After a year on the road, it’s time to dole out some prizes. Which country did I like the most? Where did I like the least? What was my favourite bit of kit, where had the best food and what was the most disgusting moment of the entire trip? Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the Gregxit Awards!
Country I’d most like to live: Canada
Canada didn’t quite win the favourite country award – you’ll have to read to the end of the post for that – but it’s the country I’d most like to live. The fact that they speak English plays a part in that. Also, they have a better employment culture than some places I enjoyed visiting, but where I wouldn’t like to work. Finally, just look at those views.
Country I’m most likely to visit again in the near future: Georgia
Georgia is close to England, it’s pretty, it has mountains, it has direct flights and it has lots of wine. What’s not to like?
Most intriguingly contradictory country that will subconsciously gnaw at me for years to come: The USA
The USA: the country where it’s almost easier to buy a gun than a beer. Where chip & pin is still a new thing. Where there’s enough space that someone can walk off into the wilderness, pushing a bike across the desert and shout “Leave me alone!” if you ask whether he has a puncture. Where people will regularly fly between the Lower 48 and Alaska, but never even dream of stopping off to see what Canada’s like.
People often emphasise how different the US is to here. In a way that’s overplayed: the US is a lot more similar to the UK than say, Japan. However, after visiting the States for three months I can say this: I feel much more European than ever before – and I want to go back and continue working out just what it is that makes it different.
Country that I still haven’t even remotely grasped to the level of letting it gnaw at me properly: China
From one superpower to another. If you thought the US was different, just wait until you visit China. Historically, culturally and linguistically, it’s so different from us that I can’t possibly describe it here. Even Japan is similar by comparison. China could be frustrating – even getting in there was a challenge – but if you want to plan an adventurous bike tour you could do much, much worse. One day I’ll publish a post of the routes I want to go back and ride, and China is on there – several times.
Least favourite country: India / South Korea
Sorry guys. I’m sure both countries had nice places but I didn’t enjoy them. India was just too much, I grew tired of being an amusing novelty for the locals, got fed up with the national assumption that nothing would work, and got deafened by the constant blaring of 120 dB horns. It was getting a bit better by the time I reached Delhi, but from the moment I left the airport in Tajikistan I was amazed: this place was so much better!
As for South Korea, I’m probably being a bit unfair on it. It had its good points, but those were similar to the good bits of Japan – just less good. As for the bad bits: it’s a car-dominated society, where if you travel by any other means you count as a second class citizen. The Four Rivers Path was alright near the cities, but as soon as I tried to cross the country it descended into a frustrating reminder of all the things bike paths fail to be. If they want to improve it, well, not having cars driving down it would be a start.
Best bit of kit: MSR Mugmate
At the start of the trip I had a problem: I don’t like black tea. Black coffee is better, but hard to brew on tour (and don’t you dare say “instant”).
Enter the MSR Mugmate; a mesh coffee filter that weighed approximately nothing, that fitted in my mug so it took up zero space, that was big enough that my Soto Amicus stove fitted inside it within the mug so it really did take up zero space, and that allowed me to have a cup of real coffee every morning. Game changer.
Best coffee: Peet’s Coffee on the US west coast
Best food: France
France. Food. ‘Nuff said.
Oddest tucked-away artefact: Neuvy-Saint-Sepulchre, France
Tucked away in a modern, developed Western European country lies the village of Neuvy Saint-Sepulchre, where since 1049 has stood a the Basilique Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, a replica of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was built over the site where Jesus was crucified 2,000 years ago. Inside the French replica church you will find relics, including two drops of “The precious blood of Christ”.
The church was built by crusader knights returning from the Holy Land. It’s amazing to think that in a quiet village in the countryside of twenty first century secular France, lies a link back to the wars of religion a thousand years ago.
Best roadside accommodation: China
I didn’t camp in China: it was winter, I was mostly riding through populated areas and the government want to know where you are every night anyway. For 70 Yuan (£8) though, in virtually every small town you can get a room in a guest house, which will be clean and serviceable and will even have a kettle – perfect for making breakfast in your room.
The Chinese government provide hoteliers with an Android app for scanning ID cards, but this obviously didn’t work with my British passport. However, I never had a problem with this: people were always amenable to finding a workaround – unlike some countries (coughIndiacough) where I was turned away into the night because they couldn’t be bothered to fill out a foreigner registration form. Back in China, I never even had a problem taking my bike inside with me – so congratulations to the innkeepers of China: you’ve won a Gregxit award!
Oddest conversations with locals: Alabama.
Bless it, it managed to live up to all its own stereotypes.
For the record: no guys, Europe is not “overrun by Muslims”, I have no intention of doing heroin, and I really hope the boss of the guy who was threatening to shoot him didn’t go to work that day.
Most disgusting moment: Considering whether to recover my multitool which had disappeared down a Chinese toilet
Reader, I gave up. I had spares of most of the tools I needed, and chanced on not needing the others until I could buy new ones in Singapore.
Favourite Country to Visit
Here’s the biggie: my favourite country overall. We’ve dispensed with the minor awards and arrived at the question you’ve all been asking: where was my favourite place on the trip. Well, now you’ll find out – and the answer is … a three way tie!
Equal congratulations go to …
… drum roll please …
Hokkaido, Laos and Portugal!
I’d got just a bit bored riding across northern Spain: Village followed field followed village, in what I imagined at the time and subsequently confirmed, was a copy of the American Midwest in miniature. Portugal was something completely different though: new ground lay around every corner, with impossibly lush greenery above and an always-changing road ahead. When I came to a village it would be a tumbledown gem, complete with a cafe serving a mouth-watering array of cakes and pastries, washed down with coffee and costing a total of less than I’d pay for an overpriced muffin back home. If you want somewhere to go for you next cycling club week away, go to Portugal.
My route across the far south of Laos took me through thick jungle, down rutted tracks and past farming villages that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Kenya, except for the impossibly grand Buddhist temples I found there. Between the tourist traps of Vietnam and Thailand, Laos provided a breath of fresh air, somewhere I could get lost and absorbed in the journey and the scenery – even if I was sometimes too busy cursing the bad roads to pay the latter much attention.
The entirety of Japan had a lot going for it; it’s one of my favourite countries, and I deliberately spent a lot of time there. My very favourite part though, was its northern island of Hokkaido. Nearer to Vladivostok than to Tokyo, this is a wild and unpopulated place, where the sea is close and the volcanic scenery is ever-near. In winter it has Olympic-quality ski slopes, and if you stay at even a youth hostel, you will probably find a hot spring in which to bathe. Here, almost as far from Britain as I could get on Earth, I found the place I liked the most.