(4)   Don’t work for free

Which makes this next bit of advice all the more puzzling: don’t work for free. Or, more accurately, don’t get in the habit of working for free. Working for ‘exposure’ is usually just someone who doesn’t really value your time and effort trying to exploit your hard work for their own easy gain. So even if you’re not making much money on a piece, it’s a good idea to aim for making something. Online for example often pays much less than print, but is easier to break into (and easier to share and publicise once a piece is published), so this is often a good place to start your search for outlets. There are, of course, exceptions to the ‘no free work’ rule: when I was starting out, I did a number of minor features for a small magazine where I was living in Seoul; the mag wasn’t being run to churn out profits, it was a tiny office producing it, and the guys who ran it were nice and upfront about their situation. They were always hugely helpful and generally managed to throw in freebies for local restaurants or bars that helped make me feel appreciated, even as a starting writer. It was a low-stakes local endeavour that let me cut my teeth on publishing for the first time and do a bit of learning. Once I got my first paid stories onto my CV, however, doing unpaid work stopped being a necessity, and I learned to value my time and hard work by not working for free. 

 

(5)   Find a niche and work it

Like pretty much any other profession on the face of the Earth today, it helps to have a specialisation. I tend to do outdoorsy stuff when I travel – hiking, camping, mountain biking, the odd bit of freediving – and so I’ve carved out a little niche writing about just those things. It’s what I like to do in the places I visit, and I think that that enthusiasm and expertise shines through in my work. Now: I’d rather punch myself in the face for an hour straight than go on a cruise, but there are in fact people who love being trapped on a boat for a week with a bunch of strangers, and if that’s your bag too, you’ve got an ideal target audience for your work. There are people who travel for (and write about) food, about family travel, and about luxury hotels and spas (though I’d suggest that this latter is basically a form of neoliberal kool-aid and that ‘luxury’ is, as Paul Theroux observes, poisonous to an authentic and meaningful travel experience). Having a niche that you cover doesn’t mean you can’t write about things outside it when an idea or destination strikes you, but it DOES mean that you develop a kind of nose for what’s a great story in that subgenre, and can help you to build not only a CV, but also a list of outlets and editors that know and appreciate your work. 

 

(6)   Cultivate clients

Once again: anyone you can get to respond to your email is a potential ally. An editor who passes on a story but invites you to pitch them again is one of your best leads for breaking into a new outlet, and an outlet that’s run your work once is likely to at least be receptive to the next story that you pitch. This doesn’t mean that every pitch is going to be a success, or that you can relax your game in terms of consistently pitching excellent high-quality stories, only that in this business, relationships matter. As such, it’s best policy to always be patient and polite – if you have to follow up on a pitch for two months before you get a response, be glad for the response when it comes (again, editors are busy people), even if it’s a no. Keep in mind that persistence is important: pitch, follow up, and follow up again. Over time the contacts that you make will start bearing fruit. As part and parcel of maintaining the relationships you’ve built, always submit excellent work and always meet your deadlines – good manners are as important in publishing as anywhere. That said, recognise if someone you’re dealing with is genuinely a jerk who it’s not worth dealing with: I had an editor who repeatedly and rudely blasted every submission for months with a brash “your story’s got no point!” I was happy to move on from my relationship with him, and instead sold those same stories to bigger and better outlets.

 

(7)   Don’t bother with newspaper travel sections

Every newspaper travel article you’ve ever read goes something like this: ‘Place X had unfortunate thing Y happen to it, but it’s bouncing back, with some great restaurants and an exciting microbrewery scene.’ Every newspaper travel article you’ve ever read also tends to have this message following it: ‘Writer X was a guest of Company Y’, meaning that their travel was paid for. These two observations suggest a couple of things, the first of which is that newspaper travel writing tends to follow a set of predictable formulas, and the second of which is that newspaper travel writing is frequently done in-house and comes out of complimentary freebie travel. Sadly, even though I first broke into a major outlet with a newspaper travel story, travel sections generally also tend to be about ‘lifestyle’ travel for those with far more money than time, and that first big story of mine ran in a section of the paper called, blech, ‘Travel & Indulgence’. If you’ve got a story that you think is specifically fit for a paper, by all means publish it and take the writing credit when you can, but there tends to be neither budget nor appetite for travel writing that deviates much from the formula. Having a niche or specialisation, as mentioned above, will help to give you a good way out of pitching or relying on these ‘generalist’ outlets.   

