Good Rides

We rode out to a UNESCO World Heritage waterfall.  Deep in a protected jungle – water cascades down a series of crystal blue pools beneath a single mega-falls spewing over the side of the Lost World.  Tourists swarm around the rainforest-lagoony perfection while happy bald Theravada monks picnic on the banks.  But to reach the top of Big Daddy we had to stalk a long, steep-to-the-point-of-vertical path through the forest thick.  Climbing from hardwood root to root and tackling boulders on all fours, my heart swam in happiness.  Even despite the Western tourist chatter just barely our of earshot below us, I felt like a real-life explorer on some Indiana Jones expedition.   The feeling was doubled to reach the top and find a flooded forest with a solitary old man ferrying people around on a homemade bamboo raft.  On the way back down we basked and floated around in our own private tropical waterfall lagoon, which schools of little fish coming to nibble our dead skin (or, if Ed’s theory is to be believed, trying to eat us alive but they weren’t big enough yet).   We saddled back up and left feeling refreshed.  That night we camped in a peaceful thatch hut in the middle of a rice paddy, where we fried noodles over an open fire and a curious water buffalo stopped in for a cordial visit.   That was a good ride.

 

In the thick, primordial forests of northern Laos where the Hmong and other hill tribes cling fiercely to their traditional ways of life, we stopped for roadside phó.   Soon we made a friend.  Soon our friend went across the street.  Soon our friend got hit by a motorcycle and came limping back with a gnarly split toe.  “Hey, can you guys fix me up?” he gestured.   We did our best, and soon other villagers were coming up to us:  “Hey!  My toe’s messed up, too!  Can you fix this?”  We were in.  We looked around and saw that there was a major, full-village construction project going on.  In a town made entirely of wood, bamboo and thatch, everyone was coming together to proudly build an elaborate concrete sign for their new school.   “Can we help?”   Happy to have the extra hands, we spent the rest of the morning shoveling gravel, nailing boards, and holding stuff while the anarchic caucus of bandaged toes passionately debated the best ways of doing things.   During a lull in the activity we were kidnapped by a happy gaggle of village youngsters who wanted to show us their local swimming hole, their homes, and figure out how our cameras worked.  When it was time to go, we mounted up and hit the heart of one of Laos’s biggest jungles.  We pedaled empty roads with our jaws wide open, and spent the aftyernoon stopping to do field recordings and just giggle at the wild, often hilarious sounds of tropical birds and insects.            That was a good ride.

 

Not far from the Xayaburi dam site, and within the area which will become the dam’s reservoir upon completion, we encountered more butterflies that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was an odd juxtaposition: profound beauty coupled with the sadness of visiting communities about to be displaced, but being brushed by bright powdered butterfly wings will never fail to put a smile on my face.  SO many colors, SO many patterns.  Baby blue bizzaro-Monarchs, enormous orange-and-black numbers the size of a robin, and mint colored gals who I mistook for cabbage moths before they turned wing and showed me their alter-identity as electric drag queens.  I saw flying zebras, cheetahs, and a nazi-fly in silky black with a bright red armband.  A striped bumble-bee design I swear I recognize from some telecom corporate logo and a whole cloud of little baby baby baby whites.  Struggling relentlessly up and down steep, unpaved roads, it was without a doubt one of the most physically demanding rides of our trip.  But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was riding in some sort of dream land.  So many butterflies.  So many, in fact, that I must confess I accidentally smacked into more than a couple.  For lunch we were taken in by a smiling Laotian family to sit cross-leg in a simple thatch home and eat sticky rice with pickled green mangoes out of baskets they’d just finished weaving.       It was a good ride.

 

Feeling like we were flying with our bikes unloaded, we tore around the vibrant, colorful city of Jinghong in southern China.  We spent happy days fishing and barbequing with locals, sampling new fruits and soaking in thriving chaos in the markets.  We camped next to a crazy squatted riverboat.  When it came time to leave, we did so in high spirits to be heading into a brand new phase of the river: stilted homes, tropical climate, new minorities and languages: all marking the true beginning of Southeast Asia.  The road was quieted and unpaved from construction, we sang and whistled and were utterly blown away by the river’s beauty.  The Mekong is rightly famous for its chocolatey brown waters, but for some reason on this stretch she drops the mud and cloaks herself in a rich, picturesque gown of green and blue.  Sunlight skipped and danced through the current.  I almost crashed my bike three times because I couldn’t take my eyes off the river.     I was love-struck.      It was a good ride.

 

 

I Laotian, the word for “hello” is “sabadee” – and after cycling through the country I probably have a lifetime average of saying them both the same amount.  Probably owning something to our slow speed and the rumbley, squeaky sounds announcing our arrival, everyone in Laos wants to greet us.  But particularly the children.  We took to calling it the “village sabadee alarm.”  The first kid would spot us and yell at the top of their lungs: Sabadee!  “Ope!  The alarm’s up!” we’d laugh.   Then from anywhere in the rippling sphere of earshot, kids come running.  Sabadee!   Sabadee!    Alone on in big packs:  Sabadee!  They position themselves in anticipation – knowing that something sabadee-worthy is coming down the dusty road, but not knowing what until we hugg and puff our way around the corner, smiles split wide open and the barrage erupts:  Sabadee!  Sabadee!   I’ve said ‘sabadee’ so many times, in a country of so few people I actually start to think in terms of percentage of the total population I’ve greeted.   Sabadee!  Sabadee!   This is my one memory which trumps all others cycling through Laos:  Sabadee!  Sabadee!   Ending every day horse and happy, thinking to myself:  “Man!   What a good ride!”

 

Its hot.  Sweat dripping down my nose, stinging my eyes and making my hands slip on the bars.  My water tastes like hot tea the flavor of plastic.  There is no shade, no protection, just the rising and falling of dirt road through wide-open rice paddies.  We’ve done 60km today and still have quite a ways to go.  My sun-stinging legs wobble, barely strong enough to push me over one more blazing hill.  Turning the crest, a moment to rest before pushing over the next hump, when what do I find before me?  A little cluster of monks around a motorcycle sidecar:  a rural Laotian ice cream man!  Twenty-five-cents, five little scoops of runny ice cream dolloped out on a piece of white bread, smothered in some bright sauces and topped with a second slice.  There in a rice paddy in northern Laos I ate the best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever had.      It was a good ride.

