What cycling from London to Hong Kong taught us about food waste

Forks on Wheels, also known as Bethany and Julia, went on an epic journey to raise money for environmental organisation Feedback.

Every journey starts with a single pedal….

On April 11th 2015, I tentatively gained momentum on my unfamiliar steed and threw one last wave over my shoulder to friends and family. Thinking back to that day I find it hard to recall that girl; a girl faced with a mammoth challenge and not much more than sheer determination and naivety at her disposal. At that point I had no idea what I was really capable of, or of the hurdles in my path. I couldn’t plan for the taste of camel’s milk or the animal slaughters, dubious hitchhikes, corrupt authorities, black market dealings, living with unwelcome parasites or losing tent poles. Nor could I plan for the strangers I would meet who, within minutes, would become my trusted friends. It is thanks to those people that 10 months later my best friend, Julia Mason, and I, Bethany Martin, had cycled 16,000 kilometres from London to Hong Kong.

The wheels began turning in our last year of university. Julia would describe her home in Hong Kong and we soon realised neither of us knew much about the world between our two homes. We pored over maps and took inspiration from Tristram Stuart’s ‘bin inspections’ and adventures in research for his book ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Scandal’. We ‘bin shopped’ to stock our fridge at university, invited friends over for Binner Parties and often debated the manifestation of the food waste scandal in societies around the world. It was only logical that our forks joined the journey and thus “Forks on Wheels” began.

As we pedalled, we began to see food as a language. We observed how cuisine mirrors culture, history and environment. From sharing Iftar feasts with families in Turkey during Ramadan to birthday noodles in China, food allowed us to connect with people. Our enjoyment of people’s food gave them joy.

But why, if food is so globally celebrated, is a third of all that is produced never eaten?

Food waste we encountered in China

Hansel & Gretel’s crumbs

Our first stop was Brussels, where 30 members of the Food Surplus Entrepreneurs Network from the Netherlands, France and Belgium welcomed us. We met grassroots organisations turning the food waste issue into an opportunity and making a difference in their local communities. In Germany we discovered the Transition Town Movement and Community Supported Agriculture and our occasional bin inspections supplied us with edible food much the same as in the UK and Hong Kong. We meandered down the Rhine and sidled across to the long and wandering Danube River, stopping to visit Zero Waste Jam, Wiener Tafel and Waste Cooking in Vienna, to sample meatballs and bone marrow in Budapest and battered fish and homemade raki (spirit) and wine in Serbia. Whilst in Serbia, we learnt about the NATO bombing in 1998 and how a loss of power lead to street parties, as locals lit up their barbecues in order to not waste the food defrosting in their freezers.

Europe was our training run. We had no concerns about food or water because there was always a supermarket or restaurant and water supply systems had no risk of contamination. We took the time to familiarise ourselves with our LKLM touring bikes, which weighed around 50 kilograms when loaded. We fell off, got very lost, ended up in swamps at 3 am, established what was a good spot to pitch the tent and what was not, frequently made the same mistakes twice and realised that sometimes the way the crow flies doesn’t always facilitate a bike. The saying “take what you think you need, then cut it in half” was finally understood and a Hansel and Gretel trail of belongings was scattered across the continent.

From Chai to Dja Dja and back again

In Istanbul, we met members of the Slow Food Youth Network and Food Not Bombs and became the catalysts for organising Istanbul’s first Disco Soup. We were inspired to find that this eclectic, vibrant city harbours many progressive organisations and people challenging the status quo and we hope these prevail through recent escalations of tension and insecurity.

In contrast, outside of Istanbul we discovered the more ‘traditional’ Turkey. We found ourselves to be the only females in chai houses, stared at by a room full of men playing chess. Despite initially feeling daunted, we became accustomed to this and enjoyed the games and free-flowing chai. Everyday, we were humbled by acts of generosity and kindness. People would rush out onto the street to invite us to sleep in their homes, often offering their beds rather than letting us sleep on the floor. In most cases we found that being seen as female meant we were not perceived as a threat and therefore people were more inclined to welcome us into their homes.

Making friends in Turkey

Crossing the border into Georgia was a culture shock all over again. The chai was replaced with dja-dja, a lethal homemade spirit, and billboards now advertised ‘Hot Summer Shows’. We arrived in Tbilisi less than a month after the flood that led to lions, bears and a hippopotamus roaming the streets. Whilst there, we rested and visited projects addressing environmental and social issues, such as Kiwi Vegan Café and Generator 9.8. We fell in love with Georgia for its mountains, freshwater, innovative cuisine, honey, wine and even the dja-dja.

