It’s been a fair while since I last posted anything so I thought it best to wrap this up now before I never touch it again. It’s possible i might come back and write a bit about my month in Cambodia, and also a kit review, but for now please see the final synopsis below.
Cycle touring has really exploded in the last 5 years. I met many many people over the months doing the same thing. And not just athletic young guys, but men and women of all ages and shapes, and even children and toddlers (on the back of tandems, or in trailers). Cycling with Hebert for 3 months through South China and Vietnam is testament to the fact that I could continue doing this kind of thing for another 40years should I so desire. And I certainly won’t rule out the idea or cycling some of the world’s other continents. I met a lot of people who were attracted to the idea of cycle touring and fancied doing it one day. All I would say is that the only prerequisite you need is an enjoyment of cycling and the outdoors and everything else will follow.
I left the UK with many people asking me why I’m not travelling with anyone else, but in the end I probably spent 70% of the time with others, and just 30% alone. Solo cycle touring, and cycling with others are two sides of the same coin, and in my mind both as important as each other. There were times when I was glad I was alone and opportunities which I seized which would have been difficult to do with others. Equally there were times when having a companion made the whole thing much more enjoyable. Simple things like buying food or keeping an eye on your bike when you are sorting something out are so much easier in a team. If there was one bit where I was glad I was with someone else it was the stretch through the Pamir Mountains. To do that alone would have been ‘ardcore, although I met several who did just that.
Regrets – Naturally there were many things I wish I could have done which I didn’t on this trip. Besides the obvious (not making it through Pakistan to India), I wish I had cycled more of Turkey, visited more places in Iran, seen some of East China, hung out a bit more in Saigon and South Vietnam and a whole bunch of other things that don’t immediately spring to mind. The one consolation you have with this kind of thing is that you can’t see or do it all. An interesting phenomenon though about regretting not doing something was that every time I did just that, then something positive would happen over the next few days which wouldn’t otherwise have happened had I done that other thing. So for instance, I mentioned that I regretted not checking out Bratislava, but then the next day I met Patrick, Ugo, and Martin and spent a really fun few days with them which I don’t think I would have changed for a non-event of a night out in Bratislava.
Relativity – On paper the idea of ‘I’m gonna cycle to Asia’ may sound a bit extreme or crazy but I came to realise after a conversation with Cycle Strong Man Chris that it’s all just a question of relativity. One person’s cycling to the park and back is another person’s 40000km round the world tour. Looking over a world map I really enjoy the tacit knowledge I have acquired about the people, the culture, the landscape, and the distance in terms of pedal power it takes to cycle from A to B.
A level of flexibility is required when you cycle tour, and you need to be ready to change your plans at the drop of a hat. We read some horror stories about Iranianvisa.com (although they actually proved well helpful despite their threatening emails demanding cash), and for a while I was toying with various back-up plans for the continuation of my trip if Iran was a no-go. I was considering heading South through Syria and onwards to Jordan, but already then in July last year the political situation wasn’t looking great. So had it come down to it I think I would have tried a more roundabout way for getting into Central Asia i.e. through Georgia, Azerbaijan then across the Caspian Sea on the Caspian Sea Monster.
Cycle touring pros and cons: There are many pros and cons to cycle touring and there were definitely times where I would have been easier/cheaper to be backpacking. One of the pros which stand out for me is the greater contact with people that you have as a cycle tourist compared to other forms of travel. When your cycling it’s obvious what you would need e.g. food, water, and shelter, but if you turn up in the middle of nowhere with just a backpack on then it’s not so obvious what your intentions are and, I imagine, people would be less inclined to come up and talk to you and maybe offer you some food etc. I remember asking one traveller in Cambodia if she had had much contact with locals during her trip to which she replied ‘Yeah, I’m really good buddies with a Tuk Tuk driver I met in Angkor Wat’. Well fair enough, but the most interesting and genuine encounters with locals for me were the ones where there was no exchange of cash. The major disadvantage of cycle touring is if you need to get somewhere quickly like a trance party in South Cambodia when you’re stuck in the middle of Vietnam for instance. Or if your visa is coming to end and you wanna check out some other faraway places. It can fast become an expensive and hassle laden business transporting your bike and kit on public transport
Bike Maintenance: Boring! Throughout the whole of the previous 9 months I think the only form of bike maintenance I did was fixing about 25 punctures, removing a link from the chain, oiling the chain, replacing one brake cable, replacing the brake pads and tyres, tightening the odd loose nut, tightening the headset, fitting a temporary Kevlar spoke replacement, truing the wheel, and washing my bike maybe twice. Oh and replacing the chain and cassette, but the guy in the shop did that for me in China without any asking or prompting and for free. With the help of people who knew what they were on about I designed my bike to be as robust as possible, and for the most part it worked. I think those on €3000 bikes were much more inclined to clean their bikes thoroughly at every suitable opportunity.
