Monday, September 16, 2013

Kashgar to At-Bashi

We are again in a vehicle with our bicycles. Just as when we entered China from the south, there is a rather large area near the northern border with Kyrgyzstan through which independent travel is not permitted. Our driver has clearly been here before, carefully navigating around the invisible potholes, then recovering time on the good stretches of road.

The road through this 'no mans land' is rather desolate, following a wide, and very dry valley. Gerry is enjoying a little snooze and I'm staring out the window thinking that it would have been a tough ride to get through here. It reminds me of some lonely stretches that I rode along the Dempster a few years back and...RrrrrrrrRrrrrrrrcccchhh!

The driver slams on the brakes.

BAAAMMM! The van hits a bump and takes air. All of us are launched from our seats. This moment of weightlessness lasts an eternity as it's not clear how and when we are going to touch down.

Will the van flip land on its side? Will we hit the ditch? Will we slam into the truck parked less than 100m ahead? This is not how this trip is supposed to end.


The front of the vehicle hits the ground.


The back of the vehicle hits the ground. The van rocks and bounces a few more times (we are knocked out of our seats and into the air each time). Finally, the vehicle comes to a stop. We didn't flip. We didn't end up in the ditch. We didn't slam into the truck ahead. Everything seems ok. (Though it is not clear whether the vehicle will move again).

The driver begins to moan. He is sweating and breathing heavily. After a few minutes of this, he leans his chair back and carefully roles himself on to the flat space between the drivers seat and the passengers seat. Moaning. Panting. Sweating. No signs of improvement.

This is one of those moments in life when I must humbly acknowledge that my experience and education are of absolutely no practical use. I'm at a complete loss as to how to end this man's agony. And, if the van is broken, I don't even know how to fix it so that I can get the driver to a doctor.

There is no cell reception. And, as this is not a typical highway, there is little opportunity to flag down help from passing vehicles.

So, we wait, staring at the man, as though our sympathy might somehow transform itself into a miracle. Time, and a bit of luck, it turns out, are sufficient to resolve the situation. The driver eventually peels himself, slowly, painfully, from the space where he has been laying. He hobbles out of the vehicle to stretch. He checks the vehicle; it is in one piece. He starts the engine and we are moving again. Another 80km to the end of the chinese border. This time, moving slowly and softly through the damaged road.


We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan around 3pm, with no map, no money and no food**. There were about 4 hours of daylight remaining and we had a vague idea that there might be a community of yurts somewhere between 95km and 125km away.

The road ahead was hard. A strong headwind, combined with washboarded gravel and clouds of dust that blasted us with every passing truck meant that progress was slow. Chinese road construction crews were busy moving huge loads of supplies in either direction. Adding to the difficulty, Gerry was fighting some intestinal demons that he'd picked up a few days ago. This dusty, bumpy road was not helping.

We pitched an emergency camp on a field beside the road, just as the sun was setting. We'd made it just 60km in the four hours since we crossed the border. There was a part of me that was happy that we were finally using the tent; I was beginning to think that I was hauling it around for nothing. There was another part of me worried about how we would manage the uncertain distance ahead without fueling our bodies. The good news was that we had water and we could not really get lost (there is just one road leading to civilization in these parts).

Our alarm clock was a combination of road traffic, blazing sun, and hunger. We expected that we would need to ride either 35km or 65km on empty stomachs to the next town of interest. In the end, it was 90km, over a pass and into a headwind. But the dusty, bumpy road quickly turned to buttery smooth pavement and we had a lot of daylight.


We searched around in At-Bashi for a bank to exchange money so that we could buy some food and figure out our next move. While the banks posted exchange rates outside their doors, the first three would not actually do money exchange of any sort. The language barrier prevented us from understanding why. And some electricity complications meant that the single ATM that we found was nothing more than a pretty little grey box.

Desperate and down, a helpful local pointed us in the direction of a 4th bank. And it had a functional ATM! Finally, we were set. It took less than 5 minutes from when we had local cash in hand to when we had coca cola in hand. It tasted sooooo good.

Blood sugar levels back in check, we located a restaurant and, ultimately, a place to lay our heads for the night (it didn't matter that there was no shower). We are still in need of a good map, but we are happy to have full bellies and a quiet place to sleep tonight!

