I’M sitting under the stern eyes of a Chinese border guard at 2am in a special room in Guangzhou airport wondering if it’s possible to travel too much.
To my left, three poker-faced border police rifle through my passport, flicking back and forth over the many visas and stamps dotted throughout.
I’m not privy to their speculations – I’m not being told anything. But judging by the number of goons being hauled over to share their suspicions I fear things aren’t going well for us. Next to me Scott’s eyes have turned grey and red. His breathing is shallow and I sneakily reach over to touch his forehead only to find it on fire.
I can’t slip him so much as a paracetamol without adding to the deep water we’ve already found ourselves in but I’m seriously worried. I’m worried we won’t be allowed entry to transit into this god-forsaken airport and miss our flight to Vancouver. I’m worried Scott’s condition will worsen as the Dengue Fever he contracted just a couple of days ago wreaks havoc on his body and more than anything I’m worried we’ll be detained in what’s one of the worst countries in the world to have that happen.
How could everything go so wrong so fast?
If only we’d known what would happen a couple of days ago – or even two weeks, when we first pedalled across the border into Malaysia.
It was to be our last south east asian country after a few months of cycling through the steaming humidity and rickshaw clouds of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.
Just a few days earlier we’d farewelled our friends Diego and Nat as they turned left to Phuket for a Madrid-bound plane and we’d turned right towards a tiny land border nestled between a hilly stretch of jungle.
About 300km lay between us and Malaysia and while I knew we should savour every fragrant curry and every wide Thai smile but after almost two years in Asia I just wanted out.
I was ready for seasons, North American food, native English speaking locals, tap water you could drink and loo paper you could flush.
I wanted snow, ice, rugged forests, bears, tundra and roaring rivers filled with salmon.
Above it all I wanted some familiarity.
But we still had a few weeks to go. After a 90km hot and tough cycle we came into the town of Trang and lapped up some of the southern Thailand’s best cuisine before heading further south to Satun. This Muslim-dominant slice of Thailand felt a world away from the north but while the locals were a tad more reserved and mosques dotted every street corner the landscape screamed tropical paradise.
The long sweaty road to Malaysia’s border wound up through palm plantations and rainforest and by time we reached the rustic outpost we were soaked.
Sweat poured down our face, neck, hands, legs and hair and when I handed over my soggy passport to the border guard he looked mildly disgusted before handing us both a bottle of water.
It was the middle of the day by time we’d entered our final South East Asian country and to welcome us Malaysia had thrown a nasty, steep climb in our path, right off the bat.
Most intelligent people would wait until the mercury had dipped even a fraction but instead we took off to tackle the climb. It was just four kilometres to the top but it took almost two hours to get there. The heat beat down like the fire’s of hell and at every switchback we stopped in the shade to guzzle water.
Neat and infinitely wealthier Malaysia felt a world away from Thailand and over the next two days we hurtled down big highways full of SUVs and sports cars past Perlis and Alor Setar with its stunning white mosque. Next was Butterworth and the nearby island Penang, which travellers had touted to us as a world heritage Malaysian paradise. We couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into it’s history while scoffing down banana leaf curries and even better was the fact we’d decided to bow down to the heat and take a train for the final leg to Kuala Lumpur.
Penang and it’s jewel in the crown, Georgetown, didn’t disappoint.
A quick ferry ride landed us smack bang in the midst of the historic village where cultures seamlessly fused beneath rustic hotels, fisherman shacks and century-old buildings wreathed in modern street art.
Asia’s not typically great at embracing diversity but as we chatted to a Nepalese yogi, next to a fragrant curry house in Little India, which was just down the road from an enormous white mosque, next to the Chinese quarter where old men sipped tea – I wondered if finally we’d found somewhere that nailed it.
Penang’s famed for it’s food above all and in the space of a day we hooked into crispy golden curry puffs and lentil cakes, followed by dim sums and tea and ended by butter chicken drizzled over curried vegetables on a banana leaf.
A couple of days later we pried ourselves away from George Town’s charm and jumped on an air-conditioned train south to Kuala Lumpur. It was just a few days before our flight to Vancouver and we were keen to take a load off, hang out with our favourite cycling family (Simon, Isabelle and their adorable 4-year-old son Leo) and prepare for the next leg of the trip.
But just a couple of days in disaster struck.
