Setting Forth. It is the title of a song by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam that he wrote for the soundtrack to the movie, Into the Wild. Setting forth in the universe, it says. It’s a song that always sets off an emotional reverberation for me. It starts somewhere deep within me and bit by bit finds its way to the surface where it implants mountains of goose flesh upon my skin. Invariably it does this. And invariably it is the song that accompanies the first pushes of the pedal on any bike journey that I undertake. Such was the case on Friday, October 2nd when under the auspices of an ill sky did I depart the cozy confines of my school to undertake a 3 day 285 kilometer journey through the mountains of south central Fujian province to the river city of Sanming. The problem with such an emotional response upon disembarkation is that if you’re not careful you can find yourself feeling a little spent a mere handful of kilometers into the journey. But on this occasion I was able to control that urge to rush off into the universe and instead sit back patiently in the saddle and let it unfold before me.
Day one was largely uneventful with the exception of the riding itself: a strong, relentless push launching me down the road at quick speeds, ripping through first the outskirts of the city and then small town after small town. The countryside was nice if unspectacular with the exception of the scattered town that was little more than a rubbish pile against the road, more resembling the afterbirth of modernity than any actual civilisation. The day ended at a peculiarly modern looking town called Yang Chun, where I endured a delicious but inhumanely salty dish of beef, vegetable, and rice for dinner. I ate the works of it, but my penance was to spend the evening as thirsty as a crucified thief. I thirst.
Day one was a typical day one. The first day of a tour is more about putting separation between me and the start point and getting out there. Day two has its typical aspects as well. As the journey into the new gets deeper and more real I always hit a point in the day where I encounter something I call “That Feeling”. Saturday morning began with a little side trip into a small village just off the highway where I happened upon some local farmers working their fields of sugar cane and eggplant. After a little interaction and a few photos it was back to the road. And then the hills came.
At first they were fairly short with varying degrees of steepness, and then they weren’t short. Before I knew it, under an emerging morning sun and in the embrace of cool morning mountain breezes, I found myself in the midst of a long and at times very steep climb in excess of 10 kilometers. It was during one long stretch of steep riding that China opened up her ancient soul to me and blessed me with her smile. Oh my god, the views.
Here before me was the China of my childhood dreams. I could practically hear the haunting sound of a lone Er Hu (Traditional two stringed instrument).The depths of the heavily wooded valleys, the high reaching apexes, and the warm and welcoming faces of the strong and hard worn people who scrabble out a simple existence here in these challenging conditions of terraced rice fields and tea plantations, all playing a role in the song of a people and a land with a history long and mystical.
The awe that came over me, the sense of great blessings and privilege bestowed upon me to even be here. And then, a shuddered breath, a moistened eye, and a shiver from within me almost as deep and ancient as the valleys before me that rippled my skin and raised every hair on my body to a taught salute. “That Feeling.” This is why I do this. This is why I ride. Nothing else in my life gives me a feeling quite like this. As I wrote in a piece from Cape Breton last year, this is my church. This is where I find solace and freedom. This is where I feel grace.
The pain of climbing and laboured breath pass into memory and I rise from the saddle. Up. Beyond the last of the morning mists I rode into the upper reaches of this long mountain pass. Ordinarily, I never stop while climbing, but on this occasion I made exceptions. Not because I couldn’t finish the climb without stopping, but because I would have never forgiven myself if I had passed up the photo ops.
They say that whatever goes up must come down, and mountains are no exception. My reward for reaching the end of the climb was a rapid 8 kilometer descent. 8 kilometers of 40 to 50k an hour speeds without having to turn the pedals. Sweet. The rest of the day was comprised primarily of challenging ascents. I ended the day in a small village where for most of the locals the next white guy they saw in person would be like the next snowflake they saw in person: the first. Needless to say the shocked and amazed looks were plenty when I ventured out from my room later in search of some evening snacks. One small child, not yet of speaking age, let her curiosity get the better of her and wandered up behind me as I paid for my purchases. When I turned around and she got a close up of the rather large, very red faced foreigner, well, it was a little more than she bargained for, and she started to cry. Bawl, actually. Okay, it was more like a scream, a roar of holy terror, a Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th what did I do to deserve this howl. Poor kid.
While Saturday was comprised mostly of ascents and a lot of photo stops, day three, Sunday, was about the ride and had a lot fewer photo stops. I had a tight schedule and I wanted to get to Sanming that day. Fortunately, day 3 also provided me with plenty of long, speedy, effortless descents. The sun was kept at bay by a sky full of nice large puffy clouds which helped me stay cool and conserve energy. And oh my how the kilometers began to pile up. 125 in total. Before I knew it I was on the final descent into Sanming and then at a hotel where I secured a room for the next two nights before I would catch a bus back to Anhai on Tuesday.
In Sanming I mostly took it easy and relaxed with my book. I did very little sightseeing. Cities aren’t really my thing and most of the cool stuff to see was rather far out of town and after the three days I had just spent on the road I really didn’t feel like doing 60 and 70 k round trips to go sightseeing. Besides, as Neil Peart once wrote, the point of a journey is not to arrive. The journey itself is why we set forth into the universe. And this journey was completed. And it was fantastic. Until next time…