What cycling from London to Hong Kong taught us about Food Waste

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Here is a post Beth wrote for Feedback Global:

On April 11th 2015, I tentatively gained momentum on my unfamiliar steed and threw one last wave over my shoulder to friends and family. Thinking back to that day I find it hard to recall that girl; a girl faced with a mammoth challenge and not much more than sheer determination and naivety at her disposal. At that point I had no idea what I was really capable of, or of the hurdles in my path. I couldn’t plan for the taste of camel’s milk or the animal slaughters, dubious hitchhikes, corrupt authorities, black market dealings, living with unwelcome parasites or losing tent poles. Nor could I plan for the strangers I would meet who, within minutes, would become my trusted friends. It is thanks to those people that 10 months later my best friend, Julia Mason, and I, Bethany Martin, had cycled 16,000 kilometres from London to Hong Kong.

The wheels began turning in our last year of university. Julia would describe her home in Hong Kong and we soon realised neither of us knew much about the world between our two homes. We pored over maps and took inspiration from Tristram Stuart’s ‘bin inspections’ and adventures in research for his book ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Scandal’. We ‘bin shopped’ to stock our fridge at university, invited friends over for Binner Parties and often debated the manifestation of the food waste scandal in societies around the world. It was only logical that our forks joined the journey and thus “Forks on Wheels” began.

As we pedalled, we began to see food as a language. We observed how cuisine mirrors culture, history and environment. From sharing Iftar feasts with families in Turkey during Ramadan to birthday noodles in China, food allowed us to connect with people. Our enjoyment of people’s food gave them joy.

But why, if food is so globally celebrated, is a third of all that is produced never eaten?

 

Hansel & Gretel’s crumbs

Our first stop was Brussels, where 30 members of the Food Surplus Entrepreneurs Network from the Netherlands, France and Belgium welcomed us. We met grassroots organisations turning the food waste issue into an opportunity and making a difference in their local communities. In Germany we discovered the Transition Town Movement and Community Supported Agriculture and our occasional bin inspections supplied us with edible food much the same as in the UK and Hong Kong. We meandered down the Rhine and sidled across to the long and wandering Danube River, stopping to visit Zero Waste Jam, Wiener Tafel and Waste Cooking in Vienna, to sample meatballs and bone marrow in Budapest and battered fish and homemade raki (spirit) and wine in Serbia. Whilst in Serbia, we learnt about the NATO bombing in 1998 and how a loss of power lead to street parties, as locals lit up their barbecues in order to not waste the food defrosting in their freezers.

Europe was our training run. We had no concerns about food or water because there was always a supermarket or restaurant and water supply systems had no risk of contamination. We took the time to familiarise ourselves with our LKLM touring bikes, which weighed around 50 kilograms when loaded. We fell off, got very lost, ended up in swamps at 3 am, established what was a good spot to pitch the tent and what was not, frequently made the same mistakes twice and realised that sometimes the way the crow flies doesn’t always facilitate a bike. The saying “take what you think you need, then cut it in half” was finally understood and a Hansel and Gretel trail of belongings was scattered across the continent.

From Chai to Dja Dja and back again

In Istanbul, we met members of the Slow Food Youth Network and Food Not Bombs and became the catalysts for organising Istanbul’s first Disco Soup. We were inspired to find that this eclectic, vibrant city harbours many progressive organisations and people challenging the status quo and we hope these prevail through recent escalations of tension and insecurity.

In contrast, outside of Istanbul we discovered the more ‘traditional’ Turkey. We found ourselves to be the only females in chai houses, stared at by a room full of men playing chess. Despite initially feeling daunted, we became accustomed to this and enjoyed the games and free-flowing chai. Everyday, we were humbled by acts of generosity and kindness. People would rush out onto the street to invite us to sleep in their homes, often offering their beds rather than letting us sleep on the floor. In most cases we found that being seen as female meant we were not perceived as a threat and therefore people were more inclined to welcome us into their homes.

