Tuesday, 15 December 2009

By Unpopular Demand.... An Apology

I would like to begin by apologising for my previous blog, an outburst owing to the mistaken belief that Mark Beaumont was an ambassador for a major multinational bank, when in actual fact he is not actually an ambassador for a major multinational bank at all, but only, in reality, an ambassador for a major multinational bank. This confusion of mine, all centred around a misunderstanding of the word 'ambassador', made a few people quite upset, and for this I can only apologise, it being wholly unforgivable of me to ever have dreamt of saying anything that might have upset anybody. 

Put simply, I was wrong. I believed that it would be some sort of symbol to "take on the big companies" (as one critic suggested I do) by making an attempt at the record of a man who had been sponsored by the big companies, displayed the logos of big companies throughout his ride, and rounded it off nicely by announcing that he was proud to be an ambassador of the biggest of his big companies. Again, I can only apologise for my old-fashioned misunderstanding that when someone takes money to serve as the ambassador of a certain entity or institution, they become - in some respects - embroiled in the undertakings of that body, and - to some extent - answerable to some of the criticisms that might be raised against that body.

But that's old ground already. I'm not denying that my last blog was unsophisticated and pretty artless, it was also not in the least bit cordial, but it was honest, and I felt that it was important to blurt it out when I did, when I was still fresh from the sort of experience that allows you to reflect on the world for what it is, and before returning to a modern society that is already more-than swamped with moderate thought, trivialities and the making of excuses. I'm not concerned if a little ire sets me apart from a gaggle of adventurers, I don't see myself as an adventurer anyway, just someone who enjoys travel and loves riding a bicycle. I'm not concerned if a lack of bonhomie is not in the mould of a Ranulph Fiennes, I've only in the last five minutes clarified that he was not the lead actor in The English Patient. I don't mind if someone thinks I give cyclists a bad name... the bicycle is an excellent mode of transport for reasons of environment, society, economy and health - the more its usage increases, the less realistic it is to think of cyclists as an identical group of matching people and ideas. One of the best things about the increase of cycling in London is the diversity of people now getting-about on bikes - I'm not a BMX-riding vegan or a tweed-wearing Tory Boy ... nor am I obliged to empathise with, or even to like, either one of these hypothetical individuals. They both ride bikes, I think that a good thing, and that's enough.

I get the feeling that a good many people didn't read my previous blog in its entirety, or that they didn't read it carefully. On both counts, this is my fault, as decent writing shouldn't turn people off in such a way. That said, we live in an age where 122 minutes in a cinema can transport people into heroic battles for the universe and the free world, all set to a nicely emotive score that floods the endocrine system with adrenaline and the head with thoughts of "that's what I'd do"... I can't compete with that kind of entertainment, and it's unfair to expect people to take time with 1000 words of social-political nonsense when such alternatives are just a few buttons away.

Finally, I want to stress that my feelings for Beaumont are in no-way based on chest-beating machismo; I genuinely respect his time of a 193-day circumnavigation. In terms of physical undertakings, it was a great ride... as for my own accomplishment, I'm still torn about whether the experience would have been better at 80miles- a-day, with a few tours of some Californian vineyards thrown in for recreation ... I'm not so competitive a person to believe that anyone's achievements are made lesser or greater on the basis of speed.

But what else... Just as I was confused about the word 'ambassador', so too am I now uncertain about the word 'cynical'. It would appear that mentioning the failings of our political system is nowadays regarded as cynicism, where it might once have been called realism or honesty. On the other hand, to speculate that someone holds his beliefs, not through conviction, but through resentment of another's monetary success, or to garner publicity, is actually not a cynical belief, rather, it is merely good hack-work and psychology. Has it really been so long since people encountered a person not overly motivated by money? Similarly, in the old vocabulary, to make a profit from adventure and human emotion might be regarded as a cynical piece of business... but that's the old vocabulary.

I've noticed also that there seems to be a good deal of disappointment that I did not grow up or learn anything whilst riding around the world... It's a shame that people think this, for I believe I learned many things... firstly, in a row of public toilets, you should always walk to the furthest cubicle, for there it is always the cleanest... over and above that, though far less important, I learned too that I believe in the strength of my convictions. In the deserts I felt at peace, I felt deeply touched by hospitalities I received all over the world, and in my own society I feel angry because there is all-too-much that betrays the beauty of humanity as I experienced it all over the world. I'm sorry if that disappoints anybody in their prefabricated, drip-fed, Lonely-Planet notions of what travelling ought constitute. It strikes me that Mark Beaumont is not held to account for failing to learn that some experiences should be respected as sacred, or at the very least not sold to each and every willing bidder. I suppose he came back with a nice grin though... Our society will criticise no action that minds its Ps and Qs and has a nice grin... Nice grins are the backbone of twenty-first century decency.

As for growing-up... It saddens and amuses me that as children we're encouraged to learn to share, to be nice to one another, to know that happiness is more important than money... all of these lovely moral trinkets get thrown around, and then the mark of becoming an adult is just how many you can throw off, and how quickly, in order to get on the property ladder... You're respected for making a packet, by just about any means, and you're painted as some quixotic fool if you actually think all that morality-schooling was supposed to mean anything. It's compounded by the idea that modern society either has to be the farce that it currently is, or something far worse. Somehow it's come to pass that a political creed essentially cowardly, selfish and paranoid represents right-thinking austerity... the whole fiasco is guarded, moreover, by an impressive and resilient vocabulary, so that no matter how long a government wants to lock people up without trial, and no matter how much money is given in subsidy to inept business models managed by the schoolfriends of politicians ... the system as a whole retains its title of a 'liberal-capitalist democracy'. All of which are very impressive and noble words, even if modern Britain has about as much in common with them as the most contrived of socialisms.

Charity... it's alarming how much difficulty people have in grasping the title of my ride, so here's a clear explanation. What I propose is this. Rather than a multitude of tiny organisations, each with their own administrative structures, funding requirements and the need for a sentimental handle on their targeted populations, we could have a single, larger and unified organisation, staffed by the most upstanding and able of the citizenry, and responsible for leading society in a responsible and mutually advantageous direction. For simplicity's sake, we could call this institution, I don't know, a Guveurnment ... But of course this Guveurnment will need funding, so we could take a little bit of money from across the entire population, with more perhaps taken from those that are getting a lip-smacking deal out of the whole society thing, and more taken from the most useless purchases that people are making... We could call this funding Tacks, and the able people in the Guveurnment, with all their good intentions, would ensure that the Tacks were being well-invested and not simply squandered. Trippy, isn't it?

So anyway... that's more than enough of all that... Sorry... I'm a politics student at heart... just like Mark Beaumont.

Congratulations to all those who made it to the end... all those who have just wasted still more of their time on my words, and are planning to waste even more in telling me that I'm a piece of talking genitalia, may I instead recommend that you visit www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc where Blue Peter have many excellent ideas on how you can make old toilet rolls into spaceships.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Yes I do have the record... And now for a spelling lesson.

A note:

It's almost five years since I wrote the post below; some people loved it, others thought it disgusting, and after the passing of five years, I've become largely indifferent to it. I regret the infamy it earned me, but must admit to being more embarrassed at the clumsiness and tone of the writing, rather than the core of the sentiments expressed. I wrote the post some days after my return, still in a state of shock at the sudden transition from life on the road, back to the city of London. I wouldn't plead any sort of temporary insanity, but it'd be wrong to suggest I wasn't affected by the change.

In 2009 I was typified as an 'angry, young man'. In 2014, I'm still angry at lots of things, though more calmly, and with any luck more productively, too. 

I also still believe that the 23 year olds of the world should be angry, and often furious, at many unfairnesses in the world they will inherit. Where they are not, the world will be a poorer place for it.