Roughing it: It’s not for everybody but I really enjoyed the camping element of cycle touring. I know some people would be put off by not knowing where they are going to sleep every evening, but for me that was something exciting. As previously mentioned I came across some 10 out of 10 camping spots over the months, but also some get my head down in some places you don’t even want to know about. I tended to be more of a late starter and late finisher, often cycling ‘til well after the sun had gone down when I was cycling alone. I have to say though I much prefer the philosophy of getting up early and finishing early so that you can make use of some of the light (and sometimes warmth) in the evening to do anything you want to do. Those travelling with lots of expensive gear and bike were a lot less likely to be up for camping somewhere mildly dodgy, while others who had less electronics and unnecessary equipment were far more up for roughing it in more risky places. I guess I lay somewhere in the middle. One thing’s for sure though – no matter if it’s your €500 bike or your €3000 bike that gets stolen, then that this is your cycle touring holiday over.
Technology: Information is power and all that. For anyone who last went travelling 10years ago or thereabouts, it might be an odd experience walking into a hostel and seeing so many people staring into smart phones, netbooks, and tablets. One thing I found supremely useful during the trip was the All of Wikipedia app for the iPod Touch – a 4.5 gb cache of the whole of Wikipedia (minus the photos). Also interesting to consult was the World Facts app detailing everything about resources and demographics for any country and comparing it to others. The bike repair app I had came in really useful too. I’m still not sure if I would go for a GPS if I ever do another tour. For me it definitely takes away from the romanticism of travelling and not knowing exactly what lies ahead. It is pretty cool however to be able to dump your data in Google Earth and see exactly where you have been. There was a time in South Vietnam where I had no phone, no compass, no watch and no speedometer. Just a map and the sun. It was in fact a bizarrely liberating experience…until I got lost.
Money & the appearance of wealth: Sorting out money was surprisingly doable although at times a hassle. I managed to do the whole thing just using my debit cards at ATMs which of course required a little forward planning. I forget how many deals with various shady characters at borders I have now done, but actually it was something I came to enjoy. Having the XE currency conversion app was a mighty useful bargaining tool. Cycle tourists are, generally speaking, never really made of money (hence sleeping on the floor in a hotel back room in Ashgabat for $5, as opposed to the $135 hotel), but from the point of view of others it must look like we are minted cycling around on our flashy bikes, whipping out fancy cameras, and iPods and iPhones to check we’re not getting stitched on the price of half a kilo of Satsumas. A $20 dollar a day budget may not seem like a lot for us, but there was no doubt that for some people that this was a lot of money. Labourers in Cambodia for example got paid just $4 per day (7am-5pm) for building a house. So $20 is a working week of money for people and it was important to bare this in mind at times.
Schengen Agreements, Reciprocity, and Playground Politics: You might have gathered how much of a hassle sorting out visas was during this trip. It is something you can sort at home but for some places e.g. Turkmenistan you have to specify the exact date of entry for your visa. Of course it is very difficult to plan that far ahead. From the moment I decided I would actually do this to the moment of departure was maybe 3 months. I met others who been planning their trips for over a year and were much more on top of the visa game. While it was at difficult and expensive for me a Brit to get visas for Iran and the Central Asian countries, there is no doubt it would be 10 times more difficult the other way around, and to the extent I couldn’t really complain.
There were many exciting times on this trip but a few stand out: Final night before entering Iran in Doguabayzit,,Turkey Ararat in view out the guest house window, first day in Iran blitzing it through the rush hour traffic, arriving in the ancient Silk Road towns of Uzbekistan (Tajikistan), entering China, cycling through the luscious valleys of South China, and North Vietnam, and others which I was thinking about in bed the other day but I can’t remember now. Soon after I left in dawned on me how good it would have been to document the whole thing using a GoPro camera. It would have made for a nice fast-forward Youtube video. Actually I think I met one couple who were doing just this, but I need to track down their blog to check if this is true.
