Thursday, 8 November 2012

Birch Trees on the Horizon

Nowhere does life imitate art as splendidly as on the Trans-Siberian. As the train cuts its way through the wide open steppes, my compartment window frames a view that is pure Rothko. The pale blue of the sky, applied with a coarse brush, shows traces of the canvas underneath. Here and there, the golden sheen of dry grass shades into the bottle green, almost black, of a hidden base layer. A sliver of silvery white on bronzebirch trees on the horizonkeeps both blocks from blending into one another. Motion throws the picture into a pastel swirl: the birch forest advances and retreats in waves, in the foreground dark blotches flash by. A thicket, perhaps, or a patch of fresh grass. As the hours evaporate, the impression takes hold that this is the way the world must have looked on God's drawing table: a composition of frayed rectangles waiting to be filled in.

A Siberian dacha
A similar sense of detachment envelops me when I tell people about my trip. Stopping off in relatively popular tourist hubsUlaanbaatar, Lake Baikal, Moscowmeans you're bound to run into fellow travellers, and sooner or later conversation inevitably turns to the why and how of our vagrancies. When it's my turn I always hear myself assume a matter-of-fact tone of voice as I state that I cycled from Holland to Beijing and that I'm now taking the train back. Most people are completely bowled over. 'You cycled to Beijing?' Their disbelief couldn't be greater had I told them that I measured out the distance with a spoon. I always try to play things down by pointing out that thousands have made similar or even greater trips and that thousands will follow, that there's really nothing to it, that it doesn't take more than a bit of time and determination. Nothing embarrasses me more than the praise people are only too willing to heap on me. It seems undeserved.

This is no false modesty on my part. At least, I don't think it is. An undertaking like this doesn't require superhuman strength. 24,000 kilometres sounds like a lot, and it is, but what strikes the uninitiated as a veritable odyssee ultimately boils down to a series of very manageable day trips. Any couch potato can do ittake that from the biggest of them all. Nor does it call for a great deal of courage. We like to think of the world as a treacherous place where danger lurks around every corner and you should count yourself lucky if you make it through another day. And for all I know, that may well be the case. All I can say is that not once in the past two years have I found myself in a tight spot. Wherever I went people seemed genuinely happy to see me and often went out of their way to help, evenno, especiallyin those places we like to think of as seething with gun-toting nuts. Tea, lunch, wrong directions, a place to sleep: people will go to any length to help a stranger on a bike. If it weren't for them, this trip would have ended before it had begun.

Babushka selling dried fish on train platform
Then again, perhaps it's me who's got a crooked view on things. Perhaps I shouldn't be so dismissive of all the incredulity and praise. The thing is, allow yourself to be swallowed up by whatever it is you're doing and you quickly lose sense of what it signifies to others. A sous-chef or a software developer may think nothing of the work he doesit's his job after all, something he does to make ends meetbut it's nothing short of miraculous to be able to start with nothing and end up with a sumptuous dish, a working application. Cycling to the other side of the world is infinitely more straightforward, yet, for all my protestations, not as straightforward as I've led myself to believe.

Staring at the shimmering Rothko in the window frame, I'm reminded of something Paul Theroux, that great train buff, once wrote. 'Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.' Makes it sound like a cocktail recipe. But there is something to it. It explains why the story of a boy who one day hops on his bike only to return two years later appeals to so many people. After all, we all have something we would like to flee from, we all cherish dreams as yet unpursued. What Theroux's recipe doesn't account for is the ephemeral sense of placelessness that separates these impulses like a row of slender birches on a distant horizon. It only comes about when you manage to forget whatever it was you left behind, when the electrifying splendour of the here and now eclipses even the most fanciful of your dreams, when nothing in the world matters but the sun on your skin and the road ahead, which knows no end.

Friday, 12 October 2012


What to do with yourself when you've just wrapped up a two-year bicycle trip through Europe and Asia? Not much of a head-scratcher when the finish line of that trip happens to be Beijing. Little more than a provincial backwater fifteen years ago, China's capital now easily holds its own on the stage of glitzy world cities. Things move fast here. So fast, in fact, that in certain neighbourhoods it's easier to find a plate of penne alla siciliana than a bowl of stir-fried noodles. And it doesn't stop there. When it comes to basic necessities such as Belgian waffles, fresh coffee and pints of creamy Guinness, Beijing has everything the Chinese hinterland lacks. Even people with a decent command of English are readily available.

