Monday, March 28, 2005
Round 1; Biking from Mengla to the Lao border
In an act of outrageous audacity, I began to mimic my better prepared sister's past endeavors. I decided to bike from Mengla, China down into Lao and around the north part of the country for a couple of weeks. To simplify matters, I waited until reaching Mengla to buy a bicycle. Mistake #1. Mengla is not a large town so the choices open to me were, shall we say, less than copious. There were dual suspension mountain bikes upon which it is impossible to mount any sort of luggage rack. The single gear 200lb bikes were also not very appealing (though one in particular had a great luggage system). My final option was a semi-mountain bike. Had the tires and look, many gears, no suspension, and a luggage rack on the back. Not very quality, but a very short practice ride convinced me that it would work. And it was only $20 or so. Money changed hands and I rode back to my hotel to prepare for the morning's departure.
Silently the sun glided into the sky and I roused from my slumber, excited to begin my journey. Instead of eating breakfast, I rode back to the bike shop so that the wheels could be trued and the gears and brakes adjusted. Without question the deeds were completed. Satisfied, I returned to the hotel and loaded up. Lashing the large backpack sideways across the rear luggage bar I mounted my small backpack on my back, adjusted my new wide sunhat and set off.
Mistake #2 (a multi-tiered mistake):
a) No exercise had tainted my body for 2 months.
b) My dietary plan was horrendous for over a month (combined with a bout of giardia) and for one month I relegated myself to almost undereating.
c) My buttocks had not rested upon a bike seat since the previous November
d) No true map rested in my hands, and the actual distance I needed to cover was more than a little murky to me.
Not one to let little things like 'foresight' get in my way, I pedaled off, enjoying the cool morning air and beautiful countryside.
In the beginning, it was great. A little hilly, but nothing serious. Fields of rice and other crops stretched out between the hills. Little villages dotted the valleys and hillsides. People flourished...everywhere (it is China, there's something like 800 trillion people in the country). "Hello"s greeted me from all sides. Kids waved, old men smoked opium from large pipes as I cruised past, strange looks followed me from behind.
An hour in I stopped atop a hill with a beautiful view and ate my breakfast (banana, raisins and peanuts). Tarrying only a brief time I set off quickly. Maybe an hour later, 'issues' began. My legs, unused to doing anything more vigorous than sitting, began to protest at the larger hills. Walking commenced on the steeps; easier, though my load was not light so even this took some work. A Belgian man pulled up behind me laughing as I walked up one hill. He told me that because of my bike, hat and luggage arrangement he thought I was Chinese! Haha, ya know? Him and his tight biking shorts and fancy bike and stuff. 2 Belgians coming from the other direction (all fancied out, of course) joined in the conversation and they left wishing me luck with my bike. A nice guy, however. It was nice to ride with him and chat for a little while. But when my chain made a leap for safety (sceond time that day) on an uphill, I convinced him to dally with me no longer. Off he went; I dirtied my hands again.
I stopped in one small town to buy beverages and was greeted all around with smiles. For a couple kilometers 2 Chinese lads rode along with me, talking with me all the while (effortlessly keeping up on their single gear bikes, of course). Folks working the fields and roads waved or paused long enough to gawk. I took a short nap on the side of the road, enjoying the cool breeze penetrating the shade to dry my sweaty pits. Another short almost nap took me over a couple hours later. The people all along the way were very nice and I've decided that I am tired of buses and the like; a bicycle is an incredible way to see a place and gives a much better insight into a place. It is much more fun to cruise thru at less than breakneck pace and let things soak in more.
Knowledge I gleaned (and will probably forget) from the experience:
Be in shape. Otherwise it hurts. Near the end, there were several moments at which I almost tossed my bike into a ditch (mabe not 'throw' so much as 'drop', due to my state of exhaustion) and hitched a ride. Fortunately, incredible fortitude (thick-headed stubbornness) is innate in my family so I kept at it. Near the end I was walking the bike up anything steeper than an even grade. Headrush, headrush, stagger, giggle, push on.
Food more substantial than peanuts and raisins would be ideal for a long ride. That energy thing helps.
Research your ride. Going from months of inactivity and bad food directly into a 56 km ride is not an easy transition.
Padded shorts are a good idea. My undercarriage hurt for days.
Don't buy a Chinese bike (like the one I bought, anyway).
That night I ate dinner with the Belgian guy who passed me as well as with an American and 2 other Belgians I met at the border (all bikers, heading up from Lao). Beer and real food tasted excellent. We chatted biking and whatnot, and for sure that is a mode of travel I will adopt someday. Anyone want to give me a bike?
The next morn I rose early, intending to find a bike shop and see if my ride was salvagable. I mounted up and 3 turns of the pedals later I gave up. Grabbing my packs, I left the bike in the room and walked to and across the Lao border.