And why they didn’t stop me
“If your dreams don’t frighten you, they’re not big enough.”
I repeated this Ellen Johnson Sirleaf quote to myself like a mantra as I planned out my seven thousand kilometre journey. It sounded absurd when I said it out loud.
The dream of cycling across China had first occurred to me three years before, while I was on a trip in Gansu province, riding a hired bicycle and feeling indescribably happy.
After graduating, I made it my mission. I got a job, slowly accruing gear and route plans. A year and a half of scheming and saving later, my departure date was suddenly just weeks away.
My route would take me from the northwestern corner to the southeastern coast of the world’s most populous nation, crossing deserts, mountains, forests and thousands of villages and towns. It was a far cry from the weekend trips of a few hundred kilometres I had done in the past. This time, I would be on the road, alone, in a foreign country, for months on end, carrying everything I needed in three bags attached to the bike.
Sound scary? It was. Read on for the fears that were on my mind, and how I overcame them.
Ah, the female traveller’s constant nemesis; the reminder that you are vulnerable to the Nasty Men of the world.
This fear is probably the most terrifying, and the most ubiquitous. Strangers are, after all, everywhere. It was all too easy to imagine someone deciding to follow me to my tent in the middle of the night.
There are bad people out there, and horrible situations do happen. However, it’s important to remember that the nightmare scenarios are extremely unlikely, and letting fear of them control the way you live your life is a part of the problem.
Recognise the statistical unlikelihood of an attack happening.The image many of us have of rapists or attackers – i.e., someone springing from the bushes in the middle of the night – is highly inaccurate. The vast majority (80-90%) of rape and attempted rape victims know their attacker, meaning that you’re technically in more danger at a house party than you are in a field in the middle of nowhere.
That said, peace of mind is important, so adhere to basic rules of personal safety. In cities, I stay in hotels. I don’t go to bars alone. In more remote areas when I’m camping, I take care to camp somewhere out of sight, lock my tent zips together, and sleep with a weapon (my keys) in my hand.
I’m a trained boxer with five years of heavy weight training behind me, but if I weren’t, I would take self-defence classes. If threatened, I know not to make myself appear vulnerable, and have practiced my crisis response: stand tall, scream loudly, and make it clear that you are not an easy target. If anything does happen, I have emergency contacts in place that I can call immediately.
It’s a fact that being alone and a foreigner can make you a target for thieves, who know you may be carrying a passport, phone, camera, and money.
Theft is relatively rare in China, but simple precautions like locks and not leaving things unattended go a long way.
If it does happen, I reasoned with myself, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.Anything that someone would steal for financial reasons is, by nature, replaceable. I backup irreplaceable and important things like photos, visas and passport information to an internet source, so I can access them from any computer even if I lose everything I own. I keep an envelope of cash stuffed in my washing bag for emergencies, and I know how to cancel my card. Most of all, I try to remember that things are just things; if someone does decide to rob me, as long as I’m safe, it’s an annoyance more than anything.
Being Hit By a Truck
One of the biggest risks to a cyclist is traffic. I could be hit by a freight van or car, or come across injury in any number of ways: falling in a ditch and breaking my leg, getting bitten by something poisonous, or contracting some hideous disease. These are real, if unlikely, risks.
You might have noticed a three step pattern by now in overcoming fears: 1) recognise the improbability of the thing you fear, 2) take preventative measures, and 3) make a plan for if it happens.
Recognise that injury is a risk that we face every day of our lives, and we’re comfortable enough then, so all you have to do is extend that logic. By cycling safely, avoiding highways and nighttime travel, I reasoned that I could cut the (already fairly low) risks down significantly. If anything did happen, I had insurance paid for, documents saved online, and emergency contacts I could call.
Dying of Dehydration
Several legs of my trip are taking me through remote stretches of uninhabited desert. I’m not good at drinking water even when it’s in a tap next to me; I imagined myself with no water left in 40 degree heat, passing out by the side of the road and dying.
This is a simple fear with a simple remedy, I told myself: always take more water than you need. Take hydration tablets and backup energy gel packs. Make sure you have calculated correctly how long it will take you to cross certain areas. As long as you are prepared enough, you will be fine.
Being eaten by a wild animal
Snakes. Spiders. Scorpions. Poisonous frogs. Wolves. Rabid dogs. Need I say more? The thought of being stung, hunted or bitten in the wilderness is not a pleasant one.
First, research! Is the place you’re going even home to anything that could hurt you? If it’s not, problem solved. If it is, it’s still highly unlikely that animals will hurt you. All animals’ first instinct is to stay away from anything that might be dangerous.
Thankfully for me, wild animals are scarce in China. Few things are poisonous, and even fewer things are aggressive. I looked up how to fend off a stray dog and how to avoid bothering spiders, and that was enough to feel prepared.
The only fear that wasn’t to do with my safety was the insidious fear that the dream I had spent so long saving and planning for would not, in the end, be everything I hoped it to be. Would I be lonely? Constantly tired? Bored?
What if I finished my trip feeling like I’d wasted two years of my life pursuing something pointless?
Just like with any other undertaking involving sacrifices and uncertainty, I examined my reasons for doing it, and the potential gains and losses involved. Yes, enjoyment wasn’t 100% guaranteed. I probably would get tired, and bored, and lonely.
But I realised I wasn’t just looking for enjoyment.
I would use the trip to create a portfolio of photographic and written content, as well as first hand knowledge, which I could use to support a future career. If I got at least some of that, my trip would already have been a success.
Then there was the challenge. I wanted to prove to myself I was capable of doing something like this, independently; when viewed from that angle, if it was difficult, then so much the better. The experience would be something I could be proud of. I would learn a lot about myself and my own grit, and gain courage and confidence to face other challenges life might throw at me.
And in the worst case scenario, I reasoned with myself, if things got too hard, I could just stop. No-one was forcing me to do this, and the next phase of my life plan was already in place. I would have my materials, my photos, and the experience to boot.
So yes, I was scared. But, I reminded myself, you can’t let fear be your biggest emotion.
Using three simple steps of being realistic, taking precautions, and making a backup plan, things get a whole lot less scary.
The fear that remains, you just have to accept. Once it’s over, you’ll be grateful for how much stronger it has made you.
At some stage, when all this is over, I hope that you will find a way of extending your trip to Laos so that we can speak of it in person!
Your second cousin twice removed
I would absolutely love that ! I have never been to Laos but have heard a lot about it and your exploits there. I will add it to the top of my travel list for some time once China relaxes travel restrictions again – most likely next year.