Friends: Four days of cycling with Stephen and there is still hardly a lull in our conversation, on the bike and off. We both have slight sore throats from exercising our vocal chords more than we have in weeks.
But as deep in conversation as we may be as we're cycling along, Stephen has not lost his radar for slower moving vehicles about to overtake us that are draftable, a skill he developed to precision while in India, where he did considerable drafting as well as grabbing hold of vehicles for a totally free pull.
All that drafting he did in India has made chasing after slower-moving vehicles a conditioned reflex. His ears and his subconscious are fully attuned to the chugging sound of a vehicle straining to maintain a speed of twenty to twenty-five miles per hour. My only alert that he's about to explode with a sudden burst of energy is the quick look he gives over his shoulder to confirm that he does indeed have a vehicle to draft.
That sound, that doesn't yet register with me, instantaneously transforms him into a bicycling fiend, even if he is lagging along. It effects him so spontaneously and deeply, he doesn't even give out a shout of excitement or warning that in an instant he's about to accelerate full-tilt and give chase. He just becomes focused on catching that vehicle like a dog with its ears back taking off after a rabbit. He was so determined to get across India as fast as he could, it become an obsession, almost of desperation, to seize the opportunity to latch onto a moderately moving vehicle to speed up the process. He was ever on the alert for them.
I have to be very quick to react to Stephen's sudden acceleration, otherwise I'll be left behind. Sometimes the vehicle is one of those smaller three-wheeled vehicles piled high with cargo that are so common. They make excellent drafting for one but not two, so I have to ride on Stephen's wheel, which doesn't provide as much of a wind-break as he's receiving.
Yesterday we were both behind a large truck, Stephen on the right side and I on the left, a perfect situation. The driver stuck his head out his window to verify what he was seeing in his mirror, and gave me a smile. After a few minutes Stephen edged off to the side of the truck in search of a hand hold. He found one and grabbed it. I swung a little left and saw one I could grab too. Almost instantly the driver began blasting his horn, letting us know that he did not approve of us putting our hands on his truck. We both let go just as he sped up and left us behind.
China is the 22nd country Stephen has passed through on his round-the-world tour. He has one to go, Japan. After a couple weeks there he will fly to Seattle and finish off his circuit to his starting point in Telluride. Other than his couple thousand mile stretch across the U.S. from Colorado to Charleston, South Carolina, his longest stretch across a country is the 1,200 miles of India from Bombay to Calcutta. China would have exceeded that, but time constraints will limit his bicycling here to 700 of the 1,700 miles of his route from Vietnam to Beijing.
Our conversation has included anecdotes from every country, but none more than India, partially because I too biked the same National Highway Six across the country that was Stephen's route, but mostly because it was such a uniquely intense experience unlike any other segment of his travels. India hadn't changed much in the fifteen years between our travels. It was a nightmare for both of us--horrid road conditions, way too much traffic with each and every truck, bus, motorcycle and automobile blasting their horn as they passed, and swarms of people descending upon us whenever we stopped, who would stare and stare as long as we lingered. But we both had many people treat us with great kindness and cordiality, and we could not help but have a fondness for the country, true of everywhere we have traveled.
India was one of three places Stephen was most looking forward to when he set out on this trip. The others were Egypt for its pyramids and China with its Great Wall. The pyramids did not disappoint, nor has China. We both regularly comment that we will be sure to return to China. Its a shame Stephen has a flight to catch to Tokyo on the 27th, less than a week away, to meet up with a friend, as it will force him to take a bus or train the final 400 miles to Beijing.
The highlight of his travels has been the week he spent with his mother in Chang Mai, Thailand, almost a year into his travels, a point at which he was really missing home. He acknowledges he is eager to get home and get this over with and isn't quite as motivated as he was early on to spend the day on his bike.
Today was a good day, a rare day with a tail wind. He still remembers a day across New Mexico early on as his favorite day of the trip when he had a sensational tailwind allowing him to do 115 miles, one of three centuries he's had. One of his other centuries was his last day across India into Calcutta when he had his best day of grabbing hold of trucks, giving him a free ride much of the way.
India was one of two places where a father invited Stephen to marry his daughter. The other was in Turkey. He's had easy and difficult border crossings. The worst was from Turkey into Syria. He was left dangling at the border for several hours before a border official finally stamped his passport after playing a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with him, another incident he can now laugh about.
After two nights of wild camping we are back in a hotel here in Xiping. Tomorrow promises more tailwinds with the temperature possibly in the 50s, the warmest I've had since arriving in Wuhan over a week ago. Today was the first day we saw no snow since leaving Wuhan. We're under 600 miles now to Beijing, still a long ways to go but I'm growing more confident that the weather will hold and I can make it all the way on the bike.