Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stephen's Account of our Week Together

George and I spent the night in our tents in this half-completed brick building, better seen in the next photo. We were woken early the next morning by the workers in the background arriving to finish the job.

George riding into the haze of Zhengzhou, a city of two million.

Lunch along the road, a little noisy, but at least warmer sitting out in the sun rather than eating inside.

A rare bottleneck of traffic.

That's not a religious shrine in the background, but rather a gas station. Many draw attention to themselves with grandiose coverings over their pumps. This was one of the more ostentatious.

China has been one of my favorite countries for bicycle touring. I have spent the past week touring with my friend George Christensen - a.k.a. "George The Cyclist," and although I have only been able to ride my bicycle for about 700 of the 1,700 miles of my route through the country, my time here has been fabulous. Fraught with challenges, a seizure, some sickness, but most importantly, with good company, and exciting travel.

I used a bus and a train to cover 1,000 miles when time constraints, illness and a seizure all conspired to slow my progress as I moved across China. During the past couple of months, I have been working toward a November 27 arrival in Tokyo to meet my friend Ian. A 45-50 mile/day pace became a 50-55 mile/day pace, which then became a 60 mile/day pace, which then became a 50Mph pace after I boarded a train in Guilin, China to speed toward my rendezvous with my friend George Christensen in Wuhan. George and I toured for about 400 miles, and I then boarded a long-distance bus, which carried me along for the remaining 400 miles from Zhengzhou to Beijing. In two days, I board a flight to Tokyo, where I meet my friend Ian McKittrick, where we will go for a tour of Japan during the coming two weeks.

George Christensen, author of the blog, “George The Cyclist,” had been touring in China for the past five weeks or so before we met up in Wuhan on the sixteenth. Before that, he has been touring around the planet Earth for the past 32 years or so since going on his first major bicycle tour from one coast of the U.S.A. to the other in 1977 on his Peugeot PX-10. He was twenty-six years old when he went on his first tour.

George’s travels have taken him to Iceland, India, Colombia, Alaska, South Africa, Mozambique, France and Morocco among dozens of others. Every season, you can read about one of George’s tours on his blog. With George, most things seem to function easily - casually - within systems, schedules and flexible routines that have emerged to ease the often very-challenging process of living a life on the road, on a bicycle tour. George’s system has emerged from traveling more-extensively and more-frugally than anybody I know. And I know some people... I got the chance to spend the last week touring with him from Wuhan, China to Zhengzhou, China where we enjoyed great conversations about topics such as film, family, travel, camping, food, and - of course - bicycle touring.

Every time that I have traveled with somebody else on this tour, I have noticed that my own style changes a bit in relation to my companion’s style, just as their style, must, change a bit to fit my own style. While riding out of town with Juju and David on day one from Telluride, I rode at a relaxed pace, and enjoyed great convos; while touring with my friend Keith in Mississippi, I enjoyed a couple of great nights out at local watering holes; while touring with my friend Jenine in Greece, I learned to appreciate amazing Greek Tavernas, and great beaches on the islands; while traveling with my friend James, I adapted to early starts and finishes, and hours of peaceful time in the afternoon spent in the sun doing all. When I’m on my own, I find myself getting later starts, stopping more often, drifting toward coffee shops, movie theaters, bikeshops... an occasional bookstore or McDonald’s. A consumer at heart. Or at the very least, a window shopper when I’m broke.

With George, I learned to appreciate the phrase, “I like to ride the bike.” If George gets the quote of the day in the Daily Planet - a Telluride Newspaper that features a daily quote - this might be a perfect quote for him. So that is exactly what we did - we rode the bikes. A lot. Pretty soon, I found that I was beginning to enjoy riding the bike too. But riding bikes with George is a bit different. It’s a bit less like pedaling a loaded touring bike, and a bit more like pedaling a light cycle from TRON. Once I got into sync with George’s rhythm of 10-15 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes, and then getting on the bike and pedaling at a steady pace, I began to experience moments when I would look over my shoulder to cross the highway, look back over the other shoulder, see George doing the same thing, in the same place 15 yards up the road, and then settle in on his wheel, and just start moving along, nicely synced up, and rolling along. Easy. I came to appreciate this movement, the changing digits on my computer, the feelings of changing the layers of my clothing in response to the weather, the anticipation of reading a few pages of Passage to Juneau - the book that George gave me upon my arrival in Wuhan. A book that is amazingly appropriate to my own situation in life - a book based in Seattle having to do with adventures in sailboats. These were the things I learned to appreciate as I rolled along.

