How do you rearrange the world when you tell a story?

“On the long journeys doubts were often my companions. I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take a sampling of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges it in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

I took this photo while we were having a fried-rice lunch at a roadside stand in southern Thailand. I thought this man looked very pensive. I could say he was worried. He might have been satisfied. Then again he was probably just enjoying his cigarette. Whatever I tell you it’s my mirror of reality.

This is it! A video of the bike trip

Did you know that our trip is helping to raise awareness about melanoma skin cancer? I’d love it if you’d watch our video to find out why. Please also consider donating to Melanoma Institute Australia, the charity Adam chose to support. Adam is aiming to generate $5000 in donations for them, and every little bit helps. Here’s a link to the donation page.

View the This is it! video by Adam Hughes on Vimeo or right here:

A snapshot of true Tajikistan

Father and son, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

– Sal Paradise in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I took this photo the morning that we said goodbye to the family that took us in for the night, fed us dinner and all their vodka plus the neighbor’s, and made us sleep in their only bedroom while they all slept in the living room.


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Responsible happiness

The Maximiser

Detour off the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

My friends tease me for being a maximizer, a person who “needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made”. Now that we’re getting close to home I’m slowly transitioning from bike touring to ‘normal life’. I am spending less time figuring out how to get edible food, and more time wondering what a palatable post-bike touring career/lifestyle could be. Instead of asking a Chinese noodle restaurant “What is the best, cheapest dish on your menu that is typical of Sichuan province but is not too spicy and preferably does not have Sichuan pepper in it?” I’m now asking, “May I please have a fulfilling, fun, meaningful, ethical, well-paid conservation job that still leaves me plenty of time to kiteboard, rockclimb, snowboard, take photos and spend time with my family?” I know, I know, I should try to satisfice or simplify more (the healthy opposites of maximizing).

It’s not helping that I keep looking at photos on adventure sports sites like this one or this one and reading articles by people who give themselves the job title of “Adventurer / Author / Motivational Speaker”. Alastair Humphreys (the round-the-world cyclist whose book inspired my journey) actually makes a living writing and talking about his adventures. Making a living by doing what you love: I can’t say the idea hasn’t crossed my mind. But is that really what I want? Would I feel like I deserved it?

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.

– Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness

When I think about doing something I love as a career (e.g. outdoor sports) I feel like I need to justify the decision in terms of environmental benefit. I don’t know why because most people have a job that they do just to make a living. They’re not trying to save the planet or solve child malnutrition. Doing something and getting paid for it is what humans have to do, and it’s a valid pursuit in life (as long as it’s not harming the planet or others). Is it pretentious to think I will only feel fulfilled if I have a job that helps the planet? On the other hand, is it respectable to choose a job just because it seems like it would let me have a lot of fun?

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

– Leo Tolstoy

Some people think that happiness is “a trivial American preoccupation”, that it’s self-indulgent. Despite a heavy conscience of guilt for not doing more for the environment, I disagree. In fact I believe taking care of your own happiness is the first place to start to make the world a better place. Happy people are more likely to smile, to care, to give, and to think about the well-being of others. I also feel strongly that we each have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to our community – both local and global.

What I’m doing now is really fun: I love improving my kiteboarding and exploring the world by bicycle. I often laugh with glee when I manage to get my kite to pull me several meters off the water’s surface or carve a perfect snowboard turn down a powder slope. All of this makes me happy. I know I need these things in my life because they bring me happiness that gives me energy and motivation to take on the daunting task of being a conservationist. I’m close to arriving home to Switzerland but I know this is only the beginning of my journey in responsible happiness.

The books and websites that inspired this entry:

Country Report: China

Giant Panda Bear, Chengdu Panda Center
Giant Panda Bear, Chengdu Panda Center

A conservationist-on-wheels’ take on China
What do you think of when you think of China? The Great Wall, panda bears and 16,000 plants that exist in no other place on earth?

Environmental catastrophe with smoke-filled skies? Mysterious dictatorship and upcoming superpower? One BILLION people?

Adam sharing the road with Chinese trucks
Adam sharing the road with Chinese trucks

I spent two months there and rode over 2,200km but even so only managed to cross two out of 33 provinces. The sheer size of it means that the small transect I saw hardly gives me any fair claim to having a valid conservation perspective on the place.

What I saw (and heard and smelled)

The minute I stepped into China the sounds, the lights, the smells, everything about it was screaming: we are modern! We are commercial! It had capitalism painted all over it. A land of contrasts: some brand new highways had hardly any cars on them and some old roads were packed with trucks racing around full of workers and building supplies.

Beautifully smooth new highway along a hydroelectric dam reservoir - and no cars!
Beautifully smooth new highway along a hydroelectric dam reservoir – and no cars!

In one visually pretty valley the air was filled with an undescribably sickening smell. This was even worse than the pollution I had heard about. I learned that there can be no beauty if the sensory experiences of it are not in harmony.

We climbed up this pretty valley as fast as we could because it smelled really bad.
We climbed up this pretty valley as fast as we could because it smelled really bad.
Lovely scenery, terrible smell of pollution.
Lovely scenery, terrible smell of pollution.

