Going Home

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, August 7, 2011

Glimpses of empty Chinese motorways passed by night between my interludes of half-sleep. Shen Zhen appeared before sunrise, and the driver navigated a confusing web of highways which brought us to the bus station. I walked my cycle to the border with a couple of friendly Dutch guys I'd met on the bus. We queued with hundreds of others, mostly fellow tourists and Chinese merchants entering Hong Kong with their wares.

Once through Immigration, I found I'd been a little careless in selecting my border crossing - from here the only way to proceed into Hong Kong was via the metro, which was closed to bulky, luggage-laden bicycles. With no way of obtaining a new Chinese visa to let me go back from here in no man's land, the metro staff eventually relented and let me travel to my destination which was just one stop away.

Leaving the station, Hong Kong's vestiges of British rule brought an unexpected familiarity to the urban environment, particularly in the style of public signage and the catalogues of restrictions and fines specified therein for various 'antisocial' behaviours - quite a change from China's laissez-faire approach to public spaces. I went to a nearby park and rested on a bench, watching several locals perform their morning Tai Chi routines before a large pond.

My Couchsurfing host met me at the station some hours later, and we cycled to his house. The open spaces, green hills and wild areas of the New Territories were inconsistent with my notions of the world's most densely-populated region.

With my flight home not until a week after the expiry of my Chinese visa, I had the challenge of trying to maintain my frugal tendencies in this 9th most expensive city in the world. I explored some of the cycle routes and the greenest areas of the map, climbing hills and exploring land on the margins in search of a campsite. I came across a lookout point near the border, overlooking Shen Zhen's mighty skyline, and spent the better part of the day there hiding from the fierce sun.

The next day I continued my explorations of the wilder nooks and crannies. There was an area of government land signposted with warnings to squatters who had erected shacks there, but there were no secluded spots. My route to the city led me on a gruelling climb over one of the highest hills in Hong Kong, atop which a camping ground looked promising, but required written permission. I descended the other side into Kowloon, where a sea of apartment towers hinted at the millions of inhabitants cleaving to these few coastal mountains and outlying islands.

Navigating the central city by bicycle was a fool's game, and I was frequently lost, forbidden to cycle particular roads, or frustrated by the one way system. I chanced across the renowned Flying Ball bicycle shop and asked for a cardboard bike box to pack my cycle for the flight home, but balked at the HKD$100 asking price. After a lot of round and about, I managed to locate Chung King mansions, where I hoped to stay on my last night in Hong Kong before flying out. I rode the metro back to my host's house.

After the scheduled three nights with my host it was time to find new accommodation. I returned to the lookout and waited for the few park-goers to go home. Then I descended the hillside to a small, flat spot just above the restricted border area and out of view of the lookout, where I pitched the tent for a night of restless sleep in the sticky heat.

For my last two nights under canvas a clump of trees on Waterways' land alongside a large canal was my campsite, but the humidity again meant sleep was elusive. With no further need of them, I surface-mailed my tent and air mattress back to NZ and took the metro into the city in search of a room in the bazaar of Chung King Mansions for my final night. The grotty tower, containing dozens of hotels and street food vendors, thronged with tourists, merchants, touts and more than a few shady-looking characters. The bicycle and luggage probably made me unpopular with others queuing for the small, overloaded elevators as I sought a hotel. Many of the hotels had no rooms available and I eventually had to settle for a less economical place, but one I could live with for one night.

My next task was to find a bike box. After playing cat and mouse with bus drivers and breathing a lot of noxious fumes I was in no doubt as to why almost nobody else rode bicycles in the city centre. To my delight though, a small bike shop let me have a box for HKD$20. I carted it back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening disassembling and packing the bike and luggage.

It was difficult to imagine that this journey would in a few days be terminating somewhat abruptly in a still faraway airport. Yet I cannot deny the excitement that I would soon see home and family and know regular comfort once again; the appeal of a dedicated bed after some 13 months of sleeping mostly in a tent by the roadside or in cheap hotels was something in itself!