My book, Life Cycles, is published on June 2nd 2014. You can order it anywhere online, but I'd be happiest if you bought it from a book shop.

I leave this post untouched, however much I'd like to delete it, and in order to allow others make up their own minds. I think Life Cycles a far better reflection on the ride itself, and the reasons for which I once broke a record for a circumnavigation by bicycle.

All the best

Julian Sayarer

April 2014

Well... I'm home.... After getting that record stuff over and done with, a couple of houses in the Normandy countryside were then the venue for an attempt at the most beautiful people ever assembled under a single roof, and the rest of the weekend passed in a mist of not sleeping enough and drinking too much. All of which was exactly as it should have been. I'm now back in London, this morning had the joy of riding a fixed gear track bike once again, without any bags in sight, and I suppose that things will slowly start to become normal again. I suppose.

I don't really know what to talk about, what to say... It was amazing, it was beautiful, it was a joy. For the final month I must have been averaging close to 150 miles a day, it wasn't as leisurely as I would have liked it to have been, it still wasn't going to 'hell and back', as one guy said Mark Beaumont had done... If Mark Beaumont did go to hell and back, then he was doing it all wrong. 

There are a few practical concerns that I wish to stress. Between broken wheels, brakes being broken by Iberia airlines, and a crank arm snapping, I lost a total of about 6 whole days not going anywhere... I don't want to use that as an "I could have done it quicker' platform, but I do want to stress that I was riding only a Tout Terrain frame, which performed magnificently throughout. The wheels, the cranks, the brakes, none of those components were supplied by Tout Terrain, are not representative of the quality of the components that the guys in Freiburg use, and I would be devastated if people were to interpret my mechanical mishaps as the fault of a really excellent business that sells really excellent bikes. The problems were a combination of misfortune and my perhaps all-too cavalier attitude to certain things, but still, it made things interesting. 

As for myself and my plans... I'm going to defer a return to the world of bicycle couriering for as long as I can afford to, which is perhaps about another ten days... Once I am back on the streets, I work for Excel couriers, and if you want your packages delivered by a world record holder, just ask for Kilo22. I am prepared to relay anecdotes from the road, though it will be charged as waiting time, and at a rate of £6 an hour... which is really very cheap, I can't imagine you'd get Marketing Beaumont talking to you at such a price. Over and above that, I'll be giving a talk at Stanfords, Covent Garden, sometime in the New Year, based around the themes of Travel, Adventure and Society ... If I fail to come up with a more imaginative title than 'Travel, Adventure and Society', then I ask you not to hold it against me, I'm sure I tried. There is an exhibition (though I don't particularly like that word) of writing and photos to be held, but I have the pleasant difficulty of not being sure of which offered venue I'm going to hold it in, so more news as and when. My main goal, and a challenge that holds far more meaning to me than any world record, is to write a book that at least I am satisfied with the merit of ... this process is already well underway, with the magnificent working title of 'Celine was Betrayed'. Don't expect some drab, motivational, sports monologue telling you that on day 71 I had 38 punctures, but cunningly managed to fix them all with the skin of a dead squirrel I found beside the road...a valuable lesson, no less applicable to the corporate sector, of how one can overcome difficulties and still cycle 93 miles on the day in question. On the contrary, you can expect some drab, depressing story, for that's what I want to write, a story, rather than just an account. We'll see how it goes. I'm not sure of what to do with things like my blog, whether or not to write the occassional thing, but all significant developments and events will be broadcast through Twitter, the Facebook group, and the website, in some form or another.

So now for what I want to say. A part of it is directly from me, a part of it is a response to some things that have been posted as comments on my blog over the past six months. 

What I want to say concerns Mark Beaumont, and completing that all-but meaningless record was motivated, more than anything, by earning my license, having done exactly as he did, to say exactly what I thought of him. I have no respect for him. I regard him as a lifeform some way inferior to the dead skin that accumulates in the seat of my crotch after three weeks of cycling a desert without washing. We're the same age, we're both politics graduates, and so I feel sufficiently close to a part of his demographic that I feel no desire to make excuses or allowances for him that I would never make for myself.

His style of media reminds me of Where's Wally with a bicycle twist thrown in, his self-aggrandising titles of THE MAN WHO cycled the world, who cycled the Americas, display no honesty or humility to the fact that the likes of 74-year-old Ian Hibell, killed tragically by a Greek hit-and-run driver last year, had already cycled the world a handful of times when THE MAN, Mark Beaumont, was still suckling his mother and shitting in his pants.

But all that bombast is forgivable, it's pretty human stuff really... what I can't get over is the wholesale corporate sellout, and these few days I'm moved more than ever by the notion that it could ever be possible to complete an experience as beautiful as mine was, and as beautiful as I expect Beaumont's was, and that a person could be moved so little by that experience that they would commodify it as an asset to sell to a bank. To a fucking bank. I suppose Beaumont, 'the adventurer' ... had actually sold his adventure to a bank, an investment fund, and a hotel group, before he even left, so it wasn't really anything new to him... He throws around the word 'adventure' an awful lot, but if adventure has a spirit and a meaning over and above going to obscure places on a bicycle, Beaumont has none of it. I met a man in New Mexico, at the foot of a pass, Mike, from Montana. His wife cleared out and left him years back, and he just decided to hit the road, riding to where it's warmer for the winter, riding to where he can find some labouring work to pay for him to keep going. He loves his life, he loves riding. That's adventure... to have no fear of all the uncertainty, Mark Beaumont isn't an adventurer, he's a travelling pragmatist... Someone told me that, for his round-the-world adventure, he had a £25000 budget with which to help adventure his way through all the uncertainty life could throw at him. What a hero.

I had sponsors too, and I have a confession to make... Madison, who supply bike stores up and down the country, were bought a few years ago by a PLC whose name I forget... Anyway, that PLC also own the company that manufactures those little, Christmas tree-shaped air freshners that hang from car mirrors and smell so unpleasantly perfumed. I know, I know, I'm a shameless sellout too, but they offered me £300 of clothing for extreme weather conditions, and in return I didn't have to endorse them as saviours of humanity or principled pillars of the world economy... I know... I know... I'm a hypocrite.

But what else... Someone said, with reference to this point, that they saw no wrong in Beaumont accepting money from Orange or from Lloyds TSB in order to fund his next trip. I do. Travelling is, in reality, a pretty selfish thing, a pretty decadent thing too... you go out there, on your own, and see beautiful things, and you remove yourself from the society you actually came from in the first place. And, you know, if I were to weigh the challenge and the adventure of staying in my own society, and trying to make a positive difference to that sad place, against the challenge and the adventure of pedalling my beloved bicycle in beautiful places, with a GPS system on my bicycle in case of emergencies, and a credit card in my wallet for the greatest hardships... well, I know which I perceive to be the greater adventure, and certainly the greater challenge. If someone is prepared to make travelling their life, and is prepared to endorse the most unscrupulous of businesses in order to fund that life, is prepared to lend them the beauty of his adventure to disguise the ugliness of their business... personally, I couldn't think of anything more selfish than that, and I may have called myself 'not for charity' rather than the innocuous 'pedalling around', but I'm motivated to make a positive difference in society, not just to enjoy myself on my bicycle at all costs. I have no time for this self-congratulatory culture of 'the adventurer', and when those adventurers are prepared to shack-up with Lloyds TSB, to me they represent nothing but the white, middle-class, boy, in all of the worst aspects of that stereotype. No amount of pedalling the world can change that fact, and indeed, it actually makes it worse.

But of course, I'm forgetting, Beaumont wasn't in it for himself. He was doing it for charity, and he apparently raised in the region of a whole £20,000. Marvellous. In the modern economy, is it only me who is fully aware of how useless £20,000 actually is? He raised £20,000 for good causes, and I don't deny that they're good causes, but then he said that he was proud, PROUD, to be a corporate ambassador for Lloyds TSB, who represent a multi-trillion pound economic normalcy that destroys the planet and the societies Beaumont's charities aim to protect. 

