Sometimes, their caravan met with another.
One always had something that the other needed—
as if everything were indeed written by one hand.
As they sat around the fire, the camel drivers
exchanged information about windstorms,
and told stories about the desert.
—Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Once upon a road in Kazakhstan, two men converge in the desert. Strangers born an ocean apart, riding bicycles burdened like camels, they emerge from either horizon, slowly approaching a common point. Day by day, hour after hour, they make their way through a land as flat and featureless as a page without words. Thousands of miles spool out behind them. Thousands more lie ahead.
One rides east. The other, west.
For months now, each has been pedaling, alone, through sun, wind, rain, and snow, climbing mountains, crossing plains, and loading his bike onto boats to float across minor seas. Now, on a Sunday morning in August, they soldier down an unpaved Soviet road that never seems to bend. The only sound is tires crunching on gravel and, now and then, the lonely roar of a truck hurrying between two somewheres.
The earth spins. The sun rises. Long shadows shrink into puddles of shade beneath their spinning wheels. From dawn to dusk, in every direction, the landscape looks the same.
The only thing that changes is the angle of the sun.
Then, through the shimmering heat, a blur appears on their common horizon and gradually comes into focus: a simple white box of a building on the edge of the dusty road. Next to it, a metal shipping container marked by a hand-painted word, шaихaнa. Translation: chaikhana, a teahouse, where travelers can find water, food, and shade. The nearest city, on the Caspian Sea, is 235 miles away.
Here, under a noon Kazak sun, two sagas, by chance, eclipse.
The American is six feet tall, 200 pounds, smiling through the scraggly beard of a traveler who hasn’t seen a shower in days. He is 27 years old.
The Brit is five-foot-seven, 143 pounds, smiling through a blue bandana and a slightly darker beard. He is 26 years old.
“What the hell are you doing here?” says the American.
“What the hell are you doing here?” says the Brit.
It’s the first time in days they have opened their mouths to speak their native tongue. When had they last encountered a fellow traveler on two wheels? Each ogles the other’s bicycle—two wildly different animals beneath the same desert dust. The strangers introduce themselves.
“I’m Noel,” says the American, who is riding east.
“I’m Leon,” says the Brit, riding west.
Leon Whiteley had been meandering west for 309 days and 11,337 miles. His journey began in Gumi, a South Korean city where he’d spent the year teaching English. When his tenure ran out, he came up with the boldest, daringest overland voyage he could fathom: riding to England by bike—solo. So far, the trip had not gone as planned. But Leon thrived on misadventure.
Leon did not fancy himself a “cyclist,” at least not of the Lycra-clad, leg-shaving sort. When he was a boy growing up in Yateley, a town in South East England, a bicycle was his primary means of getting from here to there. He had never had a driver’s license.
When he was older, the bicycle became a vehicle for exploration. He once pedaled 874 miles from the northern edge of the British Isles to Land’s End, the southernmost tip. Riding with a friend for those 11 days, he tasted a glorious freedom. No trains to catch, no rooms to book. As Leon wrote on his 323-page blog, “We fell into our own rhythm, generally dictated by how much pedaling our legs could take between sunrise and sunset.”
Now, after years of traveling the world with a backpack and a hunger to stray as far as possible from the ever-beaten path, he cycled “to avoid the herd.” He craved an epic adventure, a trip that was “more akin to a quest.” His dream: “to ride from one edge of the map to the other.”
A proper touring bike was well beyond Leon’s budget. So he settled on an aluminum Gary Fisher hard-tail mountain bike with V-brakes, a triple chain ring, and a heavy fork. It cost around $400. It was better suited for a spin around the block than a hemispheric odyssey, but it would do. He added bar ends, four water bottle cages, rear saddlebags, and a handlebar bag. The nicest thing about the bike was the Schwalbe Marathon tires.
Leon took pride in this make-do bike, in the $18 Gore-Tex jacket he found on sale, and the discounted two-man tent that looked a little less like a “vulnerable caterpillar” than a lightweight one-man bivy that would “leave no illusion that I was a singleton if happened upon by forces of ill intent.” He whittled his belongings to the barest necessities and mailed everything else home to England.
