Chilli horsebeans or wasabi peas? I stood in the cool of the petrol station shop, lost in this big decision, already clutching a few bottles of cold drink; I was more interested in satisfying my stomach than nodding and smiling at interested strangers. Yet, after a few words it became clear that the young Chinese lad giggling nervously at me was really keen to talk and, as he had good English, I humoured him.
‘Wow!’ he said, ‘I so proud of you. It is brilliant what you are doing. I wish I could do something like that, but it looks so difficult.’
I shrugged and said that yes, sometimes it was really difficult, but that with the challenge comes the reward of satisfaction.
His voice shaking with nerves, he said thank you and trotted outside pausing to smile at Hercules as he left.
Ten minutes later, refuelled with both wasabi peas and chilli horsebeans, I was pedalling and chatting to my Camera Chief Justine, on her final day’s biking after a ten day trip from the UK to film me.
Cars honk at me all the time out here so I thought nothing of it as one beeped and waved from the opposite direction. But then a couple of guys jumped out and gestured, shouting excitedly for us to stop, before leaping over the central reservation and bounding over to us. It was the nervous young lad from the petrol station.
‘You need a companion! I join you to Beijing!’ he squealed. I stood there holding on to Hercules, eyebrows arched, forehead frowning and somehow smiling all at once, not knowing quite what to think, let alone what to say. Another guy appeared at his side and two more soon followed, all beaming and saying hello to the camera which Justine was now rolling.
My head was a whizz – how could I politely let this guy down and tell him that I thought it was a bit much for a stranger to jump on board and ride with me nearly 4000 km? At the same time, I admired his pluck – ten points for spontaneity and bravery at even contemplating the idea, let alone approaching me with it and announcing his intentions.
Keen to dissuade him and maintain my independence, I bigged up the challenges ahead, drawing particular attention to the Gobi desert, the distance and the hours on the bike and so on and so on, hoping he might retreat. But ‘twas not to be. It seems that in the ten minutes since leaving me with my wasabi-chilli dichotomy, ‘Gao ya guang – you can call me Gao’ had thought all these things through. We could collect water, he could be my Chinese guide, he would buy a bike and – . Err, excuse me? ‘You don’t have a bike yet?’
‘No, not yet. But I can buy one’, he said, rather sheepishly.
I explained that I would be arriving in the city of Urumqi that night, sending Justine on the plane home the next morning and spending that day getting ready to cycle off again the following morning.
‘Ok,’ he said. ‘I’ll be there.’ And we all stood round and chuckled.
Still not quite believing it all I thought I had better see what kit he had already and quickly discovered he would be starting from scratch. So I wrote a basic list as he chirped, ‘ You tell me what I need. You’re the leader’.
And so it was that on Tuesday morning I had a knock on my hotel room door. There in front of me was a whole new Gao – top to toe in red lycra, head shaved and apparently ready for the road. He said he hadn’t slept the night before because he was nervous and when I asked if he was excited he said, ‘ I always excited!’ and giggled again.
His brother, cousin and a friend had driven Gao and his brand new bike and gear over from his home town over 100km away and were as excited as he was. They took us both to lunch before escorting us out of the city.
As we approached our turn off to the Beijing road I noticed our escort had stopped at the apex of the corner and were all waving at me to cycle past the car. There was a long string of red on the floor and I was confused. As Gao appeared at my side, grinning and yelling and the first bang exploded over the noise of passing cars, it all made sense: his family were sending us off to Beijing with firecrackers – right in the middle of the road. It was madder than mad and very brilliant. Before we left I glugged back a mouthful of something alcoholic as the little bottle of liquor was passed my way, nearly choking on the vapour – whatever it was, it was lethal. Somehow nothing surprised me now; they were all so excited about Gao’s adventure and had played a huge part in getting him ready to go. One such part was getting his flag.
‘My brother said you had a British flag and so I needed a Chinese flag. But he say that mine should be bigger than yours,’ declared Gao with a smile as we peddalled off.
Aye indeed, it definitely is, Gao – you win there. My bike flags can fit in an A6 envelope and you can’t even see it in the photo; Gao’s is like a large towel and billows out behind him on the road.
After I told him that it is traditional for tourers to name their steeds he thought about it awhile and announced later on that it was to be ‘Stranger’. I didn’t think it fair to say that in a few hundred kilometers it would be anything but and he would know it very well indeed.
Gao has been with me three days now and I think he’ll be here for a while yet. Having clocked just two kilometres on the new bike before we set off together, he’s pushed out some pretty big days through desert heat and mountains and is still smiling – so I’m impressed. When his pannier fell apart he just pulled out his sellotape and bandaged it up, laughing as he did so, sure that we could find someone to repair it later on. That takes some doing. Just as it takes some doing to leave home on a bike with a complete stranger for a few weeks to ride across some of the world’s most challenging terrain, and not even tell your parents until you’ve left. Given that they weren’t too keen on him quitting University because he ‘wanted to do something more meaningful’, this is completely bucking the traditional trend of his family.
I need to crank up the miles in a day or two so that I can hit Beijing in a month. Although a bit surprised by my need for marathon days, he hasn’t been put off and I don’t want him to be either. In fact I would love to see him make it to Beijing and really hope that his kit and body hold out and adapt to allow him to do that – this is more than a bike ride for him, it is life changing. He has fizz and energy and enthusiasm and it’s great to see him growing in confidence as the miles tick by and he learns the way of life on the road, his bright red flag billowing out behind him.
So here’s to my new pedaling pal, Gao and his bike ‘Stranger’ – and all the roads ahead.
S and Herc x