This post, like most, is long overdue. Spoiler alert: we made it back home. I (Jo) have just completed my second week back at work; Debs has been back almost two months. Life is very much back to “normal”, although we’re still not entirely sure what “normal life” is. For almost two years “normal” was not knowing where we might be at the end of the day, sitting on a bike seat for most of our waking hours and regularly eating sandwiches with crisps in. “Normal” is now knowing exactly where we will be every night this week (and month), sitting at a desk for most of my waking hours and trying to keep our calorie consumption within the recommended daily allowance. Sadly this means a serious reduction in the number of cakes in our new “normal” life.
It’s actually more than three months now since we rolled off the ferry in Harwich and started riding our final week of the trip on English soil to get us back to Measham, Leicestershire where we first pedalled away from on 27th September 2015. Because of events of the last few months this was not the homecoming we had imagined for a long time – as we had only been in England two months earlier, this return didn’t really feel special or momentous at all, despite being the culmination of over 31,000kms riding and almost two years on (and off) the road in 30 countries on 4 continents. We can only imagine what it might have been like had things gone to plan. We didn’t expect our families to be particularly excited about seeing us after only a couple of months away. So without a grand homecoming planned, we were looking forward to finally completing what we had started and arriving home “properly” this time – by bike rather than plane. And enjoying some quiet English roads and scenery (and cake) along the way.
We’ve done the ferry journey between England and the Netherlands a few times before, but always in the opposite direction – which is an absolute delight. As soon as you step off the ferry in Hook van Holland, you are bombarded with cycling signs and paths that present a myriad of options to ride wherever you might fancy in the country. Going to Den Haag? Well there’s two options straight away, a scenic ride along the coast through the dunes or a slightly more direct route a bit inland. Both as flat as a pancake, on dedicated cycle paths and signposted the whole way, of course. You’ll pass a Lidl at the start where you can stock up on cheap pastries and sit in a pleasant square. The arrival from the Netherlands into Harwich is pretty horrific in comparison. There’s a decent cycle path to take you from the port into town, but after that, you’re on your own. The road then climbs uphill out of town through a particularly unattractive estate, we were shouted at by at least three separate groups of alcopop-fuelled youngsters wandering around, a car sped past us and then cut us up on a roundabout…. The whole experience does not scream “come and cycle in beautiful England”. It actually screams “What? You left the Netherlands? *Sigh*! PS watch out for the potholes!” Dutch cyclists, used to their flat car-free paths and easy to follow routes, must feel like turning back after a few miles this side of the water. On the plus side, there are a few decent options for fish and chips, so it’s not all terrible. We celebrated being back on English soil in one of them.
Cycling in England can be a pleasure. Our first full day back started with small quiet country lanes and blackberry picking. It became less of a pleasure when the rain started at about 10am and continued for 24 hours. We stopped early on under a shelter on the edge of a village green (a nice welcome back to England). This only increased the severity of the rain (a not-so-nice welcome back to England). At one point an elderly lady came out of the pub opposite and told us that the forecast was for heavy rain for the rest of the day. We smiled, thanked her, and said it was ok, we didn’t have far to go, only about 25 miles. We forget that to elderly ladies in villages that this is actually quite far, even without the rain. “You’ll never make it,” she said, deadly serious. You’d think we had just suggested doing backward rolls the whole way. “Go around the corner and catch a bus”. We didn’t feel like an in-depth discussion about the difficulty (impossibility) of taking bikes on buses in the UK, so agreed to give it some thought. Our survival was at stake after all. Ten minutes later we had eaten all of our allocated morning snacks. Sadly we had also eaten our lunch (it was still well before midday) and drunk our flasks of tea so there was nothing else to do other than put our waterproof trousers on and ride off. The next few hours were some of the worst in the whole trip. The rain bounced off the roads, our helmets, our hands, and flooded the cycle paths. We had two route options – a scenic, quiet and lengthy route on small roads, or the direct and easily fastest route which was a cycle path alongside the A12 dual carriageway. The weather made the decision for us – no more than the minimum mileage today – so we rode alongside one of the busiest arterial roads into London whilst the sky fell in around us. The cycle path/small stream that we had to ride on/through was on the right hand side of the road so we had huge trucks riding towards us and soaking us with their spray. Always a pleasure to be soaked from the side and above at the same time. Eventually we arrived at Debs’ aunts house, dripping everywhere, as excited about dry clothes, a cup of tea and a roof for the afternoon as I think I have ever been about anything, ever. The fact that she had made cake for us was… the icing on it I guess.