Sharing the fun
Strangely, though, the effect Beijing had on me was far from invigorating. The first few days after my arrival were spent in a daze. I would sleep until noon and still feel too tired to leave the hostel, let alone engage in some serious sightseeing. When others were having lunch, I would show up for breakfast and spend the remainder of the afternoon working up an appetite for supper by watching silly films or thumbing through one of the Dutch novels I found lying around. Body and mind approached a state of complete shutdown. I didn't get it. Though rougher than expected, the ride from Taiyuan to Beijing hadn't presented me with anything out of the ordinary. I'd felt as fine as ever. In hindsight I realise it must have been just that. Set yourself a goal, something you truly want to accomplish, and you can draw on reserves you didn't even know you had. Adverse circumstances only steel your determination. With cycling it's no different. No matter how hilly, lengthy, windy or sludgy the ride, there's nothing a good meal and a few hours of shuteye won't fixat least temporarily. But it all adds up. It may not happen until the checkered flag falls, but one day that score will have to be settled. It's then you realise that you aren't the tough cookie you thought you were.

A little alone time
Perhaps it was just as well. My first days in Beijing coincided with something that is known as Golden Week: a week-long holiday that follows National Day on October 1. Now, the Chinese don't get many days off, but when they do they tend to make the most of it. The entire nation crams itself into anything that can fly, ride or sail in order to be set loose on the country's major sights. The word mayhem didn't even begin to describe the situation in downtown Beijing. The narrow lane where my hostel is located was swarming with ecstatic out-of-towners, many of whom sported little Chinese flags on their cheeks. Around the corner, on the street leading to Tian'anmen Square, things were even worse. Thousands shuffled along pavements that were divided into lanes, and the metro station at the southern end of the square was closedprobably to prevent people from trampling each other to death. At night, the hostel bar buzzed with stories not of the splendours of the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City but of the human gridlock that made sightseeing all but impossible.

It wasn't until I went to the International Post Office on the second ring road that the fog in my head cleared a bit. It must have been the look on the face of the lady behind the counter that did it. She sized up the bicycle I'd just wheeled in and shook her head. 'You want to ship that?' she said. 'Do you know what they will do with it?' She raised her arms above her head and pretended to drop a heavy parcel from a ten-storey building. 'It will probably get damaged, so we need you to sign a few forms.'

Time to say goodbye (or farewell?)
I slowly started taking apart the bike, wondering how much it would make at the scrap yard. Fortunately, the man in charge of the packing staff was very helpful. He got off to a bad start when he insisted on using a hammer to remove the handlebars, which, as far as I know, can't be removed at all, but soon made up for it by lovingly bubble-wrapping each part I handed him. When the bicycle box I'd brought turned out to be a shade too small, he niftily crafted an accommodating hump with the help of some cardboard and a few miles of tape.

Back at the hostel I sat down on my bed and picked up the no-brand backpack I'd bought the day before. With most of my stuff shipped offtent, sleeping bag, camping chair, pots, stove, spare partsit felt incredibly light. I pictured myself aboard the Trans-Siberian, gazing out over endless steppes, something weighty like War and Peace in my lap. Thousands of miles and I wouldn't have to lift a finger. Made the past two years look a bit silly.

Suddenly a little alarm went off in my head. I would be leaving in five days. That left me with, well, five days to explore a city as massive as Beijing. I checked my phone. Five pm. Too late to do anything, really. I stretched out on the bed. Four days is plenty of time.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Trophy Shot

Day 1: Monster (Holland)
It doesn't take me long to realise that the man in the safety jacket isn't part of the welcome committee. The nasty glare he's giving me hardly suits the occasion, and then there's that flag in his left hand, pointing away from the northern end of Tian'anmen Square rather than towards it. What's more, the flag is a faded orange, not the checkered black-and-white one would expect it to be.

