Outside, the snow sat a few inches deep. With a chewed and dirty fingernail I traced on my map a glorious route across China that would set the heart of all intrepid souls racing.
In a couple of days’ time I should reach the Great Wall. I brushed aside biscuit crumbs and looked at the Yellow River and Inner Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan. On through Gansu province and into Xinjiang I continued. It showed all of that on my map, and a ring from my coffee mug, and my finger traced the expedition in my imagination.
Maps are an invitation to adventure.
The snow continued to fall. I was in a grubby, windowless room next to a pigsty. That was not on my map. Nor were the black muddy alleyways between the snow-covered mud-brick homes grimy with coal dust. Men slewed homewards on mopeds, their blue workers’ hats and jackets covered in white. My socks steamed and stank on the stool beside the hot coal stove. None of that was on my map.
A map is an idea, nothing more, a framework of geography for an adventure germinating in the back of your mind. From the frame of the map you hang your own discoveries. A blizzard curtailing a day’s ride, a pigtailed girl on a red moped, a quirky smile and a wave from a blacksmith. None of that day was on my map. If it was then I could just have stayed at home and read my map. But those small details and glimpses of lives are what will stay with me in years to come.
On the wall of my room was a piece of broken mirror and I was struck when I caught a glimpse of the strangest face I had seen in a while. A tangle of fair hair, not shining and black; big eyes, pale and round; a long nose like a beak; scruffy stubble surrounding straight white teeth; pale white skin… Was it any wonder that people stared at me from their flat, round, brown faces? That glance in the mirror showed me that people were not being unkind in their curiosity: the face in the glass made me pause in surprise as well, until he flashed me a grin of solidarity.
– an excerpt from Thunder and Sunshine, republished now.