As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, my goal for 2013 is to become fluent in Farsi (Persian) by the end of the year.
A big part of this attempt, I previously wrote, would be done by totally immersing myself in the language on trips to Iran, a country to which this footloose Brit now has strong personal ties (watch the film to find out exactly how this happened).
I’m now coming to the end of my first journey in Iran, and there’ll be plenty of stories appearing on this blog over the next few weeks, as well some interesting and unexpected observations that have come out of my experiments in learning a foreign language through travel itself.
But in the meantime, allow me to whet your appetite with a handful of pictures that may hint at the kind of escapades I’ve been up to…
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1. Get a bicycle. It doesn’t really matter which one, as long as it’s comfortable, but you won’t get far without it.
2. Quit your job. You’ll need a few years for this, so write a letter to your boss explaining that you’re sorry but there’s something you have to do. (Skip this step if you are a student/unemployed/retired.)
3. Leave. You can’t cycle round the world without setting off. So strap a tent and sleeping bag to your bike, ask the neighbour to look after the cat, and pedal away from home.
Once you have accomplished the above three steps, the rest will work itself out.
Optional, additional steps
Do research. You could spend several months collecting information about border crossings, visas, equipment, routes, seasons, budgets and timescales. But equally you could leave now, take it day by day and figure these things out on the road, trusting that instinct and initiative (and free wifi) will serve you better in the long run than an encyclopedic knowledge of international bureaucracy.
Train. You could get a gym membership and a personal trainer and join a local cycling club and spend several months building up fitness, just like real athletes do. Alternatively, you could attain an equal (or higher) level of fitness by cycling all day, every day, during your first few weeks on the road.
Spend time saving money. You could put tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros in the bank to create a feeling of security. Or your could sell everything you own right now, set off at the end of your notice period, and then simply avoid buying anything. You’ll sleep rough, eat bread and jam and fruit off trees, Couchsurf, accept all invitations, and avoid sightseeing (you can do that when you retire). When you’re low on cash, simply use the skills you didn’t know you had to earn more locally.
Plan a route. You could spend a long time poring over maps at home so you’ll know exactly where you’re going every day. Alternatively, since the beauty of the bicycle is in the freedom it affords its rider, you could simply leave on a compass bearing or a whim and see where the road takes you, since it doesn’t really matter where you are as long as you’re moving.
Start a website, Twitter account and Facebook page. You could get up to speed on websites and blogging and social media and use all of these things to communicate your journey in real-time from the road. Or you could take this rare opportunity to reduce your online obligations to zero and experience life on Earth instead. (You can tell the story better later anyway.)
Hustle for sponsorship. You could spend months drafting proposals and cold-calling companies in search of sponsorship. Or you could spend the same months working overtime to buy the same stuff. Then, when you change your plans or fall in love, it won’t matter to anyone other than you.
Attach a ’cause’ to your ride. You could decide to set a fundraising target for a charity, possibly for a genuinely personal reason but more likely because you feel you should justify taking a few years off being a responsible hard-working citizen. Or you could decide that travel needs no justification and that the long-term benefits of doing it can’t be measured (least of all financially).
Get media coverage. You could contact local and national press with details of your epic undertaking. Or you could prefer to think that the freedom you wanted from cycle touring feels more real when nobody is watching (and when you’re not obliged to send press releases from your tent when you’d rather be reading Kerouac).
Burn all your bridges. You could sell your house, fire your boss, divorce your husband/wife and children and leave with a gigantic middle finger attached to the back of your bike. Alternatively, you couldtransform your work and family life into something that can be sustained long-term, both on the road and if/when your ride comes to an end.
Aim to break a record. You could attempt to set a new world record for cycling round the world. Or you could remember that you were never an athlete anyway, that the point of cycling was the independence and flexibility it’d give you, and that you’d rather enjoy the ride than planning it to end as quickly as possible.
Measure statistics. You could aim to keep a daily count of your distance, altitude, average speed, air pressure, etcetera, in order to try and quantify your success. Or you could decide that the distance you’ve pedalled has as much relevance to success as the colour of your increasingly-grubby T‑shirt, and that without numbers to think about you can better concentrate on how you’re actually feeling about things right now.
Set an end date. You could plan to hit a series of global milestones in order to arrive back home at a premeditated point in time. Alternatively, you could realise that if you learn anything on the road it’ll likely change you; that your global milestones might one day not make sense any more, that ‘coming back’ might become an equally irrelevant idea, or that — shock horror — you might even get bored of pedalling altogether.
Actually cycle round the world. You could actually finish what you foolishly started all those years ago, which would be a fantastic example of concept winning over experience. Or you could quit being stubborn and allow your journey could grow in unpredictable ways, resulting in your route looking less like a neat line across continents and more like Mr Messy.
There are so many ways to make long-term adventure cycling more complicated than it could be.
For certain individuals, added complexities may be entirely relevant. To take my own example, it made complete sense to start a blog, because I wanted to write and a public blog was a means to hold myself accountable and combat my own laziness.
Nowadays, as a result of having that outlet, I write for the love of it. I’m inspired by my subject. I loved every minute of the two years I spent crafting my first book (and even when I hated it, I loved it). I’d still write if the blog didn’t exist and all I had was a diary.
But for every would-be bicycle traveller for whom extra steps are relevant, there are a hundred others who’ve kept it simple and thus you’ve never heard of, who have no blogs or Instagram accounts and simply write to their families from Internet cafes every couple of weeks.
These invisible travellers, happily doing their own thing and beholden to no-one, actually constitute the majority of long-term touring cyclists, though you’d hardly know it from surfing the web. And that why surfing the web, for a would-be long-term bicycle traveller, is dangerous.
The single biggest danger of the extra steps so often seen and suggested is that they introduce spiralling complexity and thus increase the chances of a dream journey never happening.
Part of the problem is the nature of the Internet itself – it’s incredibly easy to have the idea, Google it, and immediately get so bogged down in the details of the way Celebrity Cyclist X did it that the original idea is lost.
I see this every November, when I spend a weekend hanging out at the Royal Geographical Society’s expedition-planning conference, Explore, in London. My unofficial job at Explore is to tell legions of would-be adventure cyclists that they don’t need to come to Explore to plan their cycling adventure; they just need to get on a bike and go.
It’s a bizarre and circular arrangement, but it seems to work as I invariably get emails from people on the road, months down the line, saying thanks for advice which was just a restatement of the time-honoured KISS principle.
It’s also been difficult to ignore the growing number of high-profile cycling expeditions that – according to their own definitions of success – fail. Institutions are built, grand achievements are pointed to… and then the complex concepts fail to live up to the experience, which in reality is about as simple as life ever gets.
Most of those journeys start as simple dreams to go and let loose on a bike for a while and see what happens. Unnecessary complications too often bring them down.
So for god’s sake don’t imitate what you see on Instagram. If you’ve got the dream, take steps 1 to 3, then enjoy the ride. Only take extra steps if they really, really, really make sense to you.