It had felt like returning home when we walked back into the Taylor’s abode (we’d spent a couple of weeks with them on a previous trip and they’d likewise stayed with us in Chengdu) and we quickly fell into a casual routine of coffee drinking, hanging out with Leo (making amazing cushion fortes) and gas-bagging over life, the universe and everything. Simon had one of those freak brains that could dissect and comprehend just about anything (he was an authority on genetics right through to making the perfect camp fire and to top it off was a physics teacher by trade), while Isabelle was a modern day superwoman/ adventure guru who’s independent spirit had lead her halfway around the world and Canada before she’d even hit her mid 20s.
We adored the pair of them but life in the Taylor-household was dangerous. It made us fantasise and yearn for a life of international school teaching in exciting places while taking adventurous school holidays of biking, hiking and everything in between.
We’d arrived at the Taylors’ in time for the weekend and more importantly – KL’s bi-monthly car-free Sunday where you can pedal into the city and ride around it’s centre with hundreds of other bikers.
It was a hot, tough and amazing day and by time we’d wrapped up the 50km circuit we felt knackered.
But Scott in particular was shagged.
He stumbled up to bed the minute we returned and an hour later his body was on fire.
It was clearly heat-stroke – I mean how could it not be? And so we forced electrolytes and water on him while I covered him in a cool towel.
But the fever worsened and by 10pm his breathing was shallow and rapid, his heart was pounding and just waving my hand across his body felt like standing next to an open flame.
In the morning he hadn’t improved and Simon and Isabelle (who’d lived in Malaysia for a couple of years) started to speculate something worse than heat stroke – Dengue Fever.
Scott was almost too weak to walk more than the length of the living room and we wondered if Tuesday night’s flight would be possible. We tentatively agreed to go full steam ahead and I packed the bags while Simon helped us box the bikes.
The morning of departure Scott’s fever spiked to 40 degrees and we bit the bullet and went to the doctor.
A few hours later and we had the verdict – Dengue Fever.
By that point we’d jumped in an Uber and bee-lined for the airport in a fit of optimism. Our flight was non-refundable and while Dengue was horrible Scott figured he was up to the task of sitting on a plane.
But it wouldn’t be that simple. We had booked the cheapest most horrible flight on offer (one that transited through Guangzhou, China for about 10 hours – with another transfer in Qinghai before finally heading to Vancouver) which meant a lot of walking around airports and collecting luggage.
Truth be told the writing was on the wall right from the get go.
Our first leg was through Air Asia and the grumpy staffer almost refused us entry onto the plane – believing we needed a Chinese visa to transit. We didn’t – and two hours later we were cleared to fly.
At 1am we’d touched down in the Middle Kingdom and just 10 minutes later (before we’d even reached immigration) Scott set off the fever detectors and was taken to the infirmary. He looked like crap and clearly the nurse thought so too.
He was again sitting on about 40 degrees but when we explained we were only on transit and would not leave the airport all concern was abandoned and she waved us through.
But the next hurdle wasn’t so easy.
Our crap flight meant we had to self-transfer in Guangzhou but this goes on so often they have a special desk for foreigners doing just that.
We lined up and when I handed over my passport the guard went painstakingly over every visa in the book. He looked at the stamps, then looked at them again and finally asked “Why were you in Turkey and for how long”?
“Umm, 60 days I think, and we were travelling by bicycle”. I answered.
Another goon was called over and soon there were three – each muttering in Mandarin.
Minutes dragged by and we attempted to ask what was happening only to be shrugged off.
After almost an hour an Air Asia staffer came up to us and said we would have to go back to Malaysia.
I was gob-smacked. I tried to ask why, I tried to speak to a supervisor I even attempted to engage one of the gormless guard goons to find out why the bloody hell they were doing this to us but to no avail.
We were to leave right now, she said, and a flight was waiting.
“But what about our bloody luggage? We have bikes and bags!” I demanded.
“We’ll send them later,” she snapped.
It was one thing to lose our flight to Vancouver but hell would freeze over before I was parted with my bike with just a tentative promise it would turn up at a later date.
We demanded our luggage and told the angry woman we weren’t going anywhere until we saw our bags and bikes. Reluctantly they put the call through and we were escorted by a team of gormless security goons onto the plane and taken to a row of seats where we were flippantly told we’d get our passports later.
At 6.30am the plane touched down again in Kuala Lumpur and we grabbed our bags and headed for the front of the plane to pick up our passports.