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Mekong from the Sky

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Writing from an abandon roadside thatch hut – taking shelter from driving rain:

“Well, I guess it wouldn’t be so awesome if it weren’t for all the bullshit!”  Ed smiles, picking himself up from a muddy bike wreck.  He’s victim to the most recent hazard of the journey: washed out dirt roads from the torrential Southeast Asian monsoon season.  So far we’ve been chased by dogs, hospitalized, frozen on mountain passes and baked in the brains by tropical heat.  We’ve damaged both camera lenses, lost priceless items and broken useful ones.  Second degree burns, wrenching diarrhea, and fights between friends.  Its been one of the greatest trips of our lives.

But following a river is a tricky business.  And not just because of roads and access.  Its tricky because – despite what it might show on a textbook map – a river is not a single linear watercourse.  If the Mekong is only the Mekong where its called the “Mekong” – then we have yet to even reach the Mekong – having instead been messing around on the same wterway by different names further north (Dza Chu, Lancang Jiang, Nam Khong, etc…).

So if the name “Mekong” is just an arbitrary linguistic distinction, then how do you define a river?  Its a much more confusing question than you might think…

We started our journey following the laughably oversimplified concept that a river is a direct course flowing from the furthest point possible to the sea.  But as we started traveling this watery road, a strange thing happened:  it got big.  Way big.  So big that it seemed there was more water flowing in our river from different places than from the original “source”.  Is it possible that our river has many sources?  Infinate “headwaters”?  Could it be that – unlike the single wavy line on our map claims – an aerial view of the Mekong would look like a huge, fibrous root system?

 

 

Writing huddled with Akse hill people.  Grandmothers with babies strapped to their hips and children soaked through from diving for fish.  Their day’s catch is flopping in hand woven baskets.  Its not the fear of getting wet that holds us all here: its the awesome, painful force and violence of the rain jack-hammering down on the corrugated tin roof:

Lack of roads and river navigability are constantly leading us away from the Mekong’s main channel.  Our bike ride today is one that we’ve had time and time again: following one of the river’s countless tributaries back to the Mother Water.  In a few short months we’ve seen icicles melt to trickles, creeks stream to rivulets and channels turn to the raging main artery.  And all this – from the tiniest dew drop to the mighty delta – makes up the hydrological wonder we know as the Mekong River.

Its a watershed.  Meaning, it is composed of every drop of water draining an enormous chunk of the world’s largest continent.  Its the flowing water we follow, but its also the water locked in the landscape.

Water and sunlight.  The two things on which all life on Earth depends.  And the two things found in explosive abundance in the tropical Mekong drainage.

Here in mountainous northern Laos, life booms rampant.  Rich moist soil soaks up into vibrant green foliage seeping from every crack.   Towering rainforest canopy and thick vines battling for real estate.  Each sucking, drinking, and exhaling back into the water table.   Local markets teem with exotic fruits – bright spiny Rambutans and wild free-form dragon fruit.  A scaly armadillo fruit gushing sweet sour perfection and dizzying variety of green, yellow and red bananas of every taste and size from baseball bat to pinkie toe.  Monkeys and wild elephants hide in the thick, and bright feathers chirp out the full gammot of a child’s ray-gun toy.  Loas is filled with life and fueled by water.

 

 

Writing from the hull of a wooden cattle boat – pulled up on a remote sandy beach waiting out the storm churning muddy water into an un-navigable froth bouncing out of its banks:

Every drop of water in every piece of life here eventually works its way back into the river’s main channel.  Our own piss and shit included.

In everyday Western life, we isolate and detach ourselves from our waste stream.  Here – beyond the land of toilets or landfills – this is not the case.  People utilize the unmistakable reality of a river system: the things you throw in it will never come back to haunt you.  Its nature’s great flush.  But unfortunately this attitude ignore the other golden rule of riparian ecosystems:  everyone here is upstream from somebody, and downstream from someone else.  As the region’s population blossoms and development brings increasingly toxic and non-biodegradable waste, its a major challenge to this ancient balance.

Because this region is inhabited!  Even in sparsely populated northern Laos, people are an unmistakably integrated part of this landscape.  Like the waters themselves, we’ve seen one culture flow into the next – often oblivious to all but their nearest neighbors – but all connected by this flowing waterway they call home.

People who live here quite literally have Mekong in their veins. The River is water, transportation, laundry, recreation, income, bathroom and waste disposal.  Fish and rice – domains of the Dragon.

 

 

Writing from a roadside noodle shop.  Hot hearty Pho:  make-it-your-own style with spicy pickled peppers and fresh mint.  The noodle lady’s son dashes in from the rain proudly presenting a flopping snake on a fishing line – the day’s dinner catch.

 

Ever since Yunnan in Southern China, every culture we’ve encountered has had its own special water rituals and festivals.  For the Dai people in the Xishuanbanna region, the Chinese national Dragon Boat Festival didn’t mean a whole lot, but each town and village traditionally holds its own water splashing fest.  A strange Han Chinese tourist spot puts a wall around a typically idyllic stilted village and charges admission to camera-laden tourists from Beijing and Shanghai photo-assaulting “China’s Thailand”.  Indeed, we’ve heard that Thai can be a better language to know out here than even Mandarin.  People and houses look different – and just outside the “Dai Village” walls, the twice-daily “authentic water splash!” ends, the stench of Native-reservation-come-Disneyland clears, and normal life on the river begins again.    And so does the rain.

I remember the rainy season in Cambodia.  It was regular: most of the season, anyways.  Every day it would rain about an hour in the afternoon.  You could practically set a watch by it.  It was one of the things I fell in love with about Khmer culture.  In the West, if there was a daily natural phenomena which entirely shut down everything, news casters would be counting up dollar figures in lost GDP revenue and it would be the number one complaint on every tongue.  But in Cambodia everyone gravitates to protected porches, where they smile lazily at one another and stare at the flooding streets.  Its a culture which has a word for recreationally sitting on the floor.

In the thick green rubber plantations and forest hills in Laos, the rain is a good deal less regular.  But equally as fierce.

