One year on the bicycle. Blimey. Where do I begin?
I normally start these blogs with a picture of the route being discussed in the post, so I’ll do the same here. Below is the line I’ve cycled over the last 12 months.
Would you like some stats?
Countries visited: 27
Days cycled: 251
Hours cycling: 1274
I wanted to write some kind of review for the last year. Something a little bit different than my usual blogs which focus on a specific section of recent cycling. I’m always so busy concentrating on the present that I rarely find the time to reflect on this trip as one big picture, which is what I’m going to try to do now.
Let’s start at the very start. Here’s a photo taken of me on my first day of this tour.
I stopped a bloke walking his dog along the river Thames and asked him to take a photo of me. As he did so, he asked ‘where are you going?’ ‘Australia’ I replied. He laughed, clearly unsure if I was being serious or joking. To be honest, I wasn’t sure either. I’d cycled less than 50km and my knees were already starting to hurt. But it didn’t matter where I was going, it never has and it never will. I just wanted an adventure. My only plan was this: keep cycling until I stop enjoying myself. One year later and I’m enjoying myself more than ever.
Looking back at it now, I wonder how I was so relaxed about the whole thing. I wanted to cycle across the world but I had no experience and no game-plan. Looking back now at a year’s worth of hard work I don’t understand my lack of nerves. Perhaps I just had the right attitude from the start: don’t expect anything concrete. Just ride and see what happens.
I’ll approach this article by answering some of the questions I get asked most frequently, those are the subjects I don’t normally talk about in my regular posts. The first one is this: why did you decide to do this trip?
I felt a little bit claustrophobic at the end of 2014. I’d had a slightly rubbish year for a bunch of reasons and I didn’t feel like I was quite where I wanted to be. I wasn’t moping around feeling sorry for myself – I just thought I could be doing something more exciting with my life than running around London working odd jobs for peanuts while watching the pennies slip from my wallet. When I sat crammed onto the tube amongst other faceless commuters I couldn’t help but think how lifeless we all were, imprisoned in a tiny carriage shuttling around far underground. I wanted to be doing the complete opposite: not being told where to go and when to get of the train, not paying just to get to work and being excited about starting the day rather than looking forward to its end.
I’ve been lucky enough to get around a bit over the last few years. When I finished school I worked for half a year before travelling overland from London to Bali. A year later I spent a month walking the Camino de Santiago 700km across the north of Spain. The following summer I hiked a few days of the Lycian trail in Turkey before backpacking around the Balkan states. Every year I could just about save enough to go on a small adventure. I had the travel bug – good and proper.
On one of these trips I found myself in Meteora, Greece. I’d been hiking between the cliff-top monasteries and had paused for lunch on an outcrop looking over the valley. It was there I met a German woman called Heike who told me she was travelling on bicycle. When I asked her where she’d cycled from she replied ‘Germany’. Woah. I’d never heard about anyone travelling on a bicycle before and the fact that she’d cycled hundreds of kilometers to Greece blew my mind.
I then asked the next logical question – ‘where are you cycling to?’ and she replied ‘Australia’. My jaw dropped. Is that even possible? Before she left, Heike gave me a business card with her blog. It was called ‘Pushbike Girl’. Suddenly she seemed a little less cool. How self-indulgent to have your own travel blog? Famous last words…
More than a year later in Autumn 2014 I began planning my next big trip. I had a bunch of ideas. One of the ones I was leaning towards was walking from Canada to Mexico along the Pacific Crest Trail trail but slowly I went off the idea. It seemed like a waste of half a year to just walk through endless forests. What’s the next best option? A bicycle, of course.
Having forgotten all about Heike I suddenly remembered our meeting. The business card had been thrown away a long time ago but after scratching my head for a few minutes I remembered the name of her blog. I sat up all night reading her posts. It was the craziest thing I’d ever read and she was still going strong. In fact, she’s still going strong. 2.5 years later. Amazing.
Never be too quick to judge. Here I am writing my own self-indulgent blog and guess what? I even have some business cards with my blog name on. Cringe. Getting those printed was one of the most practical fivers I spent. Never be too quick to judge…
I learned that this sport is called bicycle ‘touring’ and soon discovered a whole community online for people into this kind of travel. I found a couple of other blogs from people cycling around the world and within a few days I’d decided that I should give it a go.
