Rolling into Shanghai’s People’s Square last Sunday, New Zealander Rob Thomson was met with surprisingly little fanfare. No media to greet him, no friends or family to congratulate him. A lonesome end to an amazing journey.
The random Chinese man he asked to take his photo to mark the moment had no idea that Thomson has just completed a world record breaking odyssey. He had, in the course of 462 days, travelled an amazing 12,000 km solo and unassisted across Europe, North America, and China on a longboard skateboard.
Now relaxing for a few days in Shanghai before heading back to his native New Zealand, Rob was kind enough to field some questions for Lost Laowai.
Lost Laowai: Let’s start with the ending – why did you choose Shanghai as the end point for your remarkable journey?
Rob Thomson: An explanation for the ending actually begins at the beginning…
Right at the beginning of the whole journey, back in July 2006, the idea was to cycle from Japan to England. My route would take me across the high altitude Pamir Plateau in Tajikistan; the western-most reaches of ‘The Roof of the World’. My relatively late departure from Japan dictated that I needed to skip cycling across China altogether in order to get to the high passes of Tajikistan before winter. Temperatures on the Pamir Plateau, high up at over 4,000m above sea level, would drop to below minus 50 degrees Celsius. To avoid this, I travelled across China by train, and continuing my bike ride from Urumqi in Xinjiang.
So now jump forward almost two years, to early 2008. I was half-way through skateboarding across the US from east to west. Somewhere in Texas, I believe. The thought of finishing my whole journey on the west coast of the US felt just a little too soon. I still have a little more push in me I thought. I considered a few options before settling on travelling back to China to complete ‘unfinished business’ by skateboarding the section that I had taken a train across at the very beginning of the journey.
I decided to travel west to east in China simply due to the prevailing wind direction. So as a last hurrah on my journey around the world, I decided to skate from the Kazakhstan border in the northwest of China, eastwards to Shanghai, in theory with the wind at my back.
Incidentally, due to more than my share of headwinds, I am now a thorough dis-believer in prevailing wind direction data.
LLW: Was your route fixed, or did you leave it pretty flexible? And now looking back, which method do you think is better for this sort of trip?
Rob: As a solo human powered traveller unencumbered by bus and train timetables, and with no deadline by which I had to complete my trip, flexibility to change my plans was a wonderful luxury that I often indulged in.
Having a rough plan from which I could readily depart from was to me the most valuable thing when travelling solo and under my own power. Once you have the script, you can start adlibbing!
I set out from each country’s border knowing roughly the route I wanted to take across the country, but I had no firm idea of what the terrain might be like, what the road conditions would be like, and where I was certain to find supplies. On my bicycle, road conditions were not so much of a dictating factor in route selection. On the skateboard however, I had to be flexible enough to take massive detours, sometimes detours of over a day’s worth of skating, in order to avoid particularly bad pavement, narrow busy roads, or roads closed to foot traffic.
In China, the script was to follow China National Highway 312 (made famous by Rob Gifford’s book China Road) from Xinjiang all the way to its terminus in Shanghai. I did keep my options open however. Once I had sucessfully crossed the desert in Xinjiang and had entered Gansu Province, with traffic volume and population rapidly increasing, I decided to take a detour to cut across the northeastern corner of Qinghai Province. I am immensely glad that I did this detour, despite the gruelling 4,000m high passes and rough roads.
LLW: The tenth instalment of your videolog showed you hitting some low moments. I think that feeling of loneliness is a common emotion solo travellers often have to deal with. How did you make sure feelings of solitude and the weight of the kilometres ahead didn’t get the best of you on such a long adventure?
Rob: There is a quote that I read recently in a book called Moods of Future Joy by around the world cyclist Alastair Humphreys that goes like this:
“Commitment is doing the thing you said you would do, long after the mood in which you said it in has left you.”
Loneliness is a funny thing. While on my bicycle in Kyrgyzstan, I went five days without seeing another soul, cycling through mountain passes and deep untouched valleys. During that time, I never once felt lonely. My mind was absorbed by the wonder and awe of nature. I was excited about my adventure, and I could not imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
I cannot recall feeling as lonely as I did once I hit eastern China approaching Shanghai. Cyclist Rob Luxton, a veteran of cycling in China, once told me “Eastern China is a killer!” and I couldn’t agree with him more. Surrounded by millions of people, stared at by millions of people, I felt disjointed from society and the environment around me. It was a very tough period of the journey.
The thing that kept me going was a pure commitment to finishing what I had started. I said I would skateboard across China. By hook or by crook I was going to do it.
LLW: Can you relay your highest and lowest moments of the trip – not necessarily just of the China leg, but of the whole time in general.
Rob: A high moment was when I arrived at the North Sea coast in The Netherlands. I had spent the last 12 months of my life travelling 13,500km under my own steam from the other end of the Eurasian continent in South Korea, and there I was at last gazing at what felt like the end of the earth. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I just sat there, alone, pondering the immenseness of this earth we live on.
