A road runs through it

When I say I had no meaningful encounters during my ten-day dash to get out of China, that’s not strictly true. It’s impossible to avoid meeting people in China, because whenever you stop the bike, a crowd will gather. Several times a day I’d pull up at a petrol station (beloved support system of long distance cyclists) and the girls (they were usually girls) working there would fuss over me, giving me food and water and taking photos of me with their phones. Or they’d be shy, and giggle at me from the other side of the forecourt as I sat on the step, wearily stuffing my face with yet more noodles and biscuits.

The problem with riding so fast is that I didn’t have time to dwell on any of these encounters, or properly commit them to memory. My kindle’s sudden refusal to connect to the internet meant that I couldn’t even summarize the day’s events in my nightly emails to my family (I don’t keep a diary, so this is a good way of taking notes). Already the last two weeks have become a blur, with most of the kind people I met buried so deeply in my subconscious that I worry they’ll never emerge.

Or perhaps they will. As I settled into the simple rhythm of riding-eating-sleeping, I found that, although life was hard, it was also satisfying to return to the core fundamentals of what this expedition is all about. Me and the bike and the road and the sky. And, curiously, I found that tiny fragments of other stretches of the road began to surface in my mind – particularly from Iran, which I had to ride through at similar breakneck speed.

One morning last week, for no reason that I could discern, I had a sudden powerful recollection of a small shop I’d stopped at in the winter sunshine of an Iranian morning, more than six months ago. I can’t remember which town it was in, but the layout of the junction, the frozen mud and litter outside the shop, and the battered silver samovar where I filled a tiny plastic cup with hot fragrant tea were all of a sudden just as alive as if I’d been there just the day before. I remembered dithering over the various biscuits and cakes and other snacks, though I don’t quite recall what I ended up buying. I remembered the brief and faltering exchange (sparse Farsi; plentiful smiles) with the owner of the shop, although his face is a blank. I remembered the curious glances of people standing nearby, flagging down buses and taxis on their way to work, and the feeble warmth of the sun after the chill of a January morning.

There was nothing remarkable about the fifteen minutes I spent outside that shop, and no reason why it should have stuck in my memory at all; much less why it should have floated up from the depths of my forgetfulness at that particular moment. My year of cycling has been punctuated by over 1,000 little breaks like this, at unremarkable shops and petrol stations in unremarkable places. It’s part of the mundane business of the road – probably the equivalent of an office worker’s hourly trips to the bathroom or the water cooler, or outside for a cigarette – and it’s a routine I settle into as readily and as comfortably as I might a well-worn pair of shoes or a broken-in Brooks saddle.

(You’ll perhaps be surprised to find out that I love routine. Even though I usually sleep in a different place every night, I always pitch my tent and unpack my bike in the same order. (I sleep on the left and line my panniers up on the right, with my alarm clock, headtorch and dog dazer arranged next to my head, in case I need them in the night.) If I stay in a town for longer than one meal, I’ll usually go back to the same restaurant or shop several times. I suspect this betrays security blanket tendencies.)

A few months ago I was both captivated and concerned by Alastair Humphreys’ account of revisiting his old bike, and realizing how much of his journey he had forgotten. Forgetting is, I suppose, inevitable. I have a constant, low-level anxiety about recording as much of this trip as possible, and an accompanying guilt about all the people I’ve met whose faces I didn’t photograph, whose stories I never thought to ask, whose names I don’t remember. But the longer I continue, the more people I meet. I am still regularly brought to tears by their generosity and friendliness (this most recently happened when I stumbled into a roadside cafe at 2am, somewhere between Taiyuan and Shijiazhuang, all shaky and bloody after crashing into a pothole in the dark, and was given three plates of hot food, offered alcohol, sent downstairs for a hot shower, and then put to bed for a couple of hours), but once I’ve pedalled off, their faces retreat back into the ever-growing mass of my memories, and who’s to say whether they’ll float to the surface again in a year’s time, in a roadside cafe in central Mexico, or whether they’ll sink into the sediment on the seabed of my mind and be lost forever?

I rarely take notes on my experiences and observations (disgraceful, I know, for an aspiring travel writer), and since my camera’s on its last legs and all my memory cards are full up (and I’m not much of a photographer anyway), I’m taking fewer and fewer pictures. But perhaps there are other, less tangible aides memoires. Like the road itself. As I relaxed into the routine of riding-eating-sleeping, punctuated as it was by potholes, petrol stations and other people’s generosity, my memories of similar roads in Iran and Turkey drew so close that sometimes I’d lose my moorings and momentarily forget which country I was in. Everyone goes on about how important it is for travel writers to evoke ‘a sense of place’, but sometimes I find I’m actually experiencing a sense of placelessness. The road. It’s the same wherever you go. It’s the line that connects us. It brings it all together. It’s the closest I get to home.

(There’s a story behind each of the photos illustrating this post. Ask me about them sometime. And of course, there are even more stories that don’t have photos attached to them. I will never have time to recount them all, let alone remember them.)

Leave a Comment

6 Comments

  1. Posted September 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Emily, feeling guilty about forgetting people who are transitory is akin to feeling guilty that you don’t have any idea who shared your daily commute in London. There will be people who shine but the brain needs to dump all the rest of them, and all the roads, and all the trees, and each individual petrol station in order to keep functioning. I stopped feeling guilty about not remembering non-regular massage clients somewhere around the 1,000th one.

    Oh, foo. I had a question but now I’ve forgotten it. (I think I have a theme going here…)

  2. Angela
    Posted September 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Emily. On travel writing, you might be interested in a 4-part article on the subject written by Lyn Hughes, founder and chief editor of the Wanderlust travel magazine:
    http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/magazine/articles/advice/get-paid-to-travel—travel-writing?page=all

    Good luck with it all! What a trip . . .

  3. Jon
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read several bike touring blogs and I really appreciate how much you talk about your feelings and mentality while touring. Many other bike touring blogs spend the entire time talking about the sights they saw and the hills they climbed, just stating the facts. But you write in such a way that puts us readers right there with you, to have a glimpse into your mind and to understand what it’s really like to be alone on the road in an unknown place. Just wanted to say that I appreciate your honesty and that your writing brings back so many memories and feelings that I’ve had while touring.

  4. Jon
    Posted September 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Great blog – I’m currently pondering throwing caution to the wind by giving up my nice safe life in the uk to do something similar.

    Reading through your adventures and outlook on life has just tipped the balance towards writing a very long too list and setting a date.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has been inspired by your writing – keep up the fantastic work.

    • Posted October 1, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      Oh wow – good luck with the very long to do list (don’t let it scare you too much, you’ll never finish it, and it won’t matter), and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

  5. Posted November 26, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily, congrats on the award. Well deserved I’m sure, though I don’t read your blog – it’s just too depressing to think that life can be so full and exciting. Instead I read my own blog from 6 years ago, telling how we cycled to Dubrovnik and back, always musing on whether I could ever persuade Kitty to do such a thing again or if I need to become a cliché – i.e. find myself a ten-year younger woman and a sports-car (a Mercian would do).
    May your pedals spin eternally and the words weft with them.

    Garry & Kitty xxxx