“So what do you actually want to do?” My CouchSurfing host asked me one evening. They were moving from Almaty soon and it was our duty as guests to help them polish off what was left in the drinks cabinet before their departure. Inevitably in such circumstances the topic of conversation moved on to love, life, and happiness and this question – the question that had been troubling me since leaving Bishkek – reared its ugly, nagging head once again. The problem was that my off-the-peg answer of “Cycle to China, then probably head south for the winter or something” I relied on for the past 8 months wasn’t good enough any more as I found myself a few days’ riding away from the PRC’s border.
But even without looking at a map, the fact that I was riding alone for the first time in months made it clear that the Central Asian chapter of my journey was coming to an end. The bottleneck of long distance cyclists that began in Bukhara came to an end in Bishkek, as fellow two-wheeled travellers you meet almost on a daily basis disperse. Some continue into China; others box up their bikes and hop on a plane; and some seriously masochistic individuals venture north to experience Siberia in winter.
I was back in Kazakhstan, once again riding across the steppe: the country and environment that bookended my time in Central Asia. There’s not much I can say about the cycling that is either noteworthy or that I haven’t mentioned before: it involved the usual frustration with headwinds, with respite found in a crumbling, ex-soviet era factory or an abandoned restaurant. The mountains that occasionally penetrated the otherwise perfectly flat horizon were covered in snow as the two-week long autumn this part of the world gets came and went during my time in Bishkek and Almaty.
A few days later, I had cycled to China.
On the surface, the border town of Khorgas couldn’t be clearer in differentiating the two countries that shared the use of its name. The Kazakh side had the familiar drabness with its tumbledown buildings and rusting Ladas whereas Chinese side gleamed with skyscrapers, neon lights, and new money. Part of me was glad to be here after spending a long time in a world where the description “crumbling ex-Soviet” appeared way too often in my diary (see above). But it wasn’t all change. This was Xinjiang province and the Uyghur people that are the main ethnic group here have cultural, religious and culinary influence across parts of Central Asia. In spite of Beijing’s efforts to relocate millions of Han Chinese people to this region to shift the ethnic balance, the people looked mostly the same as where I had come from and my usual diet of lagman continued as I reached the provincial capital of Urumqi. Xinjiang provided a blend of familiar and new that softened the reverse-culture shock of entering China after months in Central Asia; it’s the halfway house to the Middle Kingdom.
I Cycled to China but still didn’t know what I genuinely wanted to do next. I always had a pretty well defined line on my mental map across Europe and Central Asia but it ended at the Chinese border, after which my intentions were unclear, blurred by an extensive list of variables. The obvious answer due to the changing seasons and open border crossings was to continue to South East Asia but that region, somewhere I’d travelled before, failed to inspire me. Cycling across the featureless landscapes Steppe also failed to provide me with time to think of an alternative. Just like I had learned on day one, when you’re riding those bigger-picture thoughts are pushed to the back of your mind by immediate necessity. Thoughts of ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I’m lost’, and ‘where am I going to sleep tonight?’ keep you sufficiently distracted.
Luckily, immediate necessity provided me with an alternative to pedalling. Khorgas was covered in snow and the mountain passes that separated me from Urumqi weren’t really a sensible option, given my sleeping bag was designed for temperatures no lower than 9 degrees Celsius. So I shoved my bike on a bus…and then shoved it onto a train for three days in a dash to the south to escape the harsh winter that was already creeping in.
It was the sedentary nature of train travel – three days with absolutely nothing but to sit, eat, and think – that finally gave me time to arrive at some conclusions as we rolled across the snow-covered Gobi desert. The hospitality of Turkey; the food of Georgia; the challenges of Uzbekistan; and the beauty and remoteness of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all lay behind me. There would be future joys on the saddle, to be sure, but it felt as if the best riding was behind me and what lay ahead wasn’t that inspiring. I remembered that it was never my intention to cycle from A to B as quickly as possible, give myself a pat on the back, and return home to my old life. This trip was all about going on a big overland journey by bike but, most importantly, stopping if I found somewhere worthwhile (that was the thinking behind this blog’s name). Even at the slower speed of a cyclist, I wanted a change from just passing through interesting places, staying no more than a month or so in each country. I wanted to live somewhere interesting and take on the challenges that come with that, challenges that can’t be avoided by just riding on to somewhere else.
As the train rolled into Chengdu I realised the answer to my hosts question was simple: I wanted to stop. So this leafy city in Sichuan Province, famous for its ‘liveability’, teahouse culture, and spicy hot pot restaurants, will be home for the next 12 months as I take an unexpected hiatus from cycling about the world. Right now I am an English tutor and I’m going to try and learn as much Chinese as I can during my time here. Everything is new and I’m completely out of my depth in trying to do the most basic daily task. It’s new and challenging and exactly what I wanted.
Is this the end of this trip? Definitely not. The next 12 months will be a continuation of this adventure, rather than a break, and all the while my bank account will be slowly replenished before I saddle up and get hit the road next November.
Or I may not. I might leave sooner if I fail to suppress the travel bug or I might spend another year in China. This unexpected detour to Chengdu turned into a 12 month stay; who’s to say what will happen next year. It’s all part of the joy of destination-less travel.