One morning in early October 2021, Alex Lee woke up from an intensive care unit (ICU) in a North Dakota hospital with one less tooth, one less spleen, but several more scars. What hasn’t changed was his determination to ride to Boston, the birthplace of American freedom.
Starting from Los Angeles, California, the cyclist carried a “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” banner all the way through the harsh winter and scorching deserts. He had endured moments of bitter embarrassment, and even narrowly escaped ‘the call of heaven’ in a car accident.
The 6,000-mile trip brought him to Boston on May 13, 2022. There he proudly, and quite rightly so, declared, “I have accomplished ‘a mission,’” and, at the same time, unexpectedly inspired some friends and even passers-by.
The Battlefield, Here I ComeIt was this belief, “The rights to live freely,” that propelled him into all the actions and sacrifices, according to Alex.
“I had thought about it for three months at home, thinking about one question, should I go to Hong Kong?” Alex said, “I finally made a decision: Let God guide my way.”
So he took a train to Hong Kong. However, what surprised him was that the expected danger would come so quickly. On the morning of his arrival, he was attacked by a person who hated democratic protesters. In a “bloody battle,” the attacker wounded Alex’s right eye, and in retaliation he bit off a piece of the attacker’s ear. Both were arrested by police.
Being judged to be a victim who practiced self-defense, Alex was quickly released. He then joined a rally in Victoria Park. Because of his eye injury, First Aid persons at the scene thought he had been hit by tear gas, and rushed to spray saline solution on his eyes. This caused him a bit of pain, because the stitches around his wound used soluble lines, which were not supposed to touch salty water.
Homeless in Hong Kong“At that time in Mainland China, the Communist Party told everyone that if you participate in the Hong Kong protests, the CIA would give you money. I stayed in Hong Kong for 3 months, but I couldn’t find any CIA agent. If I knew where was a CIA agent, I would just go and get some cash,” Alex said.
It is of course just a joke, but it does reflect Alex’s urgent need at the time. Not long after he arrived in Hong Kong, some of his money was stolen when he was resting on a park bench. With not much money left to get by, he decided to move into the Hong Kong Airport and sleep in the waiting area. There he had stayed for more than a month.
During this period, Alex learned from a doctor that his right eye was at risk of retinal detachment, and the cost of the treatment could reach HK$100,000 (USD12,740). But he only had about HK$20,000 (USD2,978) at the time.
“I thought I might lose my right eye. But after a few seconds, I told myself, It’s fine, I still have my left eye,” Alex said.
He tried all the methods he could, and finally got help from a local doctor with the recommendation of a girl. Therefore, Alex got his laser surgery for free to save his right eye.
At the airport, Alex read Cheng Nien (鄭念)’s book “Life and Death in Shanghai (上海生死劫).” The book mentions that Cheng’s daughter was persecuted and died during the “Cultural Revolution,” and the writer herself was imprisoned. But even at this time she still tried her best to comb her hair, wash her face, and keep herself clean and dignified.
Cheng Nien’s experience inspired Alex. Before attending a rally, giving a speech on stage, or giving an interview to the media, he always tried his best to keep himself tidy and clean. He might scrub himself in a handicap toilet in the airport, or take a shower in a city restroom, and then go to a public laundry room to wash and dry his clothes.
Hard LabourBecause of the above mentioned physical fight, Alex had to stay in Hong Kong to wait for court summons. He was found not guilty three months later. Then with the help of some friends, he first went to South Korea, and then Indonesia. Later he received financial support from some public funding to live in Texas for a year.
As the funding expired, Alex went to Los Angeles, hoping to find a job in the local Chinese community to earn a living. At that time, due to the pandemic, the immigration office was terribly slow in processing political asylum applications, which had left Alex without a working permit for a long time. And one day, he found he had barely 1,000 dollars on hand.
“You know, Los Angeles has three or four hundred tents on the street, there are a lot of homeless people. I don’t want to be one of them, even though I have only $1,000 with me.” Alex laughed.
Eventually he found a hard labour job, which was to move boxs in a warehouse. Since the workplace was a 40-minute drive from his residence, he had to take Uber to go to work in the first week, consuming more than half of his money. Fortunately, after receiving the first week’s salary, he was able to move to a house closer to the warehouse.
The pay for this job was not too bad. It allowed Alex to earn $10,000 in 3 months. But this was a 15-hour workday, handling 400 to 500 boxes, each ranging from 25 to 50 pounds.
To make a living, he had also worked in floor paving and roof tiling with barely any safety measure. That means if he were not careful enough, there could be a chance of falling off the roof and becoming crippled. Alex said, if this happened, the boss would not take care of an illegal worker. So then he would only become homeless.
“I had done the best I could. With only $1,000, I didn’t make myself a bum. But I asked myself, I had been a sociology student, now I’m an illegal worker, this kind of life is really hopeless, do I need to do this hard labour job all my life?” Alex said.
Alone on a Thousand MilesAlex described himself as “an idealist.” He would spend all his money to participate in the Hong Kong protests, or embark on a cross-continental journey on a cheap bicycle without any long-distance trip experience.
