Rolling the day away

It’s been a bad day at work. A vision-squeezing stressful kind of day. When the headache persists after a cup of tea, comfort food and some venting, one of us somehow summons the motivation to get out. And then, faster than second thoughts, we are out the door with our bikes. Out to the fields, out to the forest.

When the wheels hit the trail we are pedalling fast out the gate, racing our demons, chased by them. It is already late and the light is dusky and heavy with humidity. Parched by days without rain, the forest colours are muted, and here and there I notice the trees looking somewhat crumpled. Even the trail is a dull brown ribbon snaking through the undergrowth, a smudged canvas on which we roll out our frustrations.

We attack the first hill and I wrestle my bike and my brain to keep both glued to the trail, but there is not much time to savour the satisfaction that I’m making it before the sourness and burning starts. That taste in my throat – I don’t know what to call it, it is a mile-run-time-trial-in-the-6th-grade taste – but it goes with that lung-bursting feeling that goes with that leg-burning feeling and it is awful but it feels so good. So good to have something real to rage at: the pain, the hill, the bike, the burning.

At the top of each hill, we collapse onto our handlebars, rip off backpacks, helmets, gloves – everything is so oppressive – I feel like I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t get it all off of me. The weight of not just the things on our backs but the weight of the storm-laden air, of my heavy breathing, of the world: I can’t tell if they are adding up or canceling out tonight. And so we push swiftly on into the next climb, knowing the leg-exploding is around the bend and plunging into that place anyway. At the next break we are nauseous, gasping, speechless.

A third climb, and finally the frustration has been squeezed out, or maybe we just know the worst is over, and we are coasting, rolling, loving this upper section of open forest. The deepest part of the woods is ahead, and up there lies a rough stretch of rocks, but the darkness takes the edge off and reminds me to lift my head and look further out, and then I’m flying down the last open curves, leaning into them, gently pulling, firmly pushing, simply riding. Relaxed now, I let up on the brakes, roll over rock and root, faster and faster, the speed smoothing the trail under my wheels. Feeling the flow, finally. Finally feeling everything good there is to feel about this, about everything in this moment.

Fulfilled, I can go home and rest now.

The trail is the thing

“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.”

Louis L’Amour

My blog has a whole new look but in the spirit of writing, I am posting a photo from today’s trail. We ran out the front door, down the hill to Route du Soleil and then up to Clambin (the cluster of chalets where the lovely Chez Dany restaurant is). 

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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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”