How many ideas for some grand sort of adventure are conjured up in a pub, probably after one pint too many and after too much time staring at a world atlas? In spite of the optimism at the time, when you think “that would be amazing, I should totally do this”, how many of these ideas make it beyond that stage of half-cut, speculative daydreaming?
I was guilty of coming up with many of these grand adventures and carrying out none. Walking to my parent’s house from London in time for Christmas, cycling to Berlin, and driving to Mongolia were all theoretical trips that never made it beyond that “we should totally do this” conversation with a friend who was probably only humouring me. None of those ideas ever survived the tiniest dose of level headed scrutiny the following day. Commitments that were hard to give up (friends) or the ones that I’d happy to give up but fear not being able to get back when I return (job), eventually lead me to the downtrodden conclusion that all these ideas are just too complicated. Over the years, those commitments in my life as a twenty-something with a reasonable job in London created my comfort zone and a sort of inertia – caused by the scrutiny that killed off these pub-borne adventures – maintained it.
So when I found myself standing in the rain at the side of the road somewhere in Belgium, a flat tyre in one hand and a pump that didn’t fit the inner tube valve in the other, I suppose I should have congratulated myself on actually doing it: I had managed to turn one of those silly ideas into action and was five days into a bike ride that would take me across Europe, the Caucuses, and Central Asia to China, where I currently find myself living a remarkably different life.
But I was too busy being miserable. Miserable, wet, and totally out of my depth. And that old life, with its comforts and inertia, didn’t go without a fight.
My departure took longer than expected. Poor weather and slightly too many leaving drinks had turned leaving in front of a mini fanfare of friends and family into a solo event the following day. My family had already left and, after goodbyes were said to flatmates as they went to work, I sat in my old house, alone. All I had to do was get up, close the front door behind me, and quietly ride out of London.
Easier said than done: what followed were two hours of procrastination brought on by an immobilising fear of what I had got myself into. I had managed to turn one of those silly ideas for an adventure into reality by buying a bicycle and quitting my job but the final (or first) step of actually leaving proved to be too difficult. I re-checked tyre pressure and triple-checked my passport was still where I left it while my mind was flooded with self-doubt. The concept of getting to somewhere in Asia by bicycle was completely overwhelming. I just couldn’t imagine cycling for months across countries. The scale of it all was too much and I was horrendously underprepared. The first time that I rode my bike fully loaded with all the bags carrying everything I needed to be self-sufficient was on that day. And it felt wobbly; too wobbly. I’ve done something wrong here, I thought, and remembered that my home-made curriculum on bicycle maintenance remained completely untouched, as that rainy day in Belgium later demonstrated.
Fear made me doubt my reasons for doing this trip and I tried to bargain a way out. Was my life really so underwhelming here that this trip was necessary or was this a silly quarter-life crisis? It wasn’t as noticeable before, but over the last week the feeling of dread had intensified as a result of the impending departure date and well-meant advice from concerned relatives about some country they had heard about on the news (and when is that ever positive?). It seems that once you’ve managed to overcome all those practical concerns and commitments, fear turns out to be your comfort zone’s last line of defence.
After running out of things to double check – and realising the only alternative was to get on the same bike but go back to my old job – I had nothing else to do but close the door behind me, locking me out of my old house, and wobble onto the Edgware Road. I headed south, towards London’s other Roman Road, Watling Street, that would take me out of the urban sprawl to Kent, where the picturesque, quintessentially English countryside would be a fitting last ride in the UK. I waved goodbye to the giraffes of London Zoo that I passed every day on my way to work and I double took the reflection of some idiot on an overloaded bicycle on side of some shiny City skyscraper. Amongst the lycra clad road warriors was me in zip-off trousers with about 7 pockets on each leg (adventure trousers); I never felt so out of place in the city that I called home in for the last seven years.
But as the grandeur of Central London gradually morphed into the semi-detached houses and retail parks of Dartmouth, those worries, fears and self-doubts subsided. It turns out that the good thing about being completely unprepared for something like this is that it means you’re too distracted by immediate problems to worry about these big-picture concerns. Problems such as, “Where on earth am I going to sleep tonight?”, “I’m lost”, and “why is my bike making that odd sound?” keep you too preoccupied to worry about how I was actually going to reach Istanbul, let alone Kyrgyzstan.
As the day’s ride came to an end at Maidstone, I found that the campsite I planned on spending my first night has closed down. I hadn’t eaten enough in the rush to get out of London’s urban sprawl before dark and this left me exhausted, starving, and out of water. In that state I half-heartedly tried to find some potential wild camping spots but chickened out on the count of dog walkers that have a tendency to turn up just everywhere, no matter how out-of-the way you think you are.
Giving up, I retreated to a quiet country pub. Warm food would solve my problems, I thought, until the landlord answered “sorry, mate, the kitchen’s closed today.” I was about to settle for feast of seven of bags of crisps until the landlord asked what I was alright and what I was doing. “I just left London by bicycle and I think I’m cycling to Asia.” was my bumbling reply – still not really believing it myself and feeling a bit of a fool for even mentioning it. After immediately calling me mad he offered to rustle up something warm in the kitchen and told me to put up my tent in the beer garden.
And so one of those distracting, immediate problems was solved. And that was the first of many counts of strangers’ hospitality and kindness on this journey. Four days later, on that wet Belgian day, a man came out of a house down the road to where I was busy having a tantrum about a flat tyre and my own mechanical stupidity. He smiled, said hello, and held out a track pump that would actually inflate my tyre, saving me from a 7km walk to the next town.
Many more problems caused by my sheer incompetence took place during those first few days and they continued to keep me distracted enough to not think about those initial bigger-picture fears that had prevented me from leaving my home. But, as the incident with the pump and at the pub demonstrated, they all had a way of sorting themselves out, Gradually my own incompetencies were ironed out: my host in Mechelen kindly taught me that my sleeping bag liner lines the inside of a sleeping bag; I learned that I could eat whatever I wanted, twice, if I was pedalling all day; and a couple of days later I found that my pump would actually fit my inner tube valves if I unscrewed a nozzle (the lesson: read the instructions instead of throwing them away while thinking ‘it’s a pump, hoe complicated could it be?’). As I pedalled on from the flat fields Northern Belgium and into Germany, towards the Rhine, I began to reason that if these short term problems have a way of sorting themselves out, why wouldn’t the bigger picture fears also go the same way?
Those first few days demonstrated that a good way of overcoming worries about beginning a big trip like this is by actually starting it, but that the prospect of starting also causes the most fear. The Scandinavians were really onto something when they coined the term ‘the doorstep mile’. As the name suggests, the first step of any big journey is always the hardest but, once achieved, the rest of the journey suddenly seem possible.
Next Chapter: Looking more like a cycle tourist