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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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P1 Answers Your Questions

We recently asked readers on our social media channels what they wanted to know about our journey thus far. The following are a selection of our favorite questions: 

Q: Could you talk about how you two have managed to stay safe from people along your way?

A: We’re not going to sugarcoat it. We are never 100% safe on the road, whether it’s from motorists or from people with more sinister intentions. On the road, bicycle crashes just happen, and sometimes they’re not our fault. A good example is the time a cow suddenly turned into the road in India and caused a little boy on a bike to crash into Morgan. There’s just no way you can anticipate that kind of thing. Same goes for bad people. We had a few problems with that in Romania. We got jumped by a group of gypsies, and one man tried to tackle Morgan off his bicycle as he was passing through a village.

The best two pieces of advice we can give to prospective bike tourists are 1. stay alert and 2. don’t let what we wrote above scare you from going on a bike tour.

Even though we’ve had some problems, they have been extremely rare considering the amount of time we’ve been away. The most amazing thing we’ve discovered is the incredible kindness of strangers all around the world.

Q: What songs have been stuck in our heads during our trip?

A: Gungnam Style. While we were in Laos, the international phenomenon was just hitting the jungle highlands, and Laotian villagers went crazy for it. A funny thing about Laos is that even in humble villages, people had shelled out money for these huge 500 watt speaker systems. The result was that nearly every time we emerged from the jungle, a full-on Gungnam style dance party was in swing. It became the soundtrack for our Southeast Asian bike tour. The only problem was that we heard it so often, the song was stuck in our heads constantly!

Q: What is the most unexpected thing we’ve encountered?

A: The White Man’s Privilege. In many places, we’ve been treated deferentially for no other reason than the fact that we are white and foreign. This comes in many flavors. It can be as simple as being seated before locals at restaurants, and not having our receipts checked at supermarkets (because it’s assumed we’re wealthy and would not steal anything), to things more profound like having meat served to us every night in an Indian village while the farmers there could only afford it once a week.

The White Man’s privilege is something we’ve never quite gotten used to or know how to deal with – oftentimes our refusals of hospitality have created more offense than if we had just accepted the deferential treatment to begin with. Of course, this is uncomfortable when you operate with the ideas of equality, and that honor should be earned, not assumed. The White Man’s Privilege is something we’ve grappled with and never really anticipated before the trip.

Q: If you got to pick one city you could live in for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: Istanbul or New Delhi.

Istanbul because it truly is the crossroads of the world, a place where vastly different cultures intersect and collide. Assuming that you have to stay in one place for the rest of your life, you couldn’t pick a more dynamic spot.


New Delhi, because of the endless opportunities there. Nowhere else have we found a place where it is so easy to reinvent yourself. Within the swarming masses of the Indian Capital, you become like a drop of water in the sea, but anonymity and the drive of the people there creates an atmosphere that’s energetic and intoxicating. The New Delhi high.

Q: What can you tell us about important foods to pack for bike touring and how do you stay healthy?

A: Cycling for six hours a day burns a crazy amount of calories. By our estimate, we need to consume at least 6,000 kcal to maintain our body weights. That’s not as easy as it sounds; we can’t comfortably gorge ourselves on ice cream and butter all the time and still feel great on the bikes. So we do our best to compensate, scouting foods that help us perform efficiently on the saddle. We’ve discovered the most important thing is getting enough protein. In places like rural Burma, we lost dangerous amounts of weight because we weren’t getting enough meat and dairy. A belly full of rice may keep one full, but after weeks of cycle touring the body drops muscle and fat at alarming rates. (Just ask Chris).

So what have we found? The best and cheapest foods for bicycle touring are: eggs, peanut butter, chocolate, rice, bread, and meat (canned or dried).

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Beer.

Q: What was your favorite part of Central Asia?

A: The Pamir Highway. The ‘Roof of the World’ in Tajikistan is a special place. Passing by Afghan villages, the friendliness of Tajik goat herders, and the otherworldly desolation of Pamir’s desert plateaus are mesmerizing. While getting to there may be difficult, the results are well worth it.