 

Crossing the border into Georgia was a culture shock all over again. The chai was replaced with dja-dja, a lethal homemade spirit, and billboards now advertised ‘Hot Summer Shows’. We arrived in Tbilisi less than a month after the flood that led to lions, bears and a hippopotamus roaming the streets. Whilst there, we rested and visited projects addressing environmental and social issues, such as Kiwi Vegan Café and Generator 9.8. We fell in love with Georgia for its mountains, freshwater, innovative cuisine, honey, wine and even the dja-dja.

Cycling into Azerbaijan, past the stern armed border control, we breathed a small sigh of relief knowing we were back in chai-land. Although we have many great stories and friends in Azerbaijan, we did experience a few of our more ‘hairier’ human encounters whilst there. The most rattling of these was a man pottering around our tent in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night. The situation became considerably scarier when he drew a rifle out of his car and loaded it mere metres from our tent. Frantically, we whispered through our options for escape and came to the conclusion that there were none. Peering out of the tent, we watched and waited. Finally, the mysterious man put down his weapon and moved far enough away from the rifle for me to pluck up the courage to poke my head out of the tent and ask if there was a problem. “No, no problem, how are you? Would you like some water?” replies the man cheerfully in Azerbaijani before leaving us to continue his pottering. That was enough reassurance for me as I was exhausted with traveller’s sickness and, shortly after, I fell asleep, leaving Julia to keep watch all night. To this day we can only speculate his intentions.

We celebrated surviving this leg of the journey whilst on a cargo ship crossing the Caspian Sea, where we learnt how the sailors kept their chicken fresh without a fridge: alive ’n’ clucking in the storage room!

The Perfect Plov

Stepping off the boat into Kazakhstan, we were faced with 1,500 kilometres of desert that would take us through the length of Uzbekistan. The biggest concern was not where to sleep that night, but where to find food and water. Supermarkets were now a thing of the past, the West or the future, depending on how you want to look at it. The local shop became someone’s front room with a limited selection of dried food, biscuits and grains. We stocked our panniers with 16 litres of water each and a couple of kilograms of porridge oats. Three days into the desert we decided to ask passing lorries for water. Suddenly things became a little easier, we could carry less water (less weight) and meeting drivers would boost our spirits, especially when they handed us a melon and some naan.

We gladly left the desert behind to enjoy the rich history and mesmerising architecture that Uzbekistan has to offer. We celebrated Eid with an Uzbek family, where we witnessed the sacrifice of a cow and, less than one hour later, we were presented with its meat in a dish of plov. Plov is a rice dish prepared and presented differently in each region of Uzbekistan. When asked, a man in the market claimed, “we are born eating plov, and we die eating plov”.

It was only when we were swaying, queasy and exhausted, at an altitude of 4,655m on the highest pass in the Pamir mountain range in Tajikistan, that we really comprehended we could do this. To get to this point we had cycled along the border of Afghanistan, the Panj river, where we were shaken up in a mud house only 150 kilometres from the epicentre of the October 2015 Hindu Kush earthquake, before mounting the Pamir plateau. Everyday the cold would numb our hands and feet and force us to seek shelter in homes to warm up or stay the night. Despite severe poverty and malnutrition, never once were we turned away or left unfed. These homes only have one room heated by a stove fuelled with animal dung. About three quarters of the room has a raised floor that is your dining table and sofa by day and bed by night. Everyone would sleep in this room, packed in like sardines, mum, dad, grandparents, children and us.

Oodles of Noodles

Our introduction to China was with Kashgar’s overwhelming fusion of Central Asian and Chinese cultures. Although the food delicious and the native Uighur people welcoming, the eerie 1984-esque oppression by the Chinese state was evident everywhere. This was compounded by our dread for the looming Taklamakan desert, described by the Chinese people as the Sea of Death. Indeed, it was as desolate and depressing as it sounds and our only places to shelter from the exposed landscape were tunnels under the road.