So - not really anything like riding a light cycle from TRON. Nothing at all in fact. But imagination is what keeps bicycle touring moving along. Without imagination, it might be unimaginable. But riding along in George’s rhythm was great. Fast, steady, lots of distance, lots of colors. We moved through big chunks of China because of the speed and time that was involved - we did not just apply speed, not just time...both. Hours and hours ticking by as we pedaled up highway 107 at 10-15Mph - speed depending entirely on wind conditions. 15 = really fast, aided by some tailwind... 10 = struggling against light headwind. No...there were no drugs involved. With the exceptions of Zonegran and Trileptal - but they do not enhance colors or speed up movement. They also don't speed up the harvest. They do control seizures.

During our first two days on the road, it was all I could do to not embarrass myself, riding a day after a seizure in Wuhan - yes, I had another one of those ten days ago: I have now had three seizures on this trip as well as a mini seizure: One seizure in Portugal, one in Laos, one in China, and a mini seizure in India.

After a desperately cold arrival the previous day from the train station and several hours spent by both George and me in an effort to locate each other in Wuhan, I was ripe for a seizure. They are triggered by lack of sleep and by lack of energy. A night of little sleep followed by a low energy, high stress departure into cold weather to hunt down cash was a recipe for a seizure. Interestingly, I almost got away with it: I felt a couple of auras come and go, I told George, half jokingly, that I would be happy to make it away from Western Union without having a seizure. We made it out of there, and even got on the bikes. George, the whole time, emanating some kind of aura of calm that did, in fact, reduce my stress level, and make me feel much more at ease. Unfortunately, my fatigue and lack of energy demanded attention, and insisted upon manifesting themselves in the form of a seizure. (By the way - my plan to meet at McDonald’s = bad idea...way too many McDonald's...way too much confusion! For the full account, visit and go to Wuhan, Day 3 or so...)

The night before departure, I had stayed up till 1 or 2 a.m. at an Internet café working to arrange the money transfer with my Mom. My credit cards had been stolen in Vietnam, which means that right now I am getting by on money transfers from my parents. A bit of a hassle, but amazing parents make this kind of thing fall well-short of a disaster.

SO - when we departed the following morning, I was cold, tired, stressed. It was somewhat of a surprise that we made it as far as Western Union, cash in hand, out the door, and even were in our bike costumes with loaded bikes before the seizure hit. Again - click the link above for the full account. George was a rock star in caring for me, and especially in ensuring that the ambulance that arrived did not cart me off to a hospital, which it would have done had George not calmed the EMTs and persuaded them to delay for a few minutes.

George kept the ambulance right where it was, using patient, friendly tones as he spoke with EMTs: “You can take him to the hospital, but it won’t help. He will recover here just fine.” The EMTs would then, after short periods of hesitation and eye contact with George, make their responses in Chinese, which must have been something like, “... ...He will recover here just fine.” though I could not understand. It was amazing to observe the process as he altered their mentalities from “Rev engines! Go To Hospital! Now!” To “OK...we’ll chillax here for a few...” Fortunately, one of the EMTs spoke a little bit of English and George was able to use his force of persuasion with her to remarkable effect. As they fenced, I quickly regained a bit of energy and warmth. As for me, I might have been a bit impatient if I’d had any strength, but I could not do much more than slowly nod my head, smile, say “yes,” “no,” “Xie Xien-yee” (thank you...I think) and breathe. There is a kind of exhausted euphoria that washes over you when you are lying prone under a heat blanket with a few people staring down at you and talking about you in serious, hushed tones.

I believe that George gets his patience from years of dealing with the nonsense of touring. Don’t get me wrong - there is a lot of phenomenal experience, and a lot of simply unbelievable kind of magic that occurs. But there is also quite a bit of not being able to communicate efficiently with EMTs in an ambulance. After getting enough of it, I think that most of it simply washes over George, and he just notices the good things.

I could have probably avoided this seizure, but I was holding out a small kernel of hope that the seizure might not happen. I did not quite have it in me to ask George to continue to delay in Wuhan for another day, especially after our chaotic effort that went into meeting the night before. I was clinging to the hope that I might be able to pull off a seizure-free day after 5 or 6 hours of sleep and a cold weather start in the morning. I did not have it in me to demand that my friend change his schedule again in order to reduce the risk of my potentially having a seizure - I really did think that I would be able to make it at one point. Although I know that of course he would have done so. You know that all of your friends would always do so. The key is to become increasingly skilled, in life, at avoiding the circumstances that trigger seizures, increasingly comfortable with letting people know about your situation, and, in doing everything you can to get the best treatment: funding research, getting medicines, doing your homework.

So - people often respond to an explanation of my sleep-triggered seizure disorder with something like, “Oh...that’s easy enough to avoid...” But every seizure I have had was, for reasons similar to the situation above, somewhat tricky to avoid. If they were that easy to avoid, I would never have seizures. Fortunately, they are predictable enough. I knew that this one was coming.

