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

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 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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