[To view the full post, click here]
So I guess this is it! Considering I’m writing now from a comfy chair in a Canterbury coffee shop, drinking Americanos and eating a blueberry muffin, you would be safe to assume that I have left any ruggedness behind for a while and am currently embracing the easy life. But how did I get here? Well…
Last time I properly blogged I had just arrived in Hong Kong, and was feeling rather hollow. Going home was not something I’d thought about at all during my cycling, but it was always there as a reminder of what I had to be thankful for – all the comforts we come to expect. Now, suddenly as I faced this juncture head on, that carrot at the end of the stick seemed to be incredibly disappointing. There had certainly been a stick, for sure, but the carrot was fully a creation of my mind, and finishing seemed to bring no reward or relief; it merely left me existing in a situation slightly different to the one I’d been in previously.
As has happened so often before on my journey however, I was rescued by good company. I have learned there are few things in life as valuable as spending time with people who entertain, inspire and educate you, and I was lucky enough to find myself in just such a situation in Hong Kong. Just before I left New York I responded to a Tweet on my Twitter Feed from a guy called Rob Lilwall. For those who don’t know of Rob, his story is that of a complete mad-man – spending 3 years cycling (mostly alone) from Siberia back to England, covering parts of the globe that most people with a sensible outlook on life would avoid (Afghanistan, Tibet, Papua New Guinea etc.) I’d read his book, ‘Cycling Home from Siberia,' and watched the Nat Geo TV series by the same name. Fortunately Rob is of course not actually a madman, or if he is it is only in that sense of the ‘Great British Explorer’ – a desire to seek out adventure coupled with a conquering of fear, which is really something I think we should all aspire to. Through the almighty power of Twitter I’d connected with Rob in New York when he was visiting on a speaking engagement, and he was kind enough to make time for an excitable Irishman with a half baked plan to cycle to Hong Kong. Along with his wife Christine, an invite was extended for me to come and stay when I made it to HK, their new home, and so it was that I found myself waiting for them on Lantau Island.
Rob and Christine are working with ‘Viva,’ setting up and running an Asian office for the British-based children at risk charity. Despite their hectic schedules, they managed to spend a lot of time entertaining me, and by the time I left Hong Kong I felt relaxed and encouraged about what was to come next. The weather was pretty poor during my stay and so tourist activities were minimal, but I felt attaining a state of inner calm was a much greater achievement in the long run. With Lola boxed up, my panniers crammed into a survival bag, and my bike helmet bouncing around redundantly on my backpack, I checked in at Hong Kong international airport and began the long flight to Paris.
My time in the French capital was, in short, blissful. If I were to tell you full details of my exploits there I fear you would laugh me out of the room, mocking how boring I have become in such a short space of time and reprimanding me failing to fully explore a city which offers so much. My girlfriend Clare came to see me and we spent 4 days talking non-stop in cafes and napping when normal people were at work. This was followed by another 4 days with two of my closest friends, and these were spent in cinemas, bars and walking through the jardin d’Luxembourg. Rarely have I felt so at peace during a time when my life has so little stability.
On Wednesday the 2nd March I awoke Lola and called her back into action. We took some pictures at Notre Dame, watched the morning sun pierce the clouds above the Seine and headed north out of the city. My first stop was Amiens, another beautiful French city with a cathedral to take your breath away. That evening I rode to the train station and greeted Ruben, my riding partner for the next day. We had never met, although within a couple of hours it felt like we’d know each other for years. Ruben has been following my trip for quite a while now, harbouring plans for a long distance ride of his own. Through a mutual friend we connected, and it was truly liberating to have company on the road again. Cycling from Paris to London seemed like a stonking way to prolong the life I’d come to know, but I hadn’t accounted for my brain making the inevitable leap to what may happen next. As soon as I pedaled away from Notre Dame I realized that my head was already in London, and now I had to spend 4 days of unmotivated riding to catch up. Thus Ruben provided a welcome break from my own thoughts. I have been pleased to learn that I can be very good company to myself, however I have also come to know that I absolutely need regular time away from myself, so to speak. Otherwise I descend into mild madness, talking to myself and staring wildly at anyone who approaches unannounced. Hazards of a year of the road? Maybe.
That evening Ruben and I met Yuma, a Japanese student planning to walk around Europe sketching famous works of architecture. He carried with him little money, a small sleeping bag, flip flops and next to no common sense. I liked him a lot. With no French in his vocabulary, and his English extending as far as saying his own name I think he may be in for a tough time. But good on him, that’s a true explorer’s attitude I feel! Perhaps a little more preparation (or any at all) wouldn’t go amiss, but he was enthusiastic. Ruben too, was oozing passion for his dream of bike touring through Europe. I hate to say that I’ve become jaded with the life I’ve chosen, but I think to be honest in the last few weeks I have. I know however that this is only because the end suddenly appeared in sight, and once it was in the headlights I could see nothing else. Thoughts of home, family and the uncertain future swamped me.
-3 degrees Celsius awoke me early on my last night in France. Frost clung to my beard like icing, crumbling away when I washed my face in a fresh water river. I packed up my tent and ate two frozen pain au raisins that were stashed in my panniers. I shook my head like a dog to dry off, and brushed off any notions of how inappropriate this morning ritual would be once I return to normality. The channel crossing seems like it would be a momentous event, and nerves bristled down my neck as Lola and I wheeled into the belly of the ship. Any romance or emotion was soon cut short however when I promptly fell asleep, only waking to the shakes of a SeaFrance Official. ‘C’mon mate, shift, unless you want to go back to France!’
I didn’t – within minutes I’d be back on English soil, and less than 100 miles from the end.
That night I slept in Canterbury, and met in the morning with 4 riders who had responded to my online request for company to London. Martin, John, Fred and Ben escorted me out of Canterbury on the delightful backroads that make Kent such a joy. At Faversham Ben and I parted ways with the others, and the 2 of us continued along the busy and relatively boring A2 headed west. The last 20 miles were spend watching the capital grow around us, expanding and mutating into the colossus that eventually constitutes central London. 14,000 miles had led to this. The final 500 meters took me over London Bridge, through some side streets and onto Canon Street running parallel with the Thames. St Paul’s ballooned out over the surrounding structures, domination them like stone minions. We followed the road as it circumnavigated the cathedral and slowed to a stop in front of the monstrous gates. Just over the curb stood a welcome party – parents, cousins, friends, Clare…all here just to celebrate my safe return. Finally an overwhelming sensation. It had been a long time in coming.