Once I was rested, we beat a slow retreat by foot, and by slow pedaling, to the hotel, and I slept it off. George made a run to Wal Mart, bringing back rice and hard boiled eggs to eat. He also went on a big loop bike ride around the city, crossing the 2Km (mile?) width of the Yangze river by the northern bridge, then re crossing by the Southern Bridge. Probably a 20 mile bike ride or so, all in 35-45 degree icy conditions. In essence - George made life way easier by taking care of all kinds of details. I slept like a rock while he was out doing all of these crazy things.

NOW - the story resumes with the departure from Wuhan. The following morning, being thus fatigued, I resolved to simply follow George and to preserve my dignity as best I could in my state. The next morning, we repeated the process of the departure: climb right out of bed, put on shoes, (don’t have to put on anything else, because I was already wearing everything else I owned including gloves, hat, socks, and down jacket...presto!) and carry the bikes down to the street. I put my bike behind George’s and sort of lethargically got on board, surveying the grey icy city around me with a feeling of dread. I believe that I masked all of these feelings with a small grin and some remarks about the temperature feeling “not too bad,” and about my excitement over George’s already knowing the escape route from the city - fully genuine. I hate finding my own escape route from a massive city! George’s route was perfect. We never got lost, and were cruising on highway 107 after an hour or two of rolling through city traffic.

At this point, I allowed George to lead the way. He would continue to do so for 90% of the coming week, pulling me along at a steady 12-13Mph average speed for the next 400 miles or so while I sat on his wheel, drafting through thick and thin, trying to recover strength. During the first two days, I was a bit concerned that we might not even last together as traveling companions for another day because I was slowing the pace so much. I was touring in a fairly exhausted physical state after the seizure, and was fighting a head cold that had latched onto my head at some point in Wuhan...while I’m complaining, I suppose I’ll put in mention that my left shoulder always gets messed up in a seizure. But it was only two days of nastiness before I felt a lot better. For whatever reason, the nastiness seems to come in waves... this bout occurring right after a week of illness in Nanning and a seizure in Laos. That’s life I suppose. Perhaps I’ll be clear for a little while after this. Before the past three weeks, I had done remarkably well during the past year of travel, only having been really ill once in Calcutta, and only having had one seizure in Portugal before that.

For two days, I could barely make 8 or 9Mph. George was pushing me physically - Thank God! - up every hill, and on long flat stretches with good shoulder to propel me along. There was a lot of this on day 2. Our day 1 mileage was something like two maybe 50. Maybe vice versa...but 36&50 days 1 and 2. It would have been much less had George not been continually pulling along side, putting a hand on my back, and pushing me along for minutes at a time. After being “released” from a push, I would maintain pace for a couple of minutes until George chased me down again (or until I fell back) and then he would continue pushing again. For George, the experience might have been similar to that of a child (George) with a loaded shopping cart (me) in a 50-mile long supermarket aisle (highway 107 between Wuhan and Xianfan)...he would go as fast as he could and then let the cart go to and then see how far it might travel. After repeating this process for a few hours a day for two days, we had covered 86 miles.

At first, I thought, “Oh my God...this is AWESOME!!” Then it just became part of how we moved. With assistance we were able to make 10 or 11 Mph - fast enough to pass lots of pedestrian, bicycle, and occasional moped traffic that may not have been believing what they were seeing. Humorously, in George’s own account of these first two days, the focus of the story is all on my own chasing after trucks to catch a draft, making it all sound as though it were actually hard for him to keep up with me!! Well...perhaps after 80 miles of pushing another cyclist along, it might be hard for 10 seconds every so often to catch up when I gave chase to a truck. I was just trying to pull every trick out of the bag to move the tour forward those days... There was one moment when I chased after a truck - one of the classic “draftable” trucks: a fully-loaded dump truck making 20Mph or so. I caught it without too much difficulty, and 4 or 5 seconds later, George had caught it too. After a minute or two of drafting, I slowly moved up, and grabbed onto the truck. I was being pulled now. George made a similar move to my left. When I saw and understood this situation, one truck, one cyclist latched onto either side being pulled along, there was a moment when I was not sure if I could believe what I was seeing. The driver definitely refused to believe - or to accept - the situation that was unfolding in his side-view mirrors. In moments, the horn was ablaze warning us away from the truck. We moved back to the draft, but I was, unfortunately, too tired to keep up. I fell away, and George started pushing me along once more. Unbelievable.