 

(8)   Decide if you really want to be a blogger

So, when I say, ‘make a website’ it’s worth noting that I don’t mean ‘make a blog’. Casual blogging is a great way for people doing big trips to keep people back home up-to-date with their journey. But blogging as a general, committed mode of professional travel writing, intended for a wide audience, is serious work. It means constantly staying on top of generating content (and making sure that that constant stream of content is worth publishing!) and doing things like Search Engine Optimisation to ensure that you’re driving as much traffic to your site as you can. There are people who manage to make it work – finding a content niche and serving the audience for it and monetising that content through clicks and advertising to the point where the income generated is non-trivial. But the travel blogging world is a heavily saturated marketplace, and you really need to be finding some way of consistently adding plus-value to your output to really differentiate and distinguish yourself. Some people love it and thrive on it, but before you throw yourself into being a blogger, it’s worth asking if you’re comfortable spending as much time seeking followers and doing SEO as you are doing actual travel. No right or wrong answer here, just things to think about.

 

(9)   It helps to have a day job

So: here’s the reality. If you’re going to be a travel writer, you’re going to have to be both (A) lucky and (B) good combined with one or the other of the following: (C) frugal as hell or (D) otherwise gainfully employed. Of the people making an actual living doing travel writing, the vast majority are doing guidebook work, which if it isn’t enough to get rich off, will at least usually keep the wolf from the door. There are a few lucky souls who are managing to pay a mortgage doing travel writing work (often supplemented by other kinds of writing work, teaching, and perhaps the occasional book), but for most people, if you’re going to be relying on travel-writing income for anything important, you better be living on the super-cheap. Practically, this often means an extended sort of life on the road in places where cost of living is low – Southeast Asia, Central America – combined with a pretty austere lifestyle. The other option, of course, is not to NOT be a travel writer, or to not care about being paid for your writing, but not to rely on the money from travel writing for any of life’s crucial needs and expenses. This is also known as ‘having a day job’. So, me, globetrotting adventure-travel journalist by night? I write literacy assessments in my mild-mannered day-job incarnation. It’s creative work, albeit with a weird, niche application, and I feel very lucky to be able to do it (and all the more so for being able to do it surrounded by a group of co-workers that I love!). Having a travel writing career in this form means more of a balancing act between professional and writing obligations, but I’ve found it works pretty well for me. Finding your own balance takes time, and no one solution or arrangement will necessarily work for all seasons or people, so experiment to find what’s best for you.

 

(10) Learning photography helps

One last thing: If there’s a single skill that compliments travel writing, it’s photography. Being able to provide a strong set of images to accompany a story is often a make-or-break for getting the story published. This has less to do with your equipment (though your phone sadly probably won’t cut it, especially in anything other than daylight conditions) and more to do with your eye and ability to edit your images. Shoot a lot (I mean a LOT a lot) and over time your eye for what makes a strong photo will eventually get better; learn to edit your images in a basic photo editing program (I use Lightroom, but there are plenty of free options available) and you’ll get more technically useable images out of the things that you shoot. There isn’t a magic bullet here, and nothing’s going to make you a skilled photog overnight, but if you want to write about the places that you travel, it helps to be able to photograph them as well. A strong pitch well-targeted to the right outlet, combined with a strong set of accompanying images, is half the hard work done to getting a story published.  

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Bikepacking Kazakhstan: The Kazakh Corner Route

Bikepacking Kazakhstan: The Kazakh Corner Route

Somehow, even with the crowds of bikepackers and cycle tourists pedalling through Tajikistan and across Kyrgyzstan, amazingly few people seem to make it over the border into neighbouring Kazakhstan.

More’s the pity: Almaty Oblast, centred on the city of Almaty, also has incredible riches to be explored, rivalling anything in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan but with zero tourist factor.

This route, The Kazakh Corner, is a bite-sized four day ride with an incredible amount of diversity. Starting or ending in Almaty, it’s perfect both for those wishing to extend a foray through northern Kyrgyzstan, or for those overlanding to or from China (though Xinjiang Province, with its paranoid and oppressive police-state atmosphere, is not a fun place to be these days).

It takes in Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city, as well as high yurt-dotted grasslands and snowcapped mountains, dramatic river gorges, an abandoned Soviet astronomical observatory, a remote lake and even its own incredible miniature Grand Canyon, with heaps of fun gnarly descents thrown in for good measure.