**We had emergency nuts and a sleeve of butter cookies hidden away in our packs, but it was really only enough to get through a few hours of riding. We also had US dollars, Chinese Yuan, and Euros, but that won't get you very far in rural Kyrgyzstan. And, technically, we had a map; however, as it was 1 : 2 000 000, it was not particularly informative.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Kashgar

We are staying in the building that was once the Russian consulate. The decor is directly at odds with my personal taste, and it looks as though it has seen better days...but it is a huge step up from a dusty concrete floor at a roadside tire repair shop. If you use your imagination, there is even something resembling a wifi signal. And the fact that we enjoyed our first shower in four days there meant that the place will always have a special place in my heart.


Kashgar is famous as a crossroads market at the western edge of the Taklimakan desert in China. A critical junction along the silk route, it has historically been the meeting point for vendors from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhatan and china.
The 'native' people here called Uygurs (pronounced wee-gar, which makes me smile every time I hear it) and they have a look that is distinctly different than the chinese that we encountered in the east last year. In fact, other than the presence of chinese characters on every sign, it would be easy to think that we are somewhere other than China.

Women's fashion here is comprised of big hair (tastefully decorated with a colourful scarf), gigantic glam sunglasses, high heels, and a dresses or a fancy blouse/skirt combination. Sequins and rhinestones encouraged. It is like we arrived at a convention for airline hostesses from the 1960's. These Jackie-O look-a-likes zip around on noiseless electric scooters, making the whole experience even more twilight zone-ish.

Men's fashion is substantially less sensational, marked very simply by a four cornered hat, decorated according to the area from which they come. They sit around a drink tea and roll cigarettes, which I guess is pretty much what I've seen men do in a lot of places between here and europe - but the hats just make it look cooler.


Every meal has offered an opportunity to discover a new facet of Kashgar's diverse culinary offering. Handmade ramen noodles. Fresh, hot, clean, delicious dinner for two for under $3.50 (how is that even possible?) Kebabs of all sorts. Dumplings and soups and fresh nan and meter long green beans. And saffron tea. And garlic! And spices!


We took a day trip out to Shipton's Arch - a geologic feature about an hour and a half drive and another hour and a half hike outside of the city. The Uighar guide (Karesh) was sweet enough to pick up a watermelon for us to enjoy at the top of the hike. Unfortunately, Karesh hadn't considered how to transport the thing up the hill, which meant that he and Gerry took turns gripping the enormous and awkwardly smooth and round fruit up the hill. It was like one of those sadistic crossfit exercises with a medicine ball.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tashkurgen to Kashgar

We took a sit down breakfast in Tashkurgen and enjoyed the morning calmness before setting out. The streets were empty but for a few Tajik women in high heels, nylons and colourful dresses cleaning the street (where was my camera when I needed it!).


After breakfast, I had an incident with a public toilet (squattie pottie) that involved a broken pipe and getting blasted at high pressure while I was locked in the cubicle.

It may take me a while to recover from that.

Sometimes people tell me that they think that I'm living the dream. I will assume that they are not talking about these sorts of moments.


Leaving from Tashkurgen, we began ascending another pass. Although it was not as high as Khunjareb Pass (4000m instead of 4800m), which we drove over yesterday, the fact that we were pedaling meant that we could feel the thin air. The difference between what our brains thought we should do, and what out lungs and legs could do, seemed enormous.

I was reminded of a conversation that we had with our hippie friend, Quyam, when we were back in Gilgit. He told us that he knew of a great way to manage the altitude. At the time, I thought for sure he was going to try to sell us some hash. He simply said "apricots".

I wished that I'd brought some apricots with me.


We took three days to pedal the 300 or so kilometers between Tashkurgen and Kashgar. The first night we slept in a Kyrgyz yurt next to Karakul Lake. It was idyllic and peaceful and there were snow covered mountains on either side of the lake.

The second night was slightly less glamorous. We slept on the concrete floor of a storage unit next to a tire changing shop that was located about 20 meters off the highway. We could feel the vibration from the impact drill until 2am and had to walk 100m to use the "toilets" (which were concrete blocks perched over the edge of a steep cliff - not the sort of place you want to stumble around at in the dark).

You win some, you lose some.


One sure sign that we are not in Pakistan anymore is that gender roles have shifted. First, there is now a normal (by my standards) proportion of adult women on the street. Second, these women actually play a real (by my standards) role in what is happening.

Case in point, Gerry and I stopped for a coke at a roadside shop. Two men came to check out Gerry's bike, cautiously examining its every detail. They showed constrained curiosity as they discussed how it worked, while resisting the temptation to touch it. Then, a woman arrived, stood the bike up and tried, without hesitation, for herself. Playing with the shifters, rolling the bike back and forth, pushing on the pedals.

