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Restaurant owner embarks on journey of more than 11,000 km to "follow his heart"
On the night Liu Jinsong approached Yueyang in Hunan province, he admits he was a bit scared.
The streetlights were dim and the road hilly and pebbly, with barely visible sections under repair looming here and there as he rode toward his first destination on a marathon mountain bike trip, his figure dwarfed by the trucks and tractors that roared past.
Liu, 46, had set out that morning, on April 26, from his hometown in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, bound for Moscow, more than 11,000 kilometers away.
Why Moscow? The 2018 FIFA World Cup is being held in Russia, with the final in the capital on July 15, and Liu is a soccer fan.
"I"ve always wanted to relate to the World Cup in my own way," Liu said. "I can always show up in the stadium easily as long as I have money, but that"s not my way."
Liu fixed his eyes on his bike, bought a year ago but left in a corner because he was busy running his little barbecue restaurant. Cycling to Russia would be difficult, but also fun and unique, he thought.
"I"m also a fan of rock music, and my understanding of rock is to follow you heart," he said. "If I think about doing it, then I will do it. That way my heart remains the same, even if I fail to complete the task."
After three days repairing and preparing his bike, Liu left his business, wife and son behind and hit the road on a drizzly morning, with no prior physical training or route planning. Smiling and motivated, he took pictures in front of his barbecue restaurant and announced his departure on social media.
Liu cycled past the Yangtze River and across vast canola plains, but the journey was far tougher than he expected. Five days after setting out he had serious bruises on his thighs and a strained tendon in his left leg, and he had to push his bike some of the time.
He reached Beijing on May 8, planning to collect his passport, Russian visa and credit card while taking a brief rest. The two-day break in Beijing, sharing a few drinks with friends, rejuvenated him. He said his body had grown accustomed to long-distance cycling and it would be no problem to stay in the saddle for more than 10 hours at a time.
But the adventure beyond Beijing was a journey into the unknown.
"I have no idea how and where I"ll stay next or if I will be able to find accommodation or food along the way, but it is these unknown things that make traveling most interesting," he said.
On May 12, Liu ran into heavy rain that later turned into hailstones, forcing him to stop and seek shelter. As the night wore on, his GPS guided him onto a narrow country road, with the nearest hotel 100 km away.
A few dogs barked aggressively when he attempted to pitch his tent in a village, so he set it up in a clearing in front of an old temple, falling asleep with the chanting of monks as a lullaby.
On day 28, with 3,300 km conquered, Liu reached the China-Russia border at Manzhouli, in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and crossed into a foreign country for the first time in his life.
Siberia was vast, but not flat, and the rough roads posed a constant risk of punctures to his tires. Wild animals could have been lurking in the primeval forest and valleys, but Liu was too tired to think about the danger.
"I"ve lost track of time," he said. "I never want to stop, I"m just a bit tired and sleepy."
Luckily, the people Liu met on the way greeted him warmly, offsetting Siberia"s chilly winds. He was offered cozy bedrooms more than once by Russian villagers when he was about to pitch his tent in the cold. He was also offered a ride by a truck driver when the road was too bad for cycling in the dark. The time Liu spent with his new Russian friends forged memories as strong as the vodka they offered him.
Liu is still heading to Moscow at full speed, averaging 160 km a day. He will make it to Moscow on July 15 if all goes as planned and will see if anyone is kind enough to give him a free ticket to the final.
"At this stage watching the World Cup is no longer necessary," he said. "I will be satisfied just to feel the World Cup vibes."
Liu"s social media posts on his journey have earned him the criticism of some netizens, because his journey has led to the closure of his restaurant, with his wife and son alone at home. He said he plans to start his business all over again and spend more time with his family after he flies home.
"I"m not trying to prove anything to anyone," he said. "I just want to do it, and I believe I can."
Zhang Yangfei contributed to this story.