Paul Hayes called it “one for the ages,” and evidence suggests that description is not far from the truth.
Because whether it was sandstorms, nighttime temperatures so cold that they had to buy more clothes or government blockades that forced them into lengthy detours, Paul Hayes and cycling partner Ho Young Yoo experienced an awful lot on their Chinese bike trek.
Hayes, a 28-year-old Earl Marriott Secondary grad who now teaches at an English-language high school in Shanghai, and Young Yoo, one of Hayes’ students, completed their cross-China trek last month. They embarked June 30 and travelled a total of 5,342 kilometers – nearly 1,000 more than their expected 4,200.
They travelled through 10 provinces, and up to an elevation of 3,800 feet. The endeavour took 44 days, with one day off. Along the way, they handed out sports equipment to impoverished Chinese children.
“The company we worked with was shipping us new gear every five days, we handed out so much,” Hayes said over a Skype interview.
Many of the people they met live in regions so remote that they’d never seen foreigners before – “they were surprised when we showed up. Like they’d seen a ghost” – but they were thrilled by the pair’s visit nonetheless.
“Our trailer never got empty because people were giving us fruit and food and all kinds of things – they were so giving.
“It’s something I’ll never forget. You wouldn’t have to ask me twice to do it again.”
The equipment donation was done as part of Hayes’ We Haul 2 Play charity, which he started upon moving to China two years ago.
Of course, a cycling journey of that magnitude was not without its challenges.
In addition to bouts of inclement weather – including the aforementioned sandstorms and headwinds so strong that Hayes and Young Yoo “felt like we’d rode all day and not made any progress at all” – the cyclists encountered an unexpected, government-enforced road closure, which made for a 400-km adjustment off course, around a lake.
Then there were expected language barriers and the physical toll such a ride takes on the body.
“I think at some point, my brain stopped sending signals to my rear end, because by the end of it, I couldn’t feel my butt,” Hayes laughed.
“At the end, it was nice to get out of a pair of spandex, believe me.”
Hayes said they never once feared for their safety, though an odd experience on their second-to-last night gave him pause.
A local restaurant owner had given the men permission to camp out for the night on his establishment’s patio. Midway through, however, a man “who had obviously had a few too many” showed up, claiming that spot as his own.
“He actually dropped a TV on me, and came at me with a rock,” Hayes said.
“It sounds bad, but I was never that concerned with him. In the morning, it was actually kind of funny.”
The rough patches, as few and far between as they may have been, were erased from memory each time they encountered a new child, he said.
“We gave out as much as we could to the people, but there were a few times where we actually had to high-tail it out of there because everyone wanted a ball, but we didn’t have any more,” he said.
“You give them a ball or a badminton racquet, and then you see their faces light up.
“People watch the Olympics, and they see China cleaning up in the medal count, but that’s because the government takes all these kids from rural areas who show promise, and they put them in sports academies so young. But what about all those other kids? So many of them get left behind, and those are the ones I like to think we helped.”