On my fourth day on the road, all those months ago, I passed through London, and there was a fond farewell party on the roof of an old multi-storey carpark in Peckham.
It’s a memory I often revisit as I ride through the deserts and the mountains and the vast tracts of earth where there isn’t a familiar face, or even a familiar language. I had never had so many of my nearest and dearest gathered in one place, and now, in my regular daydreams about my triumphant homecoming, I sometimes imagine riding back into London from Dover, some years hence, and finding them all still there, a few years older and wiser, some of them with new babies in their arms, others of them still brandishing the same pints they toasted me with as I left. It never seriously occurred to me that some of them wouldn’t be around any more.
One of the final hangers-on that night was my friend Steff, whom I’d got to know when he read a rant about failing waterproofs on my courier blog, and spent the next few weeks pursuing me round London with a bottle of NikWax. I later learned that this was completely in character. Almost every story I have concerning Steff is of his astounding and persistent generosity – quite a lot of the kit I’m using now came from him, and I have actually started reining myself in from mentioning when things go wrong, because I know he’ll instantly insist on replacing them. As I got to know him I also found out that he was also a fabulously warm, kind and funny (and slightly odd) gentleman, with one of London’s greatest moustaches, and an apt, obscure or hilarious anecdote for every occasion. For some reason or other he became deeply interested in my trip, and glancing back over the comments on my blog, I find many of them are from him, expressing his interest in reading my eventual book (which I still don’t necessarily plan to write), and looking forward to seeing me when I someday make it back to London.
Three weeks ago, while I was battling through the blizzards of Akita, I remembered that Steff was due to start a new job in a new country round about now, and made plans to email him as soon as I was next online, to find out how it was all going. But when I logged in that evening, the first email I read told me that Steff had died, unexpectedly, just a few hours previously.
In theory, of course, I knew this would happen. When gloomily running through all the worst-case scenarios before I set off (almost none of which have actually occurred), I purposefully acknowledged to myself that it was possible that one or two people I knew wouldn’t be there when I got back. Somehow though, anticipating this scenario didn’t detract from the shock of it actually happening.
The last few weeks have been difficult. My mind’s been flooded with grief and exhaustion and homesickness – so much so that I can no longer really tell which is which, or whether they’re all exacerbating and feeding off each other. Despite the impression I may have given elsewhere, loneliness and homesickness are still fairly unfamiliar emotions for me, so when they do hit, they tend to be unexpected, and thus knock me sideways. When I found myself weeping uncontrollably through most of the Christmas period, I realized I was going to have to do something other than keep a stiff upper lip, and started following the advice I always give other people, and which Sarah Outen recently encapsulated far better than me, which was to talk to people about it.
I felt the same embarrassment that anyone might feel when admitting they’re not coping – and it was magnified by the pride I take in being self-sufficient, and solving my own problems when things go wrong. But I reminded myself that, after sixteen months on the the road, everything will start to wear out. My bike and kit have been breaking a lot more frequently in the last few months – the inevitable consequence of hauling it over all those mountains and deserts. And if I want to continue, there’s no option but to assess the damage, repair it where I can, and replace things where I can’t. I have started to acknowledge that my body needs similar care and attention – but perhaps it’s also the case with my mind. It very rarely gets a proper rest. When I’m not on the road I’m busily bashing away at a laptop, trying to sort out the increasingly complicated admin and logistics of my trip, and to keep it all afloat.
So I took a deep breath, and told a few people what was going on, choosing fellow explorers and travellers, who I thought were most likely to understand.
“Go home! Take a break!” they said.
“No no, that’s just not an option” I replied.
But I started to wonder whether it actually was. I asked my family what they thought – and of course they jumped on the idea with great enthusiasm. And then I looked at flights, and found that I could be back in London for less than £500. And that settled it. I arrive on the 10th of January, and I’ll spend about a month in the UK, before carrying on to the Americas. I have no doubt that I want to continue my journey – this year has been the most wonderful and satisfying of my life, and I still consider cycling round the world to be the right decision. But going home, and spending time with the people I love, is also the right decision.
