Day 1: Wellington to Beijing , It couldn’t happen here

The LED readout at the check-in counter reads 23.0kg.
Luckily, my bike box weighed exactly 23kg!

I’d been living in a cliffside mansion, on Wellington’s dramatic south coast.

I had a small project studio there, with killer views over Houghton Bay.

I’d been on a crazy healthy diet, with all the trimmings. And I’d been training hard, riding up the toughest hills and battling it out in amateur running events. I felt indestructible and in the best shape of my life.

But all the endorphins in the world couldn’t overcome my deep sense of discomfort with life and the Wellington scene. A lot of my friends were more than happy to settle down here. But I’d moved flat 15 times in the past 15 years. Settling down just wasn’t in my nature.

And yet here I was. 42 years old, and in the same job for 15 years. My career had plateaued ages ago, but my reliance on a regular pay packet had never wavered. I justified it by pushing the envelope at work and buying more creative gadgets for my studio. But the void only deepened.

I became more and more obsessed with the idea of leaving. This wreaked havoc on my relationships, with my words and actions going in different directions. No-one took me seriously, including myself.

But somehow, slowly, I’d started to pay down debt and save. I reckoned I needed $10,000 for 10 to 12 months of independent travel, and $10,000 to kick start my new life in Berlin.

Eventually I managed to scrape together around $15,000. The rest I would get by selling everything.

I had zero experience of bicycle touring.

But I had flown my mountain bike to Melbourne once, and bike-packed to a couple of local dance parties.

At the first party, I’d carried just a few clothes. I’d felt like The Man, but it had been a cold, cold night.

The second time I’d gone more prepared, with a tent, sleeping bag and mat. It was great, but the 100km+ ride with a heavy pack had been damned uncomfortable. But I’d still felt like The Man, and I wanted more of that feeling.

On April 15th 2015, I hit the eject button.

When I walked out of that office, 4 and half months later, a lot of things became clear to me – where I’d been and where I was going. And the rest had pretty much fallen into place.

Quitting my job was far easier than I imagined. It didn’t really shock my employer, and I quickly reframed my aspirations, from being a good developer, living between pay days, to being a successful adventurer, living between achievements.

A really rough route had slowly transformed into a general direction.

I’d spent many hours reading the books and blogs of those that had gone before me. Their tales of adventure and misadventure were in equal parts inspiring and intimidating.

I’d read about Tom Allen’s inspirational ride through Mongolia (opens new window) so I had to go there, ASAP. And I had to do it before winter proper kicked in.

Then my well-travelled brother-in-law had said that if I was going to Mongolia, I definitely had to go to Russia. Lake Baikal, to be exact. Google concurred, with gorgeous lake shots and dynamic ice sculptures. I picked up a copy of Rob Lilwall’s Cycling Home from Siberia (opens new window) from Unity Books. I’d really wanted a book on Mongolia, but when I started reading Rob’s bleak, frigid account of a Siberian crossing, it just ticked all the boxes.

China had never really appealed. But then I had a beer with Andrew, a local who had recently ridden there. He was such an ambassador for the place, that it too went on the list.

And my old school friend Elliot was transiting through Hong Kong in January. It had always been on my list, and it fit.

And then? And then I hoped to wing my way to Berlin. To put into practice years of German lessons, to get my techno fix, and hopefully to meet a nice German lady and settle down.

I bought the cheapest flight that I could. It was to Beijing, China.

So that was my route then. China, Mongolia, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Berlin.

And if I left soon I might just avoid the permafrost.

I’d planned to take my trusty mountain bike with me.

It was steel and it was light. But my hardcore cyclist friends had pointed at the racer angles and the ding in the top tube and painted dark scenes.

I realised that my budget, ‘wing it and see’ approach could be dangerous. So I devoted many hours to reading up on pack-lists, recommendations and back-country touring routes. The amount of information was overwhelming!

After much intense research, salivation, and, eventually, compromise, I finally settled on a Surly Troll. I flew to Australia to spec and collect it. When I returned to New Zealand, I was $6000 poorer.

I was also concerned that my existing camping gear wasn’t going to be resilient enough for up to a year of travel, or warm enough for Russia.

But in the end I simply couldn’t afford all of the fancy gear, despite decimating my savings with over $11,000 of gear upgrades!

The three entry visas were a real baptism by fire.

Their strict requirements shaped my deliberately loose travel plans in unsolicited and unappreciated ways.

For a start, I’d hoped to ride from Beijing up to Mongolia, then up to Russia, back out to China and down to Hong Kong. I couldn’t justify an expensive Russian Business Visa, so I’d settled for a 30 day Single-Entry Tourist Visa ($125 + $125 rush fee). But the Russian tourist visa rules (opens new window) stated that I couldn’t apply for this more than 3 months before arriving. As this would severely curtail the other legs, I suddenly had to do the whole ride in reverse! And of course I needed a Podtverzdeniye (!?!). This was the cause of much anxiety, until I learned that the Russian Cycle Touring Club could provide one (opens new window), for a mere € 30 ($55.95).

Fearing sand storms in Mongolia, I’d hoped to double my 30 day entitlement ($95 + $50 rush fee), but the local consulate (opens new window) said that I’d have to try my luck in Ulaanbaatar, cementing the Russia-Mongolia-China route. They also warned me of October blizzards and suggested that I pack a satellite phone! A route was also required, so I copied a German cyclist’s route and didn’t tell them that I actually planned to ride across the Gobi.

