Shanghai – the ride in

(Note: this posting was not authored by either of the PostulateOne writers). In the link  below, the advance welcome team intercepts PostulateOne 35km outside of Shanghai center.  The video starts as the two parties find each other. Chris’s father John Walker (who had met Chris and Morgan the night before), Philippe Hartley (Morgan’s father) and Greg Nance (close friend of Morgan’s and a Shanghai resident) escort the team through the outskirts of the massive city of 25 million. Philippe captures a few key and emotional moments along the electrified ride in, as the sun drops, and the kilometers melt away toward an unforgettable evening.  See “PostulateOne – The Finish & Celebration” for what followed.(to be uploaded soon)

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Our Last Great Voyage through the Boonies: Kunming to Guilin

When the image loaded upon my computer screen, my eyes traced the line as it traveled left to right across the graph. It was anything but flat – the line spiked upwards at kilometers 100, 120, 200, and 300 at brutal slopes. It was about the exact opposite of what any sane cycle tourist looks for in an elevation profile. The route was mountainous as hell.

“Let’s do it,” Morgan grinned.

8 days in, now another 4 to go. My legs let out existential groans, but I pushed them out of mind. They knew that this longer route would take us off the highways and valleys that could whisk us to Guilin in no time. But we didn’t care. We wanted the pain and the mountains and the tiny villages. This was our last shot to get ‘out there.’

Our mountain fever started in Kunming, where in the weeks prior we had decided to rest and pursue a couple stories, maybe make a couple of friends. It didn’t go so well. All we could think about was the end the trip. We dogged our interviews, and conversations with travelers and couchsurfers felt forced. With Shanghai so close on the horizon, all we wanted to do was keep moving.

So we decided we’d make this last bike tour a challenge, drawing circuitous lines along country roads and mountains that might give us a chance to soak in the exoticism of rural China. That’s how much of our route planning has been in China: exercises in avoiding the identity-less cities that still manage to pack in a quarter million people each. With so much rabid construction, it’s only off the highways that buildings are spaced far enough apart to take in the views, and villages have some semblance of life before Reform and Opening.

our Hechizhen to Guilin extension

By the time we reached Hechizhen, things had become even simpler. As we huddled around my computer to analyze the elevation profile, we weren’t thinking about villages or views anymore. All that mattered were the hills. Eight days on the saddle and I was barely acknowledging my surroundings. Somewhere in there I knew that we had passed epic landscapes and bustling street markets, but the rides had mostly become something to fill in time. They were days scratched off the calendar until Shanghai, and our impending Thanksgiving feast in Guilin. Beasting up hills became our sole purpose. Four more days of them were four more X’s on the calendar.

“Cheers – we made it!” Morgan said, lifting his Chinese beer.

1450 kilometers in twelve days, never flat, and we still managed to arrive in time for Thanksgiving. It felt like an accomplishment. We awarded ourselves by quadrupling our typical $5 dinner budget and ordering a wok full of fried duck. And six huge beers.

Only then, in my exhausted and calorie-induced stupor, did it finally hit me – it’s over. Memories of the mountains flooded back: our dirty hotel rooms in nameless villages; the mist-shrouded passes along rutted roads; the smiling farmers in terraced rice fields; camping multiple nights in the rain…

“Wow, I’m really going to miss it,” I sighed.

We took the last pulls on our beers, paid the bill, and wished the flock of giggling waitresses a Happy Thanksgiving.

I know we’re not quite there yet –we still have 6 more rides to Shanghai. But it’s just a formality, really. They will be flat rides on good roads through industrial parks and suburban developments. Most of it will go by in a blur. Still, it’s strange to think that even these relatively tame days will become a world apart once we reach Shanghai and the next stage of our lives. The ride from Paris will be over. It comes with tremendous excitement and, already, a touch of nostalgia.

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Kicked Out: How the United States Lost its Key Air Base in Central Asia

Author’s note: While we spent three weeks in Bishkek waiting for our Chinese Visas, we completed a story investigating reasons why the United States’ main supply base for the Afghanistan war is being shut down by the Kyrgyz government. The piece never ended up getting published anywhere, but we put a lot of work into it and wanted it to see the light. The following feature is the tale of how the US lost its key air base in Central Asia.

