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Interview: Andy Keller and Evan Villarrubia

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Villarrubia (l) and Keller hit the 7,000 mile mark
Villarrubia (l) and Keller hit the 7,000 mile mark

On September 23rd of last year, Americans Andy Keller and Evan Villarrubia set out from Beijing on their mountain bikes on a mission to learn about China and its people by cycling around the country for one year. Since then, Keller and Villarrubia have been documenting their travels with photos, blog posts and tweets at the site Portrait of an LBX - LBX being an abbreviation of laobaixing (老百姓), the Chinese term for common person.

Nine months and nearly 11,000 km into their ride (a map of their entire trip can be viewed here), the two riders passed through Kunming before heading toward Guizhou, the Tibetan Plateau and then back to Beijing. We spoke with them about what they've learned during their travels:

GoKunming: How did the idea for this ride come about?

Andy Keller: We've always been interested in learning more about China. It got to the point though where we had each lived in this country for four years but didn't actually know much about it.

On a bike trip from Kunming to Lüchun in October 2008, we realized how much more we would learn if we actually traveled around the country and spent our time talking to people, and how much more fun it would be than sitting at our desks in our offices in Beijing and Shanghai. So we went back to our desks and started saving as much as possible with the goal of leaving our jobs for a year and traveling around China by bicycle.

GK: What have been some of your more challenging moments on the road?

AK: Physically, the combination of bad roads and mountains is about the toughest thing we run into. We bought bikes and tires that would be capable of going on just about any terrain, which is fortunate, because we've been through some rough stuff. The back-mountain, washed-out dirt roads in western Yunnan near the Burma border gave us some of our most challenging physical moments.

But there's a whole mental and psychological element to a year on the road that's a lot less cut-and-dry and therefore harder to cope with. Most people do this kind of long trip alone, because it's a very personal experience. It teaches you as much about yourself as it does about the land you pass through and the people you meet.

So even with two people, it can be difficult balancing personalities, goals and objectives and maintaining a good attitude about things for an entire year. That's probably more challenging than any physical aspect.

Evan Villarrubia: Rain and cold plagued us for months during the winter out on the east coast - weather that crushed the spirit before the muscles even had a chance to test the terrain. All that said though, it has gotten easier and easier as we go along. The real question is how challenging will it be to re-adapt ourselves to sedentary life after a year of nomadism.

GK: How many flat tires have you had since leaving Beijing?

AK: I've had one and Evan has had four. Evan has since switched out his tires, and with any luck we'll continue being fairly flat-free on our last three months back to Beijing.

GK: What's your most important piece of equipment?

AK: The bikes - the trip sure would be a lot longer if we were walking! Beyond the bikes I think the most important thing for me is the camera. Both Evan and I aspire to be better writers, but with all the incredible vistas and people we've seen on this trip, the camera is really a valuable tool that helps us share our discoveries in a way that words might not be capable of.

EV: There are of course tons of things we rely on heavily: the computer for writing, the maps and iPhone for navigation, the camping equipment, tea pot, etcetera. The one most innocuous little guy who has been a life saver was the 15 kuai handlebar compass given to me by a friend before a trip. It has saved our butts numerous times when we've gotten sidetracked and headed in exactly the wrong direction.

GK: What do you think about to keep going during difficult stretches on the road?

AK: All I ever think about is how much I'm going to enjoy my next meal!

EV: The difficulty of any given day is more in the head than in the legs. There have been short pushes over easy terrain that have killed when I've been in a bad mood.

In a good mood, and with a little music and the possibility of getting somewhere nice at the end, 150 kilometer days slide right past.

GK: What have been some of the culinary highlights of the last nine months?

AK: The home-cooked meals have been the highlight of the trip. Everything is fresher than anything we could get in Beijing or Shanghai. We get to eat pumpkin leaves fresh from the garden, flounder fresh from the stream, free-range chicken, wild mushrooms and all sorts of wild local greens.

People in the Chinese countryside still have a level of self-sufficiency that's refreshing just to be around and makes the food taste more authentic. One highlight was a spicy ginger flounder stew we had in a home on the edge of a village that had been flooded by a local mine — by far the best soup I've ever had in China. We've also gotten to try some unique fare, like mashed-up bee pupae and a squirrel stew, which we ate atop jungle-covered Bulang Mountain (布朗山), overlooking Burma in southern Yunnan.

