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Midnight Misadventure

A few days into this Tour de Fun, my dad came up with a brilliant idea: to send me one quotation for every day I’m away. I initially thought, perhaps, his words of wisdom would be sources of divine inspiration for a struggling cyclist in the throes of China.

Typical to my father’s style, however, these daily doses have covered an array of topics—connected only in their relative randomness—ranging from the foibles of females (still not sure if that one was directed towards myself, my mother, or women in general) to the politics of enjoying eggs while enduring the cackling of hens, or something like that.

This, for example, was the pearl of wisdom awaiting me on May 17:

Etiquette—Etiquette is the art of knowing the right way to do the wrong thing.

Not exactly an Oprah-level up lifter, but witty enough to inflate the spirits after a hard day’s cycling. And, actually, having just celebrated my two-month anniversary of touching down in China, I could fairly confidently say the same for diplomacy. So, perhaps my father isn’t as random in his selections as one might think at first glance.

In fact, based on the following bit of wisdom waiting for me on June 4, I’m almost positive the aim of these daily musings is to rejuvenate even the most jaded of travelers by reminding her that the art of living is the art of laughing:

America will never be invaded, our delinquents are too heavily armed.

The two Commonwealthers quite enjoyed that one, and even the man from Northern Ireland chuckled a bit, despite his understandable wariness for weaponry of any kind. Which brings me to my point, in case you were wondering if I had one tucked up my sleeve:

Humor is the single most important thing to carry with you on a trip like this. (I could probably also say patience, but since I don’t have any I’d rather not admit to its importance at this point in the journey). It’s really rather an astounding piece of equipment, when you think about it. It can keep you warm on a cool night, cool on a hot day, and sane in moments of insanity. Humor is a panacea, a paracetamol for the traveler’s headache.

The only catch to this cure-all is figuring out how to maintain your sense of it when the going gets tough. Easier said than done when you’re exhausted, overheated, underfed, or inexplicably angry at the universe for not protesting a bit more when you voluntarily gave up everyday securities for days on end of discomfort.

But, perhaps, the key to surviving a trip like this is learning to laugh at even the most ludicrous of situations—that, and occasionally throwing out a joke or two of your own when team morale is sagging. Pumping up egos with a bit of humor was, in fact, my intention a few days ago, when Jared, Tom and I were taking a breather from the bikes after a long day’s cycle.

For the last few weeks now, we’d been discussing the possibility of breaking the 200 kilometer barrier, a feat that had managed to elude us since we sheepishly stepped off the ferry in Dalian 66 days ago. (Exactly why we even cared to ante up to this challenge remains to be seen; I chalk it up to road boredom and something in the drinking water). It seemed, we all had agreed, that the universe was against us in this matter; headwinds had dogged us all the way west, and when they took a rest, it was someone’s turn for a stomach bug, or everyone’s chance to slog it up hill for the day. Very simply, the conditions had never been quite right for our legs to push beyond the two century mark.

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So, at this particular break, having found myself once again having to swallow this bitter fact along with a stale piece of bread, and some cold noodles, I decided enough was enough. So what if the universe was playing hardball? After just four days of cycling empty roads for hours on end, of setting up camp miles from a hot shower and Internet, of stomaching food steeped in preservatives and double wrapped in plastic, I was ready to be cozying up to the comforts of civilization once again.

It was 5 pm. We’d already logged 7 hours on the bike and covered approximately 150 kilometers. We were just 50 kilometers shy of finally taking a swing at smashing past 200 kilometers. And, more importantly, we were a mere 175 kilometers from the celestial city of Urumqi, where this dirt-caked and road-worn cyclist could find a hot shower, clean bed, and fresh food.

But, looking across the table towards my cycling companions, I could see determination was waning faster than the afternoon light. With a pang of panic, I realized we were quickly approaching another night of tent pegs and sleeping bags. And so, with a wry smile, I mustered up all the wit this wilting cyclist could offer after a long day in the saddle, turned to my scruffy friends, and said:

“Can you taste that, gentleman?”

Prematurely roused from their respective reveries they looked at me and, with no small hint of annoyance, muttered, “What?”

“Can you taste that?” I repeated, “That, gentlemen, is the taste of blasting past the 200 km mark.”

There. The gauntlet had been thrown. If the universe wanted to take a swing at us, I was determined to come out swinging even harder. And smiling while at it. Now, the only question that remained was whether or not my teammates were as ready and willing as I was to take up arms against the hills and the headwinds and the fatigue.

Based on the head nodding and grunting, they were.

What followed next, I still cannot explain. Maybe it was their enthusiasm. Maybe it was the afternoon sun on my heat stroked head. Maybe it was my inner comedian sauntering onstage in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever it was that possessed me, the following words tumbled off my parched and cracking tongue into the dry and dusty afternoon air:

“Or, we could screw camping and cycle overnight to Urumqi.”

Silence.

