The Finish & The Celebration

(This post is written by Philippe Hartley on behalf of the PostulateOne team – they’re busy enjoying the thrills of victory, like giving interviews, sleeping, and seeing people they have known for more than an hour)

PostulateOne brought us excitement through the finish line itself. Not shown in this piece is the PostulateOne Master of Journalism plaques which were awarded Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley to cheers on a rooftop hotel overlooking the Pearl.

We hope that, via these few minutes of video, PostulateOne fans all over the globe can share the fabulous closing moments as we lived them. Many who have helped Morgan and Chris along their voyage do not have any way of seeing these images, or ever knowing what happened to those two bicycle journalists on a long voyage. To them, and to the many, many people who went out of their way to help, we say ” ‘wish you could have been here.”

The festivities were the product of vision and preparation. In China, public assembly is strictly forbidden, especially on the heavily patrolled Shanghai Bund where the finish line stood .  Just putting up this post and video required determination to get around the firewalls.  What seems like a easy upload or a good street party to Americans is cause for arrest here, and our public celebration was definitely a guerrilla move, as the documented party break-up attests. The Walker and Hartley families wish to recognize the teams at ChaseFuture and Strikingly; a rousing bravo to Elisa Montalvo and her dancers. All backed the call for a special effort, and helped deliver. A tip of the hat specifically to Greg Nance and David Chen for their winning leadership and friendship. We thank you all.


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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 instead of 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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