Something my Gran always likes to remind me of, something I can’t remember myself, is a time when I was little on a winter morning in Staffordshire, England, walking across Cannock chase. Mist rising. Dew clinging to the grass at our feet. As we reached a clearing I said, staring out into the fog, the trees, the hazy sunlight, frost sparkling… ‘look Granny, it’s just like Narnia!’ As sparkly as that may sound, its where this story begins; with wonder. With imagination. With the wide-eyed outlook of childhood.
At the beginning of our lives our minds are free. We are born into a complex world. It’s nature. It’s history. It’s cultures. Ours to absorb. To interpret. To relish in. We are small, but we are fearless too. We explore. We question. We test the world. We are not afraid of the answers we might find. We are yet to experience the disappointment the search might bring. The more we live, the more we see that there is only the world, there is only the life we have and see around us. It exists. It continues always. We can interact, we can observe, we can ponder and enjoy it or we can fall to one side.
Like everyone else, I was trying to figure out where it was all headed but, for me, the meaning got lost along the way. On that winter morning, years earlier I had understood, I had seen everything more clearly, much more simply then. Over time, like all of us, shaped by education, by social interaction, by ambition, by a constant need to assess my position in this world, I became only confused and the wonder faded. The more we take on board and the more knowledge we have about our world, the less we understand about life. We forget how to appreciate life. We stop questioning it’s existence and start living out our lives in the same job, in the same villages, within the same comforting structures.
I remember reading stories about strange worlds. I remember exploring the forests beyond the homes and farms that my families lived in. Secret places. Stories I played out. I remember, once, thinking that the Narnia I’d spoken of was a real place, but, more vividly than that, I remember the moment I realized it wasn’t. Twenty more years of similar realisations later and I found myself in a job I struggled to enjoy, without responsibility, dependent on the little money it generated, in debt, without happiness even on a basic, social level. Trapped by contracts, by deadlines in a grey city. A base, I thought, to develop a career, to develop a life for myself.
This story starts in a dark way. I have no idea if, by cycling around the world, the ending will be different. I feel like I should tell you about myself, tell you what I’ve done, who I am, where I’ve been. Tell you all my experiences, the highs and lows of my life in the hope that you might associate or understand. But, after three weeks of cycling, sitting here, writing this first chapter on a windswept, frosty mountain pass overlooking the Italian border, light fading, snowy peaks glowing in the dusk, I find myself struggling to put it all into words. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter. Your going to find out how I got here. Your going to learn about this trip as the chapters unfold. Why it is. Where it has been. Where it will take me. This is the story one man’s attempt to realign with the world, to rediscover that sense of wonder we all began with. More simply, it’s the public journal of my attempt to travel the world by bicycle.
It’s taken some time to begin writing. I was cycling away from a lot of heavy thoughts, a lot of tired procedures and it took many miles, through many quiet fields to ride free of them. But, how did my life reach the stage where I could rationalise a trip like this? Well, it got to this point about a year ago. Living in a flat that I couldn’t afford, a nice place, but a place to hide from a city I didn’t like. All my money went on this. I couldn’t even afford to pay a deposit on a cheaper place. I couldn’t leave. I never went out. I worked from dawn till dark. An assistant in a busy film company. The more I worked there the more it tested my morals. Money. Ambition. Materialism. Influence. Power. These were just some of subjects that I grew angry with whilst working in the city. In my life I have always just wanted to tell similar stories that inspired me as child, to give back what they had given me. Four years ago I had wanted to make films. To reach a high place where that was possible. Climb the ladder. At the top you your ideas will be heard. I thought ‘I’m at the bottom of the ladder, but the right ladder.’ The problem was that the more I stood at the bottom the more I became reluctant to climb it. Like trying to bunjee off a bridge. Weirdly, I’d done that, the easiest thing in the world, just before moving to the city! But I make no excuses and I take no higher moral ground, every action that bought me to this point was my own decision and I was lucky, the opportunities were there, I just didn’t take them. I just didn’t grab life. I let it slip, its that simple.
Real life is in the split decisions, in the choices we make, those guts moments. There is no good or bad choice. Only experience from choosing. I had studied. I had followed what I thought had been my interests. Taken those interests to university. Studied some more. Tried out styles, followed trends, developed my personality. I had worked in bars, worked in restaurants, worked in factories and call centres. All the time I had clung to the idea that I was headed to that place where I could retell the ideas, the stories and make the films I’d always wanted to make and tell. Everything else was just an intermediate. A year ago I realized that place had never been reached, that I had been naive and that most of my development to that point, most of my journey had been menial. I had been working full time in the same job for over three years; nothing wrong with that if you are happy, but, if you are not, well then there is something wrong with that.