The rest of the final week passed fairly uneventfully. We visited friends in Peterborough, Hinckley and Market Harborough, and stayed with some lovely warm showers hosts. The very impressive Scott (as in Captain) polar museum in Cambridge made an interesting diversion one afternoon. I think we ate a cooked breakfast five days running. We rode less than 40 miles each day and had lots of tea and cake. I suspect we put weight on in this last week. It was all very enjoyable. We woke up in Hinckley on the final morning knowing that we had less than twenty miles to ride to Measham, and then the trip would be over. It was a strange feeling. The ride itself felt like nothing special, but something in my head knew it was, and willed my legs to slow down, savour it, enjoy the repetitiveness of turning the pedals that had become more familiar than walking over the past two years. Debs was riding in front, as usual, and as I stared at the back of her head and panniers I wondered how many thousands of hours I had looked at this exact view, and that tomorrow I wouldn’t have it, or the next day or the next day. Then my stomach rumbled and told me to man up, crack on and get there in time for lunch. Again, a familiar feeling.
Before we knew it we were sat eating lunch with Debs’ parents, trip over. The bikes were unceremoniously dumped in the garage. In the interest of symmetry we took a trip (in the car, treat) to Cattows Farm for cake, where we had a final meal before we left in September 2015. It seemed an appropriate end for brakes and cakes that we spent our first couple of post-trip hours at one of our favourite places for cake ever, just a few miles from our start and end point.
On the ferry back to England, in an attempt to get over the sadness of the trip coming to an end, we wrote a list of things we were looking forward to. We would miss many aspects of this lifestyle – not knowing or caring what time it is, being so physically tired at the end of each day that we would often fall asleep mid conversation once we laid down, being outside for most of the day and night, eating as many cakes and pastries as we liked guilt-free, to name just a few – but it’s not all glamour. We might make it sound it, but life on the road has its downs as well as its ups and some aspects, particularly those relating to hygiene, we would not miss at all. Yet eating cereal out of a bowl rather than a cup, sleeping in a bed, cooking on a hob, eating cheese sandwiches that aren’t sweaty, were all laughed off the list, as they were things I felt we would definitely miss. So here it is. Three months after writing it, I can genuinely say that although I now have these things back in my life on a daily basis, it’s hard not to get a bit misty eyed at (most of) this list.
Things we were looking forward to coming home for:
Knowing that the spoon you are about to use has been washed rather than licked clean (and not necessarily by yourself)
Drinking water from a glass rather than a dubiously clean water bottle that has definitely had algae growth at some point in its life
Not having to squirrel away extra toilet paper every time you go to the toilet for fear of not seeing any for the rest of the day
Opening panniers/unrolling clothes/unwrapping food and being confident that an earwig won’t crawl out
Not having to wash underwear by hand every evening
Wearing clean socks every day
(Usually) knowing where the toilet is
Real milk in tea rather than powdered milk, or worse, coffee creamer (or worse, powdered milk or coffee creamer that an earwig has crawled out of)
Having my own plate to eat off rather than sharing a pan full of food
Using a full set of cutlery for meals
Not having to spend what feels like an hour every evening trying to get into a sleeping bag liner that is now more hole than material
Not having to blow my bed up
Chopping vegetables with a real knife rather than a Swiss Army knife which has previously been used for every other food item that needs chopping/slicing and also….
