“YOU’RE simply the best! Better than all the rest … better than anyone … anyone I ever met!”
The rasping old Chinese cook pauses to suck in a huge gulp of air after screeching out what is possibly the worst rendition of Tina Turner’s classic old song that I’ve ever heard.
With a face like a leather hand bag and a set of lungs that sound like they’ve smoked Beijing out of cigarettes he spies my gaping shamelessly at him and thrusts a plate of “bang bang” chicken into my face “for a try” before bellowing out the next verse of the song to the giggles of onlookers.
And when it comes to onlookers he’s in no short supply.
It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon at London’s Camden markets and for once, the sheer number of people is giving the pigeon population a run for its money.
Scott dives for the bang bang chicken and hoovers it down in lightening speed sparking his face to instantly become a picture of nirvana. He then turns his head to the countless rows of quirky stalls and eateries mere steps away from it and throws up his hands in dismay.
“There’s too much – I don’t know what I want to eat!”
The markets are roughly the size of your average suburban block and with everything from Polish delicacies to irresistible baked morsels dotted throughout it’s enough to make anyone’s head explode with a case of “too many options”.
When you get past the food there’s weaving cobbled lanes packed with stalls selling clothes, books, jewellery, tattoos and even a “rare” foot spa where game tourists line up to place their feet in a fish tank full of Garra Rufa – a kind of toothless carp that are said to eat dead skin.
We’ve been in London (in fact we’ve been in the UK altogether) for just one day and so far these famous markets are blowing our minds like nothing else. That’s an impressive feat in itself considering we suffered what was possibly our most stressful border crossing yet after the English immigration officers at Callais almost stopped as crossing the “chunnel” for fear we were dodgy unemployed bums threatening to overstay our visas.
After seeing the flower filled laneway that housed our charming Islington flat and then the spectacular Camden markets we’re starting to think those pesky immigration officers may have been on to something.
In the end it’s a mouth-watering burrito and some bang bang chicken that wins us over (we’re immediately devastated at our choice when we discover a whole other food section about 10 minutes later) and we proceed to spend the next two hours wandering happily through the crowded markets.
On the way home a wrong turn leads us to Regents Park and then Primrose hill where we discover kilometres of lush green lawns and pathways interspersed with trees, flowers and hundreds of Londoners who seem to treat picnics with almost as much reverence as the Queen.
We’re in heaven – and even the excessive crowds, slightly alarming “tube” underground and the haphazard labyrinth otherwise known as the London city plan, can’t dampen our spirits.
Eventually we head home (it’s 8pm but the sun’s still shining) and we contemplate tomorrow, our last day in London, where we hope to squeeze in a whirlwind tour of the city before heading back to the room we’ve rented to pack up for north east England.
It’s in a small town just south of Newcastle where we’re headed to pick up our bikes before scampering over to Inverness and despite relishing our “tourist holiday” before the Long Rode Home begins I’m desperate to get on the bike and simply get on with it.
I tell this to Scott and he laughs at me before saying “I’ll be reminding you of that later when you’re complaining about your sore arse and the head wind”.
The next day we fly around London’s impressive city centre before packing up to head north where we’ll stay a night with our friend’s parents Maggie and Roy, who had been battling England’s import devils to get our bikes released minus a whopping 630 pound “tax”.
After one bumpy, smelly bus ride later we arrive in Darlington where we not only receive a magnificent feast from our new knights in shining armour, but are then ferried about town as we scramble to put together the remnants of our kit. With a fresh bag of laundered clothes and slightly rounder bellies than when we arrived it’s all stations go to leave until we get a hold of a newly put together bikes.
In a bid to save time we’d dropped our precious steeds off to a local bike shop to get them “de-boxed” and ride-ready only to discover a blind child could have potentially done a better job. The handlebars will only turn 10cm either side, the pannier racks are crooked, and for some reason the “granny” gears are no longer accessible. This sinking realisation sets in with just 20 minutes left until our train leaves for Inverness via Edinburgh, forcing us to hurl our bags into Maggie’s car and race down the streets of Darlington on a pair of crooked bikes with a colourful string of swearwords trailing in our wake.
Sweating like pigs and cursing worse than two drunk sailors we make the train with two minutes to spare. A couple of hours later the weight of the morning’s saga lifts off our shoulders as the train hurtles past craggy Scottish coast lines, remnants of old castles and those breathtaking highland hill-scapes.
The twist of fate gave us an extra night in stunning Edinburgh where a tough Scottish bike owner puts our bikes back in order, while tisking over the “the right awful” state of our beasts.
This quick glimpse into the vibrant university town reveals a proud and eternally polite community nestled in a city that offers everything from grungy pubs to striking hill walks that lap up that impressive vista with Edinburgh Castle proudly perched in the middle.
It’s now (finally) the night before the real Long Rode Home adventure begins where life becomes one hell of a heavy touring bike, icy highland winds and nights spent in a tent on the side of the road. We’ve got three days of dirt tracks ahead of us between Inverness and Fort William with just the banks of the Loch Ness and swarms of midges to keep us company.