This month's mailing list offering. If you want to get this sort of drivel in your inbox once a month or so, you can sign up in the box at the top of this page. Archives are, err, archived here.
Nocturnal shenanigans (twice); a not-very-near-death-experience (twice); Tibetan nursery rhymes; an amusing, if brief, anecdote involving a policeman; and other exciting adventures too numerous to mention
0100 hours, Batang Mean Time. I am enjoying the deepest of sleeps and the sweetest of dreams, when these three blokes come in, call themselves lamas.
"TASHI DELE!" whispers the Chief Bloke, at about 156 decibels.
("Tashi dele" is Tibetan for "I say, how frightfully nice to see you old chap".)
"Tashi dele," I reply, with as little enthusiasm as I can muster.
Tibetan monks, or lamas, (not to be confused with alpacas, which are smaller and have longer hair), as you probably know, go about their business in crimson robes. What you may not know is what Tibetan monks wear under their crimson robes.
The answer, I am now in a position to divulge, is more crimson robes. I watched these gentlemen undress, and the experience was much like playing pass-the-parcel with a Russian doll. Every layer of crimson robe that came off revealed another crimson-robed monk underneath, each one just a little smaller than the last.
They went to bed eventually in crimson robe pyjamas, and at 0500 hours they got up and got dressed again, and asked me what time it was.
I told them it was 0500 hours, on hearing which they re-de-robed and returned to bed until 0700, when they rose, robed (crimsonly), and left a second and final time.
So much for Batang. I had to get to Baiyu, which, as its name suggests, is a different place altogether.
Opinions among the good burghers of Batang as to the existence of a road to Baiyu were divided. Some swore blind that there was a road; others that there was not; yet others that there might be.
Among those who professed the existence of a road, there was near unanimity that it was no more than a mule track, and certainly not passable in winter on a bicycle.
Now when Terry the Tibetan tells you that a road is not passable on a bicycle, this could mean one of several things.
i) Terry's grandmother would not be able to cycle it.
ii) Terry doesn't think that a foreigner would be able to cycle it.
iii) Terry has recently bought a motorbike, and wouldn't be seen dead riding a bicycle even if the whole world were a billiard table.
iv) The road is not passable on a bicycle.
The only way to discover the truth of the matter is to go and have a look for yourself.
The bare facts are this:
Batang lies at around 2500 metres above sea level; Baiyu at 3200 metres. Between them are two passes well in excess of 4000 metres. And yes, there is a road. Or a mule-track, at any rate.
The first pass was snow-bound, and I had a hard time of it. Without the benefit of a motorbike track to follow, I would have had a harder time of it. As it was, I pushed and slipped and back-slid my way the final 16 kilometres to the pass in just under 5 hours. Terry's grandmother might not have made it.
(There are photos on the 2wheels blog.)
Coming down the other side, I lowered my saddle so that my feet were flat on the snow and acted as stabiliser-skis. Don't try this at home.
On the third day I camped just below the second pass, a beautiful spot by a half-frozen stream, with snowy peaks all around. At this point I succumbed, finally, to a fit of paranoia, brought on by the online rantings of Asmund, the Man In The Pink Gloves. Those of you who follow my blog will know all about this; for those who don't, a quick summary:
Asmund, a Norwegian by birth and by inclination, believes that for any Englishman who ventures outside the warm embrace of his home-and-castle, a lonely, glorious but futile, stiff-upper-lip sort of death is both certain and inevitable.
This is what happened to Scott in the Antarctic, after all, and since the English persist in regarding Scott as a hero, despite his coming second and dying in the process, there is no reason to suppose that they have learnt any lessons.
And so Asmund spent most of the month of February (a short month, God be praised) writing long and imaginative accounts of how I, an Englishman, would die of altitude sickness and exposure and various other nasty things, and publishing these stories on my blog.
(One result of this was my first not-very-near-death-experience, but we'll come back to that later.)
For now, let us return to me, the heroic but doomed English adventurer, lying in my tent that night just below the second pass on the Batang to Baiyu mule-track. Asmund's words began to bother me. A common feature of both altitude sickness and exposure is that the victim often does not realise he has a problem. As his core body temperature plummets, he feels pleasantly warm, and begins to remove his clothes; as his lungs fill with fluid and his brain swells, he feels as right as rain, and perhaps even a little righter.
