SCOTLAND – ENGLAND, 19th – 23rd March 2017
“We’re cycling to China!” I said to the woman as I passed her my camera. Dea and I were standing together with our bikes outside of the apartment of my friend Jethro. He had been good enough to put us up the last few weeks in Edinburgh, but he was away for the weekend and there was no one else around to take our official leaving photo, so I’d roped in a passer-by.
“Wow, that’s a long way!” the woman said, snapping the picture for us.
It was somehow fitting that there was no one else there to wave us off. I had friends in Edinburgh from when I’d last lived in the city, and yet I’d been so busy over the past six weeks that I hadn’t really had time to catch up with them. Realising it was my last chance to get my book finished before this big trip was to really begin, I had dived into the process one hundred percent. There were days when I worked on it from seven in the morning until three in the morning. There was the writing, the editing, the formatting, the rewriting, the reformatting. Dea looked after me so well those days, but she would have to go out to work sometimes, and she’d often then return home later to find that I’d forgotten to eat. There was just so much for me to do. Then, just when I thought it was almost all finally done, I realised I’d used the wrong type of apostrophe, and I had to go through and change them all. But eventually I made it through to the finish line. The previous day it had all been finished. The kindle version went live. A couple of people even bought it. One chapter in my life was complete, just in time for a new one to begin.
We pedalled away. The first pedal strokes of what we hope will be a continuous unbroken journey all the way to Mori, China. My bike felt ridiculously heavy, and I struggled to remember how to balance. We made our way down George Street under bright blue skies. I’d pedalled here many times before, usually on a pedicab carrying drunks home at three in the morning. I hadn’t had much chance to do that this time, however. My busy schedule, coupled with a worrying pain in my own knee, had limited the amount of pedicabbing I could manage to just a couple of weekends. But Dea had found work on a food stall, and I’d had a bit of luck on the horses, so we had just about enough money for the trip. We arrived on Princes Street and stopped to look at the castle one last time. There was a wonderful atmosphere. It was that feeling that came at the beginning of a long journey, that sense of anticipation of all that we had ahead of us. A song was playing somewhere nearby and the words drifted over to us. “Where you gonna go, where you gonna sleep tonight?” It was a song that had always made me think of the road. Of the uncertainty of bicycle travel. Of not knowing where you were going to end the day. Dea and I smiled at one another. We didn’t know where we were going to sleep that night, and we loved it.
On our way out of the city we passed by Arthur’s Seat, the big rocks that rise up just at the edge of the centre of Edinburgh and brings the rugged Scottish nature right into the city. Obviously it is popular for walking, jogging and cycling and I myself had trained my knee into cycling again here by gradually increasing the number of loops I did around the hills. It had become one of my places in the city, like it was to many other residents of Edinburgh. This day a fresh wind blew thick, white clouds over the blue sky so that the sunlight on the hills constantly changed making the landscape come to life. The raw cliffs that loomed high over our heads were wearing a cheerful cape of bright yellow flowers on the sturdy bushes that crawled up the hillsides and they seemed to greet us on our way with a promise that spring was on its way.
A few hours later I was looking back at the very same cliff formations from the other side about 30 kilometres outside of the city. I was leaving a place that had won a special place in my heart, not only for its traditional charm and natural beauty, but also because of the people I had come to know there. Not only had Chris’s old friends been incredibly hospitable and welcoming to us, I had also quickly felt embraced by the small team of Lennard’s food stalls On The Roll and In A Bowl at George Square (go there if you need a quick and really tasty lunch, and say hello from me!), where I worked Monday-Friday for seven weeks. Lennard, Dalida, Sabrina, Will and Miguel formed a wonderful cross of different nationalities (German, Syrian, British and Spanish) and personalities held together by humour, respect and care for one another almost like a family – and I was so lucky to be let in for a short while. Not to mention being able to serve and eat the delicious Syrian salads and wraps from Dalida’s hand or the traditional German sausages from the grill. The day before we left Chris and I had celebrated Sabrina’s birthday (and our leaving for the trip) with them in a warm, cosy family bar where an Irish folk music group entertained and the intense ending of a rugby match between France and Wales for 20 minutes stole everybody’s attention. From my seat I overlooked the grey tones of the sky and water of Firth of Forth, the wild rhythms and repetitive melodies of the Irish music rocked me, and around me I felt this warm friendship among these people that generously spilled over me and Chris too. It was a present moment of happiness, but it did not for one second make me sad that I was leaving. Now that I was cycling, with Edinburgh disappearing behind me and Chris and our trip in front of me, I finally felt I had come home to where I belonged. This was where I had wanted to be for so long.