On day three, we made about 70 miles, and George did not push me. I clung to his wheel for dear life, but managed to hold on. I was happy with that. George is 58 years old, and I am 25. He is way stronger...although I like to think, “If I got in shape...” or “if I rode my bike more...” or “if I had a lighter bike...” But no. George is built to ride. Tall and lean. He puts in 12,000 miles or so each year - an insane number. For perspective, my lap around the world to date (13 months) has taken me 11,300 miles, going from Telluride, CO to Beijing. I hope to never ride my bike this much again in my life.

By now, George has gotten a very clear idea of what his capabilities are as a bicycle tourist, and what he can do to extend those capabilities, to make the system more efficient, etc. I asked him how many miles he rides each day, and his response was that he usually rides between 70 and 80 miles each day while touring. He also said that he used to ride 90-100 miles each day when he was younger, but that he eased off a bit. Thank God that I did not meet him when he was younger. In terms of traveling on a low budget, riding big days on the bike, and exploring the world, George has the system down about as well as a bicycle tourist could hope to get it down. These are things that it is easy to see on the road: getting a bicycle into a hotel, ordering a meal, quickly finding a campsite, etc. It is the little things that add up to a good bicycle tour. Beyond that, you just have to figure out what your priorities are.

George rides as a bicycle messenger in Chicago to earn money for his bicycle tours around the world. He rides the bike so that he can ride the bike. He writes down numbers of all kinds during the day. Mileages, prices, temperatures, calories. These numbers go into small journal pages that George keeps in his handlebar bag to document daily travel and weather info. They all get figured into his sort of master equation - although I do not believe there is any kind of formal equation. It gets incorporated into refining George’s system - every bicycle tourist, every traveler, every human has a system. George’s system is based on maximum miles and minimum money. Many travelers, bicycle tourists, backpackers, etc. like to think that this is also their system. However, most people would not understand the meaning of such a system before meeting George the Cyclist - Even More miles...Even Less money! George you can use that for your book title - my gift to you. Just kidding...but not really...but seriously.

In addition to taking him through new and unknown places, George’s miles regularly carry him through places where he sees things that he loves: film and bicycle racing. Each year, George makes a pilgrimage to France to watch and follow the Tour de France. He rides the Tour route on his Trek 520, with loaded panniers, cycling and camping along the length of almost every stage. He has become something of a permanent fixture along the Tour route, having ridden its length during the past six years. When we rode together in China, George was wearing, as part of his layering, Garmin winter kit - bibs and jersey - that had been given to him personally by Christian Vande Velde after the last Tour de France. When the mercury rose above 50 degrees or so - rare - I might actually see it for a moment, but usually it was buried beneath various other wind breakers, jackets, etc. George rides the tour in his own style, and apparently, the style is finding its audience and George is finding his niche in the seemingly wild menagerie of Tour fans. Naturally, George camps in his tent in the forests and on the farms along the Tour route, rarely staying in a hotel. $10/day is his standard global travel budget, no matter where he goes, including accommodation and food. Plenty for an enthusiastic bicycle touring Tour enthusiast - what better way to bring “Tour” back to the Tour?

George’s other passion is film. He makes visits to Cannes, France and to Telluride, CO for their Film Festivals each year. It was at the Telluride Film Festival that I met George just before Seize The World got underway. We went on a bicycle ride together up to Lizard Head Pass during which I picked his brain about bicycle touring, travel, and similar topics. We agreed that it would be great if, at some point, we could meet out on the road and go touring. The dream became a reality a little more than a year later in Wuhan, China.

At this point, I am just hooked and inspired by the story of George The Cyclist as one more example of the idea that people can have active lives. While George does not face the challenge of epilepsy, he certainly faces other challenges - challenges which he overcomes regularly on the road. George travels on a very slim budget, and he is hopelessly addicted to a method of travel that is physically very demanding. These things do not hold him back. Speaking for myself, being now hooked on the story, and convinced that George has figured out the challenges of traveling anywhere in the world by bicycle, I can only hope that he will continue to document and share his experiences of exploring the world. I hope to help in any capacity that I might be able.

This was something that we discussed while on the road: how best to share the experience of a bicycle tour. A blog, a book, facebook, etc. When the book comes out, I’ll order copies - that’s all I will say. Until then, let me know when you want to go on another tour.

Right now, I am at a Starbucks buried underground in a massive shopping mall in Beijing. There is WiFi here, and there are lattes. Outside, there are busses to Badaling, where I will visit the Great Wall of China later today. It is a brisk day, maybe 45 degrees. Hazy air quality, not too cloudy, but hazy. Afterward, I will return to the Forbidden City Hostel for a night of rest, and tomorrow I will visit the Forbidden City and walk around Tiananmen Square for a little while before flying to Tokyo to meet my friend Ian on Friday afternoon. The beginning of a two week tour in Japan. More to come about all of that soon. It is a large place here.


1 comment:

Frostbike said...

I'm so glad you learned to post photos, George!