It was such an exciting moment, as though it marked the passage into a world in which women are people. (I still don't consider myself a feminist - I'm just a human who had parents who had a sensible perspective on gender roles).

Sost to Tashkurgen

The Pakistan border authority was characterized by process and paperwork. This included having our bags for drugs and weapons (the first time I've had an exit search!) and obtaining three separate signatures before we could proceed to the line up for our exit stamps.

We drove for an hour and a half to get to the Chinese customs point, which looked to be set up to be more efficient than the Pakistan border. This was an illusion. For the next 2 hours, we watched 11 officers playing around outside, sharing videos on their phones, etc, as they tried to cure the same boredom as us and occasionally test their authority by playing games with our driver.

When that was over, it was another couple of hours of driving, with a chinese border patrol in our vehicle, before we reached the actual chinese border. In the end, an 8 hour process to cross the border. Not because they were busy. Not because they were understaffed. Just...apparently...because they could.


We are spending the night in Tashkurgen - the border town on the chinese side. Everything is different: the landscape, the people, the language, the food, the money. There is a funny mix of pakistani, han chinese and tajik - differentiated by skin tone, facial features and attire. But they all seem to blend in here more than we do.

Our hotel reception guy is wearing a cap that says "POLICE" on it, but we have the strong impression that he does not collect a pay cheque from them. His side kick is a short, chubby girl with an orange hoodie that says "NAUGHTY" and has a winking smiley face. Neither will give us a key for our room, opting instead to show us to our room every time we want to go there. In other circumstances, I might find this frustrating or unusual, but I've resigned myself to this being normal here.


The night skyline of Tashkurgen makes the town look like its buzzing, lit up by a rainbow of LED lights. Street lamp posts and shop signs are covered in lights. There are three towers visible from our hotel room, fully decorated with flashing lights like a vegas casino or an amusement park. It turns out that they are just nicely decorated cell phone towers (which is funny, considering that I can't seem to get a signal right now).

Friday, September 6, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Karimabad to Sost

Since we left Gilgit, the Karakoram has taken us up the valley formed by the Hunza River. A rock slide (of, like, half of a mountain) in January 2010 dammed this river, blocking its flow for five months and creating a lake that was, at one point 21km in length. The newly formed lake buried 25km of the highway, flooded villages and displaced/stranded tens of thousands of people.

The level of the lake has subsequently been lowered by 33ft, after two intentional blasts to the dam site. The lake that remains is around 6km long (by my estimate) and still covers a sizeable section of road. While the chinese are hard at work to create new roads to replace the sections that remain submerged, the flow of goods and people on this passageway between Pakistan and China is facilitated by small boats that shuttle from one end of the lake to the other. The permanent solution is to build a highway alongside the lake, but that will require at least five tunnels and massive blasting work, so it will not be complete for many years.

For now, the shuttle boats being used are too small to carry a vehicle, which means that all of the goods (of which there appear to be many) moving in either direction must be manually unloaded from a truck and manually loaded on to a boat at one end, and then manually unloaded from the boat and manually loaded on to a truck at the other end. It is quite an operation.


Moving up through the valley, the physical appearance of the people has changed. At the start, Gerry and I stood out with our white skin, light eyes and western clothing. Progressively, we have noticed more dark skin/light eye combinations, and many people who look entirely caucasian. We've even seen a few gingers. It feels like we are really at a crossroads of cultures.

Fashion has shifted as well. For many kilometers, men were invariably dressed in long sleeved/long pant combinations that resemble pajamas (in the nicest possible way). We are now seeing more variety, individual style as well as clothing that is practical for working on the land. And, since we have started seeing women, they have become less and less conservatively dressed (we have even seen a few without head scarves).


Tonight we stay in Sost, which is the town that is home to the Pakistani administrative post for the border with China. It is more than 200km from here to the Chinese administrative post, and the chinese do not permit independent travel for a good portion of it. So, we will take a rest day tomorrow and make our way to Tashkurgen, China in a vehicle.

Karakoram Highway: Gilgit to Karimabad

We left this morning at first light (~5h30). The road was delightfully quiet and smooth, but there were packs of dogs every 100m or so leaving town. And then more packs every few kilometers after that. We saw one dog with what appeared to be another dog's leg in his mouth.

We didn't stop to take a picture.