There have been times these past two years when pretty much all that kept me going was daydreaming about the end, about the day I would finally make it to Beijing. 'And a splendid day it will be,' I would tell myself. 'I'll rise at dawn and go through the motions one last time: open foodbag, stuff myself with whatever I happen to find inside, slip into the translucent remains of my lycra outfit, pack my panniers, load the bike, set off. On the road there will be the merest hint of a tailwind, just enough to take the edge off pedalling. Soon, the smiling hills give way to the first suburbs. But riding into Beijing won't be daunting. When the road widens and flyovers spread their tentacles, familiar faces will pop up around me. The faces of the cyclists I've met along the way, each on his or her own bike, and we'll cover the final miles together, and before us traffic will part like the Red Sea, and people will line the streets to cheer us on, and we'll slap each other on the back and sip champagne and take funny pictures like they do in the final stage of the Tour de France, and we'll give the crowds what they want and ride a lap of honour around Tian'anmen Square, and there will be camera crews and flowers and telegrams from various heads of state, and we'll be all smiles when we tell Beijing what it takes to get there, and we'll never stop smiling.'

Well, I mean, exhaustion does funny things to your mind.

The man in the safety jacket doesn't budge. He's positioned himself right in front of my bicycle, blocking the way to the spot where I most long to be: the top of the square, where Mao's portrait guards the entrance to the Forbidden City. I look him in the eye. No champagne, no telegrams, not even the tiniest of bouquets. That's fine, I think, it doesn't matter. But no one will deny me my trophy shot with Mao, no matter how many orange flags they're waving in my face. I slide back into the saddle, follow the direction he's indicating, and then describe a nice little U-turn while dodging six lanes of oncoming traffic.

Day 753: Beijing
A few pedal strokes later I'm there. I look around. No time for ecstatic celebrations. Things are getting serious. From both sides of the square white-gloved policemen are closing in on me. A Chinese girl on the other side of the fencethe heart of the square can be reached only via underpassescomes to my rescue. 'You want your picture taken?' I slip her my camera, she clicks and hands it back to me. Then I'm off. Not the grand reception I've been dreaming of, perhaps, but for one glorious second Beijing belonged to me.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Red Tape and Black Coffee

It sounds wonderfully straightforward. One sunny afternoon you pack a few basic necessities, grab your bike and simply go wherever your fancy takes you. During the first year of this trip that really was all it amounted to. Europe, though frightfully expensive, is the perfect playground for cyclists. No borders, no conflicts: freedom pure and simple. Cross into Asia, however, and you'll soon find yourself facing red tape everywhere you look. I've been tailed by armed police, banned from motorways, forced to take buses, turned away at hotels and internet cafés, held hostage by the army, denied access to entire provincesand the list goes on. 'Take it easy,' I keep telling myself at times like these. 'Tomorrow you'll look back on it and laugh. And if not tomorrow maybe next week. Or next year.'

Hong Kong: from the grandiose...
Having said that, one thing you'll never find me do is chuckle about is the never-ending visa hassle. Visas can make or break a trip like this. A rejection from the Iranian authorities, for instance, would have blocked the gate to Central Asia. And if the immigration office in Lahore hadn't granted me a generous two-month extension, I would have had to wrap up my trip then and there as the Khunjerab Pass was still snowed up at that time.

There is no predicting what will happen. You can trawl online travel forums for experiences posted by fellow travellers and spend hours drawing up lists of which visa offices to avoid and what background stories to fabricate, but that won't change the fact that you're at the mercy of powers that are whimsical at best. Take my last application. I entered the Chinese embassy in Islamabad empty-handed, merely hoping to find out what I needed for a valid application. Thirty minutes later I walked out with a pick-up receipt for a ninety-day visa. Emily, my Khunjerab buddy, tried her luck a week later, armed to the teeth with every single document they could possibly ask for. She only got thirty days. Why? That really is anyone's guess. a more human scale
Under normal circumstances, those ninety days plus the thirty-day extension I pocketed in Xi'an would have given me ample leeway to ride to Beijing without having to overexert myself. Four months is a long time, even if you're looking to cross a swathe of land as chunky as China. But if the idea is to cycle to Beijing and, subsequently, leave the country in a manner that doesn't involve two wings and a runwaylet's say by train through Mongolia and Russiathen you really need a bit more time to sort out all the paperwork. The only way that extra time can be had is by making a quick hop to Hong Kong. There, I was told, Chinese visas are handed out by the bucket. So I booked a ticket, left my bike in Taiyuan and tried not to give too much thought to the fact that for the second time I was taking a flight for the sole purpose of getting a silly sticker in my passport.