Independently researched and documented in 2017 during a four-month bikepacking journey through Tibet, China and Central Asia, this short-but-oh-so-sweet section route is my single favourite ride from that time. Take a look at the embedded map below if you’re interested in the Kazakh Corner section alone, or at the second map if you’re curious about joining the Kazakh Corner up with bikepacking.com’s Tian Shan Traverse route in northern Kyrgyzstan (via the Karkara Valley and Tegen — Kup/Tensu border, open roughly May-Oct each year).

With southeastern Kazakhstan’s amazing landscapes, easy travel, low costs and ridiculously friendly people, it’s a place ripe for adventurous exploration, and a welcome change of pace from the bikepacker tourist trail just next door.

Updates!

Updates!

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It's been a hectic three or so months since I returned to Sydney from Llandeilo, Wales (an incredible spot, pictured above). With my sabbatical year wrapped up I've been busy at home with projects in Oz, but am finally managing to get caught up on updating the website, the work on which is nearly always in arrears!

In any case, I've updated a few things on the site, including my Muru Cycles Mungo review, and getting up my articles for destination inspiration in China, Tibet and Central Asia; Europe and Australia.

Take a look around, and as always drop me a line if you have any questions or comments!

Published: 'A Walk on the Wild Side' (Adventure Travel Magazine)

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Published: 'A Walk on the Wild Side' (Adventure Travel Magazine)

Adventure Travel has just run my piece on the rugged Vicentina and Alentejo coast of southwestern Portugal. Take a look at the piece and original photography from the walk below.

"This is Europe’s Empty Quarter – the southwestern-most corner of the continent, containing nearly a third of Portugal’s landmass but less than a tenth of its population. In the celebrated tourist city of Lagos, down on the south coast, I’d be bumping up against bar touts advertising cheap drinks and live DJ sets. Here, there’s nothing, no one – nothing but the extreme, wild, shattered edge of Europe itself, towering cliffs broken and folded like mementos of catastrophe on an unimaginable scale, swallowed and emerging, again and again, into and from the relentless sea. The wind is a presence in the night all around me like a thing enraged. I really need to get under shelter..."

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Published: 'Falls, Rocks, Crocs' - Action Asia Magazine

Published: 'Falls, Rocks, Crocs' - Action Asia Magazine

I love the Top End of Australia -- the people, the landscapes and especially the opportunities for adventure. Action Asia Magazine has published my Top End bikepacking piece, 'Falls, Rocks, Crocs', in their May-Jun 2018 issue. As always, the layout looks great. Take a look at the spread below!

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PUBLISHED on Bikepacking.com - "The Bartang Valley, Tajikistan"

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"The most adventurous way across the Pamirs, the Bartang Valley offers the best of Central Asia – sublime remoteness, high mountains and wild desert moonscapes, legendary hospitality, physical difficulty, and more than a little bit of danger."

The *true* bikepacking alternative to both the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan Valley, this route through Tajikistan's remote Bartang Valley should be considered a must-do for adventurous bikepackers and well-equipped cycle tourists in Central Asia. Want to do it yourself? Get all the info you need, including GPX files and maps, here on bikepacking.com.

PUBLISHED in Cycle Magazine: "Rocks, Crocs and Waterfalls" (Bikepacking Australia's Top End)

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PUBLISHED in Cycle Magazine: "Rocks, Crocs and Waterfalls" (Bikepacking Australia's Top End)

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Interested in cycling Australia but looking for something more adventurous than simply plowing across the Nullarbor? Check out my feature in Cycle Magazine about bikepacking Australia's fantastic Top End (in the wild Northern Territory). The route includes Litchfield and Kakadu national parks, as well as the superb (and croc-intensive!) Reynolds River Track. Take a look here!

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Guest on the Outspoken Cyclist Podcast

Oh friends: you're in for a treat. The Outspoken Cyclist -- the preeminent cycling podcast in Northeast Ohio and MOST LIKELY THE WORLD -- has just featured me as a guest in this week's broadcast.

Tune in and hear my digressions on Australia, the Indians' historic winning streak, and of course bikepacking across Central Asia (top tip: plov varies widely in quality). The whole show is top notch, but if you're the impatient sort, the interview starts in the second half of the podcast.

Huge thanks to host Diane Jenks for giving me a chance to come on and talk a little bit about the trip!

 

New and Updated Gear Reviews!

After four months of bikepacking through Tibet and Central Asia, I've updated and added to my Gear Reviews with plenty of new in-the-field information. Give it a read here!