It was a relief to enter the Tibetan region of Gansu after coping with frequent police encounters in Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces. It was nearly Christmas and, after a traumatic trip to the Chinese pharmacy, I was diagnosed with shingles. We decided to recover in a Buddhist monastery and eat tsampa; a mix of barley flour, hot water, yak’s butter (also used as candle wax in monasteries) and sugar. There was a knack to mixing it with your hands so that you didn’t cover yourself in flour, we would have monks and families in hysterics watching us try!

The last few weeks before we reached Hong Kong were a blur of strange flavours and torrential rain; we had to work hard to get out of China before our visas expired. It is part of the culture to over order in restaurants to show wealth, which naturally was disappointing to see large volumes of food waste again. Our response was to browse the restaurant tables and ask for leftover dishes — a cheap and tasty option! The rain destroyed our only smart phone and with it our only map, but somehow we managed to navigate the most densely populated city in China, Guangzhou, with only a broken compass.

When we finally arrived at Statue Square in Hong Kong on the 3rd February 2016, exhausted and emotional, we had two things to say:

1. The world is not as scary as we are led to believe. We pedalled away from an epic journey, halfway around the world, with a sense of peace and empowerment and bursting with faith in people and the planet. By seeing the world through open eyes and understanding one another, we can find solutions.

2. Food is valuable. To tackle the food waste problem our world needs to reassess the value, the price tag that we place on our food. Value isn’t just a £ sign. In societies where people are more engaged with the food production process, less food is wasted. We believe this is because being closer to the source and having a greater understanding of the process results in a higher perceived value of food. And why would we, how could we, throw away something of such value?

Up next: a recipe book and documentary series! Oh, and don’t worry, we aren’t hanging up our helmets yet.

New Year, No Plastic

Plastic in the Hills of Azerbaijan

Happy New Year!

From the deserts to the mountains we found a trail of plastic bottles, bags, and packaging, dumped by the side of roads, thrown out of car windows, lobbed into rivers and destroying the land around us. It is mind blowing the amount of plastic we consume on a daily basis that could be avoided.

So, we’ve come up with 10 ways of reducing our plastic consumption in 2017:

  1. Don’t buy plastic bottled drinks. Carry a reusable water bottle everywhere. Anyway, BPA is an oestrogen-mimicking compound often used in plastic bottles that research claims is harmful to humans. So more than one reason to avoid! We appreciate in some scenarios this is unavoidable, for example countries where drinking the tap water is unsafe.
  2. No more disposable coffee cups. It’s sit-in if they have mugs or bring our own. Why not try carrying a STOJO Collapsible Pocket cupKeep Cups or just a flask or mug that you already have in your kitchen cupboard!

3. Carry a container and avoid takeaway boxes and bags. Whether it be picking up a takeaway or taking home leftovers from a restaurant.

4. Reduce buying of food in disposable plastic packaging. Go to farmers market and generally buy less packaged stuff.

5. No more plastic cutlery or disposable chopsticks. Carry a spork everywhere.

6. No more disposable plastic bags. We will bring our own, or not buy anything until we have our own.

7. Ask bar staff for no plastic straws when ordering. This can be hard to always remember to do BEFORE the drinks arrive, with the incriminating straws, but it doesn’t take long to get into the habit.

8. Start using shampoo bars, and soap bars – avoid those plastic bottles and the products are often more organic and environmentally friendly.

9. Next toothbrush is a biodegradable one.

10. Don’t use cling film. Instead either put in a Tupperware, use some beeswax wrap, or simply use a plate as a lid to cover a bowl. Beeswrap cloths are cotton cloths lined with bees wax –  just use the warmth of your hands to wrap them around a piece of food or over a bowl or casserole dish.

We would love it if you could add some or all of these resolutions to your own lists. Carrying a couple of extra items and thinking before you buy is not too much of a challenge and the more people that do it, the bigger the difference it makes!

