Content by Michael Duffey
I started cycle touring years ago, mostly solo, as at my age not too many people are interested in it. I began bikepacking locally in Australia after a friend introduced me to it. It was mostly in extreme conditions in backcountry areas, land that hadn’t seen a wheel or the track of the dozer that built the road in decades. I’ve also enjoyed the pleasure of birthday overnighters, disguised as a pub crawl or vise versa. I’ve spent many an overnighter with the fatbike along our coast which we call type 1 fun (quote from “the Unknown Rider” blog). I’ve spent two weeks internationally bikepacking, struggling through Cuba having type 2 fun.
Structure and plans:
I used to be a Team Leader in the New South Wales Police Force, and in the Operational Support Group. We were responsible for searching for missing persons, personal protection of dignatories, crowd control, preservation and excavation of crime scenes and its victims. You had to plan ahead, I like plans.
I owned a bike shop and ran it with some of my mates. I ran a boarding house for international Uni students, you had to be organized. From that boarding house came up opportunities to get inside information of where to go, what to see and how to be a local in many countries. The first chance I had, I was off to France, Turkey, Germany, many lands of the Vikings, and lastly Asia.
Life happens. My family situation is torn apart and it is time to rebuild. Partway through all of this I suddenly no longer have my bike shop, my boarding house, and now the greatest love connection of my life has ended. It depends how you view things.
I have a glass:
I’m not a glass half full or half empty guy, I’m stoked to just have a glass instead of an empty Vegemite jar. I used to tell my kids to “Do it like you mean it,” if they were attempting something and that theres always an opportunity to enjoy life and smile. Right now I’m gutted. A text message comes through on my phone from Longting (former resident of boarding house and current friend) “You should come to China for Chinese New Year”…it’s in two weeks. It’s time for me to walk the walk and seize the moment.
Asia was way down on my list for bikepacking. Can I organize visas, tickets, all the things that need to be sorted whilst away, get a tent and beacon in a week? I can try. I’m going to China for Chinese New Year with a local Chinese family, if I can squeeze in some bikepacking then great, but then it’s off India and SE Asia to get on the bike. I’m not running from my problems for six months, I’m challenging myself. No planning, lets just fly by the seat of my knicks and do it solo.
I needed a Chinese visa as I want to ride across Sichuan to Tibet and Nepal into Northern India, so I also needed an Indian visa. In SE Asia I’ll need a Vietnamese visa.
The Chinese visa was complicated as I proposed to ride around unaccompanied, they took my passport instead of overnight processing as it had to go to the consulate for determination. The time to be processed for this is 2 weeks to 2 months, maybe quicker. Hmmm, that might not work but I had to continue moving forward. Off to the Indian visa processor. I have prepared my paperwork, perhaps they can check to see if its all correct and might be easier to get when Chinese visa returns with my passport. Thats a no. No checking paper work without visa. Ok.
Three days later after a brief conversation, my China visa was granted. I collect it and rushed to the Vietnamese consulate. They rush my visa, passport returned to me with three days to spare.
Medical vaccinations are a different story. Because of my recent travels to Mexico and Cuba, I don’t need many, but I can’t complete the Rabies or Japanese Encephilitous courses. Ok then, don’t get bit.
On January 29th, 2014, I’m sitting alone in the departure lounge, my flight is delayed. Gee, I hope it doesn’t affect my domestic transfer. In a room full of people I’m quietly sitting alone torturing myself with love songs that seem to only twist the knife before I leave. The only caucasian in the lounge comes and sits next to me, she is a flight attendant. My head is down, handkerchief tightly gripped in my right hand in case I hit too many raw nerves. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that she is talking on the phone, tears rolling down her cheeks. Without looking up or talking, I pass my handkerchief to her, it returns a few minutes later. As we board the plane, guess who greets me but the teary flight attendant. Later during the flight she thanks me. I say “broken heart?” She nods. I wasn’t thirsty or hungry during the flight, China Southern Airlines also didn’t charge extra for the bike.
My next challenge was to navigate my way through the airport to get my connecting flight after my international flight was delayed, all without speaking a word of Mandarin. Done. Now to find the airport hotel to get the bus the next day to Quzhou to meet my friend, Longting, and her partner, Dante and start the fun.
The place is a sea of fireworks, banquets, drinking games and gambling. A little red card elders give out to share luck has money inside! Within the hour of arriving I’m seated at a family feast eating 100 year old eggs (fermented eggs but they do look old – they’re not), duck tongues, a local wild beast that has no English name, carp fish (which in Australia we make fish emulsion from and say…thats dog meat.) We played drinking games with beer, rice wine and a homemade spirit, all revolved around Chinese numbers. Did I mention I don’t speak Chinese? When you lose you “Gumbay” which is skoll your drink, all I know is there was a night club. Me on a catwalk in the night club and I think the 100 year old eggs made me sick. So you wake up and do it again for s-e-v-e-n days.
I break tradition, have a day on the bike having to fix flight damage, which means an email to Bike Bag Dude for some bike spares. He’s on it – awesome. I tour the city. The traffic looks crazy but when amongst it, it is fine.
He who talks doesn’t know, he who knows doesn’t talk:
It’s a Aussie bush saying, not Chinese Confusus. I’m at another feast, everyone of them spectacular and I meet the bad uncle – everyone has a relative like this. The families are trying to sort a lazer cutter to fashion me a new hanger, thats awesome. Bad uncle knows everything, mid conversation he grabs my hanger from the cousins and throws it away and proudly points at a pressed steel axle mount derailluer ….awesome…wrong but thanks for the heads up. The room is silent, then the women scurry around to locate my hanger and a volley of very fast Chinese is exchanged, so funny it’s universal.
My situation changed transport wise so I’ll get to Lijiang and day trip bikepack to Lugu Lake, then to Kun Ming. On arrival at Lijiang, an attempted scam occurs. I refuse, but then I’m now without accommodation. Standing alone in a 800 year old town as the sun sets, not knowing what any of the signs say, up walk two Chinese women who speak broken English. Yes… but as quickly as they came their husbands removed them, I’ll sort something. Then, I was rescued by a mum and her twin 18 year old daughters who can speak pretty good English. They save me and take me back to their motel where the owners speak English too.
The rescuers invite me for tea, they ask me my plans, they then inform me those roads are damaged and you can’t do that. The next day I seek out tour operators, yep – change of plans again. So I spend the next days being shown around by this lovely family. It just didn’t go to plan.
So I didn’t bikepack in China, you could if you stick to a province, know a bit of Mandarin, and hope the weather holds out. There are great value supermarkets and places to stay with helpful people everywhere. It would have been a bonus if I could bikepack there whilst on my way to SE Asia, as I was there for Chinese New year with my friends. I hopped to Kun Ming to reach Laos, there I got saved again, but soon I’m on the bike and the trip starts. This is bikepacking and this is my life…never easy.