The ride out of Lanzhou was a silky smooth transition of leg over leg as I pushed my way up the gradual but insistent incline. I felt strong as I pushed my heavy laden bike up the narrow byway to National Highway G309 at which point I took a sharp turn to the west and headed toward Yongjing County. But a funny thing happened along the way. Suddenly, almost inexplicably, I felt short of breath in a way that was a little alarming. I am in better shape than this, I thought to myself. Am I sick or something? I had a touch of a cold but nothing that would account for the level of struggle that I was having. I didn’t know it at the time, but for the first time in my life I was experiencing the effects of altitude.
In my time riding in China I have deduced that there are certain characteristics of “National Highway” level roads. Typically, they are wide, well traveled and busy roads that have a good to excellent surface, occasionally have long hills but of a reasonable pitch, and they can generally sustain speeds of 70 to 90 kilometers per hour. This road was none of those things. It was a long narrow traverse up an endless series of slow and difficult climbs with a surface that became more broken the deeper into the region I got.
I should have known it right from the start when the opening stretch of the highway was a woe begotten thing that more resembled the well worn entry to a lumber yard or back country auto wrecker than that of a highway. A few hundred yards and the road improved into something that better mimicked other national routes that I have ridden. And almost immediately the incredibly steep climbs began, and with them came the panting and gasping, and heaving of chest. Am I having a heart attack or something? Onset of emphysema? Tuberculosis? What the hell is wrong with me?
I struggled to the top of that first climb and was given a slight reprieve. I was still going up but at a much more reasonable pitch. At just the moment I felt I was catching my breath and started to think that maybe the rest wouldn’t be so bad, I took a turn and had standing before me an even longer and steeper climb than the first one. I made it better than half way to the top and then I did something I usually only do to take pictures. I stepped off.
I pushed myself as hard as I could. I was gulping like a fish out of water, my heart was pounding, and my chest expanded to levels it may have never reached before. But I couldn’t catch my breath. So I stopped. And I pushed the bike up the hill. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept this up throughout the day: riding as much as I could, and pushing the bike when I couldn’t. It was frustrating. At times I looked at the hills that defeated me and was disgusted by what I saw. I have climbed hundreds and hundreds of hills much more difficult than some of what I saw that day and had no issue. What is wrong? Is this cold actually a lung infection or something? No. It was the altitude.
In my preparation for this trip I looked carefully at many things: possible routes, equipment, bike prep, clothing. Altitude was one thing I never gave much thought to. I have been able to deduce that prior to this trip the highest altitude I have ever cycled at is a measly 2500 feet. When I set out from Lanzhou I was already at nearly 5000 feet. After a few hours of riding nearly all up hill I was getting into altitudes that were in the neighborhood of 8000 feet, occasionally exceeding that number. This is the altitude, give or take a few hundred meters depending on the individual, that altitude sickness can begin. Some symptoms of altitude sickness include a breathlessness that can make you feel old and terribly out of shape, along with some dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, and rapid pulse. Fortunately, I didn’t get the nausea or dizziness but I sure had the others. I had learned many years ago, or thought I had learned, that those effects didn’t start until between 11 and 12 thousand feet. Add in the ill effects of a cold and 30+ degree temperatures and it made for some difficult times over the next two days. But they were worth it.
As much as I struggled, as much as I wished I had chosen a different route, as much as I cursed the heat and the dust and the broken road and the fumes of passing trucks, there was no way I could turn back once I caught a glimpse of the beautiful mountain terraces that were hidden deep within those mountains. It was like discovering a hidden paradise. The hillsides were a tapestry of interwoven shapes and colors each more beautiful than the last. The effort, determination, and the time that it took to create these plots must be incredible. During the rare times when I was able to ride at my leisure and enjoy the experience it was a sense of awe that I carried with me. What a prize to find this.
Late in the second day I finally escaped the clutch of the mountains that I thought would never let me go. I swept down effortlessly into a deep and narrow valley at the bottom of which I intersected with a much improved highway. I camped on the edge of a farmer’s field as I had the first night in the mountains. The one difference was that the night at altitude was quite chilly while down in the valley was so warm that I slept in t-shirt and shorts on top of my sleeping bag.
The third day was a relatively easy 45 kilometers than ended with an incredibly rewarding 20 kilometer downhill into Yongjing County and a small city on the banks of the Yellow River. It is a good place to rest up and recuperate from this cold I have. Shortly I will be back on the road. Now is when the work must begin in earnest. For I have a long way to go and only so much time to get there.