The other month I saw that he was in Nicaragua, lamenting on behalf of a farmer who would get only a handful of bucks for his lettuce harvest. And yet he is a PROUD ambassador of a bank that represents Davos, that represents the Washington Consensus, that represents an agricultural mega-company like Monsanto, who engineer sterile seeds so that Beaumont's Nicaraguan lettuce farmer has to buy a new round of seeds from Monsanto, rather than the traditional method of collecting seeds from the best plants of his crop. Monsanto, hard workers that they are, turn over about $5billion of profit a year. 

There's too much reticence in our society when it comes to saying 'I'm sorry, but what you are doing is shit, and that, sir, makes you a cunt' ...  And I may have just used the word cunt (again), but Mark Beaumont is a proud ambassador of Lloyds TSB, and they've got £700,000,000 invested in the UK arms industry alone, with links to the manufacture of cluster munitions, and if you want to Google an image search for cluster bombs, and what they do to people, or read-up on it at the Handicap International website. I know which I think is worse. Even with that, I'm not giving straightforward condemnation of the arms trade, it employs a lot of people, gives them their livelihoods, but it shouldn't be endorsed using the beauty of cycling around the world. There's nothing in common. 

I know many talented and brilliant individuals, they work with refugees, with art, with music, with organic farming, architecture with recycled materials, who work in policy concerning climate change, in designing sustainable transport models, who develop green spaces in urban areas, who work with photovoltaic and solar technologies. It's unfair, and it's greatly handicapping of true social progress, that all of those selfless people can have their work impeded by socio-economic orthodoxy, as endorsed by Mark Beaumont, and for that endorsee not to be called a wanker for his behaviour. Am I being harsh? I certainly thought more about what it truly meant to endorse Lloyds TSB than Mark Beaumont did, I suppose he had cashing a cheque to consider, but that's part of the problem, society does not hold people to account because society dictates that it's acceptable to trade just about anything for monetary gain. 

I could say so much more... But I shan't... There are three further comments I wanted to address.

One man, in the very early days, had the decency to descend from his throne on Mount Parnassus to pronounce that 'I write with promise, but with a Fight-Club-esque, angry, young man ethos.' Now, I'm not sure what I think of a writer I've never heard of, who uses 'Fight Club' as an adjective, and qualifies his compliments so heavily, but still, psychology being what it is, I took immediate umbrage at someone saying this of me, and it took about two months to fully comprehend that that is exactly what I am, an angry young man, and without any shame or regret at this fact. I don't like the creed of modern liberalism, whereby political radicalism is substituted for listening to the music of wailing Icelanders, and mixing your own muesli, using pumpkin seeds, for the selenium. Nobody turned on the Roundheads and criticised them for being 'angry, young men' ... nor the Chartists, nor those who rioted in Hyde Park to secure the Second Reform Act... We live in an age of decreasing social mobility, of increasing social inequality, increasing monopolisation of power and wealth, a world where anti-depressants are now being prescribed to children whilst a pharmaceutical giant like Pfizer turns over more than $10billion annually. The IT contract for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs was renewed with CapGemini and Fujitsu, even though their prior performance overran and went over-budget, but perhaps because CapGemini and Fujitsu lavished hospitality upon the HMRC decision maker, with dinners at the Eiffel Tower and Berkley Square amongst the itinerary. Now, we have an anti-corruption act that prohibits 'excessive hospitality', but obviously that doesn't mean an awful lot in reality. And then there's my friend, Steve, who was forced by building regulations to use steel joists for his attic conversion, when timber would have comfortably sufficed... but rules are rules, and so four of us lifted three girders into the attic on a Saturday afternoon, because rules are rules. Unless of course you're Tesco, and you get planning permission for a store of 9,000 square metres, but build one 20% bigger, at 11,000 square metres, because that's the size you wanted. Those who don't think that there are good reasons for anger in modern society should go for a long and adventurous walk in the desert.

And what more, I promise I'm winding things up, and I don't mind if you stop reading. One chap said that my ideas, implemented, would just sentence everyone to an equal misery. Aside from the fact that I don't know exactly what 'my ideas' are, still less how the chap in question discovered them all, I reject the notion that our society is so full of joy, lacking in misery, as things stand. Last I checked, we had overpopulated prisons and a government whose only response to this was building more prisons to lock-up more people, we had big money being made from looking after our degenerative elderly, we had 270,000 registered addicts of class-A drugs (which actually means that there are a lot more than 270,000 addicts of class-A drugs), we had obesity and adverts reminding people to exercise, and young people, bless-em, had come to feel so excluded by society and it's norms, goals and values that they were taking to stabbing one another at the weekends. Just as I was leaving, the authorities of London had responded to this grave problem using a good old-fashioned poster, with a bunch of kids, with different skin pigments and eye-dimensions, dressed in dungarees and striped jumpers, holding up the letters to spell-out 'It's our city too'... perhaps that brilliant piece of policymaking had worked by the time the comments were made. 

The final remark I want to address was 'it's a shame that such an epic adventure should be motivated by 'this is not for charity', or in other words 'this is not for love'. If not for love, then is anger, cynicism and hate the best way to view life?'

My ride was purely for love; for love of cycling, for love of the beautiful experiences I've had whilst travelling on my bicycle. It genuinely enraged me, from the start, to see Mark Beaumont doing what he did with his undertaking... he could just as easily have ridden under 'this is not for charity'... he's not a James Bowthorpe, who has a cause that he cares deeply for and is giving his life too, I have only respect for that. Some people don't see cycling in the same way that I do, and thus don't understand my message at all... it can't be helped. For the record, I did actually put up links to four non-profit organisations on my website; if you were too miserly to give to them, it's not my fault. If your sense of compassion is so lethargic that you need photos of starving children to think that something is wrong in the world, that's not my fault either. 

Had I undertaken the ride under the banner of one charity in particular, it would have been one working with drug abuse. I know so many people who have been touched by drugs, and so many of them are involved with them precisely because they're inquisitive and creative people growing up in a mainstream culture that becomes increasingly homogenised and restrictive. On my bike I thought often of a guy called Wayne, from my hometown, my sister's best friend... such a gentle guy, so kind, such life in him... he died from a heroin overdose when he was about the age that I am now... I cried my little fucking eyes out, thinking of Wayne as I rode out of the Chinese mountains... I don't like slapping my heart onto my sleeve, for dawes to peck at, but it'd be nice for people to understand. I don't want someone to give £5 to a charity for substance abuse and then to have DONE THEIR BIT and go and vote for the damn Tory party anyway... and I don't see what good a charity can do when society is run according to a formula that will only churn out sadness after sadness anyway. I'm cynical alright... my cynicism is absolutely caustic, but you have to care a lot to work-up a cynicism this potent... As for hate... I love the world in so many ways, but there are people in this world who obviously don't, and they use words like 'ambition' to cloak what is actually such despicable behaviour. They evoke hatred in me, it's not my fault.

Believe it or not, I could still say so much more

To the Happy Few.

Life Cycles is released on June 2nd 2014

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...

It was America. It was America... I didn't have the right voice for it, the right voice had smoked thirty a day through his two divorces, drank too much cheap bourbon, long ago shouted himself hoarse. I didn't have the right voice for it, the right voice would have thought me a faggot, or maybe just a faggit, with my bicycle, and a set of lycra warmers keeping my knees warm. Be that as it may.