Cycling into Azerbaijan, past the stern armed border control, we breathed a small sigh of relief knowing we were back in chai-land. Although we have many great stories and friends in Azerbaijan, we did experience a few of our more ‘hairier’ human encounters whilst there. The most rattling of these was a man pottering around our tent in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night. The situation became considerably scarier when he drew a rifle out of his car and loaded it mere metres from our tent. Frantically, we whispered through our options for escape and came to the conclusion that there were none. Peering out of the tent, we watched and waited. Finally, the mysterious man put down his weapon and moved far enough away from the rifle for me to pluck up the courage to poke my head out of the tent and ask if there was a problem. “No, no problem, how are you? Would you like some water?” replies the man cheerfully in Azerbaijani before leaving us to continue his pottering. That was enough reassurance for me as I was exhausted with traveller’s sickness and, shortly after, I fell asleep, leaving Julia to keep watch all night. To this day we can only speculate his intentions.

We celebrated surviving this leg of the journey whilst on a cargo ship crossing the Caspian Sea, where we learnt how the sailors kept their chicken fresh without a fridge: alive ’n’ clucking in the storage room!

The Perfect Plov

Stepping off the boat into Kazakhstan, we were faced with 1,500 kilometres of desert that would take us through the length of Uzbekistan. The biggest concern was not where to sleep that night, but where to find food and water. Supermarkets were now a thing of the past, the West or the future, depending on how you want to look at it. The local shop became someone’s front room with a limited selection of dried food, biscuits and grains. We stocked our panniers with 16 litres of water each and a couple of kilograms of porridge oats. Three days into the desert we decided to ask passing lorries for water. Suddenly things became a little easier, we could carry less water (less weight) and meeting drivers would boost our spirits, especially when they handed us a melon and some naan.

We gladly left the desert behind to enjoy the rich history and mesmerising architecture that Uzbekistan has to offer. We celebrated Eid with an Uzbek family, where we witnessed the sacrifice of a cow and, less than one hour later, we were presented with its meat in a dish of plov. Plov is a rice dish prepared and presented differently in each region of Uzbekistan. When asked, a man in the market claimed, “we are born eating plov, and we die eating plov”.

It was only when we were swaying, queasy and exhausted, at an altitude of 4,655m on the highest pass in the Pamir mountain range in Tajikistan, that we really comprehended we could do this. To get to this point we had cycled along the border of Afghanistan, the Panj river, where we were shaken up in a mud house only 150 kilometres from the epicentre of the October 2015 Hindu Kush earthquake, before mounting the Pamir plateau. Everyday the cold would numb our hands and feet and force us to seek shelter in homes to warm up or stay the night. Despite severe poverty and malnutrition, never once were we turned away or left unfed. These homes only have one room heated by a stove fuelled with animal dung. About three quarters of the room has a raised floor that is your dining table and sofa by day and bed by night. Everyone would sleep in this room, packed in like sardines, mum, dad, grandparents, children and us.

Oodles of Noodles

Our introduction to China was with Kashgar’s overwhelming fusion of Central Asian and Chinese cultures. Although the food delicious and the native Uighur people welcoming, the eerie 1984-esque oppression by the Chinese state was evident everywhere. This was compounded by our dread for the looming Taklamakan desert, described by the Chinese people as the Sea of Death. Indeed, it was as desolate and depressing as it sounds and our only places to shelter from the exposed landscape were tunnels under the road.

It was a relief to enter the Tibetan region of Gansu after coping with frequent police encounters in Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces. It was nearly Christmas and, after a traumatic trip to the Chinese pharmacy, I was diagnosed with shingles. We decided to recover in a Buddhist monastery and eat tsampa; a mix of barley flour, hot water, yak’s butter (also used as candle wax in monasteries) and sugar. There was a knack to mixing it with your hands so that you didn’t cover yourself in flour, we would have monks and families in hysterics watching us try!

The last few weeks before we reached Hong Kong were a blur of strange flavours and torrential rain; we had to work hard to get out of China before our visas expired. It is part of the culture to over order in restaurants to show wealth, which naturally was disappointing to see large volumes of food waste again. Our response was to browse the restaurant tables and ask for leftover dishes — a cheap and tasty option! The rain destroyed our only smart phone and with it our only map, but somehow we managed to navigate the most densely populated city in China, Guangzhou, with only a broken compass.

When we finally arrived at Statue Square in Hong Kong on the 3rd February 2016, exhausted and emotional, we had two things to say:

1. The world is not as scary as we are led to believe. We pedalled away from an epic journey, halfway around the world, with a sense of peace and empowerment and bursting with faith in people and the planet. By seeing the world through open eyes and understanding one another, we can find solutions.

2. Food is valuable. To tackle the food waste problem our world needs to reassess the value, the price tag that we place on our food. Value isn’t just a £ sign. In societies where people are more engaged with the food production process, less food is wasted. We believe this is because being closer to the source and having a greater understanding of the process results in a higher perceived value of food. And why would we, how could we, throw away something of such value?

Up next: a recipe book and documentary series! Oh, and don’t worry, we aren’t hanging up our helmets yet.

-Bethany Martin, Forks on Wheels

Inspired to embark upon your own delicious adventure or bin-diving challenge? Set up your very own fundraising page for Feedback today at http://justgiving.com/feedback. Together we can put a stop to global food waste!