Some people plan a trip like this for years. I almost feel guilty when I meet people like that. Within three months of getting the idea I was on my way. I didn’t really spend more than a month planning. I only got the bicycle a fortnight before I left and the bags a few days before departure.
Learning on the job is much more fun. Everyone knows that. I don’t regret just getting on and pedalling into the distance but I was pretty stupid about a bunch of stuff. The morning I left was the first time I’d tried to ride my bike with all the bags on. I’d never cycled further than 10km and yet I thought doing 100km the first day would be easy-peasy. Fast forward a few hours and it’s getting dark. I’m stuck on a country road with totally inadequate lights. My fingers are numb and my knees are really hurting. My few laps around the local park hadn’t been enough riding time to raise the initial alarm bells that my bike wasn’t fitted properly.
The first week my knees were agony. I could barely walk in the evening and the every time I started cycling again after a short break I’d have to wince through burning pain for a few seconds until they loosened up. I was an idiot for not checking something like that properly. I only have myself to blame. Thank God for the internet – I correctly diagnosed myself with patelar tendonitis and raised my saddle a couple of inches as advised by an online forum. Bingo! Within a few days the pain had faded and I was enjoying myself again.
There were plenty of occasions were a little more planning would have helped. For example – I didn’t realise until after a month of cycling that I could use my smartphone as a GPS with offline maps. God knows how I reached Copenhagen. I could program a ‘breadcrumb trail’ line onto my Garmin 200, which would give me a line to follow but no map as backdrop. I didn’t have any paper maps with me. So, when the road I picked turned out to be a muddy forest trail I had no choice but to push through or use my compass to try and eventually reach my target.
There were other times that my lack of preparation was slightly inexcusable. Especially when it came to understanding how a bicycle actually works. When my brakes failed I couldn’t get them back in order again because I hadn’t bothered working out how disc brakes work. They looked too complicated. It was one screw that needed a turn. I didn’t oil my chain once that first month. Needless to say it didn’t last very long. I ruined my brakes by spraying them in WD40 – I didn’t realise you couldn’t get oil in them. Silly things like that not only wasted my time but also my money. Time is unlimited for me. Money isn’t.
Thinking back, some of the ‘rookie mistakes’ are pretty funny. I carried an extra chain from Denmark to Uzbekistan before realising that it didn’t even fit my bike. I also carried a spare tyre for over a month before realising that it didn’t fit either.
Speaking of tyres. I remember being in a Turkish bike shop where the mechanic asked me how much pressure I wanted in my tubes as he pumped them up. I had no idea what number to say so I just gave them a light squeeze with my thumb and said ‘perfect mate, thanks’. He looked at me like I was a moron.
Everyone asked me why I was leaving in the middle of winter. I figured that if I could make it to Denmark in January, then I could manage anything. Copenhagen was always my minimum target. If I hadn’t made it that far I would have considered the trip a failure. My next milestone was Istanbul. That was always my ‘I’ve done really well’ landmark. If I got there I’d have cycled all the way across Europe and that would be something to be proud of. Anything beyond that was just bonus mileage and when I crossed the Pamir Highway from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan (the road I’d been dreaming about for years) then I’d really achieved everything I hoped to on this tour.
Despite the cold, the ride along the North Sea Coast from France to Denmark was easy. The roads were pancake flat and I had a warm place to sleep every night thanks to the good people on Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. I was dreaming about warmth every day cycling, but sure enough half a year later I was wishing for the cold again as I gagged for shade in the burning desert sun of the Middle East. Half a year later and I was back in the cold again – wrapped up in all my clothes squeezed into two sleeping bags on the Tibetan Plateau as the nights dropped to -20C.
I slowly adapted to life on two wheels and began to streamline my daily routine, my diet and sleeping set up. In every new country I made small adjustments to those factors, for example: changing my riding hours as the sun’s present hours change, the food I buy in markets and the way I approach my campsites.