Gerry accidentally broke into a Pakistani military compound today.

This is another one of those stories that sounds like it can't end well...but, hey, I'm writing this blog post, so I suppose that I've already spoiled the ending for you.

Here's the story, Gerry had spotted a deadgoat-like logo on a gate at the side of the road. Understandably, he was eager to take a picture with it. He leaned his bike against the gate, turned toward me, and smiled for the photo. Yielding to the weight of the bike, the gate doors swung open. Inside were some Pakistani army guys (who were rather surprised to see us). Fortunately, the guys were relaxed about it; I guess that they have bigger concerns on their hands than a white dude in spandex.


The riding today was steady climbing through some incredible mountains. The highlight, without a doubt, was rounding a corner to see Rakaposhi. Rakaposhi is a stunning, snow-capped behemoth of a mountain, the sight of which reduced me to nervous giggles. It is so mind-blowingly enormous and beautiful that it was hard to look at. It was as though looking at it caused some kind of physical reaction in me as my mind tried to make sense of how nature could produce something so grand.


A police man, Waseem, befriended us in Karimabad, where we are staying tonight. As a consequence of some communication limitations, he thinks that Gerry has two wives. And, it turns out, he thinks that's pretty awesome.

Waseem was extremely kind with us, helping us find accommodation (for $2/night), taking us for some post-ride chicken soup, some milk tea with a local, and then showing us around town.

After leaving us for a brief rest, Waseem returned to our hotel to take us for dinner with Mr. Foo, who he described as his *best* friend (possible translation issue). Mr Foo is 50 years old and works here as a construction engineer on the Karakoram Highway. We had no language in common, but that didn't stop Mr. Foo from enthusiastically trying to communicate with us. He also showed us some kind of free style karate moves.

Mr. Foo was completely wasted.

Waseem had to keep the intoxicated Mr. Foo in line to keep him out of trouble. He would shout, "Mr. Foo! Hurry up!", "Mr. Foo! Watch out for the car!", and so on.

Another man, Mr. Liu joined us for dinner as well. Mr. Liu is also an engineer on the Karakoram. He spoke english and was not drunk, so we had a chance to learn from him a few things about the chinese works on the highway and the life of a chinese engineer over here.

In a very matter of fact way (ie. not looking for sympathy), Mr. Liu told us about how he has one day off per month (ie. no weekends), during which he is *not* permitted to sightsee (after all, he is there for work, not tourism). After two years of this, he will be entitled to his first holiday allocation, which will last for one month. While he is working in Pakistan, he must stay at a hotel that is exclusively for chinese workers and the pakistani police that are there to supervise and protect them (and, in the case of our police friend, be a companion to them). Outside of the hotel (compound), workers are expected to 'follow the culture', which he says discourages any kind of integration, since it is not precisely clear what that means. What is clear, is that they are here to work. Anything that could be construed as something different is not worth the risk.

Suddenly, Mr. Foo's drunkenness was slightly less hilarious and a lot more sad. It is really sweet that Waseem (who is also probably lonely: away from his family on a remote post) makes the effort to give guys like Mr. Foo companionship and care.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Gilgit

The motivation for our rest day was largely driven by a desire to see a few of the sights around the town. In the end we got lazy and just spent the day riding around town and relaxing at the hotel. Being at the hotel so much has offered us the opportunity to get to know the manager well.

We have nicknamed him Eugene because, aside from the signature eyebrows and mannerisms, every encounter with him could be a sketch from SCTV. Possibly the most anxious and awkward hotel employee that I've ever seen.

In town, we were approached by a stranger, Quyam, who invited us in to his place for some tea. It sounds like the start of a story with a bad ending, but its not. We drank milk tea as he walked us through his photo album. There were a few shots from his childhood, but most were from the 60s and 70s, when he had spent some years in Spain selling jewelry on the Ramblas in Barcelona and on the beaches in Ibiza. It looked like he'd been a bit of a player. He told us stories about the people he'd met and the adventures he had. It was 40 years ago, but he still remembered it with detail.

Quyam also shared photos of people who had stayed at his guest house. It seems there is an odd variety of people who come through this part of the world. He had a photo of a man from california with a white beard that must have reached past his belly button. The man had come to Pakistan in search of cure AIDS.

