QITAI, CHINA, 7th February 2018
Waking up in our hotel in Qitai on Wednesday 7th February 2018 I tried to think of it as just another day, just another bike ride. But I knew that wasn’t true. It was a special day, it was the day when Dea and I were going to try to cycle the final eighty kilometres to Mori, the random Chinese town where I had restarted my attempt to circumnavigate the planet using only my bicycle and boats three years and four months earlier. I walked over to the window and peeled back the curtains. It was still dark outside, the street was empty. I could see a large mosque next to our hotel, and not far away the red and blue flashing lights of one of a great many police stations. Since Urumqi we’d not had any problems getting through the checkpoints, but those flashing lights reminded me that things could still be taken out of our hands at any moment. This wasn’t over yet.
Dea made us some breakfast and then we went downstairs to get the bikes. As I pushed mine over to my bags I noticed a piece of red material was stuck to the handlebars. “What the hell is this?!” I said, thinking maybe I’d ripped off a bit of the hotel’s curtains or something. One look at Dea told me it wasn’t the reaction she was hoping for. “Sorry, did you buy this?”
“Yes. It’s a special day, red is supposed to bring luck!”
And boy, were we going to need a bit of luck today.
We started cycling around 9:20 a.m. out of Qitai on the S303. I was nervous worrying about what could still go wrong. My hamstring felt tight, my knees felt painful. Not an injury now, please. I knew it was all in my mind. But what was not just in my mind was the creaking noise that was coming from beneath me, a noise that had been getting worse the last few days but that I could not place. It didn’t sound too good though, a bit like my back wheel might collapse on me at any moment. Please bike, not now, hold it together, would you?!
We left Qitai behind, riding into the sunrise one more time. Actually it was pretty cloudy and we couldn’t really see much of the sun, but I want to call my next book Into the Sunrise, so I’ll have to put that bit in. The shoulder on the S303 was really good so to drown out the worrying noise from my bike I put in my headphones and listened to music. The tunes carried me away on a tide of memories. I thought back over so many things. I thought about starting out from Paris over four years ago, about how determined I was to do the whole trip only by bicycle and boats, how optimistic I was, how full of anticipation at the world of possibilities ahead. I remembered my first ride across Europe and Central Asia, the wonderful people I met, the memories I made back in 2014. And I remembered getting to the border post in Siberia, being told that I could not cycle across it. The guards standing there, telling me it was a ‘car-only’ border, eventually leaving me no choice but to get in a motor vehicle or face arrest for over-staying my visa. How devastating that had been, how crushing to have lost it all after 27,000 kilometres of cycling. How I hoped and prayed that wouldn’t happen again now.
My cycle computer ticked over to 10 kilometres. Only 70 more to go.
I looked at Dea in my mirror and smiled. Oh, how amazing she is. What a miracle it was that we found each other in outer Mongolia, just a few days after that disappointment at the Siberian border. Meeting Dea happened because I had chosen to continue with my journey, to simply reset the circumnavigation somewhere in China. And she’d been with me ever since. Not always literally, but always so supportive. She’d given me the motivation to ride across China in 2014 only with the promise of getting to see her again. And she’d given me the motivation to ride across Australia in 2015, so that we could be reunited. And she’d given me the motivation to ride across Canada in 2016, for much the same reason. And in 2017 she had been by my side, joining me on this ride of a lifetime, and constantly impressing me with her resilience and determination, cycling with me all of the way across Europe and Asia and back to China. Across the deserts and over the mountains, she tackled every obstacle. It was so special to have been able to do all of this with her, and so, so special that we were finishing this together.
After seventeen kilometres we made a right turn off the S303 onto a smaller road. The S303 would have been a slightly more direct route to Mori, but back in 2014 I had cycled down from Mongolia and joined the S303 some thirty kilometres before Mori, so if we’d continued straight I would actually connect with my line at some random intersection, as I remembered it a horrible dirty crossroads, not the kind of place for special moments. Taking the small roads from here would instead lead us into Mori from a different direction, meaning I would only reconnect with the line in Mori itself, at the park where I had stood in front of a sculptue and told Sunny, an English-speaking Chinese girl who worked at my hotel, that I was off to cycle around the world. I had in my mind this perfect ending, where I cycled into the park with the Sigor Ros track Hoppipolla playing in my ears, mostly because it is the song that they always played at the end of Ben Fogle’s Extreme Dreams, which was one hell of a TV show by the way, and here I was now achieving my own extreme dream.
20 kilometres cycled. 60 to go.
The small road took us south and it was climbing uphill and not so easy. I was tired, Dea was tired, but this was it. We were getting so close. I kept listening to music, kept going through the memories. I was riding in the Australian outback alone under a zillion stars, I was cycling across the Canadian prairies with Vivian, the Uzbek desert with Alex, the Kyrgyz peaks with Liz. I was everywhere all at once. I wasn’t just cycling the last 80 kilometres, I was cycling every one of the 46,000 kilometres I’d cycled since I last saw Mori.
