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    Seasoned cycler's Silk Road adventure

2005-06-04 07:38

Alan Nichols is willing to go the extra mile even 10,400 of them.

In May, the 74-year-old became the first person to cycle the entire Silk Road.

He first set off on his 16,600 kilometre journey he took a few detours which added on a few thousand kilometres along Asia's ancient trade route in 1989. Tackling the route in four stages, by the end he had spent a total of nine months actually in the saddle.

His travels which began in Turkey took him to, among other countries, Syria, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

On April 1 Nichols set out from Kashgar for the final stretch. Fifty-one days later, on May 22, the grizzled, road-veteran peddled across the finish-line city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.

"I don't think I'm going to ride my bike again," he joked, in an interview with China Daily.

While the journey gives testimony to his incredible physical prowess and stamina, Nichols says the epic trek was more spiritual and cultural.

On the road, he studied locations where multiple religious sites had been built on top of each other at different times. He believes these sites possess sacred aspects unrelated to the dominant religion of the time.

While the trip was a wonderful adventure, he did hit a few speed bumps and road-blocks along the way.

And quintuple heart bypass surgery in 2001 made him realize that if he was going to go the distance, he had to kick into high gear. The brush with pending mortality galvanized.

"I think that made it even more important," he said. "I said to myself, 'You just had a bypass operation forget it get on your bike or put on your boots and go out and do what you love."'

His wife, Becky, said she is impressed but unsurprised by his determination, especially when he took on the Central-Asia leg of the journey with a broken hand.

On the road, Alan was robbed, injured, detained by police in multiple countries and forced to contend with weather extremes.

In the Gobi Desert, scorching temperatures of up to 58 degrees Celcius meant his tyres started to melt if he stopped for long on pavements. The winds could cool, but also sandblasted. And peddling into a strong head wind made cycling along the flat as tough as going uphill.

In the mountains, Nichols was forced to tail trucks that blazed paths through snowdrifts 3-4 metres deep.

Once he was trapped in a fierce blizzard on a mountainside, and believes hunkering down in a robe purchased from a monk saved his life.

"The extremes were not imaginable," his wife said. "They were inhuman."

On the last leg across China, each day, Nichols would set off before sunrise and bike for up to 10 hours. After cycling up to 136 kilometres, he would rendezvous with his wife and their hired driver and van.

They would sleep in the van most nights, which provided the basics with a stretch of the imagination of home comforts.

Cooking supplies were packed into a suitcase known as the "kitchen." Clothing was packed into the "closet" bag, and extras were packed into the "attic" suitcase.

To be ready for anything the road might bring, they needed a compact household small enough to fit inside the van.

"We never knew where we were going to spend the night," Becky recalls.

They often bedded down in gravel pits and cemeteries.

But the lifestyle that comes with being on the road in foreign lands is nothing new to Nichols.

He has biked many different parts of the globe and is a veteran mountain climber who has tackled peaks in more than a dozen countries.

He was the first Westerner to circumambulate Mount Gang Rinpoche (Mount Kailas) after the Tibet Autonomous Region opened to foreigners, and the first to cycle across Tibet.

"That was the first adventure," he said.

Afterwards, he set his sights on the Silk Road.

A member of the prestigious Explorers Club of New York, Nichols has also served as a goodwill ambassador to several countries, published 10 books and served many prominent civil positions.

His biography appears in several books of the ilk of "Who's Who in the World" and "Dictionary of International Biography."

But, says Nichols, he is not out to break records.

"At first the object of the trip was Xi'an," he said. "Since that time I've learned that's a bankrupt idea. It's the journey, not the destination, that's important."

(China Daily 06/04/2005 page10)


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