We parted ways and went searching for dinner. I saw a kid with a tracy of food that I'd never seen before, but which looked delicious. I chased him down the street to see what it was...he said "chat", or something like that and showed us where to get it. Chat is a delightful mix of chickpeas, onions, cheese, some kind of crunchy stuff...and I don't know...but it is delicious.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Karakoram Highway - Islamabad to Gilgit

On the way to Gilgit, there is a stretch of road (between Besham and Chilas) that is home to communities that follow a particularly strict form of Mohammedism and which have a reputation for being particularly inhospitable with foreigners (especially women). Further, following some recent events near Chilas, it was not clear that we would even be permitted to make it the entire way on bike. In a decision that took all of 10 seconds, Gerry and I decided to shuttle to Gilgit and start our ride from there. There has recently been an increase in the number of police checkpoints and we were told that we should leave some extra time to accommodate for that.

We left at 3am.

Even in the darkness of the early morning, it was exciting to be on the road. Trucks here are decorated with every detail; neon lights, reflective paint, chimes that jingle while the truck is in motion. I felt as though I was back at burning man.

I drifted in and out of sleep as the van rocked back and forth with the twists in the road, until we reached Battagram (about 50km before the problem area). At this point, we were asked to register and wait for a police escort. While waiting, Gerry and I found a small concrete pad from which we had a decent view of the valley. We stood there and pointed at the views until we were advised that this was the place where people come to pray. It was a good reminder of how easy it is to inadvertently offend!

From Battagram, we had a relay of police escorts, tagging off every few kilometers. One ran out of gas. Finally, they just sent a policeman with a large gun to ride shot gun in our van. This continued all the way until Gilgit. It was quite evident that we would not have been permitted to ride through by bicycle the entire way to Gilgit, anyhow. Taking the van was a good choice.


We saw thousands of people along the road today as we drove through one village after another, carving through the valley created by the Indus river. Of the thousands of people that we saw, only four were women. It was like 600 kilometers of men, many of whom had long beards and serious faces. It made me glad to be in a car as I felt that I had no place here. I wondered if this is something that I would have noticed or been so sensitive to when I was younger.


We arrived in Gilgit after 14 police checkpoints (and as many different escorts) and 19 hours of driving. We are staying in an overpriced hotel by the raging Indus river. Tomorrow, we will take another rest day, before continuing north, unescorted, in the direction of China.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Karakoram Highway - Paris to Islamabad

It was a few years ago when Gerry first asked me if I would like to do a ride with him in Pakistan. At the time, it was an area about which I knew very little. It was also an area of the world that was not exactly on the top of my wish list for tourism. And, anyhow, my schedule didn't permit for such an excursion.

"Sure, but not now", I told him.

Gerry brought it up a few more times; clearly this was stuck in his mind. But I always found a reason why I couldn't go. Then, in February, he asked again and I could think of no reason to decline. The wheels were finally set in motion to make his dream trip a reality.

Though we have done very little by way of precise planning, this trip required a significant amount of lead time - mostly to coordinate obtaining new passports and visas (for pakistan and china) amid frequent travel schedules for both of us. But we made it work.


I united with Gerry (who was coming from Calgary) in Doha, where we were scheduled to take the same flight to Islamabad.

Our flight was delayed, which gave us time to purchase a fake wedding ring (aka sexual harassment deterrent) at a small shop in the airport. I felt a bit stupid because I didn't know which hand it was supposed to go on, but Gerry helped me with that. I would say that my purchase would rank as the fastest wedding ring purchase ever (it took longer to pay for it than to find it).


With our 4am arrival time, we decided to take a rest day before riding - to get the bikes and our heads together (Gerry took the Project Manager position to which he is accustomed).

It is Sunday, which means that almost everything is closed here. So, the afternoon consisted walking over to 'the mall' (ie. A bunch of small shops surrounding a parking lot) in the blazing daytime heat and ate lunch while watching a team of guys do some welding and construction work under conditions that would definitely not meet the safety standards of any western country.

Seeing that we were sweating in the shade, our water brought over a fan, which he connected to some kind of electricity source (illegal?) By cutting the cord with his teeth and connecting the wires to some wires hanging out of a concrete wall. It was very sweet.

Oh, and I received my first lesson in Pakistani cuisine; 'a little bit spicy' means really freaking spicy. I think that I'm going to like this place! Until, of course, I get sick...

We celebrated the start of our long awaited adventure with dinner in the Margalla hills, which overlook the city. It is cool and lovely up here, overlooking the lights of the city and enjoying some pakistani music. It seems like the thing to do on a sunday night in Islamabad.

Day 36/37/38 - Epoisses to Paris

We finished a big lunch in Epoisses and set out for a 'short' afternoon ride to Tonerre. Google maps has been very helpful in certain places along the way, but today was an exception. With storm clouds threatening in the distance, it led us down a path that vaporized into wheat fields, requiring a dreaded back track at a time when nature was not our friend. We put the hammer down and made it to a grocery store at the edge of Tonerre just in time to dodge a downpour. Then camped 10 feet from the river on a night that has a severe thunder and rain warning. We got lucky though.

From Tonerre, we spent a day meandering along then canals (easy, fun, navigation free cycling) and then cut over to Barbizon, where we enjoyed dinner at my favourite restaurant and pirate camping in the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau for our last night on the trip.

Getting into the city today was not so easy - busy roads and limited batteries to navigate alternative routes turned a half day of riding into a full one. It felt strange to reach Paris without Carrie, but by the time we reached bastille, I had forgotten that and it felt really good to be home.

When Pierre joined the trip in Croatia, I would have never imagined that he would stay for the entire journey home. But it has been a wonderful three weeks and I am excited to have a cycling partner with whom I can share more amazing adventures in the future.

When I last heard from Carrie, she was somewhere in italy and making good time on the way to Paris. She should be here within days. I'm hoping that I may be able to join her from here to the northern coast of France if things work out.

Day 33/34/35 - Attenschwiller To Epoisses

Though France has a strong cycling culture, its infrastructure is far less developed than its neighbours. Narrow roads and fast cars left us searching for an alternative to the 'direct' route. The camino de Campostella offered one such alternative, though it is admittedly very indirect.

From time to time over the past few weeks, we have noticed little symbols on various fences/posts/walls. Today, we realized that these mark the camino and that we could have saved ourselves the need for a map and just followed these signs for at least as far back as Austria (though it might have taken us another week to get here, as the camino winds in a rather indirect manner).

Another notable change is the serving sizes for beer in France. In order to maintain the mealtime consumption that I enjoyed in Austria/Germany, I would need to now order 4 beers with each meal. As this feels a bit excessive, I've elected to cut back on my beer consumption here.

Finally, while we have lost the awesome bike paths and the nicely sized beers with our entry into France, we have gained beautiful, inexpensive municipal campgrounds; the cheapest campgrounds so far on this trip (other than bush camping). We've also found more hills here than we did traversing the Austrian Alps - but that's just allowing these last days to linger and I like it.

We finished our first few days in France with a night in Epoisses, where Pierre's parents were staying for a few days. We are now officially on the homestretch, but we are ahead of schedule, so we may split the last two days of riding into three and savour the last kilometers. I love Paris, but it is going to be hard to let this go.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Day 26 - St. Poltner Hutte to Kitchen (?&%!km)

Our ascent to St. Poltner Hutte had seen no recent footprints or tracks (which certainly would have been visible in the snow). Yet, the hut was stocked and had a family living there. We took this as a hint that the descent down the other side must be the access road. It was going to be a fast and fun ride down.


It was a four hour hike-a-bike - through snow, cow shit, and a rocky trail. We were *very* happy to see pavement. At least the weather was nice and the 'trail' was marked.

Given the strain of our hike last night and again this morning, we decided to make it a short distance day, going only another to Kitzbuhel. We took a room at the town hostel, which was run by a New Zealander/Bulgarian guy named Dave. He had long hair, a shirt with a kalishnakoff on it, and had his socks flapping around from the end of his toes like a kid. Despite his appearance, he seemed to be running a tight ship.

We walked into the 'old town' for dinner. It was like disneyland for rich adults; fancy brand name shops, expensive restaurants and mint condition chalets. It was kind of the opposite of where we started the day.

Day 32 - Paradeis to Attenschwiller

We made it to Basel in time for an afternoon drink and had the pleasure to discover hundreds of people floating down the river with little single-serving buoys. This hardly seemed like the boring pharmaceuticals town that I'd always heard about. In fact, it was really cute. It was a shame that we weren't ready to stop for the day.

We carried on in a general westward direction and were surprised to cross the french border just minutes after leaving Basel. Entering France was a milestone that I thought it would bring me great satisfaction and excitement. In fact, made me sad.

It was an unmistakable sign that the adventure is almost over - and just when we are having so much fun. I just want to turn back and pretend that we can go forever.

We ended up in a very small village with just one restaurant that was almost impossible to find but worth the effort. It was a good reminder that just about everything is harder in France, but everything tastes better in France. Suddenly, I had a reason to be happy to be back 'home'.

