How to go home

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.

Leave a Comment

37 Comments

  1. Posted December 29, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I think you are doing the right thing and the bravest thing. I rediscovered your blog today, having lost it for a while. Go home, reconnect, rest. I look forward to hearing about the rest of your adventures.

  2. Margot
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    This post shows an incredible amount of courage, both in that you’re doing what’s best for yourself, and that you’re sharing it. I’m happy you are getting some R&R and thrilled that you’ll be in the Americas soon! x

  3. Addy
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I can confirm that finishing our ride was completely underwhelming!

    I’m back in the UK now and excited to be seeing friends and family though I’ll admit I wish I was going to continue the ride into the Americas. But your post made me aware that there ARE much more important things than the ride. When we were in the midst of our journey we lost sight of that; we became filled with a sense of self-importance.

    Thanks for the wake-up call and ping back to a great post.

    Have fun back at home.

  4. Posted December 29, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    This journey is your own and you are the only one who can give yourself a hard time about making this decision, if you do, remember adventures are fun but family and friends are extremely important and won’t be around forever unlike the opportunity for adventures.
    Good luck.

  5. Tim35
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    You’ll never be a failure in my eyes, Chappers. Ha! I remember the Nikwax. I’m sure I ended up being the middle man, there. Look forward to seeing you soon for a cuppa and a Bourbon Cream or two.

  6. Posted December 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Going home for a month is so definitely not a failure, Emily. The key to challenges, I reckon, is picking the right one(s). There’s no point succeeding in cycling round the world if you miss lots/some/most of the joy of it because of missing people back home and worrying about them not being there when you return. No one (or, at the very very least, no one worth their salt) will care if you come home for a bit. Those of us in the UK are actually selfishly pleased about it, as it means we might get to buy you a meal and a few drinks and catch up. Changing a plan is very often a braver and harder decision than slogging on as originally intended – good on you for doing it.

  7. David
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Two thumbs up for this post and your whole blog! Your journey is just that – yours; yours to do it “your way”. And what I find most interesting about travel blogs and travel writing in general is the covering of the human aspects behind all the physical riding goals achieved – Alastair Humphreys’ writing is enjoyable because of that, and yours is the same – this post in particular. Enjoy your break with the family in Blighty!

  8. Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Emily

    “Let it be so …”.
    Change is constant, as is that place called ‘home’.
    Be well … whatever it takes.

  9. George
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Emily, good luck, hope you have a ball over here, and raise a glass to lovely Steff. George

  10. jacqueline
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Hi emily,
    Thank you for such beautiful words, wishing you all the best at home and on the road again! Jacqueline

  11. Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Hey,

    I’ve been enjoying your blog ever since I heard about it at RGS Explore 2012, and I’m looking forward to following in your footsteps across Europe / Asia in March 2013.

    Your decision to come home for a while sounds like a good one. Whilst you evidently don’t need advice, I felt compelled to post.

    I cut short a ride through Africa in 2011 to get home for an important wedding. It didn’t sit well at the time. I was doing a blog too, and I felt like I was letting down my loyal band of followers (and myself) by ‘quitting’ on the ‘unbroken line’ from doorstep to destination.

    But one thing I’ve learned from touring, is that ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ that matters. Who cares if you come home for a break, if it helps you continue the journey in high spirits? …only you.

    The quest of tracing an unbroken line round the world is – to put it crassly – a load of bollocks. It doesn’t mean anything.

    The reason (in my opinion) that your blog / trip stands out, is that you have a clear voice, which doesn’t conform to the ‘hackneyed old round-the-world narrative’, as you put it. Coming home is part of YOUR journey, just as much as cycling over the Karakoram etc. Don’t be apologetic! There is no failure in what you’re doing. You’ve inspired too many people to consider yourself a failure.

    Max

  12. lynne
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    your not failing, your simply gathering your thoughts and preparing.
    its your journey, your rules.
    enjoy your holiday off the road, i suspect you will soon be yearning for the roads again

  13. Mary
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see anything wrong with stopping home, though only your rules count. I’ve read several journals about world bicycle travelers and many stop back at home or have long layovers with family in at least familiar locations. It sounds like you would be traveling from one country to another by way of something other than bicycle anyway , so it’s more like a layover that recharges you. Good Luck with your decision.

  14. Roy
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    bravo!

  15. will
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Good decision Emily. I hope we will have a chance to meet but if not, enjoy your stay. They can always miss this period out when they come to make the film. ‘Based on a true story’.

  16. Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I hope to meet you one day.

  17. Posted January 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Samuel Beckett

  18. Rocio
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Emily!!! Really moved by your post..I am really impressed by your perseverance and your thirst for hard challenges…Maybe going back for a while is just another challenge, but never a failure! Take good care and refill yourself with the energy of your loved ones! Love, RO

  19. Zoe
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily, it’s a year of hey look travelling and bikes are great and then BOOOM guess what, love’s even better!! Brilliant and very inspiring!! Have a fantastic break! xx Zoe.

  20. Claire
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily!
    Just read your last entry, and I would say that you’re doing the right thing. There is nothing like cheating when you’re on this kind of trip (as long as you’re not lying about what you did!). That’s your trip, after all, and you have the right to do whatever you want with it! Last summer when I was on my way to Greece from Norway, I crossed Macedonia in a camper van, for various reasons. At first I was asking myself the same questions as you, then I thought that as long as I’m not pretending I crossed Macedonia by bike, there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Enjoy your time off back home!