It wasn't subtle.. It was there on the toilet door, days after arriving, the fly swat and the rhetorical question;

What do we do with flys? We squash 'em and kill 'em... We don't catch 'em and let 'em go. And that was in the liberal heartland of Washington, blue country... you come to learn that all liberals are Democrats, but not all Democrats are liberals. It wasn't subtle.. it was everywhere, big sleeves with hearts blazed all up and down them... Placards at the roadside 'a fair wage is a strong economy', 'abortion is murder' .. the churches had it going-on too, 'the bible is not yours to take and choose what to defy'.. Then there were the billboards 'Big lifestyle? skiing, hiking, mountain biking, friends, parties, kids, computers? You need a Big House' ... Money was everywhere, the country was painted green... Car dealerships took the trucks the owners could no longer afford repayments on, they weren't afraid to say as much 'we welcome bankruptcies'... Pawnbrokers worked hard into the night, under the sign 'anything of value'... You could get your bail bonds in a fast and friendly service, available 24hours.

It was America... it was the free world, the free market... that thing, invioable and true, pure as life itself... It sought out the greatest efficiencies and answers. You saw it up and down the highways... Adopt-A-Highway... Businesses paid out cash to have their brand on a signpost, and they got advertising, and the highways got cleaned.. it was perfect, perfect equilibrium. It worked in other ways too... A woman had caught cancer, and the free market allowed her to go with her didgeridoo to the farmers market, to play that didgeridoo, receive donations. Regrettably, she was pretty shit on that didgeridoo, but the free market had also provided didgeridoo lessons, so that she might improve, receive more donations, and eventually save up enough money to give to a giant insurance company in return for treatment, and the CEO of that company would take his fair share of the profits and pay a Mexican two bucks an hour to cut back the roses with his teeth and scrub the pool with his fingernails... those Mexicans, they were ruining America.

And so everyone got rich, trickle-down economics... soon enough they'd have to change the name to drip-down, so that people didn't start getting their hopes up... The problem was that nobody had any patience anymore.. It had taken the best part of three centuries for 3% of America, led by a handful of families, to accumulate half of the national wealth... three centuries, and now people wanted it to happen overnight.. it just wasn't realistic, it wasn't America, the American Dream, where you were long-suffering but eventually squeezed through into the money-lined fields of Elysium, where you hit the big-time and got to join that 3% who owned half of the national wealth. That'd be sweet, that'd be swell, and everyone wanted in on it, that 3%... but the problem was that, mathematically, only so many people could fit inside 3% before it became 4%, and even with 4% there would be a lot of people still wanting to reach the top and strike gold.... But that just wasn't it, that wasn't America, that was the beginning of a slippery slope, where one day you might even find 50% of the nation owning 50% of the wealth, and that was madness, a trade of the American Dream for the Socialist Nightmare. I wanted no part in it, and neither did the Americans. They wanted small government, and the social-welfare could be taken care of by Christina Aguilera, who was promising blowjobs, dressed in scarlet lipstick, to all those who gave a dollar to help turn hunger into hope.

But all that was skewed... America wasn't only about money, the Free Market.. America had values too, a notion of values that sat above the importance of any monetary or material asset. They had kinship, brotherhood, friendship, the helping of those friends, sticking together, thick-or-thin, to achieve the best possible results. And it worked too, the FINANCIAL CRISIS (!!!) showed as much.... Hank Paulson, former US Secretary of the Treasury was former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Timothy Geithner, new US Secretary of the Treasury had appointed former Goldman Sachs lobbyists as his Chief of Staff, as his advisers, a whole coterie of the fellows.. And it worked, sticking together like that, even when times got tough... Goldman Sachs had performed better than all their rivals in the face of economic downturn, their large rival, Lehman Brothers, had bitten the dust, a state-negotiated bailout of AIG had included funds that went directly to the repayment of a debt to Goldman Sachs... It was friendship, and you can't subvert something so special as friendship to the free-market, and it didn't pay to do so.

That was the city, or part of it at least, and then you hit the country, and you've seen everything once you've seen a roadsign that has one metal arrow upon it, pointing towards the primary school, and a second one, just beneath it, heading in the same direction, but towards the shooting range. Then there's the unfortunate coincidence, at the turn-off of 101, somewhere in northern California, where you get one sign for the animal shelter, and another, down the same trail, for the juvenile correction facility. It must have been convenient that way.

It was America, and it was the land of prohibition, of Prohibition... they still had a thing for the old prohibition stuff, it was all down the roadside. Private Property: No Tresspassing: Hunting and fishing prohibited... Parking Prohibited... Camping Prohibited... Photography Prohibited... Entry Prohibited, prohibited, prohibitedprohibited... If only some poor Iraqi had thought to put up a little sign saying 'bombing prohibited' ... or... 'It is prohibited to drop 20megatons of explosion upon civilians'... The Americans... they loved history, all down the coast, every bridge, a little sign 'historic bridge #47 - 1935' ... historic bridge #47 was made of concrete, with some little effort at a balustrade, but in general about as utilitarian as Jeremy Bentham reusing his tea bag... Still, it was historic, and that was what counted, for The Americans loved the history, the history of America, the seventy year old bridge made of concrete... over in Mesopotamia they'd come across history too, five millenia old, cuneiform tablets, the earliest forms of written communication. Bang. Looters. Gone. But they loved their history, the historic bridges of the coast.

I rode down that coast, through Washington, through Oregon, through Oregon, through Oregon. I want to ride through Oregon every day for the rest of my life, down that coast. You climb up into the redwood forest. Climb up. Climb up. The road sweeps round, hugs the cliffs, hugs the side of the hills, runs under the cover of the forest, and then you reach the top, and you pick up speed, lots of it, and you pick up more, and then you're sweeping back down the hillside, and ahead the dark of the forest is giving way to the light of the sun, and you sweep out of the forest, and the sun hits everything at once, and the trees are emeralds and the Pacific is sapphire, and it all glows white in the sun, and the Pacific is sapphire, and my god, the Pacific, it's such a fucking good name for an ocean, rocking and fluttering and sparkling away down there, like pages of books and stories and tales and gossamer yarns, and the sand is white, but not as white as the dusty trunks of driftwood, tossed upon the beach like dinosaur remains and whale skeletons. I would ride down those hillsides, and my head would fall to one side, and my nose and the corner of my mouth would lift in inquiry, my eyes would narrow a little. Really? Huh? I think there must be some sort of mistake. I died about five times a day, for a whole week, down the coast of Oregon.

And you hit California... you hit Garberville. Garberville happens all over the world, but it doesn't work the same in any other place. You get them everywhere, in towns and cities around the developed world.. They don't wash their hair, they mess their head with psychedelics, they wear sandals and thrift store clothes, talk in MAN, SAFE, PEACE, DOOOD... but they're standing on a pavement, outside a supermarket, waiting for the bus, they're waiting on the student loan company to refloat their bank's account, or waiting to get round to call their parents in search of the same service. Or they're past all that, and they're waiting on job-seekers allowances to do the same thing instead. I'm not judging, there's good people amongst that brood, but they're living a fiction, and it's obvious. Then there's Garberville... and you come out of the redwoods, and onto the street through town, one street, 250metres, and in the warm evening a couple of guys outside a bar are playing guitar and singing You are my Sunshine, and there's a kid playing sax, and there's an old movie theatre, and a noticeboard with the photo of some local felon with a tattoo on his chest, it reads, 'enjoying it was a good enough reason'.

