This post has been a long time coming. It’s a post I (Jo) hoped I would never have to write, a post that I felt I needed to write, but one that took a month to start writing. Two months since that all happened, it’s done. It’s not going to be easy reading, but I’ve been thinking about it for so long I’m hoping it will help me to put our return home into hard-to-find words. Many people reading will know this already. Two days after crossing into Southern China, we received the worst type of news – news which meant the immediate end of the trip. My dad had died. We were no longer on a cycling adventure – we had to get home.
When embarking on a long trip, you know that there is a (hopefully tiny) chance that someone you say goodbye to may not be there on your return. It’s a risk that you take, not lightly, but one that you weigh up as being incredibly small. After five months in Europe, we returned to the UK from Spain for a few weeks in March/April 2016 before flying to Boston. I spent some time with my dad during these weeks, including his birthday, and last saw him on the 6th April 2016 when I waved him goodbye. After over a year back on the road we crossed the Laos border into China. Less than 48 hours later, on the 19th April 2017, we woke up with the sun in a cheap hotel room to a couple of messages from the UK asking whether we were up. It was after 11pm at home, and I immediately felt that something wasn’t quite right. I replied and my phone started ringing straight away. As soon as I answered it, that feeling grew and I started to shiver. My sister was on the other end, talking through tears. “I’m so sorry. It’s dad. I’m so sorry.” Nothing else needed to be said. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I’ll never forget those words as long as I live, and I feel sick recalling them. The rest of the conversation is a blur. From that moment, in just one sentence, everything changed.
A day that had started the same as any other on the road quickly became the start of something else – the “how quickly can we get home from this tiny Chinese town” challenge. A quick internet search showed that there were flights back to England from Kunming, 600kms north, on Friday. It was Wednesday morning. We couldn’t book anything as we had no idea how long it would take to get us and our bikes there. We weren’t on a train line. The day before we had been in a large town with a bus station, but now we were in a much smaller town that seemed to all be under construction – the main road was a muddy mess with rubble everywhere and we hadn’t seen any signs for a bus station. While I tried to digest the news and spoke to home some more, Debs set out with some (probably very badly) translated phrases on the iPad on a quest to find us a bus to Kunming.
Half an hour later she returned, covered in mud. She had wandered the streets showing people the phrase “where is the bus to Kunming” with no idea as to whether one even existed. Nobody spoke English and people kept pointing her to a phone number. Not much use when you can’t speak Mandarin and haven’t been able to buy a SIM card as a foreigner. Finally somebody walked her to what looked like an abandoned car park where a woman was sat at a plastic table next to a poster with a bus on it. Between them they established (probably) that there wasn’t a bus to Kunming until midnight, but (probably) that there was a bus to a city about halfway at 9.40am. It was now 9am and I hadn’t managed to do anything in the room except sit on the bed so we shoved everything into the panniers as quickly as possible, carried the bikes and stuff down several flights of stairs (standard morning practice) and ploughed our way through the mud and the beeping traffic back to the lady at the desk. We were there just before 9.40 but the lady had disappeared and there was no sign of a bus. The “road” was jammed with traffic trying to crawl through the construction work and every time two vehicles larger than a car wanted to pass each other there was a huge hold up. We weren’t convinced that a bus could even get down the road, and wondered about the possibility of catching a bus on the highway itself. There was nobody who could help us and we had no way of finding any useful information. All we could do was hang around and cross our fingers. We decided we would get on any bus going North, if nothing else we would hopefully get to a bigger town with an actual bus station (and actual buses).
What seemed like an hour later but was actually 20 minutes, we saw a bus approaching. Yesss, we might actually be able to get out of this town! As the driver approached our outstretched arms he looked at us, looked at the bikes, shook his head and drove past. My heart sank. The bus was completely full. But as the saying goes, there was another bus right behind. This time with only a few passengers, so I ran out without the bikes and pretty much blocked its path so the bus driver had to stop. He said he was going to Jinghong, only a few hours away but it looked pretty big on the map so seemed a good bet. Not that we really cared, it was going in the right direction so we went to grab the bikes. He looked at them with a mixture of surprise and disdain but opened the luggage hatch anyway and helped us get the bikes and the panniers in. Mostly by brute force, but this wasn’t the time to be worrying about the bikes.
Once on the bus, the initial relief at finally beginning the journey back home soon gave way to overwhelming sadness. I thought about my dad, tried to remember the last time I spoke to him, what he said, what I said, how when I last spoke to him on the phone I told him we were planning on being back in a few months he started crying and said he couldn’t wait. I looked at my phone to the last text he sent me, just a few days before on Easter Sunday, to wish me happy Easter, finishing with “love you loads – take care xxx”. I’d written a reply but it wouldn’t send as I was out of credit. I stared at the screen through my tears, my unsent reply telling him I loved him too and the red “failed” underneath haunting me. I beat myself up about not just texting him from Debs’ phone, or topping up before we got to China, or not sending texts because they cost 50p each. I could have made him smile one last time, but I’d “failed”. My phone told me so.