And the noise! Oh, the noise. Honking, honking, screeching, shouting, spitting! Noise noise noise noise!

Making our way through a traffic jam in a small village in southern Yunnan province on market day.
Making our way through a traffic jam in a small village in southern Yunnan province on market day.

Fortunately, the majority of our time was spent in rural areas which were completely different. There were the endless fields of small tidy rectangles of vegetables, all tended by human hands – hardly a machine or work animal in sight.

Neat and tidy farming on the road between Dali and Shaxi, Yunnan Province.
Neat and tidy farming on the road between Dali and Shaxi, Yunnan Province.
In southern Yunnan province you certainly can't accuse the Chinese of being lazy!
In southern Yunnan province you certainly can’t accuse the Chinese of being lazy!
It was fun biking through piles of hay that they raked into the road for vehicles to crunch up.
It was fun biking through piles of hay that they raked into the road for vehicles to crunch up.

And along one busy road we saw more birds in one tree than we had in all of southeast Asia. In the remote areas the birdlife was even more wonderful: enormous vultures, buzzards, hoopoes, a blood pheasant and a white-eared rosefinch.

We'd been tracking the large, shy, ground-running Blood Pheasant around our campsite a few nights before we saw this photo of one in some monks' house where we were having breakfast. Near Xiahe, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
We’d been tracking the large, shy, ground-running Blood Pheasant around our campsite a few nights before we saw this photo of one in some monks’ house where we were having breakfast. Near Xiahe, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.

All countries have their ugly industrial areas, uninteresting agricultural lands and over-crowded tourist attractions (though the Chinese definitely win the competition for making their ancient World Heritage cities most like Disneyland). Nonetheless, it was a particularly sweet reward once we’d pedalled through all of that to get to the Tibetan plateau.

This is the far eastern edge of that huge white blob on your map, the roof of the world, Shangri-La, the Tibet of your dreams and more, and it is fantastic. We spent almost two weeks riding above 4,000m, crossing high mountains passes, across boulder-strewn plateaus, past Tibetans  spinning their prayer wheels and through bird-filled forests. This part of China is still sparsely populated, reasonably forested, not too polluted and simply awe-inspiring.

Beautiful place, terrible road: can there be any harmony? Between Shangri-La and Litang in Southwest Sichuan Province.
Beautiful place, terrible road: can there be any harmony? Between Shangri-La and Litang in Southwest Sichuan Province.
View from a pass in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park, northwest corner of Yunnan Province (just southeast of Tiger Leaping Gorge)
View from a pass in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park, northwest corner of Yunnan Province (just southeast of Tiger Leaping Gorge)
Tibetan Buddhist monastery, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
Tibetan Buddhist monastery, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
Bikes going up, yaks coming down. Western Sichuan Province.
Bikes going up, yaks coming down. Western Sichuan Province.

So what did I think of China?

I must admit that a combination of our inward struggles and the difficulty of all modes of communication – Chinese don’t do charades – made it very difficult to make connections, and as such to get more than a superficial understanding of this infamous place. It seemed that each time I thought I would explode with frustration an exceptionally nice Chinese person would turn up out of nowhere and create one of those special moments. In the same day that our jeep driver made me so mad I yelled at him, a man on a scooter spent one hour escorting us around Chengdu to help us find our hostel. When we finally got there he zipped off barely giving us a chance to yell thanks and xie xie ni!

From a conservation perspective, parts of China were terrifyingly polluted, others were magnificently huge and wild. As a bike-tourer, China certainly gave me some of my most fizzing highs of the trip and my most frustrating lows. Adam put it well on his blog, Chinese Mind Games – and this much I know is true: China is very very different from anywhere else I’ve been.

See more of China through my huge set of photos and captions – though to experience the smells and sounds you’ll have to cycle it yourself!

Getting refreshed

I’m a guilt-free conservationist….
It just dawned on me that in the same way we needed to take a break from biking to help us refresh our energy and curiosity, this year of traveling is also a way for me to renew my passion for conservation work. As such I don’t feel guilty about not writing more regularly about environmental issues. Instead, writing about Playground Earth is my way of having a positive take on the natural world and linking two passions: outdoor adventures and conservation.

I’ve recently set up a Facebook page called Learning Conservation to help reach a wider audience. I’ve also linked this blog to FB and I hope these changes will help me reach a larger audience. Coming soon: more on the next phase of the journey, an exploration of Playground Earth from the boat we will be sailing across the Mediterranean in September!

You can now “Like” my blog posts, “Send” them to others or comment on them here or on FB. Getting your feedback is very helpful so I hope I’ll hear from you!

In Tajikistan, looking across the river to the pretty villages in Afghanistan
In Tajikistan, looking across the river to the pretty villages in Afghanistan

Getting inspired by reality: lessons rolling by in Laos

My bike and the Laos mountains
My bike and the Laos mountains

A brief overview of my experience biking across Laos and a link to the photos. 

