Saturday, February 9, 2013

Up and down, up and down, up up up..... the endless and exhausting ride across Guizhou 贵州.

It was the mix between an enormous enthusiasm, the excitement of being riding around the world again, the strong need to get to see the “new” stuff, the anxiousness to get to Guangzhou 广州, lying 2300km (1430miles) ahead, on time for Christmas to meet my “co-pilot”, what left me limping by the 5th day. All this “excess of enthusiasm” hit my knees extremely hard. I had cycled more than 15.000km (9400miles) in the last four years, but due to the more ephemeral nature of those journeys, no matter how hard they had been, especially the ones across Tibet, I had been able to carry less weight. Now, I was already carrying what is typical for any long-hauler. I left home with little over 60kg(135pounds), a moderate weight to start, especially considering the awful weight of my photography gear and related equipment. This weight would allow me to get fit and ready for the times when carrying food and winter clothes would possibly increase it up to 80kg (180pounds) However, at pace of more than a 100km (63mi) a day along roads that were becoming increasingly difficult, it was more than my knees could take in such a short period of time. Needless to say, I couldn't think of a worse scenario, since I was just crossing into Guizhou province 贵州省.
Guizhou 贵州 is officially the poorest province of China but also, proportionally, one of the less visited by both Chinese and foreigners. That is possibly the reason why in my mind it was so enigmatic and because of this, I deliberately traced my route all across it. I entered Guizhou贵州 from its westernmost tip, crossing the river Chishui赤水, reaching the town bearing the same name. I had got to it following a secondary and already very mountainous road of Sichuan province 四川 and at that time I really wasn't able to imagine what lied ahead. I had done my homework and of course I knew it was a mountainous province, what I didn't know yet was that for the next 1000km (620mi) approximately, there were not going to be more than a 100 consecutive meters (300ft) of flat road. Guizhou 贵州 has the geography of a different planet.
As soon as I left Chishui 赤水, cutting across a thick bamboo forest, the changes were immediate. On the way to Xishui 习水, in towns and villages, traffic became noticeably more chaotic, pollution increased, buildings were more precarious, with facades with no finishes or finished half-way. There was no aesthetic appeal of any kind, constructions were not even picturesque, but this is the case in all China anyway. On the other hand, landscape became greener and wilder. The climbs started from the very beginning. The soil became red and I could see very long and thin waterfalls falling for dozens of meters from high up above, filtering through thick forests and bare rock cliffs. After a while, the forest gave way to deep canyons following winding emerald green rivers. From these, I would start climbing up until the ridge from where I would see a new valley, each with its own extra planetary topography. Every climb would bring a new way down to a new valley and the slopes were unforgiving to my knees. With every step I took on the pedal I felt like a sharp iron bar piercing through my knee caps. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I couldn't concentrate on the beauty around me any more. Music, which is usually soothing, helped sometimes but It would still hurt when the punishing slopes became very steep. A series of intricate rice terraces started to dominate the landscape among mountains that seemed to accommodate themselves in the most whimisical way.

 It did not take long for me to realize that when looking straight at the horizon, there wasn't one, because nothing was placed at the same level. Crossing Guizhou贵州felt like being trapped in this massive 3D maze in which movement never occurs in one direction but in all of them, and it sometimes take only a handful of meters to switch from one to the other. Days were almost perpetually grey and the fog was low and thick when I saw, across the river I was cycling along, a fantastic village of traditional houses.