Tag Archives: off the beaten path

Cycle-touring Tanzania, for a cause


Two sets of thick, nubby tire tracks disappear over the steep slope. This is a cliff, really, a cliff in remote Tanzania ending 1,500 feet below on the hot, sandy Masaai Plain. It’s not a good place for injuries of any kind, and especially not the bloody kind of gashes sustained after falling off a mountain bike. Blood (and fear) is detected easily by lion, hyena, snake, scorpion and the like in wild places like this.

Today, after five days riding up and over Tanzania’s green, lush Usambara Mountain Range, it is finally time to descend into a harsher, hotter Africa.

Though hilly and rutted roads are the norm in these mountains, mountain-biking the Usambara had been relatively easy so far, as long as you took it slow and steady.  For most people in our group of five foreigners in their thirties and forties, this method worked well. I think the cool, misty mornings had something to do with it. I could see, after a few days cycling here, why they call the Usambara “The Switzerland of Tanzania.” We had stopped for a full day and night in the village of Lushoto, singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with friendly girls walking home from school, eating sugarcane with happy young boys, whose only use for knives was to cut wild sugarcane. Passing through the farm towns, “helloooo-muzzungu!” rang out from anyone working the fields, and children pushed us up the hills, grabbing the backs of our seats and running furiously behind us, laughing the whole way. The mountains felt safe, giddy almost, with happy monkeys in the trees above us and happy children nearly everywhere else.

But the exit route out of this veritable African idyll, so far, isn’t so pleasant. Our guides, two Tanzanian brothers, decided to lead us out of the Usambara and onto the Masai Plain via a new route, a little-used cattle track beginning in the village of Mtae (muh-tie). It’s main purpose was to switch-back down the mountainous shelf known as the Masai Steppes. This track, peppered with thorns and full of deep rocky ruts, gave this amateur cyclist chills on a rather hot day. I’d never seen anything tougher on which to ride, and especially on a bike laden with too many tee-shirts stuffed in the panniers. I rode my brakes (always) and got off the bike (often). Whether riding or walking, I swore, loudly and steadily, at this horrid little cattle track. Local women, hiking the track uphill with heavy baskets of firewood on their heads, smiled knowingly as I shrieked and swore and sweated past them.

* * *

Yassin Madiwa, one of our two guides, saw the errant tire tracks first, where the riders had obviously missed the switchback and instead rolled off the slope.  He peered down. Definitely no trail. Just thorns, bushy tangles of trees, loose sandy soil, and rocks. He got off his bike, examined the tracks and thought, Could they … have ridden down this? The two women were the least experienced cyclists in the group of riders, made up of three American women and two Englishmen.

Certainly the others wouldn’t have lost the trail like this, Yassin thought, endangering themselves and possibly the rest of the group in one sweeping, poorly-thought-out decision.  It was only the seventh day of an 11-day cycling trip. It was not a day for losing two American women on the Masai Steppes.

He called the two women’s names, long and loud.

One of those names was mine.

TO BE CONTINUED (NEXT WEEK) ….

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To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


 

On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.

A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.

Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level.  Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.

Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes.  It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.

Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet.  We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.

A PLACE UNCOVERED

Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.

Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.

Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.

From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.

A NEW TIBET?

China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?

What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?

Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.

Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.

One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.

I stare down at it. Is this really happening?

I look again. It’s still there.

My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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Finding China, beneath the yellow fog


Part One (of two) from travels in China

Most of the world is aware that in Beijing, the fog is not the cool, lilting, low-lying cloud we wish it were — you know, the kind mysteriously enveloping bonsai trees and waterfalls in all those old Chinese landscape scroll-paintings. In Beijing, the fog lives in tandem with honking car horns and hot, sticky humidity that drips off your forehead.  Only at night does it feel ethereal, and only if you lie to yourself that it drifted in off the Yellow Sea.

Beijing’s ever-present fog is pure pollution – tons of toxic particles hanging suspended in the city’s air from cars and trucks and factories.

Pure pollution. It’s an oxymoron fitting for modern-day China, a country already full of ironies. Long-steeped in what was once pure — ancient tradition, spare living, Confucian morals and healthy diets – it’s no secret that China, in some places, is polluted on the outside, and sometimes on the inside, too.

China’s bear-hug of capitalism has been strong and fast, and no number of no-drive days in the cities (an obvious public relations scheme by the government) will make any noticeable difference.

But dissecting the multiple forces at work that have made Beijing China’s version of Los Angeles is another story for another time and place and destination.

This story is about little Jinshanling, and how the smog and all that it represents is starting to poison her.

Jinshanling is tucked in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, more than 150 miles away from Beijing. The tiny village, with fewer than 200 people, is a pocket of civilization older than most civilized places in the world.

My husband and I are here as newlyweds on week two of our honeymoon, hoping to see a slice of old China. We wanted to really see the Great Wall, to find a section where we could take in the grandeur without a lot of people around. The big question: how do you do that in the most populous country in the world?

Answer: Google it. Even Jinshanling can be found on a Google search.

What I found, really, was a local tour company that for a few hundred dollars would provide a Chinese guide, two nights’ stay in Jinshanling, one night of camping inside one of the Great Wall’s abandoned watchtowers, and an eight-mile hike on quiet, sometimes crumbling sections of the Great Wall to the village of Simatai.

The company wanted full payment by wire transfer to China before we left the United States. My husband smelled a scam, but I pressed on.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

I pause and say nothing. Instead, I turn my head to the side and smile.

I would let him answer this one himself.

“We show up and no one comes for us at our hotel in Beijing and our money is gone.”

I agree, yes, that could happen.

We wire the finds.

And so here we are, in a van, less than 18 hours after touching down in China, winding through the country roads on the way to Jinshanling. Three hours drive from the city, and the pollution-fog lingers among the corn stalks and hovers over the fruit trees. It sticks to the hillsides like an ugly cloud of cigarette smoke obscures the walls of a pub. It makes my skin feel like the floor of a fast-food restaurant.

This far from Beijing, I naively thought it would be gone by now.

Guiding us is Beijing lcoal Hai Li,, an ever-smiling 30-year-old, and our non-English speaking driver. Also with us is a 40-something couple from Australia, the only other people on the tour. (I suppose most people do not prefer to blindly wire money to China like we do. Their loss.)

We hadn’t expected all this to go so smoothly.  But neither did we expect Old China to be so effortlessly enveloped in New Beijing’s sticky dirt. Of course we knew long before we bought our plane tickets how rapidly China, especially its cities, is developing. The dizzying pace of all the construction makes me wonder how one of the world’s healthiest populations is going to deal with all the crap in the air and water and soil.

* * *

For three hours, during our long smoggy drive, Hai Li sat quietly in the front seat of the van.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she would offer up what seemed like government-mandated propaganda.

“The government says more freeways will bring more progress to all of China,” she says as we speed along the eight-lane thoroughfare out of the city, built in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But once in Jinshanling, she transforms into a deft guide. But Hai Li’s tone softens once we are in Jinshanling, where she makes quick work of convincing two soldiers posted at the town gate to let us all inside – even though it’s just about to get dark and all the tourist shops are closed.

We’ll be sleeping on the Great Wall tonight. But first, I walk down the center of the only street in town, the main one, and I instantly love Jinshanling. I feel lucky to have found her, still quiet and uncrowded in the 21st Century. I hope she stays that way a little while longer.

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