I got a sandwich at the deli... there's a girl, driving down from Bellingham, needs to raise $500 to buy the car she's taken, or drive it back to Bellingham. There's a guy from Vancouver, was out at Black Rock, Burning Man festival, one week in the desert, dust storms, people walking up to one another in aviator sunglasses and masks over their nose and mouth, Mad Max, acid everywhere. Needs to raise the money to get back to Vancouver. There's a guy from Portland, left town when some propane explosion blew up a house and the marijuana harvest... Needs to raise the money for starting up down in Colorado, where the state just passed a bill on medical usage of marijuana. There's going to be good money to be had. And they're all in Garberville, Humboldt County, where people call one another cats, where it's an epicentre of US weed, local law-enforcement is in on it, and where the harvest needs to have the leaves trimmed off the bud. And so we're sitting around, talking, eating our sandwiches, and some kid comes by, and he's got a pile of thick hair tangling upwards, and he's got cocoa skin and a pair of jeans that are jumping off of his pubis, and he's got a girl in one hand, and in the other he's got a lead that leads up to his shoulder and winds around the neck of a feline that sits up there.. and he carried on his shoulder a siamese cat, and I know where he got that idea.

He asked what we were doing that evening. One of the guys answered

'Just chillin''
'Good... because when you got nothin else to do, there's nothin better than chillin' ... and sometimes, even when you have got other things to be doin'... there's still nothin' better than chillin''

And that was Garberville, and if it was fiction then it was certainly a convincing one.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Some plugs, some pictures, and a date of return.

Good evening people... a kindly Californian cyclist happened across me on the road this evening, invited me home for dinner with the family, and a couple of glasses of really brilliant local red wine later, I'm sleeping in the cottage in the garden, which even has a bottle of Guiness in the fridge.

This is not actually a blog entry in the sense that I'm going to write much of what has been going on, I'm aiming to do that later in the week, and am vaguely planning to write something more akin to the writing that I do as I ride, rather than the functional tone required of this particular post.

So I might as well start by mentioning the photos... we have a diner in the forest, flags of the confederacy and the northwest all about the place, it's the sort of haunt in which I've been taking my meals, and that particular one was run by an Indian fellow who had been adopted by hillbilly folk from Tennesse.. said that he was raised on biscuits and gravy and believes that many of the Indians are snobs who think that the world owes them something... he was also a fan of our monarchy... there's a photo of me up above the redwood forest of northern california... a dope capital of the US.. I've never been anywhere so chilled... Two photos of the Oregon coast... the most beautiful place in the world... don't go there... it'll ruin the rest of your life by making everything else seem bland, stale and ugly. We also have me in conversations with a giant redwood... he said he was 1300 years old and over 100 metres tall, with a life expectancy of another millenium... I said that I was 24 years old and trying to cycle 18000 miles as fast as possible... He said he couldn't understand why, but wished me well regardless.

And so the practicalities... I've had this in mind for some time, but someone asked me what I thought of my Tout Terrain bike, and so this has prompted me to mentioning some of the stuff that I'm riding with (some of which was sponsored, some of which wasn't).

Starting with the ToutTerrain frame... simply... it's sensational. If you ever want to ride a Rohloff hub then the frame is already designed with components that will accommodate the hub without need of a bundle of additional components. The steel frame is bombproof, and weight isn't an issue... once you load up a touring bike with 25kg of luggage then it's never going to be light, so you might as well get the added strength... The inbuilt rear-rack is a masterpiece... Americans call it 'bitchin'', and will think you very cool.. To be honest, they're right.. I've never known anyone to remove their pannier rack from their bike, so building it in makes perfect sense, improves the comfort of riding with the load, and strengthens the frame too. The masterpiece, in my mind, is a tiny collar that stops the handlebars swinging 360degrees and tearing at all of your cables if the bike falls over... As well as being really practical, this just sums up the way in which the bike was designed by people who know about riding and the many eventualities that can arise on the road... If all that still leaves you in doubt, there is also the fact that the bike is produced by a small firm, with manufacturing in Europe, and close contact with their pretty select band of dealers... In the UK, none other than Bikefix.

So what else then... my GPS tracker, from Donald at Adventure Trading Post, the UK distributor. It's called Spot, and, to be honest, it's brilliant... there's no pointless, high-definition screen to drain batteries (I've only had to change them once), the thing is indestructible and waterproof, it continues to work even when the Chinese sever your mobile phone, and for a modicum of communication it's absolutely everything you need, and no tedium over and above that.

Tyres.... Schwalbe... Jesus... I've had about 10 punctures... however... five of them, in the space of one morning, were due to a Chinese puncture repair kit that must have been using PVA glue, a further two were caused, I believe, by a burr of metal on my rim that snagged the tube as I was putting it in. This means that in 12000 miles, loaded with weight, one set of Schwalbe Marathon Pluses were only breached on three occassions by punctures, and one of those was a nail that would have punctured anything. 12000 miles! 3 punctures! That's a puncture every 4thousand miles! They're brilliant, and will save much roadside anguish. Together with the Schwalbes are my Mavic rims... Mavic make wheels for 500quid, or for around 70, and they're always brilliant.. Baker Street in Brighton built mine for me, as they have done all my wheels, be they for couriering or touring... I once had an articulated truck roll backwards onto my front wheel, and it punctured immediately, but the rim didn't buckle... With wheels you have the option of either spending 25quid a time for shit quality, or forking out more money for a wheel that will still be good after five crap ones have started flapping about like kippers out of water.

Ok... think that's that.... My return... is set... yes... I am coming home...My flight from Boston to Lisbon has been rescheduled for November 22nd, which means that I should stop drinking this bottle of Guiness, stop talking to attractive young women in bars, stop talking to cycling hobos at the roadside, and stop doing just about everything that makes travelling enjoyable... I suppose it's not all that bad... I'm looking forward to mixing it up with the deserts again, and there will, naturally, be fewer distractions that way, and the requisite of a different headspace that I expect to enjoy just as much, albeit differently. Reaching Boston on the 22nd should knock a further 8days off my ride time, putting me in Rouen, outside the Cathedral, at around noon on Friday December 4th....a total of around 165days for my troubles. Record breaking aside, I'm as bankrupt as the UK economy right now, and there's nowt like financial necessity to hurry me back to Europe and the wonders of 50quid a day as a London courier.

As my motley crew of followers is comprised largely of retirees, self-employed, unemployed and good-for-nothing students, I expect a good turnout, and if we could have a choir singing La Marseillaise then I would be most cheered and grateful to you all. Let it be noted that Rouen is a very beautiful city, an ideal venue for annual acquisitons of low-cost wines, and also home to a number of grand churches that look a little like Cathedrals... THE cathedral is opposite the (I believe, only) tourist information office, but just check with google maps beforehand perhaps.

Should you be interested in coming along... A few folk are riding there... Brighton to Newhaven is 10miles, it's 20quid for the crossing, and the ride from Dieppe to Rouen is about 25miles and very flat and easy... my brother undertook the task with a fractured forearm and a shit bike, and will testify to its ease. Alternatively, that same ferry crossing of course accommodates cars, there is the option of a Eurostar to Paris and a train to Rouen... Eurostar tickets can be purchased in advance for around 50quid return, and if you should fancy a combination of transport modes, they takes bicycles, with a very efficient service, for a price of 20quid. I am, as yet, unsure about a celebratory shindig in honour of my return, there's only so much centre-of-attention stuff that I can handle in one six month period... and I'm not very used to crowds these days, that said, if people think that it's a good idea, and it probably is, then leave comments in the blog or on facebook noting as much.

So yeah... I now feel a touch drowsy from this here alcohol and that there wine... but, to recapitulate, Friday 4th December, Rouen Cathedral, around noon ... There's a good bakery and cafe just across the way....

Perdition catch my soul but I will be there, and if I am there not, then chaos has come again.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Western World

Well... I'm back in the land of English... feeling quite strange about it all to be honest, not quite as euphoric as I'd expected. The people of New Zealand are an amazing lot, I'd like to think that it's not just down to the fact that there's only 4million of them in a pretty large area, and that people here are simply a bit more in touch with, and trusting of, human decency, certainly moreso than can be said of a place like London... not that that would be hard, London's about as attuned to human decency as a meeting of the interahamwe ... but anyway.