The first few drops are big, fat and smack bare skin painfully.  At this point, you have a little less than three minutes to find shelter.  Because when it comes in earnest, it comes with a fury that will double you over and make it hard to open your eyes.  Forget any notions that rain is made up of sovereign, individual drops:  these monsoons come in sheets, curtains and blankets.  Its nothing like a high-pressure shower, its more like a bathtub poured on your head.  You find yourself drowning, swimming in a river from the sky.

Which is great for biking.  Or rather, great for not biking – great because sometimes biking becomes a tunnel of focus and attention and you forget that you’re really here to see, meet, experience and interact.  The rain forces you to stop, slow down and remember this.  Rain is a universal here: universally understood and appreciated.  When it starts raining, every house, awning, hut or store is fare game to get inside.  Because of these downpours, we’ve ended up munching mangoes with laughing grandmothers on a family porch, doing homework with village teens and messing around with fresh litters of puppies.  We’ve helped build a school and played village doctor because of the rain; sipped jasmine tea listening to rain, and smoked big ol’ crazy bamboo bongs.  It is an instant invitation to conversation, connection and laughter.  Then, as instantly as it started, it passes: and our wheels hit the road with a few more friends in our hearts.

 

 

Writing from the back of my BIKE.

Writing from the back of my bike.  Water flowing through my hair, sheeting my skin, slathering clothes to my body.  Writing from the back of my bike because – no matter how hospitable, how friendly and how kind – sometime there simply isn’t shelter.  Sometimes a lonely jungle road turns into a torrential river.  Writing from the back of my bike, barely able to open my eyes loosing all sense of direction, water suffocating, cleansing, purifying soaked flesh turning to water – water blurring a green world of lush life, hot sun and steam – Mekong water filling every piece of me every pedal stroke a stroke through the river’s vertical flow – Mekong pouring us along crawling, swimming inch by inch.  Mekong under our skin.  Mekong under our eyeballs.  Mekong under our toe nails.  Mekong in our brain circuitry.  Mekong from the sky.  And yes – Mekong in our blood, too.

Father’s Day

The last time I saw my dad was one year, 8 months and a couple weeks ago.  I had just lost my house, butchered my goat and sold all my chickens for $60.  With that in my pocket, I told him I was headed east around the planet.   The night before I left, him and his girlfriend took me and JR out to Thai Pavilion.  When we said goodbye, he gave me a hug and a secret-sly handshake with a $100 bill palmed in his fingertips.           Thanks Dad.

 

Tens and tens of thousands of miles later, Ed and I were limping into Laos’s ancient royal capitol of Luang Probang on our last $50 between us.  For weeks now we had been ripping our hair out, squeezing kip and denying the fast-approaching reality: we didn’t have enough money for our whole trip.  We had come to Luang Probang to sort ourselves out.

 

Here in Luang Probang, after 9 jobs in 6 countries, I finally ended up doing what I swore never to do:  asking for money.   I have no inherent or moral objection to begging, its just that flying a sign has never been my deal.  I’m a hobo, not a bum, and I’m proud of that fact.  Or at least I was.

 

But our hands were tied!  Because of Ed’s limited time, we can’t stop and work.  And after a few months of putting it off, I realized I couldn’t think of anything else.

We put an appeal out through our Lost on the Mekong website, asking for people to help produce our film.  We said we were asking for help telling a story – our project which we are legitimately quite proud of and is truly being done for an overwhelmingly important cause.  This is all fact.  But it still casts a bitter taste in my mouth.  At the end of the day, we were still just two broke dudes asking for money.

 

Then something incredibly happened.  Within two days, friends and family stepped up in one great, buoyant cloud of cheers carrying us on.  People we know, people we don’t know who just support our project – long lost relatives, friend’s moms and even a few old train riding buddies.  Thank you SO much, everybody!  And of course:  my dad donated.                           Thanks Dad.

 

But holding other people’s money is a strange thing.  We can’t just do whatever we want anymore.  These past few weeks we’ve been too broke to do anything of the sort, but before we would occasionally celebrate a long hot bike ride over a beer or take ourselves our to a $3 sit-down restaurant.  Now that we had asked for help with our film, though, we can’t really justify expenses that aren’t directly related.

 

So, being the marginally responsible kids we are, we went wild.  The way we figured it, the $50-or-so we had left was the very last of our own money we had left.  And after a pretty broke set of weeks, we threw ourselves a spending-spree.  We got a guesthouse with two beds, paid for somebody else to do our laundry, at at white-people restaurants and drank beer watching World Cup.  Sorry Dad, I know Mexico is your team but I just had to root for Cameroon.

 

We woke up the next day hung over.  Not from booze, but from money.  “What did we do last night?”  We had blown through what easily could have been a week’s budget pretending to be flip-flop tourists on Luang Probang’s backpacker circuit.

 

Because of how paypal works, it would be a few days before we could access any of the donations through Ed’s bank account.  This was fine, though, because we still had just enough money to buy some supplies and take a ferry boat over to the river’s east bank.  Our plan was just to camp out for a couple days, then come back to access the cash before continuing our journey down river.

 

And I was STOKED!

 

Camping is one of my greatest joys in life.  I probably got it from my parents.  For a few very memorable summers growing up, they packed my sister and I in the family Colt Vista and took off camping around North America.  I remember sleeping in their old “Gimme Shelter” tent – a mildewy remnant of their own cross-country honeymoon bike trip.  I remember camping the Southwest:  ancient wonders of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and getting stuck to a prickly pear cactus at the Oregon Pipe National Monument in Arizona.  I remember the Deep South:  watching an alligator tear apart a nutria in a swamp outside Biloxi and stumbling into Jimmie Buffet playing a crazy backwoods crawfish feed in Alabama.   The East Coat:  an old handmade Quaker cabin and visiting Mystic Seaport.  The Midwest: catching twinkling star lightning bugs before thunder storms and hiking the Glen Helen in my dad’s native Southern Ohio.  The West:  catching turtles in a pond outside Salt Lake and coyotes in twilight.   As a small child I got my sister lost in the Oregon dunes.  And of course, I remember camping in my native Cascadia: The first time I ever went backpacking, we hiked to a remote beach and my dad brought freeze-dried beef strogonof.  It was disgusting.  Years later, when I joined Thurston County Search and Rescue, my dad took me shopping for gear and drove me to every meeting.  My parents showed me that the world is a big, beautiful place – and its supposed to be seen, appreciated and interacted with.  The last time we went camping together, just the two of us, me and my dad slept inside a hole in a huge huge huge cedar tree on the Oregon coast.              Thanks Dad.

