I see more teams of road-builders; Ethiopians laying foundations, Chinese engineers watching through the windows of Land Cruisers and earthmovers. China is paving not just Ethiopia but whole swathes of Africa. By keeping its own currency undervalued, China can offer expertise and infrastructure at the lowest cost on the planet, and assemble a raft of political allies at the same time.
One evening I fail to find my usual refuge of a dollar ‘hotel’. Wild camping is now a long-distant memory, Amhara’s people being dispersed so thoroughly. A young man tells me that there is a Chinese road-building camp up ahead. This is confirmed to me by the local children.
I’m not from here. So I must be from . . .
The kids follow me across the dry grass and tyre tracks to the gates of a fenced compound, full of low pre-fab buildings and shipping containers. The Ethiopian soldiers on guard outside won’t budge, but soon a grubby Land Cruiser appears, returning from a day surveying the works. An ageing Chinaman and a young woman are sitting in the back, and I put on my friendliest smile and my most evocative performance of pleading yet. The camp’s doctor is surprised to see the strange European outside the camp’s gates; even more surprised to watch me putting up a tent on the concrete basketball court inside. He disappears, and returns with a large bowl of spicy pork ribs and noodles! Then he restocks my tiny first-aid kit and throws in a few sachets of a herbal remedy that I should mix with boiling water if I get a cold or fever.
I spend the evening with some of the younger staff members – engineers, computer technicians, administrators – hanging out in the camp’s conference room with laptops and broadband Internet and the complete Backstreet Boys back-catalogue. They all speak perfect English and seem to represent the young middle class of China: they want to visit Europe, move up in the world, live comfortable and interesting and fulfilling lives. But the European visas are too difficult to get. And, fresh out of university, they’ve been sent to build roads in Ethiopia for the Chinese state construction monolith. Some of them will be here for the full half-decade it’ll take to complete this fifty-mile stretch of road through the highest regions of Amhara – nearly two miles above sea level – with one return trip to China each year to see friends and family. And all the while, the opportunity to travel and be young and free-spirited will be passing them by. Ethiopia seems to have locked itself out of development, whereas China seems to have locked itself into it. Somehow I’m the only one in the room who has managed to tear himself free.
‘Why have you come to Ethiopia? I can’t understand it,’ says Adam. Everyone seems to use an adopted Western name.
‘I think your idea of travelling is very different to ours,’ says a young guy with a quiff. ‘You want to go to the developing world. We want to visit the Western world!’
‘It’s not that different,’ I reply. ‘We both just want to see something new.’
I leave early in the morning with a belly full of breakfast and daydreams of cycling across the gargantuan expanse of China. If I ride hard, that might just happen before the year is out. I could stop over in Iran, arrange to meet up with Tenny – my heart leaps guiltily at the prospect – retrieve my winter boots and the minus twenty-five sleeping-bag, and continue pedalling east. I keep hearing that China is exploding into modernity at an unimaginable rate. But somehow I can’t rid myself of ridiculous images of conical-hat-wearing rice farmers and pagodas and kung-fu and people who are somehow able to eat soup with chopsticks.
I know, of course, that when I arrive in China this image will fade as another vast and complex portrait of a nation is unveiled. And I also know that I’ll probably meet more twentysomething Backstreet Boys fans in China than conical-hat-wearing rice farmers. For all that promises to be fresh and new in the Far East – or anywhere else on the road ahead, for that matter – there will be increasingly more that does not seem so unfamiliar any more.
The road disappears up another stupendous incline. I’m sweating beneath the high-altitude sun, knowing it’ll still be cold in the patches of shade. But this hill isn’t quite so long, and as I edge my way over the saddle of the ridge, I realise that I’m about to put the Ethiopian highlands behind me.
Two vertical miles of descent is spread at my feet. I release the brakes. And it’s just endless. Mind-boggling. My eyes are screwed up in defence against the roaring wind, patches of tarmac dipping violently in and out of existence, and I think back to a time when I considered a ‘big hill’ to be one that took more than fifteen minutes to climb. Now I’m measuring hills in terms of days needed to cycle up them, and hours needed to freewheel back down! I overtake a pootling truck, and then a bus, its passengers staring in disbelief as I pull alongside and past the trundling vehicle. A man on the roadside glares at me as I blast past him:
But I’m a receding dust cloud before I even hear the word! Ha-ha! Suck on that!
I stop for food long before I run out of gravity, finding that I’ve switched planets since I last put pressure on my pedals. Gone are the bald fields and skinny herds, replaced by steep-sided valleys of terraced green, of tall sugar cane and lush mango and avocado trees. The humidity is rising. The road is littered with splintered foliage and barrows and signs of intensive agriculture. At a roadside eatery I dig into a big bowl of shiro and bread and have a pleasant conversation with a young man who’s also stopped for a meal. After shouting at the waitress for trying to rip me off, he insists on paying for my food, ignoring my protests with a chuckle. This last half-hour, I realise, sums up my time in Ethiopia perfectly: the exhausting mystery of whether the next roadside figure is going to ask me for money . . . or ask me to lunch.
From the town of Weldiya I continue my freewheeling marathon. The landscape switches back to brown, becoming hot, dry and barren, the air hazy with dust. These are the fringes of the Afar desert, also known as the Danakil Depression, or the East African Rift.
This is a place where no aid agencies go. It’s a place where, each time I mention it, I’m told I’ll surely be kidnapped or shot by the savage tribes who roam the volcanic savannahs. I’m about to invalidate my travel insurance, too, by striking out across this lost triangle of Earth to which the British government has specifically advised its citizens not to go. One young man had made me promise to take a detour by bus to avoid the region. Of course, of course! I’d lied.
But I expect no kidnappings or shootings. I’m putting what faith I have in humanity’s more sociable tendencies, figuring I’ll be exceptionally unlucky to be taken captive by the marginalised Afar tribespeople and used as a political bargaining chip. I hope I’m right. Because I haven’t told anyone the truth about what I’m about to do. Not the Foreign Office. Not my parents. And definitely not Tenny.
This area of Ethiopia holds the world record for the hottest place on Earth. And it is mightily hot, even at this early hour. It’s already approaching Sudanese temperatures, and apparently it’s only going to get hotter as I head across the desert.
They’ve managed to make me paranoid that I’m going to get shot on this road. Because, apparently, the Afar people are ‘very bad’, while the local people here are ‘very good’. And they all carry AK-47s. And regularly shoot passing drivers.
But, to be honest, I figure that there’s no such thing as ‘bad people’. If you see what I mean. There are groups of people with grudges against each other. And there are groups of people who pronounce other groups of people as intrinsically ‘bad’. But in the end, everybody’s just human.
And so for that reason I’m not going to shy away from trying to cross the region. Because I just refuse to believe that there can be a whole society of people, all of whom are intrinsically ‘bad’. I just don’t believe it. And so I’m going to go and find out for myself.