“Someone told me that your 100-dollar Walmart bike was of such inferior quality, that you couldn’t even get to Las Vegas; you can’t even fix a bicycle, so what if you have a flat tire on the road? But I retorted, with an extraordinarily strong determination, I will definitely accomplish my goal,” Alex said.
Alex left Los Angeles on his bike and rushed into the Mojave Desert in California in July 2021.
It was a “hell” summer. Riding under the 120-plus-degree Fahrenheit sun, Alex felt a fire under his butt, and he vaguely saw “waves of heat” before his eyes.
It was still 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit there late at night. One night, Alex, who could not find any hotel, fell asleep by the side of the road. Early in the morning, a black man drove by, stopped the car, and asked, “Hey man, are you still alive?”
Later, Alex arrived at a small town near Las Vegas, but immediately ran into new difficulties: he had spent nearly half of his money in the previous trip, and had just over $2,000 left in his pocket.
In a speech about half a year later, Alex asked some high school students in Minnesota, “If you were me, would you immediately go back to Los Angeles to find a hard labour job, or would you risk becoming a homeless person and continue the trip?”
“I think I have this mission to tell everyone that dictators look tough but are actually weak, and they are afraid of people expressing their opinions. What I must do is to tell everyone, express what they think. It was what the Hong Kong protesters did,” he said.
“To get to Salt Lake City with $3 sounds interesting,” Alex said with a smile. But by the time he got to Salt Lake City, not only did he have $2 of the money left, but he also got $200 more. The latter was donated by a host family and a passer-by driver.
Crash and RebirthOn September 20, 2021, Alex faced the toughest test of his journey. On a road in North Dakota, a drunk driver on pickup hit him from behind. He was sent to the ICU. When he woke up, the doctor said to him, “It’s a miracle of God that you can wake up.”
As a result of the crash, Alex had his spleen removed, was in a coma for two weeks, and was on rehabilitation for more than a month. He was also diagnosed with depression and traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After being discharged from hospital, Alex stayed with friends in Salt Lake City for more than three months, before flying back to Grand Forks, the city where the crash occurred, on February 10, 2022. He bought a new mountain bike and restarted his ride eastward through the frigid winds and snows of North Dakota.
While people in Salt Lake City started to feel warm in February, much of North Dakota was still frigid “like hell.” Alex had been caught by snowstorms with a temperature of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Wearing anti-fog goggles, five layers of clothing and special antifreeze gloves, he pushed his bike through the snow. He could not take a deep breath, and felt dizzy with back pain from time to time.
Along the way, he gave much of his personal belongings, such as tents, to host families, because he could not carry too many things while advancing in the snow. Otherwise, he could easily lose his balance. He said that he had seen thousands of animal carcasses during the trip. If he was not careful enough, he might fall to the ground, be run over by a car, and become one of the dead bodies.
The severity of the winter was far greater than the scorching desert heat, Alex said. But he did not switch to warmer roads of the South. He said, he should rise up where he fell down.
“If you can solve problems in the harsh natural environment, you can also solve problems in the harsh life. The logic is the same, face your difficulties, don’t run away from them,” Alex said, “I believe, God will guide my way.”
As the spring bloomed, Alex gradually increased his speed. Before the crash, he averaged 60 to 70 miles per day; but after crossing North Dakota, he had increased to 65 to 70 miles per day, and even went up to 113 miles on a good day.
A new trip beginsAt about 9:30 p.m., May 13, 2022, Alex arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of thirty-seven, he had a few strands of white hair on his forehead. He was wearing a black cycling suit and black sunglasses, riding a black wide-wheeled mountain bike with a few dusty bags on the back.
Alex said that almost everyone, including his girlfriend, thought he could not make the journey, especially after the crash.
The friend asked his Venmo account and transferred $500 to him.
“Some people told me, they were moved and inspired by my journey. When I started this journey myself, I did not try to inspire anyone. I just felt like I was so desperate, and I felt like I myself needed all the inspirations from other people. But through the whole journey, I was told by others that I inspired them, and that might be a windfall for me,” Alex said.
He stopped for a while in Cambridge and visited Harvard University. He then stayed for a week in Newton, MA., with severe migraines every day. He did not know if it was an aftermath of the car accident.
Alex said he hoped one day to study at Harvard Law School. Before that, he might attend a community college before transferring to a public university. However, hearing these plans, some friends began to say to him again, “It is impossible.”
Alex had other travel ideas too, such as sailing across the Mississippi River on a canoe named “Liberty Hong Kong,” or sailing to Guam in a sailboat. He also wanted to set up non-profit organizations to help cyclists who had experienced car accidents, and mainland Chinese and Hongkongers fleeing the authoritarian regime… He added, if you really love democracy and freedom, then you should do something, no matter how small the thing is.
“You don’t need to care if someone says you can’t make it. I know you can. Why? Because you’re not one of them, you’re yourself,” Alex said.