 

So anyways, I love camping!  And it may sound strange, coming from a guy who lives in a tent, but I don’t actually feel like I get to go camping that often.  On this bike trip, for instance, we typically ride all day – often not setting up the tent until after dark.  By the time we get some wood together, start a fire and cook our dinner, we’re ready to just pass out.  And as soon as light cracks back into the sky, we’re up and on our bikes trying to stay ahead of the tropical heat.  Its sleeping in a tent, and its fun, but its not what I’d call camping.  Camping, to me, is a dedicated activity which you have to set our to do.  And I don’t get to do that very often.  I wanted the rare rare luxury of staying two nights in the same spot.

 

“The only problem is that we won’t be able to get ahold of our dads on Fathers Day,” Ed mused on the rusty ferryboat.

“I doesn’t matter,” I mumble distractedly.  “We’ll wish them happy Fathers Day when we get back.”

“Its not the same thing, though, is it?”  Ed stares at me sharply.  “I hate the idea of a dad going all day without hearing ‘Happy Fathers Day’.  That’s horrible!”

“Really?”  I snap out of my river reverence.  Was it really that strange?  What’s normal?  I typically forget my family’s birthdays, and they often forget mine.  No one in our clan is very big on phones or internet, and my total correspondence with my pop these last two years amounts to about a dozen emails, a couple letters, one phone call from Europe and one time on Christmas when we half-figured out how to Skype.

 

Its not that we’re not close.  My parents are two of my best friends.  The last email I got from each of them said how they were both reading “A River’s Tale” – a book about tracing the Mekong – a soggy copy of which I’m now re-reading myself on the river’s bank.    My family all loves and supports one another in a million ways, we’re just not the type of people that need to talk every day.  Or catch Father’s Day exactly.            I don’t think, anyways.

 

So Ed and I started cycling.  It was one of the best rides of the whole trip:  an idyllic wooden town gave way to deep, beautiful jungle dotted with intricately carved pagodas filled with saffron clad monks.  We had heard their was an abandon temple somewhere, and we hoping to camp in it.

 

But the road took its toll.  Our bikes are in bad shape.  Much of the roads we’re riding on are mountain-bike trails that not even a 4×4 could navigate.  Twisted tangles of roots and rocks know our wheels all around – we slip in mud and bang into the never-ending pothole of a trail.  At this point my bike is missing a front derailer, a front break and a few gears on my back side.  Every day a new sound emerges, and at first we take it very seriously and try to figure it out, but then we remember that we don’t have any tools or ability to fix anything, so we just laugh and chalk it up to one more noise in the creaking, crunching, grinding, rubbing symphony that are our bikes.  Ed’s most recent development  was a mysterious drag on it – something which completely baffled us until- riding along on that Fathers Day camping trip – the back wheel completely seized up and we finally realized it was a sign that the barring was completely fucked.

 

We sighed in the heat.  “I guess this is where we’re camping.”       The location was breathtaking.  We had broken down in a thick forest monastery.  A quiet, peaceful place.  We probably wouldn’t have chosen the spot if we had other options, simply because the access down to the river was a looooooong long long long long long long temple staircase, but we didn’t have much choice.  So we lugged the bikes and all our things all the way down down down to the beach, and set up camp.

 

Lately we’ve been getting really into campfire cooking.  We have a pot, and a small water bottle full of oil.  We like to see what we can do.  So far we’ve had In And Out of the Fire Fried Rice, Pot-Fucker Stuffed Cucumbers, Camping Pad Thai, Long Hard Day Stir-fry, roasted onions and garlic, and yes… the occasional hotdog.  Tonight, in honor of Fathers Day, Ed cooked the special Salerno family spaghetti sauce just like his dad taught him.  Young monks from the Wat came down to help us collect fire wood and brought us a big giant monastery candle.  After dinner we sat around star gazing.

 

The next day Ed grabbed his wheel and headed back towards the village to see if anyone could help him fix it.  While he was up top being kidnapped by friendly monks helping him fix the barring, I set about to make the best camping spot ever.  I gave our bug screen a tarp porch – critical in the blazing sun – a front door that we could literally sit in with our feet in the water – swam around our own private swimming hole, found the perfect plank for a bench, and set a kettle of Mekong Tea on the fire.  It was, in my humble opinion, quite dreamy.   When Ed came back – bike temporarily fixed – it was time to bust out the fishing tackle.

 

I’m not really what you would call an avid fisherman.  In fact, that’s an understatement.  I don’t really know how to gut a fish.   But my dad was born to be on the water.  In land locked southern Ohio, his highschool yearbook predicted he would be a clam digger.  And when I was a young child – yes – he was a clam digger.  These days he focuses on growing mussels – a small farm which is has been busting ass and pioneering on since before I was born – but before all that he worked on a fishing boat off the coast of Florida.  We didn’t go fishing a LOT when I was a child, but my dad was always interested in NEW ways of fishing.  Together we have dropped perch sinkers off his rafts in the Puget Sound, cast-netted flounder in bayou country, fished shrimp off a bridge on the Gulf Coast, fly-fished bluegills on my grandparent’s pond, crab potted, gone after deep sea rock fish, and even talked our way into trailing an immense, possibly illegal, drift net with local fisherman off the Pacific coast of Mexico.  I remember it clearly – the sun hadn’t risen yet and the net hung out like a long, glittering curtain of phosphorescence.

 

It’s lucky to have all these different fishing experiences to draw from, too, because our equipment for fishing here in the Mekong is a bit meager.  We have:  a few tiny hooks- cheap ones with no hole to thread- a spool of fishing line, a water bottle, and a really cool bead somebody gave me in Tibet which is probably pretty sacrilegious to use as a weight.  Also a hot dog.  Not exactly the chicken gizzard trick my dad taught me, but I was optimistic about catching our dinner.