The four days it took to get home were probably the hardest I’ve ever had. In some ways they passed in a blur, but in others they dragged and dragged. We had spent the past couple of weeks planning our route home, and we were only going to ride a few more days before catching a bus to Kunming. We’d then spend the next month travelling by train – crossing China to Beijing, sort out a Russian visa and then to Moscow and on to St Petersburg where we would travel by boat to Helsinki. From there we could ride home, achieving our dream of travelling overland from Malaysia to England to finish off our round-the-world trip. The riding had become tiring and we were ready for a break, so were really looking forward to a month of train travel and being normal tourists. We were going to visit the panda base in Chengdu, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an and the Great Wall from Beijing. I’d spend my birthday on the train to Russia. We’d have a couple of days to explore Moscow. The night before had been spent planning the trains. It was hard to get our heads round how 12 hours later this was all gone and we would be home in a matter of days. Obviously I was struggling to deal with the fact that I would never see my dad again, and this was the hardest thing, but having our dream taken away at the same time just compounded the sadness further. Once home, this faded more into the background, but whilst on that four-day journey, it was raw. We were still in it, still on the trip that we had spent 3 years planning and saving for, and 18 months doing. We were still making our way home, but in a very different way to that plan. It’s hard to explain – I’m sure anybody reading this thinks “but it’s only a trip, things like this put it into perspective” – and that’s true, of course, but on that bus in China it was hard to step outside of what was happening and see that.
Three hair-raising hours later (driving in China leaves a lot to be desired) we pulled into Jinghong bus station and with the symbols for Kunming on our phone screen, set about finding the right bus. From the timetable it looked like one left at 2pm but at the ticket desk we were only offered 6.30pm, an overnight trip that we were keen to avoid as they were sleeper buses (with bed bunks not seats, surely sickness-inducing) and having seen the standard of driving, seemed the least safe option. I wandered back out to the row of buses with my symbols to try and find one that looked like it might be leaving for Kunming, when I heard a voice saying “do you need some help?” Amazingly I had found (probably) the only person in Jinghong with enough English to help us – a lady in a headscarf hanging out at a food cart outside the station. I don’t know why she thought I needed help… but I grasped onto her and blurted out that we needed to catch a bus to Kunming, with bikes, as soon as possible. With her help we established that the 2pm bus was full so the overnight bus was our only option if we didn’t want to wait until the next day. Reluctantly we bought the tickets – at least we’d arrive first thing Thursday morning giving us a full day and half to sort out boxing the bikes and getting to the airport.
Unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me I hadn’t lost my appetite so we had our usual Chinese lunch of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, rice and some unidentifiable sloppy green vegetable perched on a small stool along with middle aged men staring at us, smoking and spitting. We hadn’t quite got used to the Chinese eating etiquette. Finding food in China is easy – finding wifi is less so. Without a SIM card we couldn’t use mobile data, and without a Chinese mobile number we couldn’t use wifi in the usual failsafe places like McDonalds or Starbucks. We wandered around until we found a hotel, and asked whether we could have a room for a few hours. (Cheap hotels in this part of the world usually have an hourly rate – probably not for people to use the internet. Well, not for booking flights anyway….) With a bit of miming and pointing we were given the wifi code and told to sit in the lobby. Which we did for a few hours. I’ve seen films and TV programmes where people rock up to an airport and get on the next flight, but it soon became clear that there is a bit of artistic licence involved in this. Skyscanner has a lot to answer for – what look like good flight options ended up having at least 3 stops, 17+ hour waits for connections, self-transfers, multiple airlines or just didn’t have seats once you clicked through to try and book. Throw in the complication of travelling with bikes as extra oversize luggage and we struggled to find anything leaving Kunming in the next few days.
Finally it looked like we found a flight with only one short connection (in Beijing) to Manchester (closer to home than London) for a mere £1500 each before the extra bike charge. Ouch. We booked but made the mistake of informing the agent about the bikes in the ‘special request’ box. Do not ever do this. The agent wouldn’t book the flight without the exact dimensions of the bike boxes. That’s right, the bike boxes we were yet to obtain. Debs sent an email explaining that we knew the luggage size restrictions for the airline (at this point she could recite the bike rules for all airlines flying out of Kunming) and would obey them but that was not enough. It’s time to board the night bus, so by good old SMS we explained the problem to Team HQ UK and they took over to cancel the bikes but confirm the seats.