As for China, I’d hoped to explore the surrounding areas with a 12 Months Multi-Entry Visa (opens new window). But, as this was my first visit, they would only issue a 3 month Double Entry visa ($210 + $60 rush fee). With my new route that would leave no spare entries, so I’d have to cut straight through the centre.

In the meantime, of course, I was still working! Juggling 15 years of technical debt with all the gear buying, vaccinations, trips to the travel agent to organise insurance ($1,916), a huge number of TradeMe auctions to liquify my assets ($6,195), packing up my flat and winding things up with my girlfriend (badly!), meant that I didn’t get my three visas until the week before I left. Had I known what a stress-fest this would all be, I would have left my job much sooner!!

But now I was ready, or as ready as you can be.

And now it was time to go.

At the baggage counter, I wait nervously as the airline staff weigh my luggage.

I only have two ‘pieces’ of baggage, but I’m flying with two different airlines. Each has a completely different interpretation of ‘baggage’.

Qantas is the carrier for the shorter leg, from New Zealand to Melbourne. They allow multiple pieces of baggage, with a maximum combined weight of 30kg.

Air China, on the other hand, is the carrier for the longer leg, from Melbourne to Beijing. They allow only two pieces of baggage, with a maximum weight of 23kg each.

My bike box is my first piece of baggage. It contains my bike and some bike accessories, such as my lights and frame bags. I know from my return flight from Australia, that the bike weighs around 23kg. It had, in fact, tipped Air New Zealand’s scales at 24.5kg! That was, however, until I pointed out that the scales read 1.1kg, even when there was nothing on them..

I’ve stuffed the rest of my baggage, four panniers and a tent, into a cheap, striped ‘Chinese’ laundry bag. I’d read that this was a good way to give the illusion of ‘less’ baggage, without actually bringing any less baggage.

Both I and my travel agent have double, triple checked the rules. But the flight is one of those cheap deals, with the type of fine print designed to weed out budget travellers.

Somehow, luckily, fate is on my side. My two pieces slip in under the Air China limit, with the bike box weighing exactly 23.0kg. Phew!

With my stress-making gear gone, I’m a man of leisure.

I sit down with my mother, father, and sister Pip, to enjoy a leisurely, relaxing airport lunch.

Well, almost. A few days earlier, I had realised that my rear light didn’t work as advertised. When I stopped, it stopped. The light was a small thing, but I was worried about being mown down in a busy foreign city. Plus, then I’d find out if my not-so-expensive travel insurance actually worked, or not.

The bike shop in Melbourne sent an urgent replacement light on Sunday. But it is now Wednesday and I haven’t received it yet. I phone NZ Post and discover that the courier has tried to deliver the light twice, to who-knows-where. My sister will pick it up from the depot on her way home. But as my plane leaves in several hours, I’ll have to make do with the faulty unit.

Chance also has it that my recent-ex-flatmate Hamish is sitting a couple of seats away, with an old friend. Both are keen surfers, and about to fly to Indonesia to catch some big waves. For Hamish, it’s a well deserved break before settling down to the serious business of child-raising.

I say Hi, in the way that you greet someone who you used to see everyday. We’d shared an amazing house and the extreme highs and lows of everyday life. And now each of the flatmates had gone their separate ways, to do something awesome. It was an amiable breakup, yet it’s strange to see him now, in his new role as a passing acquaintance.

Inevitably it comes time to board the plane.

My sister gives me a big, teary hug, and says some strange words that she’s never said before. Mum and Dad come over to the departure gate, and I cry as I bid them farewell. My parents are getting old and I wondered if they will be still be around, when, and if, I come home.

And then I’m through the gate and we’re off.

The flight to Melbourne is smooth, but cramped.

The Qantas crew play the aisle equivalent of flying faders or Alexei Sayle’s. Their trollies tease from afar as they attempt to juggle meal delivery with their clients’ need to ‘freshen-up’.

And it seems that no matter how much airplane technology evolves – bigger wings, quieter engines – any increase in leg room remains just out of reach.

At Melbourne, I skip Duty Free and head over to the music shop. The salesman there manages to sell me a bassy Bluetooth speaker, which I hope to affix to the front of the Troll. The water-resistant Braven BRV-1 is fairly heavy, but I hope that it will do double duty as a cache battery. And I imagine the traffic parting like the Red Sea, as I fire shots into it from my bass cannon.

I sit in the departure lounge for a while, sure that I have forgotten something, but not sure what. When it finally becomes time to board my flight to China, I suddenly realise that I don’t have any foreign currency! Luckily I find an exchange counter a few metres away and make my flight with a thick wad of Yuan.

On the plane, a young musician sits down next to me.

She’s friendly and rocking a big axe, and I hope that we can be rockstars together. But she is clearly tired from all the after parties and soon passes out face-first into her meal tray.

With conversation off the table, I focus my attention on the small TV screen in front of me. There, a sequence of corny nature scenes are watermarked with the China Central Television (CCTV) logo. Mercifully, the watery scenes are accompanied by smooth, Hardcastle-esque, jams. A relaxing partnership, I make myself as comfortable as possible for the eleven-and-a-half hour flight ahead.