I awaken early, while the darkness of night still hovers, spying a lone star through the cracked and dirty window of the abandoned roadhouse we have opted to call home for the night. I sigh. Clearly, it is not yet dawn. My body is starting to develop a few aches, reminding me of the kilometers we are covering. I should be stretching. I know this. While SVB was with us she made me do yoga with her each evening. But I must admit my commitment to daily body maintenance appears to have boarded the plane and departed with her. That, and over the past few days the floors of our sleeping abodes have been filthy. I shuffle position in my sleeping bag, trying to find a way to stay warm while also stretching my aching body out. Giving up, I simply pull the sleeping bag tighter around me, burrowing further into its warmth. It seems to always get colder as dawn approaches.
To be fair, she did try and warn me.
But I was fresh and full of enthusiasm. Then in due course I was tired and growing weary of the seemingly endless desert. So the idea of pushing a little further, reaching for a town beyond our usual distances, the thought of a hot shower and a hotel bed. Of getting that little bit further through China. Of potentially leaving behind this infernal desert. It pulled at me. And so we pushed. One-hundred-and-sixty-seven-kilometers.
But she did warn me.
Rebecca warned me that big days catch up with you. And so I find myself lying here feeling the weariness of the last five days starting to settle into my legs. And into my mind. The wind has been fickle, at times teasing us, playing at our backs. Before turning to punish us. She can make long roads straighten to stretch endlessly into the distance, or tease us into thinking something is within our reach, before pulling it tantalizingly away, making it all that much harder to grasp.
Everything I own is cloaked in dust. My gear is full of it. My tent has changed color. My fingernails are stained black around the edges from cleaning my chain. I have worn the same riding clothes for six days straight. I feel like everything needs about three machine washes before it would look semi-decent again. But when we spend our days sat by the roadside munching on snickers bars, camped on dusty floors and blasted daily by the desert wind and rushing air of passing trucks, it is inevitable that our clothes end up full of the stuff.
The thought of sleeping on another cold truck stop floor, tucked into my sleeping bag with the sticky residue of the last few days ride still caked on my body and the sound of trucks roaring past all night, is for once, weighing slightly on me. But that is all part of the challenge isn’t it? Going beyond the point where these elements make the trip exciting and unique, and continuing to face the challenges of this journey long past the point where they are fun.
There in lies the actual challenge of a journey like this. Not in the facing of your fears, where adrenaline provides an additional dose of support, but in facing the monotony. In knowing you must sleep on another cold truck stop floor, unwashed and tired. In knowing that tofu and cold spicy vegetables must be consumed for breakfast if you are to fuel your body for the day ahead. And most of all, in recognizing that you yourself are entirely responsible for the fact that you are in this situation. That you desired this. Signed up for it. And therefore, had really best just get on with it.
For the past month, by and large, this vast open desert has made for boring riding. Kilometer after kilometer of nothing much at all. And yet, as I sit here, exactly one month to the day since I departed New Zealand, I am reminded of just how far you can go and how much you can achieve when you just keep at something. When you get up, get going and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I should have learned this lesson by now.
Life has been trying to drum this one into me for a good few years now. Trying to complete a PhD, the other grand challenge in my life at present, has some strong similarities to pedaling across China on a bicycle. Despite the effort expended. Despite all the pedaling, you really can feel like you are going nowhere. It is all too easy to get lost in the day-to-day, to be consumed by the monotony of the days tasks. To feel like today is just like the one prior.
The distance and effort still required to complete this journey can be overwhelming to consider. There are many, many days and kilometers to come. I often feel the same way with my studies. There is so much work to be done. It can be difficult to face. To get started.
It is only after the passage of time that hindsight can teach us otherwise. That we can finally step back and see just how far we have come. It is not until I pull open the map to plan our route forward that I am suddenly struck by just how far we have already come. As life keeps trying to teach me, I will progress when I embrace the monotony, face the day ahead, and just keep moving forward.