I was back in Kazakhstan and I had a problem. When people asked me where I was going, my usual response was “Cycle to China, then probably head south for the winter, or something.” The problem was that I was days away from the Chinese border and I hadn’t really figured out what the ‘or something’ would be.
But even without looking at a map, the fact that I was riding alone for the first time in months made it clear that the Central Asian chapter of my journey was coming to an end. The bottleneck of long distance cyclists that began in Bukhara came to an end in Bishkek, as fellow two-wheeled travellers you meet almost on a daily basis disperse. Some continue into China; others box up their bikes and hop on a plane; and some seriously masochistic individuals venture north to experience Siberia just in time for winter.
I had returned to the steppe and there’s not much I can say about the cycling that is either noteworthy or that I haven’t mentioned before during my first time in Kazakhstan: it involved the usual frustration with headwinds with respite found in a crumbling, ex-soviet era factory or an abandoned restaurant. The mountains that occasionally penetrated the otherwise perfectly flat horizon were covered in snow as the two-week long autumn this part of the world experiences came and went during my time in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.
A few days later, I had cycled to China.
The town of Khorgas, spilt down the middle by the border couldn’t be clearer in differentiating the two countries. The Kazakh side had the familiar drabness with its tumbledown buildings, rusting Ladas and a lot lot of young men standing around doing nothing while the Chinese side gleamed with skyscrapers, neon lights, and new money. Part of me was glad to be here after spending a long time in a world where the description “crumbling ex-Soviet” described far too many things. But it wasn’t all change. This was Xinjiang province and the Uyghur people that are the main ethnic group here have cultural, religious, and culinary influence across parts of Central Asia. In spite of Beijing’s efforts to relocate millions of Han Chinese people to this region to shift the ethnic balance, the people looked mostly the same as where I had come from and my usual diet of thick, hand pulled noodles continued as I reached the provincial capital of Urumqi. Xinjiang provided a blend of familiar and new that softened the reverse-culture shock of entering China after months in Central Asia; it’s the halfway house to the Middle Kingdom.
So I cycled to China but still didn’t know what I genuinely wanted to do next. I always had a pretty well defined line on my mental map across Europe and Central Asia but it ended at the Chinese border, after which my intentions were unclear, blurred by an extensive list of variables. The obvious answer due to the changing seasons and open border crossings was to continue to South East Asia but that region, somewhere I’d travelled before, failed to draw me in. Right now the cities of Uzbekistan, mountains of Tajikistan, and hospitality of Turkey all lay behind me and what lie ahead was not all that inspiring; there was certainly more behind me to reminisce than to drive me onwards.
I was also tired. Winter was setting in and my equipment, clothing, and knees were not really up for the low temperatures. Khorgas was covered in snow when I woke up the next day and the mountain pass that separated me from Urumqi, the region’s capital, was not a good idea in these conditions. So, after the momentous occasion of reaching the Chinese border I shoved my bike on a bus…then onto a train, and arrived in Chengdu.
It’s taken me a year to get back onto the bike.
Things developed quickly as I arrived in Chengdu, in a matter of days I had changed from beardy traveller to ‘expat’ with a job and an apartment. I didn’t know what would inspire me onwards, so I decided the best idea was to take a hiatus from travelling and signed a 12 month contract at an English language training centre. My bank account was a lot emptier than I had intended but the idea of returning to the UK was out of the question (even before the events of 2016). Working in China seemed a lot more interesting than getting a working visa for Australia, too. It would allow me to save, yes, but would also provide a huge cultural experience by living in such a different country.
I knew this wasn’t the end of the trip. China was just a bit of the map I had chosen to pedal towards, not an end point. I just had failed to come up with anything to aim for afterwards. But the fact that I could just stop and live in another country really demonstrated the perks of not having anywhere specific to go. Many cyclists go on ‘round the world’ trips. I may eventually do this too, but only by accident. By not declaring any end point, by saying this bike ride was indefinite, I was so easily able to stop and do something different for a year and get back on the bike this November. It’s all part of the joy of destination-less travel.
I’m now back on the road at the time of writing, slowly gaining my fitness back after a year of eating as a hobby in Chengdu. There are a lot of interesting places lined up for another year of travelling y bike. If you have enjoyed this series of articles, please feel free to visit my personal blog here, to find out where I’ve ended up.