Maghnus walks towards our campsite on the Indian / Nepalese boarder - 2012
The last three weeks have presented the biggest threat to the completion of ‘Silk Roads to Shanghai’ since we began planning the expedition some 14 months ago. Ironically this obstacle arose the day after I noted in my diary “for the first time I truly believe we have the necessary skill levels and knowledge of the river to make it to Shanghai”. What is worse is that I still believe that quote to be accurate. Our plans were not under threat from that fateful rapid nor as a result of losing a packraft but because of the unnecessary processes and layers of red tape we had to negotiate once the raft and its contents had disappeared.
We are no strangers to obstacles both the challenges routinely encountered on the road and the beauacratic hurdles governments put in place. In every way this journey has demanded we surmount more of such obstacles than any expedition we have previously attempted . Changing our mode of transport on three occasions and crossing five borders have kept us continually on our toes both mentally as well as physically. Indeed while making it to the mouth of the Yangtze still remains far from a certainty I feel that learning from our mistakes along the way has proved the pivotal factor in any successes we have enjoyed thus far.
A wonderfully different scene greeted us on our first night in Sudan after dropping down from the Ethiopian highlands - 2009
As we return from two weeks in civilization I’ve been wondering just how transferable these skills learned in the worlds wild places will be when we eventually settle into a more conventional existence. We often joke that there is so much we learn in a day out here that will be rendered useless once we return home. Will I ever again need to be aware of the subtle differences required to set up camp in a storm as opposed to on a calm evening? Or recall which lines to take on a braided river and how they vary as the volume of water increases. Will the mental tricks I’ve learned to keep my exhausted body going forward, tricks that have proved vital over the last few months, have any home at this journeys end ?
I’m not sure whether it’s for better or worse but I imagine many of these will be redundant , remnants of a different and distant way of life. Yet I feel there are a whole host of general learnings that may pass between these two lives and prove useful in a completely different environment. Some such learnings I have attempted to describe below.
Maghnus looks longingly at a Kebab 2 minutes after beginning 'Silk Roads of Shanghai' - Istanbul 2012
The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as either a blessing or a curse
Ignoring the somewhat exaggerated label ‘warrior’ which I am not describing either of us as (well at least not Maghnus) this is a lesson we learn from again and again. Especially when events don’t go our way. The most frequent example of this occurs when facing a day of head winds. During ‘Bike Africa’ we on occasion felt sorry for ourselves in this predicament and in doing so added a mental barrier to an already significant physical one. Over the years we have learned to accept and on occasions revel in such circumstances. Shouting at the wind; ‘Is that all you’ve got’, whilst ultimately pointless, does serve to get you in the right frame of mind.
At the crux of this learning is the fact that self pity, or self praise for that matter, offer little. Until you calmly accept your circumstances as a challenge and begin to rationally plot your next move nothing of value can be achieved.
Petrol stations offered the perfect place to relax at the end of a cold days cycling across a snow covered Italy - 2010
There are days, although rare, when it feels like everything is going our way. When the rain holds off, the wind is at our back and we have an extra helping of trail mix to fuel an already energetic body. On such days it pays to get ahead of our schedule, to take shorter lunch breaks and an extra coffee, to travel an extra 30km if on the bike or plan an extra 200 km of river if working on logistics.
In the past it seemed we only constructed our itineraries to give us a broad framework and were constantly playing catch up. On this expedition however we have usually been on or ahead of schedule, and this has a lot to do with realising early we have the ability to put in a big day and using it as an opportunity to get ahead and give ourselves a buffer for days when not so fortunate.
Working at this level isn’t sustainable in the long run. However, when you do all external thoughts seem to disappear and your output far outweighs what you accomplish on a regular day.
Maghnus pushes through the pain at the midway stage of our 1000km run across the Tibetan plateau - 2012
Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.
Just as there are days when everything goes well there are occasions when things (usually our bodies) seem to be falling apart. On one recent day where we both capsised and had lengthy swims only retrieving the rafts and our composure an hour before the planned time for camping that evening. However, instead of pushing on and chasing the elusive daily kilometers we reasoned that recent events had left us mentally and physically tired on a section of river that would allow neither. In short we were in danger of making a bad day worse. There was more to be gained by camping early, lighting a fire and having an extra ration of food.
On occasions like this or even on normal days when we notice exhaustion creeping in its important to notice the signs early. Rarely has a good sleep not helped us look on the same situation in a different light.
Climbing into the Himalayas, at the same time the toughest and most enjoyable days we have ever spent on the bikes - 2012
“You can’t go there you’ll end up dead” I remember puzzling over this remark as a 17 year old boy planning a run of the mill holiday to Thailand. It was said to me by a friends mum and was the first time I remember thinking that adults could speak just as must rubbish as us kids. Since then I have received numerous such warnings about almost every country we have travelled through. Some so sincere and heart felt that we are forced to double check all our plans only to find out they have grossly exaggerated or on occasions fabricated stories to ward us off.
“60km and its nearly all down hill” We received this glowing report on the condition of a road we were about to travel at the beginning our first cycle down Africa. We had none of inbuilt skepticism gained from hundreds of such inaccurate accounts and cheerfully set about traveling down the worst road I have encounter in over 20,000km stretching from Cape Town to Kathmandu.
Its worth noting there are people who give advise and we listen having avoided Southern Sudan and parts of the Yangtze on sound authoritative recommendations. The trick is to know who to listen to , to do your own research and to then question even well intended advise of anyone not in a position to give it.
“Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who supply it”
Camping between some horrible rapids on the Upper Yangtze - 2012
As I begin to put this list together im aware that there are so many more transferable skills or learnings I can add from the years spent on the road. Teamwork being the most glaring omission. So many indeed that I will follow up with a second half to this blog in the coming weeks. In the meantime we would be delighted to hear any comments, additions or criticisms you may have.