We found a nice enough place to camp at the end of the first day. It was in a little patch of woods just off a countryside cycle path that we’d been following. The only problem was that it was a little windy, and it was the first time for us putting up our new (and very inexpensive) tent. It was a struggle to thread the poles in and took a frustratingly long time to assemble, with us starting to wonder if a £40 tent was really going to be good enough to house us all the way to China. By the time the damn thing was standing it was already dark, so we cooked our dinner by the light of our £1 headtorches.
“We have got a lot of really cheap stuff, haven’t we?” I said, as the pot slipped off our £5 camping stove.
“And look at your shoes!” Dea laughed.
The next day we had more good weather, and felt blessed by the blue skies and strong tailwind that were easing us gently into our journey as we headed east. Following the well-signposted Sustrans cycling route we rode on a mixture of cycle paths and quiet roads, playing the spotting things game as we went. It felt so good to feel the freedom of cycle touring again, with Dea at my side, or at least it did until the route plummeted us down into a cove and then requested we cycle back out up an incredibly steep road. Suddenly it didn’t seem quite so much fun, as I felt my whole body object to the tough workout. My heart raced and I gasped for breath, my muscles struggling to find the strength they needed for the steep climb. People don’t believe me when I say I’m unfit, but it’s true, and especially so after six weeks hunched over a computer. This climb was an early test of resolve.
Thankfully we were both able to pass the test, but as we neared the top and stopped to admire the views out over the sea, we were surprised to see another loaded cycle tourist powering up the hill behind us. Making me feel a little embarrassed by how tough I’d found the climb, the man appeared to be of pensionable age. He stopped to talk to us and asked us how far we were going.
“China,” Dea said. It already sounded so far away, so impressive to say that. “And what about you?”
“Oh… New Zealand.”
David had started a few days before us from Inverness and was planning to take the same ferry as us from Newcastle to Holland. He explained that his intention was to take 18 months to get to New Zealand, cycling like us through Europe, Turkey, Central Asia, and China. For a while we stood there at the roadside talking of our respective plans, and I was back in that zone, of meeting the other long distance cyclists riding the Silk Route, of comparing route plans for the Pamirs. I’d told Dea we’d be sure to meet plenty of other cyclists riding across Eurasia, but I must admit, even I hadn’t expected it to happen on Day Two.
Like all long distance cyclists (including those approaching 70 years of age), David was faster than me, so we wished him well, saying we were sure to meet again somewhere along the way, and watched him disappear off ahead of us as we crested the hill through a forest of wind turbines. The wind was continuing to blow us along too, and by the end of the day we were south of Berwick and over the border in England. We camped just off a trail on cliffsides that overlooked the sea. With the stars above us and a sea view, it was a lovely place to spend the night (So long as we ignored the fact that on the other side of us there was a busy railway line).
England brought with it a change in the weather. It grew very cold, and the wind started blowing in at us sideways. It was a bitterly cold wind that numbed our cheeks and any other exposed skin. But it was spring, and the daffodils and newborn lambs we passed were a heartwarming and inspiring reminder of that. As Dea pointed out, this season was the ideal time to start our trip – the new life that surrounded us and the reawakening of nature after a long winter felt like the perfect accompaniment to our own new beginnings. We celebrated with a game of Pine Cone Wars. With my face covered to protect me from the wind I assumed a character by the name of the ‘Masked Bandit’ and felt confident I could win as we rode on throwing pine cones at each other. Sadly for me it turned out that the Masked Bandit wasn’t much of a throw, and Dea won.
