2wheels: The Return
Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England
September 2005 - November 2006
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Horseman Stole My Bicycle!
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On a Slow Bike to China
This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
Two o'clock in the morning, I'm asleep in my tent on a moonless Mongolian night in August. A noise outside half-wakens me. But it's very quiet, hardly audible above the murmuring of the river on whose banks I am camped. It must be a bird or some small animal rustling in the bushes. I go back to sleep. Suddenly my world collapses - or does it explode? Three sounds in quick succession. A shout. The tearing of tent fabric. Horses' hooves.
I struggle to find a way out of what remains of my tent, instantly wide awake, adrenaline pulsing through my body. I'm afraid that a horse has tripped in my guy-lines and that I face death by trampling. Once outside, I quickly find, even in the darkness, that something important is missing. My bike, which had been locked to my tent, is gone.
For six months, my tent and my bike had become my life. Now I was stranded in the Mongolian countryside, the bike stolen and the tent in shreds.
My journey was conceived on the Trans-Siberian railway, a decade ago, when I rode the train from London to Beijing - a week spent watching the landscape flow past the window of my second-class compartment. Europe merged slowly into Asia, but inside the train I was cocooned, sealed off from the world outside.
I wanted to step out of the cosy train environment, and discover for myself the people, places, sights, sounds and smells of the lands through which I was passing.
What if I tried to make the journey again, this time by bicycle? For nearly ten years this idea lazed around in the part of the brain reserved for "maybe one day" fantasies.
Then one day in June last year I volunteered to work at the local bike shop, where I learnt to take a bike apart and put it together again, to cope with any mechanical breakdown. I sought sponsors for equipment, I researched routes, I obtained visas. I said goodbye to my Emily, my girlfriend.
In the flurry of the weeks before departure, I had little time to think of what it really meant to be leaving Emily behind. It hit me only when I was out of the front door and on my way. Suddenly, there was nothing else left to think about, no more preparations to occupy my mind. I was underway, my goal a still impossibly distant Shanghai, and Emily just half a mile down the road in the other direction. I was close to turning round and going back home.
After that first day things became easier. Each day brought me a step closer to Shanghai - if only a small one. I covered, on average, sixty miles a day. With thirty kilograms of luggage to carry, that was plenty - more than plenty when the terrain was hilly and the wind was against me.
This year, early March belonged to Winter, not Spring. Freezing winds from the east blew snow across Sussex and Hampshire into my face, and numbed my fingers and toes. On my third night I camped in a blizzard in a milkman's front garden. I was wearing the polar clothing I'd brought with me for the Mongolian winter. I looked like Scott of the Antarctic - and more than a little absurd for an orchard in Kent.
I stopped in the evenings, and with my petrol stove cooked something quick, simple and hot. Couscous boiled up with a tin of tomatoes was an early favourite; later in the ride pasta became my staple. My high-tech sports diet could be summarised thus: eat as much as you can, as often as you can. Typically this meant two or three loaves of bread a day, several bananas, an apple or two, and large pot of pasta in the evenings, all washed down with half a kilo of biscuits.
Life moved to a simple daily rhythm: cycling, cooking, camping. Different countries brought variations on the basic theme. In Germany I would treat myself to a tasty pastry from a bakery - this was bait to lure my body out of its sleeping bag on cold mornings.
In Russia there were times when the mosquitoes were so bad that cooking outside was not possible. All I could do was to pitch my tent and dive inside as fast as possible - then spend the next hour munching bread and cheese while trying to kill the dozen or so biting insects that would invariably get into the tent with me.
If the mosquitoes were bad, the giant Siberian horseflies were much worse. They kept up with a full-speed cyclist with ease. There was no escaping their vicious airborne assault. They seemed to derive sadistic amusement from flying in taunting circles around my face and hands, taking turns to dart in for a bite of juicy cyclist flesh.
While trying to fend of the insects, I encountered their human equivalents. Muggers on a motorbike came alongside and demanded money; I politely declined to cooperate, and kept riding. They kept demanding. I rode a little faster. Their motorbike kept pace. I pedaled harder. They rammed my bike from behind. I carried on. I suppose I held out the faint hope that they might run out of petrol before I ran out of legs. They came at me again, this time the pillion passenger throwing punches at me, landing a decent blow in my front teeth.
It felt like a James Bond chase scene played out at low speed.
But then they rammed into me from the side, and I fell off. They fell off their motorbike too, and in the process snapped their wing mirror. This upset them - so much so that they forgot they were supposed to be mugging me and began instead accusing me of damaging their motorbike.
I had to steer a careful course in the argument - denying that I was to blame for the "accident", while at the same time trying not to remind them that they were trying to rob me. In time they gave up and revved, mirrorless, away, leaving me alone with my bike, mosquitoes and horseflies.
