A Different Kind of Freedom A Different Kind of Freedom: A 3300 Mile Solo Bicycle Trip Across Tibet Tibetan Nomads in Western Tibet

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Returning to China

My Dragon Air flight landed in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in the People's Republic of China. This region of Yunnan Province borders both Burma and India. The PRC has a law stating that foreigners cannot possess private vehicles. Whenever I have inquired at Chinese Consulates I have always gotten different answers as to if a bicycle constitutes a private vehicle. I had packed my mountain bike in a small cardboard box. The idea that Chinese custom officials would not let me into the country with a bike worried me. When I pushed my cart up to the customs counter, the official asked me in Chinese what I had. I replied, in Chinese, "This box is my bike and that one has my clothes." She waved me through without even inspecting my boxes. A feeling of relief calmed my nervous mind. I suddenly realized as I stood out on the street that I did not have any renminbi, Chinese currency. In my anxiousness to get through customs I had completely forgotten to change any money. I asked another American, whom I had met on the plane, to watch my baggage. When I ran back through customs, no one blinked an eye. I changed US$50, and ran back through the customs gate again. So much for my worries of strict Chinese officials.Chinese man, Western Yunnan, China

My first hotel room tempered my immersion into China, it held both a hot shower and a color television. The next morning I woke up to a bouncy 12-hour bus ride to Dali. This marked the beginning of my mountain bike trip-the beginning of a trip from which I was not sure I would ever make it back alive. Dali is a great little town nestled between Erhai Lake the 13,000 foot [3963 meter] peaks of the Cangshan Mountains. It is a backpacker hangout in an area that is mostly inhabited by the Bai and Naxi hill tribes, two of the fifty-three ethnic minority groups in China. I listened to Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead sing "Knocking on Heaven's Door," while I relaxed in a small travelers' cafe. I spent most of the afternoon stuffing myself with tasty treats. I knew that this was one of the last places to enjoy any Western-style food or music for a while.

I had a beautiful day to start, brilliant sunshine and snow-covered mountains surrounded me. Nothing compares to riding a bike in the sun while looking up at snow-capped peaks, that was why I traveled halfway around the world. I knew that the first part of the ride would be straightforward, but I would rapidly cross the border into the part of China restricted from foreigners. This line moved back and forth all the time. During Chinese crackdowns in Tibet, security would be tight in all the Tibetan border areas. For the last few months I had been hearing that things had loosened up in Tibet. That news sounded good to me. Most of my entire trip ran through an area totally closed to foreigners.

My first Chinese checkpoint came quickly. A large red and white turnpike blocked the road, and a few Chinese policemen talked among themselves in front of the guardpost. I decided to keep pedaling. I approached the turnpike and pushed my bike under it. With a quick glance back, I saw a guard holding an automatic weapon across his chest. Things seemed pretty cool, no one yelling at me, just a "nihao" ('hello' in Chinese). I had been baked by the hot sun for most of the day. I needed drinking water. I took my chances and stopped to chat with the checkpoint guards. They were a group of young guys from Beijing, with one gun and one hat between all of them. They would hand the gun and hat to the next guy whenever the soldier on duty wanted a break. Like most policemen stationed in Western China, the work bored these guys out of their skulls. My presence meant entertainment for them. While they asked me a few questions about where I came from, I heard a video game somewhere in the back room. After investigation, I found a group of guards playing a game from Hong Kong, called "Contra." In this brutal game Rambo-style heroes get to fight head to head against the video images of Nicaraguan Sandinista forces. Sometimes I am so far from the USA, sometimes I never leave.

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All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel