星期三, 1月 07, 2009

Gone full cycle

SCMP 6/1/08

Long-distance biking may be arduous, but for riders the joys outweigh the pain, writes Katie Lau

Fred Lam Fai is miles away as he clicks through photos of his 3,000km cycling trip on his laptop. An avid photographer, the 29-year-old has captured the clear blue skies of Tibet, the mountain meadows of Yunnan and the serenity of Chiang Mai's ancient temples.

Lam often returns to those images from the trek last summer that he says is "the greatest thing I've ever done". This afternoon, however, the chief campaigner of charity Roundtable Community is sifting through his photos for a talk he's giving about the joys of long-distance biking - one of several travel lectures organised by the group.

"These rides reveal scenery at whatever pace that feels comfortable and you can stop whenever you want and take pictures. I can see how a lake shines from different angles as I go along," Lam says.

"Many Hongkongers are often too busy to savour a place. When you cycle, you can access places seldom visited by others and immerse yourself in a place."

More hardy types are beginning to share Lam's view, according to the 1,000-member Hong Kong Cycling Tour Association (hkcta.org.hk) and the 300-member Cycling Club. Both groups were formed in the 80s to spread the joys of pedal power, help beginners prepare for long-haul trips and organise runs across Asia and the mainland.

"Back then bicycle touring was the most practical way of exploring the mainland because public transport was still rather underdeveloped," says Yan Kinn-wai, a long-time member of the Cycling Club and a tourer.

However, the bicycle-hostile rail network in Hong Kong has put a damper on club activities over the past two decades, says the 48-year-old building consultant.

"Our club isn't as active as before because we got tired of the many unpleasant experiences trying to bring our bicycles on trains," Yan says.

"Bicycle trips are mostly undertaken by veteran club members who can look after themselves and don't mind the hassle of carting their bicycles across the border."

Nevertheless, improved roads on the mainland have made bicycle touring there more popular with Hongkongers in recent years, Yan says.

Although Lam had backpacked across India and Nepal, he was a touring neophyte when a conversation with a Lhasa-based Hongkonger inspired him to set off on his cycling trip from Tibet to Thailand.

He soon found himself faltering on the steep slopes of the Himalayas. "It felt like climbing up the stairs for eight straight hours," he says.

Thankfully he had few problems adjusting to the high altitude.

"I felt OK - I just felt a bit exhausted and had to push the bike for a while to the top of a mountain."

Lam learned it's a challenge to eat well and stay healthy on the road. The physical demands, often spartan accommodation and unpredictable weather make long-distance cyclists vulnerable to ailments such as diarrhoea and flu.

But the spectacular scenery along the way makes such hardships worthwhile, Lam says, pointing to a mountain vista on his laptop.

"You forget how difficult it was getting there when you see something so beautiful."

Like Lam, social work student Chan Ka-chun was a touring novice when he joined four mainlanders he had met online on a 2,300km ride from Chengdu to Lhasa in the summer of 2007.

"I thought to myself, Why not? I am only young once," says Chan, 22, who will be sharing his touring adventures alongside Lam.

He was eager to enjoy the exhilaration and freedom that mainland and foreign cyclists described but found realities on the road tested his mettle to the fullest. A severe bout of flu almost caused him to give up the trip two-thirds along the way to Lhasa.

"I had to get a car to [the nearest town] and stayed there for a week. I was in terrible shape, but didn't want to be a quitter," he says.

Chan recovered, caught up with his friends and they made the last leg to Lhasa together.

The ordeal didn't put him off long-distance bike trips: last August he saddled up for a solo run from Beijing to Xilinhot in Inner Mongolia.

Road conditions can be terrible and signs misleading, but cycling on the mainland "isn't as dangerous as it's made out to be" although it's important to stay alert, Chan says.

Such experiences can be life lessons in resilience, Lam says. "I used to get excited easily about different projects, but seldom stuck it out to the end," he says.

"You can build up physical stamina, but you have to be strong-willed to carry on against the odds on the road."

Veteran tourer Fong Pak-mau agrees. "Your willpower makes or breaks your trip," says the 43-year-old garage owner, who completed a 14-month odyssey through 17 countries just over a decade ago. "There are many unpleasant situations and you must hold yourself together emotionally. For example, you might be lonely, surrounded by filth and want to go home."

Although many cyclists like to tour in a group, Fong prefers travelling solo, recalling how he completed a globetrotting tour on his own after two friends dropped out for different reasons.

"Everyone has a different cycling rhythm," he says. "It limits possibilities when you have to wait for someone who's trailing behind. Many conflicts occur when it happens."

Fong shared such insights with Leung Chi-fai, 19, and Chan Man-him, 18, just before they set off on a 14,000km ride across the mainland a year ago to raise awareness about climate change and the importance of green living.

But while the marathon ride could be a strain, the pair say it also strengthened their friendship.

"We'd fight from time to time, but compromises were made and we were determined to go through everything together from start to finish," says Leung, an environmental campaigner.

Encounters with locals often create the most enduring memories.

"I was stranded in Xinjiang and running out of water in insanely hot weather. It was 50 degrees," Leung says. "Then this driver came by and gave us water. He saved our lives."

Lam recalls how a man carried his bicycle across a river in Tibet. "I thought he wanted money, but I was wrong," he says. "I gave him chocolate sticks instead, but he only took one and shared it with me."

Getting a marathon bike ride started may be the hardest part of the journey, Leung says. "Many people can do what they set their mind to, but they often beat themselves up in the process. It's important to dare to dream."

Roundtable Travel Series, Jan 20, 7.30pm-9.30pm, Room 1102, Freeman Bookshop, Mong Kok City Centre, 74-84 Sai Yeung Choi St, Mong Kok, HK$20. Inquiries: 9810 9330