One Saturday in October, Leon embarked a day past schedule, wheels rolling at 10 a.m. The first few miles out of the city squandered 50 miles worth of patience, but soon he was passing red peppers drying on the side of the road, a man threshing grain with his feet, and an official highway sign pointing the way to the “Grave of a Loyal Dog.” (He paid respects.)
Leon loved the motto of the British Special Air Service: Who Dares Wins. He lived by this tenet, embracing the price of authenticity: the risks, the fear, the unknown dangers of sketchy places and dodgy strangers. He believed in the “Tao of travel, where things just flow and you’re carried by a randomness through a string of highly fortunate and unlikely experiences.”
One hundred seventy-six days and 5,388 miles before meeting Leon in the desert, Noel Kegel pulled bike parts out of a cardboard box and reassembled them on the floor of the airport in Lisbon, Portugal. He imagined the endless road across Eurasia, the world’s largest landmass.
Noel had dreamed up this bike, part by part, before knowing where it would take him. Its soul was a Rohloff Speedhub, a weatherproof constellation of planetary gears as precise as a luxury timepiece. It drove a lugged steel Waterford frame custom-made near his home in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Each wheel he had lovingly built by hand, adjusting the tension of 32 spokes so the circle was perfectly true.
Raised in his family’s bike shop, Noel could repair a flat tire by age ten. During high school summers he earned money by wrenching, and he rode his bicycle 900 miles to college in Montreal—three times. As a young man, he felt a wanderlust. His dream: “to ride ocean to ocean.”
His own continent seemed too easy, too tame. So he ran his fingers over a globe, searching for the longest ride. The one he found spanned 19 countries and 130 degrees of longitude. One side of the globe to the other.
He wasn’t driven by any of the reasons that inspired other long-haul travelers. He wasn’t doing this to escape a dud job, to heal from a breakup, or to mourn a loss. He didn’t need to find himself. This wasn’t about raising money for a cause. He didn’t want sponsors, or even attention.
“I just wanted to see a few more corners of the Earth at 10 miles per hour,” he said.
People told him he was crazy. The world, they warned, is a dangerous place. Noel believed otherwise. “If you listen to people, you’ll never go anywhere,” he said. “It’s best to go out and explore and realize the world is a good place.”
In Lisbon, Noel rattled over cobblestones, rolled by a 145-year-old arch, and climbed a hill to a 15th century castle. Before heading east, he rode west to the coast, where he stood on the edge of Europe, watching the sun melt into the Atlantic. Before falling asleep, he thought of the woman waiting for him on the other side of the water. Then he rose with the sun, turned his back to the sea, and pedaled toward the Pacific.
From Korea, Leon planned to cross the Yellow Sea by ferry, then ride due west through China. His plans were immediately thwarted: the Beijing Olympics complicated the visa process. He would have to ride around China, a circuitous detour of island-hopping through the Philippines and Indonesia, stuttering up through Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, entering China from the south.
This detour would take 99 days.
Leon pedaled north to Seoul, where airport officials treated his bike as if it were made of uranium. In Manila, he reassembled it before a captivated audience of janitors, who passed him tools like surgical nurses and asked, “Don’t you have any friends?”
He wove through Manila with one loose pedal, dodging mopeds, rickshaws, and Jeepneys as gaudy as carnival floats. “I felt just like another clown in the circus,” he wrote, “and even started to enjoy it.” On a glorious descent along the coast, distracted by the view, he missed a turn and wound up three bays and 37 miles from where he needed to be. He had no GPS—only a compass, a map, and his gut. (They were right more often than locals.)
Leon loved the idea of setting off every morning not knowing where he’d sleep that night. This dream became a recurring nightmare. Many towns had no hostels, just hourly rooms. Wild camping had its charms and jinxes. As he set up camp in the woods by the side of a road, a murmuration of starlings “danced in great swirling flocks” above his tent, “then proceeded to poo all over it.”
One very long night in Borneo, he lay wide-eyed in his tent as a gathering drumbeat filled the jungle. It was joined by moaning and human screams, then howling dogs and a woman shouting words in some exotic tongue. Afraid to draw attention to himself by turning on his lamp, he crawled out of his tent in the dark and stood, half-dressed, in the full-moon light, armed with a ballpoint pen (“the most dangerous weapon I could find in the dark”). The devil’s symphony crescendoed with a blood-curdling scream, and then—silence. Only the sound of a coconut crashing to the ground.