 

There we were, sitting around minding our own business way down at the river’s edge fiddling around making fishing lines, when who should turn up but a couple nosey Lao cops demanding to see our passports.  We feigned misunderstanding, taking pictures with them, instead.  They left scratching their heads.  A few minutes later more cops showed up – the English speaking division – and to make a very long story short we were kicked off and permanently banned from ever returning to the east bank of the Mekong – for exactly what crime we’re still unsure.    It was one of the best camp spots I’ve ever had.

 

Back on the west bank, we had to find another camping spot.   But before we could, it started raining.  We took shelter with a group of friendly young Vietnamese construction workers in their barracks.   It wasn’t the first time Vietnamese construction workers have taken us in in Laos.  Just the other night we were taken in, housed, wined and dined by a happy, dancey bunch building a resort just up river.  Usually when this sort of thing happens, there is a limited range of communication.  One of the easiest questions to get across, though, is: “Do you have any children?”      “Yes!” My new Vietnamese friend in the tin rain shack beams, holding up two fingers.   A proud father.     We sat in the shack, rain hammering a sad rhythm, and I thought about two little Vietnamese children missing their dad far away in Laos – thought about how hard this young man works to support himself and his family – and thought about how hard my own dad always worked to support me.  ‘Dads are great’, I thought, and I wished my new friend Happy Father’s Day.

 

Father’s Day continued, as Father’s Day is prone to doing, and of course it took a few more twists and turns.  Ed helped some villagers build a new porch, and after he was whisked away on the back of a moto with celebratory lady-boys, I lost the new campsite and wondered around in a pitch pitch black jungle for a few hours before getting attacked by ants.   Standard procedure.

 

All this has dragged on long enough.  The point of what I’m trying to say is Happy Father’s Day.   Happy Father’s Day Nate, Troy, Dan, Tate, Pheap, Samedy – all my friends with kids – many of whom I haven’t even had the thrill of meeting yet – I love you all and you’re all great dads.  Happy Father’s day to all the male figures who took a part in raising me, and all the good dads in general.   And most of all:    Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

 

 

Junk Bike Tao

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The best charioteers do no rush ahead;

The best fighters do not make displays of wrath.

The greatest conquerors win without joining issue;

The best user of men acts as though he were their inferior.

This is called the power that comes of not contending.

-Tao Te Ching

 

The first day of bike tour, we didn’t make it very far.  We made it to the mechanic – three times – wobbled through some cobbled streets with everything bungied China-style to our bikes, and collapsed in a mango grove just outside town.  We had bought our bikes in the ancient city of Dali – where steady streams of Chinese and foreign tourists flock to see dynastic China and experience Naxi, Huay, Bai and other minority cultures.  But we were here on another mission: taking a slight detour from our river’s course to buy used junk bikes from the city’s throngs of rental shops.   And so rather than visit the UNESCO pagodas or famed mountain trekking, we had spent our time badgering shop clerks, befriending the local mechanic, beg/borrowing tools from drunk ex-pats and scrapping parts from tetanusy heaps at the local junk yard.  After three hectic days, we were wheezing our way out of town on two very loud, very cheap mountain bikes of unknown quality.

The second day of bike tour was a memorable one.  Immediately confronted with the reality of having to ride on a very busy, dangerous Chinese highway, we assessed our situation and decided to experiment a method of “hitch biking” to get out.  We threw the bikes in the back of a truck driven by Smiley Guy, and after some frustratingly long road construction were deposited in a small city a bit further that we could have ridden.  From here we rode out to find camping, but dizzying sun, a steep climb and trouble which had been brewing in our gut for a long time all took their wicked toll and a body broke before a bike did.  I stayed up late that night, worriedly listening to my partner’s erratic breathing in a dark tent.

Day three was the short ride back downhill to the hospital, where gloveless hands missed poking IVs into sunburnt veins and staff seemed more interested in taking pictures with us than patient care.  The next few days bled into one another- holed up in a room above some pungent Chinese restaurant and realizing with a start that we couldn’t access money in the bank and that our small bundle of cash had nearly run out.  We changed the very last, super secret, squirreled away emergency-only Benjamin to pay for the room and crossed our fingers.

 

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;

Yet its use is unimpaired.

What is most full seems empty;

Yet its use will never fail.

-Tao Te Ching

 

Week two of bike tour could rightly be re-dubbed week one, as it took us a while to get on the bikes and start moving under our own power.  It was exhausting.  Flat tires and frustration.  No doubt our bodies had no business doing what we were trying to make them do.   In fact, we were feeling pretty close to death.

There’s no real way to explain those first agonizing days, grinding it out under a blazing Yunnan sun.  But we kept to it, and slowly – day by day – started to feel our bodies strengthen.  We got to know the quarks of our proud steeds (Junko Partner and Lil’ Seizer) and got into the rhythm of gallons of water.   Then, one day, we were shocked to find ourselves climbing all morning with no breaks (or breakdowns).  Could this be?  And with a shallow grace, Chinese blacktop turned the crest, a sign warned motorists of 20km straight decent, and our two little bikes sprouted wings.  Wind swept sweat from our eyes, carrying whoops and crows to the heavens.

We soared on intoxicating triumph as the last of the Himilayas fell away behind us.  We were on the Tropic of Cancer.

 

 

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

-Tao Te Ching

 

 

Junk biking is chalk full of what Ed calls “type B fun.”  Meaning – the kind of fun which often involves sweat, tears, blood, and a whole lot of chain grease.  But this is not to be confused with a lesser degree of fun.  On the contrary.  The rewards of pushing yourself harder than you thought possible, taking the uncertainties of the future at a snail’s pace, and putting faith in two wobbly wheels…  The song of an open heart and soul riding a well deserved downhill and knowing it was your own two legs which brought you here…

We’re now entering week four of bike tour.  After a rocky start, we’re getting a lot of “type A fun”, too.  Once our bodies and bikes settled in, we were able to start using pedal power the way we originally intended: the explore back roads, talk to locals, and get an up close, slowed down look at this river we’re following.  We’ve made it a long way, seen amazing things, and had some great adventures which we can’t wait to share.

 

What is in the end to be shrunk,

Must first be stretched.

Whatever is to be weakened,

Must begin by being made strong.

What is to be overthrown,

Must begin by being set up.

He who would be a taker,

Must begin as a giver.

This is called ‘dimming’ one’s light.

It is thus that the soft overcomes the hard,

And the weak, the strong.