Washing greasy pans etc with warm water and washing up liquid every time
Putting a dry pair of shoes on in the morning rather than the ones that are still wet from the day before
Understanding whether supermarket checkout workers are asking us whether we want a receipt, a bag, have a reward card, or something totally different
Being inside when it rains, rather than trying to shelter from a downpour under a tree and not knowing if this is keeping you drier or making you wetter
Always being able to wash our hands with soap before eating
Boiling water by flicking the switch of a kettle
Eating lunch somewhere that isn’t a bus shelter.
Yes, life back home has a greater level of hygiene and far fewer earwigs. These are good things. We are enjoying many things about being back home, particularly spending time with family and friends. I’m even looking forward to our first British winter since 2014 (mostly for Christmas, but I don’t mind the dark and cold yet so far). But there’s definitely a part of me that would happily trade the electric kettle for a tepid cup of tea made with powdered milk, drunk out of a flask that has not been washed for a week, sitting in a bus shelter listening to the rain, because the next moment we could be enjoying the thrill of a great descent, some amazing fresh food or the enthusiastic conversation of a stranger. We’re not done yet, that’s for sure.
Thanks to Carol and Martin; Stephen, Debs and neighbours; Charlie; Tracey; Curry, Lisa and friends; Lucy and Kirsty; Chessie and Sarah; and our families for being excited at us being back despite only seeing us two months earlier.
At the risk of repeating myself from previous posts, even in Schengen Europe where borders are just ‘Welcome to’ signs at the side of the road, there are usually instantly noticeable differences when you cross into a new country. In Estonia, people waved to us and smiled. This was a marked difference to the previous week (sorry Latvia) where one of our best interactions was with the old lady who was worried about our cold forearms outside a shop that didn’t look like a shop. In the first large town in Estonia, one group of people waved and cheered so vigorously that they nearly fell off their seats. They were outside a bar though, and there was a lot of empty glasses on the table. There was a helpful map of bike routes with distances., and even better a sudden increase in availability and quality of public toilets. Not exciting or glamorous, but extremely useful. On the downside, cheese had somehow doubled in cost. The cheese fiend half of our team was very disappointed.
Keen to continue its new reputation for stimulating encounters, on day two Estonia gave us all of the weather. All of it. Except snow. The wind blew strongly all day with unpredictable gusts. After 2 hours and 13km we sat in a bus stop for partial shelter and questioned our life choices. Later, we spent an hour huddled in an old woodshed that we found open, while torrential rain and hail smashed the road. The saving grace was the pack of hot sausages I had bought at the supermarket, which just about made up for the nasty smell in the shed.
By evening things had calmed down. We were heading for the islands off Estonia’s west coast, as recommended by a Swiss couple in a camper van who made me a lovely cup of coffee in a campsite in Latvia. The ferry trip was smooth and sunny, it was like a different world. Jo continued to get some come-uppance for telling everyone about how few punctures she has had, with another as we rode off the ferry. It was getting pretty late by this point but as we were now further North it didn’t really get dark so she managed a quick roadside change and we enjoyed another good campsite on Muhu Island.
The plan for the next day was a 45km ish ride, a ferry to another island, then another 45km ish towards the next ferry for the following day. There were only three ferries per day, so if we missed the 1pm it would be a seven hour wait for the next one. I’m sure you can see what’s coming here. Obviously we left the campsite a little bit later than intended. Then we got a bit distracted reading the history of a cool causeway bridge thing. And by some kangaroo signs. Then there was a cute town (with lovely toilets). Leaving town, Jo’s puncture bad luck continued. We executed an extremely slick tube change but by this time it was after 11am and the ferry was still 30km away. Cyclists will read this and think that’s not sure a tall order. On road bikes or even unloaded hybrids it wouldn’t be. However on hefty 45kg touring bikes when you don’t really know where you’re going it’s a bit of a challenge. Add a killer headwind (we had turned westwards) and we were not feeling super confident. We made a quick start after the repair, until a few minutes down the road I realised the sun was in the wrong place/we were going the wrong way. Minor setback – we had left town on the wrong road. U turn required. Still 30km away, the race was on.