The Russians are professionally pessimistic and revel in nostalgic reminiscences of Soviet times: there was stability, there was order, and you knew where tomorrow's bread was coming from. "In the old days you would not have had trouble from robbers in Russia. Or if you had, at least they would have done a proper job of robbing you. Nothing works in this country any more," one man told me, before inviting me in for a meal, a bed for the night, and a banya.
The banya is a Russian sauna - a sauna with a difference. The Russians, not content with the mild discomfort of sitting in a room filled with super-heated steam, like to intensify the pain by beating each other with bundles of birch branches. Supposedly this opens the pores and cleanses the skin. The Siberians, of course, are Russians, only more so. Birch branches are for softies. Real men beat each other with stinging nettles. This is probably illegal in England, but its restorative properties are remarkable. Go into the banya after a long day on the bike, feeling shattered and ready to sleep for a week - you will emerge an hour later (after a good session with the nettles) ready to ride another hundred miles.
There is only one road running east-west across Siberia, and at the peak of the "crazy season", around midsummer, it can seem quite congested with people attempting all kinds of trans-Siberian feats. I met a sixty year-old Russian man riding to Vladivostok on a home-made bicycle; a pair of French cyclists who tried to row their bikes across Lake Baikal (their boat sank in a freak storm); a Pole on holiday driving a beaten-up Lada from Warsaw to Vladivostok and back (his job: a long-distance lorry driver - surely the ultimate busman's holiday); a Dane, a Russian, and a fifty-something Japanese woman attempting to become the first people to run around the world.
Equipped with a new bike and tent after the Great Mongolian Bike Robbery, I headed for China, southeast across the Gobi desert. For the first fifty miles I rode on perfect new tarmac, and then, abruptly, the road ended in a line of bulldozers. The next four hundred miles were a grueling trek across roadless desert with long, unrideable sandy stretches. The riding was tough, but I saw a fireman riding a camel - hard work brings its own rewards.
One day a fierce, fearsome sandstorm blew up, reducing visibility to a few yards and filling my eyes with sand, dust and tears. I startled camels and steered by compass. Cresting a high sand-dune I nearly collided with a Frenchman on a bicycle coming up the other side. I don't think I was hallucinating.
I like to travel overland because transitions are softer, blurred. Culture shock is dampened as Romania eases into Moldova, Moldova edges into Ukraine, Ukraine dissolves into Russia, and Russia merges surprisingly seamlessly with Mongolia. But Mongolia slams pretty hard into China. Zamyn Uud, the Mongolian border town, is a fine place for sand, flies and camel shit. Across the fence on the Chinese side, the shops are full of tropical fruit and shiny things, and the roads are lined with blue and orange plastic palm trees. I bet not even heaven has blue and orange plastic palm trees.
One thing China doesn't have a lot of is open space. Every inch of land is built on or cultivated. This makes camping difficult. In autumn, people work late in the fields bringing in the harvest. One night I kept going till after sunset and found a place to sleep in a field-edge rain-shelter. By the end of the next day only the Great Wall stood between me and Beijing. The Wall doesn't do such a great job of keeping the barbarians out these days - they've cut a four-lane highway through the middle of it.
From Beijing I rode south; maize gave way to rice and the late autumn sun was still warm. Shanghai appeared on the signposts, and for the first time I let myself believe I could actually get there. Until that point, Shanghai had always seemed impossibly distant. Now the finishing line was in sight. I put my head down and pedaled hard.
Shanghai's satellite towns and suburbs sprawled for day's ride or more. Then, suddenly, I was looking up from the floor of a canyon of high-rise buildings. Shanghai, the most daring, the flashiest, most cosmopolitan of China's reach-for-the-sky economic miracle cities. Had I really made it? I needed somewhere to sit quietly, to look back and reflect on the journey I was about to complete.
I headed for the Bund, Shanghai's famous riverfront strip. This was a mistake. I was looking for peace and personal space, but I had come to the wrong place. Tourists thronged, the air filled with the sound of clicking cameras. I tried to ignore it all and find a space on the river wall to gaze out over the water, mentally shutting out the crowd around me.
I had ridden 232 days and 17,935 kilometres to get here. I wanted to let it all sink in. It was hard to connect the feeling of being there with memories of the journey. Little fragments came back. The Bashkir man who cheered and waved as I passed because he had seen me on TV the night before. The Serbian popcorn vendor who gave me a huge bag of popcorn. The Mongolian guys who invited me to share their sheep barbeque. The Siberian Greek who gave me a huge jar of honey.
It was good to be here, but it seemed a bit unreal, too - so distant from all these memories.
I felt a nudge in the ribs. "Hey, you wanna buy Rolex watch? Very good price."
Welcome to reality. Welcome to Shanghai: journey's end.
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|Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 Edward Genochio
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