As this village has no hotel or campground to speak of, we figured that we would just bush camp. But! Just as we were leaving the restaurant, a stranger approached us to ask about our bikes and our trip. He kindly offered us his backyard as a campground for the evening in exchange for some stories. We gladly obliged. I think that Pierre was particularly happy just to speak french again.

Day 31 - Friedrichshafen to Paradeis

It was practically a rest day, everything was so easy. Flat, no wind, easy navigation. And it was still very pretty. Its the sort of no-stress bike touring that one could do indefinitely. I guess that's why so many people come here for the same.

We found a nice spot to camp near the river outside of Paradeis and made our way into the historic town for dinner. We stumbled upon a little festival in a town square and enjoyed some music and a beer and watched the locals play some kind of lawn game that worked with wooden blocks.

Day 27/28/29/30 - Kitzbuhel to Friedrichshafen

What's most striking about this section of road (or, I should say, almost entirely well-marked bike path) is the number of cyclists. They are not just any cyclists either, this is a particularly noticeable demographic of 50-plus riders. From dawn until dusk, the path is packed with them. I don't know where the rest of the population is, but it doesn't matter - its just really cool to see so many people who realize that age doesn't need to slow them down!

We've had enough days in Austria now to develop a bit of a habit - I'm up to about a litre of beer for lunch, and another for dinner. And its hard to let a day go by without some Kasespatzle; a greasy, cheesy, doughy, delicious mess that is my new favourite cycling food.


Riding north along the river put us in a confusing situation of going back and forth between Austria and Switzerland. I'm certain that I hit my record for number of border crossings in one day during our ride into Friedrichshafen.

It is strange to be out of Austria already because it really didn't feel like we did much climbing. In fact, the most climbing that we've done so far was in Croatia.

Friedrichshafen was the destination for our rest day because there is a tradeshow here that I wanted to attend. But it's turned out to actually be a perfect spot for a rest. We are staying in a sort of dormitory just across the street from the lake. Our roommates are a hippie german named Kale and some kids who are in town for internships. They took us out for beers tonight and showed us that even conditioning with 2 litres of beer per day can't prepare you to hang out with germans or college students.

Day 25 - Oberdrauburg to St. Poltner Hutte (85km)

Some days, everything is easy.

Today was not one of those days.

It started out great; a 25km jaunt to Leinz along a lovely bike path (with no confusing dead ends or detours!). We stopped for breakfast before turning north, as we knew there would be some climbing ahead of us. The waiter sparked up a conversation with us; interested to know where we had come from, where we were going. Kitzbuhel, we told him.

He advised us that it was not possible to go the way that we wanted as the road was closed due to a rock slide that had taken place two months earlier. He recommended that we go back on the highway a few kilometers and take the route over two or three passes to get to Kitzbuhel.

There is something about going back that is totally unpalatable. It was not an option for either of us. I proposed going southwest, down into Italy and then back up through the alps. Pierre suggested trying the highway anyway - after all, it had been two months since the incident and this was Austria (practically Germany!), for sure it would be cleared by now. I agreed to a compromise - starting up the road and then making a call as to whether the pass was open or not - based on signs and traffic. Plus, I knew there was no convincing Pierre not to go, so I figured I'd save myself time and just go.

We started up the pass - observing traffic in both directions. We took note of certain cars, watching and waiting to for them to come back the other way (a sign that they'd been turned around). We climbed and climbed, almost reaching the pass. And then...road closure.

We rolled past the barrier to evaluate the situation. Pierre was convinced that we would be able to climb over the slide if it was still there. I was not...that shit scares me...but I decided to follow as I felt it would be easier to get out of climbing over it once I could point to how bad it was. That and, well, I was really hoping that it was cleared - we had done so much climbing to get there!

In fact, the slide was still there, untouched. The damage had been so massive that the state decided to first fix the mountain above, then deal with the mess below. There was no way we were attempting to traverse this thing under these circumstances. At least we both agreed on that! But, we could see below, down in the valley, a parking lot and what looked to be hiking trails. We went down to investigate.

Pierre found a map that showed a path that went over an adjacent pass and would, apparently, take us to a point at which we could rejoin the route to Kitzbuhel. The map showed a hut at the top of the pass and indicated an estimate of 4 hours to hike to reach the hut.

It was 4:30pm, we'd better hurry.