30 kilometres cyled. 50 to go.
We made another turn, east again. The road was flatter, and we had a tailwind. We picked up the pace. All we had to do now was cycle, this road would take us all the way to Mori.
40 kilometres cycled. 40 to go.
We stopped and ate some sandwiches, sitting at the side of the quiet road, looking out at the white fields. We didn’t say much. I was still thinking. Thinking about my family back home. Thinking about my parents. Thinking about my life and how important all this was to me and how at the same time it didn’t really matter. Thinking about all the people I’d met along the way, many of whom had daily struggles and problems in their lives I could not have guessed at, but almost all of whom had helped us or supported us or given us a smile or a wave or a beep of the horn. I was indebted to so many people. There were so many I wished I could thank. I could not have done this trip alone, and it would not have been worth doing if it were not for the incredible good-hearted nature of most of the world’s citizens. As we continued cycling through a small town I wanted to wave at and thank all of the people that we passed, though they could not have guessed the magnitude of the moment that was fast approaching.
50 kilometres cycled. 30 to go.
We were flying now. Everything was so good. The road was flat and had hardly any traffic on it. We had a tailwind. The sun was out and the temperatures were quite comfortable. Music kept filling my head and I was beginning to feel euphoric. This was the final road to Mori, and everything had come together. It was one of those rare occasions cycling when absolutely everything was perfect, it really was. For the first time I became absolutely certain that we were going to make it, absolutely convinced. Then I heard an Alsation bark loudly and looked to my right to see it flying towards me. But it snapped back on its chain. It was as if the world had thrown everything at me, but there was nothing going to stop me now, nothing.
And then we came to a police checkpoint.
We tried to pass by with just a nod, but the policeman manning the road made us stop and show our passports. Another policeman, this one with a large rifle over his shoulder, came out of the building, took the passports and told us to follow him back inside. We were told to take a seat, while he tried to work our what a foreign passport was. “It’s going to be fine,” Dea said, but she could not know that. How many foreigners did they get out here at this small road checkpoint? What were they going to do with us? I twisted my hands nervously. My fate was no longer in them, it was in the hands of the Chinese police. Phone calls were made. More phone calls were made. The police ate some cookies and coffee. More phone calls were made. This was not looking good. It was taking too long. Something was wrong.
Half an hour passed, maybe 45 minutes. The number of police officers behind the desk had grown to six, but they were giving us no information. Were they waiting for a car to come to take us to Mori? We just didn’t know. All we could do was wait. Then, finally, one of them translated something into English on his smartphone and handed it to us. I looked at the screen, and my heart sank.
Something happened in our county. Prepared for state of readiness. Cannot allow you entry. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Sorry for the inconvenience? Sorry for the inconvenience? I just cycled 46,000 kilometres around the world, and you’re blocking the road with twenty-five kilometres to go, and you’re sorry for the inconvenience?
You must return to original road.
I always knew this was going to happen. China was just too difficult. Of course it was going to stop me somehow. Of course it was. Dammit. Why had I got cocky? Why had I allowed myself to believe I was going to make it? Ahhhh!!!
“Go back home,” one of the policemen found some English as we exited the building.
This event was undoubtedly a massive blow, but it was not a knockout punch, and we could not give up. We could not get to Mori this way, but at least they had not told us that we could not cycle. All we had to do was to retreat, and as we began pedalling back the way we had come, past that blasted Alsation again, there was still hope. We just had to go back to the S303 and try to get to Mori that way. But we didn’t even need to get to Mori now, not really. All I had to do was to get to that intersection. That crossroads where I’d come down from Mongolia. We checked the map and saw that we didn’t need to go all the way back, there was a road north from the small town we’d passed, and, while I wasn’t 100% sure it was the right place, it looked like it led directly to the exact intersection I needed to get to. I was pumped again. I wasn’t going to give this up.
The road going north was all downhill and I was so determined to get there I was just flying along. It wasn’t going to be the perfect finish in Mori, but it didn’t need to be, I just needed to get to that crossroads. It was all that mattered. I wanted to get there quickly, before the police could come along and tell us they’d made a mistake, we weren’t allowed to cycle here at all, that we’d have to go with them. Roadside markers counted down to the junction. 10 kilometres, 9, 8, 7, I was pounding along at more then 20 kilometres per hour, Dea in my mirror doing her best to keep up, music still ringing in my ears as adrenaline pumped through my body. Was it really it this time?