 

Our Book List

Reading

Travelling light is always a challenge, especially when it means compromising your portable library. However, it is important to have your downtime and individual space and reading is a great non-electrical way of achieving that. As you know, our evenings in the tent were filled with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings audio books. But we also gathered books along the way! Here is a list of all the books we read whilst on the road:

All 7 Harry Potter books, J.K.Rowling – audiobook read by Stephen Fry, it took us 7 months to complete!
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (Beth) – Gifted to us in Georgia by a backpacker
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami (Beth) – Gifted to us by Dave in Dushanbe
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Beth) – Acquired from a hostel in Kashgar, China. Highly recommended!!
The Time Machine, H.G.Wells (Julia & Beth) – Kashgar, China. Highly recommended!!
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (Julia & Beth) – Xining, China. This was particularly interesting to read after having cycled along the border of Afghanistan. Julia cried a lot!
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (Julia & Beth) – Xining, China. Funny and on David Bowie’s top 75 books to read (RIP)
1984, George Orwell (Julia & Beth) – audiobook, listened to more than once!
Animal Farm (Julia) – Chengdu, China
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman (Beth) – audio book. gifted by Richard the cyclist.
Lots of podcasts!

Sadly we only got half way through The Fellowship of the Ring audio book before Beth’s MP3 player broke. This is probably the reason we read most of our books in China!

The People who made our Journey

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On journeys like ours, it’s all about the people you meet. Time and time again that smile on our face is thanks to the brilliant people on the road. But it’s also about the people at home and the support from you all has been so humbling. We have a few special mentions…

Most reliable commenters: Kathryn Darvell, Kate Martin
Funniest commenters: John Billot
Best personal secretary: Anne Mason
The only one to see us leave and arrive: Lauren
Wise one: Lorenzo Conti
Most wonderful hosts (we could list so many): the Szabados family in Budapest, Maja and Marko in Serbia, Ali and Leila in Turkey, the Aksu family in Turkey, the boys in Baku, and Dave and Alicia in Dushanbe, Jonas and Raf in Aachen
Most eco-home: Gesa and Klaus
Best chefs: Sakir, Necip, and Bedirhan
Best café: Norm Coffee in Istanbul
World bicycle super couple: Dan and Kiri (Low gear life)
Extreme lifesavers (there were too many sort-of lifesavers): Georges from St Tropez, the road maintenance workers, Roland Augenstein
Slowest cycle tourist ever (we left him in Georgia and he’s still there!) Virgilius
Hairiest cyclist: Cliff
Best dressed cyclist: Richard Hussey

Thank you to our parents for incorporating the frequent checking of our GPS tracking map into their daily routine and making sure we didn’t stray too far off the path to HK.

The Final Push

Our arrival

The last few days of our journey 

299 days after leaving London we arrived into Hong Kong. The last two weeks were tough, the rain started and we were having to push out 90-110km per day to get there on time. We managed to leave our GPS tracker in a family’s house on charge just befor Guilin and Beth’s phone got waterlogged in the rain so we were having to navigate our way through the most populated areas of China with a dog-eared paper map, and Julia’s very bad notes from google maps!

With Chinese New Year fast approaching as we entered Guangzhou we were seeing hundreds of motorcyclists on the opposite side of the road, with their belongings piled high, going home for the holidays. The sense of everyone going home to see their families was spurring us on. However as we approached the mega city our high spirits were drowned as the sunset and the rain intensified. We followed what we thought was the right road towards the city centre but established 20km later that we should have turned and were now heading north of the city.

Two hours later, shattered and drenched we rolled into a hotel, still 7km north of the centre but now within the inner ring road. Unfortunately in China only certain hotels are registered to have foreigners, ridiculous excuse was the hotel was not big enough!? Anyway, back out on the streets we proceeded to spend another hour trying to find somewhere that was either open, inexpensive or in the immediate vicinity as Beth’s chain had just fallen off for the second time that day. 10pm we were in a room, showered and stuffing our faces with noodles from the restaurant next door.