A low moment came in the form of a State Trooper (traffic police) in Arizona in the US. I had skated 6,500km in an unbroken line, and 10km from a small town called Quartzsite in the middle of the desert I was stopped on the wide shoulder of the interstate highway by the police. I was told under no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to go any further on my skateboard. After lengthy negotiation, I resigned to the fact that I would have to either walk the remaining 30km to the next alternative route, or take a ride. I chose to walk through the desert. The frustration and feelings of helplessness were too much to bear, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, cursing and swearing and crying, the silence of the desert mocking my despair.
I walked 10km that afternoon, and due to time constraints (I had a speaking engagement in a week’s time) I was forced to hitch a ride for the remaining 20km. For a long while those 20km cast a massive shadow over my sense of accomplishment for the trip across the US.
LLW: What about just plain surreal moments, any of those?
Rob:From Europe to the US, I crossed the Atlantic on a sailing yacht delivery. I had never sailed before, so it was an entirely new experience for me. About a week out to sea, we noticed a decrease in speed as we sailed. The skipper made some checks, and it appeared that a length of rope had become snagged on one of the propellers. After a week of non-stop forward motion, the skipper turned the beamy catamaran into the wind, and we came to a standstill so that we could take stock of the situation. The rope would have to be cut off the propeller, and I was nominated as the suitable candidate to do the job, my fear of deep water notwithstanding.
The silence while stationary was refreshing but has an eerie air that made me uneasy. Bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, I imagined that this must be what it is like to adrift. I jumped into the azure water, and instantly felt vulnerable. A surreal sense of vertigo invaded my senses. My legs dangled as if in thin air. Below me were kilometres and kilometres of water. People jump out of airplanes at that height, and here I was with nothing but a pair of swimming trunks and goggles on, and a small Stanley knife in my hand. I got the job done quick, and was thankful to be pulled out of the water.
LLW: Having completed such an amazing thing, what do you feel you’ll take away from the experience in the days, months and years ahead?
Rob: I only recently came to know about The Ultramarathon man, Dean Karnazes. Among other amazing achievements, he recently ran fifty marathons in fifty states in fifty days in the US. He is quoted as saying:
Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.
(Thanks to Rich Nacin for bringing my attention to this quote)
Now I do not claim to any level of commitment and effort as Karnazes, but I do relate a lot to what he is getting at. Stepping outside of my zones of comfort and intentionally putting myself in situations that cause me to feel fear and intrepidation is something that forces me to keep learning and striving to understand the world around me and my place in that world.
Way back in the early stages of my journey I discovered that it is indeed worth taking the road less travelled. You are sure to suffer, hurt, curse, and get frustrated. But in the end you’ll always come out with more than a tale. You’ll have a spot in your memory that will take your breath away every time you revisit it.
LLW: You’ve been travelling rough for more than two years now, are you excited to get back home and live a bit more stationary for a while? Do you think it might be a challenge to stay still?
Rob: I’m excited to get home and catch up with family. I am however cautious about dwelling on a subconscious desire to get back home based on the memories of the ‘good old days back home’. I am aware that many of my friends have moved on. They may have gotten married. I know I have changed, they must have also. So really, apart from the joy of being back with family, relationships wise there is not much that would immediately draw me to staying at home. This reality is a little scary. I’m 28 years old now, and I’m quite certain that I don’t want to be gallivanting around the globe for too much longer.
LLW: You mention on your site that you didn’t do this because you love skateboarding. Did you skate much before the journey, were you ever concerned that it just wouldn’t be physically possible?
Rob: I didn’t skate much prior to switching from bike to board. The fact that other relatively inexperienced people had skated very long distances in the past was a huge confidence boost. The current official Guinness World Record holder for distance skateboarding is Dave Cornthwaite from Britain. He skated across Australia (with a support car), having only taken up skating a year beforehand.
The great unknown – and therefore the great allure – for me was the potential for doing a big journey on a skateboard in a bare-bones, low-budget way. I had no idea whether it was going to be possible, since no one had ever recorded a journey solo and unsupported by skateboard. I was already almost broke when I set out from Switzerland, bound for England on my board, so going solo was the only option. I decided that I would try skating to England, and if everything went well – if it was indeed efficient enough to travel solo and unsupported by skateboard – then I would consider extending the journey.
My recent arrival in Shanghai confirms that I consider travel by skateboard efficient enough to be worth my while. Of course travelling by bicycle is more efficient, but there is an added edge of something intangible that makes a longboard worth the extra effort.
LLW: You recorded your journey with photos, blogs and videos quite extensively, any plans to compile it all and release a formal documentary of the trip?
Rob: I haven’t yet thought too much about it, but there is the potential there. The first thing is to get home and see just how much of my footage (stored on a hard drive and DVDs) has survived the international post!
LLW: On your site you wrote “an accessible adventure is an inspirational adventure” in regards to employing a tight methodology of logging your trip. Do you hope others might use your journey as an inspiration to launch their own amazing adventures? What advice would you give them?
Rob: I do certainly hope so. I don’t expect everyone to want to jump up and skateboard around the world, but I do hope that people will take stock of the potential in their dreams. I hope that through my experiences they will see that there is pain and patience involved in exploring the potential of their dreams, but there is a promise of something that will broaden their horizons, whatever that dream might be.
“Every journey begins with a single push.”