This can make self-diagnosis difficult. And so there I was, in my tent, somewhere up around 4000 metres, minus several degrees outside, and feeling really rather cosy - and as right as rain. Thanks to Asmund's exhaustive (I will not say exhausting) warnings, this overwhelming sense of wellness triggered panic. I became terrified of falling asleep, lest I never reawaken.
Was I breathing normally? I held my breath to listen. I could hear nothing in the breathing department.
Was I slurring my speech? I recorded something on my dictaphone - an If you find this... kind of message - and played it back. It sounded normal - but was my hearing playing tricks?
I tried reading a couple of pages of Don Quixote to see if I could make sense of them - but was a book about a madman a good tool with which to test my rightness of mind?
I kept myself awake till three in the morning, to see whether I was dying, but the longer I lay there, the weller I felt. This was a bad sign.
I tried reciting the names of the fifty states of the USA. Delaware, West Virginia, North Dakota, Maryland, La-la-land, right?
I multiplied 647 by 891 in my head.
That nearly killed me.
I fell asleep, and woke up in a panic.
I brushed my teeth.
I felt so damned well that I was sure I was dying.
Dawn came, and I boiled some noodles and honey to celebrate cheating death.
Not long afterwards, I was at the pass, bedecked with colourful prayer flags and broken beer bottles. A pair of Tibetans turned up on a motorbike, and I waited and watched to see what was the proper pass-passing ritual. They parked their bike, wandered over to the prayer flags, had a widdle, and drove off again.
But the sky and the mountains and the eagles were majestic.
And so I arrived in Baiyu, four days and something under 200 km after leaving Batang.
And it came to pass that, as I lay curled up in my dormitory bed, I was woken by not one, not two, not three, not four, five Tibetans knocking at my door. And yes, daylight come and they all go home - but not before they'd given me a night to remember.
The dormitory contained six beds - that is, mine and five others - of the narrow sort, and into these remaining five, the five Tibetans tumbled - soon to be joined by three more.
Now eight into five won't go, they tell you at school, but don't believe a word of it. These guys found a way. Which was fine, and I had no objections beyond the rueful observation that the statistical probability of eight Tibetan room-mates all being non-snorers is lower than that of five Tibetan room-mates all being non-snorers.
But snoring, it turned out, was not going to be my problem that night, for of the eight, six may have been librarians or food hygienists or agronomists or followers of some other quiet profession, but of the remaining two, it was my acute misfortune that one was a historian, and the other a town crier.
The Historian set about discoursing for several hours, scarcely pausing for breath, until well beyond the hour at which histories are generally welcome. From the length of his narrative it can only have been the tale of his village, or more likely of the whole world, from the Very Earliest Times, not omitting some lengthy speculations on the Epochs Before Then.
One or two of the other seven slept, or appeared to, but the rest of the crowd encouraged him in his disquisition, probing for for further details, clarifications and asides with occasional interjections and exhortations. The Historian's voice was steady and constant, not wholly unpleasant on the ear, or at least would not have been at some more reasonable hour, of which the day is blessed with several - and, indeed, plenty.
The Town Crier, in contrast, had a voice well suited to his calling and trade, but less so to the manners and conventions of a hotel dormitory in that part of the night which God in His infinite Wisdom and Mercy has reserved for our most precious and profound sleep. But the Town Crier, devoted as he was to the practice of his most honourable and righteous profession, made frequent and voluble announcements throughout the night, as and when notions he judged worthy of such announcing came to him, which was often.
Next day I moved to a different hotel, where I was paid a visit by the Boys in Blue (formerly the Boys in Green), guardians and upholders of the Queen's Peace in Baiyu.
It went like this:
A knock at the door.
I open the door.
A Chinese policeman is revealed, with a Chinese policewoman at his side.
"Hello," I say, in my best English.
"'ello 'ello 'ello," says the policeman, in his best English. "We are police."
"Oh, police-d to meet you," says I, and frankly I am so pleased with that one that I don't care if costs me twenty years hard labour.