Perhaps the most major one of these was sleeping arrangements. Believe it or not, I managed to get all the way to Serbia without pitching my tent. I’d stayed in two hostels (out of choice) and Couchsurfed everywhere else. The Couchsurfing and Warmshowers networks are amazing – especially in Europe. The most amazing resource and the best people in the world. It also made Europe incredibly cheap: I never paid for accommodation, usually got a meal or two out of my host and ended up with a daily expense much less than £5 in the most expensive part of the world.
At times it was frustrating to manage – sending out requests all the time and planning days in advance. I almost felt like I was managing an office job on the side of my cycling.
I only started camping when I had to in Eastern Europe. The online hospitality communities had dried up and I had to camp if I didn’t want to pay for accomodation. I was nervous about it. I didn’t have much camping experience but I could learn that on the job, just like everything else. But wild camping? That seemed so dangerous.
Hiding in a forest in the middle of the night… that’s when all the ‘bad’ people come out, isn’t it? At least that’s what happens in the movies. The mad axe-man prowling for someone vulnerable to rob. I knew my nerves were unfounded of course, but that is our greatest fear – the unknown.
I used to sleep with all my valuables hidden away in my sleeping bag and a knife next to my head – I’m embarrassed admitting that. Now I don’t care where I sleep. I exercise caution of course (I either camp where no one will see me, or where everyone can see me) but I’m never nervous.
My tent is now my tool for total freedom. I can stop anywhere I want. When I find somewhere beautiful to sleep I’m in heaven. I wake up in the morning as the sun lights the world up around me and I can’t wait to get back on my bike and explore more of it.
The world simply isn’t full of bad people and once you can dismiss the unfounded fears of the unknown then there’s very little to be scared of in life. People I meet along the way often ask me if I’m scared. When I ask them ‘of what?’ they normally say animals at first because they’re embarrassed to say people. It’s a sad world if we think that.
Most of us have never come across these villains we’re so scared of – we just see them on TV or read about them in the newspapers. They do just enough to plant a seed of permanent doubt in our minds. Perhaps a good example of this is my feelings on Iran. Had you asked me about cycling across the country two years ago I’d have raised my eyebrows and thought ‘that surely can’t be safe’. All I knew about Iran was the what I’d learned from the news – bearded guys who spent all their time preaching hatred of the West, building bombs for war and abusing the rights of women. Once I started learning about the country I realised it would be a fine place to travel, but when I told my mates that I was cycling in the Middle East they all said I’d die.
Lo and behold, Iran was the country I felt the most welcomed in out of anywhere I cycled. I have never met such friendly and hospitable people in my life. My Iranian experience taught me, more than ever, not to believe everything I read in the paper. I stayed with a family in Turkmenistan who told me that in their country there is no bad news – only the good things are reported. Perhaps we should take a (very small) leaf out of their book.
I used to read the metro everyday on the way to work. Within half an hour on the train my life would become so bleak. First story would be about ISIS chopping of someone’s head. OK – the Muslim world isn’t safe. Next story would be about someone getting stabbed in London. OK – my own city isn’t safe. Next story would be about someone going crazy and shooting their own family. OK – even my own family aren’t safe! No wonder we all feel up against the world sometimes.
The thing that this trip has made me realise more than anything is that the world is full of amazing, kind, generous people who will help you regardless of your skin colour, religion or sex. The few ‘baddies’ out there are outnumbered by a million by the wonderful people out there.
Like the Georgian guys who paid for my taxi to a bike shop after my wheel had bent in a car crash…
The Chinese policeman who spent an afternoon trying to help me get my SIM card working and bought me a road map of the country…
The Bulgarian bloke who gave me and Pia (who I was cycling with at the time) his Bluetooth bicycle speaker for our riding pleasure…
There are too many to mention!
The great people of Couchsurfing and Warmshowers who’ve given me a place to stay, but also the many, many strangers who’ve invited me to stay with them. Even when we come from different worlds we can relate to the same things. Even if these people no nothing about bicycle touring they can still understand the challenge I’m going through – I’m on my own in a totally different country to my own and people can relate to that lack of comfort zone.
This is perhaps where cycling solo becomes such an advantage. Of course you are more vulnerable as only one person (it’s easier to rob on person than two), but it also makes you more approachable.