Another motivation was my eagerness to begin my next project, which had been a constant impetus, particularly when I would ponder what I was doing and why and, especially, for how much longer.

The rib injury I'd sustained near Shangri La felt by now mostly healed, but I feared that the very physical daily activity of dragging the bike and gear over all terrain to secluded camping spots could make it prone to re-injury.

Taking stock of a year's worth of experiences, I had no choice but to accept that I'd seen only the barest glimpse of the cultures and lands of the countries I passed through; the confluence of my laziness, an aversion to complications and the desire to maintain momentum. As well, I had already twice compromised my ideal of sticking with surface transportation only, mostly as a result of poor planning, and had taken many other shortcuts besides. And yet, having said that, I was by no means sick of the cycling and camping - just that somehow crossing Southeast Asia for a 3rd time, and during the rainy season at that, threatened to deal a fatal blow to my wanderlust. So this way it had to be. There would be more rides in my future.

Flying with bike was probably the most consistently stressful routine of the entire journey for me: obtaining (or constructing) a cardboard box; disassembling and packing everything; getting to the airport, and finally nervously handing it over at check-in to find out what excess baggage charges should apply. To my enormous relief the taxi driver I flagged outside Chung King Mansions was friendly and didn't bat an eyelid at the bike box, which rang only 0.5 kg over Singapore Airlines' generous 30 kg allowance and was not charged as excess.

An overnight stop-over in Singapore airport brought the ring of the Kiwi accent back to my ears after what had been a long absence. I studied surreptitiously my countrymen in the departure lounge, feeling a faint twinge of alienation mixed with belonging, and genuinely curious as to how much life in NZ had changed in the four years since I'd last visited...

Well, here is where this particular tale wraps up, I guess. How to finish it? Without wanting to get any more grandiose than usual, I suppose if there is any moral to the story, it's that the world is still pretty good to the lost and scruffy-looking traveller.

Whilst the journey certainly wasn't without its quiet moments of desperation, seemingly hopeless predicaments and existential angst, the sheer absence of truly negative experiences seems to me something more than simple good fortune. By my reckoning this is more down to peoples' general goodwill than any supernatural dispensation (Indian bus drivers excepted!). This is important, because no amount of preparation will assure total self-reliance - preparation is crucial, but improvisation and/or the kindness of strangers will often count for a great deal more. After all, the old adage "90% of life is simply turning up" seems to hold.

So, to the many people who were my companions for various stages of the ride, and to those who invited me into their homes and fed me, or pulled me over just to drink a cup of tea with me, or showed me the places most special to them, or towed me (yes, even those many Turkish truck drivers who did it unknowingly!), or gave me directions, or honked in support, or photographed me from the roof of a passing bus, or waived the excess baggage fee, or tried to impart spiritual insights, or restored me to health, or gave me lunch on the house, or tolerated a spot of moralising, or didn't rip me off, or emailed support, or replaced my bike for free when it broke... and lastly to you too, dear readers, a profound and heartfelt thank you!
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steven on

Well done! Hope the farm treats you well!

vmenkov on

Glad to hear you're safely back home! Waiting for some farming news now...

Sonia van Ree on

Wow so you are back in NZ?

ashventures on

@Sonia, yep I've been back for a while. Thought you'd have heard already, but news travels erratically sometimes.

Charlie Walker on

As one of those who joined you for a lengthy stint, I would like to say thank you Ash. I had a great time riding with you in Turkey and Iran (and very briefly in India) and have subsequently enjoyed reading your blogs. I wish you the best of luck with your new project now you are back home and I sincerely hope I can one day visit you and eat some home grown meals on your own little corner.
Until then, keep in touch and take care chum

ashventures on

Great to hear from you again, Charlie! Know that I reminisce often about the kilometres oversped, the random encounters with locals, the word games to pass the time, the meals and coffee and most of all your patience and centredness. You know why! I reflect I was truly blessed to have you as a companion, and I hope you'll make it down here some day.

Now, off to catch up on your blog!

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