He often awoke, dog-tired, to endless climbs that disappeared into the mountain mist. He was honked at by lorries, mocked by locals, stoned and cursed by children, and stymied by bad directions. Some days the road only seemed to go up, and no matter which way he turned, it was always into the wind. Caught in a monsoon, he struggled through water that lapped at his pedals. But when strangers offered a ride through a sandstorm, he resisted.
“Wouldn’t have been able to hail a lift if I was fighting at Stalingrad, or halfway up Everest. But no, I had to be born at the first point in human history when adventure must be sought out and contrived, and isn’t just thrust upon you.”
Dogs terrorized him at every turn, snarling and snapping at his ankles. Leon filled his pockets with stones to hurl at these “wretched beasts of Beelzebub.” At a bookstore, a big white dog lumbered over to greet him. When he patted its head, the dog snapped at him. Leon imagined festering rabies and fantasized about turning the miserable beast into a fur coat. Better yet, “a pencil case, and one of those fluffy toilet-lid covers that were fashionable back in the eighties.” At the border, a customs dog peed on his bike.
Riding into a blistering headwind after fixing his third flat tire in three days, he was ambushed by two dogs. Startled, he sped up, swerved, and crashed, hitting his head and scattering water bottles in the road. He leapt to his feet and kicked a fence post to dislodge it for use as a club. Instead, he dislodged his big toe. Limping back to his bike, hurling stones at the hellhounds, he didn’t notice his front tire going flat.
One day Leon heard pitiful whelps coming from the roadside. It was a bedraggled puppy pawing desperately at the sides of a scum-filled drainage ditch. He reached into the filthy water, rescued the pup, and set him free. Riding away, he secretly hoped the God of Dogs was watching.
Noel did not believe in a God, but he believed in a world where he could wander alone into a vast unknown and find his way safely home.
“When you’re on a bike you are vulnerable,” Noel said. “People sense that. And they want to help you.”
In Turkey, old men playing backgammon at small cafes hollered “Oy! Çay!”—inviting him to tea. In villages, people waved him out of the rain and into their threadbare huts, where he sat on dirt floors, telling stories with his hands and breaking stale bread with strangers. In one town, a middle-aged mother wanted to buy him a bus ticket so he wouldn’t have to ride his bike.
In Croatia, he took a detour from the Adriatic coast to visit the ruins of his grandfather’s village. He stood inside a roofless church, saw abandoned houses crumbling back into earth, and searched weed-choked cemeteries for leaning stones engraved with his family name. He pressed wildflowers into his journal and wondered how, in a parallel world unravaged by war, his life might look here.
He crossed the Caspian Sea on a freighter, a 24-hour trip approaching the very mid-point of his journey. On the ship, afloat between Europe and Asia, he met a fellow passenger who owned a car wash in Uzbekistan. The man did not speak much English, but he invited Noel to his home.
Five weeks later, after meeting Leon, Noel would roll up to the only car wash in Chust and speak the man’s name. The man, so moved by Noel’s visit, would welcome him like a king. The next 36 hours would be a whirlwind of feasting, touring the town, and gathering with curious, smiling Uzbeks. Noel “almost had to escape this typically Central Asian uber-hospitality for fear of becoming too indebted to his kindness.”
Noel would pedal away with a full belly, a free haircut, and a treasured gift: a knife engraved with the names of new friends.
Pedaling in his granny-gear up the steepest roads in Malaysia, Leon discovered that pushing his bike was equally expedient and a welcome reprieve from the saddle. (He had no bike shorts.) As he trudged up a soul-crushing hill, a man ran at him, shouting.
“My friend, you look like you could need one of these?”
The man held out a can of Carlsberg, a Danish pilsner. Leon smiled and cracked it open. The next thing he knew, he was drinking too much rice wine at a traditional Malaysian fête. He pitched his tent in the family’s garden and fell into a deep slumber.
At 4 a.m., Leon awoke with a start, smothered by ripstop fabric. A tent pole had snapped, collapsing his shelter. Just his luck. He left at first light, thanking his hungover hosts and grimly facing the soul-crushing hill.