-Tao Te Ching

 

Thanks for following!  If you’d like to keep this project going, please donate through the paypal button on the bottom of LostontheMekong.com.  Stay tuned for more!

 

 

 

My Friend Sadenchen

Stumbling along like fools – not knowing the Tibetan word for “Hello” or “Thank You” let alone “we’re cold and have no idea where to sleep!” – we bumped into a nun named Sadenchen.

Actually we were in a daze. A sleepless Himalayan night bus had suddenly deposited us right at Tibet’s largest Mani Wall in what is now Chinese-controlled Qing Hai. It was another planet – hundreds and hundreds of beautifully dressed Tibetan pilgrims chanting with prayer beads as they slowly circled the literally billions of intricately carved sacred stones en masse. We didn’t know what we were witnessing, but it was something big.

Sadenchen spoke no English. We stopped her in her bright red monk robes to pantomime our need to find a place to stay. What happened next will forever stand in my mind as the paramount of human kindness.

Without a word or a moment’s hesitation we were taken in to her home and family. For four days we were fed, doctored and entertained. Together we danced, laughed and visited an 8th century Buddhist temple. In a modest Tibetan home with no toilet or running water and a family bed in the living room, we were housed in the special room kept for illegal photos and shrines to the Dali Lama.

Our friend Sadenchen was the toughest woman I have ever met. Cooking and caring for her entire family and dysfunctional alcoholic father, scars cover the top of her head testifying to a childhood of street fighting before taking lifelong monk vows at age sixteen. She is illiterate in both Tibetan and Chinese, and has lived the kind of life which leaves her closely shaved head specked with grey hairs at age 24.

One day Ed and I tried to help her salvage cinder blocks from an earthquake demolished home: a task which left us both breathless, sweaty and weak after just two hours and which Sadenchen did for 10 painful hours straight in her red red robes.

I saw Sadenchen morn deeply the death of a drowned fly. She kneeled for a long time trying to resuscitate it.

Despite our best efforts Sadenchen seldom smiles. Her’s is a life marked by a palpable sadness – a deep wound left by Chinese occupation of her homeland and the expulsion of the Dali Lama. But it is equally defined by overwhelming kindness and generosity. In our short stay with her family – which was entirely supported by her mother selling yak butter on the street – we were never once allowed to pay for a meal, a taxi, or a bus. We were given prayer beads, medicine, Tibetan scarves, family members to stay with in the next town down the road, and yak meat cooked over yak-dung fire (Sadenchen’s vows and spiritual beliefs keep her from eating meat, but she dutifully cooks it for her family before sitting down to a small bowl of white rice herself). And of course, more yak milk tea than would be humanly possible to consume.

Then one night, sitting by a warm purring stove, my friend Sadenchen explained through pictures and gestures that she plans on self-immolation.

Sadenchen

If you’d like to help us produce this documentary and support the communities along the Mekong River, you can donate through paypal at the bottom of LostontheMekong.com

Headwaters

HeadwatersIt was hard not to get emotional.

Tibetan prayer flags – despised in my youth as the literal flag of cultural appropriation and liberalism, now the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen – soaring from canyon wall to canyon wall leaving me in awe. Fluttering high and roaring rapids below – the Tibetan holy waters of Za Chu. This is the Mekong River, and it was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional because of what the Mekong means to me. Six years ago I moved to Cambodia and found myself living on the muddy banks of its lower stretches. I will never be able to describe the transformative rapture which these waters swept over me. I will never be able to tell the way this river fused with my soul and captivated me to my core. It was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional when, hitchhiking a ride with a monk, we whipped around a corner and I caught my first glimpse of the headwaters high in Tibet. Hard not to get emotional because this is the image that has haunted dreams and waking thoughts for I-don’t-know how long. Was this the culmination of a year and a half traveling – when I set out only knowing that I didn’t want to fly and that I wanted to trace the Mekong from start to finish – wanting to explore and finally understand the space which has linked my life and destiny to this mighty river? Or does the journey go back further – to the first time I ever dove in and let myself be wrapped in the churning waters? Or was this simply what I was born to walk? It was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional with one of my best friends at my side. Ed had flown out to meet me in Xining, China – knowing how important this river is to me and venturing to join me on my 3,000 mile pilgrimage from source to sea. With him I finally had the one thing I’d been desperately needing these many lonely months: a partner and true friend. Suddenly the miles and miles of constant anxiety facing the road alone evaporated. It was like an enormous load I hadn’t even known I was carrying was lifted and suddenly I could breath again. It was hard not to get emotional.

But mostly it was hard not to get emotional because of what we were doing. Ed had not come out merely to travel together, but rather to help me tell a story. Bringing film equipment and fresh energy, we intend to follow the river not just as tourists and friends but as documentary film makers. And it was hard not to get emotional knowing that downstream of us, 60 million people have their livelihoods directly and intimately tied to the Mekong River. Hard not to get emotional knowing that right now catastrophic dams are under construction which will forever alter the course of history in the Mekong basin. Dams which spell death for countless species, communities and whole ways of life. And so Ed and I set out to document the river as we see it during this pivotal moment in time. Before it’s too late. It was hard not to get emotional.

So here we stood. Two friends, one river, and 3,000 miles ahead of us. We don’t have enough money or time to make it, but somehow we’ll manage. Challenges will come and challenges will be met, but for now we just stand in awe of dark running water high on the Himilayan Platau. Standing and staring. And yes: getting emotional. You can follow our progress through our website at LostontheMekong.com. We probably won’t have fully edited episodes until Ed returns stateside, but there will be regular updates and more pictures/clips than you can shake a stick at.

See you there!

Hitching the Taklamakan

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I spent 8 hours lugging big boxes of shampoo and yogurt through the most exhausting border inspections I have ever seen. I had inadvertantly joined a modern-day merchant caravan: Uiygars, Pakistanis, Uzebeks and a Russian plying their trade over the exact same mountain passes as their ancestors.

This is the Silk Road: the ancient spiderwebbed network of commerse linking the empires of East and West. Along it flowed the ideas, religions and technologies which shaped opposite ends of the planet. Most trade was conducted the same way as my shampoo merchants: loose family networks of highly skilled travelers and linguists pushing goods back and forth on their own home routes.