Q: Can you name what you might not be excited about encountering when you return to the US?

A: Predictability. One of the best things about traveling is being constantly confronted with new scenes and situations. Even now, after 22 months of travel, we’re still surprised by things we see while casually walking down the street. Just yesterday, as were buying apples, a marching band of old Chinese grandmas rounded a corner and stopped all the motor traffic. It was hilarious.

When we return to the country we grew up in, things will be more familiar. Moments of true surprise will be less frequent, and surely they will be missed.

Morgan’s also going to miss the fresh, organic produce that feeds most of the world.  Even if you shop in the organic section of the local supermarket, that produce has travelled a long way from the farm.

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How This Trip Would Be Different If We Were Women

I recently received a message on our facebook page from a fan who made a great point: We don’t talk about women enough.

“I want to offer a critique as to your choice of article topics.  As two men traveling alone, how does gender impact your daily decisions? Can you imagine what precautions you would have to take were there a female component to your journey?”

Thinking about it, I realized she was right: we often fail to show how gender roles play out in places we’re traveling. Needless to say, there’s a lot to discuss. So Morgan and I decided to take up our fan’s cue and share some of the ways we think this trip would have been different had we done Postulate One as a pair of females. We came up with four broad categories:

Access to Culture

Right off the bat, being female would have barred us from some male-dominated institutions along our route. A couple examples: Women are not allowed to enter the traditional tea houses of Turkey – especially those outside large cities. Similarly, workingmen’s bars in Indian towns are usually devoid of estrogen. In both cases, they are regarded as sanctuaries for men, and trying to enter one as a woman would provoke a fierce response.

What’s important isn’t that female travelers would miss out on Turkish Chai or Indian Malt Liquor; it’s that these institutions were central to our understanding of how those societies operated. They were where tales of hardship were exchanged in stories or drowned in alcohol; they were where business deals were made, and family allegiances cemented. They were where men let their guards down to talk about politics and religion and sexual desires in a candidness that wasn’t appropriate on the street.

In one Turkish village, we asked a man what his wife did while he spent hours at the tea house each evening. The tea house was the only business open late at night.

“She waits for me at home,” he responded.

As female travelers, we’d probably have been resigned to our hotel room.


Pursuing stories as journalists would have been different as females. To begin with, I admit that we probably would have covered more female characters. A glance through our stories shows that the vast majority of characters are men, partly because access to them was easier and we related more. But in some countries it also would have been difficult to gain the trust of male sources who aren’t used to female strangers asking them personal questions. Again, I go to India – where interviewing men from a cotton farming village about their alcoholism wouldn’t have been appropriate. By the same token however, the wives in Brahmanapally were too shy to talk to us, and maybe if we were females they would have opened up.

Additionally, the majority of nonfiction authors we’ve read in our free time are men. Out of the last 24 narrative journalism books I’ve read, only 5 have been authored by women. Much of this has been unconscious, but the result is that many of our stories follow suit, covering topics more appealing to guys – like our story about boxing in Thailand, or extreme mountain climbing in Georgia. There are many topics we’ve missed out on that two female journalists would have picked up.

Continue reading

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The Bromance Continues: Chris and I Go Sweater Shopping

A monk walking towards the temple in Langmusi, a town where I was much warmer with the help of my new sweater.


Those readers of this blog that have helped fund our adventure will be glad to know that both Chris and I are careful with money. Which is the nice way to say it. Others might prefer the terms “scrooge” or “stingy.”

We have worked hard to earn our reputation. We never go to a breakfast buffet without also grabbing food for lunch, and we always bring our own peanuts to the bar.  When a bus we took back from the Himalayas dropped us off on a New Delhi street corner at 3 AM a winter morning, we did not rent a hotel room.  Instead, we went to an all-night outdoor café, where Chris and his girlfriend and I dogpiled against the freezing cold and slept on a ragged couch.  In Uzbekistan, when we went to go to see the ancient fortress of Kiwa, we did not pay the 15 dollars to go see the monuments. We contented ourselves to blend into European tour groups, seeing those monuments we could sneak into and skipping those we could not. I tell these stories with pride.

The problem arises when we disagree on expenses. Chris and I share a bank account.  Chris is stingier than I (as he admits). I have had to learn to absorb his venomous glances whenever I order something that isn’t the cheapest item on the menu. I sigh and go along when we pick a different restaurant over a one dollar difference in dish prices.  But our spending ideologies really came to a head when we went shopping to get me a sweater.

The setting was Luqu, a truck stop outpost in the highlands of China’s Gansu province. In early October, with winter’s first cold front sweeping Central China, it was freezing.  The 40 kilometers of downhill that had ended the ride that day took me to the edge of the hypothermia.

Buying a sweater was not a difficult mission in Luqu.  There were many stores that sold clothing. Some were clothing stores, with goods presented on racks and tacky LED mood lighting in the ceiling. Others were village general stores, where one could buy a screwdriver or some sugar or, occasionally, a sweater.

The first store we passed was an outdoor clothing store, which sold Chinese knockoffs of the North Face and Jack Wolfskin. I started to cross the street towards it.  Chris stopped me in my tracks.

“Naw, man. That’s going to be way too pricey.”

I relented. He was probably right.  There was a budget, which we had never discussed but was understood, of 100 yuan (16 dollars) for this sweater. I viewed this as a guideline- that is to say, 100 yuan unless we discovered a garment that was not cheap Chinese crap and I might wear past the next few nights camping.  Chris seemed to view this as an absolute.

Chris guides me into a general store, which had an eclectic variety of shirts and shawls hanging from the ceiling on wire coat hangers. Nothing there.  I take us to a clothing store, which has something that kind of works but is double our budget. We continue like this down the road, visiting more of the general stores, digging through piles of clothing next to bins of flashlights and alarm clocks.  No sweaters.

Then we came across the shopping plaza, the crux of the Chinese town.  There were LED signs everywhere and gaudy street lamps that were rip offs of Europe, except with many more bulbs.  There, we found what we were looking for—a line of clothing stores that each tried to fit as much cloth as possible into their tiny storefronts. They would surely have cheap sweaters.

It was in the second of these that I rediscovered a quality I have long known and admired in my travel buddy—Chris has very little vanity. At that moment, though, it made him an unwieldy shopping partner. He parted the sea of clothing and pulled out a purple cotton v-neck, with a faux suede lining and a graphic of a dead fish on the front.

“How about this one? It’s only 80 yuan.”

I swallowed my horror. I tried hard to think of a reason why this sweater wouldn’t work that Chris would accept. Couldn’t find one. As an instrument of warmth, the sweater was viable.


Chris sensed the engine of my reasoning.

“I don’t get why you’re so picky! It’s just an underlayer.”

I preferred not to venture into the logic of my vanity (it does not hold up well in debate), so I shrugged and suggested we try the next store. There I found what I was looking for.  A collared black sweater, thick cotton, thin cut with a zipper that came down to the chest. Classic and versatile.

I asked how much it was.  150 yuan.  This was undoubtedly the foreigner price, but seemed acceptable to me.

“I’m getting it,” I announced as I inspected myself in the mirror.

Chris bit his upper lip and looked at me with scorn.  Finally he sighed and turned to the salesman.

“130 yuan.” The finality in his voice implied a ceiling, and the salesman simply nodded.

After we paid and left, warmer, I couldn’t help but thank that Chris was there. We tend to agree on almost all our expenses, but the pain point on money is higher for Chris than I.  That has saved us a lot of money this trip.  Chris always gets the better deal.

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China: The Last Bike Tour Begins

“You’ve got to be kidding me” I said, eyeing the cop car pull up outside the hotel.