Another day, a van slowed down to offer a lift to town. Leon said thank you, but no, he had to make it on his own. The man said there was a big rain coming—really, it was no trouble. Again, Leon politely declined. A few miles later, the monsoon arrived. Drenched, with night swiftly closing in, Leon saw he had a flat.
In Kuching, he noticed a broken spoke. He carried the answer—a shiny chrome spoke key—but had no idea how it worked. “I’ve been carrying it more as a magical amulet,” he mused, “rather than an actual tool I might have to use.”
Another spoke broke on the way to the bike shop in Kuala Lumpur, where he discovered all bike shops were closed on Sunday, and Monday was a national holiday. Back at the hostel, he griped about his two-day delay. A Swede reading Paulo Coelho looked up from his book and declared, “The universe is not working in your favor.”
The universe had a peculiar way of working in Noel’s favor. Things often went wrong in all the right ways.
In the Balkans, Noel joined a fellow rider named Fabien for three days of riding with company. That first morning, Fabien’s rack broke. Noel was already pedaling 100 pounds of gear and bike, but he cheerfully strapped Fabien’s bags to his rig. That afternoon, Noel heard a nauseating noise—the crack of a brazed joint on his custom steel frame. They transferred both loads to Fabien’s bike and made haste to the nearest town, where Noel found a welder and felt lucky.
“Without each other we would have had a different experience,” Noel said, “and might have had to hitchhike.”
Thousands of miles later, Noel would have a fortuitous flat while descending a steep mountain pass. Fixing it drew his attention to a more serious problem. His brakes, slowing 300 pounds of man and bike, had worn his rear wheel paper-thin. The aluminum rim showed a hairline crack—an omen of imminent and catastrophic failure. Noel disengaged his rear brake and crept down the mountain accompanied by the scent of burning rubber, stopping every so often to let his front rim cool down.
In the next big town, Noel tried to buy a new wheel. No luck. He called home to Wisconsin and had his family shop, Wheel & Sprocket, place an order. Four days later, a Soviet-era Lada with DHL spray-painted on the door pulled up and handed him a package with a new wheel.
While waiting for this delivery, Noel befriended another solo bike tourer, a German named Christian. He was headed east. They rode together for a few hundred miles, then picked up a third rider, a Dutchman named Ron. The trio rode together like migrating birds, each laboring in the front for a spell, then resting in the flock’s wind-shadow. They traced the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, climbing out of the endless sand to 11,726 feet, celebrating the high points and sharing the lows.
It was nice to ride with company. But off-bike, each moved at a different pace. Erecting Christian’s German tent required half an hour and an engineering degree. In the morning, Noel was ready to roll in 10 minutes, while Christian took a couple of hours to dry and meticulously pack his gear. When his friends decided to hitchhike a tedious stretch of road, Noel was grateful to continue his unbroken line alone.
Leon rode alone until mile 2,787, when he finally encountered a fellow bike tourer. At last—a kindred spirit! Alas, the man ignored him.
Then, in China, Leon befriended Carsten, a German with waterproof maps, WD40, a little book with pictures of things you might need to request in a language you do not speak, and “a divine messenger of what lay ahead”—a GPS. Carsten was headed west.
Leon discovered the wonder of drafting, even if it meant staring at another bloke’s arse. Freed from the constant stress of figuring out where on earth he was, Leon found himself laughing at things he once cursed, like the “bugling freight lorries handled with mystifying inconsideration.” Such things irritated Carsten even more. “Why are zey doing dis?” Carsten fumed. “What is the mentality of deez people?”
But the GPS was a fickle oracle. It gave inaccurate distances, led them miles in the wrong direction, and constantly changed its mind. It gave its holder “the illusion of control,” which Leon came to resent. “You’d be much better off carrying a crucifix, clasping a rabbit’s paw to your breast, and chanting Hail Marys every thirteen paces.”
In China, less than 200 miles from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the furthest point in the world from any ocean, Leon’s rim came apart at the seam. He lucked upon a bike shop 12 miles down the road, but instead of fixing the rim, the mechanics broke something else.
