Friday, December 19, 2008
The sun is up. The low hanging ceiling of fog is receding, revealing ridge lines puff painted in green fauna. The old white sheet lifts, the scene is set.
Yesterday I wrote off the walls of limestone encrusted valleys as an endless uphill battle. Today is different, today has started with a new feeling--the last day on the bike of a human powered journey covering over 2,000 kilometers. Though I'm not feeling fresh, I saddle up with a smile. Today I will ride to the ceiling of Vietnam; Tram Ton Pass.
There are bright colored hill tribe women trading goods at the market, chiefly, H'Mong and Black Thai. The ebbs and flows of the market are a 3D screen-saver; uneventful and constantly entertaining.
One last sip of coffee.
I start pedaling.
The remote border crossing in the mountains of Lao/Vietnam border territory, tape-worm-roads, and agricultural shelves in the Vietnamese highlands near China can most aptly be described as having more variety than I normally desire; a stiff Caucasian of "ins, outs, and what-have-yous."
The last three weeks was a head-first dive into a muddy river; I bumped into some interesting things. On the eve of my birthday I was in the remote town of Hat Lok. At 11:37am a moped sped by, nearly nicking my left shoulder. Fifty yards down the road the driver hit an elderly man, approximately fifty more and he drove into a group of young school children on their lunch break. The children blew over like tall grass when the wind blows. The universe skipped a beat as the moped went airborne, spinning and twisting, while spirals of injustice were changing the future for people stuck on the ground.
I reverted to my EMT training. After assessing the scene and the victims I was forced to leave the scene of one dead moped driver who's breath smelt of booze, an elderly man with badly bruised ribs, and a paralyzed young boy. I rode past the dead drunk driver and away from the young paralyzed boy, in a culture that does not cater to the handicapped.
Now, I've hung out in the peloton with roadies (road bike racers) and talked about how many ounces my wheels weigh; I've gone scientific on race nutrition and training strategies with tri-geeks (triathletes); when 500 hipsters from Critical Mass took over the Alaskan Viaduct on two wheels and one gear I helped block on-coming traffic (www.seattlecriticalmass.org); and last year my dad rode the entire West Coast of the United States with his brother Chris (way to go Pa!). The undeniable characteristic in all these groups is the desire to approach life at one's own speed.
From the rear-pocket handkerchief hanging hipsters on single speeds at Critical Mass to my friends stuck inside on their trainers out of fear of damaged bearings, there is one agreed upon common ground. In every possible figurative and literal interpretation--riding a bike epitomizes freedom.
On December 2nd, the day before my birthday, I was reminded how fortunate we are to share this freedom, to move and utilize our senses; relish in your aliveness.
It's cold now. I look up and it's the same flat white. I've been climbing the same ridge line for 25km and haven't broke through the fog. The concept of wind resistance has been introduced. Every time I round a hair-pin the wind stands me up with enough force to float me back to the rice paddies a thousand meters below. My water is gone, my fingers are gripping the bars disconnectedly, and I'm reaching deep fatigue.
Fatigued, not tired. Note the difference.
This has got to be the last corner.
I round the bend, visibility improves with the worsening head wind, a half-mile across the valley and looming two thousand meters above I can make out a shiny piece of silver. The silver line hanging precariously on the opposite ridge is sloping up at a 5-6% grade. "Maybe it's a new pipeline?" I think out loud.
I know God-Damn well what it is; a new guard rail.
Two hours later the shiny rail is on my right side and I reach the top of Tram Ton Pass. My reward: a billboard and a large group of photohappy tourists snapping pictures of each other on a big pile of dirt.
A brief visual description of what lies beyond the pile of dirt:
After three days of recovery in Sapa the fog lifted. Sapa is full of tourists but it still serves as a trading spot for three different types of hill tribe people living nearby. My immune system decided to quite working after I made it over the pass (deeply fatigued... Not tired) but by day three I was ready for the final ascent of the tour; Mt. Fanzipan.
Peddling up the backside of Tram Ton Pass I got my first look at the objective. Carst limestone ridges leading to committing summits surrounding the highest mountain in Indochina. Unlike it's neighbors, Mt. Fanzipan is a big uneventful lump covered in fog six out of seven days.
Five minutes past, I made a judgement call, coasted 30km down the road I struggled up three days prior, summited Tram Ton Pass a second time with clear skies as a backdrop, and coasted past Sapa down to the Red River 5km from China.
I'm at the base of a route called Elephant Man, it's overhung and my upper body is atrophied; for the past month my legs have been stealing all the nutrients. The crag is called Butterfly Vally and it lives up to it's name with a diverse local population of our delicate two whinged friends. I wasn't planning on guiding on the island, nor was I keen to shell out $15USD for gear to climb. The owner of Slo Pony Adventures and I worked out a deal which basically allowed me to climb five days a week and work one or two.
I lead kayak trips and belayed first timers in exchange for climbing gear and good company. Most of the clients were better suited for the party barge...
Cat Ba was my shelter from the storm.
For pictures of climbing Cat Ba Island peruse the picture and video tab on left of this URL:
I am passing on the Iguana to an expat inspired to tour.
Get busy livin'