Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

       Writings from the Road

Following are excerpts from Claude Marthaler's manuscript documenting his world bicycle tour. Portions are in English and French. Read Claude's impressions of Alaska.

Browse through Claude's email messages in the email log. 

Additional writings have appeared in DHL News, and La Tribune Genéve.

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7 days from Lhasa
July 1996: East Tibet

East Tibet gives totally different images than those we in Europe think the country of "eternal snow" to be. I am riding through fields of high grasses with carpets of yellow flowers. The wooden houses in Swiss Chalet style are peppered with herds of yak. A table of clouds balances on the mountains. The landscape makes my mind waltz through different seasons and different continents. All the ingredients from the Swiss grasslands are before me.

Dinner tonight is one of my regular staples: yak meat and flat bread. It is served on a low red and golden table with legs like a horse's. I eat between two walls of spaced wood planks pasted over with old Chinese newspapers. Six drunken Chinese drivers are fighting to pay the bill. I am eager to get back to my bike and return to the saddle. I wait just enough time to let my clothes dry by the fire. One of them grabs my sleeve and begins a crude litany of anthropologic measurements. He starts with my arm, measuring its length by counting off finger spans. He continues with my legs. He seems astonished by my whiskers and size. Does he consider me a rare species of bird with wheels instead of wings? He massages my arm to make me feel at ease while commenting about the similarity of my hair to a monkey's.


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14 days from Lhasa
July 1996: East Tibet

A monastery sits atop a steep hill, a scaled-down Potala Palace. A group of monks motion to me "Come on... Come on". A few come down to help me push up my bike.

I pass through a stone passage and find myself in a monastic compound dark enough to please the devil himself. The landscape of Tibet dwarfs a man. The monks' kitchen contrasts this feeling. A huge cauldron sits atop a mud firepit that uses halves of trees for fuel. Water is boiling over, waiting to be ladled. This kitchen makes everything, the objects and the beliefs, seem bigger. So much smoke and steam.

The monks seat me at a wooden table and feed me rice. They keep serving me salt and butter tea until my bladder is ready to explode. They eye me with an intensity that observes nothing but the soul. Three cats wind themselves around their tails and make a bed near the fire. The monks' heads of stubble hair give strength to the eyes that roll across the pictures of my travel. The goodness of their faces meld with the warmth and light of the fire. Some monks finger Tibetan rosaries with one hand while counting donation money with the other. I excuse myself to release the tea. Standing over a wooden toilet seat, I see the river 200 metres below reflecting the moon. The atmosphere of deep silence would shatter from a single word.

The next morning comes. The monks wake me after their prayers wearing smiles that contain all smiles. They press a great bag of Tsangpa, a roasted barley-flour, into my hands. They include a plastic bag with enough butter yak to grease my shoes and bicycle chain to reach Japan. A monk uses an ax to chop a huge piece of smoked meat on a tree stump and hands it to me. I take a stack of photos of the Dalai-Lama from my saddle bags. After so many miles, they stick together from too many rain-soaked rides. It doesn't seem to matter to the head lama. He reverently accepts them from me and bundles them gently with a holy scarf.

Chengdu, Sichuan Province
End of July, 1996

In two summers, I crossed the Tibetan plateau from both north to south and from west to east. I was guided by the spirit of the nomads, a kind of internal radar that paints the horizon, feeling the way through time and space. Nothing is superfluous.

A change in location often brings a change in mind. July 22nd brings a monsoon rain and the Chengdu police to chill my spirit. The moment I arrive in Chengdu, I learn that the local police can be spicier than Sichuan's kitchens.

Professional cyclists worldwide receive flowers and water from supporting fans after a grueling leg of a race. Traveling cyclists here are greeted by police with their own versions of "Chinese torture." Officer Hu is neither good nor bad but is not shy to use the book. We sit face to face for five hours in a police station that smells of artificial light, boredom and dust.

I didn't intend to overstay my visa, but I didn't allow enough time to cross Tibet. I have now visited far more police stations than monuments in China.

Mr. Hu lowers his head to my Chinese map and sees strange scribblings such as "army camp" and "bridge full of police". A few weeks back, a passing American traveler marked my intended route with possible trouble spots. He certainly neglected to point this one out.