“It really couldn’t have happened at a worse place,” he noted. “Directly halfway between Lanzhou and Ürümqi, the only two places in a thousand miles where one is guaranteed to get the required parts.”
The nearest town where he might find help was 250 miles ahead. The bus stop was miles behind. Leon hitched a ride back, only to find the bus didn’t take bikes. (The police convinced the bus driver to reconsider this policy.) In the next town, the bike shop removed the wheel, put it back on, and then it would not turn. Defeated, Leon found a hotel, where he walked into a door and split open his forehead. Then he spotted a familiar bike. Carsten heard a tattarrattat upon his door. He opened it to find Leon—bloody and bloody exhausted.
After a few hundred miles, Leon and Carsten decided to part. It was for the best. “With Carsten following his GPS and me following Carsten, I’ve effectively stopped thinking,” Leon said. “Whilst progress has been quicker and more efficient, it has effectively ceased to be my adventure.”
A day or two from the Chinese border, Leon’s rear hub began to squeal. Getting to a bike shop 500 miles away took 10 hours on an overcrowded sleeper bus whose driver screamed “Fack you Inglishi!” In the city, the mechanic fixed the problem—no charge. On the bus ride back, he met a young man leaving the university “because I’m always anxious and afraid and my head is sick.” Leon replied, “I know how you feel, mate.”
But the Tao of travel ensured that for every yin moment, there was a yang. No shadow can exist without light.
In Kyrgyzstan, Leon met a mother who was raising four children on a roofless platform that served as living room, dining room table, and family bed. Leon joined them on the bed-thing for a simple meal of melon, bread, and tea. They asked for no payment, but Leon gave them cash, a flashlight, and a few family portraits he had printed in town.
While napping by a tranquil lake, Leon was awakened by a drunk man waving a serpent in a bottle. Miming across the language gap, the man conveyed his desire to cook the snake, which he believed to have medicinal qualities that would heal his bad knee. He reconsidered this plan when a waitress, seeing the serpent, screamed and ran away.
In Uzbekistan, a woman with gold teeth gave Leon brand-new socks and lollipops. That same day, after showering in a leaky irrigation channel, he was invited to tea at a local’s house. Four generations welcomed him into a lush courtyard, passed him babies, and fed him grapes growing on the arbor above. Days later, another meal left his body “alternately evacuating itself from both ends.”
Leaving China, Leon traced the border of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts meet. One morning he woke up to two flat tires and ended the day with a broken tent zipper, through which he fed the mosquitoes. The next day, British chaps in a battered Mongol Rally racecar gave him one of their tents.
On a Sunday morning in August, Leon awoke at dawn in the last oasis of civilization before the longest stretch of emptiness. He loaded up on water and entered the desert, pedaling toward the Caspian.
After crossing the Caspian Sea, Noel would not see another major body of water for 5,000 miles. He would stay on the same road through western China for half as long. As the days grew shorter, the nights would grow colder. He would boil bottles of water to put in his sleeping bag. He would wake under veils of ice formed by his frozen exhalations.
He would face his hardest day and his darkest night alone in the Chinese desert. After seeing a rare intersection on his map, he would ride furiously toward the crossroads, which gave him hope for a meal, a warm bed, or at least a peasant selling drinks. His body would be a machine, fueled by a handful of nuts, able to go 80 miles without stopping.
Racing the setting sun, he would stop only to pee or flag down a truck when he ran out of water. As dusk fell like a curtain on an empty theater, he would crest the final hill before the crossroads, only to arrive at...nothing.
“Just two roads meeting in the desert.”
At the end of this longest day—113 miles over ten and a half hours—he would pitch his tent in the dark and fall asleep without eating. But he would not break. Or even come close. Not here, not once in months of pushing farther and harder than he knew he could, would he ever glimpse his limit.
Somewhere around mile 11,000, Leon approached his limit. It wasn’t his body. It was his bike.
He was two days into a 10-day stretch of desert in the middle of Central Asia. To make room for 30 pounds of water—enough for two or three days—he had ditched his warm coat and other belongings. Ahead lay six hundred miles of desert and steppe, a treeless desolate grassland. Most bicycle tourers took buses and planes to bypass this hopeless void.