We passed an expressway exit and the quiet road suddenly became filled with quarrying trucks. This wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it was good, for the thing I most remembered about the crossroads was all of the trucks. We were probably in the right place. The end of the road drew nearer as I dived out of the way of a recklessly overtaking truck. Things could still go wrong. I was expecting to see a police checkpoint any moment, but none appeared. There was only three kilometres to go, then two, then one. I put on Sigor Ros and I kept pedalling. This was it, this was really it. Suddenly I was there. I burst out into the middle of the junction and it was the most incredible, surreal feeling of my life. It was a feeling I have never felt before. All of the trucks, all of the traffic had just disappeared, there was nothing, leaving me free to float into the middle of the crossroads, guaranteeing that I crossed the line I’d taken when turning east here having arrived from the north all those years ago. With Sigor Ros’s inspiring melody in my head I felt amazing, I felt like I’d achieved something, in this, the most horrible, other-wordly of settings. It was a disgusting place really, with filthy red trucks parked up everywhere and litter strewn on all the verges, smoke pouring out from a skip. Yet what I experienced here was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. A feeling that comes from achieving a dream one has fought so hard for for so many years and yet, a feeling tempered by only being 95% sure that I’d actually done it. I was not completely certain that this was the right place. I felt like it was possible I’d gone to Mori a different way, that I had this all wrong. Even as Dea offered me her congratulations there was still a small doubt in my mind as to whether I’d really made it.
“We’d better keep going to Mori,” I said.
So we turned east on the S303. Mori was still some thirty kilometres away and we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, but we had some kind of summit fever and we had to try and make it there still. On we rode, me feeling a lot of strange emotions, believing I had made it around the world but still not quite certain. I wanted to get to Mori, I wanted to make sure. I was still cycling fast, desperate to get there. But Dea was falling behind a little and we needed to stop and eat something, we’d hardly had anything to eat all day. I noticed a short section of crash barrier and lent my bike against it. I looked up at some houses nearby and I saw something amazing. It was the world’s worst basketball court. The two baskets were old and broken and didn’t have nets, and they weren’t even facing one another. It was a terrible example of a basketball court, it really was. But that wasn’t what made it amazing. What made it amazing was that I had seen this basketball court before. I remembered it. I remembered photographing it. I remembered chuckling at it for being such a terrible sporting arena. And looking at it again now was amazing, for as I did so I knew, with one hundred percent certainty, that I had been around the world using only my bicycle and boats. A rush of emotion came over me again. I kicked some snow. Then I punched some snow. Sigor Ros was no longer playing. New Found Glory’s turn of the century punk-pop classic Hit or Miss was in my ears (a song I doubt Ben Fogle has ever even heard) and I knew that from this moment on it was going to be one of my favourite songs. It had been one of my favourite songs before this moment, for one thing, but now it was even more special, for it was the backdrop to this most special of moments. Dea arrived, worried something had gone wrong having seen my snow kicking. But nothing was wrong. I hugged her. I had done it. We had done it.
With the goal achieved I suddenly felt completely and utterly exhausted. We no longer needed to make it to Mori and my body told me it wasn’t up for cycling any more. We weren’t going to make it before dark anyway, and the odds of there being another checkpoint before the town seemed very high. So we decided to call it a day and make camp under the road in a small underpass. We had not been planning to camp and did not have a lot of water. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a litre and a half of liquid here,” Dea said, pulling out a massive bottle of champagne. “Congratulations. I’m so proud of you.”
I popped open the champagne, which turned out to be weak red wine, and Dea and I toasted the success of the day. What a day it had been, and what a journey. And looking at Dea I knew that there was no one I would rather have done it with, and no one I would rather be celebrating below a road in subzero temperatures with, than her.
We arose the next morning keen to ride the final few kilometres into Mori. Even though I had technically been around the world by bike and boats now it still felt like we had to make it to Mori. It had been our stated mission for over a month now, we’d made it kind of a big deal to get there, and getting back to the park which I had made my official start point was very important to me.
So you can imagine our dismay when, only two kilometres into our day, we came upon a police checkpoint. Once again we were told to go inside and hand over our passports, and once again we were made to wait for a very long time. After a lot of phone calls and a lot of looking at our passports, the message was once again passed to us that we would not be able to continue into Mori. I sighed. Why was this so hard? We were now only fifteen kilometres from the park, from the sculpture where I’d officially started, where I so badly wanted to get back to. But these policemen were serious, they weren’t going to let us through.
We didn’t back down. For one thing if we didn’t get through here the only other way we could continue our cycle across China was to go all the way back to Urumqi and take another road further south, a 500 kilometre detour. But we had to get to Mori, we just had to. I showed them the address of the hotel that we planned to stay at, the one I’d stayed at three years ago. Do you have a reservation? they asked by translation. We did not, but a thought struck me. If Sunny was still there, and if we could get hold of her, maybe there was a chance she could help us. I asked the policeman to call the hotel and ask for Sunny. He tried, but it didn’t work. Sunny was her English name, her Chinese name was different, whoever was answering the phone at the hotel didn’t know who it was.
