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Guest Posts Inspiration

The Inspirational Story Of Megan And Her Totally Unplanned Central Asian Bike Trip

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…

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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.

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(Why) Not?

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.

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A Change: 

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.

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Just Go:

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.

Well, probably…

* Thank you to Jonny Stockwell for the genius term VPS

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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!

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News

What are your adventure cycling plans for 2016?

Over the recent holiday season, I’m sure your mind has wandered towards what 2016 might have in store for you.

Perhaps you’re dreaming up new bicycle expeditions of your own.

Perhaps you’re in the middle of a big cycling journey already. Perhaps you’re happy to continue experiencing vicariously the adventures of others. Or perhaps you’re making your first tentative steps into the world of cycle touring.

Where do you fit into all of this?

(This is not a rhetorical question – I want to hear from you about your plans!)

For TomsBikeTrip.com, this is going to be a year of building on what already exists, developing and creating resources to help others explore the world by bicycle.

Seeing new journeys emerge from the help and advice I’ve published is one of the most rewarding things about what I do for a living. While my two-wheeled travels are nowadays interspersed with other kinds of adventure, I always come back to the bicycle, finding its potential for adventure to be matchless. Continuing to evangelise that is going to be my top priority.

In concrete terms, there’s a new book in the works, due for publication in the first half of the year. While my last two books have been on specialist topics, this one’s going to be a broad introduction to adventure cycling, with the aim of teaching the newcomer what’s possible on two wheels and how to get started. It’ll also be the first physical book I’ll have published since Janapar, professionally designed and including tons of stunning full-colour photography. More news as it comes!

Beyond that, I’ve been looking into using video as a format for new in-depth tutorial material, rather than written word. There are some specialist topics best explained visually – particularly on the mechanical front (there’s a big clue!) – and with my filmmaking background and contacts it makes a lot of sense to put these two things together.

As for the blog, expect a glut of long-overdue gear reviews of equipment I’ve been field-testing over the last couple of years. There’ll also be plenty more in-depth how-to material, regular news from the evolving (and expanding!) world of bicycle-mounted adventuring, and a few of my own stories (and rants) too.

I’ve no concrete plans for my own year’s trips, but I suspect they’re going to involve continuing to experiment with bikepacking in some of the wild places that have become close to my heart – particularly Armenia and the Caucasus, where I’ll be based for the majority of this year. Again, watch this space.

Do feel free to leave a comment with your own plans for 2016. It’s always good to hear what’s happening in the broader adventure cyclcommunity.

Categories
Janapar The Book

For One Week Only, Get The Kindle Edition Of Janapar For Just 99p

It has been really rewarding to be able to share for free (in serialised form) the entirety of my first book, Janapar, on this blog over the last few weeks. In particular, the comments from readers who the story has resonated with have been a keen reminder of my motivations for penning this complicated tale.

Because I did not write this book in order to become rich and successful. (Trust me, there are far easier ways of doing that.)

No – I wrote it to be read and absorbed; to catalyse journeys that I don’t expect I will ever hear about. I also wrote it because I needed to make sense of my experiences. And I wrote it because it was stories that inspired me to travel in the first place, and the least I can do is throw my own tale back into the melee.

In the vein of lowering the barriers to entry, then, I’ve set up a 1‑week promotion on the UK Kindle edition of the book. This is primarily for readers who a) have recently received, from Santa, a Kindle or other such device, b) missed all or part of the serialisation, and/or c) are actively looking for things with sub-£1 pricetags in the grim aftermath of the festive season.

From now until midnight on Sunday 10th January, Janapar is just 99p on Kindle.

Get it here.

99p is the lowest I can make it without moving it over to the free library and losing all the book’s rankings in the process.

If even a quid is going to be painful to part with, the serialised form is still readable entirely for free, part by part, starting here.

And when you’re done, if I could kindly ask that you leave a short review, that would be just great. 🙂

Categories
Big Adventures Books & Reading Just For Fun Microadventures

3 More Big Bike Trips (& 1 Microadventure) You Can Read For Free On This Blog

Happy New Year! Some more holiday reading material for you today, particularly if you’ve enjoyed reading the free serialisation of my first book Janapar.

Blogging from the road is something I’ve done since the beginning of my travels. The stories that follow have been written and published from the road itself over several years of bicycle adventuring – from roads in Arctic Scandinavia, Canada & the USA, Europe, and most recently my home country, England, which is perhaps the most unusual tale of the lot.

To make reading them in sequence easier, you’ll find navigation buttons after the end of each instalment (just after the sharing buttons – hint!), which will take you directly to the next part.

Enjoy!

Arctic Scandinavia By Bicycle In Midwinter (2011)

Snow coated bike

I decided to post a series of short daily dispatches from my tent on a one-month journey I made in 2011 from Oslo, Norway, up past the Arctic Circle to Bodo, by way of Swedish Lapland. The twist? It was the middle of winter. I wanted to see if it was possible to travel by bike in extreme cold, and if so, what the experience would be like.

Find out by reading the dispatches, starting with Day 1.

Cycling The U.S. West Coast from Vancouver to San Francisco (2012)

Target practice (2)

The USA wasn’t a place I expected to push the boundaries of adventure. But that wasn’t really the point of this two-month ride. My younger brother Ben had emigrated to Vancouver years before, and this shared journey to San Francisco would be a way of getting to know each other again as adults.

Plus – the USA did surprise me after all, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Start reading here.

A Recumbent Microadventure Home From The Netherlands (2013)

The view from my camp in Holland

This journey came about thanks to a wonderfully random and generous offer from a blog reader in the Netherlands. He wanted to give me his spare recumbent bicycle, on one condition: that I collect it from him in person so he could give me a crash-course in riding it.

Obviously it made sense to practice riding recumbent by cycling home to England. Here’s the first in the four-part series telling the story of that very laid-back and strangely retrospective bike trip.

#freeLEJOG – A No-Budget Bike Tour The Length Of Britain (2014)

St Michael's Mount

Bored with hearing people tell me they could never afford to do a big bike trip, I decided to prove the opposite by cycling the length of Britain on the lowest budget imaginable: zero. Not a penny. No credit card as backup. Nothing. And on a bike I rescued from the scrapyard.

It was the scariest and most memorable three weeks of riding I’ve ever done, and by far the steepest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. Read all about it, starting here.

Fancy reading about my non-bike adventures? Check out my other adventure blog, TomAllen.info, where I’ll soon be recounting the various trips that led to my big new project for 2016.