We pedalled hard, with just one emergency banana stop and made it with almost ten minutes to spare. It was a beautiful ride, and should you be in the area I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the islands. Quiet roads, loads of great campsites, lovely coastline.
Back on the mainland, ruins were turning out to be another fun feature of Estonia. Most were signed from the road and had information boards with stories about the previous inhabitants. These seemed to have been written by members of the Soap Opera Writers of Historic Buildings Association, they were usually about controversial marriages, grand gestures of love, and murderous family members. Our favourite though was one that gave details of the St George’s Night Uprising of 1343. This described the killing of 28 monks and the burning down of a monastery as ‘only a minor setback.’ Seems like we should all reassess the barriers in our lives. Other than the odd buttress for safety the buildings had been left as they had been found, and were great to explore. The weather had cheered up and we were almost always on quiet roads. We were also meeting a lot of people doing cool trips – a German family with two toddler age children doing a three week camping tour, an Estonian family who moved to Austria for snow sports back visiting family, and in towns lots of retired Brits sailing around the Baltic (#newlifegoal – though I may need to improve on my RYA level 2). It was pretty dreamy cycle touring, and that was before we got to Tallinn.
People ask us a lot ‘what’s been your favourite place?’ It’s an almost impossible question, as everywhere is so different, and fun/interesting/awe-inspiring in different ways. I can however quite easily pick out the cities that are worth going out of your way for (Rome, Granada, Tokyo); those that are good if you’re in the area (Riga, Bergamo, Seville, Malacca); and those that you could avoid and not feel like you’ve missed out (Napoli, many US cities, Vang Vieng, Siem Reap). Tallinn is definitely in the first group of awesome ones – there’s just so much to look at. Incredible old buildings, brilliant city walls, interesting food, and it’s a manageable size for walking. We had two days wandering around, helped on the second day by the lovely Toomas and Veronica, who we met in Laos some months earlier, and had recently returned to their home town. Go if you get the chance. If you don’t get the chance, go anyway.
We said goodbye to Estonia on a rainy Saturday morning, though it’s probably more of a ‘see you another time’, there’s a lot there still to see. Horizontal rain smashed into us as we cycled along the exposed ferry access road to board the ship to Helsinki. Once there we would be back on the route proper, finally turning back south west and towards the UK.
Thanks to: Toomas and Veronica, Anna, Federico.
After our unplanned return from China and two months at home we were itching to get back on the road, so we had planned a final European loop to get us to Helsinki, from where we would ride home, completing the round the world cycle trip. It is now a few weeks since we pedalled away from Measham for the second time. As with our initial departure in September 2015 we were aiming for the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, and as the first time, we rode in glorious sunshine through beautiful English countryside. There really is no better place to ride when the sun shines. We mainly followed national cycle routes on small country lanes, though with a few more hills than our out of practice legs and lungs would have liked.
An overnight ferry (full of other cyclists, none of whom spoke to us – strange lot us Brits are) landed us in the Netherlands at 8am on Debs’ birthday. What better way to celebrate than to stock up on pastries at Lidl and head to the beach for a birthday breakfast. The sun was still shining, the wind was behind us and we were back on the best cycle paths in the world (not confirmed) surrounded by elderly Dutch cyclists on their upright bikes. The paths are almost totally flat, but can have a short steep(ish) incline and then drop at times. On one of these, one of our Dutch cycling friends warned us that “there is about another ten of these steep hills on this path ahead”… a Dutch steep hill that is. Two or three hard pedal strokes and you are up and over the peak. Rocky Mountains they are not. We were pleased to be back in Europe.