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But there has always been a different class of Silk Road traffic, too. Pilgrims, monks, diplomats and simple wanderers: Long distance travlers, often hopping from one caravan to the next, journeying into the wild unknown. And for them – for Marco Polo and the other eastbound adventurers who braved the hostile Persian empire, scorched in Central Asian deserts, fought with Mongol hordes and froze utop some of the world’s highest mountain passes – for them, the Silk Road held one final horror. Kashgaria. The Tarim Basin. And the Taklamakan Desert.

Other than an unforgettably breathtaking journey over the Pamir Mountains into China, I haven’t been hitchhiking much lately. This is partly because in Kygyzstan and Kazakhstan hitchhiking is a normalized part of the transportation network- with the caveat that the rider is expected to pay. So why not just take the cheap Soviet marshutka network? But the real reason I haven’t been doing it much is because, for me, hitchhiking has become something like jumping into cold water on a hot day: It always feels great, but making the first move can be… intimidating. Especially when I’m facing down the Taklamakan.

It’s the biggest, most brutal and ruthless desert you’ve probably never heard of. An endless sea of barren sand dunes without a drop of life. Pictures taken here could just as well be the heart of the Sahara, and it’s easily spotted from outer space. These sands have been bleaching the bones of travelers for a long time.

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All journeys must start somewhere, though. So I chose a route – I would start by following the southern branch of the Silk Road out of Kashgar (actually, I was pressed for time so I took a night bus and started in Hotan) – took a long walk outside town gathering my nerve – and finally awkwardly pointed at an open-bed 3-wheeled moto-contraption that made eye contact as it passed. The first transport was away!

Within two days I was laughing out loud remembering the joys of this kind of travel. The strange and unpredictable circumstances of the road had me checking up on remote desert cell-phone towers, digging for jade in the Hotan River and getting filthy unloading a truckload of grain at a weird fucked-up Han Chinese dog farm that smelled like snake pee. I’m reminded powerfully of the fact that: I’m not actually that good at traveling. Or rather – when I’m in a position to pay to ride exactly where I want and sleep in a guesthouse, I really have no idea what to do with myself. I don’t carry a guidebook. I rarely have a clue what the “sights” are. I’m not particularly good at starting interactions with strangers. In fact, without hitchhiking and finding places to camp I’m just lost and floating. I need hitchhiking and sleeping rough because it forces me into the awesomely strange connections with people and land that mean so much.

Which is great, because this southern fork of the Silk Road is an astoundingly cool place to connect with. The people here are anything but what you might expect when you hear “China”. These are the fiercely Muslim Uiygar people (easily the most religious community I’ve ever encountered). Here in Kashgaria, prayer times are serious business. With big beaming hearts of gold, greetings and signs are in Arabic and the touch of Turkish I managed to learn comes in more handy than all my English. The place has the air of an occupied state. I myself was interrogated by Chinese soldiers at bayonet point (“Why are you talking to Uiygars?” “Why do you have Islamic prayer beads in your pocket?” “Why are you carrying a copy of the Koran?”), and a week after I left suicide bombs ripped through the region’s capital. But the true gem of travel here is the food: juicy mutton kebabs meet hand-pulled noodles over steaming plates of spicy fried vegetables and rice. It’s Turkish-Chinese fusion and the meals (none of which I’ve been allowed to pay for) have been some of the best in my life.

The road itself weaves in and out of desert and oasis settlements, hugging the edge of the impenetrable Kunlun Mountains (rising from seal level to three miles high in a blink of the map). And to the north lies the endless wasteland of the Taklamakan Desert.

Thanks to the marvels of Chinese engineering (which can put a man in space and build anything but a toilet) the modern Silk Road journeyer can do something the ancients would never have dared and cross the Taklamakan from the south fork outside Niya through 400 miles of nothing but dunes to the north fork near Luntai. The road itself is amazing. It would be impossible for pavement alone to tame these sands: the builders also have to pipe irrigation lines all the way through to support a 40-foot bugger of scruffy sage brush on either side just to keep the whole road from blowing away or being swallowed. Even so, the whole thing requires constant maintenance.

And as luck would have it, just as I was leaving the last oasis settlement where it would be possible to catch paid transit, I caught a Han Chinese trucker headed all the way up this insane road. I couldn’t believe my luck! I was about to ride straight across one of the world’s wildest places! But just as I settled back to enjoy the ride, a violent explosion rocked the cab. At first I thought we hit a land mine. It turns out that’s just what it feels like when the tire of a fully loaded semi blows up under your butt. There was no spare, so this ride proved not-to-be. I found myself unceremoniously deposited quite in the middle of nowhere.

By the next day I had finally positioned myself beyond the last frontier of inhabitation. On the split to oblivion. The gentle Muslim trucker who dropped me here gave the internationally recognized “You’re crazy!” sign, but I estimated that this was the kind of place that any decent person would have to pick me up. I also assumed (correctly) that anyone driving this stretch would be crossing all the way, unless they were making a sand dune delivery. I was right! It took about an hour, but the very first truck swung in and waved me in. We left behind the hardy Bactrian Camels clinging to the fringes and headed deep, deep into the sands.

I’m not sure exactly how long I was with the two-man trucker team of Mohammed and Muhammed, but together we stopped for 4 out of 5 daily prayers. However long it was, it will be imprinted on my memory forever.

Even having seen it, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the scale of the Taklamakan. An endless sea of sand dunes. Sometimes pointy, sometimes elegantly curved. It is a swelling, rolling landscape of mega-dunes obscured and covered by house-sized dunes, themselves covered by little baby dunes and trenched rivers of dunelettes. Everything, everything, is a mesmerizing painting of two colors: sand in sun and sand in shade. The patterns shift, distort and trick the eye as the sun climbs and falls. But always the lines are crisp and defined. Mid day blinds before lacing slivers of definition. Early afternoon leaves no question why so many civilizations have built pyramids: they are simply man’s attempt to capture the hypnotizing mathematical perfection of sand and sun. Late afternoon the baby dunes have their say, cascading zebra stripes down blank canvass warped in space. And night eats everything. Finally, after what felt like days, I rolled out of the truck as it hit the north fork of the old Silk Road and slept in the dark dunes.