Entry to the Manas Airforce Base, near where the shooting happened

It was a routine procedure for Alexander Ivanov. The Kyrgyz truck driver approached the barbed wire gate, and waited for the soldiers to push it aside. The 42 year old regularly made fuel deliveries to the US Air Force Base in Bishkek. He worked for the Aircraft Petrol Management company, and was delivering a shipment scheduled for 3 o’clock PM on the 6th of December, 2006. When gate opened, Ivanov flashed his identification badge and was waved on to the next check point. There, he dismounted his truck and stepped into a security tent while American servicemen inspected his vehicle for suspicious cargo and bombs. Once inside the tent, Ivanov would encounter a 20 year old US airman named Zachary Hatfield. And what happened next depends on who you believe.

According to the bases’ spokesmen, Ivanov pulled out a knife and charged the young serviceman. Hatfield, responding as he was trained, unholstered his Beretta 9mm and “expended two shots to the upper torso, center mass, to ensure the highest opportunity to neutralize the threat.” There were no witnesses when Ivanov died, and a subsequent Article 32 hearing in the United States did not find evidence to bring Hatfield to trial. With a de facto ruling of innocence, the case was dismissed.

The Kyrgyz police cried murder. They claim Hatfield was waiting to shoot Ivanov as soon as he entered the tent. In May 2007, the prosecutor general of Kyrgyzstan declared Hatfield guilty of premeditated murder, under article 97 pat 1 of Kyrgyz Criminal Code. Influencing the decision were allegations that Hatfield was intoxicated on duty, and testimonies from Ivanov’s colleagues who said Ivanov sometimes carried a 4 inch homemade knife with him (made from a piece of hacksaw), but that the father of two would never threaten an armed American soldier. They accused the U.S. military of discriminating behavior towards Kyrgyz drivers.

What isn’t disputed is the media uproar the shooting caused in Kyrgyzstan. In the small, post-soviet country located between Kazakhstan and China, the shooting would become the centerpiece in a decade-long PR blitz against the base by Russian backed media. The bad press would turn public opinion against the base, eventually creating a political climate this June in which the Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 to deny a US request to extend its contract. Now the base must be closed by July, 2014.  It is a significant setback to American interests in Central Asia.

The Manas Transit Center is a vital component of the Afghanistan conflict, serving as the transit point for 97% of all servicemen and the vast majority of fuel and goods. But soon after it opened in 2001, the base became a focal point in a neo-cold war battle between the United States and Russia. The Kremlin was allergic to a US base operating in its sphere of influence. For years, the powers skirmished over the Manas Air Base on two fronts – control of the Kyrgyz government through money, and control of Kyrgyz public opinion through media. Russian political influence would eventually tip the balance, but the Americans did have a chance to save the base on the PR front. They didn’t, and the Zachary Hatfield shooting is a case study in how the United States lost the media war. They never secured Kyrgyz public support.

Continue reading

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The Greatest Thing We’ve Sacrificed

Among the joys of travel, there is one aspect of our transitory lifestyle that has always been difficult: lack of community.

By virtue of being on the move, we usually don’t know anyone in the places we’re traveling. There is no calling up of old friends to relax over beer at the end of the day, and we don’t have the local know-how of the best hangouts in town. In short, there is no break from the fact that we are perpetual travelers.

In Los Angeles, I took it for granted that I had a cellphone chock full of contacts who I’d developed close relationships with. After finishing my work or chores or errands for the day, I could call any number of them and arrange to meet them at the hippest spots in LA. They were places only we knew, because we were true Angelinos.

On the road, Morgan and I don’t have that community. It’s our greatest sacrifice. We have to find new friends in every city, even if we’re going to leave them just a few days later. Building a circle of friends is one reason why we’re stopped in Kunming—our two weeks in this city is as much about finding community as covering stories as journalists.  It’s about relief from the solitude of the road, and discovering China through Chinese friends.

Yet the task presents its own challenge: how do you scale a network of friends when you don’t know anyone and will only be in a city a short while?

Fortunately, Morgan and I have a strategy that we’ve honed in previous places like Bangalore and Phnom Penh. We call it ‘blind friend dating.’