A short ride to Dan Haag (we will be back…) and four trains later we were in the port of Travemunde on the north east coast of Germany, via Hamburg where we stayed with a friend for a couple of nights. The ferry from would take us to Leipaja in Latvia and we were mostly in the company of truck drivers. We settled in with a Lidl picnic and enjoyed the sunset from the boat. It was the smoothest sailing I have ever experienced. A mere 28 hours later we were in Latvia.
As we arrived at 10pm I had booked a cheap hotel room to save us having to “ride around a strange town in the dark” looking for a place to stay. Rolling off the ferry at 10.15 pm, the sun was still above the horizon. We were five days from midsummer and the days were long. Ah well. The Sport Hotel was the bargain of the century at only €14 for the biggest room ever, with the answer to every British cyclists dreams, an electric kettle. There was even a sofa. Welcome to Latvia.
Finally we were back in the saddle, and set off the next morning with no idea what to expect from Latvia and no real plan, other than “ride to Estonia”. Riding up the coast seemed a good place to start, without realising we were apparently following a Eurovelo route (though we are a little sceptical of some of their “routes” that are often just someone’s nice idea) and before we’d even left town we saw five other touring cyclists. That’s more than we saw in the whole five months in Europe at the start of our trip. Cycling in the summer is more popular than the winter then.
Leipaja had a few sights including a very shiny Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a soviet-era prison but soon we were on the open road and navigating by keeping the sea on our left. The sun was shining but our legs were weary from riding the loaded bikes for the first time in a couple of months. Ride all you like at home but nothing prepares you for carrying the weight of the bags. The first night in the tent since February was strange, it didn’t get properly dark at all so we had to use our buffs as a blindfold to give the illusion of night time. After a night camping by the sea we turned inland and with the help of an amazing tailwind that we savoured every minute of – as most of this leg will be riding west into the wind – we were in Riga two days later. Latvia was flat, green, and mostly well kept. Towns had attractive parks, old wooden buildings, castles and were very pleasant indeed. There was the odd soviet style concrete tower block but not as many as we had expected.
It was a rainy morning’s ride to Riga, and included a comedy moment of hiding in a bus shelter when the rain was particularly fierce only to be completely soaked by a truck riding through a huge puddle/lake that had formed next to the kerb. By the time we arrived in the picturesque capital the sun was shining again. Riga is mostly known these days as a stag party destination thanks to Ryanair and cheap beer, but the old style buildings are ornate and the different pastel colours makes the whole place very easy on the eye. I say old style because most of the city was destroyed during WW2 and has since been rebuilt to look old. It’s actually pretty compact, we had a day to walk around but found that we had covered most of the old town in a few hours. Including sampling a couple of bakery treats.
Luckily we had arrived on party weekend. Midsummer, or ligo (pronounced leegwa, strangely) in Latvia, is celebrated on 23rd June and is said to be bigger than Christmas. Though most people celebrate by heading out into the countryside, lighting fires and drinking all night, there was a music festival in the city which had a nice atmosphere, even if it was like being in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvian pop music is not to our taste. People were drinking and dancing, we saw at least three people fall over they were so drunk, and at one point there was a circle of women close to us who were all at least six feet tall. Apparently Latvian women are the tallest in the world, and on that evidence, I wouldn’t argue against it.
An annoying-to-navigate ride out of Riga (as most cities are) had us riding up the coast towards Estonia. Our mistrust of the Eurovelo bike route deepened as the bike signs seemed to direct us into the sea – it actually went along the beach for 6kms. The sand was mostly hard packed but the bikes are so heavy it was tough going. Once off the beach the rain returned and we hung out at our usual bus shelter, watching as youngsters stumbled past drinking and singing, the beach party clearly rained off but not their enthusiasm. It was still the holiday weekend and we pulled in to a campsite that evening to find groups of Latvians keeping the fires burning and the alcohol flowing. One guy could speak fairly good English so spoke to us at length about immigration policies (“your mayor, she doesn’t want Eastern Europeans in the country but she lets all the Muslims in”; “do you see any brown people in Latvia? No, we kill them”) before rejoining the party. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of more Latvian tunes, hoping that when we crossed the border into Estonia the next morning the music as well as the weather would improve. I’m not sure I can ever watch Eurovision again.