With google maps memorised we set out later than we hoped the following morning after a brief stop to a bike shop to get Beth a new chain. It wasn’t too difficult getting out of Guangzhou but there were a few maneuvres to be made after  crossing the bridge of Kai Fa Da Road which landed us in a shipping port. A bit lost we decided to have dinner, get some wifi and put us back on track.

What we have found in Chinese restaurants is that people tend to over order and leave half eaten dishes, a shocking sight. Us, being hungry cyclists, jump at this and often land ourselves with their leftovers, which is great, although wish it wasn’t the case. On that occasion we also somehow ended up with a whole fish and a cauldron full of strange potato balls because the table on the other side of the room decided to gift it to us. Not sure if they’d spotted us scavenging but it would have nicer if they just paid our bill, because we couldn’t eat it all 🙁

That night we rode until almost midnight, the roads were quiet and cycle lanes appeared so it was a nice ride into Dongguan. We thought we would be closer to LKLM our bike sponsors in Shenzhen who we were meeting the next day when we stopped. It was still 65km and our aim to be there by lunchtime was looking less and less likely. Still without a map, Julia wrote down all the directions to LKLM’s HQ, Beth was still half asleep and therefore wasn’t overseeing the process hadn’t realised that she had literally writing “In 4km turn left”. Not knowing any of the street names we were supposed to be cycling down we managed to get very lost twice and at 3pm gave up, and had lunch. Slightly ashamed at cycling all the way from London but getting lost in Shenzhen we called Flora to rescue us in their van. It was consolation knowing we went the same distance had we not been lost, despite being 20km away from our destination.

At LKLM, the birthplace of our bikes, we were shown around, the bikes got a checkup and we then spent the evening with Flora and Huang Jun in their flat where they were having a New Year dinner with friends and family. Our last meal in China and it was definitely the best.

Due to our inability to get anywhere without going in circles first we were facing an early morning border crossing into Hong Kong in order to cycle to the star ferry before 4pm in time to see all the wonderful people waiting to greet us at the finish line in Statue Square. Thankfully the crossing was easy, no need to take the front wheel off. We crossed at Lok Ma Chau where there is a 1km restricted zone as you come out of the immigration building. There were no signs or security that told us it was a restricted zone, Julia only knew because she lives in Hong Kong. So the rebels that we are, decided to get on our bike and cylce through the restricted zone! At the checkpoint a km down the road a policeman ran out of his little box and aggressively pointed at the sign, that was facing away from us, so towards the oncoming traffic. Apologising, we said no-one told us and we have to go out of the gate to see the sign so why don’t just let us stay out?! He wanted us to go back and get a taxi, ridiculous, but we said ok but we have cycled all the way from England why don’t you just let us out. He accepted and we were through!

We have to say that Hong Kong is not a place we enjoyed cycling!! The roads are narrow and it isn’t easy when you don’t have a map. Anyway we made it to the star ferry minutes to spare, only to be refused entry onto the Star Ferry to Central and had to get the boat to Wan Chai. Funnily enough we ended up not paying the $1.50 each or the $14.50 premium for the bicycles because there was no ticket office.

15 minutes late we arrived at Statue Square, an emotional, overwhelming experience to find so many people there to greet us. We were both shaking! The cycling was not over yet though…still needed to cycle up the hill to Julia’s house!

 

 

Guizhou

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Some days nothing out of the ordinary happens and other days it’s just one thing after another! Yesterday’s antics saw us hanging out with monkeys when we took a wrong turn, encountering a dog delivering a basket containing a brick and ended up partying on the baijiu and 2.5% pijiu at Chinese Karaoke and sleeping in a half built house!

We entered Guizhou after a lovely downhill stretch. Everyone has been telling us that Guizhou is the hilliest province in China and we can definitely vouch for that!