The process begins much like regular online dating, except that we use couchsurfing.org instead of match.com. First, we pull up a list of couchsurfers in a city and start looking through online profiles for anything remotely interesting – for people who’ve written something beyond the usual “I like traveling and meeting people blah blah blah.” Who’s got some personality?

Bingo. On page two, I spot one. Female, 24. “I was born for art.” The Chinese girl writes.  “I’m a true kidult with an old soul. My current mission:  to be everyone, to be a genius, to originate the future.”

She definitely passes the ‘interesting’ test. So we send our message – hey we’re two cyclists who are in the city and you should meet with us….

Should she respond to these desperate sounding Americans, a meeting is set. And once we’ve moved away from the virtual world, it’s game time. The blind dates are what really matter, and the trick is to set up as many as possible.

“Alright Morgan, we’ve got meetings with couchsurfers set for lunch tomorrow, and dinner on Tuesday.”

“Right. I’ll see if I can commit that other surfer to lunch on Tuesday.”

So then you show up, looking around the restaurant or coffee shop for someone who remotely resembles the photo you saw online. Usually it’s the person who looks as lost as you do. You spot each other. “Chris? Morgan?”

“Yup that’s us.”

And the small talk begins.

The truth is that most of these meetings end up going nowhere. On blind friend dates, we either click with the person or we don’t. The secret is not to care about the meeting’s outcome. While repetition and small talk can be tedious, the practice’s strength lies in numbers. Eventually, between all the “what’s your favorite Chinese food?” conversations, you’re going to find someone who’s dynamic and awesome. Once you do, you’re set: awesome people usually hang out with other awesome people. With that first friend nailed down, you can suddenly find yourself introduced to a whole community. We accomplished it in Bangalore and Phnom Penh.

So has it happened in Kunming yet?

Nope. But we’re at 6 blind dates and counting. I can feel we’re getting close.

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It’s Not All Glamour: A Day on the Bike in China

Chris eats rice porridge at a street-side eatery in Kunming

On the wonderful occasions that I get to reconnect with friends at home, I always ask the question: “So what’s new in your life?”

With frustrating regularity, I receive the answer: “Oh, nothing you’d be interested in.  It’s not nearly as exciting as anything you’re doing.”

My goal for this post is to dispel some of that romanticism.  This post is about the days that don’t make it into the blog, that are so predictable my camera never leaves its bag.  Travel, like all disciplines, has a routine, and more than its fair share of tedium.

This is one day on the bike in China.

7:00 AM

I fell asleep more than 9 hours ago, but the first thought in my mind is “already?”  This country has the most comfortable budget hotel beds in the world.  Sixteen bucks gets you something like a Best Western room, with two clean-sheeted queens and free toothbrushes wrapped in plastic.

I’m up before Chris.  I strip and head for the wall pegs, our riding clothes stored there like engine rags.  Which is what they are. It’s been five days since I washed them, and my bike shorts hold the shape of my legs even on the peg.  Grimace and pull.  They’ll soften with sweat soon enough. Chris wakes up to me stuffing scattered gear into panniers.

Chris gets the electric kettle going, a staple of the Chinese hotel room.  On the menu: Nescafe.  We’ve been drinking it for so long I almost think it’s coffee. We drink it in silence when the panniers are rolled  and ready.  I run through flashcards, trying to pick up a few more words of Chinese each day.

8:15

We eat small steamed doughballs stuffed with mincemeat and rice porridge at a hole in the wall hotel adjacent.  Our bikes are parked in front of the cook’s workstation. We start to talk about the ride.  I pull out the sheet we write before each leg, start reading some elevation stats. 200 meter bump at km 30, 300 meters at km 60 and 75. At 85 clicks, the real work begins.  2300 vertical meters over 75 kilometers.  We’re sleeping in the fields tonight.  We’ll need to grab noodles, seasoning, and gasoline along the road.

10:30

My trip computer reads 85 minutes of ride time when we hit the bottom of hill 1. Besides a few faulty shifts on my rear derailleur, the ride has been smooth.  The first two hours are always nirvana if the road is good.  I’m still juiced off the coffee, and my blood sugar is high enough that I dream about things that aren’t food and pain—it’s all endorphins and fresh legs. The grade kicks up to a steady 4 percent.  I shift down without thinking and close the gap between Chris and I, putting my wheel behind his for the ride up.

