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Country Guides Guest Posts

Brutal Indonesia: Cycle Touring Sulawesi On Folding Bikes

This is a guest post by Marco Ferrarese. I met Marco on the road last year in Armenia and knew a fellow free spirit when I saw one. Turns out his back catalogue of adventures is fascinating, and he’s a damn fine writer too. So when I heard he was off on his first unplanned bike trip – on a folding bike across Sulawesi – and since we’ve been on the subject of cycle touring in southeast Asia recently, I invited him to tell us about it here.

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“I… can… do… it!!!”

Even my thoughts were exhausted. I was pushing up the umpteenth hill, which had come after yet another mountain, in an interminable series of harsh slopes I had to endure on my short bike tour of central Sulawesi: a very hard place for a biker’s maiden voyage.

The day before, as I started cycling from the small town of Ampana, the landing point for most travellers bound for the Togian Islands, I had seen a huge poster advertising a “Tour De Central Celebes”. The route I’d decided to take was the same chosen to host an international cycling race just a couple weeks before. Days later, a local told me that an American cyclist had puked midway, stopping for the day as the ride was too tough.

It became clear as I pushed on my tiny foldable pedals, inching my way up the umpteenth bend, that this wasn’t the best place for a total cycle touring newbie. Especially a total newbie on a tiny folding bicycle.

Why cycling in Indonesia, of all things?

Let me rewind and tell you a bit about myself. I am Marco Ferrarese, a travel writer, and I’ve spent 10 years living, studying and researching in Asia. “Travel writer” sounds quite pompous and fancy, for sure, but among my modest achievements I do have bylines in the Guardian, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, Nikkei Asian Review, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and more airline magazines that I can remember.

I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, on the beautiful and historically rich island of Penang in Malaysia, for a decade. I pour some of that knowledge in a series of guidebooks to Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, which I co-author for the Rough Guides, one of the world’s leading travel publishers.

My wife, Malaysian-Chinese photographer Kit Yeng Chan, was on another folding bike. Kit and I have travelled together for the best part of the above mentioned decade, before we married last year. Since meeting her in 2008, we have visited more than 30 countries together, overlanding from Asia to Europe twice. We have always travelled by hitchhiking or using trains and public transport.

Cycle touring has been at the back of our minds for years, but for one reason or another – i.e. carrying expensive photography gear on assignment – we never really decided to do it. I, like many others I guess, stumbled upon Tom’s three steps to cycling around the world and totally loved the simplistic attitude. As a former metalpunk guitarist and cockroach Asia Old Hand, it was exactly what I had been doing for a decade, sans the bike.

I was lucky enough to cross paths with Tom last year in Armenia as Kit and I journeyed from Iran to Italy overland to get married. After meeting up, my desire for cycle touring grew stronger and stronger. On the eve of yet another research trip – this time to ride a Phinisi live-aboard boat across the eastern Indonesian islands – we decided to do it.

We bought two 14-speed, 20″-wheel folding bikes… and that was it, because we didn’t even have the time to find helmets, let alone panniers. We got some bungee cords, a sun hat in place of a helmet, a few big plastic bags (that’s waterproofing for the real adventurer), and off we went. We thought that, with a bit of willpower and figuring out things as we went, touring on folding bikes should be totally possible. And besides the bloody Sulawesi mountains, it sure was.

Cycling in remote Sulawesi: some important basics

Think of Indonesia and images of Bali’s trash-cluttered beaches or Java’s horrible traffic and mind-boggling temples may come to mind. Sulawesi is an entirely different kind of beast.

Possibly the oddest-shaped island in the world, as it looks like a letter ‘K’ with a very long upper arm, Sulawesi’s beauty is the fact it’s well off the tourist radar. Its people are the most welcoming blend of Christians – particularly in the northern region of Manado – and Muslims, and you won’t find many English speakers here. The good thing is that basic Bahasa Indonesia is pretty easy to master, and you’ll be able to communicate simply in no time. A little bit of language here goes a very long way, and you’ll have a much better experience.

Sulawesi’s nature and topography are its second perk: mountains spread from the centre all over the island, nestling almost all the way to the coasts – which are endless, pristine, and uncontaminated. Hundreds of kilometres of perfect coves, beaches and offshore islands, palm-fringed and inviting, wait for you round all corners. Throw in some endemic monkeys, such as the Macaca Nigra (remember the monkey selfie? Yes, that one) and plenty of birds, and you get a timeless Southeast Asian experience. Forget the 7/11s, clean bedsheets and Wi-Fi: this is another world.

