A big dose of inspiration today from unlikely Canadian bicycle traveller Megan Jamer. I’m a real sucker for stories in which an unsuspecting individual walks headlong into a chance set of circumstances that result in them unexpectedly embarking on a cycling adventure they never planned to have. When I met Megan in Yerevan a few weeks ago, I asked her to contribute hers. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a breath of fresh air from those over-planned, over-branded and over-hyped tales of world domination by bicycle…
A few minutes in China was all it took to travel from Kyrgyzstan to Armenia on a bicycle.
Well… kind of.
I Was Backpacking:
I was in the midst of chasing new experiences with a backpack and minimal scheduling. An untethering of this nature was new to me, and we courted in a manner that was slow but persistent. Hiking at home in Canada first led to a group trek in Taiwan, apprehensive as I was of obtaining permits and getting lost. Later, want of freedom in the Philippines begot buying a boat with a ship-savvy mechanic. The terror of living on a leaking fishing vessel in late typhoon season was palpable, but the enchantment of independence won out. Shortly after a return to land and solitude, a travel memoir motivated me to ride long overnight trains towards China’s northwest. This union of transportation and experience was distinct in that the route was strictly defined by the metal tracks. In lieu of navigational freedom it was the anonymity, the chaos and the opportunity for observing humanity in close quarters that stirred me instead.
Just before deciding to try traveling by bicycle, this drawing of inspiration from others to explore new things led me to join a hitchhiker bound for the China-Kazakhstan border. This was two days and six hundred kilometres fraught with freedom, frustration and fear. Beyond that? Glee. To meet someone and impulsively change course, I now was one to revel in permitting myself this luxury. At the border we parted and I remained in China. Hitchhiking, previously categorized in my mind as reckless, had shown me a degree of nuance. Memories had been made of experiences I’d previously never thought of trying. It was this mindset that joined me in a chance meeting with Ilona, a twenty-two year old traveling from Australia to Uzbekistan… on a bicycle.
In Canada, bicycle-intensive activities were something I generally turned down. Wasting away on the balcony, my hand-me-down steed braved Calgary’s no-bravery-required bike paths seldom in three years. People who cycled to work left me awestruck, but all those metal boxes zooming past I condemned as threatening to my existence, so commuting on foot was how years of Monday-Friday passed. Men who showed up to dates on bicycles, this endeared them to me…but I still chose to walk.
Oh yeah, there were a few times I rode. I rented bicycles of the pay-by-the-hour variety to cruise along Vancouver’s seaside paths in pursuit of mild exertion, Instagram fodder and ice cream. If we were feeling adventurous we’d rent a tandem. One day a friend took me on a mountain biking trail in Alberta that she had first conquered as a nine-year-old. At the age of twenty-five I promptly fell over my handlebars, felt quite sorry for myself, and walked most of the trail. I never admitted fear, but then again, I never tried to mountain bike after that.
A lifestyle involving a bicycle wasn’t something that I had consciously rejected. It did not occur to me to ask the question in the first place. Unconsciously and without debate I had long ago decided that we were incompatible companions.
The possibility finally confronted me on an evening in November. Sitting at my parent’s kitchen table, I was moved out of my apartment and leaving shortly on ‘My Big Trip.’ Doubt wrestled with excitement, and doubt was coming out ahead. The uncertainty was not about departure but about what followed. There was no quandary evident for me in the ‘where’ (westward, starting in Taiwan), ‘what to eat’ (food), or ‘where to stay’ (hostels). By now I’d realized the question of ‘how’ to travel was imminent in my conscious, that it had many answers, but that I didn’t have one. Researching my initial destination led me to digesting blogs about cycling the circumference of Taiwan. Travel by bicycle, I realized, was a ‘how.’ Moreover it was a definite ‘how’ on an island I was about to spend five weeks in.
Almost immediately I turned that ‘how’ down, and the rejection was really easy. ‘I’m not a cyclist, I’m not fit enough, it’s not safe to do alone, I don’t know enough about bicycles. Wait… I don’t know anything about bicycles. Cool idea, but not for me.’ And that, for several months, was that.
The Great Bishkek Gear Get:
If my knowledge of Central Asia had included the Pamir Highway prior to meeting Ilona it was only in a general sense. This ignorance made it easier for me to say ‘yes!’ when she asked me to find a bicycle and join her on a road famous among those who visit the region. Perhaps knowing beforehand that the route offers the humble bicycle traveler poor roads, steep passes, lack of shelter and amenities, fickle weather, over 4000 metres of altitude and close proximity to the Afghanistan border would have put me off. By put me off, I mean would have terrified me. By the time the impending doom of the elevation profile and the term ‘Wakhan Valley’ were up on my iPad it was too late – I was in Kyrgyzstan and I was committed.
About ten days were spent in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to get me equipped and obtain onward visas for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Although there were delightful moments during the ‘Great Gear Get,’ it also kind of sucked. There were several decisions to be made that I deemed myself highly unqualified to weigh in on, even though they were mine alone to make. Those around me did much to assist and bolster my confidence, but it wavered.
Before sorting out bags for the bicycle, a bicycle was required. Before choosing a bicycle there was the decision of what type, and considerable uncertainty as to what would even be available in a Central Asian capital. No ‘proper touring bicycles,’ I was assured. On more than one occasion our hosts took Ilona and I to see used mountain bikes of the entry-level variety. ‘It’s your decision, how does it feel?’ I was asked. To me, a bicycle was a bicycle was a bicycle – it had a saddle and two wheels, how was it supposed to feel besides mildly uncomfortable? As those present watched me test ride out on the driveway, all I could think about was hiding from them my incompetence – I’d forgotten how to shift gears properly. Nathan, Angie, Isa, Christoph, Ilona. Their belief in me was standing in for belief in myself. Was I in over my head?