Latvia had been a nice return to the cycling lifestyle. Flat, easy camping, cheap food, tailwinds. It was good to be back on the bikes again, although I found the first few days quite tough mentally. I had optimistically assumed that normal life would fall back into place as soon as we were cycling again, but in reality everything had changed and it was hard to focus on what we were doing rather than what we would have been doing if we hadn’t had to return home from China. Cycling also gives you a lot of time to think – I had spent most of my time at home busy and suddenly my mind was empty and I thought a lot about my dad and what had happened over the past two months. Even though I often felt sad, I knew it was the right thing to be back cycling and finishing the trip off in the best way we could.
Thanks to: Svenja, David and Zane.
Just like our initial departure in September 2015, the weather was beautiful as we pedalled through Leicestershire a few weeks ago. Blue skies, rolling hills, sunshine, pretty villages. England can be simply wonderful. However it is also home to some of the least cyclist-friendly drivers the world has to offer, with a good smattering of rudeness thrown in. Our trip was just 1.78km old when a driver rolled down their window and called us ‘F-ing assholes’ as we cycled on that first day 20 months ago. We were riding two abreast on a low traffic country road. Like many, he failed to recognise that this reduces his overtaking time.
It’s nice to know you can go away from home for a long time and some things don’t change. Fish and chips are still brilliant, and some motorists are still ignorant. We met a fabulous guy in June in delightful Market Harborough. It was a beautiful day and we were on the way out of town on National Cycle route 67. On the little uphill near the station, we moved out to ride around a parked car. There was an oncoming truck. The road is not super wide. We heard a vehicle behind us. As other cyclists will know, you can tell from the sound when the approaching vehicle isn’t slowing down, and sure enough a van driver decided to squeeze between us and the oncoming truck whilst we were all passing the parked vehicle. At best the driver left 30-40cm between the van and us. I was in front, and as the van pulled back in I selected a choice hand gesture for the driver in response to the unsafe pass.
The van now cut in front of us and pulled in suddenly to the side of the road. The driver jumped out, and we got to meet a charming man.
CM: “Don’t you wag your finger at me”
(That’s right, I had selected the offensive ‘finger wag’)
D: “You came far too close”
CM: “I had to get past you and avoid the truck on the other side”
D: No, what you had to do was wait.
(J is now level with the van)
J: You could have slowed down. (Meaning to slow down and wait until we had passed the parked car)
CM: I was going slow, we’re going uphill you tit!
As I said, a real charmer. Maybe he was trying to bring ‘tit’ back into fashion as an insult. Certainly a while since either of us has been called that and probably the first time by a grown-up. We were quite taken aback. I would like to say that we said something funny back, but we were a bit past the van by then and I’m sure you can come up with something funnier.
It has been continually shown that reeducation is more effective than punishment (Welford, 2017), so here is some helpful advice for our Charming Man:
1. The Highway Code tells you to leave as much space for a cyclist as you would if you passed a car. Imagine the cyclist is a car or a horse. Would you pass then? If not, you shouldn’t squeeze past. UK Police recommend 1.5metres minimum. In lots of countries this is the law.
2. If you are so desperate to speed up your journey, I would suggest that waiting 3-5 seconds for us to pass the parked car would have been significantly quicker than parking up for a spot of verbal cyclist bashing.
3. If you do feel the need to stop your vehicle and abuse some upstanding citizens, it’s probably best not to do it in your branded work vehicle. This is particularly important if you work for a small organisation and are in fact the registered director of said company, and it is absolutely vital if you have your hometown as public on your Facebook profile. That’s right, I know exactly who you are. Good job I’m only a bit vengeful. So far.
Thanks to: The overwhelming majority of people who stop to talk us around the world. Almost all of them actually are charming and lovely.
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.