Back at the bus station, as we waited with our bikes we gained quite a crowd wondering how the strange white people were going to get these huge heavy things on. There is no concept of personal space in China. The driver turned up and said we couldn’t take the bikes, so we just took the front wheels and all the bags off (luckily we knew the drill from the morning journey) and proceeded to put the bikes in the luggage compartment ourselves. We were getting on that bus and we were taking the bikes with us. Debs played her best “angry white woman” as the crowd got bigger, the men got closer and the driver started pulling the bikes around, putting her hand practically in his face to stop him. There was a dog in a cage under the bus so we didn’t think the bikes were much of a problem. The driver insisted on money, we didn’t think that we had to pay but we just wanted him to leave us alone so I gave him 100 yen (about £12) for both bikes and we pushed through our crowd of onlookers to get on the bus .
The 13-hour trip passed slowly. It was possible to sit up on the bunks but not particularly comfortably, so I mostly laid back and thought about how shit this all was. It went dark pretty soon after we left so there was no scenery to enjoy. About an hour into the trip we were stopped at some kind of police/army checkpoint, a group of men in uniform were doing a drill with guns in the yard and a couple of uniformed and stern looking women with rifles got on the bus and asked to see ID. We were the only foreigners and she didn’t really know what she was looking at in our passports. We were a little concerned when she marched off the bus with them but they didn’t take long to come back. Unlike one woman who was hauled off after some issue with her ID card, a couple of uniformed men came on and did a thorough search of not just her bunk but the bunks to the side and above hers, stripping the sheets and checking everywhere. A while later another bus turned up to take the attention off us and our passenger was returned. The same thing happened an hour or so later – same armed search of the bus, same puzzled looks at our passports, same grilling of the poor female passenger. I can only assume we went through a military or autonomous zone. The bus didn’t stop to buy food/drink at any point so we had to ration our one bottle of water between us. At one point we pulled into a car park, the driver cut the engine and everyone got comfy. We slept there for a few hours – later we found out that buses are not allowed to be driven between certain hours.
At 7.30am the next morning we got off at Kunming station and were instantly shivering in our shorts and t-shirts – my computer said it was 16 degrees. I don’t think it had said less than 20 since we left New Zealand – 3 months of cycling and sleeping in the 20s and 30s had turned us into wimps. It was going to be cold in England. After the usual problems finding wifi (hotel lobby) and our way around (guess work) we arrived at our kind warm showers hosts who had been hugely helpful after we contacted them explaining the situation and that we would need some help finding bike boxes and getting to the airport. The amazing Su family had organised everything for us and had a spare apartment we could use for the next 24 hours to sleep and pack. The bikes went to a shop to be boxed (we usually do this ourselves but… couldn’t be bothered), we attracted quite a crowd of people staring at us at the local food market, and the Su family kindly took us out for a Chinese BBQ dinner so we could try a load of different food, understand what we were eating for once, and have a nice final evening on the road. I even threw caution to the wind and tried a chicken foot – when in China and all that. (Verdict: not great.)
Our final morning was spent packing and throwing stuff we didn’t need away, successfully getting our checked luggage down to two bikes and one bag of panniers. Luckily we left plenty of time to get to the airport as our booked “minivan” (empty transit with two plastic chairs in the front for us to sit on) was an hour late, all of which the driver tried to make up by racing through the traffic. Cycling is definitely not the most dangerous form of transport in China. Things started to go downhill as soon as we arrived – I managed to rip our one bag of panniers, it turned out that despite flying straight through to England with the same airline, we would have to collect and recheck our luggage in Beijing (in just two hours transfer time). This seemed a bit of a stretch, and we said so. The ground staff rang Beijing for advice. Verdict: probably ok. Thanks for that. Despite this being an international airport the wifi still wouldn’t work for foreigners so we couldn’t do anything about the seemingly impossible transfer time we had been given other than cross our fingers again. We used the last of the phone credit to explain the problem to Debs’ Mum (SMS before call: “Be ready with pen and paper for call. Don’t talk just listen”) hoping she could get the airline to meet us off the plane and help.
By now the majority of flights leaving Kunming were delayed. I started to worry even more that we would miss our connection. All was going fine – our screen said we would depart on time – until we got on the plane. The engine started but we just sat there, not going anywhere. Time passed, I got more and more stressed, nobody seemed to know what was happening. After an hour we were not looking like making our connection in Beijing. After an hour and a half, this was confirmed when the flight attendants started serving the “in flight” meal. While we were still on the ground. This did not look good. I’ve been on delayed flights before but have never had a meal before take off. It was unbelievable. I was obviously going mental by this point, nobody could tell us what was happening and we had missed our connection before we had even taken off. All I wanted was to get home, and we were stuck on a plane miles away with no sign of going anywhere and nobody to ask for help. I cried a lot.
