Long Treks China – Skateboarding Through Tibet (Xining to Chengdu)
Words, photos and videos by Adam Colton
My name is Adam Richard Colton and on August 30th, 2012 I set out on a solo self-supported journey to see what the outskirts of Tibet had to offer. I did not speak any Mandarin, I did not speak Tibetan but I am an expert at facial expressions and hand signals. Below is a bit of a recap of the trip. And videos after the jump. --Ed.
[Above: Skating at 15,000' and stoked, just over the big pass.]
I hit the ground running after a 25-hour flight from LAX to XINING, CHINA, elevation 7,000 feet. I felt like a wreck (hahah) and I knew this was going to be a hard trip. It was like waking up from a horrible sleep and rushing outside to run a marathon with no training or warm up. First day, right off the plane, I started skating. I was already being bombarded by big trucks, nasty smoke, and mountains to climb. Towards the end of the day I was so exhausted, I found shelter from all the stares and people in a gutter on the side of the road. When you are tired, gutters are comfortable.
Taking a rest in the gutter, hmmm tis nice.
[Skate CHINA (Qinghai, Xining - Sichuan, Chengdu) - Episode 1.]
Night came and my confidence was shot down again. BOY it was cold. Why
was I such an idiot and knowingly forgot my sleeping pad? I put all my clothes
on every night. I could only sleep on my side and stomach to preserve as
much body heat as possible; sleeping on my back was too cold. To be
semi-clever I took all my extra dry bags, pouches, and any material I
had, and put that beneath me, perhaps providing some warmth or mental
comfort at least.
I woke up each morning to a frozen icicle tent. Waiting for a frozen tent to thaw out takes too long so packing it up each morning was a ritual my hands did not look forward to. Then it took strategic planning throughout the day to dry the tent before nightfall.
As I made my way further and further into the mountains, I became very irritated with the constant honking of horns. It is a different way of road manners here. When you pass someone on the road, such as a skater, you honk at them. You must honk to let them know you are there, it is programmed in them. Perhaps it is because people drive so crazy and impatiently that if they did not honk people would get run over all the time. Some days the honking was worse. You would have someone blaring the horn as they passed you, making you think, oh boy this guy is angry, yet to look up and have him smiling and waving at you as he drives by, killing your hearing. A semi-truck horn right in your ear is enough to make you want to fight, especially if in a bad mood.
With all the honking and distractions, I could not get into a good head space. For me, the key to distance skating is not realizing you’re distance skating -- go figure. It helps to not be aware that you are pushing a not-so-efficient plank of wood, at walking speed, with a backpack on, up a very large mountain, with cars buzzing close to you. Why not be distracted with more lovely thoughts such as your girlfriend, why you were such a crazy person in high school, or dreaming about some made-up family and how you would raise kids?
Problem was, daydreaming for a long period of time did not happen because I was always struck out of it by a horn blaring in my ear. Then anger set in for a bit. Then, Adam, calm down get into the zone again, which led to another horn blaring in my ear (hahah). It was a cycle that, looking back, made me wonder why I did not go completely insane... or perhaps I did?
If I did get a break from the horns it made no difference because, with my luck, the trip occurred during a time when they decided to build a new road next to the entire length of the Route 214 I was traveling on. As you can imagine, I was quite the wonder to the construction workers as they looked up to see some crazy white guy with a bright purple coat go sliding by on some weird moving object. Naturally, the outspoken ones whistled and yelled at me, wanting me to stop. And sometimes I actually did, especially if I had a question which I usually could not understand the answer to anyway (hahah). In my video series, I did not include the construction and trucks for the most part; I filmed the nice parts that I want to remember.
[Skate CHINA (Qinghai, Xining - Sichuan, Chengdu) - Episode 2]
Most of the trip was at high elevation, some of the highest I have
ever skated. The Andes in South America gave me a taste of
what high elevation is like but China was on another level. In China there
were too many 14,000-foot passes to count; they were relentless, one after
the other they kept coming. Still, the hardest pass I have ever
pushed over was in Peru. Paul, Aaron and I skated 79 miles from sea
level to 14,100 feet through rain and dense fog. That pass took us four
days I believe.
In China, my highest pass, and the highest I have ever skated, was 15,800 feet. This is cool because it is higher than Mt. Whitney (14,505'), the highest in the contiguous United States. I lucked out a bit because most of the 15,000-foot pass was an unskateable construction site, so I got to hitch a ride for most of it. But when the pavement turned good, I got out and I skated the beast. Yeah, you feel the altitude alright. Work is hard and you feel it in your breathing. Secret is to pace yourself, slow and steady. Nice easy breathing and you get it done.
I envisioned the other side being the gnarliest and longest downhill of my life. Well, that was not the case. I dropped a thousand feet or so and stayed at 14,000-plus feet for pretty much a week. I like skating over mountain passes but China (haha) that terrain needs to give you a break.
While amidst all the road chaos and construction, I still had a sense of being very alone. The kind of alone and helpless feeling that made me wonder: if I got seriously hurt, how would I get treated and where would I be taken? If I was to become very ill, where would I go to get out of the cold and seek warm comfort? There was no communication between me and the people. Half the time people did not even speak Chinese; it was a Tibetan tongue. I really was a strange drifting creature pushing my way through their world. I was kind of in luck’s hands. At least I had my spot tracker. If I was dying I could hit the red button and get rescued by a helicopter, so they say. But would that work in China? The idea seemed nice.