And here I am, sipping expensive coffee in a café on Hong Kong's waterfront as I watch an international set of lawyers and investment bankers file by. Handsome people, immaculately dressed. It's lunchtime. The coolly understated restaurant next door fills up quickly. Like any metropole Hong Kong is a place of haves and have-nots, though here the gap may be a bit wider than elsewhere. I think of the wretched apartment block where my hostel is locatedthe cockroach-infested corridors, the Pakistani hawkers at the entrance with their fake luxury watches, the Africans on the upper floors who only come out at night, the park across the street where Malay and Filipino women push around blond children in prams. How many of these people have a residence permit, I wonder.

I take out my passport and examine my new Chinese visa. So far that unassuming booklet with those silly stickers has opened every door I've tried. Despite my fretting. That's more, much more, than many here in this vast city could ever hope for.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Drip. Drip-drip. Thick drops are falling down. Two, three at first, soon followed by more. Within seconds the dusty pavement takes on the appearance of a Jackson Pollock-style drip paintingan ever-changing pattern of miniature pools, each with a corona of even smaller droplets. One lands on my head and immediately finds its way to my neck. I shiver. Out of nowhere umbrellas pop up, like mushrooms in a damp forest.

Pingyao after a downpour
I enter the tiny hostel where I'm staying and climb the stairs to the six-bed dormitory. By now, it's lashing down. On the landing a diagonal sheet of rain has found an open window. When I've finally figured out how to close it, I'm wet to the bone. The rain pounds the pane with angry fists, demanding to be let in. I press my nose to the glass. Outside, the sky is as grey as the slated roofs of Pingyao's ancient low-slung houses. Dragon-like chimeras guard the corners of the curled eaves, their beaks frozen in an anguished cry.

Even when it's pouring down there's no denying that Pingyao is lovely. Perfectly preserved Ming-era town walls embrace a warren of alleys lined with lavishly decorated two-storey mansions. And even though the paper lanterns that light the streets at night lend it a touristy feel, Pingyao is no open-air museum. It's a living, breathing town where tourists from all over the world rub shoulders with locals going about their daily business.

Still, there is something uncanny about the place. Sounds seem muffled, and a certain drowsiness envelops you as soon as you enter the gates. Perhaps it's the fact that the narrow streets are pedestrianiseda rare feat in China. Maybe it's the uniformity of the houses. Or could it be that the town is haunted? At night, it is said, the spirits of deceased citizens return to roam the age-old alleys.

Pingyao at night
'Is it still raining?' The sleepy voice of one of my roommates drifts up from the bottom bunk. I lift myself up. There is something about him that tells me he hasn't moved all day. 'I think it's letting up,' I say. 'Ah,' he replies cheerfully, but doesn't move.

And so the days turn into a dreary blur. In between showers backpackers drift in and out. For many, Pingyao is the last stop before Beijing. It's September; the summer holidays are drawing to a close. They're still here, but their mind is somewhere else. Their old life is beckoning. Playtime is nearly over.

'I'm going to Kathmandu first, then home,' a French girl tells me. She makes it sound as if Kathmandu is a place where only horrible things could happen. She smiles apologetically. 'It's not that I'm not looking forward to it. But I've been travelling for such a long time. I miss my family, my apartment.' She straps her backpack to her back, a bulging daypack to her front. Then she picks up a suitcase. Another smile. 'Too many souvenirs.'

I watch her leave. Through the window I can see fresh clouds come sailing in. Dark ghost ships in a leaden sky. Looks like rain.