There are of course times when spending so much time alone can be draining. People ask me very often if I get lonely. Before China I could have answered that honestly and said, ‘no – not really’. There’s always someone to hang out with and talk to if you look for them. But in China I started to struggle for the first time. Days and weeks passed without seeing another foreigner and not finding a Chinese person with good enough English to have a proper conversation with.
The stretch through the Gobi desert became the longest I’d ever gone without talking to anyone. That, coupled with monotonous scenery and bitter cold began to give me my first real test. For the first time I was struggling to find motivation. I felt lonely. Un-inspired. When I looked at my world map I thought how far I was from home, rather than how far I’d come on a bicycle.
Then there were the long nights. Being stuck in a tent for 13-14 hours isn’t much fun. It’s not like in Tajikistan where I could lie outside counting shooting stars – I’m wrapped up in all my layers as soon as the last light disappears. Those were the evenings I wished I had someone around to talk to.
If I wanted an easy holiday I would have taken an all-inclusive to Malaga and I’m sure I’d have had a great time. Without the hard times the good ones aren’t anywhere near as rewarding.
Sometimes it can be stressful – especially the visa sorting. They’ve been a real pain in the arse. I didn’t start cycling so that I could invest days of my life chasing visas from strange countries. Perhaps I’ve just been particularly unlucky; the Uzbeks made me waste a couple hundred miles cycling to Ankara, Turkmenistan made my whole trip seem appear to be at a dead-end, the Tajiks left me stuck in Bukhara taking the night-train back and forth to Tashkent while they sorted themselves out and the Chinese put me in the worst case situation – stuck in a different country than my bicycle unable to return.
But when I feel sorry for myself dealing with irrelevant bureaucracy I remind myself of the thousands of people queueing up in France trying to get into my country. Perspective is important and despite the occasional ‘faff’, I’m very lucky to have two passports that allow me to travel so freely.
When I write this blog I try to talk about both the good and bad parts of this trip. It’s tempting to only write about the wonderful moments but that wouldn’t be a fair representation. Despite the fact that I clearly like a good whinge and writing with plenty of sarcasm and cynicism, I hope it’s obvious that for every hard day there are fifty amazing ones. Every morning I get on my bike I know that the day will be unlike any I’ve had before.
Either I’ll meet some amazing people. Or I’ll cycle a beautiful road.
I started this blog in Denmark, after one month of cycling. I’d have been setting myself up for total failure had I started a ‘I’m cycling around the world’ website before starting my first ever ‘test trip’. During my warm up to Copenhagen a few people asked me if I had a blog and so I decided to start this. It seemed logical. The few I’d discovered during the months leading up to my own trip had not only inspired me, but made cycling around the world seem both do-able and not that dangerous. Had I not found them, I doubt would have summoned the courage to take this ‘leap-of-faith’.
Despite reading about cycle touring before I left, I didn’t realise what a big ‘thing’ it was until I’d actually left. I thought I’d be the only person cycling around the world! I was very wrong about that. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know almost all long-distance cyclists keep blogs like mine, otherwise I doubt I would have started one. But keeping a blog adds a new dimension to my trip. Suddenly I’m looking at things from a new perspective – writing for people on the other side of the world than myself. Although it’s just me typing, it somehow feel sociable – which helps with the ‘solo’ part of my trip. Writing the blog helps me think about what other people would find interesting about a new country and that helps me maintain a more critical eye.
Perhaps a good example of that would be this particular table in a Kazakh restaurant. I just took the picture because my camera was already out in front of me. When I put it online a few people commented on it. To me, it was just a normal table – typical of the awful interior design rife in Central Asia. It hadn’t occurred to me how strange it would look when taken completely out of context and stuck into one of my blog posts.
Sometimes maintaining the blog can be a real pain, mind you. The writing is fine – I enjoy that. But the formatting really bores me. The worst thing is trying to upload pictures through censored websites (like my Flickr page being blocked here in China), especially when the internet connections are so awful they can barely open the Google homepage (like everywhere in the Stans).
