Ex Clifford Chance lawyer cycles from Hong Kong to the UK
Theo Brun is a 34 year old ex-city lawyer who has worked in London, Moscow, Paris and Hong Kong. He decided to leave his job in Hong Kong last year and embark upon a once-in-a-lifetime journey across the Eurasian landmass, to return home to the UK solo by bicycle.
The voyage has been divided into two parts. He completed the first leg, from Hong Kong to a city called Xi'an in central China in the autumn of 2010. This covered a distance of 2,800km and took him a month and a half. The second part of his journey is much longer and will start this spring. This will take him across another 15 countries (including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan) and an amazing 14,000km before he reaches his home in the UK.
You can follow Theo's journey and find out more information about why he decided to embark upon this incredible trip on his blog www.asfaraseastisfromwest.com
We caught up with Theo whilst he is in preparing for the second leg of his journey.
• Can you run us through your legal background?
I decided to qualify as a lawyer two years after leaving university. I went back to law school in central London and managed to get a training contract with Clifford Chance. After the drawn out process of law school, I started with CC in August 2004 and stayed with them till the end of my training. During those two years, I did a 6 month secondment in Moscow which was great. I missed out on the one place going for the Arbitration group back in London so I left and eventually got an offer from the International Arbitration group at Freshfields in Paris. Despite this “dream” job, I found out I didn’t really suit it! I left after just over a year and did something completely different, studying a theology diploma at Oxford. I came out of this in a terrible job market (summer of 2009) and tried to figure my next move. In the end I accepted an offer to work as an in-house lawyer for a biotechnology company in Hong Kong, where my brother and his family also live. I found in-house work more interesting and involving than private practice but again, for a few reasons, I struggled to find it a good fit for me.
• Why did you decide to leave law?
I think there are several reasons to stay in the law. One may be the job security and financial support it brings, especially if you have responsibilities at home. Others may be a genuine intellectual interest in the work, or the fulfilment that comes with being involved in big business deals or important cases (or even not so important ones!). I greatly value the way my legal training has developed my mind and the way I now think things through, analyse things, and can express myself. Of course, I have made some good friends along the way and I value the privilege of learning from some extremely intelligent and interesting people. But I think it is very important that you actually want to climb higher up the ladder you are on. While I respect those that have reached the top of the legal profession, I’ve found out that I don’t want to be there myself. I realised that if someone was to say at the end of my life: it was about the law, or it was about business, this absolutely doesn’t resonate with me or who I am. My great love and admiration are for great writers and communicators. That is what I want to be. I have a host of ideas for writing which I have never found the time during my legal career to make real.
• Quite an exit from China. When and why did you decide to cycle home?
I decided to cycle home in around May 2010. I’d decided I was going to leave my in-house job and that I wanted to return to Europe, much as I liked Hong Kong as a city. I was having a conversation with a friend about my future and some ideas I had about what I would do. I talked about writing, maybe teaching, even going into the church since my faith is an important part of my life. But I mentioned to her, almost shyly, that I kept having this nagging day-dream – of setting off into the heart of Asia and walking all the way home. I think I expressed the idea as something like going beyond writing into “becoming the story”. She said, “What’s stopping you?” I couldn’t give her an answer. After this conversation, this dream overtook everything else and I began taking it seriously.
• What did your friends and family think?
My friends all thought it was a great idea and were very excited for me, even a little jealous. My older brother and his wife also were very supportive. I was a bit worried about my parents’ reaction so I presented it to them very much as a fait accompli.
• How much prep did you do prior to your departure?
Quite a lot. Now I’m into the journey, I think I was as well prepared as I needed to be. What takes the most time is gathering all the kit – the bike came from England, tents, camping gear, spare parts, maps and the rest. I met a guy who had cycled the reverse route – London to Hong Kong – in 2009 who was a fount of knowledge and a great help in deciding what to take. I also took some Mandarin classes to help with communication.
• What route are you taking?
From Hong Kong, I wanted to get to Xi’an (of Terracotta warrior fame) before winter came. I managed that, seeing some truly amazing scenery and places of interest along the way, like Guilin and the weird rock formations of Wulingyuan. I’m now spending winter in Xi’an, teaching English, until the desert nights warm up enough to carry on. In the spring I’ll set out west along the Silk Road, taking the northern route out of China as far as the Great Game emporium of Kashgar. I then cross into Kyrgyzstan, and onto Uzbekistan, then Kazakhstan. I’ll take a boat across the Caspian to Azerbaijan. West to Georgia, then another little boat ride round the Georgian/Russian border (which is currently closed) to Sochi in southern Russian. From there I head through Ukraine, Slovakia, Austria and up through the rest of Europe to the Hook of Holland, to catch the ferry to Harwich and cycle the last little bit to my family home in Norfolk.