After Cambodia (read my blog report about it here), we rode from south to north across Laos. The highlight was a week of fantastic climbing at a small climber’s paradise of bungalows nestled at the foot of some karst peaks near Thakhek. And finally, after months of almost entirely flat biking we reached mountains in northern Laos. One night as we stumbled into a guesthouse on wobbly legs after a particularly long climb (about 26km of steep uphill) we noticed two other touring bikes and an older American couple popped around the corner. In chipper voices they explained that if you just go into the kitchen you can scoop out half a bucket of boiling water from the giant cauldron which you can mix with the cold water from the tap down the hall and have a really fantastic warm bucket shower! After following their advice we sat down for a drink with them and learned that they had also done the same climb as us – but they had done it the week before, reached the lovely town of Luang Prabang, had a rest, and decided to turn back and do it all again! We straightened up in our chairs and pretended not to be so tired as we heard all about their adventures bike touring for three months every year for the last 35 years! Sally and Peter were just the kind of energizing inspiration we needed to make the hills for the next few days not seem quite so steep. They have a great website called Ride the Road.

Aside from these inspiring encounters, our experience of Laos seemed very different to what our friends and guide books described just a few years ago. I had imagined pedalling along forested roads with almost no traffic. What I saw instead was cleared land, extensive burning and many trucks and (expensive) cars. To be fair, we also passed many signs for protected areas down side roads away from the main road we were traveling, but overall this was not the still-pristine tropical cyclist’s paradise others before us had described. After a few days of this I decided to reread the guidebook a little closer and noticed that Laos’ GDP is growing at a rate of almost 8% per year. A similar thing had happened to me on a different trip to Malaysia when I visited some small islands that online articles written just three years earlier had described as idyllic willdlife spots, dotted with a few simple bungalows and free of ATMs, internet and too much tourist development. When I arrived there was trash and huge ugly concrete piers on every beach.

All of this has made me think about how rapid growth affects a country and what scary truths hide behind the polished face of tourism. Tourism is supposedly the largest sector of the world economy. And where tourists go, the industry has a significant impact on the environment and social conditions of an area. I’ve considered working in ecotourism because I like bringing people in contact with nature in ways that gives them an inspiring experience that might lead them to care that much more about our natural environment. But trying to create a special experience for tourists is one of the greatest risks of the business if it leads to ancient communities being relocated from natural areas to make them seem more pristine or other such absurd but unmentioned rearrangements of landscapes to match tourist expectations. The truth is that not all of our experiences in nature will be beautiful and inspiring. The question is how do we give people a realistic experience of the natural world (and the social conditions that shape it) that motivates them to be more environmentally conscious in their daily lives?

To see what I saw in Laos take a look at my photos from 1,700km and six weeks of biking across the country.

The journey is the reward, the reason, the lesson

My friends Valérie and Gérard recently posted a great quote in a comment on this blog:

A journey does not need reasons. Before long, it proves to be reason enough in itself. One thinks that one is going to make a journey, yet soon it is the journey that makes or unmakes you.

– Nicolas Bouvier (Translated from L’Usage du monde)

A moment for contemplation, near Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan
A moment for contemplation, near Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan

I want to write more about environmental issues in the places I’m visiting. I want to have time to find local conservationists and interview them and share their stories with you. It would be fun to be your eyes around the world, showing you what the planet is like and what people are doing to protect our natural world. It’s not that easy.

Language is a far bigger barrier than I expected. There are times when we meet someone who speaks a few words of English and we realize, usually with surprise and relief, that they are the first person we’ve spoken to besides each other in over a week. Fatigue and the logistics of arranging six date-specific visas for consecutive countries are also more preoccupying than I would have thought.

Faced with a growing list of conservation questions for which I can find no one to answer, I  find myself turning inwards to the space where I am learning about myself and the psychology of journeys – geographical, physical, emotional and intellectual journeys.

Every time I’ve left my home bubble, half-thinking I will go out and learn something about the world, I actually learn more about myself and uncover more questions about our world.

Where we thought to travel outward we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with the world.

– John Cambell

A thousand roads, a thousand lives ahead

Thousand roads, thousand lives
Thousand roads, thousand lives

On the road in China

“Ain’t you thinkin’ what’s it gonna be like when we get there? Ain’t you scared it won’t be nice like we thought?”
“No,” she said quickly. “No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much–livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one.”

– Rosasharn and Ma in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

When you’re biking you have to choose a road and go with it. Bike-touring provides far too much time to wonder what lies ahead and what you are missing down each road you cannot take. We can’t do it all and that’s good because when a place starts to wear you down, it helps to leave some areas unexplored, to save some hope in another beautiful place around the corner — blank spots in your mental map to fill in another day.

China Challenge

We pedalled into China with 30-day visas and over 5,300km of road between us and the exit at the Kazakhstan border. Knowing we could renew our visas twice we applied some simple and, at the time, logical calculations and decided we would need to average just over 70km per day for about three months straight, not including rest days. We called it China Challenge and ambitiously raced off, optimistic that we would triumph over Chinese bureaucracy and pedal every kilometer across this massive country, maintaining a continuous line of human-powered transport home.
The problem is, China already is a challenge Continue reading “China Challenge”