Why Don’t You Fly? Backdoor to Beijing – by bicycle by Christopher J. A. Smith, Pen Press Publishers, Brighton, 2005.
This is a real page-turner of a book that gripped my attention from the off. The author has a wonderfully readable style and soon has you riding every mile of his 16,500 mile trip from London to Beijing. I cannot remember a move vivid account of such a trip nor one that blended historical and cultural background information with eye-witness accounts of the day-to-day experience of the cyclist so well. At the very least, Smith is up there with the very best of travel writers much of the time.
For sure, this is a ‘warts and all’ account of a journey that was clearly physically, mentally and spiritually demanding in the extreme. Smith is keen to explore the whys of the journey just as much as the hows and wheres. He does a great job of exploring his motivations and personal reactions to the challenges he faced. He gives a great insight into what was going on in his head while he turned the pedals and in the exotic places he passed through and stopped in.
Its obvious that the trip was a physical test that the author just met at points and yet, by the end, had mastered to the point where he rightly considered himself an athlete. Mountain passes, deserts, sandstorms, driving rain and howling headwinds all added their challenges to the norms of dealing with extreme heat, cold and deprivation. Yet, while some other accounts leave the reader wondering if the effort was worth the prize, Smith makes it very clear that he came back a different person and so the value of the trip is never in real doubt.
Some of the best passages in the book deal with his interactions with others on the road. He is very honest in his reactions to different peoples and cultures he encounters and to his fellow travellers. Not all of the latter get glowing reports! However, overall, the warmth he feels for the communities he passes through is generally continuing and one of the most uplifting features of the writing. He does dialogue very well and some of the exchanges reported are very, very funny.
This is a book that will serve the would be cycle tourer reader well in many respects. Above all, its a great expectations-setter: the account is so vivid it leaves no doubt about the challenges to be faced. It also works as a practical handbook: there is a good equipment list and the mechanics of visa-getting and getting by in difficult countries are embedded for those who read closely. Most of all, however, it hammers home the message that such epic journeys challenge the muscles of the mind and spirit as much as those of the legs.
A very fine book by a very human author who succeeds extremely well in telling the tale of an epic ride while somehow allowing the peoples he meets and the terrains he masters to take centre stage.
Why Don’t You Fly? Backdoor to Beijing – by bicycle by Christopher J. A. Smith, Pen Press Publishers, Brighton, 2005. Recommended with 5 stars. Available here via the author’s website.