That would have been “the sensible option,” Leon mused, “considering the heat, hundreds of kilometers without towns or water stops, Soviet uranium dumps, and occasional outbreaks of bubonic plague along the way.”
As he entered this vast stretch of emptiness, Leon heard a foreboding sound: PING!
It was the sound of a breaking spoke. “This was my worst nightmare,” Leon said. “Overloaded with water and on the bad roads ahead, breaking spokes was my greatest fear.” There would be no bike shops in the desert. No buses to catch to nonexistent towns.
“But what could I do?” Leon lamented. It was his own fault, he knew, for embarking without the tools or knowledge. “But sod it, I was going to throw caution to the wind and keep going till I couldn’t go on any further, and then, who knows? After all, it was only 1,000 kilometers of inhospitable terrain in furnace-like heat, with just a few possible water stops. Shouldn't be too bad.”
A few miles later, another PING!
Under the weight of his panniers, his rear wheel sagged badly out of true. The circle no longer a circle, his bicycle was limping. Pedaling against a rubbing brake and the added insult of a crosswind, Leon could hardly move faster than walking. He passed a turtle trying to hide in the shade of a blown-out tire.
The next real city, on the Caspian Sea, was 800 unpaved miles ahead. Would his bike rattle to pieces before he could reach it? At this pace, would 10 days of desert stretch into 20? Did he have enough food? Would he run out of water?
In the inane vacuity of this desperate place, existence became existential. He was fiercely present, running on instinct, living “moment by moment at a higher pitch.” His fate lay in his hands alone, his future hinging on every decision, and “the sheer lack of options was itself the liberating factor.”
By and by, a building appeared on the horizon, a concrete island in a sea of dust. Water! After four hours of labor, he reached a decaying structure with a few petrol pumps overseen by a boy. He asked the boy for water and was shown to a pipe coming out of the ground. Uranium contamination, he thought, and rode on.
Three days from now, Leon will meet another cyclist in this sea of dust, and the alchemy of that meeting will remind him that “there is an almost magical aspect to life, but to find it one has to go to the edge and expose oneself to the possibility.”
Unable to see this glimmer of hope on the endless path ahead, he begins to think the unthinkable:
“I’m never going to make it.”
Not once would it occur to Noel there was a chance he might not make it.
The question was, would he make it in time? He had a self-imposed deadline, a promise to keep. There was a woman waiting on the other side of the world, and he said he’d be home for Christmas.
After meeting Leon, Noel would race against time, crunching his stats at the end of the day, counting down sunsets, ticking off miles. He had planned to finish in Singapore, the farthest point he could find from where he started in Portugal. But as the deadline neared, he would revise his target, first to Vietnam, then to Hong Kong, and finally to Shanghai. What mattered most was riding ocean to ocean.
One wind-whipped day in November, on the eve of his 28th birthday, Noel would stand alone on the edge of China, gazing over the pewter sea. With his bike and his camera as his only companions, he would film a little victory speech.
“Well, after crossing deserts, climbing over mountains, riding through valleys, and across plains, here I am—at the Pacific Ocean.” Fifty pounds leaner, cleanly shaven, he would look like a younger version of himself, as if he had ridden time into reverse. He would look to the horizon and say, “There’s nowhere else to go.”
With gray waves pounding the riprap, he would level his camera, stand by his bike, and shake a cheap bottle of Chinese champagne. He would twist the cork and the cork would break, and he would shrug and laugh. “Well,” he would say, to no one in particular, “that was anticlimactic.”
WATCH: NOEL’S VICTORY SPEECH
This is how Noel’s ride—287 days from coast to coast, 175 days in the saddle—would finally come to an end. Total mileage: 10,610. Almost a palindrome.
Along the way, his future had come into focus: go home, get married, and take over his father’s bike shop. After 10 months of riding and dreaming, he would return to the woman who waited. But he would find that in his year away, the world at home had changed. Their relationship would slowly unravel. For Noel, the struggle lay not in the journey but the price he would pay in the aftermath.
“Had I been too selfish, too focused on my own needs on the far side of the world?” This question would remain “the painful scar on an achievement that was otherwise wholly fulfilling.”