After three hours sitting on the plane and not moving, we finally took off – about the time we were supposed to be landing. Once in Beijing we had missed our flight to Manchester, so we were met by someone from transfers, somehow she identified us from the ground as soon as we exited the plane onto the stairs. Maybe it was our strong cycling legs. Or the fact that we were the only westerners on board. On the airport bendy bus we were offered the next direct flight to Manchester in four days time. Before I could start shouting about this Debs noticed “21” written down on her clipboard list (of Chinese symbols) – we were told we could fly to London via Berlin the next day instead (which as it was now 2am or something, was actually the same day). Yes please. By 4am we were in a free and only slightly grim hotel room with six hours until we had to leave for the airport. I don’t know how either of us were still standing by this point. I think we managed to squeeze in four hours sleep before searching out the breakfast buffet, only to be disappointed (watermelon in some kind of mayonnaise sauce was the lowlight. Verdict: wrong).
There was time for some more airport fun. Our unhelpful check in lady said the airline wouldn’t take the bike boxes, they were too big. We insisted that we could, and in fact had already taken them with that airline. She said no, we said yes, and waited for her to get a supervisor who eventually agreed (after shushing Debs). At airport security we queued for ages to have a bike lock confiscated. I suppose it was pretty weighty.
Luckily our flight dramas were over (for now) and several movies later we landed in Berlin. It was a bit of a rush to get our connection to LHR as we were late leaving Beijing (seems to be standard practice in China) but there was no panic as we could understand what was going on and there was a level of order and system that the Chinese airports can only dream of. Before we knew it we were enjoying an orderly queue for our British Airways flight. There was however time for one more issue as when we landed in London and went to collect our bikes, they both came out with the bottom flap of the box wide open. Someone had opened them (I’m suspecting China) to do a check and hadn’t bothered taping them back up again. Seriously. Debs’ box was also badly damaged and it turned out under inspection the next day that the bicycle front fork had been bent so needed replacing.
Writing this I can’t quite believe what a hassle the journey was, the one time I was desperate for everything to go smoothly. It was the fifth flight of the trip and the first time anything had gone wrong. Hainan airlines do not come recommended, though looking at the departure board in Kunming, I think we would have been delayed with whoever we were flying with. Both airports were crazy busy and you get the feeling that they are unable to cope with the volume of flights. It was a relief to finally land in England. After three months of Asian manners I was amazed when someone held the door open for me. In the toilet, a woman came out of the cubicle, saw I was waiting and said sorry, in the usual British apologise-even-when-there-is-nothing-to-apologise-for way. I smiled. We were home.
The first few weeks home were very strange. To be thrown straight back into “normal” life after almost a year with no time to mentally prepare was hard. We could choose what to eat from a fridge, understand what everything in the supermarket was, know where we would be sleeping every night, sit on a sofa, travel between places at speed, have conversations with people other than each other. But it was also difficult to adjust. Life on the road is so different – exercise is automatic, sleep comes easily after a day riding, we were in a routine of going to be early and waking with the sun, we ate freshly cooked food three times a day, had no junk food, no TV, and spent all day out in the fresh air. Being back home was a sudden end to all of this. The weather in England was pretty good – I think it only rained for one day in the first two weeks – but I couldn’t make myself go out on my bike. It seemed pointless. There was also a lot of sorting out to do for my dad’s estate, and a funeral to organise and attend. My dad was pretty well known in Harrogate, having been a radio presenter and heavily involved in both football clubs, and around 180 people attended his funeral. It was touching to hear so many nice words about the man who I last saw over a year ago.
Gradually we started making plans to get back on the road and finish the trip. Initially I was determined to go back to China, to not allow this to change the trip. But in reality this would be difficult. We would need new visas, and for that I would need a new passport. Debs got a teaching job starting at the end of August so we had a time limit. A good compromise seemed to go to Helsinki and ride home, which would mean we would complete the cycling part of our world trip as planned. I don’t regret the trip, but I do feel guilt at being out of the country for the last year of my dads life. It is us, the ones who go away, who make the decision to spend time away from family and friends, not those we leave behind. My dad would never have chosen to go for over a year without seeing me, giving me a hug, going for a pint. I made that choice, and for that I do feel bad. But I also know how proud he was of what I was doing, how he told everyone who would listen what country I was in. I just wish he could have still been here to see us come home and celebrate our achievements with us.
One thought on “The wrong way home”
Jo, I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your posts (and Debs!) over the last year. This post may have been the most difficult to write, but it provokes some thought about the power of family relationships. Again, sorry about the loss of your Dad, but despite the sorrow associated with your story, the photo of your beaming smile eating that BBQ chicken foot, made me smile right back at you — Doug W