Monday, June 24, 2013

Ho Chi Minh style

A few months ago, I saw a question posted on reddit about "Vietcong handlebar extensions". These were apparently used to transport freight down the Ho Chi Minh trail by bicycle. I briefly imagined a simple solution involving rope and a scavenged branch, but I put the whole thing out of my mind shortly thereafter. Just another few minutes wasted on the internet, you know?

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Carpathian scenery
Fast forward to the end of May. After leaving Lviv, I decided to take a loop through the Carpathians in western Ukraine. Getting there was quite challenging: lots of hills, lots of headwind, and a big stretch of tourist death traps began to wear on my patience. I was hoping for serenity, not gaudy trinkets.

Fortunately, the place was touristy precisely because there were mountains.

Hoping to take a break from people, I devised a detour that would let me hit one of the surrounding peaks on my way through the region. Just past Tatariv, I would head up a gully between two ridges, summit the highest of the four corners of a saddle at the apex of the gully, then slide down the other side of the ridge into Vorokhta.  My map, and guide, was a large tourist-information placard I passed on the road. I snapped a quick pic of it and continued onward.

My 'map', complete with useless compass rose
Things 'got real' immediately after coming through the little huddle of houses that marked my departure from the highway. Rains had left the rough dirt road partially flooded and quite stony. The grade increased dramatically. Soon I was maxing out my aerobic ability trying to keep the bike moving forward in its lowest gear. As the farmhouses became sparse, I began to feel rejuvenated by the fresh air and forest scenery, but I began to doubt how much actual cycling was going to be happening.

Sure enough, I quickly gave up pedaling and started pushing. After cresting one small shoulder, I realized that the climb would only continue, but the arc of my mood only followed suit. I love mountains!

Suddenly, I thought back to the handlebar extensions. Mountains are great, but lugging an overloaded bicycle up them is basically the height of absurdity. Might as well apply the noggin to simplifying the process, eh?

I had some paracord in my kit, and I figured I would just find a suitable branch that I could lash across the handles. Lo and behold, at that very moment, I looked up and saw a good-sized construction beam laying in the path.

Yes.



Detail of lashings
Now I was feeling super pumped. And I can report that pushing a bike, as demonstrated in my video, really is easier with such an extension. I found a comfortable angle at which I could counterbalance the weight of the bike, and in this position I could use less twisting and more straight-arm pushing. Plus, my panniers were only mostly in the way, instead of entirely in the way.

It wasn't a panacea. It was still a ton of work. Being forced off the 'road' onto a 'footpath' (that may have actually been a deer trail) certainly exacerbated the challenge. But the lashings held, nothing broke, and I was buoyed with the feeling that I was channeling the spirit of both Bear Grylls and MacGuyver.

Complete with rusty nails
After a couple hours, I got to the saddle, got rained on, ate some food, took a nap, and decided to camp out. During the night, I was visited by flatulent horses.

Rolling hitch ftw
The morning was fresh and beautiful, and I felt surprisingly fit. I left my bike in the saddle and went for the peak. In spite of my "map" missing half its compass rose and indicating the peak in the wrong location, I made it in reasonable time. Sadly, deep forest negated any interesting views, and the top had nothing to show for itself besides a wimpy little 'summit cairn'. I ate a celebratory raisin. (Any more would have been a bit overdramatic.)

I jogged back down to the bike, removed my "handlebar extension", waved farewell to the horses still windily grazing nearby, and white-knuckled my way down the gravelly, wet goat trail back to the highway.

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More photos in my Carpathian album!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kaunas

This beard is not about riding bikes. I stayed in Kaunas, Lithuania, for about three weeks, and I'll talk about some of the my impressions and shenanigans from that city.

I first started drafting this article over a month ago, when I was still actually in Kaunas. Then I did some more writing a couple weeks ago while I was in Ukraine. Now I'm in Moldova, and damnit, I'm gonna publish it today! Heh.

Let's start with what I wrote while still in the city:
I am still in Kaunas; I think it's been two weeks now. I've struggled with a cold the last week, and in fact my sinuses currently feel like they're trying to explode.  (Maybe this is spring allergies, too? I've never had them, but I've also never done spring in Europe.)
Today is one of the warmest days yet this year. Dozens of beautiful Lithuanians are streaming by on this pedestrian street in old town.  I'm just about ready to ride again, but I still don't mind wiling away time in this town.
Next, here's what I began to wrote while in Ukraine:
I've been in Ukraine two weeks now, but not ten minutes ago I accidentally said "labas" instead of "dobre dayn". In Lithuania, I met a lot of amazing people, did a bunch of super cool things, and generally have a lot of love for the country.
So let's start there!

Fluxus graffiti
Lithuanians will tell you I'm crazy because I like being in their country. Many want to leave. The country is poor, wages suck, crime and suicide rates are high, winters are brutal, and it is not very culturally liberal. But at the same time, many Americans I know would jump for joy at the sight of so many gardens in the cities (let's not even talk about the countryside), the relatively low level of suburban sprawl, the diminished fear of cops, and the cultural knowledge that forests and lakes are for people, not for dangerous animals, weirdo outdoor freaks, and unabombers. Also, to be poor in America means to rely on a system that does not work. To be poor in Lithuania means to grow your own crops. There's despair and frustration on both sides, but they seem to run deeper in the US.

There's also a feeling of possibility that exists throughout eastern Europe. The power structures are not well-established. Community is important, and the exhilaration of independence (Lithuania became indepedent in 1991-2) has not worn off. Yeah, there is corruption and cronyism, and barring global revolution the divide between rich and poor will just continue to grow like it does everywhere. But the powerful people are still treated like small-time crooks, and they don't have the pervasive control exhibited by Western media and multinational behemoths.

What saddens me is that all-pervasive control is coming. I see it in the ubiquity of Coca-Cola and McDonald's. It's in the big loans from the EU, with forests given as collateral. It's in the big fancy cars, even if BMW and Mercedes are seen as redneck cars more than anything (in Estonia, anyway). I just hope they only go kicking and screaming.

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So what am I doing about it? Well, there's this thing called music.

Solo in the Nemunas
In Kaunas, my main contact is fairly involved with the Fluxus Ministry. It's one of those things that would make Americans jealous -- a litigation nightmare of an abandoned shoe factory that houses galleries, studios, a bar, boarded up stairways, and bathrooms with no running water. I arrived just in time for the anniversary of its move from Vilnius, where it was first set up. (It was first organized by the mayor of Vilnius, also known for driving a tank over illegally parked luxury cars.)

Kenny Wolleson's marching band
The anniversary event was a fluxus jazz festival that featured a number of musicians from America collaborating with locals. And lucky me, I got to be one of the 'locals'! I was handed an old, busted-up, duct tape-enhanced museum piece of a trombone (seriously, I just saw a trombone in a museum that looked in better shape) and spent all week as a Real Musician, playing for hours a day in a variety of ensembles.  It wore me out staying energized until 3 in the morning, which did not agreeably complement the cold I was fighting, but what a blast.

I am now at least six weeks ahead of the events I'm writing about, so it's in everyone's best interest if I keep things moving along! So to summarize the rest of my stay, I slowly got better from my cold, had a lot of great conversations, met with new and old Lithuanian (and American!) friends, and watched intently as spring fully unfolded from the slumber of winter.

Finally, I packed up and headed south. I've come 2000km since then, so there is plenty more to talk about! Sooooonnnnnn