Strange Sleeps in Xinjiang

In my last post “Alone In China” I mentioned being ushered from foreign hotel to foreign hotel. In Xinjiang Province, there are certain hotels specifically for foreigners. They are a rare find, however.

One afternoon, for example, I was taken in a police van for 200 km, past four different cities, in search of a foreign hotel. Once we finally reached the intended city, the border patrol told us that, in fact, there was no foreign hotel here, either. It was 11 pm at this time and I actually started laughing out loud. “HAHA Why did you take me here!!!?” They were just doing their job, I understood that, but REALLY?! Isn’t that something that you’d check before driving for hours?!! It was a bit comical, but I had a situation on my hands. Camping is forbidden, but there is no foreign hotel. What to do?

Then, I saw him. A tall, lanky, string bean of a man with white hair, sun tanned skin and micro mini pink short-shorts. I probably scared him half to death when I ran over screaming “HELLO! WHERE ARE YOU FROM? YOU’RE THE FIRST FOREIGNER I’VE SEEN IN DAYS! WHEN DID YOU GET HERE?” It was a bit much. But I was so unreasonably excited to speak to someone and have a big ole laugh about what we were going through separately but together.

His name is Marcel, or something like that. He’s an adventurer from Belgium that was traveling by tricle (trycle?) The point was to race other Europeans to Beijing using only solar power and human power.

Anyway, overwhelmed by my energetic presence or not, Marcel and I decided to persuade the guards to let us pitch our tents at the border where they could see us and we’d be on our way early morning. They reluctantly agreed and we started unloading our things.

Marcel didn’t have a free-standing tent so I offered for him to share my tent. He looked trustworthy enough. We spent the night sharing tales of the road and about our lives before this adventure and at some point in the conversation we drifted to sleep. Thank the universe he wasn’t a creep or a snorer. We slept well, despite the occasional truck headlights illuminating the tent and were both up at 7 am saying our goodbyes and riding our separate ways.

 

I had many a strange sleep in Xinjiang Province, the last, however, was probably amongst the strangest. It was my last day in the province and I had spent that day zooming downhill through a lush gorge with waterfalls, horses and small yurts tucked between rock walls. Finally arriving to the border town, Khorgas, I searched for a foreign hotel to sleep. It was near nightfall and I had been to about 15 hotels which had all rejected me. “No foreigners allowed” they said. Strange for a border town. So, I went to the one place that I had been avoiding for the past week– the police station, to ask for help. They accompanied me to 3 or 4 more hotels until eventually, they also gave up. I was nearly in tears, exhausted from the day and from the constant rejection.

A woman who worked in the last hotel was watching and listening as the police officers tried to decide what to do with me. Eventually, she approached. She spoke to them in Chinese, left, spoke to her boss and returned. They chatted some more amongst themselves until eventually, they told me she’d let me sleep in her room beneath the hotel. “Is that okay?” They police asked me through their phone translators. “Yes, thank you!!! Any bed at this point is fine!!”

The woman led the police officers and me to the back of the hotel through an alley way that smelled of piss and cigarettes. Rats scurried from behind boxes when they heard our footsteps approaching the backdoor. It creaked open with difficulty and we proceeded down the dark steps and into a hallway lit with flourecent flickering lights and finally into her bedroom. There was a single bed with colorful bedsheets and a dresser with photos of her friends and family, a hairbrush and some make up. In the corner of the room were a couple of pairs of clothing and her uniforms.

 

She told me I could stay for free and that she would go to a friends house for the night. “The shower’s just there” She pointed to the room next door. “Sorry about the smell.” It was, indeed, repulsive. But I hadn’t showered in a few days so I held my breath and made it a quick one.

I slept well that night, got up in the morning, and got the hell out of China.

ONE MONTH!

ONE MONTH!!!

We are all connected. I left down a road in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and with fewer turns than you can imagine, I am in Dali, China. The roads may have changed names but they flow into one another, into country after country and after a while this road will bring me all the way to the other side of the world. Let that sink in for a moment. You can leave your front door in Princeton, Denver, Bhaktapur, Changwon– ANYWHERE– and end up on the other side of the world with the push of a bicycle. If that isn’t a unifying and freeing thought, I don’t know what is. It is a thought that has utterly consumed my mind from the commencement of this journey and brought me a sense of connection that startles the soul. It’s journey that allows you to join in on the dance of human spirit.

While all of these roads are connected, they are only mere splices of the countries that I am traveling through. They are glimpses into Thai hippy towns, stilted Laos villages and Chinese cities that seem to be popping up out of nowhere. With slow and sometimes arduous pushes of my bicycle pedals I’ve seen landscapes change under my tires and customs changes across borders. I still miss the Laos children running out into the streets  with a big ‘SABAI DEEEEE!’ with their hands outstretched for a high five.