We continued south on a mixture of quiet roads and coastal paths, passing numerous castles along the way. Our final day of cycling in England brought us even worse weather, with rain added to the cold wind. But we had a goal to reach. A warmshowers host in North Shields to look forward to staying with, and that spurred us on. We passed by the long beach of Whitley Bay, and found ourselves cycling up to the castle at Tynemouth. This was it, the Tyne river, from which our ferry would carry us to mainland Europe. We had made it. The first small leg of our long journey had been achieved.
Our host, Roy, was a very nice man and welcomed us in. As well as offering to put us up for the night, he had been good enough to let me have the proof copies of my book sent to his address for me to check, and one of the first things he did was hand me the box. I opened it with excitement and apprehension. I lifted the lid and pulled out a book. And there it was. A book. A book that I had written. I didn’t know how I felt. I’d dreamt of writing a book for so many years. Now, to hold it in my hands, it somehow didn’t quite feel real. But it was real. I couldn’t believe it. We needed to celebrate.
Refreshed by a quick shower we set out on a ‘build-up-the-appetite’ ride from North Shields into Newcastle. It was not because we hadn’t had enough of cycling or because Roy didn’t want to serve us dinner that we cycled 17 kilometres to get something to eat, but because my aforementioned colleagues from Edinburgh had given us a very generous leaving present that we could eat. They had booked us in for a dinner at an Asian Tapas restaurant in the centre of Newcastle, as they knew we ourselves would very rarely treat ourselves with restaurant visits like that, not even to celebrate that we had just begun the journey we had dreamed about for so long. This we could do now, it was so thoughtful and kind of them, and I was determined to enjoy the extra bike ride we had to do to get there. In the beginning, it really was very enjoyable as we were without our usual load of panniers and bags and with the great wind behind us flew effortless like rockets in empty space through the dark suburbs on smooth, remote bike paths. But then the light rain turned into a persistent, heavy shower that made the cold temperatures creep in through my trousers and shoes that got more and more wet as I raced through the falling drops and big puddles on the ground. Despite the rain, Newcastle still looked pretty amazing with buildings and bridges lit by thousands of light along the river Tyne.
Soaked and cold we locked up the bikes and went into the warm, tidy restaurant feeling not just a little bit out of place. Roy was already sitting at our table, as we had invited him to help us eat through the generous gift voucher, but he had been sensible enough to take the train. After a little brush up at the bathroom where Chris transformed into a decent looking gentleman in trousers and a shirt he had borrowed from Roy, we ordered 11 tapas for us to share. They tasted good and I realised that Asian tapas was a great concept, as it evoked many different glimpses from my travels on that continent. We talked about these travels and life in general with Roy, who we seemed to have a lot in common with despite our different ages. More than the obvious passion for riding bikes he for example had just bought a camper van like the one my parents used to have and planned to go road tripping in it, he was learning to play ukulele and was, according to himself, an expert in finding the cheapest products in the shops and supermarkets. He was very interested in our way of living, saying that him and the hippies he associated himself with back in the days had been talking about such a way of life more than actually doing it. I on the other hand found it inspiring to see how he approached life with a great sense of freedom and open for new choices and challenges seeing so much life still being ahead of him. Best of all, Roy was cheerful and easily fell into laughter and we had a great evening with him.
Three people and 11 tapas were not enough to exhaust the gift voucher and we ordered two desserts of ice cream and gave the rest as a tip before it was time to go back, meaning riding the same 17 kilometres back to North Shields into a cold headwind. Fortunately, the rain stopped and my wet trousers dried during the ride. It had been one very long day on top of a demanding ride from Edinburgh, a most intense and eventful beginning of our trip.
Edinburgh – Berwick – Whitley Bay – North Shields – Newcastle