Nothing is Ever EasyFinalist: Winter 2019 Writing Contest
“Are you okay, Stew?” I turned my body and felt the bike wobble beneath me. In the distance, I could see his headlight flickering.
“Are you okay, Stew?” My frustrations grew at the need to check again.
“Okay,” a weak reply, but it was soothing, nonetheless.
“I love you.” I checked my phone: one road, and 12 kilometers left. I pushed the pedals, but the pin on the map barely moved. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any darker, the truck lights became more blinding. The rush of the wind caused the bike to shake as the traffic roared by, and I unclipped my cleats out of fear of falling.
It took no time for my phone light to blind me as the night sky closed in. I switched it off and cycled into the dimming sun.
In the hopes of improving my visibility, I leaned over my handlebars and wiped the headlight on my bike using my shirt cuff – it was filthy anyway. It made little difference – the diminishing, flickering light was hard to ignore. I pushed the pedals harder, but the incline was too much, and I couldn’t get enough power into the dynamo for a continuous electricity stream.
To make things worse, the higher we climbed up the mountain, the thicker the mist grew. Every time I exhaled, the condensation further clouded my visibility.
In the rare moments where there wasn’t any traffic, I could hear the trees and the bushes rustling, which made me nervous – I imagined bears and wolves.
I tried to remember the road as it was two hours ago; things are less scary in daylight. I took a moment to appreciate that we could actually ride our bikes now – yesterday, we were pushing our forty-kilogram bikes up a mudslide.
I reassured myself that although visibility wasn’t good, I could relax knowing that this road was a typical Chinese road – well built, with perfectly smooth tarmac and few potholes. I remembered the moment the sun broke through the cloud for a short time in the afternoon. We celebrated, as it was the first time in two weeks. It felt so good, warming our skin.
Despite my efforts to reassure myself, I struggled to calm my fears. I was riding ahead of Stew, and that never happens. I knew that he felt unwell, but we had to keep riding. I looked out for camping spots, but on mountain roads, you’re surrounded by sheer drops. There was nowhere to rest until the next town.
“I love you,” I shouted back to Stew.
We cycle with great care. Stew is our chief navigator, and he’s a good one. He spent two years thinking about our route and how we’d manage to ride 36,000 kilometers and circumnavigate the world by bicycle. But despite our best efforts, we occasionally found ourselves in situations we didn’t like.
I shouted back and told him that I loved him frequently because if something happened, I’d want to know that he’d heard it.
I pulled into a lay-by and pulled open a pannier. The top of the mountain wasn’t far. Stew caught up, and we devoured all the food we had.
Stew’s face changed on today’s ride. Eight hours and 60 kilometers ago, he was wearing his usual smile. He was leading the way and taking frequent breaks to photograph the scenery while I caught up. Now his skin looked grey, and his expression was pained. He even stopped earlier and poured a liter of water onto the road in a desperate attempt to lighten the weight of his bicycle.
Furthermore, the differences in our clothing were striking. Stew was wearing his full winter gear; waterproof jacket and trousers, overshoes, and winter gloves. I was cycling in my shirt and cycling shorts. My bare hands were red raw from the wind and cold – something I’d just realized. The adrenaline was keeping me going.
We finally reached a tunnel, and I squealed with delight. I changed gears, ready to descend the mountain, but the mud from yesterday’s route caused my chain to slip, and I swerved into the road. A gentle reminder that we hadn’t made it out of this yet.
Just before the tunnel, there was a building and a potential spot to pitch a tent. We considered our options, but the nearest town was only five kilometers away – and from here, it was all downhill. We decided to ride on.
We took a break and wrapped ourselves up to help remain warm during the inevitably cold descent. The tunnel was well-lit, and the emotional weight of the ride started to lift.
We rode downhill into the night sky, and the biting wind cut into our exposed skin. Our gloves could barely keep the chill out. The curvature of the road was difficult to gauge in the darkness, so we used the reflectors on the opposite side to indicate the severity of the corners.
We were just two kilometers from a hotel when we saw lights – there was a gas station in the distance.
“Shall we stop?” I desperately wanted to warm up.
“Stop!” Stew confirmed, and we pulled in, shivering.
We picked up two instant hot drinks and put them on the counter. I signaled to the young Chinese man that I needed hot water by pretending to pour water into the cup. It’s rare to find anyone who speaks English in China. Still, he understood and led us to the back room where there was a water boiler.
The heat from the backroom hit my face immediately. Eight seats were surrounding a large table. The staff pushed their paperwork out the way so that we could sit.
We sat opposite the man who served us, as he worked on his Dell laptop. The table was draped with a thick tablecloth, which was more like a blanket. A member of the staff showed us to put it over our knees, which exposed the heat. The table was heated from underneath!
Oh, it was so blissful. I pulled up my trousers so the heat could tickle my skin, and I sunk into my chair, cupping the hot drink with two hands. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Everything was going to be okay.
After sufficiently warming up, we headed into town and rolled up to the nearest hotel, where we waited in a grand reception area. We clearly didn’t belong there. Our smelly, scruffy attire contrasted with the magnificent ceilings and fancy chandeliers.
On the reception desk was a large golden frog with a coin in its mouth – a symbol of prosperity in China. They were undoubtedly doing alright here.
A young Chinese woman approached us. She was wearing a pencil skirt and bright red lipstick – her lips were probably as red as my cheeks, which were flushed from the cold wind. My hair was sticking to the dry sweat on my head.
“Wi-Fi?” I asked, holding out my phone.
She took my phone, but there was a problem. She called another member of staff, and they both scratched their heads as they tried to figure out the Wi-Fi so we could connect and, consequently, communicate with them.
I looked at Stew who looked exhausted, but a little healthier than he did when we stopped on the mountain. I started to think we should’ve just managed with our offline translator and body language.
The receptionist handed back my phone with the Wi-Fi now connected. Finally, we could get ourselves a room and finish this day! I translated our needs and went through the motions of asking for a price. Whatever the cost, though, we were staying.
The mobile phone translated in a robotic-Chines voice.
In perfect English, the receptionist replied:
“You can stay here, standard room on the 6th floor. 450 yuan.”
Stew and I exchanged glances. Nothing is ever easy here.
“We’ll take the room!”
That night, Stew and I stood in the shower, naked, and held each other. We never admit all of our fears when we’re adventuring, as if talking about them could give them too much power over us. Instead, we face whatever’s ahead of us, head-on.
We stood in the shower and allowed the hot water to wash away the day. The dirt dripped down our legs and swirled down the drain. We remained there until our bodies were warm, and the water ran clear.
Tomorrow is another day. The mist will clear at lower altitudes, and the sun will always shine.