On these roads that connect us all, I’ve started my days quite similarly. After a terrible instant coffee, I take the few items I own and shove them down my waterproof Ortlieb panniers and open up maps.me to scout out possible stopping destinations and altitude maps for the day. The rest of the day however, I am in the hands of the road. Whether the day is marked by the watermelon truck drivers who pull me over to share some watermelons and selfies or the Laos Gibbons Experience Tour Guides who shared conversations with me before all jumping into a river fully clothed to find relief from the heat of the day, every day has its mark.

Sometimes, the day brings me the most glorious of gifts. New friends from different countries crammed into an abandoned shack in the middle of a rice patty field, surrounded by fireflies and the sound of water making its way through the fields, eating a hodgepodge of sticky rice, tomatoes and mushrooms and laughing at the absurdities of life, comes to mind. Being alone on the road can be difficult sometimes but luckily, when you need it the most, friends appear.

5 months ago, I met Oliver, who had been working in Beijing for three years. He heard about my bike trip and months later, after taking a flight to meet me in Xishuanbanna, we were cycling along side each other en route to Kunming. In Kunming, I met three cyclists in a hostel and nearly one week later, here we are all together in Dali, planning a route out together.

In this month, I have been invited into so many homes, dinner tables, and even given free lifts when the day is heavy with heat and my face, painted with exhaustion. I have been baffled with how much can change in only a few miles and yet how much stays the same. The human spirit– the will to help one another, the innate curiosity for that which is different and the ability to enjoy and bring life to the mundane, is what stays the same.

It’s been a hell of a month full of unlearning and an increased level of curiosity and a trust that everyday has a gem waiting for me somewhere. Let’s see what these next few months have in store..

Tailwinds,

Nicole.

 

Thailand Summary

Day 1 : March 8

  • Chiang Mai — Mae Kuang Dam
  • 50 km

Read blog post 1 for details.


Day 2 : March 9

  • Mae Kuang Dam — Maejo
  • 15 km

I woke up in the morning after my wild first day. I hadn’t slept much, as expected, and my phone was still dead. I decided that finding the major road and hoping that I was heading North was a good start! So I got on my bike and pedaled hard for an hour or two until I saw the Thai version of a strip mall. I asked them if they sold phone chargers for iphones. They gave me a funny look and a Thai woman turned around and got in her car. “Rude..” I thought to myself, distressed and not up for anymore setbacks. She returned 5 minutes later with a brand new charger and handed it over. “Gift” she said. I charged my phone for a bit and realized I was going the wrong way and that I was nearly back in Chiang Mai. “Oh, Nicole..” I stopped in Maejo for the night after seeking out a bike shop to check over my bike after my mini crash a day ago. The people there were insanely lovely. They gave me some water, sodas and electrolytes AND a giant bushel of bananas. They get me.


Day 3 March 10

  • Maejo — Past Mae Taeng
  • ~50 km

In the morning, I woke up early and packed my things. I was feeling a really let down from the past two days but I put on Zoe’s playlist that she made for my trip and ended up riding two hours past my destination!! I was on a total high. SUCCESS!!! Nothing of consequence really happened that day. Beautiful landscapes and pushing my boundaries were the theme. I rested well that night in a motel on the side of the road.


Day 4 : March 11

  • Past Mae Taeng – Chiang Dao
  • ~ 40 km

Because I had over shot my destination the night prior, I got to Chiang Dao pretty quickly. I was there in the early afternoon and checked into the Chiang Dao Country Retreat. It was a sanctuary. I put my things in my personal bungalow and wrapped myself in a eucalyptus infused towel after a hot shower. For less than 10 USD, I was in heaven and was finally able to process the first three days of my journey. Other than stuffing my face with delicious Thai food, the day was mostly relaxed. I did some laundry (much needed) and tried out my camping stove. The stove spit gasoline and black smoke billowed.. I decided to try it again another time.


Day 5 : March 12

REST DAY CHIANG DAO

How could I leave?! The nature was so peaceful and my poor body wasn’t sure how it felt about sitting on a bike and pedaling. So I rested. I rested real hard. When I think about to my day in Chiang Dao, I think the only energy that I exerted, was to get up and eat.. A rest day properly spent.


Day 6 : March 13

  • Chiang Dao — Fang
  • ~ 111 km

What a day this was! I had two options for the day: Follow the 107 to Fang, shaving off km and miles and the option of getting lost, or heading a bit North West to the Burmese border and then looping my way back East to Fang. I chose the latter. This route took me through tiny Thai, Burmese and Chinese villages. The landscapes changed and the elevation grew. The earth turned bright clay red. At some point, I became aware that my pace was too slow. I was worried I wouldn’t make it to Fang before nightfall. So, I stuck out my thumb and within minutes a white pickup truck, driven by a 19 year-old Thai boy and his mother, pulled over. They happily helped me load my bike into their car and drove me to their village, which was on the way to Fang. We tried so hard to communicate but ended up just laughing at ourselves and our silly hand gestures in the end. They left me in their town, and I rode for 3 more hours, getting into the city just before dark. Tired doesn’t even begin to describe my state of being. Think, too tired to eat noodles… something is very wrong with that.


