One thing Luke is particularly good at is the bike tourer pitter-patter. The stories roll from his mouth like Slick Rick. This ability meant he was soon making friends in our hostel in Kashgar. He made one friend in particular that would transform our trip from Kashgar to Tashkurgen.
I on the other hand was still trying to recover from my illness that started in Irkeshtam. When I was holed up on my top bunk for a day trying to recover Luke came in and said he met a Chinese guy cycling the same route who might join us. As I laid in my own sweat and filth I asked – ‘what’s his name?’, ‘Mario’, ‘Is his brother Luigi around?’, ‘lolz’, ‘Is he sound?’, ‘yeah’.
As I had laid in bed all day, when Luke said he was off out to his favourite night market with his new Chinese friend I said I’d join. In part because the fever had set a bout of paranoia off and I thought, like UK manufacturing, I was about to be replaced by a Chinese equivalent.
The three of us strolled to the market. He was helping Luke order food and joined us to eat. Over food, we were soon chatting and laughing away, like the best laughs I can not remember what about. Content that he seemed sound enough to join us we agreed to meet the following morning to start our cycle of the Karakorum Highway(KKH) towards Tashkurgen.
As soon as we began it felt natural for there to be three of us: Laughing and singing (Hey Jude got us all going) as we cycled the empty streets of Kashgar, only stopping for deep fried bread and the armed police that soon appeared as we took a shortcut off the main highway. In what would be common occurrence, Mario never hesitated to help in our encounters with officials, or any situation we needed it. He took the stress out of these encounters by always having a smile and relaxed attitude to it all.
It was within the first 24 hours I felt comfortable in mentioning Mario’s melon style. We covered a good distance in the blistering heat out of Kashgar to reach the start of the KKH where the population dwindles. After not really eating for a week I felt pretty shitty so happily agreed to stop at a service-esque station.
On ordering a large melon to share between three, Mario soon was demolishing the melon. As each slice of melon lasted no longer than the previous one and the sound of slurping echoing down the highway we were all soon laughing. ‘Mario Melon Machine’ was soon ringing out of our mouths.
This was the first of many laughs over the next several days we spent together. There is something about spending intense periods of time together when undertaking a physical activity in a stunning location that forms bonds quite quickly. There is no escape from each other, especially as Mario is a keen photographer.
You spend all day and night together, eat together, enjoy the pleasure of seeing stunning landscapes together and struggle together. All of this sharing creates camaraderie that only makes the riding more fun: whether a quick chat about the beauty of the scenery, singing along to the rocky theme tune blasting from Mario’s phone or just laughing as Mario tries to say ‘Sean Connery’ in his Chinese accent.
What made me particularly laugh, and told us we were settling in together, was when Mario ribbed Luke. My particular favourite was when he asked Luke ‘what’s the highest elevation he had been rock climbing?’. When Luke, being quite into his rock climbing, replied with the serious answer of some height over 3,000m. Mario pulled a quizzical face and said ‘is that all?’. Luke did not look impressed. I didn’t escape his aim: when he found out I am an economist all he could say was ‘all you care about is numbers and money’.
What Mario also did was open up the friendliness of China to us. I think because English is not widely spoken this limits the level of engagement people can have with you but with Mario leading the chat people were open and welcoming to us. From the restaurant owner who provided us with a place to camp, water and a shower, to the multiple restaurants that gave us boiling water, to another restaurant that was about to close but let us eat the previous diners’ scraps like vultures and gave us the last of their rice for free.
He also took us places we would never have visited. My favourite being the town/military base where we visited the local restaurant for mutton balls. Mario smashed eight of the things down. I could only manage three.
At Tashkurgen, Mario’s tour was taking him east to Tibet whilst we were heading south to Pakistan. It was emotional to say goodbye so quickly after we had such a fun time together over the previous week. From playing the rocky theme tune, to us joining him in grace before we ate, to him teaching me some Chinese that came in handy at the border (when asked if I knew any Chinese by the serious border official, ‘Yes’ I replied, then repeated the two chinese words I could remember: hello and fart, the official walked away), to hearing him talk passionately about cycling and nature it was great to get to know Mario. We will be forever grateful for his help through the Chinese obstacles and hopefully we can meet in Nepal!