The troop of Chinese officers who got out forced their way past the hanging curtain of the hotel’s front door like they were on a drug bust. “Bu!” they yelled, pointing fingers at me. From behind the check-in counter, the hotel owner received an animated lecture about why she couldn’t host foreigners like us at her establishment. When the cops left, she looked at us with helpless eyes, motioning us to pack our stuff and go back out into the below freezing temperatures.

“AHHHHH!” Morgan yelled, storming up the stairs to retrieve his bags. I unlocked our bikes. In the space of an hour, it was the second hotel we’d been kicked out of in the nameless highway town. The place was dirty — a trucker’s stop, not a tourist destination — and apparently the police wanted us to move on to a more foreigner-friendly city. “It’s okay! — the next tourist hotel is only 37 kilometers from here!” a junior officer told us. He just didn’t get it. I looked outside, and saw it would be dark in 20 minutes. With the bikes, we had no choice but to camp in the freezing cold. And without enough time to get fuel and camping supplies, we bought a couple of cold rice buns from a sidewalk stand that we could eat with peanut butter after we found a campsite in the dark.

Still, I couldn’t help but laugh. “The bike touring days are back my friend!”

Despite the situation, or maybe because of it, Morgan turned to me and grinned. The difficulties were so typical of our method of travel, and in a way I think we both missed them. We’d been off our bikes, waiting for visas and covering stories in Kyrgyzstan and Northern China for more than a month and a half. It was time for another cycling adventure.

Day one didn’t disappoint. Even before the hotel hullabaloo, we got all the elements of a proper bike tour. There was an escape from a major city – Lanzhou — whose 3 million Chinese motorists fought us for space on the roads. There was a brutal hill climb, with steep switchbacks revealing stunning views of terraced corn fields and Buddhist pagodas. There was a desperate search for a lunch spot, which finally went down at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that cooked us up a delicious lunch of homemade noodles. And then, of course, there was the hassle with hotels.

Chowing down lunch with the locals

It might not have been an issue if the first hotel owner could read our passports. He had to fill out registration forms, and because the police station was conveniently located next door, he figured he’d just ask the head officer there for some help filling it out. “Oh no no. Don’t do that. I can explain!” I tried to say. But he just smiled and waved for me to come with him.

The police captain was busy slurping a bowl of rice noodles when we entered his office. He looked annoyed at first, until he noticed me standing behind the hotel owner. In seconds, I watched his expression morph from surprise, to amusement, to stern determination. He picked up a phone and started making a flurry of calls. The only words I could make out in Mandarin were Zachingcha (bicycle) and MeGwo (America). Occasionally, he would look up at me and nod gravely. We’re totally screwed. I thought. And we were.

After the officers busted us at the second hotel in town, Morgan and I commenced a search for a campsite. It was no use; we couldn’t find open land anywhere. Within kilometers, we entered another town that never seemed to end. Trapped in a concrete jungle, we dodged carts and pedestrians with the dim lights of our head lamps.

Like all things bike touring, though, it did turn out alright in the long run.

“Chris, I think we’re out of that police station’s jurisdiction by now.”

Morgan was right. Even though we’d only gone a few kilometers from the truck stop, the new unnamed town felt like a different world. Suddenly we were surrounded by opulent mosques and Chinese Muslims walking around with felt hats and head scarves. A call to prayer bellowed above the bustling of the street. Women looked away from us shyly, while men tucked at long beards suspiciously as we passed. Gone were the round-faced truckers and stern policemen of the truck stop. So we decided to try our luck finding a hotel in the Muslim city. The police there might not know of our embargo just a few kilometers back.

It worked. An hour later, after some more confusion with hotel owners over how to read our documentation, we were finally checked in. The day was over. We could relax, and we tossed away the cold rice buns in favor of wolfing a huge bowl of steaming noodles. Then we collapsed onto our beds.

Day one of bike touring in China: Conquered.

It feels good to be back.

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