• Are you using GPS to map your route or are you using traditional methods?
A friend has lent me a GPS device but I haven’t figured out how it works yet. I don’t really need it. Using maps are fine. I’m pretty comfortable with navigation since I have a pilot’s licence and understanding maps and a compass is an important part of that.
• What would you consider the most dangerous part of your journey?
I think without a doubt the Central Asian states and perhaps also Azerbaijan. There was a lot of civil unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2009 (bordering on civil war). There are still occasional anti-Western incidents there and also in Uzbekistan, in particular in an area called the Ferghana Valley. These kind of incidents tend to be pre-planned though. If I was targeted it would have to be an ad hoc attack or robbery, which I think are possible but less likely. Of course, Azerbaijan and Georgia are close to Chechnya and some problem areas in southern Russia, but my actual route through these countries should keep me south of the more risky regions.
• Have you encountered any hostilities?
None at all – the Chinese are very friendly and hospitable. Particularly so in the countryside. I wish I could say the same for all of their dogs. So far plenty of barking, but I’ve managed to pedal clear of any bites!
• How are you funding the trip?
I’m using the money I earned from my year in Hong Kong. Life on the road is surprisingly cheap and this should see me through to the end of the trip.
What bike/gear are you using?
The main bits of kit are of course the bike – which is a Thorn Raven Tour (with a bunch of “extra” bits and bobs added on) and comes from a great little business called St John’s Cycles in Bridgwater, Somerset. Then the bags: I have four Ortlieb panniers which fit on the front and back wheels. And the tent: this is a Taranova lightweight 2-man tent – which is big enough for me to be comfortable with all my stuff; and a Brunton camping stove. Definitely my best bit of kit is the GPS beacon though.
• Where do you stay at the end of your day?
So far – from Hong Kong to Xi’an – I’ve stayed in cheap hotels – or else whatever is available. This has ranged from staying in an old couple’s ice-cold store room (albeit on a bed), to borderline brothels (or at least very suspect establishments) through to “elite” business hotels with all mod cons. I haven’t had to use my tent yet because it’s been too cold and unnecessary.
• How do you keep your sanity whilst on long stretches?
Is it a sign of madness if I say that it is on the long stretches that I feel most sane? As you can imagine, a long journey is a great time to sort out a lot of things in your head. The first few days I felt quite daunted by the whole project (especially when I looked at a map), and my mind was a jumble of quite negative thoughts. But after a week or so, I found a lot of peace in what I was doing. I love the long stretches. I love the journey itself. Insanity only really comes when I’m trying to get up a particularly challenging mountain – I admit I say some pretty weird things to encourage myself up the hill.
• How did you get clearance to travel through certain countries?
This is the biggest headache about the trip. But it’s an interesting organizational challenge too. I need visas for China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia. Each is straightforward enough on its own, but coordinating all the applications is a pain.
• What has been the best part of your trip so far?
There have been many amazing moments already. But the very best so far was the day I cycled north from the city of Guilin to a national park called the Dragon’s Backbone. It was a beautiful day, the ride was exhausting but exhilarating.
The most amusing part was an evening spent in the town of Xinglong – a remote mountain town just south of the Yangtze river. Being the first European at least some of the townsfolk had ever seen in their town, I was put through the ordeal of proving my worth on the dance floor in their public square while at least 300 people looked on, with an older woman who would insist on trying to lead. You can read about the rest of this particular evening on my website.
• What do you eat to keep energy levels up?
Everything and lots of it. Lots of rice, noodles, pork, beef, unidentified green vegetables, and chilli sauce. And then I’ll carry a lot of fruit with me, biscuits, sweets for sugar hits.
•When are you scheduled to hit home turf, if all goes as planned?
Accordingly to my carefully devised timetable – which may be laughably optimistic since who really knows what may happen between here and my home in Norfolk – I should arrive home on October 2, 2011.
There is no time limit of course – except that the visas often require precise entry and exit dates – but I want to be cycling through Europe in late summer/early autumn. Any later and the colder weather will make it far less enjoyable.
• What would you recommend to others thinking of pursuing a similar feat?
It will be the best thing you’ve ever done. I say this and I’ve only really completed the prologue of my whole trip. I was fortunate because I was at a stage in life when I found myself completely unattached. This meant there was little to stop me going. So if you can go without leaving behind responsibilities, without a doubt go. I believe a desire for adventure is God-given and you will find your story and destiny by following that desire.
More practically, aside from all the obvious preparations, put some time into learning the language of wherever you’re headed. Every single word you learn will enrich your adventure.
• Finally, what will you do when you get back?
I want to write a couple of books. One will be condensing this journey into one volume. The second is a historical novel which I have started writing. But that’s another story.
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