The woman at the front simply told us someone else had them – while pointing into the airport – and so we walked on to find the first Air Asia hostess we could see. When we found her we again requested our passports only to be told we were supposed to wait on the plane. And that’s when Scott lost it.
“No one bloody communicated that to us – in fact no one has told us anything,” he snapped angrily.
“You’re treating us like criminals and we’ve done nothing wrong.”
She held up her hands defensively as cartoon steam lines billowed out of her nose and retorted: “You held the plane up – she was swearing at me” – she gestured angrily at me.
“Now I take you to police.”
Had the situation not been so serious I would have laughed. I hadn’t sworn at the woman (even with zero sleep and the bitter disappointment of losing well over a thousand dollars I wasn’t that stupid) but there was to be no more discussions or questions answered. Our fate rested in the hands of a woman who had clearly thrown us off her Christmas card list for life and we were gestured angrily through the airport.
True to her promise she walked us to a small police stand and had a quick conversation in Malaysian before walking off with us again in tow.
I couldn’t believe what was happening and my imagination was on over drive. I began frantically messaging Scott’s mum so someone at home would know what was happening to us as I was scared to tears we would be unfairly detained with no right of reply.
Our passports were handed to another man at a “queries” counter and after waiting in line the man simply said: “Why were you denied entry to China?”
We explained the series of events and suggested that perhaps they didn’t like some of the countries we’d visited.
He nodded his head in agreement and said “yes I think that’s probably it – I can see you’ve been to many countries. It should be fine to get back into Malaysia but don’t tell them China sent you back or you’ll be detained.”
It was all too much. I burst into tears. Like a leaking pipe with a fevered zombie we wandered over to immigration, hoping like hell the officer wouldn’t ask why were suddenly back nine hours after leaving. She didn’t. We were stamped in and suddenly Kuala Lumpur’s wall of humidity hit us again – along with sheer relief.
After all things could have gone much, much worse.
Simon and Isabelle, welcomed us back and Scott went to the doctor to have his blood platelets monitored while we planned our next move.
There was little to do but kick back, binge-watch Breaking Bad, make story books with Leo and research the road ahead while Scott recovered and after a few days he was just about back to normal.
“Look – Scott’s sitting up!” Leo exclaimed after he got home from school one day and so we booked our next flight to Vancouver (transiting through the far friendlier Japan) and from there our Seattle to Fairbanks flight.
Just two days before leaving Isabelle came down with Dengue (Scott had managed to pass it on through a mozzie) and feeling horribly guilty we again packed our bags and prepared for take two.
One 17 hour flight later we descended over the snow-capped mountains that framed Canada’s largest city and an hour later we were through immigration with minimum fuss while preparing to unpack our bikes and pedal through the city. Two nights of no sleep and one hell of a jet lag hangover made the process a wee bit more painful than it should have been but somehow the sheer beauty of Vancouver got us through.
It was like being a Sim City full of perfect people cycling, walking or running along tree-lined, manicured streets filled with big stylish homes.
Even the drivers were friendly and like complete hobos we stared open-mouthed at everything. There was just one small problem. And it was us. An advantage to long-term bike travel is you tend to cross borders by land, allowing a slow adjustment to new places while reducing any serious cultural shock.
But we’d spent a couple of years in Asia (hell we hadn’t been in an English-speaking country since late 2014) and despite our best efforts we’d turned native.
We’d shoved and pushed alongside the Chinese, left our table manners at the door of the first Tajik soup house, yelled loudly when we needed anything and forgotten what the word “recycling” even meant.
We were unequipped to handle Canada and it’s long list of Ps and Qs, we were unused to stopping at red lights and waiting politely and we sure as shit didn’t know what the “rubbish police” were. Hell I’d forgotten people had dishwashers and coded front doors. It was all too much.
I felt out of my depth and incredibly insecure (I mean what the hell is this tipping business!? I’m on a budget!).
I’d become as uncouth as the crack heads who occasionally wandered down the street bumming cigarettes or a dollar.
Luckily our Warmshowers hosts Paul and Jan (two prolific cyclists and just all round fantastic people) had the patience of saints and helped ease us into things while gently explaining the tipping system and Canada in general.
Two full days were simply not long enough to spend with them in their gorgeous Vancouver home but two days was all we had before we bee-lined via train to Seattle to make our flight to Fairbanks, Alaska.