Am I ‘cheating’? Am I breaking the rules? Well, whose rules are they anyway? There’s actually no such thing as cycling round the world – the way our planet’s formed doesn’t allow for a continuous overland loop, so bicycle circumnavigators have to resort to boats and planes to get them over the blue bits. Guinness sets out certain rules for speed record attempts, but these necessitate riders using air transit in order to get between departure points as quickly as possible, and avoiding the more difficult/fun/mountainous/windy sections, which might slow them down. People who are restricted by financial or professional commitments might ride around the world in segments, perhaps being on the road for a month or two per year. Some people fly over the more dangerous/inconvenient countries (like Iran, Pakistan and China). Some do a loop only of the Northern Hemisphere (i.e. riding across Europe, Asia and North America, but missing out South America and Africa). I long ago gave up wondering who is most genuinely cycling round the world.
What are my personal rules? Well, I like to do things the hard way, and I don’t like to admit defeat. And that’s why I refused to fly from Tehran to Lahore (instead of travelling through Balochistan), as some people suggested. That’s why I only accept a lift if I am absolutely compelled to by the police (or by Japanese samurai comedians in tracksuits). That’s why I rode through Turkey in winter and Xinjiang in summer. That’s why I didn’t crack and take a bus to beat my Chinese visa deadline. That’s why I’m aiming to cycle the length of Asia, the Americas and Africa, avoiding shortcuts. That’s why I’ve still got my eye on the Alaskan winter.
This year I’ve realized what I always suspected – that I am only properly happy when rising to a challenge. And that’s one reason I find this ‘cycling round the world’ lark so immensely satisfying, and why I plan to continue. There has been a great variety of physical and mental challenges over the past sixteen months, and there are many more to come. But the challenge of being without my loved ones for the next few years, with all the toughness, misery and emotional stamina that would require, seems fairly pointless. I can’t see it leading to the same triumphant glow that I felt when I rolled into Dogubeyazit last January. It will simply deprive me of their company and them of mine. We may grow apart in my absence and, worst of all, not all of them will still be there when I finally get home.
One of the things I had to let go of when making this decision was the perfect homecoming scenario I’d imagined. I’d cycle back up the Wye Valley towards Llanidloes, thinking about how many years it had been since I last saw this road, on Day 1, and marvelling at how much had changed, and how much hadn’t. I’d ride through the front gate that was the starting point of my long long journey, and I’d be home. This pretty picture will be completely ruined if I’ve nipped home and passed through the starting gate a couple of times in the intervening years.
But this is a prime example of me scripting the entire adventure before it’s actually happened, something I swore early on I wouldn’t let myself do. I didn’t want to plan this journey in advance – I wanted to set out with an open mind, and see what it might become. Most crucially, I wanted to find stories that hadn’t yet been told. Any deviation from the hackneyed old round-the-world narrative was to be celebrated.
However, moments of triumph are one of the most intrinsic and seductive elements of this narrative. I’ve come to expect them – little ones at the end of each day, bigger ones at the end of each country, others at the tops of mountains and when reaching a long-anticipated city like Esfahan or Kashgar. Everyone expects the ‘money shot’ – Bert and Thijs grinning victoriously with the Hong Kong skyline behind them; Matt and Andy spraying champagne in front of Sydney Opera House. I’ll admit I’ve staged one or two of my own.
But equally, some of the moments of triumph I envisaged and strove for turned out to be anticlimactic. I felt strangely empty after finishing the Karakorum Highway, even though this had been an ambition of mine for years. And when I finished off China, the pride and satisfaction I expected to feel was swept away by a tidal wave of exhaustion, and I fell asleep before the ship even left its berth. There’s no saying my (obsessively anticipated) homecoming might not be a similar let-down. All that misery for nothing!
However, deviating from my stated plan looks suspiciously like a failure. And not being able to keep my chin up and stay apart from my friends and family for the full three, four or five years suggests that perhaps I’m a coward. Well then. Let it be so. There are enough stories of triumph and bravery, and I’m disinclined to write another one. Let this one be a tale of failure and cowardice if it needs to. Let it also be a tale of unexpected love, and unexpected loss. And of discovering that there are far more important things than cycling round the world, and all its silly, pointless, egotistical moments of triumph.