  21. bringmemyfix
    Posted January 5, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I think you should forget about the UK, and hook up with Shun & Ken again in order to film an improvised mini-series to be broadcast on in the interior of car sunshades worldwide.

  22. Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey, the rules are yours to make up as you go along. We are heading back early because of health reason, but once mended we will be back on the road again. It is also good to have a holiday from your travels and have time to reminisce about what you have learnt, seen and remember the people you have meet on the road. Enjoy the UK and see you on the road some day.

  23. Susie Alexander
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Your adventure, your rules.

    Not a failure, a pause – and FWIW, life NEVER, EVER lets any of us write the script – it sends us a few things along the way to challenge us and remind us that we are both human and mortal. It demands respect, because it is so fragile a thing.

    I was so sad to hear about your loss, too – special people leave big holes in the lives they have touched, when they disappear. I hope the comfort of home brings a reminder that life is to be celebrated.

    I also hope we get to catch up with you – one of my favouritest people ever. No contest. No matter what.

    Sxx

  24. clinton rivers
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Have a nice refuel in UK. May the sound of freewheeling hubs fill your ears as you take a little break. Let us know if you are passing through Jakarta Indonesia. Clinton

  25. Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Don’t know you in person but I can totally relate. Been there. Give a lot of hugs on this month at home, kind of works 😉

  26. astrid
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    Ever since you posted this last entry, I have been checking back daily to see if you have written more. In a way, I am glad you have not, because it makes me believe that you are taking some time for yourself- some much needed, totally legitimate, I-congratulate-you-for-expressing-it-and-following-it time for yourself.

    There is so much tendency to push push push, to think the only way is the hard way, or the whole way, or the way that ignores the weeping body… thank you for writing about it, and having the courage (yes really) to take a breather and head home.

    I hope your rest time fills your tank, because I”m looking forward to reading more of your adventures. I believe in you (even though I’ve never met you!) and can’t wait for you to get back in the saddle.

    Best wishes,
    Astrid

  27. Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Just checking in on you.
    Be well now !

  28. Georgina
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderfully expressive piece of writing. You remind me in many of your sentiments, of Mark Tapley, a character in Martin Chuzzlewit. If you want to rise to his self-imposed challenge you can view your homecoming as especially difficult for to leave home once is painful – to leave home twice is excruciating.

  29. tad
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Hope you’re enjoying some rest. A recharge is always good – and you’ve earned it more than most.

    Loving your words and dreaming of adventures – thanks for the inspiration.

    Take care

  30. Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Wise words, I’ve just read, following a wonderful story told tonight in the Minerva Centre, Llanidloes – thank you. Our boys really enjoyed your talk. We found your positive discoveries about cultures portrayed so negatively in the news, utterly uplifting. Great philosophy, enjoy all and we’ll enjoy following your adventures.

  31. Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    I have been going through lots of blog pages recent months while planning my own cycling trip around the world; and yours is one of best of all. I just finished reading all the stories from the beginning, and I enjoyed them very very much.

    And don’t let this decision to return for a while bother you. This is your life and this is your journey. I’ll be following your journey in the Americas, too; if you want to carry on.

  32. welshcyclist
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I am in awe completely of what you are achieving, just glad you have £500 for a flight.

  33. Don
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    You’ll probably end up in Nantwich somehow, and bump into someone who will turn out to own a luxury pad in Alaska, just at the most difficult point when you really, really need a warm bath and a beer…

    So if you hadn’t come back you’d have missed out. These things happen you know 😉

    Have a good rest and a fortune-filled onward journey!

  34. Posted February 3, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I know that feeling of “failure” of not fulfilling one’s predictions too well, having planned to go as far as India 2 years ago, then returning prematurely in eastern Turkey(Even before the real adventure started, duh!).

    I’ve found your blog via @tomsbiketrip and been reading up most of if yesterday. Since my girlfriend and i are planning to continue where i stopped in May, it is great to get a fairly recent status of the region! We plan to take the northern route from Iran though and then go south to Pakistan via Karakorum – hope it works out as planned this time!

    Thanks for your elaboration on “rules” and your essay about your struggle deciding whether to go through Kohistan in http://thatemilychappell.com/2012/05/the-next-few-headaches/ ff.. Not only does it contain a lot of valuable information for our own travel, but also reading your arguments was rectifying and entertaining for me.

    There’s a curios coincidence i stumbled over yesterday – please compare the 5th image on this entry: http://thatemilychappell.com/2011/12/the-road-to-ankara/ to this http://poab.org/view/id/1926 – i like the fact that i rode down the same road a year earlier and took a photo just meters from you.
    Strange thing is, the road marking looks much newer on mine than yours, i can’t really explain that.

  35. Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Just came across your site (saw a note about it on totalwomenscycling.com). Although I am new to your story, and am a stranger, I am hoping that you are doing well. I am looking forward to reading about your future adventures!

  36. michael sides
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    No failure Emily. You are such a success. You have accomplished so much and inspired at least one person…you are a success. THANK YOU!