"Welcome to China!" says he, blanking my comic masterpiece completely. Probably because it isn't in the script they learn at Police Academy.
As you can imagine, we got on tremendously well. He wanted to know where I was going, and how I proposed to get there. I said England, and by bicycle.
The copper wrote this down in his little copper's notebook, and said to me, "You are crazy man. Good bye and welcome to China!"
And with that, he left.
What else can I tell you?
I can tell you that when Don Quixote was drifting down the River Ebro, he remarks to his squire Sancho Panza, "If I know anything, we have passed, or soon shall pass, the equinoctial line which divides and cuts the opposing poles at equal distances."
"And when we get to this noxious line of which your worship speaks," replies Sancho, "how far shall we have gone?"
"A long way," replied Don Quixote.
I am beginning to feel that I am approaching the noxious line in my own journey.
I write to you this month from Dege, in Sichuan province, where I have been detained by a spot of flu, a test match, and some yaks in unorthodox positions.
To appreciate the Tibetan nursery rhyme which follows, you really must first have a quick peek at this photograph:
When you've done that:
Hey diddle diddleThe cat and the fiddleThe yak jumped over the moonBut some bloody Tibetan caught 'imAnd 'ung 'im from the ceilin',There to dangle for all eternity.
A serious question: do any of you, dear readers, know what this is all about? It seems to be de rigueur for monasteries in these parts to have a stuffed yak or two hanging from the rafters of their entrance halls. I have been unable to discover why. I have great confidence that one of you must have the answer to this enigma.
(Incidentally it gives me great pleasure to welcome the 1,000th member of this mailing list - a certain H.D. from Glasgow.)
Now, I have given you one not-very-near-death-experience, but I promised you two.
The short version goes like this: I was reported dead last month, by no lesser authority than my own website. I was rather pleased about this, because it gave me the opportunity to tell the world that reports of my death have been much exaggerated , something that everybody wants to be able to say at least once in a lifetime.
Rather than regurgitating the story in my own lugubrious prose, I will leave it to the following esteemed organs of Her Majesty's press to tell the tale:
The BBC told it like this.
Exeter's finest Express and Echo chipped in with this.
The Scotsman, which for reasons I don't fully understand seems to take a close interest in my bicycling antics, had this to say.
While the Sun, bastion of all that is good in British journalism, reported that "British Cycle Hero Is OK" - that one must have topped the day's chart of low-adrenaline headlines .
I have spent many happy hours this past week knocking my blog into shape. To save your inboxes the weight of reproducing it all here in email form, here are some links to this month's 'other news in brief':
- 3-sided window in triangle shock
- Compelling evidence that Google's logo concept was stolen from the Tibetans - part 1, part 2, and part 3. (Please circulate widely and get the campaign for compensation started.)
- Compelling evidence that my article about Blair/Iraq/God was stolen by Terry Jones. (Please circulate widely and get the campaign for compensation started.)
- A slightly gripping account of riding the mule-track from Batang to Baiyu, in four parts (1, 2, 3 and 4). Richly illustrated with photographs designed to make me look Very Intrepid.
- An unlikely anti-aircraft gun.
- And much more fun and games on the 2wheels blog. If you're not a regular visitor, do think about dropping by from time to time - it can be quite entertaining, especially when Asmund/The Man In Pink Gloves is in town and takes up my writing duties for me.
I leave you with a quiz question; answers arrived at with the help of an atlas will not be given credit - show your working:
Three current national capitals, and one former national capital, lie within +/- 1 degree of 60 degrees north.
Thanks as always to my sponsors, including especially this month Eclipse Internet for keeping my website online during a period of unusually intense hittage, Decathlon China for the bike & gear, and Gore-Tex for the lovely pink jacket .
Oh, one other thing. I read that they want to get rid of the Great British Mile. For heaven's sake. Do they not understand how unpleasant it is to be abroad and have to say things like 'kilometrepost', 'kilometreage' and 'kilometreometer'? It's alright for the French, who can pronounce 'kilometre' in only three-and-a-half syllables, but in English it's four, and ugly great ones at that.
Righty-ho folks. Till next time.