In hindsight, I’m certain the words were as dripping with sarcasm as my back was with sweat. But, based on the ensuing response, I had clearly underestimated my audience and mistimed my joke. Somewhere between the noodles and a few bottles of iced tea, Mr. Pragmatic and Mr. Practical had made a stealth escape from the table and left me with one impractically adventurous Kiwi and a clearly insane Irishman.

“Why the hell not?” the heat-crazed duo cried in unison.

A stunned Tom after realizing Katie was serious

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Chills ran up my spine. I trembled a bit in my shoes. Who were these people in front of me, and what had they done with my level-headed companions?

And since when did a witty man from Northern Ireland and a mouthy Kiwi from New Zealand fail to pick up sarcasm?

I, clearly, was in trouble if they were taking me seriously.

Two hours later, after scoffing down a meal of rice and spicy meat, I found myself hastily pouring Red Bulls into a 1.5 liter plastic bottle in preparation for the night’s journey ahead. The absurdity of the situation was magnified by the fact that some ten or fifteen onlookers had circled up around me, squawking and jabbing their tanned fingers in my direction.

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For a moment, I wondered what they would say if they knew what we had planned for the night ahead. No doubt, about the time most of them would be emptying their tea jars and crawling into bed, we’d be cruising along a moonlit road, winding our way beneath a blanket of twinkling stars towards the city lights of Urumqi. The romanticism of it all painted a smile on my face.

We managed to coast through the next couple of hours on the enthusiasm we’d stocked up on during dinner. No doubt, the scenery unfolding before us also propelled us forward: hulking snowcaps to our right descended toward green rolling pastures dotted with sheep and the occasional tree. And as it slipped beneath the ever-expanding skyline in front of us, the sun and it’s almost slumbering rays lit up the landscape in a kaleidoscope of colors.

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More importantly, as sure as the day was slipping into evening, we were screaming towards 200 kilometers. Our resident sheep farmer started the countdown, and I merrily joined in as the meters ticked over. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Whoop! Two-hundred kilometers! Take that hills and headwinds and stomach viruses. (Patty O’Irish gallantly snapped up the scene for posterity’s sake with his trusty camera). A reincarnated Bob Marley himself couldn’t have been higher than the three of us in that moment.

Tom’s attempt to catch the 200k moment

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Bewitched by the beauty of our surroundings, spellbound by our recent success against the universe, we were unable to see that Reality was winding up and preparing to land a blow that would wipe the cheeky grins off all our faces.

As evening crept toward night, I could see we were all beginning to snatch up our energy reserves with the greed and wild abandon of an Enron executive in an oil field. And limited resources weren’t to be our only enemy on this leg of the journey.

Approaching what looked to be a toll gate (the likes of which we usually like to blow through before the authorities take notice and drag our law-breaking likes off ramp and away from the luxurious gradients of a paved highway) we spied a caravan of coal-carrying commercial trucks. We whipped past no less than two or three dozen of these beasts, eager to outrun the lumbering lot before the engines roared to life and ripped our peaceful night apart.

The saying goes that you often run into your destiny on the road to avoid it (another pearler from Father Tibbetts), and after barely a kilometer or two of clear highway, it was evident to all that those heaving boxes of metal and rubber had a hangman’s hold on our future.

We were to spend the next couple of hours crawling uphill alongside the chugging metallic monsters as they either blinded us with a flood of bright lights, or suffocated us with blasts of angrily churning exhaust.

To distract myself from the madness around me, I began contemplating the different methods my teammates might use to torture me in retaliation for urging them towards this dangerous and dirty destiny.

I had very nearly outlined an opening statement vanquishing myself of all responsibility in the matter of Tibbetts vs. McCloy and Mitchell, when a car whipped out from behind a truck and nearly smashed into the back of one of the plaintiffs in an ill-conceived attempt to break free of the trucking chain. I, clearly, was in for a verbal whipping when this whole ordeal was over—that was, of course, assuming we all made it out of this mess in one piece.

Visibly shaken from his near-miss with the sadistic sedan, the Kiwi pulled off the road, his defeated teammates in tow. We all agreed it was best to take a brake and grab a bit of rest and bite to eat while we waited for the truck storm to blow over. It was quickly evident, however, that we’d be waiting a while. Behind us, a seemingly endless necklace of lights stretched across the horizon.

After checking that snacks had stabilized blood-sugars a bit, I approached my teammates and extended a heartfelt apology for my role in devising this piss-poor plan. To my surprise (and relief) the two gentlemen had maintained a modicum of goodwill and refused to lay the burden of blame (or their fists) on my shoulders.

For the moment, I had avoided death by dehydration, which I was certain was my destiny as soon as my teammates decided to leave me (and my awesomely terrible ideas) behind in the dust and din of Truck Valley.

At first sight of a break in the line of lights, we hurriedly mounted our steeds of steel and scurried into the night once again. With rested legs, full bellies and a clear road ahead, spirits soared and we flew up the hill with relative ease. In a moment of weakness I even allowed myself to be deluded by the thought that we’d ridden through and survived our share of hardships for the night.