There comes a point towards the end of your twenties when your dreams of changing the world are no longer labelled ‘on hold’ but instead get referred to in the past tense. A time where you’ve had a taste of what working life will be about and your on a cliff’s edge. Fall back and you’ll suddnely find yourself in your mid thirties in the same position, years later, not knowing how you got there. Take a leap nd you mightjust break the routine before it becomes too late. It’s a big moment. Two lives open up in front of you; one is clear right to the end, an obvious, dull end, unfufilled and empty, the other is unwritten, uncertain, but vast, waiting for you to discover it. That point came. I found myself sat in an office or walking the streets of London, always in a daze. The past three years felt like one big working day. I kept looking back and thinking ‘when was I happy?’ Well, the answer was always simple, travelling…
I am lucky. I have seen a few things in my life. I don’t come from a background of poverty. I was lucky enough to be born in the first world. I have been on holidays, studied, had the chance to work in and experience life in different cities, amongst different cultures when most of the world’s people only dream of such things. The opening of this journal sounds self centered, hard done by. But it’s in a self centered place that change begins. For me, a year ago, I was in a dark place, drifting, sinking, depressed. In these moments, sitting alone, finishing up in the office, winter outside, sun light long since faded, I would always try and remind myself of a few things. I was a creative person. A logical person. I never gave up. But I had let these thoughts turn to arrogance. I became angry, became righteous. I knew a time when I had stopped thinking about myself, a time when I had let go, looked at the world, thought only for it, before moving to London when I had travelled the world. I had been happy once. I could get back there again. I had happy memories mixed in with the not so happy. I was lucky to have any of these memories at all.
Travelling, after university, had been the highlight of my life. A good degree in my pocket, road ahead open and endless. I wrote a journal during a trip from Beijing to Singapore. It was my first experience of travelling alone, backpacking, hitting the tourist trails, hostels, meeting people, learning from them, from different cultures on the other side of the world. It was healthy and, at one point towards the end I had jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, over the beautiful Frans Josef glacier. It was the pinnacle of my life so far, I’d thought afterwards.
I was told to let go of the plane and dangle free, overlooking a three mile drop… and then I fell. I was above the earth. I had been separate from mankind for a few minutes of my existence. Just me and the force that created the universe. Gravity was determined to keep me on this planet. My body fought back. The earth rolled off like a ball ]on every horizon. I turned and spun as tthe air rushed into my lungs. My face pinned back as I fell. Eyes wide in shock, horror, joy and the overwhelming power of freedom. People lived their lives out below me. In all the cities and towns and jungle villages I had ever visited to that point, people still lived. In those few minutes they had eaten, washed, worked, bought, sold, loved and argued. Perhaps one of them had looked to the skies and thought of someone like me up there. Falling.”
This is what I thought about a year ago. I’d get random flashes. Not memories as such, but just sudden bursts of emotion, connected with travelling, with the trips I’d taken before moving to the city. A year ago travelling had been something to ‘get out of your system’. I thought, well, lets get it out of my system. I’d been telling myself I was going to leave work for years, to go freelance or try and make a short film, so I combined all of my holidays and went on a six week adventure to India. Full time work had made me irritable, angry, irrational. I knew only that I had been happy, less like this, when travelling and perhaps I could visit India and revive some of the wonder, some of the excitement for photography, filming, writing that I’d once had.
What actually happened in six weeks, wandering the foothills of the himalayas, listening to the babas up in the forests of Goa, driving motorbikes up and down it’s glistening coastlines, was a realisation that the travelling bug would never go away. But, more importantly, why should it? I started to think, travelling is not something jus to do when your young, in fact its not something you even have the right to decide upon. If it’s in you, it’s in you. It’s your way, your genetic makeup and, I’d argue, given the opportunity to see the world, most humans would take it. It’s our nature as a species. To explore. To go into the unknown. Seek out adventure. I realised this again in India. I began to read again. Old books from my childhood. New books full of philosophy and optimism. I began to think again and not only about myself, but of other people. Some of the travellers I met in India were some of the most feirce, most intense I have ever met and I found myself colliding with them, myself moving at an angle through life, trying to regain it, they too in a transitional place, a good place. Conversations took place on the beaches of Goa, by firelight, by moonlight that began to stir my soul, my mind again. Something was happening.
