The Wanderer

I saw him near the top of the pass, where a sharp wind blew, slush and ice fringed the road, and a supply truck had recently overturned, leaving a trail of food and splintered wooden crates poking out of the snow. He moved in slow and painful steps. The unhurried, accepting movements of a man who knew there was still a long, long way to go. He wore old, homemade, padded shoes, lined with tattered plastic bags, and hauled a large canvas rucksack, over which a few tattered pieces of tarpaulin had been tied with cheap plastic cord. A blue Mao cap was perched on his head and patchy stubble covered his face, like a neglected lawn that rarely sees sunlight.

In the biting cold, watching him made our toils for the last few hours seemed insignificant, an indulgence. I strode over, catching him up easily, and offered him some small, sweet local apples we’d been given further down the valley. The family we’d stayed the night with insisted we take them after we’d huddled around their wood burning fire, eating half burnt baked potatos cooked on the embers, that tasted just wonderful nonetheless. But to my surprise, he murmured a refusal, pointing with cold, clawed and exposed fingers to his yellowed and rotten teeth. I assumed he was trying to tell me his teeth were too soft for them, and watched him shuffle off again.

Up at the pass top, where the prayer flags beat a relentless rhythm into the wind, the views were spectacular. The recent storm had brought with it a thick, winter coat of snow. While Cara warmed herself around our Thermos of hot water, I tramped over to the ledge to take a photo; distant layers of snow-capped peaks beneath a darkening, inky sky, like waves in a choppy sea. Apart from a couple of Tibetans who’d stopped to give their motorbike a break and throw out a few coloured, paper prayers into the wind, we were all alone. Then we layered up with all our technical clothes – fleece hats, thick gloves, waterproofs tops – and began the descent, a long and looping ribbon of road that unravelled into the next valley, taking us into the tree line once more.

We’d covered a surprising distance by the time we saw him again. This time we pulled over and I pulled out a 10 Yuan note, offering it to him with both hands, following Chinese custom. Not a fortune, but enough to get a couple of bowls of warming noodles, or some provisions for the road. Again he refused, despite my repeated attempts. A slight bow of the head, a few mumbled words in Chinese, and he shuffled on.

Down at the base of the pass, we paused in a village to fill our bellies, then camped for the night. It was cold, and frost lined the inside of our tent when we awoke, showering us like dandruff when it contorted, like a restless sleeper in the wind. By morning, it was a silent black and white movie scene, quiet and still.

As we cycled into Xinduquo, we saw: a horseman galloping round a chorten covered with clay offerings – in the obligatory clockwise direction – taut and wrinkled pig skins hanging on a washing line like bedlinen, and a convoy of some two hundred army trucks returning from the Tibetan border, kicking up a swirl of choking dust. The pastry man cycled by on his trike, plying his wares with a small loudspeaker, his glass cased cabinet stacked up with sweet breads and sponges.

Then we spotted him one last time, his slow progress barely discernable as movement at all. Yet he must have covered at least 30km since the pass top, and I’m sure it was all by foot. Where had he slept? What had he eaten? He looked up as we passed and waved to him. He seemed to recognise us and our laden trailers, perhaps as kindred spirits in some way, but it was hard to tell. A small murmur, then his head was down again, back stooped under his load, shuffling on. I wondered what path he’d taken in life to reach where he was. A man atop a 4200m pass on the cusp of a Tibetan winter, surrounded by snow in every direction. Walking, walking, walking, shuffling ever onwards, turning down both food and money. A pilgrim? A vagabond? Crazed? Lonely? We were both travelling in our own way, yet the gulf between us seemed vast and incomprehensible.


5 Responses to “The Wanderer”

  1. 1 Simon November 17, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Sorry to hear that we won’t be seeing you before we head off. It sounds like the journey down to Laos will be preferable to the Tibetan plateau in ealry winter. Sarah and I have been busy building new websites and blogs for the trip. When they are done we’ll send through the URLs.

    Looks like I may get the 50mm 1.8 before the trip. Did you go for the 1.4 or the 1.8? Also toying with the 105mm 2.8 Macro VR for Orchids etc…

    Are you guys able to upload photos to Pbase? I have some good tips on website and blog building for easy updates from the field when we catch up next. Looking forward to seeing your photos and hearing your thoughts and plans for 2008. Sarah and I have been chatting with Rob about a trip in late autumn 2008…Japan top to tail? Can you think of something better?

    Keep safe…love to Cara…S

  2. 2 otbiking November 18, 2007 at 12:56 am

    Hi Simon,

    I went for the 1.8, as I spoke to Seb Rogers and he really recommended it. It wasn’t so much that it was cheaper – though it is a bargain – but I did read some reviews saying it might be sharper, at the expensive of build quality. You know you’ll want those orchids, so get that Macro! I’d advise briging along a good lense ‘ air blower’ – the one I had is shaped like a rocket, and is good to keep dust off the sensor and the lense itself, after you’ve changed lenses outside.

    As far as I know, I can upload pics to Pbase from here, as long as I can resize them so they don’t take up too much room. For all the hassles, I’d have loved to be carrying a laptop to run photoshop, or similar. Have been looking at Panasonic’s Toughbook inspired R series (then newest is the 6/7), which have a waterproof keyboard and a hardrive encased in gel, weighs less than 1kg, and battery life is up to 8 hours. Only grey imports are available though. Resizing pics here is a hassle, and besides, I can’t post them in China anyway )-:

    The 4gb Sandisk cards have had no problems at all. I’ve been taking compressed RAW, with low quality JPGS at the same time. The idea was to have the Raw files for home, and the JPEGS to resizing while we were away. Takes up a bit more room though.

    China in late autumn would work… This year was unusual, apparently, in that the rain hung around in oct and nov – usually, these are clear months. But there are hills…

    Which blog are you using?

    Enjoy the last preparations!


  3. 3 craigdurkee November 18, 2007 at 4:00 am

    great blog im def hooked

  4. 4 Mark from Canada November 18, 2007 at 5:46 am

    Hi Cass,

    I’ve been reading your blog, it sounds really interesting there. It would be interesting for you to go back in another 10 years to see how it has changed further.

    Not sure of my next tour, I am really leaning towards Bolivia, but as always I have a nagging feeling that I should explore my own backyard some more first.

    Regarding the lens blower, my D40X has a some dust on the sensor and I was wondering how I could get this off while touring. Then I thought it must be possible to hook up a small hose to your tire valve and blast it off that way.

    Sorry it took so long to resize the photos, I just did a few now and will send them over.

    Good luck and say hi to Cara,

  5. 5 otbiking November 18, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Thanks Craig (-:

    Mark, I’ve found that giving the sensor and mirror a blast of air fairly regularly seems to have kept most of the dust at bay – though I’ll know for sure when I check the pics at home… The one I have is surprisingly powerful. I turn the camera upside down, so hopefully most of the dust drops out, rather than just being blown around inside. Thanks for the pics. Will post them when I’m out of China!

    Bolivia should be great, though I think you’d love the variation in the trees on the Zhongdian-Litang road. We thought of you as we passed them all, wondering what they were.

    Have a look at this link:

    I have the Giottos Rocket. The ReAir sounds a bit like your bicycle pump idea.

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