Cumbrian Laurence Gribble and Londoner Nick Codrington are crossing continents for Men United. The 23-year-olds, who met while studying Chinese at Cambridge, are cycling from London to Hong Kong to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. Laurence managed to find some time away from the saddle to give us the lowdown on their adventures so far…
Christmas was a little different this year. Instead of turkey and tinsel, my best friend Nick and I spent Christmas Day sheltering at a stranger’s house in rural Kyrgyzstan, eating instant noodles and hoping the snowstorm outside wouldn’t last too long.
The icy conditions had temporarily curtailed our 15,000km bike ride from London to Hong Kong, which – as we plan the final stages from our current base in Kashgar, western China – looks like it will finish at the end of March: nearly nine months on from when it all began outside Buckingham Palace last summer.
We were advised before we set out that we should get our prostates checked if we were going to be sitting on saddles for months on end, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to use our adventure to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. I’ve also got a few family friends who’ve had prostate cancer, one of whom passed away, and when I heard about Men United I thought it was a really good idea to get men talking about cancer more.
Six months on the road has given Nick and I some health challenges of our own. The extreme cold in Tajikistan and the rest of central Asia has left us both a little below our ideal fighting weights, and without full feeling in our fingers and toes, but our determination to reach the finish line remains undiminished. There have been plenty of other challenges along the way too.
China is the 20th country we’ve been to. We crossed Europe to get to Istanbul, where we arrived on 1 September, and reached the East via Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (twice), Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
We had to get the timings of the second half of the trip just right because of all the visa restrictions, and it’s fair to say all that hasn’t exactly gone to plan. We had to take a detour around Iran after five different embassies refused to grant us entry unless we paid $200 per day. We politely declined. We also failed to get into Turkmenistan because the embassy closed for a holiday without telling anyone.
It’s hard not to miss home and think 'why am I doing this?'
The biggest cock-up, though, was in Azerbaijan, where our hotel promised us they’d registered our presence in the country. When we got to the capital it turned out they hadn’t, and when we were unable to pay the $500 fine, the authorities deported us.
Nevertheless, we knew we had to get to China within six months, and we made it – just! But only because of the hard work we did to get in shape on the European leg.
Before starting out, Nick and I had never cycled much further than the nearest lecture, and we decided to use the nice flat roads of Belgium and western Germany to get our legs bulked up for the mountains of central Asia that lay ahead.
And boy did we need that bulk by the time we reached Afghanistan. We’d planned to spend two days cycling through it, but the roads were so bad we ended up pushing our bikes up sandy paths covered in ice and snow for five days.
In Austria we’d managed to get through 220km in one day, but in Afghanistan we were doing just 20km – despite being on the move from dusk until dawn.
When you’re in the mountains and it’s freezing cold, it’s hard not to miss home and think “why am I doing this?” But then the sun always comes out and makes us both feel better again. There’s always something exciting happening and, most importantly, we’ve got each other, which has definitely made things easier.
We’ve known each other so long that we’re very open, so when either of us has a problem, we just talk about it. When we both got food poisoning – me in Tajikistan, Nick in Afghanistan – we looked after each other. When I was struggling to push my bike up a ridiculously steep path, Nick pushed it for me.
We’ve met loads of interesting people together, too. The hospitality we received on Christmas Day was not unusual. In Turkey people would stand by the side of the road and shout offers of tea at us.
But we did have one hairy moment when we were camping in a field. We thought it was OK because we’d been given permission by one of the locals, but it turned out he didn’t actually own the land – something we only realised when a jeep turned up with its headlights glaring at our tent. When we emerged wearing nothing but our boxer shorts and a fleece, we found several angry men pointing hunting rifles at us.
Thankfully, it was all sorted out pretty quickly once we reassured them we were English tourists and wouldn’ t be setting up camp for long.
“Oh, Manchester United,” they said happily.
“Yes,” we replied. “Would you mind lowering the guns now?”
It’s definitely been an adventure.
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