And things were looking up, until we came to the crest of the hill and began our descent. Thanks to the negligence of our friendly trucks, what should have been an easy downhill route had been transformed into a slalom course of baseball-sized chunks of coal.

For the next couple of hours the still of night was broken by the shrill cries of:

“Rock – left!”
“Rock – right! “

And occasionally:

Thud! “Rock!”

For what seemed to be an eternity, we rode in almost complete darkness, save for the pathetic shafts of light streaming from our headlamps. Then, abruptly, we eyed the nightmarish orange flames of an oil refinery. A wave of sheer fright swept over me, as I considered the possibility that we’d taken a wrong turn at the last town and ridden straight into hell. A very real blast of heat from the distant fire-breathers reminded me I had, indeed, been spared from paying dues to Satan just yet, though in my weakened state I did momentarily contemplate the comparative comfort of Hotel Hell to my current lodgings.

Not far past the smokestacks, Sir Tom informed us that he’d started using the rumble strip between the road and shoulder to shake himself back into semi-consciousness. I decided a mandatory hour of shut-eye was in order. No one argued. (A first, perhaps, since our first pedal nearly two months before).

A couple hundred yards beyond the next bridge, we parked our bikes and found a grassy spot to rest our crumpling bodies. It was 3:30 am.
A mere five minutes had past when I was abruptly shaken from my slumber by the disconcerting feeling of something poking me in the back. For a moment, I thought maybe it was a camel, chewing on my jacket.

With a jerk, I turned over to confront my enemy, only to come face to face with a scraggly Irishman. Scary looking, but relatively harmless when he’s not on the whiskeys. It had been an hour. It was time to hit the road once again. After a heavy sigh, I heaved myself upwards and stumbled towards the bike.

An hour later, as the paling sky prepared to greet the sun for a new day, the three sleep-deprived, but severely stubborn cyclists, pulled aside for yet another breather. By this point, we had all pretty much hit a wall of weariness. The 1.5 liters of Red Bull had done little except leave me with a somersaulting tummy and the shakes. To make matters worse, I’d chewed through all of my stale bread. My food situation was looking about as grim as my teammates. All that stared back at me from the bottom of the bag was a half-eaten container of raisins and a jar of peanut butter, neither of which were particularly appetizing at hour 15 on the bike.

I was in the midst of mentally waving the white flag and setting up my tent when a rogue mosquito politely reminded me it was time to hit the road…again.

This arduous and arguably asinine cycle of riding and breaking continued with little change, except in the landscape, for the next few hours.

As if to punish us more fully for our foolishness, a light headwind kicked up just as we approached yet another set of hills. The bike computers confirmed we were approaching the city outskirts, but our pace had slowed to such an extent that at times I wondered if I was possibly riding backwards.

I was about to call it quits and give up biking for good when my eyes locked in on the sight of rectangular objects on the horizon. Optical illusion, or urban omen?

We pulled into a gas station down the road and stumbled toward the counter, where we applied our very best gesticulated Chinese to determine the approximate location of this place called Urumqi—a place we were beginning to wonder existed. The clerk confirmed that it awaited us just three or four kilometers up the road.

Our relief was short-lived upon realizing that, at our current pace, the town was another hour or two away.

But, luckily, while the last few hours of headwinds and hills had very nearly depleted our energy stores, it had also increased our determination to hit a hot shower, get our hands on some cold water, and, most pressingly, ditch our damn bikes.

So, we pressed forward until, at approximately 11 am on June 11, 2009, 325 kilometers and about 27 hours after the first pedal into this sadistic episode, we dragged our coal-and-sweat-encrusted bodies into the parking lot of our hostel.

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Ironically, we were greeted by the smiling face of another cyclist, who had recently arrived from Tibet. In time, this spritely fellow would spin tales of border crossings and mountain passes that made our story look tame in comparison. But that would come later. For now, we basked in the glory of our recent victory.

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One hot shower and cold beer later, I happily plopped myself down in front of my computer, eager to reconnect with the world after nearly a week away. True to his word, my father had continued to send me daily quotations, and on June 10, 2009, the very night of our biking debacle, he had unwittingly chosen this one:

Climbing K2 or floating the Grand Canyon in an inner tube; there are some things one would rather have done than do. (Edward Abbey)

I’d have to agree with good ol’ Ed on this one. But, on the flip side, as time has softened the pain of this gal’s banged-up ego and healed my teammates’ bruised asses, we’ve all started to look back and have a good laugh over the whole ordeal.

While you couldn’t pay me enough in either beers or bucks to press repeat on the whole midnight misadventure, I’m glad to have the story to tell. And I’m relieved my teammates are good-natured enough to have let me live to tell it. Clearly, in addition to a good bike pump, every cyclist should carry a spare sense of humor.

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