It's quite probable that my uncertainty about being back in the West was clouded somewhat by the weather. In general I went from humidity and monkeys to snow and winds from Antarctica, which was actually fine, as those winds and I were going the same way... that then seemed to change, however, to no snow (which is quite pretty, especially with red berries dotted amongst it) and plenty of rain, wind going the other direction, and blowing generally any way possible so long as it was in my face. I've ridden over some of the most cragged terrain of the whole route, and realised half-way over it that I'd been doing so with my rear brake-pad hitting the disc every rotation... I'm also losing my fingers to the delights of carpal tunnel syndrome, so it feels like someone else's hand is on the end of my wrist, a thing only very seldom useful and almost always discomforting. One way or another, it's been tough, but that's cool, it was never supposed to be wholly easy.

Possibly the biggest single change has been the food, and after the initial pleasures of finding a mediocre Indian restaurant on my first night, and a sensational fish and chips at Lockie's of Hampden (highway 1, south island, purple sign, right-hand side) ... it's generally just been really disappointing to realise that curries, stews and stir-frys, made with fresh vegetables, right in front of me, have been replaced by sausage roll a la plastique and steak and cheese pie a la plastique ... There's also a McDonald's, Subway or KFC at every turn, and, as testament to this healthy diet of us westerners, there are these humungous creatures walking around, and they look partly human, but they've got a great, bubbling bulge that leads them around, and a great, bubbling bulge that follows them around, and they shuffle from side to side in order to move forward, with their facial features obscured by slumping tubes of fat... I haven't seen anything of the like in 16,000km, and think that perhaps it might be some underevolved sea creature that has come upon the land.

This initial woe at the state of my balanced diet turned (with the help of the weather) into a bit of a general gloom about western society. Because in all of the poor countries I've been trapsing through, people seemed to have more time to mill around, people seemed to be happier (I'm sure that there's a complex causative relation between these two points, just can't quite put my finger on the econometrics), people are certainly healthier, more relaxed, it's still warm when it rains, and old people aren't left standing in shops waiting for someone to wipe away the dribble that's rolling down their chin. In the west we've traded all of this for... I'm not quite sure... road safety rules, when driving however you fancy must be quite fun anyway... and not dropping litter, which would often be quite convenient... It's a raw deal for certain.

The kazakhs had a good t-shirt being worn around Almaty, it said 'no money, no crisis' ... and indeed, roll on poverty is what I say, all we have to do is sit back and watch the food improve, and as the governments of the western world have entrusted economic resurrection to the same stellar crop of bankers that have obviously performed so well in recent times, I'm quietly confident that we'll see menus picking-up within five to ten years.

I was also thinking a fair amount about westerners and our peculiar mentality as I rode through the hills, in the wind and rain, feeling about as comfortable as a calf in a veal crate. In short, it was definitely closer to suffering than anything in the miles up to now... it made me think of a guy I saw in China, when the desert threw up some hills and mountains for variety. In China they have a sort of three-wheeled scooter, with a big crate on the back, so that the thing becomes a little like a cart. Some unfortunate chap had had his three-wheeled scooter-cart break down on him, and as I rode by the fellow, who would have been thinking about going to collect his pension had he been born a bit further west, was pulling it up a hill, with his hands on the handlebars, and a strap tied to the cart portion of the vehicle and strapped high around his chest. The poor bastard had a face that looked like it wished it was dead, and an excitable vein in each temple that looked like it might well make his wishes come true come the top of the hill. But anyway, I rode by him, preparing to ride my 100 daily miles through a desert, making my life infinitely more difficult than it would ever need to be, for the sake of pretty intangible things, while that old chap just got on with what was his daily life anyway. There's definitely nothing more weird than a westerner.

Friday, 18 September 2009

How Do I Feel?

So... I'm in Singapore, namesake of a very fine Tom Waits song, home to ASEANs highest per-capita GDP, and four million people on an island about a quarter of the size of Leicestershire... How does a nation fit four million people on an island a quarter of the size of Leicestershire? It's easy, you just remove all of the character and personality, build flats and tower blocks, and imagine what George Orwell had in mind whilst writing 1984... Fill 1984 with Chinese, Malay, and Indian faces (and in that order of importance too), and you have Singapore.

But how do I feel about being in Singapore? Well... I feel that I just had a bowl of muesli, with thick, creamy yoghurt, a little honey, and fruit salad, and I feel that I followed that with a normal bowl

of cereal covered in lovely, cold milk, and that I accompanied both of those things with cups of tea, suffixed two poached eggs on toast to them, and crowned it all off with an espresso - brought to me by the very good people at illy - and a slice of toast with nutella and butter all over it. I did all of that after sleeping for 14hours on wonderful, fresh sheets, and having a couple of really good showers. So that is how I'm feeling, and it feels good.

I don't know how closely you lot follow my day-to-day progress, but, having found a guy in Singapore who could fix the gremlins rattling in my Rohloff hub gear, and having found that this guy was to leave for Thailand in a little over forty-eight hours, fate set me the challenge of riding what transpired to be over 400miles/660kilometres in a little under 48hours...And I'm grateful for that challenge, because it was, all in all, great fun... a wonderful piece of limit-testing, exercising of my focus, and a nice little adventure within an adventure... I'd probably have felt less positive about the experience had all not worked out, but as it did, I'm smiling.

I rode throughout two nights, took a trio of well-timed power naps at intervals dictated by a combination of necessity and the desire to avoid midday heat/humidity, ate ice cream at every petrol station, made myself drink coca-cola even though I hate the stuff, and over the last 200km I ate a bunch (literally, ten) of bananas given to me by a Muslim lady putting about the goodwill for Ramadan. For all that, the whole thing didn't tire me out too much, not in my muscles anyway. What was really interesting to behold was the collapse of my skin-condition into nasty, oily spots across my thighs and forearms, and a pernicious sweat-rash under my arms... again, this seems more interesting now that it's gone, but it's incredible the way that those fourteen hours of sleep were all it took to address the problem, and for my body to go about its repair. One of my favourite things about riding is the opportunity it gives to witness just what a machine a body is, it's pure mechanics, but of such an intricate level that it's amazing... bananas in particular are fantastic, within minutes of eating one you can actually feel the energy being combusted out of it and suffusing into the body.. Equally amazing is the way people can overlook this so entirely in normal life when all the resources we need are abundantly available.

The final part of my high spirits is that Paul Moir, the excellent soul with whom I spent yesterday afternoon working on my bike, the same excellent soul who then went to Thailand for a team adventure race (mountain biking, trail-running, kayaking... sounds cool, doesn't it?) told me that I would be welcome to stay at his house while he's away, which is what I'm now doing...I've not been given sole trust of Paul's house, there's a maid here too, and last night the maid made fried rice, and now she's just rustled up a fine bowl of noodles... Even without having someone cooking for me, it feels so much more comfortable than being in a hotel, I'm going to finish writing this and then finish changing the oil in my hub, replace the parts of my drive train that we couldn't replace yesterday, and then I'm going to have another shower and spend some time oggling Paul's pretty beautiful collection of bicycles. Travelling with a bicycle really is fantastic, in a million different ways, but also because it puts you immediately in touch with a whole community of people all over the world.

