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December 18, 2011

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One man's bicycle journey to the West

BREAKING up with his girlfriend was a blessing in disguise for Zheng Sheng who decided to hit the road on his bicycle, eventually embarking on an transformative odyssey across Asia and Europe to England. Fei Lai tells the story.

After graduation most conventional and risk-averse Chinese young people look for work, but Zheng Sheng wanted adventure.

So he took a 14,632-kilometer, 136-day journey by bicycle across China, Central Asia and Europe, ending in England where he stood on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

"Whatever dream you have when you are young, try to realize it as soon as possible rather than regretting in old age that you never tried," Zheng told an audience of awe-struck students last month in Yangpu District.

There was a stir on campus and big scramble for tickets to his talk and slide show at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, from which the 23-year-old industrial design major graduated this year.

Tanned and confident, Zheng spoke with ease about what many people would consider an unthinkable journey - a mission impossible.

Zheng, who comes from Yunnan Province, loaded his sturdy Giant bike with tent, camping gear and a Chinese flag and set off in March.

But first, he undertook meticulous preparation and had to obtain visas for many countries.

Big trip and 'strong will'

"The trip gave me a strong body and strong will," he told Shanghai Daily in an interview. "It gave me outdoor survival skills and fostered the ability to communicate with people from different nations and cultures."

These days Zheng is completing a book about his odyssey, titled "My Pilgrimage to the West." Besides describing his personal growth, he gives advice on visa applications, route planning and various essentials. It will be published early next year.

Zheng's big trip began with smaller ones starting when he was a sophomore and had broken up with his girlfriend. Heartbreak was the trigger, it made him reflect and he was inspired to travel.

"Love isn't the only important thing in life. As a brave man, I should travel around to see the beautiful scenery of China," Zheng says. "Since I didn't have much money at the time, I decided to travel by bike."

He first biked to Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, an easy, one-day trip. Then he became unstoppable. He pedaled to Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province and Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region. He encountered rough roads, bad weather and plenty of problems, but he felt empowered and exhilarated.

He began to plan his big trip. Three months before he actually started, he was plotting his route for each day and where he would spend the night.

The biggest problem was getting all the visas for Central Asia and Europe. He had no assets prove he would return to China, no hotel or airline reservations. But he persuaded skeptical visa officers with his graduation certificate and diploma, a blood donation certificate and first aid certificate from the Chinese Red Cross.

He also presented his carefully plotted itinerary and photos from his previous trips as well as descriptions of social activities to prove he had community ties. His enthusiasm was also persuasive.

"The certificates prove that I'm a healthy university graduate with outdoor survival skills who is capable of take a long bicycle trip," Zheng says. "The key is making the visa officers believe that you have the capacity to realize your dream."

Along the way he immersed himself in the natural scenery and culture, taking lots of pictures and each night reporting his location and schedule to family and friends. He got lonely.

"Safety is the first priority," he says.

"Some travelers may blindly undertake a journey without evaluating the difficulties. Some people get exhausted and quit, some get lost and make everyone go looking for them," he says.

On hearing that a young man was riding a bicycle and coming all the way from China, the BBC interviewed Zheng and he toured BBC headquarters.

"I keep it simple. I never ask too much of the journey," he says. "It might not change my life, but it must change my attitude toward life."

He now plans to look for work in Shanghai.

In the future, Zheng says he wants to visit the South Pole.


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