For over an hour we were in that police building, our passports on the policeman’s desk, our bikes waiting outside, Mori fifteen kilometres away and a million miles out of reach. But we didn’t give up. We called Claire, the English-speaking girl from the acupunctue centre in Urumqi, and asked her to call the hotel for us and explain the situation. She did that for us. People were still being so nice, so good to us. The drama continued, people asking questions, making phone calls. Then the senior policeman shouted out “Chris?” and I knew there was only one way he could know the shortening of my name. He passed me the phone.
It was her. We’d made contact. It was so good to hear her voice again. She remembered me so well.
“You told me you would come back, but I didn’t believe it,” she said, sounding, well, disbelieving.
We chatted for a little while, then I explained the situation, and asked if Sunny could talk with the policeman and try to convince him to allow us into Mori. She agreed to try.
Sunny and the policeman talked for a long time, mostly the policeman talked actually, then he hung up the phone. I couldn’t really believe he did that, without passing it back to me to hear what he’d told Sunny. But some time later Sunny was back on the phone, and this time I got to talk to her. “He says you can come to Mori, but you have to come by bus. He says you can come by bus, or you can go back home to your own country. I’m sorry. It’s the only way.”
This was not what I had been hoping to hear. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come all this way around the world and then take a bus to the finish line. I simply could not take a bus into Mori. We would have to go back. I thanked Sunny for her help and said goodbye. It was so sad. We were not going to get our reunion after all.
I went to hang up the phone, but the policeman grabbed it from me just before I could. He spoke to Sunny again for a few moments. Dea and I looked at each other. We knew this was it. The gig was up. We wouldn’t go to Mori on a bus, it would be just too tragic. We’d go back, at least as far as Qitai, where we’d try and work out what to do next. We’d given it our best shot. We’d given it all we had to get to Mori, but we had to face it, it just wasn’t going to happen.
The policeman hung up the phone again, and handed us back our passports. “Go Mori,” he said.
“Yes, yes. Go Mori.”
We were in shock. We did not know what had just happened. The policeman seemed to have had a completely inexplicable 180 degree change of heart. There was no explanation for it, but we didn’t hang around to hear one. We vaulted onto our bicycles and started pedalling towards Mori as fast as we could.
It felt like one final miracle. This was just meant to be. It really was. It had started to snow gently but that didn’t matter. We just pedalled and pedalled. A police car came up behind us, lights flashing, and I held my breath, but it zoomed straight past us. I just kept going, kept turning the pedals, moving forwards. I wasn’t going to give this up now. The town of Mori came into view. After 46,000 kilometres there it was again at long, long last. We crossed a bridge and were in the town, suddenly on a busy main road. The park was still a few kilometres away, and there seemed to be police cars everywhere. One of them kept slowing down next to us. Please don’t stop us, please don’t stop us now! I saw a policeman taking a photo of me through the car window, but it sped away. Our route was clear. On and on through the town we went, Sigor Ros in my ears again, and then, finally, there it was, the sculpture I recognised, my start and finish line, the park, there it was! And it was blocked off, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. Sigh.
We called Sunny. Her hotel was just around the corner and she was with us within a couple of minutes. I gave her a hug, so pleased to see her again, and so very grateful for all of her help to make it here. “Can we go into the park?” we asked her.
I was so close to the finish line, so very close.
“Not with the bikes. Pedestrians, yes.”
“That’s okay! We’ll leave the bikes here.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
And Sunny led us in through a security gate, past a guard, into the completely deserted park. We walked over to the sculpture, to the place where three years and four months and six days earlier Sunny had taken a photograph of me and my bike. My bike hadn’t quite made it back (nice try, bike), but that was alright, I had someone much more special (sorry bike) to hold this time. Sunny took a photo of Dea and me, and Mission To Mori was complete. My journey around the world by bicycle and boats could finally be deemed a 100% complete success.
The three of us walked to Sunny’s hotel where we sat and talked. She was such a sweet girl, she really was. I showed her a copy of No Wrong Turns, and pointed out the bit with her, when I’d been in Mori the first time. “This is amazing!” she said, almost crying. “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you came back.”
I told her that she could keep the book and it seemed to make her so very happy. She asked us both to sign it, and helped us come up with Chinese names so that we could do it in Chinese (my Chinese name translates into English as King Travel, while Dea’s is Queen of Elightenment and Elegance). And this really was what it was all about. Achieving my goal of cycling around the world was great, sure, but here was what really mattered, the way it brought us together with people, allowed us to make friends and just make such special connections with people.
“I am so touched by this, I almost cry,” Sunny said. “I think this is one of the best days of my life.”
“Yes,” Dea and I both smiled, “for us too.”