On a personal level one of the most interesting things I found about cycle touring is the headspace you enter into after around the 120km mark. It’s something I experienced just a handful of times on this trip but essentially it is a different level of consciousness, like you have climbed above the day to day noise and attained a higher of clarity of thought. So something like a cross between the runner’s high, and a meditative trance state. May sound like nonsense, but I’m sure endurance athletes experience the same thing….
I’ve often wondered during this trip what the ideal amount of time to do a cycle tour is. I met some people who were doing just a one month tour of the Pamirs, others who were doing a four month tour, many who were doing a similar thing to me, and then a few people who were doing mammoth multiple year tours. I don’t really think there’s an answer to the question ‘cos it depends on so many factors but I think you need more than four months to really get into it. An interesting feature of travelling is the transitory nature of relationships. In any of the places I hung around in for a week or more it felt great to nurture longer lasting relationships with people even if it was just a nod of acknowledgement with the old lady down the road you bought some eggs off the other day.
Favourite country: Iran. Why? Because this was the country I had most contact with the people and it was the most significantly different culturally speaking of any countries I had ever been to up until that point. Had I cycled more of Turkey then I’m sure that would have been in the running for favourite country but I just didn’t spend enough time there to soak it up properly. Iran was doubly interesting because it shattered so many preconceptions I had of the country. I was pretty ignorant about a lot of places I cycled through on this trip (and still am) but there is a certain feedback loop in that I am now eager to learn much more about the history, the culture, and politics of all the places I travelled through. One thing which was interesting travelling through the Middle East, and further East into Asia was witnessing the non-Euro centrism of news, politics, and discussion.
The International Bogeyman Phenomenon: It was funny how wherever I travelled I was always warned by others about the people in the next place. In Turkey ‘watch out for the Kurds’, in Kurdish Turkey, the Kurds: ‘Watch out for the Iranians’, in Iran, the Iranians: ‘watch out for the Turkmen’ and so on and so forth the whole way. That’s no joke it really continued through every country including England and France (watch out for the French Farmers!), and even Islands in Thailand (watch out for people in the next bay – they’ll ‘ave ya). Now there are of course places you would be a fool to go cruising around on a bike. Certain areas in South Pakistan, South East Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few. But what shocked me was how many travellers were travelling to these countries in the first place. The world is surely a lot more friendly and welcoming then a fixation on Western media might lead you to believe.
Looking back over a few previous posts it’s a clear that I could have done with an editor to correct the spelling mistakes, repeated words, and discombobulated half-sentences. Most of the posts were bashed out late at night before getting up early the next morning so you’ll have to forgive that. It’s been an interesting experience writing this blog, if at times a little head-doing and stressful. Towards the end when I was following a very well-trodden tourist trail it started to feel a bit like having to do my homework hence the drop in enthusiasm over the last two months.. You have of course been reading the censored version of events for the last 9 months, and the really best bits you’ll have to speak to me about in person one day. Before leaving I read a few other peoples blogs which gave a day by day account of what they got up to ‘Today I cycled 101km, it was hard, there were lots of hills, the sun was shining and it was very hot’..’Today I cycled 79km, it was even harder, the hills were steeper, the sun was stronger…’ so on & so forth ad nauseam. I’m sure I didn’t get it right every time, but I tried to select the more interesting stories to come out of my adventure although naturally there were a trillion and one things which didn’t make it onto the blog. I must have been given nearly a dozen blog addresses by various cyclists I met and I look forward to having a proper read of those once I get back. For now though I’m gonna sit out the rest of my time on various islands in Thailand before returning to the UK. Unfortunately I got my iPod nicked back in Hanoi so that was all the statistics, notes, unique photos/videos, and contacts from the whole trip lost. So if I met you on my trip and you were expecting to hear from me when I got back then I’m really really sorry about that. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and some of the funny/stupid/boring stories to come out of it. I want to say a big thank you to all those who took the trouble to leave comments over the months….
JFK once said ‘nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride’. I’m not sure that statement is universal but he was definitely onto something. To wake up most days for the best part of a year and think ‘All im gonna do today is cycle wherever I want to cycle’ was a fantastic and liberating feeling. I would have liked to continue onwards to New Zealand, or possibly deeper into Malaysia and to Singapore, but Thailand certainly isn’t a bad place to finish this adventure. I realise I haven’t got round to putting the photos up from some of the more interesting places I visited on this tour. For those of you who have subscribed I’m sure you will get a notification, otherwise just check back in about a month. Tonight is half-moon which means there is a certain party happening here on this island in so I’m off to see it lives up to its reputation…
So once again, thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed, and see you soon.