4 hours of daylight left in the day and we embarked on a 4 hour hike to a hut at the top of a mountain pass that was 1000m above our starting elevation. Lest I forget to mention the wind and dark clouds on the horizon.

I have made some questionable decisions in my life. This was one of them.

Most hiking paths switchback up a slope, providing a more comfortable grade for hiking and less damage to the environment. Not this one. This one took a bee line straight up the mountain, roughly paralleling some electricity lines over rocks and through show-shit-filled mud. This not only deemed the path unrideable, it meant that we had to carry our bikes on our shoulders/backs.

On the bright side, we had the trail to our selves. We had the whole mountain to our selves!

After a few hundred meters of elevation gain, the path became a small road and we were able to ride for a while (less than 2km). That's when the rain started. Realistically, it was the kind of rain that does more in terms of making one worry than making one wet and cold. Yes, we were wet and cold. No, it was not an emergency. Yes, the lighting and thunder over the peak to the west of us was disturbing, as was the buzz of the electrical lines that curt up parallel to the path that we were following. But we weren't *actually* in the shit storm. Yet.

We continued to climb, reaching a point at which we were certain we could see the pass. At this point, the rain disappeared, but it was replaced by another challenge. Snow. Sheets of snow on a steep slope and no way around it. We slipped and squished our way slowly up the snow, praying that there were no surprise rivers underneath.

I imagined that the hut at the top would be locked, that we would have no way to make a fire outside, and that we would be munching on gummy bears for dinner and breakfast. But there is something about being with someone that made it ok. It might be a hard night, but I wouldn't be alone.

Finally, after 3 hours of pushing and carrying our bikes, we reached the hut. Magically, wonderfully, awesomely, it was open! And there were people living there! And there was food! And beer! It was such an unexpected surprise! We really got lucky. So we will go to bed dry, warm and with full bellies. I'm looking forward to our descent to breakfast tomorrow!

Day 24 - Kranyska Gora to Oberdrauburg (106km)

We crossed the border into Austria just before breakfast, along with a hoard of motorcycle tourists who roared past regularly with little regard for the level of their noise pollution and the time of day.

Fortunately, we soon found ourselves on a seemingly wonderful bike path system. It was great to be off the highway...but the combination of 3 different path networks - uncoordinated with each other - meant that we sometimes found ourselves turning around in circles.

There wasn't much to stop for today and the road was relatively flat as we roughly followed a river down the valley toward Oberdrauburg. For the amount of time we spent on the bike, we really should have made it much farther - but the constant dead ends and detours we faced on account of the uncoordinated bike paths created a serious obstacle to progress.

We called it quits in a small town called Oberdrauberg and took a spot with a few families and number of biker dudes at the local campground. I guess that we won't need to set an alarm tonight, as our neighbours will likely wake us up tomorrow with their engines.

Day 23 - Ljubljana to Kranjska Gora (90km)

I'm now convinced that Slovenia is one of the nicest cycling destinations on earth. We were able to stay most of the day on bike paths connecting one city to the next, enjoying beautiful views of the valley and no cars, as we made our way to the Austrian border.

We managed to escape two bouts of rain, the first which came during our lunch stop, and the second which came during our beer stop (which then became our final destination for the day).

We are staying at an eco campground just outside of a little ski town. The campground has an out-of-place reindeer and some fireflies and just few enough guests to make the perfect balance between feeling the freedom of nature and feeling the convenience of civilization (ie. Showers and flush toilets).

I would say that the highlights of the surroundings on this trip have really moved from being culture and food to being unspoiled nature. Though I have very much enjoyed the food and culture along the way, this is a welcome transition. These mountains are incredible.

Day 21/22 - Markovec to Ljubljana (80 km)

We started the day only 50km or so from Ljubljana, but took the long route after being persuaded by the owner of the guest house, Miha, that it would be worth the effort. He even prepared some detailed maps for us that showed the scenic, off road routes worth taking. And it was a day of cycling paradise. My bike and I could spend a lot of time in this part of the world.

Ljubljana is a beautiful european capital, rich with history and life and void of tourists. It is spectacular. There is a river cutting through the city, along the banks of which everyone congregates to socialize, eat and drink.

We met up with my (INSEAD) friends Adam and Ani, who are living in Bermuda these days, but just happened to be here visiting family at precisely the right moment to catch me passing through.

We will stay here for a rest day, my first in two weeks, and then continue north to Austria. I hope that out legs are ready for the mountains!