From Ecuador to Patagonia to USA to China….and from Mr. to Dr. Alexiades!

The last several months have been an absolute whirlwind; my head is reeling from all the travel, work, and cycling on three different continents. Before leaving Ecuador I took a trip to Chile to visit friends and do explore a potential bikepacking route through the Lakes Region of Patagonia. I then came back to Ecuador for a bit and headed back to Tennessee to visit my folks, then drove up to New York to defend my PhD dissertation and sell my house-both of which were successful within 2 days of each other. The day after my defense I drove from Ithaca to NYC to meet the whole family, minus one sister, to celebrate the successful defense and my move to China. Two days later I was on a plane to Changsha, China where I taught Environmental Microbiology for month in June. So many experiences in such a short time, each so markedly different. I don’t know how I packed it all in…and I am still going, nonstop! At this point, I will be excited to just stay in one place for a bit and have a home. I am struggling to make sense of all these eventsand get my thoughts down, but at least I have some photo documentation of some of it where words are lacking…

My last month in Ecuador was crazy awesome as always. After some excellent bikepacking trips in the Sierra, I traveled down to Chile to visit my old friends from the Arica days. Unsurprisingly, Nico was ready with an action packed trip for me in the Central Valley region, and I also squeezed in a bikepacking trip down in the Araucania Region of Patagonia while I was there. As soon as I arrived we went straight to a carrete with a bathtub full of Heineken, partied til late, then went straight to Chacabuco for some sport climbing the next morning.

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After climbing, Nico saw me off to Patagonia in style with a couple Chilean cervezas!

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I took an overnight bus to Curacautin, near Parque Nacional Conguillio where I would begin my 250km bikepacking trip across backroads and trails in the Patagonian Andes to finish in Pucon on the banks of the stunning Lago Villarica. The scenery was beautiful, passing through lava fields, Araucania forests changing into Fall colors, small Maupuche villages, and glaciated volcanoes. Unfortunately, low clouds kept the high mountains from view most of the time. The trip went remarkably fast-I had planned on 4 days, but finished in 2 because the dirt roads where in good shape and the climbs were tame by Ecuador standards. Overall, it was a rather peaceful backcountry bikepack stroll through a beautiful area, but it couldn’t compete with the world-class bikepacking routes we’d been doing in Ecuador.

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After the Patagonia trip, I came back to Santiago and explored the singletrack in the Metro area. Found some awesome trails right in the city!

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That weekend, Nico, some of his friends, and I went on a high mountain trek up to a glacier to check out some potential routes on a 6000m peak they are planning to climb this December.

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After climbing up to the glacier, we headed back to Santiago, and had one last party before I flew back to Quito for my last few weeks in Ecuador. I took full advantage of those last few weeks with night race down into the Pululahua Crater and back up

A hike-a-bike up to Rucu Pichincha via Las Antenas (brutal!) followed by an amazing 7000′ descent on a downhill track.

And an awesome 90km, 3000m (10000ft) ascent farewell bike ride with my good friends Daniel Martin and Rodrigo Sanchez on an old endurance course called Vuelta a Nono. Great views

great friends, and even an Andean condor or two thrown in for good measure.

After several farewell gatherings and shorter, less epic rides, I reluctantly packed up my stuff and flew back to the USA. Despite going through a divorce during my time in Ecuador, it was  a truly unforgettable experience. I will never forget the great friends I made there, the magical landscapes and cultures, my research, and of course the epic backcountry bike rides and races I undertook all over the country. Ecuador, like Chile, now holds a special place in my heart and psyche. I can’t wait to get back.

Apparently fate didn’t want me to leave Ecuador as my flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems so I ended up having to spend the night at La Mariscal Airport in Quito.

I flew into Knoxville TN and spent a pleasant week with my parents before driving up to Ithaca, NY to defend my PhD at Cornell University. It was an insane week and I ended up sleeping on the floor of my office each night I was there, but at the end of the week I successfully defended, and left town early the next morning as Dr. A Alexiades (not to be confused with Dr. V Alexiades, my dad who is also a PhD). Although I made some nice friends in Ithaca and the PhD experience was invaluable at Cornell, I never really felt at home there and was glad to be moving on.