Officer Hu slowly raises his head from the map and fills his eyes with suspicion before meeting mine. I am covered with the mud and sweat of another full day's ride. My bicycle leans impatiently against the front wall decorated with frameless policemen photos. It awaits a quick whistle to get back on the trail.

"Have you met strange people?" , the policeman asks. "No, only hospitable people?", I reply. "What have you spoken about?" "From everything and from nothing, from food, from weather, from landscape, from life." Officer Hu can't be distracted by my travel photos. He continues his report, confident that he has bagged the kingpin in the Swiss spynet. He tells me that he is confiscating my passport. He says to come back in a week. I overstayed my Chinese visa for 10 days. Skirting the law is not appreciated here.

"While you are in Chengdu, you should visit some of the historical Han Dynasty sites", Mr. Hu offers with little enthusiasm. I have a desire to lash out, but am beaten. I give him my thumb to ink my identity 6 times on the bottom of his ridiculous report. I have the feeling that this is going to be expensive.

The next few days are spent waiting in Chengdu to hear how the police will handle my case. I return to the station only a few days later. Officer Hu and a second policeman put me into a car for the return trip to my hotel. Going the wrong way on a one-way street they roll down their window just far enough to bellow at a woman bicyclist to get closer to the curb and away from their official car.

As soon as we entered the Traffic Hotel, I remember some extraneous Tibetan literature that I have in my sidebags. I imagine Officer Hu's pleasure if he were able to catch these jewels in his fantastic net. The policemen are checking the register and phoning to the manager. Luckily, I see a recently-met friend milling in the lobby. He is able to slip into my dorm room before my companions can.

The police rifle through everything. They see that I have enough travelers checks to pay the maximum fee. I can do nothing but watch and wait for the "investigation" to unfold. Officer Hu is satisfied with the search. He announces my verdict. "Forbidden area with annotation on Chinese map, 500 yuan. 10-days overstaying visa, 5000 yuan. Total: 5500 yuan (US$660). You have 10 days to leave China. Not one day more."

I ask for 20 days thinking I can make it by bike to Hong Kong. Officer Hu is not moved. My mind searches for alternatives. An unnecessary flight to and from Hong Kong will be another US$800. There must be some way to appeal to Officer Hu. I see no openings. I think over the case. I didn't have the opportunity to say anything wrong. What didn't I say? He is impenetrable. The case is closed.

I am surprised by the emotions that are bubbling so close to the surface after so long on the road. Of course, I know showing your temper is a great loss of face in China, but too much is too much. I scream, "This is insane. You are already fining me more than the annual income of an entire Chinese family. You aren't being reasonable. Why can't you extend my visa here in Chengdu? Other travelers here have done it. "Don't lose your temper.", says Officer Hu coolly. Moisture is welling in my eyes. In the heat of the moment, I am distracted by my tears.

It really is an unreasonable amount of money and the flight to and from Hong Kong will be over US$800. But, I have encountered greater setbacks and seen greater tragedies along the way. Why is there such emotion? Is it the feeling of being trapped by a single man so soon after the majesty of the Tibetan plateau? Or is it more the desperate realization that I can find no commonality with him? The gavel has fallen. I feel as if I am being grabbed by the back of my shirt and being tacked to the Great Wall to hang.

I am confused. I don't think Officer Hu cares one way or the other. He doesn't seem to have anything against me. So much of my spirit is broken in a single instant. Officer Hu notices my eyes. We stand in silence for a blank moment. I can't read him. I am embarrassed to give him so much power - to give him control of my emotions.

Maybe he just wants to scare me. Maybe he just wants me to know who is in charge. Surely, now that he sees that I am broken, he will announce the real verdict. "If you refuse," he adds, "You 10 days jail. You then go airport. You can no come back China." Although he appeared to be from the Stone Age, the Chinese policeman had a modern love of the mathematics of money.

These Chinese predators take dreams and put them like their birds into cages. Until now, I believed my meridians were with those of the earth. I had a respect for money only in the sense that it was one of the great travelers but it was melting like snow on the sun. Why was it that it took the Chinese police to teach me one of the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism; detachment.


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