Day 7 : March 14

  • Fang — Tha Ton (73 km) — Chiang Rai 53.9 km
  • Total 126 km

“This was supposed to be my easy day!” I Thought to myself one hour outside of Tha Ton, the town that was meant to be my stopping point for the day. Yet, there I was, pedalling in the heat of the day, watching a blip of a person riding off ahead of me. “How is he so fit…?” I met Jeroen inside a coffee shop in Tha Ton after completing an easy, flat, morning ride. I spotted a bike with bags on the bag and went inside to have a coffee and investigate. After mustering some courage I decided to approach him and see where he was going and within 15 minutes, we were headed towards Chiang Rai together. Would I have agreed, knowing that the entire day would be ups and downs? Honestly, yes. Riding with Jeroen was such a gift. As he glided and I trudged my way up hills, he’d be waiting patiently at the top with encouraging words. After a few hours of riding and a small hitchhike, we ended up in Chiang Rai. We dove into the backpacker life, staying in a hostel called Sook Jai, swinging in hammocks, and partying the night away– beer was well-deserved!


Day 8 : March 15

Chiang Rai — Waterfalls

On our rest day we rented scooters and swam in waterfalls. Bliss.


Day 9 : March 16

Chiang Rai — pool day

This day was luxury. We went to see the famous blue temple in the morning and spent the rest of the day at a resort. We had asked to use their pool and for a few USD we were granted permission. We had the whole place to ourselves. I felt incredibly spoiled and ready to ride again the next day.


Day 10 : March 17

  • Chiang Rai – Chiang Khong
  • 111 km

Jeroen and I parted ways in the mornings. I put in my headphones and headed for the border of Thailand and Laos. It was a big day with only 1 break for noodle soup. The landscape was pretty flat and uninteresting, which allowed me to push a lot of kilometers and just zone into my music. I stayed at the Hub Funk Box Hostel for the night and slept like an angel.


Day 11 : March 18

  • Chiang Khong – Huay Xai
  • 24.4 km

I woke up early and did the immigration run-around. It was about 12 km to the border, then a bus to cross the friendship bridge, and then cycling another 12 km to Huay Xai. I got my first taste of Lao hills… oof…. I’m in for a journey. In Huay Xai I stayed in Little Hostel and rested.


 

Points of Unlearning

‘”In our culture,” teaches Dr. Brené Brown, ‘we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.'”

In Thailand, I unlearned that vulnerability is a negative state of being. The myth, is that the world is bad and scary and people are not to be trusted. It’s that being alone in the world, especially as a woman, will bring you trouble and threat. My experience, which is not to be generalized to everyone, of course, has showed me the opposite. It has given me rich and deep connections to the land and the people i’ve crossed paths with.

In Thailand, I set off alone. Everything went wrong. I fell, lost my ability to search my maps or communicate with people, got lost, became exhausted and felt immensely scared and alone. This all happened on the road, exposed to the world, and in response, the world showed up for me.

In the stories that I have shared above, the overall takeaway was that amidst the loneliness and fear and wrong-goings, there was always someone to give me bananas, hand me a bottle of water, cycle along side me or even give me a lift.

Vulnerability is a gift and a power. It’s given me the opportunity to share myself authentically and to be seen. I have been able to see human nature at its finest. It’s given people the opportunity to be compassionate, and its given me the sense of community and belonging in a foreign country.

Let’s do this.

Hello!!

Welcome to Unlearning by Bike!

I’m sitting in Princeton Public Library right now. A stack of nine books sit to my left, a pad and paper on my right and my two back roller Ortlieb bike bags are on the chair next to me. For the past few months I’ve been preparing. I’ve been slowly accumulating gear, doing my research, and building this website amongst other things. The clock is slowly ticking down to the beginning of a journey that I have been dreaming about for over a year now. My feelings generally oscillate between pure excitement and utter fear. Can I do this? Is often the phrase that pops into my head in the still night. Can I do this? I imagine all that can go wrong– all of the things that people have been filling my head with since i’ve been home begin to dance like a personal montage on the backs of my eyes and a list of “I’m not..’s.” sing me a false lullaby. It is a familiar sensation. I felt it before setting off for the 30-day solo journey on the Camino de Santiago in 2014. I felt it when I bought a one way ticket to Thailand after college. I felt it as laid in bed in Pokhara, Nepal the night before I began the 18-day Annapurna Circuit. So, I try, to welcome this familiar fear as a friend-a precursor to a journey that will shape my inner landscape as others have done before. I can. I am. But it wont be easy. I am not a cyclist. I’m not even an athlete of any kind, but I love a challenge and adventure. I love changing my story and being the designer of my fate. So, I sit here in Princeton Public Library with a stack of nine books, my pad of paper and pencil and my bike bags and I continue to move forward and prepare– one day at a time. I can do this.

Cheers,

Nicole