He would ride through Canada, Iceland, Patagonia, and Alaska. He would meet another woman and marry her. Ten years after the meeting, he would be looking ahead to the 50th anniversary of his late father’s business, which would grow into nine bike shops. Only close friends and family would know about his odyssey, because he almost never spoke of it.
“You do something like this and you’re supposed to have an epiphany,” he would say. He would not have an epiphany. He would wonder: “Did I fail?” No, he would decide.
“I went on a bike ride, and that’s enough.”
In the Czech Republic, Leon would pore over a map, an act that had become a near-religious ritual. He loved tracing his path behind him and deciding the route ahead. There was a part of him that was ready to finish, but also a part that yearned to keep going. “Could I get to the Arctic Circle?” he mused. On his map he saw new lines to be drawn, new mountains to be conquered. “My map was a two-dimensional representation of possibility, and the longer I looked at it, the more the possibilities multiplied.”
The next day, riding toward Prague in the pouring rain would dampen this enthusiasm. His deified notions about the “Grail-like romanticism of the eternal ride” would give way to the desire to be warm, dry, and still.
One soggy night in November, with rain and darkness as his only companions, Leon would pedal into Berlin. Lost on mysteriously empty roads, soaked to the bone, he would find his way to the city center, where he a crowd would be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He would wake up and decide, for the first time in 15,376 miles and 402 days, he could not bear to get on his bike. Back in Europe, the adventure would fizzle. The ride would feel like a chore. He would realize: The quest is over.
Hoping to resolve this strange malaise, he would take a train to Hamburg to visit Carsten, the German he’d met in China. But the spell would be broken. He would fly home to England, leaving his bike in Carsten’s tiny apartment. With Leon’s permission, his friend would throw the bike away.
Leon would spend a year in England doing odd jobs, fighting ennui, and feeling homesick for the endless road. He would even miss the parade of horribles that made for the rough days and epic tales.
He would visit Afghanistan and North Korea, walk across the U.K., and move to Manchuria in search of “the thing that had made me feel so alive.” Ten years after the meeting, he would be finishing his eighth year teaching at a Chinese university.
Would he ever find it again, the thing he had chased across a continent?
“Sometimes, if I keep moving.”
This future hangs in the balance, beyond the horizon, as Leon meets Noel.
On this August day, under the noon Kazak sun, Leon rides up to the chaikana and sees Noel walking out. The two men stop and stare at each other. Could this be a mirage?
“What the hell are you doing here?” Noel says to Leon.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Leon says to Noel.
Here is Noel, a Sagittarius, born on a Monday in the Chinese year of the Rooster. Here is Leon, a Virgo, born on a Tuesday in the Chinese year of the Dog. Incompatible under both zodiacs, antithetical in many ways. But here they are, colliding in a moment of perfect synchronicity. As if their stories were, indeed, written by one hand.
“My bike is falling apart,” Leon says.
“I would love to help you,” Noel says, “but I don’t have the right tools.”
Leon shows him the spoke key. “I have the spokes, too.”
“Why didn’t you just fix it?”
“I don’t know how.”
Noel runs his hands around Leon’s wheel, feeling for spots where the balance is off. With each twist of the key, he restores the pivotal harmony of diametric forces, adjusting the tension of 32 spokes so the circle is perfectly true.
They go into the chaikana and share a meal. Sitting on a carpet, like camel drivers, they swap information about water and share stories about the desert.
They laugh about their inverse names and parallel sagas, but they don’t make too much of it. The “cosmic improbability,” as Noel describes it, will not occur until later. It soon comes time to go their separate ways, drawn onward by the call of the road. They say goodbye, never to meet again.
On a lonesome road in Kazakhstan, two men diverge in the desert. One is riding into the sun. The other is chasing his shadow. Each finding his own true way through the world, they move toward opposing horizons, lone travelers crossing the hemisphere on circles turning circles.
Kim Cross is the NYT best-selling author of What Stands in a Storm, a narrative account of the biggest tornado outbreak on record. A national champion water skier, she has competed in more than 10 sports, some of them laughably obscure. She loves wheelies, dirt jumps, and riding in the snow in Idaho, where she coaches her son’s NICA mountain-bike team. Follow her at @kimhcross.