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Pedals and Paddles – the final part

The weird and wonderful world of Turkmenistan

Fortunately the Yukon is an easy place to get hold of things like 16ft canoes.
We loaded our bikes into the canoe and set to paddling with gusto.
For the next 10 days we would be far from road or rescue with no phone to call for help. It felt very liberating.
After the canoeing we climbed back on the bikes and rode up into the Arctic Circle. From the northern shore of North America I headed alone for Anchorage and an Indian cargo ship bound for Asia.
***
After a staggeringly brutal and exhausting three months cycling through an ice-clad Siberian winter, with temperatures of -40°F, Japan was an intriguing contrast and a welcome, warm relief. In China I chose to follow the Great Wall for its entire length until it fizzles out in the Taklamakan desert. I was really heading homewards now, chasing the sunset westwards across Asia, back to Europe and – ultimately – back to England. Not only was I following the Wall, this was also the fabled Silk Road whose landscape had changed little in centuries. Once upon a time traders, leading long caravans of camels laden with valuables, relied on caravanserais where they could rest and resupply during their long journeys. It was exciting to be tangibly connected with so much history along that road. I was making tangible progress around the Earth. I slept without a tent and it felt exciting and unreal to be lying there on my own, watching a massive orange moon ease up through the trees – in China, on the Silk Road, where so many others before me must have lain on the earth in the same way, resting on their own journeys. I fell asleep; whenever I woke during the night I could estimate how long I had been sleeping by the position of the moon above me. It would be a full moon all over the world and I thought of the people I missed and wondered whether they too had noticed the splendour of the skies that night.
In Uzbekistan the road signs I passed were a list of awesome-sounding places, each one of which I would have loved to cycle to: Samarkand, Dushanbe, Kabul, Tehran, Aktau and Baku. They were a reminder for me of the powerful magic of the road, of the charms and delights and new places that all roads hold if only you keep riding long enough. I had dreamed for years of visiting Samarkand, which sounded to me like the most remote, exciting place on Earth. It lay between gigantic mountains and inhospitable deserts at the end of civilization, yet for centuries had been wealthy, cultured and powerful, the very centre of the world. To crest a hill and see the town before me was a genuine thrill. The fabled blue domes of the mosques and madrassas were delicious even beyond my imaginings, with a white stripe of sunshine seared down the flanks of each dome like curved scimitars. I’d ridden 40,000 miles to get to Samarkand. I’d earned it and I was here at last.
***
During hard times on my journey I had often dreamed of cycling in France as some sort of ideal: to ride from village to village and sit in street cafés drinking coffee and basking in warm sunshine. Within 100m of entering France I was sitting in a café making the dream come true, celebrating. I was almost home.
France was a green and pleasant land, and the view from my tent each morning of dew-drenched green fields and hedges and steaming cows was so similar to my England. It was almost over. I didn’t want all this to end. I wanted to turn round and ride for ever, sleeping in forests and filling my bottles at village fountains. I wanted to remain free and feel the world moving slowly beneath my tyres, having time to watch the heavens move slowly above me. I hoped that the sadness I felt and my reluctance to end the amazing, precious experience actually stemmed from a lazy desire to take the easy option, rather than because I honestly felt nothing could ever be so good again. Going back home, back to England and to the new beginnings I would have to choose, was actually a far tougher path than continuing with this life I knew so well. My mind raced with memories and I had to try to tell myself that the end of the ride did not mean the end of my life. I relished the road, the speed, my fitness, the wind in my face. I sucked up the memories and I was so happy. I felt, in the true sense of the word, fulfilled: filled full with life.
***
The final leg of my journey was a long day’s ride: up through the Peak District and Sheffield and across Yorkshire towards my home. It was exhilarating to be surrounded by familiar, beautiful scenery once again; to not need a map any more, to know where I was going, to be going home. It was a beautiful final morning, frosty and blue-skied. I loved the green hills, the grazing sheep, the fabulous dry stone walls. The drivers were safe and courteous, there were occasional bike lanes and the road signs were plentiful and accurate. It was good to be home!
***
My journey round the world will stay with me all my life: the spectacle of a completely empty horizon at sea, a horizon that has not altered in millions of years; the thrill of cresting a difficult pass and seeing a whole new span of planet open up before me, inviting me onwards; the slow-release satisfaction of reaching a far-off horizon. And the extraordinary experience that ended it all: the realisation that, if you keep curiously and steadfastly and patiently crossing sufficient new horizons, then you will – one day – see the very first view with which you began your journey once again appearing in front of your eyes. ?

This extended piece first appeared in a Lonely Planet book

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Comments

  1. I read every word of these posts – you managed to accurately relate the moments of awe and wonder that trigger endorphin rushes even in travelers’ daydreams. I appreciate the honesty with which you write.

    Mike

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