Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Day Late and a Cycle Short

Ron and I have made it to Lindong with about 60% of our bike trip behind us. Well, part of it has been a bike trip, anyway. We're here a day later than we'd planned and with only one bike instead of two, but we're here, and we're happy, and I suppose that's what really matters.

At one of the many bike shops in Lindong, we found a 12-speed mountain bike with front and rear suppension (useful for bouncing down railroad ballast) for only 350 Y. Another 68 added two rear baskets for carrying our camping gear, a pump, inner tube, wrenches and lots of tire patches. That's a grand total of $52. I'm on a pretty tight budget here, but I could afford that for a five or six day sojourn, even if I never used it again.

We hadn't even made it from our hotel in Daban to the railway (only a few kilometers) before my butt was aching and my legs were sore and I was beginning to wonder if I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Ron was cruising along on his American bike, but then he's ridden across several countries. My biggest cycling claim was a couple of round trips on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, about 27 miles on flat pavement in a day. And that was 10 years ago.

The problems really started near Baomutu, the first station east of Daban. Struggling to keep my balance on the one-foot wide, not quite level "path" along the ballast, one of my pedals struck a railroad sign, bending it and loosening the crank. We limped into the last couple km into the station and made camp. We spend the evening with a friendly crossing gate keeper, a 53 year old man who gets 600 Y / month ($75) plus a two-room shack for lodging to live beside the tracks and manually raise and lower the crossing gates for each passing train. He gave us all the hot water and tea we could use, obligingly posed for our photos, and in the morning, led us to a bike shop in town. He rode a one-speed with only thin rods for pedals and I struggled to keep up. The shop was deserted (and looked unused to begin with) and it was Sunday morning, but within 10 minutes, he had summoned the proprietor, a stocky Chinese man on a motorbike, built like a fire plug and nearly as red in the face as one. He straightened my pedal, tightened my crank and greased everything. We were back on the ballast by 9:00, much to our minds' relief and my already aching butt's dismay.

Then a pedal fell off. And my gears all but ceased working. With Ron's help and a detour on the paved road, I made Gulumanhan by mid-afternoon on one pedal and with gears that reqired a two-handed TUUUUGGG and a five minute delay to shift about three places. We passed a wonderful but cold night of trains camped out in some trees by the water tower, then, with the help of yet another friendly road crossing gate keeper, found a man who repaired my pedal.

We hit a solid stretch of ballast east of the route 303 level crossing and I was riding along thinking that these are the kinds of places that can lull you into thinking that 30 km/day is quite an easy pace (we made about 20 on each of our first two days, with considerable effort). Then I had to stop for a sandy patch, and that's when I heard the hiss from the rear tire.

The next morning in Chaganhada (after another great night, the too-short sleeping portion of this one spent in railway worker bunks), Ron and one of his Chinese friends on the railway had put a total of five patches into my two tires (which were both almost completely flat when we limped into the station under a rising full moon the previous evening). As we prepared to set off, I noticed the sound of leaking air from my rear tire. This time, it was the valve, which we had no way of replacing. And our spare innertube used a different kind of valve that didn't mate with the pump we had been sold. We cannabolized the useful parts off the bike and left the carcass with one of the railway workers, deciding to trade off walking and riding Ron's bike.

30 minutes on that fine machine restored my faith in bicycle travel. Without my Chinese rattletrap slowing us down, we made more km today with one bike than we did on the previous three with two bikes. That's our plan for the rest of the trip, another 60 km, which we hope to finish in three more days. Despite the problems, I love traveling this way, especially with Ron's Chinese speaking abilities. There's so much to say about the trains and the people and the land and the light, but that will have to wait. I just had my first really full meal in three days, and now I'm off for a much-needed wash and rest.


Anonymous said...

I have wrenched on a number of cheap bikes in my day, but the one you got stuck with really takes the cake. I'm glad to hear you made it back from the trip in one piece, even if the bike didn't! You'll have to pick up another bike when you get to Japan...they make 'em much nicer there!

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