I had to start work in Changsha China just a few days after my defense (what was I thinking taking on so much!!) so I drove down to Jersey City to meet up with most of my family (minus one sister) and celebrate the successful (though admittedly painful) defense and completion of my PhD. I still didn’t feel like I was finished since I had some revisions to do on the dissertation, but it was great to see my family again before moving to China.

After a couple days of respite in the city, I flew to Changsha via La Guardia-Detroit-Shanghai-Changsha. It was a brutally long and uncomfortable flight full of delays, lines, and the typical headaches of flying with a bike. My feet swelled up so much on the 15 hour Detroit-Shanghai leg of the trip that I couldn’t put on my shoes when we landed. I arrived in Changsha in the middle of the night, but fortunately Mr. Xiong (aka Bear) was there to pick me up as I would’ve never found my way to the University on my own.

A couple days later I started teaching two sections of Environmental Microbiology to 60 sophomore Env. Sci. majors at the Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha, capital city of the Hunan Province. The English language ability of my students ranged from reasonably competent to non-existent, but fortunately their knowledge of Microbiology was well beyond that of a senior microbiology major in the USA, so the course ended up being mostly an english language class. I did notice that my students had an exceptional ability to memorize facts, but really struggled with more complex tasks and critical thinking. I was also really surprised by the immaturity displayed in the classroom. I think this was due to the interactive learning style I used-they simply aren’t used to working in groups and completing tasks and activities in class, so rather than focus on the task at hand, they assumed it was playtime. I was definitely not expecting to have to be a disciplinarian in a university class.

Over the past 12 years I’ve traveled to 50+ countries and lived in 8 countries, but I still experiences culture shock in China. Everything is strangely familiar, yet strikingly different than western countries. Changsha is a city of 15+ million people so it has all the commercialism and hustle and bustle of major metropolitan area, but the food, customs, language, air pollution, and population density were like nothing I remotely imagined. In many ways, Changsha made NYC feel like a sleepy country village.

It took me a while to get used to the staring and gawking, but after a while you just stop noticing it. Still, I often felt like a caged monkey there for the amusement of passersby. My students were lovely though-very hard working and generous. For my first week, they took me out nearly every night and wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.

During my month in Changsha, I was super busy with work, but still trained as much as possible. Unfortunately due to the air pollution and oppressive heat and humidity (temperatures ranged from high 90’s to low 100’s and the region is more humid than Florida or Louisiana!) often made it difficult/unpleasant/unhealthy to train outside. I ended up paying top dollar for a gym membership that filtered the indoor air and had spin classes. The spin classes in China are hilarious and brutal. They don’t use AC or fans and the rooms are small so a fog of human sweat quickly envelops the room. I wish I had filmed one of these classes. The music was some ultra poppy electronica that the whole class dances along to in unison, all the while spinning hard on their bikes. The temperature was probably over 100 and everyone has a huge puddle of sweat at the base of their bikes. I always felt like I was going to pass out by the end of them, more from the heat and humidity than exertion. Good fun!

There were many days that were supposed to be “sunny” but the smog was so thick it looked like a cloudy day. It was the odd day that the sun broke through the pollution and blue sky was even rarer. That said, I met some really nice mountain bikers (one of the guys races for Giant China) that showed me some really nice local trails. None of them spoke  a word of english and my chinese was so bad they couldn’t understand me, but somehow we managed.

The best riding in Changsha China, should you ever find yourself there, is on Yue Lu mountain just west of the Xianjiang River and quite close to the heart of the massive metropolis. There is actually some killer singletrack if you happen to have a dry day with little smog. Most of the riders are heavy smokers and pretty slow, but the two racers I rode with were absolute hammerheads, especially on climbs, and kamikaze warriors on the descents. Though friendly, I think we were semi-racing each other for the pride of our country’s and sponsors as we were all beaten and bloodied by the end of the 115 degrees F day.

After a month of teaching, culture shock, constant sweating, and training  hard both indoors and out, I submitted my course grades and packed up for a 3 week bikepacking trip across the Garze region of Tibet. I hope to post a write up of that trip soon.

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