New and updated reviews:

-Thermarest Neo-Air X-Therm Sleeping Pad

-Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liner

-MSR Whisperlite International Multifuel Stove

-MSR MugMate Coffee Filter

-Toaks 450ml Titanium Single-Walled Mug

-Maxxis Chronicle 29 x 3.0 Tyres

-Bike Bag Dude Custom Framebag

-Alpkit Stem Cell Drybag

-Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bags

-Busch and Muller Luxos IQ2 U Dynamo Headlight

-Supernova E3 Pro 2 Dynamo Headlight

-Sinewave Revolution Dynamo USB Charger

-Anker Powercore+ 26800mAh Portable Battery Pack

-Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge Smartphone

-Fuji X-T2 Mirrorless Camera

-Fujinon XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 lens

 

PUBLISHED: "The Border Roads, Tibet" (bikepacking.com)

Tibet is much more than just the tightly restricted Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The Tibetan Plateau extends far to the east, with the ancient Tibetan region of Kham existing — accessibly — in the far west of the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, allowing visitors to the area to experience a Tibetan landscape and culture without the restrictions of travelling to the TAR.

If the idea of bikepacking Tibet -- crossing 4900m passes surrounded by snowcapped mountains and riding rough backcountry track thru highland pastures dotted by grazing yaks -- captures your imagination as much as it did mine, take a look at this five-day route for bikepacking.com: The Border Roads, Tibet.

Three Months

Three Months

Three months. Ninety days -- a quarter of the year.

Settled into it now, the routines. Find water, find a campsite, make camp, cook dinner over the petrol stove, sleep and wake, make coffee, break camp and pack up the bike again. Grinding climbs, sweat pouring into my eyes and my sunglasses and clothes all stained by salt. Then descents like visitations by angels, full of oxygen and endorphins, speed and ease like satori, a sudden bliss dawning in your heart.

I go for days where I do not speak to anyone. I could be a ghost yolked to this machine, cycling some bardo realm, a near-isomer to reality, bottling up digital messages along my way to send out on wifi or 3G to prove my existence. My arms and legs are suntanned to peeling and they itch. Fuck prudence, I'll scratch them anyway.

I no longer sightsee. Cities are supermarkets and services. Eating and running errands, and sleep. The places I find other travellers seem like islands I happen by in a vast ocean in which I am myself endlessly adrift and in-between. 

Mostly, I am outside. If I do not visit a store, and the weather and insects permit camping without a tent, often nothing intercedes between my body and the sky for a day or more. I often smell a bit and do not really care at all.

There are, of course, amazing people along the way. Hilarious and interesting and profound conversations. Omar and Lazarus, Ash and Natalie, Nelson and Rae. That serendipitous sort of meeting that may not only happen when travelling, but which occurs so much more often here. Introduce consistently high levels of unpredictability into the system and the outputs are often themselves a scattering of rare beasts.

In the meantime, we try to create art. Try to make meaning, not only for oneself but for others. Because this experience is worth entering into, even secondhand, and because there is something transformative not only in the places we go, but in the mode of consciousness that we enter into transiting them.

As to where all this is going, geographically, metaphysically, who knows? It all seems unscryable from this vantage. There's a lot more road to go.

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang at 4100m in the high Tibetan grasslands. Brown hills rising over flat-topped roofs, dust swirling in the streets. Nomads on motorbikes with long wild hair, gold teeth, greasy shearling jackets hanging off their shoulders. A fine market with fruit, butchered meat, dry goods, shoes and clothes. Police, of course, everywhere.

The old quarter of town up on the north edge of the city still feels like Tibet, unreconstructed or improved. I wander the dirt streets behind houses with outer walls of mud and straw, old women spinning prayer wheels at small temples along the way. The Gelugpa monastery at the top of the hill is all new, bricks and lumber still piled around the courtyard. This is China: everything is in the process of being built.

More touristy than expected, Litang, with signs in English on the main street and a few westerners in my hostel. They hold sky burials here still west of town. From here on the road turns north, deeper into Kham.

 

Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Most of the information you'll find calls this superb market town 'Garze', but most of the locals call it 'Ganzi'. No matter what you call it, though, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place to relax for a few days on a tour of Kham. Like most of the ethnically-Tibetan towns here on the Plateau, the ratio of police to residents here seems to be about 1:1, but practically what that usually means is big groups of 20-something cops standing around chatting with each other, driving around going GRNK! GRNK! at traffic with their sirens, or occasionally just napping in lawn chairs on the street. Johannesburg this is not.

