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.
But today is an important day as far as The Great China Road Trip goes.
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:
“We’ve reached 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 setting out.
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 particular purpose.
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 minute.