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'I quit my job at Google to cycle to Beijing for charity'


Stephen Cunningham

Stephen Cunningham

Stephen Cunningham

In my old life, I would wake up in Kilmainham with my girlfriend Aoibhinn. She's a paediatrician in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. I'd cycle into work and then I'd have my breakfast there. I was an analyst in Google. I'd create presentations and insights into marketing trends for our customers. It's an interesting job and I really enjoyed it. I worked there for four years but last December, on New Year's Eve, I quit.

Ever since I was 21, I had been talking about going on a cycling adventure from Dublin to Beijing and I would raise money for charity at the same time. Then I was coming up to 30 and I thought, 'If you're not going to do it now, you're never going to do it'. So I made a decision about a year before to commit to doing it. People over 40 said that I was crazy to leave a well-paid job in the middle of a recession, whereas younger people told me to follow my dream. I decided to raise the money for Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. So far, I've raised about €60,000.

I spent about a year planning the trip. There are only a few ways to get from the far side of Europe to the far side of China. Europe is simple, but then you either have to go north or south of the Black Sea. The northern way is blocked by Russia and it's a complicated time-consuming process to get a visa for Russia. But the southern route is much more straightforward, going across Turkey, especially from a visa point of view. Visa authorisations dictated most of the route after Europe. Also, you can't get them in advance, so I had to go to consulates around the world as I was travelling. I decided to cycle to Beijing because China seemed like a different planet to me. I thought it would be cool to travel across it by bike.

If I was to pick a typical day on the road, let's talk about a day in the desert in Uzbekistan. That's probably where I was the most beaten and broken; but it was the most interesting too. I was sleeping in a tent in the middle of the desert. This was a bit of a shock to the system. I had evolved from student hostels to a life of comfort after I left college and was working. Everything was learnt on the road. It was so hot that I slept naked in the tent. I was bitten all up and down my legs by mosquitoes and bugs. Your tent is like your little oasis in the middle of the desert. You feel at peace there. In the mornings, the heat and the light wake you. Breaking down the camp is a ritual and it can take a long time to pack away all the gear onto the bike. It's not about balance but more that everything is accessible when you need it.

In Uzbekistan, I was up at 5am. This is because you want to get ahead of the heat and the wind. Once more, I learnt this through experience. When you're cycling through the heat, which can get up to 45 degrees, you realise that there has to be a better way to do this. You put on your gear, brush your teeth and have some food. Your breakfast depends on what is available in the country. In Uzbekistan, I had bread, Nutella and jam. Then I'd have water and if I was lucky I'd have kept a bottle of Coke from the day before. It's good for a kick in the morning.

My bike is built for expeditions. It's really strong and comfortable and I made sure to get special tyres to avoid punctures. In the morning you don't think about how far you have to go until you've had your first break. This could be after 50km. On the bike, I often listened to music, audiobooks or podcasts. I'm sure some people think that it was dangerous but there was very little traffic. It all depended on my mood and if I was enthralled by the scenery. I went through phases of not listening to music and being lost in my own thoughts but then you run out of things to think about.

Turkey was the real beginning of the adventure because it was an Islamic country and totally different. Everyone was very friendly, offering me tea and a bed for the night. My map was the GPS on my phone, but once you get to the Eastern European countries, it is very easy to navigate. I just used a compass and headed in the right direction. On a typical day, I'd stop and have a Snickers bar and a banana. You want something that has carbs and sugar. But if it wasn't a cheap place to eat, I'd take out the portable stove and cook some pasta with tuna.

While I was doing this trip, I learnt a new form of patience. Up until then, I was the sort of person who wanted to get things done quickly and simply, but on the road that was rarely the case. In many of the places, you just had to be patient and willing to persevere with difficult situations. That could be anything from finding somewhere to sleep, to getting food, to trying to repair your bicycle. It's a challenge to communicate these things with people, but you learn.

When you're on the bike you feel knackered, but the minute you step off it, you feel fine. The endorphins kick in. I always enjoyed walking around afterwards, just to get a feel for where I was. Some nights I knew that there wasn't a possibility of getting a guest house and I'd have to put up the tent or sleep in an irrigation pipe underneath a road. They sheltered you from the weather and it meant that you didn't have to pitch a tent.

I never, ever stopped being homesick when I was away. I missed my girlfriend, my family and friends. I did Skype a lot. You don't realise how cool Ireland is until you go away. Also, I missed the Irish humour, that light-hearted way we have, and I enjoyed when my friends slagged me.

On the road, I got used to being on my own and being quiet. Life was simple. I keep wondering if I will be able to get back to normal life after this trip. Will I be able to become a real human being all over again?

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

To donate see dublin2beijing.com

Sunday Independent