Regardless, the real attraction here comes in two forms. First, the looming, sharp, snowcapped mountains of the Gongga Shan range rising in a high grey-white wall to the south of the town, as pretty as anything you've ever seen. And second, the enormous Khampa Tibetan community resident here, including hundreds of monks from the monastery in the old quarter up the hill, populating the streets, shopping for sneakers or mobile phones, or just hanging out in restaurants drinking tea. Like pretty much everywhere I've gone in Tibet, the welcome is noticeably friendlier than you get in many of the culturally Han parts of China --  the number of 'Tashi Deles' you'll get just walking down the street typically numbers in the dozens. Beyond that, there are good supermarkets, restaurants, street food and -- thank god -- real beer, a welcome respite from the watered-down 2.5% stuff sold everywhere else. 

Set in the high Tibetan grasslands, Ganzi is exceptional. Visit and you'll probably end up staying longer than intended.

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian, the city in northwestern Yunnan province cynically rebranded as 'Shangri-La', is a giant construction zone like so much of the rest of China. The Old City was largely destroyed in a fire in early 2014, and while much of the northern part of the Old City has been rebuilt, the southern end of the quarter remains a warren of half-finished buildings and half-laid streets, making it easy to see how manufactured the experience of Shangri-La's 'Old City' really is. That said, I can't be too hard on Zhongdian, with its backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Even if it's manufactured and touristy, the Old City is still an incredibly pleasant place to wander, and this is the first real stop on the Yunnan tourist trail where you can experience a bit of actual Tibetan culture, being the jumping-off point to the Tibetan Plateau itself. There's dancing in the streets at night (somehow all the locals seem to know the steps) and some very picturesque temples and what I'm told is the world's largest prayer wheel, though such designations are nearly always apocryphal. If you're interested in Tibet and Tibetan culture start your trip in Shangri-La, don't end it here. But for an accessible peek and a pleasant place to spend a few days, you could certainly do much worse.

Litang to Xinlong: Tunnels and Friendly Strangers

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Litang to Xinlong: Tunnels and Friendly Strangers

Safe and sound in a shit, literally subterranean hotel room in Xinlong, where I've stopped for a short day after a big day of 100+km yesterday coming off the Plateau. Xinlong, a muddy, unprepossessing concrete plop by the riverside, is not a place that merits much discussion, except as a place to get plenty of sleep and binge-watch Archer. Instead, and in its place, I would like you to consider a topic near and dear to my heart: tunnels.

On the ‘pro’ side of the tunnel debate, I submit the following: hundreds of vertical metres of climbing saved, travel time across the mountain cut to a fraction of what it would otherwise be, grateful legs.

As for the ‘con’ side of tunnels: TUNNELS ARE FUCKING TERRIFYING.

On my map, the G318 running east from Litang shows as a predictable squiggle climbing the mountain, complete with about 400 metres of up-down. Naturally though, this being China, as I approach what ought to be the climb, instead of a climb, there is a yawning black hole in the mountainside. You should grow accustomed to this travelling here: if the map that you are using is more than six months old, the roads have changed. This is not an exaggeration: you can actually count on it.

The sign at the entrance gives the tunnel’s length as 2830 metres. This is an insanely long distance to be trapped underground with the speeding gamut of cars, trucks and heavy equipment in a dark, close, poorly-ventilated space, if you hadn’t given yourself ample time to consider the psychic gravity of what actually entering this tunnel means.

Emerging from the tunnel’s mouth in the opposite direction are a small group of Chinese cyclists who, even if they most probably evince the national tendency to be incredibly cavalier about personal safety, also have not passed out from carbon monoxide. Canaries in the coal mine. Fuck, here we go.

There’s a narrow kind of elevated walkway along the side – I think, I’ll stay out of traffic and just walk the bike here. But the walkway is full of giant, hidden, yawning holes with a half-metre drop, and anyway is randomly scattered with construction debris that wholly prevents progress. Plus by a couple hundred metres in, the light from outside is gone, and the idea of being trapped in this dark, loud, terrifying, echo-y, airless tube for the 40 minutes that it would take me to walk to the other side is not psychologically viable. I wait for the trucks behind me to pass, then get on the bike and begin to pedal like hell.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a jerk, and this is the age of social media, so of course I stop to take pictures. And I’m also reliably craven, so when a giant truck rumbles up behind me, I jump up onto the walkway and wait for it to pass. Which seems wise, given that the insane drivers in the tunnel are doing things like driving in the oncoming lane to pass each other, with generally zero visibility.

