8th May 2018


I’ve fallen behind. Blame Beijing and Hong Kong, blame being stationary for long enough to feel a little at home and break good habits (doesn’t bode well for my return to real life in 6 months), blame people – they are the worst (ditto on not boding well).

Let me bring you up to speed. 10500km total now. 4000km or so in China in a big inverted L from the bottom centre straight up then turn right, then across all the way to Beijing.

There was something of a sprint finish as I left myself 370km to do in 36hours to meet a friend in Beijing on time. There was something of a finishing line too as, for the second time this trip, I unexpectedly came across the great wall: cycling though the renovated section at Badaling.

The next morning I had a hangover and a neck ache. The following day only the neck ache. And so it continued. Should I be grateful?

Don’t get me wrong, it was extremely painful, I couldn’t really turn my head; my whole shoulder was hunched round thuggishly. I certainly couldn’t have cycled– two weeks and a sports massage later it is only now feeling fairly normal. Bad luck to get such an injury!

But to get such an injury when I had two weeks of planned cycle-free city living, pretty good timing! For it to be my first proper injury of the trip…

It is often said that it is hard for the rich world to understand the rest because everywhere looks poor. Even though there is a massive difference between the poorest, the poor, the less poor and the rich.

Yes, I would certainly prefer to have had no injuries on this trip – anyone not like perfection? But how should I talk about having (only) one injury, (only) one crash, (only) eight falls? Lucky, unlucky, or that annoying, nuanced and vast range in the middle?

Now comes that ‘Thought for the Day’ moment where I crowbar in whatever I actually have been thinking about: that same anchorless in-the-middle feeling is a big part of my journey, perhaps any journey in China. A few examples:

There are people alive in China, perhaps playing Mahjong at the roadside who will remember the great famine – that one where the equivalent of half the UK population died; people alive who perhaps saw the many documented cases of cannibalism now in history books – or rather not in the history books. Her grandchildren might be working 12 hour days with little holiday and eat noodles not peking duck for dinner. Grateful?

A middle aged man will leave his template highrise home – to drive on smooth swept highways. Watered flower borders this side, desertified plastic strewn fields, that side. The government spending billions on electric vehicles, green energy, tree planting schemes. But only now. Grateful?

In Datong, billion dollar rebuilt city walls and temples (complete with underground car parks) stunningly replace family homes and what little ‘real’ history remained. Tourists, Chinese and foreign, come to marvel at what China looked like before bulldozers and revolutionaries. Grateful?

A teenage girl sits outside having finished removing the damp clothes from the top-fill washing machine, messaging with lightning response times her male and female friends near and far: jokes, videos, thoughts – all of it censored and monitored. Grateful?

This is hardly just China of course, in Iran a man once said to me that he was grateful that the regime kept Iran’s borders secure. Standing next to him, looking outwards at the surrounding failed states I could see what he meant, a little.

I find it a very tricky place to be here in the middle. My mind wants to judge, to decide – is China good or not?

My mind wants to resolve it: If China could only carry the same but with less paranoid totalitarianism, develop but more sustainably. I’m smart you see, I’ve figured it out: all we need is perfection.

Or frustrated I petulantly resolve it down the other way: What does one extra plastic bag matter with the tons already in the river?

You probably recognise the feeling? It’s much more comfortable when there is just good or bad, when countries are good or bad, situations are good or bad. People too. We seem to do it unconciously. How discordant would it feel if say Donald Trump did something good or Aung San Suu Kyi did something bad?

It ties us in knots. If equality has come a long way but still has a long way to go how happy should we be? If things get better quickly then regress a bit, how much should we shout?

If we are three quarters of the way through a journey have achieve something but not everything are we doing well? Or if we are part way through a career.

If we didn’t win but ran a good race; if we did win but sacrificed things along the way. If we are late but made it. If we do well but after a needless mistake?

The middle is huge. I don’t know the answers but at least recognising its size and existance might help. It is where almost everything is – I should probably get better at dealing with it, living in it and figuring out how to get excited about improvement not perfection, contribution not resolution.

Well, it was a long cycle: you have to placate yourself somehow when you’re cycling in pain!

But I arrived in Beijing! A week in this capital of wonders but with the brief not to visit any of the blockbuster sights.

I will perhaps tell you about that next time.