Anyway, the ride from Bangkok to Singapore was, pretty much, a breeze. I was confronted by such enormous difficulties as selecting between a red or a green Thai curry, and whether I wanted shrimp or chicken in my pad thai. Another great challenge was learning to wipe my arse with one hand whilst directing a hosepipe accurately with the other, and mustering just enough moral fortitude to resist being lured into lobbies, illuminated in pink, and with a concierge of pretty pretty women offering their massages and glowing smiles for sums of money that scarcely exist once exchange rates are considered. Part of the allure here was that I'm not entirely sure what a Thai massage consists of... see, if part of a traditional Thai massage involves being rubbed by a pair of oiled breasts, well, I wouldn't want to be the sort of xenophobe who would shirk from new and culturally enlightening experiences such as these ... prostitution though... even if the prostitues don't seem too unhappy at their job... for all my bad language, I'm a soppy wimp and useless romantic deep down, and I've got a mother and sister and unborn daughters to weigh on my conscience, so I walked-on back to my own hotel, less-exciting and more modest though it was... Hurrah! A good, Christian ending!

The other feature of Thailand and Malaysia was that it really made me think about how much I disliked much of Chinese culture... I don't know if the term, Sinophobe, exists, but in my head it certainly does now... On an anthropological level, the attitudes of the Chinese towards foreigners is fascinating, on an everyday level, it just makes me think 'why can't you be a tiny bit nicer?'... Which is exactly what the situation is in Thailand and Malaysia.. only they're much nicer, and in some regions it's explained by the familiarity brought about by tourism, and in others, where there aren't tourists, the folk are still really warm and opening and welcome. And they're relaxed too, people would walk up to me, we'd shake hands, and have a conversation using the relevant place-names in my journey... and it was great to return to having interactions with people who didn't think me a circus exhibit or a harbinger of evil spirits. Anyway, that's enough bad blood for one blog.

For now.... I fly to New Zealand on the 20th, arrive there on the 21st. Henceforth there will be no unbearable heat, no high humidity to give me calluses, I'll be able to start taking it for granted that I can buy everything that I eat back home at the same relative prices as back home, and I'm going to ask for directions, in English, and understand answers, in English, at every opportunity life affords, and even in some needless situations, just because I can.

The record... Apart from my pre-departure statements of 18000 miles in 180 days, I've never set any targets, or even spoken of beating the record as if it were a certainty. James Bowthorpe of GlobeCycle is about to beat the record of Mark Beaumont PLC, so a huge congratulations to him, not least because he has done what I set out to do; beat the record, by some margin, and without all the corporate fanfare and bullshit factor of the Beaumont ride... for those of you that might be interested, James is to be at Hyde Park at 18:30 on Saturday 19th September, and is meeting other riders on the road from Portsmouth so as to get a bit of a procession going. Better details than that can doubtless be found through www.globecycle.org

James is likely to ride in between 170-175days, so my 180 days goes out of the window on account of that anyway. That said, even if I didn't accelerate from this point onwards, but maintained 100mile days as the goal, I've already made enough time to get me in around day 170. On the ride up to Auckland I'm going to consider it hard, and crunch some numbers, and put a definite day and date for my being back at Rouen Cathedral. I think 160days is the minimum I'm aiming for, 150days would be cool, not least for knocking a month and a half off of Beaumont and his train of corporate rot... 149 tempts me for being sub-150. We'll see, but it'll be big.

Pictures... I should put this paragraph at the beginning for all those who probably get bored by reading the entire blog entry... Anyway, we have one of Thailand's rather odd, big-eared cow, we have a coconut plantation, we have flies at the watering hole, a Thai beach, a monkey headed for a delicious-looking bag of rubbish, another monkey showing exactly what he thinks of westerners and their cameras, and me at Singapore airport, trying to figure out what had happened to 400miles...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Out of China

Well... after a long, enforced absence I now return to you from Thailand... where they paint the trucks like fairground rides, the people are warm, and a small company called Tesco is making brave forays into the local market with its very own 'Lotus Express'

Anyway... Rumour has it that the Chinese state caught wind of a nebulous but potent political form, riding in from the west and identifying itself only, somewhat cryptically, as This Is Not For Charity... accordingly, they saw fit to censor me along with all of the nation's other censored bloggers. All of which was a bit sensitive of them, but I'm looking on the bright side and imagining myself as some sort of dangerous, literary radical... an illusion that lasts about as long as it takes to discover that China also censored the incendiary literary content that is Facebook, and Twitter too. Nobody has told them that Facebook is actually the perfect way to get a nation completely disengaged from all meaningful, critical activities, and completely enthralled with taking photos of themselves at arm's length, or looking at others who have taken photos of themselves at arm's length, on the nights of the week that they try hardest to appear a little less ugly

So... where were we... an internet cafe in Shymkent I believe, the start of my time along the Silk Road, with an Azeri's family restaurant across the road and well-stocked with Turkic stews to satisfy the appetite of a hungry cyclist. China has been an entirely different world to Kazakhstan... not least in respect of the fact that I really loved being in Kazakhstan, desert and all, whilst China has been bloody hard work and something of a mental onslaught... amazingly so, fascinatingly so, and not least because I don't believe that the Chinese are ever being rude when they behave in fashions that I find infuriatingly so.... there's no denying that the whole thing feels more amazing and more fascinating once sitting comfortably in Shanghai and preparing to get out. Fortunately, on account of having lived a year in rural Vietnam, I wasn't quite as battered by the whole experience as I might otherwise have been, which is a scary thought, because it felt pretty battering regardless... Basically, Chinese culture is a million miles away from western culture, but it's also 950,000miles away from Slavic, Arabic or Turkic cultures too... people are free to stand and peer over your shoulder as you send an email, a text message or write in your notepad, people are free to point at you, they are free to call you as if you were their goat, they are free to stare at you, and stare at you, and stare at you, and sometimes they will stare right at you, from only a metre away, and not even respond when you give them a nod or a wave or a smile of acknowledgement... People are free to laugh at you, right in your face, and when you ask for something, they will shout the only word of English they learned, NO, and in the most awful accent too, and then they will burst out laughing at the fact that they are completely disinterested in helping a stranger in their country who is standing with a map at a crossroads and really isn't about to ask anything too complicated, or anything that they couldn't quite easily help with.... People will call after you... HELLO!... as you ride by, and sometimes I would forget what this was the precursor unto, and I would shout HELLO back at them, at which they rolled around laughing; because they said a word and the foreigner replied with the appropriate word? Because lingual communication really works? Because they tricked the foreigner into thinking they were offering a greeting when actually they just wanted to laugh at him opening his stupid, foreign mouth?

I don't know... all I know is that it's weird and strange and it often feels like a pretty trying environment... Of course it's part cultural... Chinese people do call one another as if they were goats too, and it doesn't mean that they think of you as only a goat, it just means that they're not as eager as a westerner to fall over themselves for the sake of nicety... But then again it isn't just culture, because there are, in China, people who treated me respectfully, listened patiently, and then understood as I made my awful pronunciation of the place-name 10km in the direction I was pointing, who have smiled and waved when I have done so, and who have respected my space and treated me in a warm and welcoming manner... For quite some time it seemed that these people were invariably Taiwanese, Uyghur, Kazakh, Mongolian or of various mountain tribes, but come Shanghai even the Han had learned a little bit of decorum, and I am inclined to believe there are decent folk amongst their number too. Of course there is the consideration that I had been riding 100miles a day through China, often having to work quite hard to do so, and thereby putting a strain on relations with the population ... this seems like a valid point, but there again I was riding the same distances, in tougher conditions, through Kazakhstan, and the same distances, on a much less pleasing diet, through Russia and the Ukraine, and in those places I never experienced even half the antipathy that I have done at times in China.