The part of me that worries about flossing is likewise worried about the fumes I’m breathing as I’m pumping along, which really seems pretty academic given the speeding, murderous traffic in the confined space, but I keep sprinting and – thank god – light begins to spread along the walls. And then, just like that, I’m thru. Out onto the nomad plains, the brown hills dusted with light snow like confectioner’s sugar. Appreciating the tableau of yaks and marmots and the periodic dots of white tents where nomads are probably watching cat videos on their smartphones, because of course even nomads have smartphones now and there isn’t really much else out here in the way of entertainment.

Hours later I’m down in the lowlands again around 3000 metres and the sun is about forty minutes from going down. I’ve been riding along the river road with its steep canyon walls and generally enjoying the fact that the construction along the way means that the road is both pleasantly bad and low on traffic. But the steep walls mean that there are zero hideouts to camp in with flat space, and I’m not super keen to be out on the roads after dark, for a variety of reasons. Hell, even if I were, Xinlong is 50k away. It’s too far to ride tonight.

So I do what any sane person does: I ride up to the temple (hint: look for the gold roof) of a small village by the river and ask if they have a safe place I can put up my tent for the night. As an interesting aside, travelling here Chinese literacy is actually a pretty big problem: of the four people hanging out on the temple grounds, only one can read Chinese.

Ah, but we get there. Of course I can stay – no need for a tent, there’s a bed near the wood stove in the kitchen. And would you like dinner? We made vegetarian steamed buns. Here’s some butter tea! Oh, you are a western person and like butter tea! How wonderful!

Doing a night’s worth of communication via mime, tiny bits of shared language and Google Translate is a bit exhausting, but also pretty amazing. And here’s the weird thing: when you travel Tibet, you’ll see huge piles of stones everywhere carved with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. And you think, who in the hell has gone and carved Om Mani Padme Hum on these anonymous thousands upon thousands of stones? Well, my hosts, as it turns out. They show me the work they’ve done over the last six months; it’s a yard filled with stones, plus another, plus the wall ringing the gilded prayer hall. For a kwai a repetition, they carve the mantra, over and over and over, earning merit as well as a living. And when they go back to Ganzi, their home for which I’m bound in a couple days’ time, they tell me they will begin to travel to Lhasa.

I make the walking gesture with my fingers. No no, the big guy, the one with the belly says. Then he makes the gesture for a full prostration. Then he does it again. ‘Ganzi to Lhasa?’ I ask. ‘All of you?’ They all just smile; he makes the prostration motion again.

It is 1600 kilometres to Lhasa.

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Onto the Tibetan Plateau - Yading to Litang

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Onto the Tibetan Plateau - Yading to Litang

Yading – Daocheng – Litang

My lips are a constant paste of half-dried mucus and dead skin. It’s been that way for days, since the sickness in Yading when I lay shaking in a fever sleep for 36 hours straight, the bedclothes twisted around me and reeking of sweat, and myself wondering if I can really go on? But what else is there?

The sickness becomes like a well that you have to climb out of, so far down into your own tiredness and weakness and reluctance that all you want is something comfortable, something familiar –Netflix and coffee and sleep and Mexican food. But no. I leave the Super 8 in Yading on the third day, and the manager is clearly glad to see me gone, speaking into Google Translate on my phone: ‘This stay the Chinese Communist Party has no knowledge!’ Out into the sun, 25km along the river road, exhausted and crashing in a hollow hidden beside the highway, instant noodles and twisting sleep and into another endless morning of climbing.

I am over it. I am beyond over it. The road climbs up onto the Tibetan Plateau proper above 4000m and the earth is brown and bare and sun-scorched and rocky and dry and my head is swimming with dizziness and lightheadedness from the altitude. Every structure, with its walls of flat stones and wooden windowframes, flies the red banner of either China or the Communist Party. There is no choice. Tibet has always been a part of China.

I inch on for hours, crawling across the skin of the Earth like an insect, wanting just to lie down and sleep. Yet somehow, each time I’m done with it, over it, there comes some fresh wonder, and suddenly I am back in the experience again. There on the S216 the road crests, and I swoop down into Daocheng.