EV: I never thought I'd say this before the trip, but I've concluded that Zhejiang has the finest overall cuisine of any province. During our month there, I fell in love with their delicate flavors, especially bamboo shoots, meigancai (霉干菜) and yellow wine (黄酒). Speaking of the rice wine, this country really drew the short straw in terms of its national alcohol baijiu, but Zhejiang's sweet rice wines, served warm after dinner, are number one in China.

GK: What makes riding in Yunnan different from other parts of China?

AK: Ever since we were first riding across the dusty, industrial northern China plain between Beijing and Shanghai, we've been fantasizing about how great the trip would be once we finally got to Yunnan. Everything back east is dusty, polluted and monochrome, and the people seem worn down just with the weight of life in such miserable environs. That's not to say we didn't enjoy things pre-Yunnan - there is some great scenery and culture in places like Zhejiang and Fujian as well.

But Yunnan is really unmatched for physical beauty, especially in the southern and western parts - big sky, clean water, endless mountains, jungle and something new to experience every day. The people are colorful and alive, and the diversity in the minority cultures is incredible to experience. And the food!

EV: Ditto again. Yunnan is the most visually stimulating province in China, for its natural vistas and the culture of all its minority cultures, which to a certain extent have even jazzed up the local Han. The mountains are quadriceps crushers, but they also prevent industrialization to a large extent, making for vast stretches of landscape changed only by the work of human hands. Some of the places we traveled in the south and southwest were as intricately carved and layered as the inside of a honeycomb.

Coming back to the minorities, they are the cherry on top of the beauty. Not only has it been great value for our linguistic buck to work ourselves into a dozen different cultures with just Mandarin Chinese, but the density of diversity has been mindblowing. We pedaled a day out of Bulang Mountain through villages of the Aini (僾尼族), up and over another set of mountains through Wa territory, and then a day later down into a valley full of Dai. Returning to minority-less China will be a drag!

GK: Are you ready for the Tibetan Plateau?

AK: We've been on the road now for nine months and more than 11,000 km, including the worst winter in 60 years, the drought of a century and a whole lot of bad roads. Physically, I think we're about ready for whatever the road feels like throwing at us.

Unfortunately, with only a year to devote to this adventure, we won't have the opportunity to actually make it into Tibet. We'll be traveling through the Tibetan parts of Sichuan and Qinghai though, and we'll be up on the Tibetan Plateau in those areas, which is something we're really looking forward to.

GK: What advice would you give to people in China who are considering quitting their jobs and cycling around the country?

AK: Stop considering and do it. Find out how much money you're going to need to do what you want to do, set a budget, stick to it for as long as you need to, and then go. Biking is probably the most personal way to see a place because you're constantly interacting with everything around you — the land, the air, the people, etc.

Evan and I were both fortunate enough to have good, well-paying jobs and we took our gear investment pretty seriously. But really, this sort of thing doesn't take a huge investment. We've come across a number of bikers with busted old Giant bikes who just strap a big backpack on with some bungee cords and cover it with a tarp.

The one thing I think you can't short-change yourself on is the language. Evan and I have both spent a lot of time and effort learning the Chinese language, which has allowed us to have a completely different - and I think much richer - experience than the average foreigners cycling around China. Take some time to learn the language, because the people out in the countryside who don't speak a lick of English have the most interesting stories to tell.

EV: Don't wait another second if you have the means to go now. There are, of course, a million ways to travel, but you never get to know a place unless you force yourself to physically experience its contours. Obviously you could do this the most easily by walking it, like Tang Seng from the Journey to the West or Xu Xiake or Werner Herzog's walk across Europe, but that might take you the better part of a lifetime. For experience hunters on a time budget and with a few bucks lying around to pick up a little equipment, biking is the best compromise.

GK: On your website you say that you are looking for beauty throughout China, what are some of the most beautiful things you've encountered on this trip?

AK: Beauty has certainly been less abundant than we had hoped, physically or otherwise. Not everyday has been full of breathtaking scenery and inspiring people, but that's why we're doing this for a year.

Yunnan has by far had the most breathtaking vistas - the terraced rice paddies of Yuanyang, the jungles around Bulang Mountain, the Nu River canyon outside of Baoshan. Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian are also full of great bike rides and mountains to be explored, and I'll never forget the alien-looking, karst landscape of western Guangxi. And we've found beautiful people who, despite all the crazy challenges of life in China, are grabbing life by the horns and making the best out of it with the limited resources available to them.

Images: Portrait of an LBX website and Flickr photostream

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