A lot of people have gotten in touch to say lovely things about the blog over the last year and I really appreciate those messages – they keep me inspired to type. If you’re reading this and want to ask me a question about somewhere I’ve been, give me some advice or just say hello then please don’t be shy – get in touch! What would be especially great if you’ve been following this blog is any constructive criticism. What bits are most interesting to read about, what could be skipped, does the layout of the site work etc.
So what’s the plan now? It looks something like this: another month in China following the Burmese and Laos borders before heading into Vietnam. From there I’ll go straight west across the top of Laos and into northern Thailand. I’ll re-asses things in Chiang Mai around Easter time. Australia is starting to get close but I may make a couple of diversions in SE Asia. Eventually I’ll make my way across the Indonesian islands from Sumatra all the way to East Timor before finding a way across the water and arriving in Darwin, Australia. September maybe? Who knows. Who cares.
The only thing that matters is money. I think I have enough to get to Oz. If I want to go further I’ll stop there and work. People like asking me about money – especially how much I’ve spent on this trip. The number is about £4,000 for this year. That includes everything, the bike, the gear, the visas etc. Some people seem really impressed the number is so low, others say ‘wow – that’s a lot’. Well, it is a lot.
People in a lot of countries couldn’t believe that I was financing myself. ‘Who is paying for you?’ they’d ask. I thought that funny – I might only be 23, but I could have been working full time for 7 years if I’d not studied further. It’s a cultural thing. In many places kids are expected to give money to their families until they marry, or they just have such low salaries it would take forever to save that much or they just can’t understand how someone so young can be so independent. These were the same people who would ask me how many children I have, or if I was married. The idea of just buggering off and leaving all your friends and family behind was too much to comprehend.
I’ve been very lucky in saving money. The first bit of fortune was qualifying for the maximum financial support while I was studying my music degree (something that may be scraped thanks to those generous Tories- https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/109649). On top of this I had a job the whole time I was studying and I still took out a student loan leaving me with plenty of dosh on the side. I’m in a casual £20k debt, but the interest is next to nothing and when else will I ever have the chance to get my hands on that much? Not any time soon with a music degree. The second bit of fortune was being able to move in with my Dad when I moved back to London. I’d have had to pay at least £500 a month for a room in a shared place otherwise. London is a ruthless place to live. In 6 months that’s £3,000 saved. That’s a lot of cycling time.
When poorer people ask me how much my trip has cost or how much my bike is worth (the Iranians and Central Asians would happily play the ‘pointing and asking how much?’ game all day long), I lie through my teeth. It would be insulting to someone who earns so little and nor do I want to be seen as a walking ATM. Fortunately I don’t look rich to most people – I normally look pretty dirty, I’m living in a tent and normally eating from a plastic bag at the side of the road. Hardly the five-star rockstar.
Some travellers are into daily budgets. Not me. My cost of living varies hugely from place to place. Usually I try to live as cheap as possible, but sometimes that becomes tiring. I would rather run out of money prematurely than suffer on a measly budget. If it’s raining and I want to stay in a hotel, I will. If I want to treat myself to a nice meal, I will. If I want to go out for a few drinks, I will. Most of the time I live on less than a fiver a day, often much much less. If I stock up on food from a bazaar and live in my tent I won’t get my wallet out for a few days.
The biggest dent in total expenditure has been China. The main way I save money is by almost never paying for accommodation. The first time I stayed in a paid room to myself was in Turkey, after 5 months cycling. From Armenia to Uzbekistan I didn’t spend a penny on accommodation for 5 weeks. But when the temperatures dropped way below zero and the days became shorter and shorter I started paying for places to stay. It’s been a painful expense – but an essential one if I was to stay enjoying myself.
Just the other day I was talking to a local guy who asked me how much my bike cost. £650 I told him. He said something along the lines of ‘that’s so expensive!’. He was holding an iPhone 6 in his hand which probably cost the same amount. My bicycle has helped me see the world. That phone has helped him see less of the world, as he walks around with eyes glued to that little screen. It’s all relative.
Thank you for following this blog. Here’s to another year of pedalling. I love life right now. If you’re reading this thinking about going on a bike tour yourself. Just go for it. If I can do it – you certainly can.
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Now back to the present…