Ming Dynasty Great Wall, Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, The People's Republic of China

To ride

It’s a little like water skiing, slalom, on a lake of glass. The sand between scattered clumps of thorny, ground-hugging scrub. Tires floating. Subtle adjustments on the handlebars as the tail slides, as the bike leans and yaws, as the turn that will right it comes around, slowly, slowly. Pedaling, pedaling.

Twenty kilometers an hour, I suppose. Perhaps twenty five. Across the open desert, crumbling Ming Great Wall, sand engulfed, on my right. Sun low, shadows long where the golden light cannot reach. Pedaling, pedaling.

No encumbring trailer. No camp to set up, or hotel to find at the end of the ride. A ride purely for pleasure, a ride made for a mountain bike. A tasty little ride. Floating on a film of sand. Pedaling, pedaling.

Try to climb the sand bank, up onto the Great Wall. Sand softens with the steepness. Back down to the level. Pedaling, pedaling.

A destination, yes. Where the Ming Great Wall ends, high above the Taoli river. A destination; an excuse to ride. Pedaling, pedaling.

Four thousand kilometers in China. Pedaling, pedaling. Heaving, heaving. Always with a point, a destination in mind. Riding to see, of course. The point of a cycle tour. Proximity and pace, to stop and experience. To enter the world being toured without the barriers of windows and doors and barely muffled engines. And riding for challenge, to make the mileage, to lose yourself in the physical endeavour; riding to find the limits of endurance, of strength, of courage. Riding to clear your mind as a monk’s chanting intends. Pedaling, pedaling.

Exhileration. The descents following the climbs. Steep, winding. Arcing through space crouched low and tight, a razor cutting the air. Speed. Adenalin. Rush. Rolling, rolling.

But this smooth float across the desert, picking my way around tufts and clumps of tough little plants, is about something else. To ride. Only to ride. Pedaling, pedaling.

Today, already, down loose, rocky steeps. Saddle in your gut, hips low over the back tire, arms extended fully. Stones scramble under tires, rolling not skidding. Light pressure on the brakes. The sharp-angled bottom. Let the shocks compress, let the forks absorb the impact, let the bike do what it was designed for. Then climb back up. Low gear. Pedaling, pedaling.

A fast descent over gravelly dirt and dust. Centred over the pedals, off the saddle. Absorbing, absorbing the ripples, the bumps. Head in a smooth line over the bucking frame. Gathering, gathering, gathering speed. Brake for the corner. Lean, counter-steer. Pedaling, pedaling.

And now, across the sandy flats, Great Wall mingling with the sand to my right. Later I will pay the piper. Thorny clumps scattered amongst the sand. In the morning, I will pay. Pulling thorns from a flattened tire. Patching, patching, eight times patching. Grin a mile wide. Remembering: Pedaling, pedaling.

Ming Dynasty Great Wall
Gansu Province, The People’s Republic of China

Taken during travels, 1998