As I sit here on the plane flying back home, it would be easy to feel a sense of failure at not having finished the trip by cycling into London, but instead I find myself reflecting on the last two years away and playing a movie of my own adventure in my head.
When I left the UK for New Zealand in September 2009, with our shiny touring bikes and pannier bags so new that they were stiff to fold, I had no idea how far I would get or what lay ahead. After the first few tough weeks, with New Zealand’s many hills and mountains, my fitness began to improve and I was spoilt by the spectacular scenery of the two islands. There were days where I was reduced to tears by the wind and the climbing, and others where the tears were joyful, emotional tears that you cry when you are overcome by the beauty of place like Lake Tekapo or the Rainbow Valley. As Chris said back then, beautiful places are often hard to get to. They are, but so rewarding too, as you stand there aware that many people may never have the chance to go there and see what you can, right at that moment.
Along the way there were many challenges and times where I wanted to give up. In Australia, the lack of research meant that cycling the east coast was a rollercoaster of hills, endlessly going up and down in the heat. In Malaysia the 45 degree heat and humidity was unbearable most of the time and I cycled with a pounding headache most days. In the Gobi, the strong, constant headwind facing us everyday, along with freak hail storms and 24 hour sand storms, meant that we cycled slowly across the monotonous empty desert and it will be a long time before I greet sand with a smile again.
Despite the hard times, I seem to have developed a skill for rose-tinting my memories, even immediately after the event. Chris will stand laughing and shaking his head when he hears me saying, “Ah it wasn’t that bad really”. I believe my strong sense of optimism and the ability to endure situations outside of my ‘normal habitat’ have kept me going all this time. Plus as my best friend would say, “you’re bloody stubborn’. I never saw myself as a stubborn person, but being on the road for such a long time gives you chance to really get to know yourself. And she is right, I am pretty stubborn. However, despite this mental strength and determination, we all have our limits.
I believe that the human body is amazing and we are capable of far more than we realise. The days where your legs ache and you feel that you need to stop, but you push on either through lack of choice or determination and find that you can go much further than you thought. Most of the battle is mental, mind over matter and all that. Being cold however, seems to sap that mental strength and whatever mind power you might have in milder conditions seems to melt away. Once the mental battle is lost then it’s hard to continue.
I will be sad not to cycle into London as the final destination and feel that sense of euphoria. But I have already experienced many moments like that during our trip… reaching Wanaka in NZ, the place where Chris and I met 5 years earlier, reaching Sydney having cycled all the way from Melbourne, reaching Penang to sail with Chris’s Dad, reaching Chiang Mai having cycled the length of Thailand and of course reaching Ulaan Bataar after the 680km through the Gobi. So I have much to be proud of already.
But it’s not just all about me, far from it. The joy of travelling across the world by bicycle is the people you meet along the way. In a world where our news media saturates the airways with tales of war and horror and cruelty, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good in the world. In every single country we have visited, we have experienced kindness beyond politeness, friendship from strangers, help in the most unlikely situations, waves and big smiles from the people who have the least (possessions) and the overwhelming feeling you are left with is: that people are good.
There are so many stories to tell, but the one I will share now would be in Java, Indonesia when we couldn’t find anywhere to camp, it was getting dark and after 90km we were flagging. That was the night that we were taken in by a whole village. The children sat cross-legged in a semi circle watching as Chris cooked up some rice and vegetables for us. The adults gathered around the children and some of the older ladies gave a running commentary. The man who had invited us in, said to me in a quiet voice “look even the little boys are watching him cook, this is better than TV!”. A priceless moment. The rice took ages to cook and Chris, feeling the pressure of cooking, what is Indonesia’s staple dish, Nasi Goreng, announced that this was in fact Nasi Ingris (the English version). This had everyone laughing and they seemed to get the joke, nodding their heads to show they understood. When Chris pulled out some rather tired, long green beans that had been sweating it out in our pannier bags, the women looked horrified, one came over and took them away, saying they were no good! The following morning as we packed up to go, the village came out the greet us and say goodbye and we were given bottles of water by the young lads. At the last moment, one of the ladies came over and presented Chris with some fresh green beans. It was such a lovely gesture and a memory that I will treasure forever.
Seeing the world by bike is slow, the pace matches that of the butterflies and birds, and as they flutter and swoop alongside you, there is time to take in everything around you. The earth is beautiful, for those hoping for paradise in heaven, I would say don’t rush for your heaven, you have a paradise right here, now. I’m not just talking about cliche waterfalls and orange sunsets, although they are beautiful, I mean the beauty of a colourful Chinese market, with all the fruits and vegetables you can imagine, or the delicate designs of the coral underwater, that somehow looks as if it were stenciled on by machine, or watching a pelican take flight, or the unspoilt mountains of Laos where all you can see is green and forest for as far as the horizon, in every direction, or children laughing and running and waving at you from a hillside, or watching a sea turtle have breakfast… this list is endless.
I feel privileged to have seen so much and am so humbled by this experience, and I hope I never take for granted what I have been lucky enough to see and do. I also hope I never stop reminding myself how lucky I am to be born in England. We have so much, not just material possessions or technology, but education, health, roads, schools, electricity, clean drinking water, hot water on tap, freedom… your children don’t have to walk 10km to school, or bleed to death because the hospital has no blood, or fetch drinking water from a river or well, or risk being jailed as a student for saying something bad about the government.
If you put those difficulties aside though, I think there is much we can and should learn from Asia and other cultures. Family and community play a huge part and it’s common to see 3 or 4 generations of families living side by side, helping each other. There were times when we couldn’t tell who a toddler belonged to, because he was so happy in the arms of everyone in the village. Children being given responsibility and helping their parents, as well as having the freedom to roam and play without fear. The child riders in Naadam in Mongolia, race for 30km on their horses at the young age of 9 or 10, every year. Leisure time is valued and people find time to play as much as work. As you travel through places like Thailand it’s easy with our western mindset to think that people are lazy because they are not visible working, yet they are happy and provide for their families and spend time doing a whole range of things as well as work. I’m not sure where the belief comes from that all humans must work 40 hours a week. Places like China have a strong sense of identity and culture and the people are very proud to be Chinese. They are also very happy to have visitors and keen to show you their wonderful country, we often felt like guests of honour as we cycled through China. People of Asia seem to be open, trusting, smiling and take responsibility for their own lives. They made us feel so welcome and so happy to be there, with masses of kindness, modesty and hospitality, coupled with an immense capacity for humour. We couldn’t help wondering if we are as welcoming and helpful to visitors to our own country. I think we will be now.
Finally I have learnt how to be part of team, to listen, be more patient and work together. I had something more wonderful and unique to help me than just stubbornness and optimism. I had a partner, team mate, best friend, shoulder to cry on, all round amazing bestest person to share this experience with. Chris. Thank you for sharing your dream with me, (and for putting up with the whinging and occasional crying). It’s amazing to share so much together and to have such an opportunity. Can’t help feeling that every couple should go on some kind of adventure together, you really really get to know one another and yourself in ways that day to day life doesn’t always allow you to.
The plane is coming in to land shortly so I will close and leave you with this. I read a tweet last week from someone who’d heard a girl at work say ‘Travel is such a waste of money, just think of all the shoes you could buy!”. All I have to say to that is, I wouldn’t swap my journey and experiences for all the shoes in China, and that’s a lot of shoes!