I descend past a wide dry stony riverbed and all along it there are the yellow-green buds of spring poplars, the houses brown and flat-roofed with animals behind walls of stones. Rewu monastery stands like some kind of ancient, austere, gilded vision across the valley. Vast chortens of broken mani stones dot the landscape, and there – smiling and fingering strings of prayer beads and saying tashi dele! are actual Tibetan people.  It’s all so like a postcard of Tibet it immediately makes me smile.  

In Daocheng itself, the city centre seems weirdly overdeveloped for such a small place, and is filled with literally dozens of empty restaurants, a single bored employee seated inside just looking at their phone. I wander the centre until I find a restaurant that’s actually patronized, and when I sit down, what do they serve but noodle soup? Lord, anything but noodle soup again.

Up again the next morning, cycling past endless fields of stones, red-cheeked Tibetan women waving from the roadside, their hair in long black plaits. Dogs barking in dusty yards behind walls of stone; yaks, rangy cows. Following the olive-drab river valley, winding slowly uphill, men gathering dead wood with the hollow thunk of axes into little trailers attached to ubiquitous puttering tractor-motors. People circuiting around the stupas like community living rooms, a place to gather and socialize while they walk clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels. Climb up into a strange high landscape above 4000 metres, endless fields of boulders left over from a vanished ice-cap. In a very Chinese detail, there is a point of interest by the roadside to commemorate an interesting geological feature that was destroyed in the construction of the road itself.

I descend from the pass at 4600m with the air suddenly frigid and the wind blowing a gale, and ask if I can shelter in the lee of the large vinyl tent of some nomads, and they’d invite me in, share food and tea. Of course they have smartphones. A teenage boy, Jongja, follows me out to my tent and watches me make up my camp bed and lie down with such intentness and for such a prolonged period that I can only conclude that a) there is essentially nothing to do here but stare at the walls, and I’m accordingly high entertainment, or b) he is going to murder me. But though I’m happy in my little tent sheltered from the wind, just before nightfall a new man arrives to the camp on a motorcycle, and the vibe off him is strange, ulterior. I resolve to leave before he wakes in the morning.

When I wake at daybreak the sky is cold-pressed lead and there are a few flakes of snow in the air. I’m dead tired, but I immediately begin packing up my tent, a single cold hard Snickers bar in my stomach, which is quickly becoming a staple of my cycling diet.

By the time I’m halfway up to the top of the pass on the other side of the valley, legs shot and screaming with lactic acid, the weather’s developed into a full-on snowstorm, and the ice flakes are blowing sideways into my face like needles.

Yet Litang is still 75 km away, and after the rough transit of the last week – a wreck, a sickness, and more than 10 vertical kilometres of climbing, I need a real sanctuary and not just another night in a tent with instant noodles.

So: up to the top, so tired, so cold, then down, down, down. Numb hands, numb feet; my glasses are fogged over and covered in water droplets and I can only see thru a small window in the corner. The road curves down into a haze of snow and cloud, and I’m wearing so many layers beneath my helmet that it feels like I’m packaged.

Yet far beyond exhaustion, the whole day spent endlessly thermo-regulating, putting layers on, taking layers off, chilled or pouring sweat, I finally make it into Litang. Checked into my hotel, the evening is cold, drizzly and damp, people wandering the tumbledown streets in the murk, passing like apparitions. The town feels rough, Tibetans like frontierspeople in broadbrimmed leather hats, fingering prayer beads or spinning prayer wheels. Monks in maroon robes and sandals, the strange floppy yellow hats of the Gelugpa sect on their heads. Even after days at altitude I’m breathless climbing the stairs to my room. But I’ve arrived.

In the monastery up above the town a gargantuan 10-metre-tall statue of Tsong-kapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, dominates a prayer hall. The ceilings and walls are a riot of Tibetan Buddhist iconography – benevolent dieties, fierce deities engulfed in flames – and offerings of yuan notes overflow from nooks and niches where supplicants have stuffed them.

I feel like there’s something to be worthy of here, the landscape and the culture so wild and unique, and myself so privileged to be able to witness and to transit it.  But really what is there to say? The Tibetan religious aesthetic seems to be things piled and heaped and tangled – prayer flags and stones, statues and skulls, mandalas and thangkas – such that the accumulation bears testament to piety and to intent.

I wonder if what I am doing is so different – this tangle of words, of photographs? It signals intent, yes. But does it add to something worthy? That very much remains to be seen.

 

  

 

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