Friday, July 08, 2005

Silk Road Ride, 2004: Part 1 (Urumqi-Shawan)





Shawan, China, km 185.

Hello Everyone:

Greetings from the road! I am in a dinky little town a day and a half's ride west of Urumqi on my second attempt to ride across Central Asia. It feels good mentally to be back in the saddle and exploring the world, but physically, it's a different story.

My diary entry for yesterday, the first day of cycling out of Urumqi, begins "OUCH!" I put in a biggish day, 135 km, but it was flat, I had a tailwind (those of you who are cyclists know how rare that is!) and I was excited. I seem to have overdone things a bit. Last night I had a sore tush (no surprise there, especially with my hard leather Brooks saddle; comfy in the long run, a bit tenderizing at first), sore Achilles tendons (the bane of my cycling existence), a sunburn (only on the bits of flesh I missed, like the inside of my elbows) and tender knees.

Today, I awoke to grey skies which turned to rain as I rode out of Manas, where I had spent the night. I rode for a couple of hours through cold rain and strong headwinds and stopped for a late breakfast around 50 km down the road. When I got up from scarfing down some great noodles, I realized something was very wrong with my knees. I had progressed from a slight stiffness to swelling and an inability to bend my legs more than 45 degrees from the vertical. I could barely get on the bike, and the first few pedal strokes brought tears to my eyes. I decided that it would be unwise to ride further today, since I didn't want to destroy my body this early in the trip, and rode off very, very slowly in search of the nearest hotel. (You can pick yourselves off the floor now; I do listen to the warning signs from my body occasionally, even if it doesn't seem like it.) I spent the afternoon snoozing, and even popped some of my leftover anti-inflammatory pills. I will see how the knees feel tomorrow morning, and I may take another day off the bike if they don't feel back to normal.

I have to confess that I'm feeling annoyed at my body. Although I'm only two years older than I was on my ill-fated last bike trip, I feel about twenty years older. The rheumatic fever really knocked me for a loop, and I haven't been back doing the sorts of things I used to do, except in small, sad weekend-warrior doses. I hope that this is just my body reacting to going from zero to full throttle with no warning, rather than a sign that the rheumatic fever is lurking in the wings. That would be rather disappointing!

It feels good to be back in China, although the scenery so far has been pretty nondescript. It's been rainy for 2 of the first 3 days here, and even yesterday, while it was sunny, I had only intermittent views of the Tien Shan mountains through the dust haze, pollution and clouds. I know that there are snow-capped 6000-metre mountains just to the south, but I can barely make out the foothills. I'm taking the pansy route at first, keeping north of the mountains in the plains for the first 600 km until I hit the Kazakh border. Then I'll cut into the mountains and I hope to get close enough to Pik Pobedy and Khan Tengri, the two highest peaks in the range, to get a good look at them. (If it isn't still raining, that is.) Then in Kyrgyzstan I hope to spend the entire time playing in the mountains before riding south into Tajikistan and the Pamirs. This assumes, of course, that the knees and Achilles tendons recover from this attack of middle-agedness enough to allow me to do so.

I've been riding through endless farm fields so far, irrigated by runoff from the Tien Shan. The farms are punctuated by huge, ugly industrial cities, with bricks, cement, tomatoes and electric power the main products so far. I'm surprised how Chinese this area is. That may sound like a ridiculous statement, seeing as I am in China, but Xinjiang, the westernmost province in which I'm riding at the moment, has historically not been very Chinese. Instead, various Turkic and Mongol tribes have dominated the region for centuries. The Chinese have engaged on a vigourous settlement policy for the past few decades, however, as they have in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, trying to tie these restive regions more firmly to the Motherland, and the area I'm riding through seems to have been one of the main settlement areas. I suspect that most of this area was given over to grazing by huge flocks of sheep until the Chinese put it to the plow and settled Chinese farmers on it. It will be interesting to see how the ethnic makeup changes as I near Kazakhstan.

I was addressed in Russian for the first time today, by an Uzbek guy in a restaurant. He ran out of Russian words before I did, but it was still a funny experience to be a Canadian sitting in an ethnic Kazakh restaurant speaking broken Russian with an ethnic Uzbek in a province in China. Globalization, anyone?

Anyway, off to bed. To sleep, perchance to heal; aye, there's the rub. I hope I wake up able to walk normally!

Hope everyone's well and enjoying life to the fullest!

Graydon