4000km. 100 days. 0 companions. Along with exhilaration at my task ahead, at the start of my journey, I distinctly remember a flash of fear, thinking, “What the hell am I doing?”
Coming to the end of a 100-day journey across mainland China, cycling from the edge of the Gobi desert in the north to the palm-tree lined coast of the south, I have time to reflect on the things that have made this past three months both the most rewarding, and the most challenging, time of my life. There were moments of complete euphoria, but also moments of fear, crushing defeat and despair.
So what were the highs and lows of cycling 4000km alone?
HIGH: THE VIEWS
One of the reasons I love cycling so much is that it’s exploratory. You can’t take high speed roads, which means rather than tunnels blasted through the centre of a mountain or long, straight motorways, you’re on the older back roads that twist over time-worn paths over the mountains and through farmland and villages.
There were moments that literally took my breath away: an endless sea of desert sands and thousands of white wind turbines in Gansu; huge, misty mountains and roads with apocalyptic holes ripped in them by landslides in Sichuan; mountain-framed fields full of flowers, horses and yaks in Qinghai; waking up in my tent to a pink sunrise over a millpond-still river in Guangxi. I will never forget these moments.
LOW: CAMPING IN SH*TTY WEATHER
Cycling through remote places means that sometimes (about half the time), the sun would start to set without a human residence anywhere in sight. If it’s warm, camping is a pleasure, but rain, wind and the cold dampness of the clouds at high altitudes can make for extremely unpleasant sleeping conditions. Anything below about 5 degrees would lead to interrupted sleep, and exhaustion and irritability the next day.
HIGH: UNIQUE, REMOTE DISCOVERIES
As well as the views, the back roads that cycle touring forces you to take means that you cannot help but get a truly authentic experience of an area, tasting its food and talking to its people as you meander through it.
In Chongqing, I didn’t just see the enormous megacity; I cycled through its surrounding hills and villages, rolling under unremarkable yet beautiful stone aqueducts, and through villages where everyone seemed to be farming fat brown ducks. In Guizhou, I didn’t just see its famously beautiful misshapen mountains and startling blue rivers; I saw the poorly kept mountain roads, isolated villages in bamboo forests and abandoned holiday villas. In Qinghai, as well as the famous lake and its horses, I saw local people sawing into huge chunks of rock to remove pieces of jade, with the snowy peaks of the Tibetan plateau rising into the sky behind them. I would never have seen these precious things had I followed a guidebook list of destinations to these provinces.
LOW: FEELING VERY DIFFERENT
The downside to all this remoteness is that I would be stared at almost everywhere I went. I expected it from children, but even adults would shout in disbelief and point me out to their friends, in a way that was not malicious but still made me feel like a freak. Humans are deeply psychologically wired to care about social acceptance, and it was amazing the unpleasant affect that this pointing and staring had on me, even when I knew it was a temporary and expected reaction of people unused to white-skinned strangers. In a group, it would have been easier to bear; alone, it was hard.
HIGH: EXTREMELY SIMPLE LIVING
Off grid and away from the rat race, there is a detoxifying simplicity to a life with no alarms, no appointments to keep and no concrete route to follow.
My entire existence revolved around where I was going to sleep, what I was going to eat and what I could see around me. It felt primitive, but in a good way, as if all the unnecessary things in life had been stripped away, leaving only my core needs of safety, warmth, and food. With these, I felt rich, and it was an exercise in the meaning of gratitude.
LOW: FEELING UNKEMPT
With only two bags to hold the entirety of my belongings, and one of those completely occupied by the “outdoor things” (tent, sleeping bag, stove and bike tools), I had a very limited wardrobe, consisting essentially of a cycling onesie, two shirts, and two light pairs of leggings. I washed things less than I would have liked, and my hair and skin were battered by constant exposure to sun, wind and rain. This was a necessary sacrifice, but it was not a pleasant way to be.
HIGH: THE ACHIEVEMENT
There was a huge feeling of achievement seeing my total miles rack up, with long distance days getting easier and easier as I went. I felt fit and healthy, and I was impressed with the endurance of my legs, which after a few weeks stopped even aching after a 80 or 100km day.
I had to be careful, however; I found that too many days back to back on the road would lead to a collapse, when all my muscles would suddenly feel dog-tired and easily get sick. Often, this was accompanied by an unpleasant, brittle emotional state – I would snap at strangers, my mind full of negativity. A day or two of rest was usually enough to solve the problem, but towards the end of my journey, every day was a struggle.
HIGH: COMPLETE INDEPENDENCE
Cycle touring alone means that you don’t have to worry about where you go, how fast you go, or what you do when you get there. Your route and schedule are completely up to you. If you like a place, you can stay for longer; if you don’t, you can move on ASAP. I could plan my trip around the type of hotels I liked, and around which cities had decent boxing gyms; I could scrap the tourist attractions I so hated. Having complete control over my schedule for three whole months was sublime.
This was probably the biggest challenge of the journey. Although I’m happy in my own company,100 days was a long time to spend alone. I had no-one to share amazing vistas with; nobody’s presence to shield me from the relentless stares and whispers; nobody to encourage me when I felt weak. This was part of the reason I had done this journey, though, as a way of proving my own grit to myself. I had been lonely, but now I had ammunition against future self-doubts.
I had done this, so I could do anything.
It’s been 100 days that I will never forget.