It also wasn’t enough time to tick off the huge list of things that had to be done before we stepped into the wild.
New tyres had to be put on the bikes, gear had to be bought and a big box of brand new panniers had to be reverently opened and fawned over.
The saint-like crew at Germany’s MSX-Creative had kindly sent us a complete new set of (seriously sexy) panniers and even thrown in two dry bags, a dry backpack, two handle bar bags and even two waterproof phone covers to attach to our bikes. It was like Christmas – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Our old Ortlieb panniers were just about shot through. Bits were falling off, holes needed patching and owing to the sheer amount of random food that was now a part of the material I’m sure they were all bear targets.
Soon our bags were packed and with a series case of the nerves we farewelled Paul and Jan and made for Vancouver’s train station. For months we’d been worried about crossing into the US on account of their (increasingly) strict new entry policies and while our border guard seemed affable he asked us several times if we’d ever been to the US before (“Umm – I’m pretty sure we haven’t…unless I sleep travelled here”) and when he asked if we’d been to “any of those bad countries” (we confessed that yes, we’d been to Iran) he repeatedly questioned us over whether we’d “actually cycled there – or were you doing something else?”
It was a bit bizarre but after a few minutes later we were let through and a few hours later we were in Seattle – feeling very bloody sleepless.
To be in the country that had such a huge impact on our entertainment culture was kind of weird. In one way it encapsulated every stereotype we’d heard (super-sized, loud and completely over the top) but after just a few hours we realised it was a country that also encapsulated polar opposites.
People were extremely friendly on one hand (we had randoms walking up to us all day to strike up a conversation and hear about our trip) but also completely nutty (I’m talking to you, angry train guard).
There were liberal hipsters, not so liberal (ahem) rednecks, giant pick up trucks on wheels that would put a semi to shame and then gorgeously set out bicycle-only paths.
We had 22km to cycle (up and down Seattle’s bloody rollercoaster hills) to the airport and we soaked it all up in the impossible sunshine (stopping at a 7 Eleven for a dirty hot dog) before packing up our bikes yet again for the flight to the end of the line.
Fairbanks was damn cold and at midnight (when the plane touched down) it was still light. The midnight sun had begun and with our bags and bikes in tow we entered what looked like late afternoon to find a big taxi to get to our host Ben’s house. A redneck with a ute seemed was the only option so the bearded behemoth helped load our kit and we set off down the road. About thirty seconds was all the time it took to realise we’d landed ourselves an absolute wanker of a driver (I’m pretty sure he thought his gun was extension of his willy) and 15 minutes and a whopping $30 later we were unpacking, meeting a sleepy Ben and then falling into bed.
I fell asleep the instant my head touched the pillow. But at 3am I was woken up to a worried looking Scott shaking me.
“The taxi driver is down stairs, he has our laptops – he wants us to pay him $100.” It turned out in our severe sleep deprivation we’d left the two computers in the cab and our oh so generous driver had decided to make a buck or two off the naive tourists.
Scott had heard the knocking (although our host hadn’t) and gone downstairs to be told “I have your bags, if you want them you have to give me $100 or I’ll just hang on to them”.
So we paid him.
It didn’t occur to us to argue, negotiate, cry or even call the police (despite Ben and his friends telling us later on the next day that call the police was precisely what we should have done). It was a crap start but our host and his mates nevertheless made up for it. They by and large worked at Fairbank’s science and biology heavy university (Ben’s a programmer who deals with NASA data) and their passion for craft beer, the great outdoors and technology was refreshing.
We meant to stay just a couple of days but wound up staying three as we scrambled to prepare for the trip north and get our heads around Alaska.
We bought food for about 17 days (virtually nothing but bears and tundra lies between Prudhoe Bay – our starting point at the Arctic Ocean) and Fairbanks and so we had to stock up on pasta, chocolate, oats and tuna as well as some assault spray for the aforementioned bears.
We’d be carrying more food than ever before over a road that was 80 per cent gravel, washboard and mud while dealing with temperature averages of about zero degrees celcius.
Truth be told I just wanted to curl up with a good book and a super-sized taco bell meal but instead I was headed for snowy, grizzly and polar bear country with a tonne of tuna, a bike that ensured even a sloth could out-run us and just a can of pepper spray for protection.
But hey… that’s what adventure’s all about!