It had been a long time since I had showered or relaxed. Or done anything other than hitchhike, for that matter. So the next day when I was picked up by a jolly, husky-voiced Han driver who invited me to eat shashlik, I was happy to accept. And when the invitation turned to “Karaoke beer!” . . . the desert dust would be washed away in the Chinese oasis of Korla. . .

It was a strangely Chinese experience. Starting mid-afternoon, when we rocked up at a weird karaoke parlor where we were given our own little sealed room. Big screen TV, puke-proof karaoke box, bucket of beer – my kind of party. We proceeded to get shit-faced and kick out the Hong Kong JAMS. I tried to sing Micheal Jackson, but that option turned out to just be a short, strangely edited documentary about MJ’s relationship with Mechally Colcen which had us all scratching our heads. Luckily some more friends showed up, though, and one of them managed to wrestle the Titanic song out of the machine which we duetted beautifully. It was absolutely forbidden for me to pay for anything, so instead I threw peanut shells and burning cigarettes everywhere and screamed my new Chinese vocabulary. Party! Somewhere along the line we ended up at a dance club and I ended up on stage, dancing around with some sort of heavily choreographed Chinese boy band and drinking fake-whiskey by the bottle. That night my friend bought us both a hotel room, and while I took a glorious hot shower he ducked out for instant noodles which we ate sloppily and passed out in our clean double beds.

I awoke feeling like I had tried to eat the entire desert. And possibly succeeded. By the looks of him, my friend felt no better. We both tried to put on happy faces, but I was in no condition to hitchhike. He dropped me at the station where I collapsed on a bus bound for Turpan: “Chinese Death Valley.” 600 meters below sea level, it’s the hottest place in China.

Turpan is so an ancient, ancient desert oasis. Throughout history great centers of civilization have been built here, braving the heat in the face of available water (because it’s so low). But unfortunately the water table periodically shifts, creating instant ghost cities which became buried, preserved, and often completely lost in the desert. From the bus I saw some of Turpan’s famous winds – hurling big rocks through the air like paper airplanes. I shivered thinking what the winds might do to my tent.

I didn’t make it much further that day – just out to a desolate crossroads in the middle of no where. The desert here isn’t duney – it might not even be the Taklamakan – it might be the Gobi at this point – I’m not sure what its called but it’s big, flat, rocky, sandy, and without a speck of vegetation.

At about 3 AM the wind started. I was woken up by the sound of my tent gently flapping around. I went out to piss – the night seemed all in order – stars in their correct places and no clouds to be seen. But ten minutes later things were starting to get fierce. I sighed – I’ve long seen wind to be the Achilles heal of my otherwise amazing tent. Having broken a tent pole in a gale in Norway and another in sudden storm on the Black Sea, I’ve had a long time to strategize a plan for my next encounter with strong winds. I got out of my sleeping bag and enacted my plan – tying a network of puppeteer-ropes to the inside of the poles with myself as an anchor in the middle.

And not a moment too soon: I didn’t even have time to put on a shirt of pants before the full force of the storm hit like a hurricane. Cold air rushed through the tent (hot by day, cold by night – such is the discomfort of a desert). All my stakes ripped out violently and the loose curtains of tent roared like a helicopter. All my things – my water bottle, pants, sleeping pad, backpack started flying around the tent smacking my in the face. The cords dug into my hands and burned, but all I could do was sit crucified-style holding on for dear life.

I’m not one to plug a certain product or brand, but I will tell you right now that my little Northface tent is without a doubt the most well built thing I’ve ever owned. Here’s a thing – this is a true thing that happened: After an hour or so of shivering, straining to hold on and getting smacked in the face, my tent flew. Me, all my gear, and my tent were lifted clear into the air and flew. Had one seam ripped or one hole tore, the whole thing would have been shredded in furious bits. But it didn’t – everything held, and the sail of my rainfly lifted me and everything else spinning wildly riding the winds of a sand storm howling off the Gobi Desert.

Some time around dawn the wind died down enough for me to get outside, drop the tent poles and the rain fly, somehow grab it and pull it with all my might as it tried to run away, and stuff everything back into the collapsed tent (the non-rainfly part of my tent is all just mesh mosquito netting). I crawled in, zipped the door so everything I owned couldn’t roll away, and curled shivering into my sleeping bag.

Then the sand started. Even wrapped in the tarp of my rainfly, and still I watched in horror as sand blew steadily through the seams of my sleeping bag. Where ever sand got in my body, it turned to mud. I coughed up mud and cried mud – mud dribbled out of my nose and I felt like I was drowning in mud. Curled in a fetal position guarding my neck (remembering the rocks I saw bouncing along from the bus) I wondered – could wind kill me? There was nothing around – nothing to crash into me – but could the fury of wind itself kill me? I felt I was about to figure out…

By mid-day I realized something had to be done. First step was to pee – which proved disasterous. Of course I know better than to pee into such wind, but apparently storms have a mind of their own. The pee turned to a fine mist the instant it left my body, which somehow against all logic spun right around me, which immediately turned to pee-mud coating my entire front side.

The next step was to wriggle out of the tangled fish-net of my tent and pack everything up. This took over two hours, and in the process I went blind in one eye (not that I could see much anyways, with all the sand).

I finally got my pack on and started crawling – on hands and knees – for the gas station down the road. I arrived in time to see the metal siding peel off of one building and a big sign rip clear out of the ground. The Chinese staff hunkered down in a concrete bunker were confused but friendly to see a foreign pee-mud monster crawl in from the desert.

The storm blew for 48 hours.

It flipped over semis, snapping and uprooting telephone poles (think about how much drag a telephone pole has).

I don’t know what magic was with me that day, but not one seam on my tent tore.

I spent the next two nights absolutely filthy sleeping in the bunk of a semi as it crept through the wreckage of sand swallowing the road. Short on time, I then hopped on a passenger train and night bus to finally meet Ed in Xining. All-in-all it took 9 days straight traveling to move myself 2,000 miles across the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts.

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The storm uprooted telephone poles and flipped over semis

The storm uprooted telephone poles and flipped over semis

9 days of grueling travel to culminate 9 months and nearly 10,000 miles traveling the Silk Road. But here, at the very end – at the very western gates of the Great Wall – my own story turns south.

South to the Himilayas,Tibet, and the headwaters of the Mekong River.