Everything from interacting with people in the stores to buying a selected
amount of junk food to saying hi to kids that ran at me with rashes
from the harsh cold on their faces, from knocking on someone’s door and
having them open the door cold and dirty, blood on their hands
and on the floor from meat bits with fur being torn and cut apart, to eating
pretty much the same Chinese broccoli and noddle soup for three weeks
straight, it really made me like the idea of the sushi place down the
street from me in LA and the Lemonade restaurant with over 15 different
kinds of healthy tasty dishes, sweet potato pistachio, arugula and blue
But it also made me realize a lot more. We have so much potential and options here in the USA. For most of us, we can pick and choose to rough it and survive in the wilderness on a camping trip, get cold, and then come back home to a warm place. I can go on the Internet and arrange a whole trip, flight, and accommodations in a far off place like France. I have mountain biking trails at my disposal all around me. Even though we live in a very complex time with lots of gadgets and distractions, we can still pick and choose our way through it all. I was here in China roughing it with the people surviving in their harsh environment but the whole time I had the option of leaving; I was going to leave. The families I saw in China did not have this option really. This was their life and it was fine and they were happy, working together as a family unit surviving, but I feel very fortunate to have a life with so many options and opportunities.
Out of all my distance trips this one was the shortest, coming in at three
weeks. But let me tell you, my three-week ordeal felt like six. Time is doubly slow when distance traveling for me. Time is
dependent on the event and how fast or slow you perceive it going. When
distance skating, it is typical for the first two weeks to feel like a
month. Sooo slow. Everything is new, your senses are heightened, you are
overly stimulated and nothing is smooth-going yet. You are still a bit
too clean, not enough dirt on your clothes, or dirt under your
fingernails. There is no Internet to distract you, no zoning out in front of the TV. All you have is
the environment and your thoughts and loads and loads of
time. Sure, daydreams take you out and away from the trip, a bit, but you
can’t daydream the whole time and even they
With time, usually around 1.5 to 2 weeks, something changes. You become a bit more numb. You are not overly excited. Everything is a bit like old news. You have your routine down of setting up camp, packing up, and heading off. The different ways people do things, that once puzzled you, are not so strange anymore. You have snot on your shirt sleeve, you smell sour, your gear is thrashed and the skin is peeling off your nose. From the clean off-the-plane California boy, you are now something of an animal in the environment, a wild scary looking traveler (hahaha).
Over time you become more connected to the environment. In fact, you are wearing the environment. You move through things more like a dream and more relaxed and loose. Soon a month goes by and time keeps going faster and faster. Soon you start to get this craving to actually be home, the place you wanted to escape from in the first place. The idea of doing nothing excites you. No joke. Just sitting and being in comfort seems like the best thing after being tired and cold for so long. It is amazing to see this transformation. And for me it is quiet satisfying to come home with a deeper respect for comfort. But such is life: memories and activities fill the mind and soon you forget how good and comfortable you really have it.
It has been three months now since I returned home. The mindset I had when
I was done with the trip was, screw the skating I am over it for now, time to take it easy. That has faded and the romantic daydreams of another trip are slowly brewing. Funny how that works. I am
sure if I could be transported back to all the sucky times, reliving all the exhausted, helpless, cold moments, I
would be less inclined to go out and do another trip. But as with life
so many things happen and memories get faded and fuzzed over by new ones.
Life can be so drastic in a flash, and I knew this. Every time I had it really sucky in China, I just laughed to myself because I knew that in three weeks I was going to be lying in a warm bed cuddled next to my girlfriend and this bad moment would be something to shrug off and laugh about.
This video series that I filmed will act as a way for me to remember, and possibly inspire you all, because inspiration is a cycle for everyone. I get inspired by all of you to go out and do something and in return I post a video and share my trip which hopefully inspires others to do something they will share and in return will inspire others -- a never ending cycle of awesomeness.
[Skate CHINA (Qinghai, Xining - Sichuan, Chengdu) - Episode 3]
Thanks for listening to my rambling. As you know, these are just
thoughts. Thoughts change and are hard to express in words. If you
really want to know what a distance trip is like, you are going to have
to go out and see for yourself. Words are just words, actions and being
there on a trip is the true testament.
Stoked to be rocking Patagonia clothes on yet another adventure. I first wore the Merino 1 Silkweight Crew when I was a part of a crew pushing 2,500 km across Morocco on skateboards. I was just so impressed with how darn light the shirt was. I rocked a pair of Patagonia board shorts for a month straight during a 1,200-mile paddleboard trip down the Murray River is Australia.
So when I decided in 2012 it was time to slog a piece of wood with wheels through the Himalayas, I took with me, yet again, the Patagonia Merino 1 Silkweight Crew. It not only breathes well and keeps me comfortable, the long sleeves act as sun protection for my arms and as a barrier to keep me cleaner since showers are hard to come by. I rocked this shirt for three weeks, some 800 miles, every day with a full load of gear. It kept me comfortable the entire time and was always the first thing to dry when washed. It worked well as a baselayer paired with my Montbell and Arc'teryx Jacket. China was cold. Thanks again Patagonia for the support and making rad products.
Adam Colton is the marketing monster, video man, photographer, tester of awesome things, ninja, eyebrow waxer, and suitcase lifter for Loaded Boards. His newest hobby is speed flying.