It was the winter of 2010 and I was going through hell.
Behind me were the Tian Shan mountains of northwest China. I had crossed them in a blizzard, pushing forward in the hope that things would be better on the other side. They weren’t.
Instead I found myself in a frozen desert that stretched eastward for more than a thousand kilometers. Between the few cities that dotted the gravel landscape, there was nothing – no stores, no shelter, not even a twig for a fire. I shivered constantly. Some days I ate scraps that people had thrown from their vehicle window. Some days I didn’t eat at all. Never had I felt more alone.
As time wore on, my hope faded and something ugly took its place. What would have once been immaterial – a cut finger or a flat tire – suddenly became an attack from the heavens. I bristled like a dog fit for a fight and snapped at anyone unlucky enough to get in my way.
That’s the person I was when I came to a beaten-down shack near the border of Gansu province. I was desperate to escape the cold, and it was the only building I’d seen all day. A woman met me at the door, nodding enthusiastically when I leaned my head onto two pressed hands. I could sleep there.
The place apparently served as an inn for long-distance truckers. Beyond the main room and its motley collection of plastic tables and chairs was a hallway with a half-dozen numbered doors. My host unlocked the second and showed me my quarters. In one corner was a tiny coal stove, in the other a bed covered with a Strawberry Shortcake blanket. I barely noticed them. Keeping warm was all that mattered, and so I paid for a night of room and board.
Later, in the makeshift restaurant, my eyes fell upon the woman’s young son crawling across the stone floor. He was pursuing an empty plastic bottle and squealed with delight whenever it rolled from his grasp. I turned away and lit a cigarette, watching the window beside me as a storm hurled snow against its glass.
The rattling panes punctuated a question I’d been asking myself for weeks: What was I doing in this godforsaken land? Every day, it seemed, was more miserable than the last. I was frozen and filthy and lonely and exhausted and now . . .
And now my foot was wet.
I peered under the table to find the toddler squatting over my shoe, balancing like a bare-bottomed island in a growing sea of darkened stone. Then a chill ran up his body. He lifted his pants over squirming hips and gave me the biggest, gummiest grin I had ever seen.
I wanted to be angry. I wanted to curse and shout and push the kid away, but my heart wouldn’t have it. For the first time in weeks, I smiled. And then I was laughing – at my soggy pant leg and the big brown eyes looking up at someone so ridiculous. I laughed because I finally understood why the Chinese always pointed and stared at me, the man with a ginger beard and six layers of clothes who pleaded with a bicycle in the middle of nowhere. I laughed because I couldn’t stop, laughed until tears streamed down my face.
The next day I left just as dawn broke over the horizon. I pointed my bike into the wind, and with one frozen shoe I started pedaling towards the first streaks of purple snow. I couldn’t have told you where I was headed, but I knew I was going to make it.
I am currently off the road as I save funds for the next leg of my journey. Regular posts will continue, however. Each week I will publish a flashback – a story from my past travels that never found a home on this site. Enjoy, and please remember that your comments, likes and shares are always appreciated.