Today's post is short, because, well, it's been a tough week of rough roads, high altitudes, low spirits, mechanical problems and illness. For the poor old campervan and for us it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong, has - the brakes, the watertank, the windscreen wipers, the heating, the plumbing, our plumbing.
Years ago I watched Pole to Pole, a documentary in which the irrepressible Michael Palin, born-again traveller, is
adventuring from the North to South Poles, a hell of an achievement. In the final leg of the journey he must reach Antarctica by airplane from South America in a fifty year old lumbering Douglas DC-6 without cabin service, luggage holds or other such niceties, built to withstand the rugged
flight and ice landing.
Some hours into the turbulent flight Palin says:
what the pilot drily refers to as P.N.R."
Just as we're all
wondering what that means he continues cheerfully -
"That's the Point
Of No Return - we no longer have enough fuel to get us back to Chile."
It's a rather sobering
thought, even from the position of a comfortable armchair, as those of us at
home wonder what it must feel like to fly in an aging aircraft over the vast
expanse of the Southern Ocean, knowing you have no choice but to go forwards
through violent storms or engine trouble, because turning back is simply impossible.
That comment has stuck with me for many years, because it applies to so much in our lives - points at which we must take a brave leap forward and continue, because there is no option to reverse our steps.
We reached our own P.O.N.R.
this last week - or rather, several points of no return, when after weeks of journeying
further and further west in China we reached the westernmost point of our travels, a small
Kyrgyz village on the Karakoram Highway. I didn't really mark it with
much thought at the time, being too busy dealing with the high altitude and the
practicalities of travel, but I have given it more thought today as we pass the
exact halfway mark of our travels, three months and more than 17,000km after
For us it's nowhere near as dramatic as for Palin - we have abundant fuel, and we could turn back at any time, just park the van by the side of the road and take ourselves off to the nearest airport for flights home. In less than eight hours I could be back in my living room in Shanghai, watching TV, and calling Mr Chen to let him know where to send someone to collect the van.
And yet...even during the hard weeks like this one, the difficult times, there has always been some unseen force pushing us forward to complete the journey as intended. Partly it's a wish not to fail, not to admit defeat, but mostly it's because the travel - as well as being fascinating and wonderful - feels transformative: a test of character, a building of patience and endurance, a revealing of strengths. Not just for me, but for all of us. The gains are too great to turn back now.
This week we've seen
what I think is the most beautiful part of China yet - the Amdo region, an area
spanning Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, and peopled by ethnic Tibetans, most of
whom are practicing Buddhists.
Every day the faithful
walk a kora - a circular pilgrim path
around their local monastery to generate merit in this life for the next. You
may begin and end the path anywhere along the circle, but once you've begun you
must continue until the circle is completed.
I've watched them - the young, the
very old, the sick, the disabled - from dawn until dark, in all kinds of
weather, walking the circle, praying, thinking, spinning prayer wheels.
Ultimately, their long pilgrim path has no destination, but is simply an act of
faith and a kind ambulant meditation.
I've come to see our
circular journey around China as a kind of moving meditation too. I'm learning to let go of the questions I constantly ask myself like 'Where are we going next?' and 'Why are we doing this? What is the
purpose?' There is no definite destination. There is no
There is only the act of moving
forwards, not backwards, of looking ahead, not behind, of keeping an open mind, of time to think and
reflect. Of being brave enough to pass the point of no return, and not regret a
Labels: China road trip, travel