Viewing entries tagged
adventure travel

'Osh and the Edge' Kyrgyzstan Feature PUBLISHED on Bikepacking.com

'Osh and the Edge' Kyrgyzstan Feature PUBLISHED on Bikepacking.com

Bikepacking.com has run a feature of mine, titled ‘Osh and the Edge’ on the attempt to pioneer a bikepacking route over the Alai Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan. Covering the topics of adventure and adventure-travel writing, it’s a look at the sometimes beautiful and sometimes stupid and dangerous ways in which we’re driven to find our limits.

Give ‘Osh and the Edge’ a read here if you’re curious!

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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 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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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 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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The Secret Road: Zhongdian to Yading

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The Secret Road: Zhongdian to Yading

On the highway forty kilometres north of Zhongdian there's an unassuming turnoff to a rough dirt road thru the high mountains. I'd been told about this 'secret road' by a cyclist named Matthew Harris back in Sydney. He said the road was truly very bad, but also very beautiful. That sounded perfect to me.

It was a long steep hellish climb along the road past a large-scale earthworks project, complete with dynamite blasting and a cracking altitude headache. Waking the next morning and continuing on into the high mountains, though, the views felt well earned. The mountains were wild and snowcapped and sharp and I drank snowmelt straight as it poured into freezing streams off the huge snowfields there. Past the flapping prayer flags at 4600m, the road wound down in rough, rocky, muddy tracks crossed by torrents of meltwater, an hour of white-knuckled ripping downslope that's as fun as any riding I've done. 

It ended, like so much here, in a raw gouge in the earth snaking ambiguously downward, which presented a navigational problem. A paved road? Well, that naturally leads somewhere. A battlefield-like maze of Chinese construction tracks coming off a mountain at 3800m, pocked and rutted and covered in moon dust two inches thick? Well, let's just say that just because you have a GPS doesn't mean you aren't lost. The roads you're on don't technically exist yet, and they're all the more treacherous for it. My brake rotors were too hot to touch, and bouncing from one gigantic, dust-covered pothole to another, I found myself pitched off the bike and lightly bleeding. Nonetheless, this was the precisely the route I'd chosen my equipment for. The 29+ platform, even fully loaded, made the secret road not just possible, but fun.

And when I finally reached the tarmac again near the hamlet of Geka, filthy and aching, I bivvied by the river, washing the dirt off my body by moonlight beneath the high steep walls. In the morning, a gorgeous 2000m climb on landslide canyon roads to a freezing pass in the spooky twilight, then descending screaming-fast to the village of Echu, where I found no lodging but instead a group of ambiguously friendly strangers who bundled me into a van to a Super 8 Motel in city I had no idea even existed, just in time for me to become violently ill.

That secret road thru the mountains, though, was indeed the real deal.

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