Ilona offered minimal equipment decision-making assistance but this was, perhaps counterintuitively, a source of confidence and inspiration for me. I’d arrived in Bishkek with a bias, passed on from other bicycle travellers, that I needed this, that, all those other things, and don’t even bother without a Brooks saddle. By contrast Ilona had been making her way, a very long way, on a salvaged old mountain bicycle. Her kit list featured cheap Chinese imitation outerwear, no GPS (except for China) or laptop, frayed bungee cords, no shampoo, a colourful handlebar basket, no Goretex, stitched-up baggy pants found in a building and a disconcertingly rusted cooking pot. She was the antithesis of any notion that bicycle travel required a certain standard of or knowledge about equipment. She was resourceful, she was frugal and she made work whatever she could get her hands on. Instead of weighing in on the worthiness of Schwalbe versus Continental, her advice was: Whatever. Get what you can, don’t spend more than you really need to, we’ll make it work.
I left my beloved MEC backpack and many of my clothes behind in Bishkek at our hosts’ place. The reasoning was that perhaps this bicycle traveling thing wouldn’t work out for me beyond the six weeks with Ilona. I figured another backpack could be picked up in Uzbekistan. The two of us set off in April through the Pamirs and I’ve been traveling (mostly) by bicycle since. In June Ilona flew home from Uzbekistan and I, somewhat terrified and excited, continued to Kazakhstan and beyond.
It’s not that travel on a bicycle is better, or harder, or cooler than backpacking. They’re different. What I’ve observed is simply that I’m a better version of myself when I’m roaming about on the bicycle as compared to my backpacking self. I’m more open, more relaxed, more ambitious, spend more time out of my comfort zone, and life feels simpler. And the freedom of having your own wheels – it’s addicting.
Why did I suddenly say yes to bicycles, in a pretty big way? After all, weren’t they something I had previously said no to? I lack an exacting answer; It felt right in the moment. There was barely any analysis, I just said yes in those few minutes that Ilona and I first met and then chatted at a hostel in China. All the rest, the traveling on a bicycle from Kyrgyzstan to Armenia, has largely been inertia stemming from that initial decision.
Here is what I know. Over the course of time spent traveling, my choices led me further and farther out of my comfort zone. It was a gradual process, but devoid of the expectations and boundaries self-imposed at home, I’d become better at challenging what might be possible. With a change in place and people came a change in perspective. With a change in perspective came a change in the assumptions that went into informing my decisions. This made it much easier to say yes to things I’d have previously rejected.
With all this appeared a powerful rush from agreeing to undertakings that I didn’t know much about. Usually there wasn’t a fallback plan, and so appeared accountability and having to just figure it out. To say that satisfaction and confidence accompanied this process shouldn’t come as a big surprise. This self-imposed accountability was not, for whatever reason, a hallmark of the life I led in Canada. This process and positive feedback in turn serves to push me to consider other types of experiences – cycling and otherwise.
Let me draw on my own experiences and humbly propose this: By allowing for that first opportunity to surprise yourself, you may be even more surprised by what (or where) that can lead to.
Many ‘adventurous activities’ do not require the amount of equipment, time, preparation or finances that many would lead you to believe. Moreover, the perception of these as barriers to entry causes many, myself included, to delay or deny trying something like traveling on a bicycle.
Even if you have the option to splash out on a dream kit I’d argue to contemplate withholding, at least initially. For context, finances aren’t a barrier for me and I’ve just upgraded my camping stuff and outwear to camp comfortably through the winter. But for several months Ilona and I, together and separately made out just fine with inexpensive gear and a paper map. Ilona and her philosophy taught me about resourcefulness and – believe it or not – the peace of mind that can come from having simple stuff that’s simple to fix or replace, and less upset when it breaks.
There are some circumstances where lacking equipment can put your life at risk. But many other times, not knowing the way because you don’t have navigation stuff, or not knowing where you’ll sleep, or having nothing packed to eat or insufficient water helps nudge you towards opportunities to engage with people you meet. Being in a position to lean on hospitality or perhaps a bit of ‘VPS’* (Vocal Positioning System: Saying the name of the town you’re heading towards and smiling helplessly while pointing in random directions), these circumstances do not make you weak and unprepared. I’d argue they make you adaptable, open-minded, and an active participant in someone’s life you otherwise might have cycled by.
Sounds Great, But Isn’t It… Hard?
There’s been moments of pain, fear, loneliness, harassment, confusion, sadness, failure, heartache, frustration, uncertainty, exhaustion, illness and filth. Some of this I experienced backpacking, and some I hadn’t. But the hardest part for me hasn’t been any of those things – although they’ve been hard. What I found most difficult was first quitting my job and walking away from the only type of life known to me.
There’s also been moments of tranquility, surprise, understanding, joy, solitude, humility, ecstasy, learning, laughter, accomplishment, pride, companionship and excitement. But the best part for me hasn’t been any of that – although they’ve been pretty awesome. The best part for me is that a year after leaving home, I’m now immersed in an experience and a mindset wholly outside of what I was previously capable of even imagining for myself. To say that there’s no telling what will happen next now fills me (most of the time) with excitement and motivation, not trepidation and doubt. All I know about the times ahead are that they’ll involve a bicycle and heading west.
* Thank you to Jonny Stockwell for the genius term VPS
Thanks, Megan! You can catch the whole story and follow her continuing adventures on her blog, meganjamer.com. And if you’ve got an inspirational cycle touring story you’d like to share on this site, do get in touch!