I’d had this idea of reaching Northern India, seeing Tibet. I’d tried to push north from the Himalayan town of Manali on my trip, but a snow storm hit the mountains and the roads were blocked. For a long time I have wanted to film and photograph the plateua regions. I had this story in my head. A film idea. About a tibetan hunter. When I came back from India I began to expand the idea, wandering if I could return to the mountains and shoot the thing. I had tasted Tibet then in Northern India and at it’s Eastern border four years earlier in China. It was a stark place. So cold. So stark. Utterly beautiful. Peaceful lives being lived out against such bold, such fundamental elements like terrain, weather, the struggle for food. I felt appreciation for life there. I wanted more. I wanted. To make this film and, after India, the idea of visiting Tibet began to twist and form into something much bigger. I wandered how soon could I go back there and if, perhaps, there were different, more unique ways of experiencing it, of travelling. I thought of the film and of how I could get further into the wilderness if I was to go back. Hiking? A motorbike? Hire a jeep? Some way of journeying out and living amongst the nomads. Perhaps, I thought, I can cycle…
The idea grew in a few clear stages. At first I began to realise that lots of people travelled through countries by bike, that it allowed you to get into the wild, see the inbetweens and still cover great distances. I imagined being able to carry some small camera gear and a tent. The idea was like a seed in my mind. As I looked into cycling I discovered there was a whole niche world out there of travellers who tackled the world by bike. It was called cycle touring and the Himalayas seemed to a hotspot for it, from Turkmenistan to Nepal. The list of countries began to grow longer. The more I researched, the more blogs and books and stories I came across about cycle travellers across the world the more I wanted to follow in their tyre tracks. I wanted to see the Alps. The Stans. The Himalayas and, so, the question came…Can I cycle to Tibet?’
That was the question that changed it. I needed to dedicate myself to this fully. It only took one photoset, one film, one story to get you on the map. Life wasn’t working in London, for me, where I sat, just dreaming. But if life was out there, on some mountain, with a camera in my hand, if creative and spiritual progress was in that place, then I might as well let go of London, of everything I had for good, for a long time. It was that rationality that allowed me accept that putting a significant gap between this job, this world and the next, was a good idea. If I ever came back it would be the photography and the videography that I’d use to get back in the loop. But, slowly it became more apparent that perhaps there was no coming back. Perhaps this was the turning point, perhaps I was seeing life from the wrong angle. To truly make this happen maybe all I had to do was let go of the idea that I needed to keep plugging away at the life I had or that I need to try and fix it. Maybe, I just needed to drop everyting, take forward the good skils and good traits I had learnt and go out into the world without a preconcieved finish line. Perhaps travelling was not something that had to just ‘be done’ and the moved on from. I couldn’t afford the trip of a life time. I had no where near enough money. But, I had a bicycle. A new one. I almost had enough for a new camera. All that really mattered was that I had an idea again, a vision!
For the first time in years I had an Idea that was not just fiction. An idea that focused and exicted me. I knew that reaching Tibet would not be the end. Could I reach Singapore? Even Australia? I’d skydived over New Zealand, it had been the highlight of my life. Could I make it there? It was like a door had suddenly opened. Beyond I could see the world, the whole world. I could see mountains and forests and lakes and amongst them I could see people. Hundreds of thousands of people, like me, looking back. Waiting to be met. Suddenly everything made sense. A vision was all I needed. It was what I had been about once, but it’s had disappeared along the way. A vision had bought me to this job, to this city. I had only ever had ambition, focus. Yes It had been lost. But, so what, it happens to millions. Do something about it. Don’t sit feeling miserable. If you want life. Take it. Its never as far away as you think.
I kept thoughts of travelling to myself. I buried my head in the sand. Went offline. Disconnected myself from the world. I sold my possessions. Threw out furniture I had bought. Saved enough money to leave my flat near Richmond in London and moved into a cramp, student apartment. The next nine months would involve hopping from spare room to couch, making the dream happen. Having to tell friends and family that sure I was fine, that sure I had my own place, that for real sure I was doing fine at work. These are the things they wanted to here, or at least I felt this at the time. There was a sort of shame in telling them I wanted to break from what society said was normal, from what they might have thought was normal. I feeling of guilt. Like I’d seen an opening that they had not been able to see, an understanding for the first time and one I thought my family wouldn’t connect with.
As the months passed, going stir crazy, not seeing the few friends I had, not going out, spending little, clinging only to the idea of the trip, life hit its lowest point. It was hard to see what it was all for. Losing track of the ultimate goal. Becoming overweight. Lethargic. Bitter. Just drifting. Not living. Not human. Not real. Knowing only that one day I might be sitting in the alps looking back on all this, knowing it had been worth it. Now I am three weeks into a trip around the world. A mountain is where I’ve setup my home and two girls dressed in full snow gear just appeared on the hillside. I was about to set my tent down for the night beneath a giant stone statue of a great eagle. The girls called out my name ‘why do you sleep outside? We have spare bed? We have house beyond the hill’… I better see what this is all about…