The best way to summarise how China left me feeling is that I would become enraged by the sullen, stubborn, childish, moronic and downright ridiculous behaviour of people I encountered, and then I would ride on, thinking all kinds of horrible, hateful, bilious filth, and then I would meet someone kind and good and decent, which would leave me feeling ashamed and foolish for all my hate ... to be honest, I'm not even unhappy with that balance... I almost find it pretty natural, I'd like to think that the fact that I kept on having good encounters was testament to the fact that I always treated every interaction as a new one with a new human being, and left whatever previous illfeeling at the door.... In short, I was cycling through a different culture, as a westerner... I'll never get a fair and accurate reflection of that culture, because as soon as I raise my little, white face I completely change the dynamic of their normal behaviour... and sometimes that behaviour isn't so gracious, and sometimes my response isn't either... I'm not doing this ride as some sort of global ambassador for humanity, I'll leave that to those with the honest integrity of a Tony Blair, or the down-to-earth normalcy of Angelina Jolie.

So on all the cultural stuff I'm now feeling pretty mellow, but then there's the patriotism.... And patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but it's alright, because the scoundrel also has the company of the halfwit and the dumbfuck and the braindead down there in his refuge.... and China is just full of patriots... and not the good strand of patriotism either, the one that values a nation as a community of interconnected people bound by ideals and hopes and mutual care for their fellow brothers and sisters, the strand that is often quite saddened by the manner in which the nation and community is sold down the river with patriotism passed-off as the reason why people should shut-up and watch quietly... Nope, Chinese patriotism is having a whale of a time, what with the fact that the country gets richer and richer (even if half the country are still grape and tomato farmers, and even if the country is just a bowl of smog and fumes) and with having a bigger and bigger army to assist in filming the music videos, that you can see in motorway service stations, where some hot Chinese chick in a military uniform gets hold of a gun and starts shooting it into the ranks of the enemy, the good old flag fluttering in the background, and the entire restaurant watching this brilliant piece of music-come-filmmaking ... So yeah, I found the patriotism hard too... It's hard to think that, even meeting nice people, I'm meeting people in love with a political entity that I find revolting... very much like meeting Tories back home.... of course it's largely down to miseducation and misinformation, but still, it's hard

This was exacerbated by arriving in Uyghur so close to a period of unrest, with my mobile phone cut and police and soldiers crawling all over the province, constantly asking for my passport, wasting literally hours of my time in questionings, writing down my details, and generally setting me off on a bit of a bad foot with China. Not least because I have a great deal of sympathy for the cause of the Uyghur people... To be crude, Uyghur is the same as Tibet, a different region appropriated by Han China with no regard for the people living there, or the brutality required to incorporate it into the Chinese state... it's complicated, I doubt that Uyghur would come to much as an entirely independent nation, that said, equally undeniable is the need for China's better-recognition of the rights of Uyghurs to be Uyghurs, rather than secondary citizens in a Han China. To be cynical, Uyghur is different to Tibet... aside from sitting to its north, it's also full of rotten, Muslim terrorists.... sorry, that was fallacious of me, not all rotten Muslims are terrorists, but they are certainly a lot less fashionable than those nice, orange Buddhists, chilling out, all cute and cuddly, down there in Tibet. And so, whilst Uyghur and Tibet face a very similar quandary, you won't be finding any of those tasty, size-8, brunette bohemians wearing a FREE UYGHUR t-shirt outside the Chinese embassy, and you won't be finding quite so many Guardian journalists falling over themselves to get on the plane to Urumchi. There has, of late, actually been a small twitch from the western media in reporting on issues in Uyghur... it's coincided with Uyghurs burning cars and attacking the Han migrants, which just goes to show, violence is never the answer.

All of which must sound a bit negative... which would be unfortunate, because riding through China was, with the exception of all the horns, fantastic... A beautiful country with fantastic food that comes at sensational prices in excellent quantity... furthermore, with 1.3billion Chinese, if only by random probability and laws of averages, there were always going to be plenty of nice folk to meet along the road... There were more camels, more black, snow-topped mountains, all frozen above me in my desert, there was the epic Turfan depression, the second-lowest point on the earth's surface at 125metres below sea level, hot as fire as the Chinese name titles it, and home to a soil of legendary fertility... when I rode through it was spewing out field after field of the greenest grapevines against the orange sands all about. I rode high into the mountains, where the skies turn blue blue, where the cows get hairier as you ride upwards on hour and a half long climbs that require such beautiful and meditative patience, and then you descend like a bird, swooping in and out of hairpins at 40kmh for the best part of an hour... It's cool. After the mountains there came the hills, the terracing cut into the sides from centuries of farming, it's pretty green there too. And then there were the names... I rode by the southern reaches of the Gobi, I followed the Yangtze valley, and I rode through China, through China I tell you!

I thought often of year 5, at primary school in Leicestershire, aged 10 I would have been... to be honest I think often of the place I grew up, every time I'm in a place that feels so overwhelmingly of another world ...an hour talking to Zulhar under his truck, the only shade in a Kazakh desert... drifting in and out of sleep beneath the caravan that some peasant had pulled to a junction in the beginnings of that same desert, a junction where he was starting his barbecue business ... whenever I'm in such a place I'm just bowled-over by the fact that I have existed in two such radically different moments.

But anyway... year 5, aged 10... We were probably having some sort of geography lesson, all of us sitting cross-legged on the carpet... teacher wanted to know who was the first person to travel from Europe to China... though it had always struck me as odd to suggest that there was one person to do this FIRST, I knew that the answer was meant to be Marco Polo (funny that Mr and Mrs Polo named their kid after a suitcase manufacturer) ... I remember the moment because on that day, I decided to try a different tack and, rather than know the answer and get hassled for being clever (this was long before the days when people respected intelligence and some strange girls were even prepared to sleep with you on account of it) I just kept quiet and didn't raise my hand... And I remember that that damn teacher, when nobody else came up with the answer, came round to me, and asked if I knew, and I said no, and then she asked the question again, directly at me, and looked at me hard... so I gave her her stupid bloody Marco Polo, and everything was able to continue as normal for the smart kid that the dumb kids liked to hassle. Ahh... Woe is me ... Anyway, point being that fifteen years later, riding my bike through China, I've thought of that moment on a carpet in an Earl Shilton primary school, and saying that Marco Polo had travelled to China... and now I've done the same, with my legs and heart and lungs, and without a single hotel, and washing in rivers and eating in the ramshackle joints at deserted roadsides.

And that feels pretty fucking cool.

Well... wouldn't that have been a nice note on which to end a blog entry... but, no, we have a bathos-load of photos too... those adorable photos that we all know and love.... What do we have... some train carriage abandoned in a desert... a yurt beside Sayram Hu, a lake, 3000 metres up, on the Chinese-Kazakh border ... we have the effects of a bicycle and a westerner showing up in rural China.. it's the only way to stop them working, if enough westerners come to China on bicycles then maybe we could slow their economic growth and the world won't have to be ruled by a foul tyrant of a nation...come on, I've done my bit.... there's a photo of me standing on the surface of the moon, and we also have me, in black and white no less, looking adventurous ... and me, in black-and-white colour looking like a chimney sweep... I hadn't rolled around in the muck, I just cycled through 60miles of mining valley, and that is what it covered me in... You might also notice a ridiculous, triangulated beard in this photo... A wonderful Taiwanese guy (it was so nice to meet others who disliked the Chinese state when in China) leant me a clean razor, but I blunted it before the chin came... the damage has since been rectified you will be pleased t0 hear.

Some questions that I noticed amongst my comments... the Shanghai-Bangkok distance, yep, it was against the direction I have been travelling, which is why it was flown rather than ridden, as I had originally wished... the police... yep... we do kinda need some such force, which is why criticism is absolutely necessary in order that they be improved ... I have no inherent distaste for the police as an institution, and their founder, Sir Robert Peel (the very reason they are called Rozzers, Peelers and Bobbies) is actually my political hero were I compelled to choose such a figure... A man prepared to sacrifice his own political career for the sake of legislation that was good and proper, and a man who would not let party lines stand in the way of pragmatism and the best interest of the nation....

Sweet jesus... what happened to politics?

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