I used to dread the hills. I not quite sure when things changed, but I’ve started looking forward to them.  Maybe it’s that after 24,000 kilometers of open road, the countryside has to be jaw-drop beautiful for me to bat an eye.  And when I’m not stoked on the scenery, I have to be stoked on the biking.  That means getting into the pain.

100 meters up the hill, the lactic acid surges into my legs. I stall my hand from pushing on the shifting tabs and push the pedals a little harder.  I focus on form, clinching my abs to stabilize the bike, making sure I keep my shoulders square over the handlebars.  I try and pull up on the clips as much as I push down. The hills are the only thing of consequence I’m going to accomplish today, so I damn well better beast them.

We’re over the crest in twenty minutes and passing trucks on the way down.

12:20

3 hours, 15 minutes on the bike.  The hunger bite kicks in, hard, right on time like every other day.  Hunger doesn’t develop slowly on the bike, like it might if you weren’t exercising.  The endorphins suppress it until they can’t, and then the floodgates just open, and you realize you owe your muscles a few thousand calories.  You get five minutes warning max.

We’re in small villages along a river valley, topping off hill two.  Not a restaurant in sight.  We keep moving forward, finding hope in the village around the next bend, but none of them have restaurants.  At 3 hours, 40 minutes of ride time, I’m about ten minutes away from having the mood swings of a girl on her first period. Anger at Chris stews unprompted. We end up stopping at a tiny convenience store built at the entrance to someone’s house.  We buy two cups of ramen noodles, and the kindly lady goes into her house to boil us some water. It barely makes a dent.  One more cup and we’re operational again, sort of.

I munch a hoarded Snickers bar as we coast downward.

3:30

We hit the base of the monster hill, after a quick stop to adjust my derailleur.  I’d been excited about it until I saw the road.  It was more of a goat path.  It would be a road soon, but in meantime, there were bulldozers and gravel piles that made passage even more difficult than if they’d left it untouched.  Our progress slowed to a crawl—just 3 or 4 km an hour.

We were in our lowest gear, and our tires kept slipping on the loose dirt.  Every few hundred meters we had to get off and push over steep sections of rock or sand. I became covered in mud and extra sunscreen.  My gear cluster got gummed up too, and I was forced to listen to the creaks of friction of my chain as I pedaled. Painful.

5:45

We’d been moving two hours on the road and only advanced eight kilometers.  Ride time: 6.5 hours.  I could feel my body starting to give way. I started making dumb mistakes—bumping into rocks I could avoid, pulling my shifting tab the wrong way. We found ourselves in a hidden valley, with terraced mountains inhabited from top to bottom—almost 2000 meters of vertical living.  The bulldozers and construction crews killed some of the serenity. No energy to pass them though. Time to find a place to sleep.  We forced our bodies up a few more switchbacks, then found a terrace that looked uncultivated and accessible from the road. A quick stop by a creek to fill up on water for cooking.  Then we pushed our bikes down the mountain towards the terrace, slipping and grabbing bushes for stability.

Arrival at last.  I couldn’t bring myself to open a pannier for twenty minutes.  I just sat in the dirt and ate handfuls of peanuts.

7:00 PM

It’s my turn to be on pot duty tonight. It’s not a bad gig; I stay close to the stove as the temperature drops. I watch the egg noodles boil and cut up hot-dog-looking mystery meat we bought from the roadside lunch joint.  I believe it has some protein, but it looks like the kind of food you store for nuclear winter.  The pot is overflowing. Standard ration is 500 grams of noodles a meal.  The master chef’s flourish: chicken stock powder.  I boil the water until it is gone.  This saves water but makes the noodles salt mush.

We eat overlooking the valley, which is almost too dark to see now. Then we wash the pot using our hands as a scrub brush and we’re in the tent by 8:30.  I squirm into my bag and try to flatten out some of the lumps underneath the tent. I pull out my kindle to read. Futile exercise.  I won’t last fifteen minutes.

Tomorrow there’s another two grand in vertical meters.

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