We are now cycling along the Jiang river and heading towards Guilin. We’ve had a few mechanicals this week… Beth’s rim popping, Beth’s chain snapping, Julia’s gear cable tube disintegrating… Luckily for us we met Xiao Gu on the road today, just as we established we had yet another mechanical – good timing! He persuaded us to stay in a hotel, his treat, so he could fix it! To top it all off, this morning Beth established why she had been going so slowly for the past week (Julia would speed off ahead and tease her for becoming fat) both brakes were rubbing, the wheels wouldn’t even spin freely… Doh! 9 months and we are no better at bike mechanics, talk about incompetency. Now that Beth is back up to speed, we are fired up for the last push – only ten 100km days!

Pigs in toilets

The toilet Julia fell down

This is the toilet Julia had the misfortune to submerge her left leg in much to the amusement of her two witnesses, Beth and a giant pig. Luckily the wall was there for her to catch!

Julia was very glad Beth was there so she could go and get some waterproof trousers out for her, very embarrassing when staying with a family you’ve only just met! In saying that had Beth not been there maybe Julia wouldn’t have tried to jump and spin in mid air after realising she was facing the wrong way!

It’s become completely normal to find pigs in the toilet…

Life in Tibet

Tibetan Family

We are descending down from the mountains towards Chengdu. We will be under 1000m altitude for the first time in over 3 months! The hospitality we have received from the Tibetan people in Qinghai and Gansu provinces has been a breath of fresh air. We’ve enjoyed the delights of stoves fuelled by livestock dung, homemade noodles, tsampa!, playing with children, learning Tibetan and getting wrapped up in huge traditional Tibetan dressing gowns to keep us warm at night. We’ve even had a proper bed for three nights in a row!

Aside from eating lots of fried yak meat and homemade flat noodles we’ve also been eating lots of tsampa. This is a mix of barley flour, hot water, a dollop of yak butter and sugar. Beth reckons it’s the best thing since sliced bread (she dramatically claimed one morning), whilst Julia reckons it’s ‘clogging her up’. The greatest thing about this is that you have to mix it up into a ball with your hands and the local Tibetans find it hilarious watching us throw flour all over ourselves as we try to do it like they do.

Tsampa

The children love building sledges to race down the frozen rivers on. We’ve been so lucky with the weather up here, apparently a month ago they were completely snowed under!

Getting out of Kashgar

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We have a story and a half about getting out of Kashgar!

A combination of poor map reading skills and overwhelmingness of people, traffic and roads led us to circumnavigate Kashgar by 180 degrees via its outer ring road – alarm bells started ringing when we saw signs saying “Kashgar City Centre, this way –>”

We turned back and with the light slowly fading we came off the main road and started asking people if we could camp in their courtyards. After our third rejection we asked a group of men standing on the roadside and one of them led us to a community centre building with a large courtyard in the centre. Much to our relief we weren’t to be subjected to the cold and were brought up to a small office with a bed. We were settled and thought we were in safe hands, would have a good sleep and be able to finally get out of the city early in the morning, until someone decided to tell the Police…

The Policeman did the usual ‘stare at our passports and pretend he understood what it said’. He seemed not to have a problem with us being there.

Half an hour later whilst we were eating some food in the restaurant across the road – he handed Julia his phone. Having previously encountered the most senior english speaking Policeman earlier in the week when Beth got her phone pickpocketed, we were not surprised to receive an earful down the line. “It is not safe outside” he said, “But, we are not outside” she replied. “You have to go back to your hotel”….”But it’s not safe outside”.

Anyway Julia hung up as he was just ranting on and not going to be persuaded. We thought we’d be able to explain to the other Policeman (it was almost 11pm by this point) but he, as all Police in China (so far!) seemed not to see reason, and escorted us out of the community centre and drove alongside until we reached the lit main road heading towards the city centre. There he said we could go ourselves to the hotel.

Well there was no way we were going 5km into the city just to stay in a hotel! We rounded a bend out of sight of his car that was sat watching us and ducked into the dark parallel side road, obscured from the main road by a line of trees. We doubled back on ourselves and asked a couple who were chatting outside their house if we could sleep anywhere. Finally! Someone understands that foreigners don’t need 5 star treatment, just a small room, piled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes, cold but dry, will do!

Tajikistan in Photos

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