The part of Sulawesi we cycled, starting in Ampana and proceeding 200km south along the western side of Poso Lake, Indonesia’s third-biggest, has recently recovered from a religious inter-ethnic conflict, which came to an end in 2011. It’s safe again now, but the reputation doesn’t attract many travellers, who usually zoom from famous Tanah Toraja to Ampana and jump on the first boat to the Togian islands. Big mistake, for the Poso region may as well be the hidden gem in Sulawesi’s crown.

One last hint regarding Sulawesi’s food: it’s generally tasty and cheap, but, like eastern Indonesian food in general, it relies heavily on rice and fish. If you are a vegetarian you may have a bit of a hard time finding different options rather than the same tempe (a crunchy soy bean derivate, very delicious) and kailan (local green veggies) every day.

Pros of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. The biggest plus has got to be the friendly people who are genuinely curious about foreigners, and are always ready to help. We cycled for five days and, even having camping equipment, we always ended up staying with locals. Either we slept in their homes or camped in their gardens, they always had some food and drinks to offer. Which doesn’t mean you should come prepared to exploit the people of Sulawesi, rather that you can be more relaxed in terms of carrying provisions, for hospitality here is very genuine.
  2. Again, speaking a bit of the language is helpful to open more of the doors. We found most people of all age groups to be very curious about us, and open to share what they had. Make sure that, whenever you enter a village, you visit the ‘kepala desa’ (village chief) and explain your intentions. Most of the time, you will be automatically invited to pitch your tent or stay in a local home. If you travel as an unmarried couple, I believe it pays to say you are married, especially in those Muslim villages that may shun you if you don’t. Best keep any Western pride at home and respect local sensitivities.
  3. Point one also means that food is available in most villages en route, and you will never cycle for more than 20km without some sign of civilisation.
  4. There are more ‘bengkel’ than food shops. ‘Bengkel’ are motorcycle workshops, and we used them all the time to check and fix the bikes. I had three punctures, and each time, one of these shops fixed it quickly for a mere 5,000 to 10,000 Rupiahs (0.30 to 0.60 USD). Again, people are friendly, and will go out of their way to make sure you and your vehicle are safe and sound.

Cons of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. It’s very hot. You will have to start as early as possible and stop by midday, or you’ll risk heatstroke. Sunset comes early at around 6 to 6:30 pm, meaning that riding time is limited to a minimum, unless you scoot out of bed at 5 am like most locals.
  2. The roads are quite well maintained, but turn into gravel the more you proceed around the lake itself.
  3. There are no bicycle shops outside of Manado and Makassar, both hundreds of kilometres away.
  4. You will not learn anything about fixing and maintaining your bike, because people will do it for you!

Cycle touring with folding bicycles

Call me a wuss because I only cycled 200km and then put the bike on top of a shared taxi to get to the next stop. In my defence, I’m pushing 40, and although I’m modestly fit, the terrain of Sulawesi is harsh. We never started this trip with the obsession that we had to cycle every inch of the way – we just wanted to have a good time, trying something we never tried before.

But it turned out that, besides having 10kg of luggage strapped with flimsy cords on top of the rear rack, a 20″-wheel folding bike can do the job quite happily. The bikes (Exitway March and Nevada models) felt quite sturdy, were easy enough to tighten up when the joints felt wobbly, and most important, folded in less than 10 seconds. This last part impressed us as much as the locals.

Also, locals had never seen a folding bike before, and this added to our killer surprise effect. The local kids would follow us on their cranky little bikes as far as the remotest limits of their villages. Village headmen would look at our rides with faces so pitiful; the next thing we knew their wives were coming with hot food and drinks. And the coffee is delicious over there. And of course it was very easy to fold the bikes and transport them on the many boats we took prior to reaching Sulawesi.

Because of pure physics, a folding bike usually means fewer gears, and less mileage because of smaller wheels. I am convinced that, if I’d had a regular touring bike, the task of knocking off those mountain passes would have been more merciful.

But the key, as I anticipated earlier, was embracing flexibility more than anything else: we started our trip in Makassar, took a 4‑day ferry ride all the way to West Papua, and from there hopped on the Phinisi back to the Moluccas. There was so much water in between the land we explored that a regular touring bike would have been a pain in the neck to lug around.

In conclusion

We would have been able to continue on the folding bikes much further if we had had more time and preferably better gear – at the very least a pair of proper panniers. Tying the luggage to the rear rack every morning was such a sweaty waste of time. We will test the folders again in peninsular Malaysia, on pretty flat terrain, to see how far they can actually take us on less taxing road conditions.

Until then, my final message is that I vouch for doing whatever we set our minds to, rather than argue over the superiority of regular or folding bikes. I don’t care, to be honest. I feel fortunate enough to have decided to go, and tested first hand that Tom’s suggestion works: just get a bike and go, and figure out the rest later. Sulawesi proved to be a perfect place, because regardless of the steep terrain, the human element was always there to help.

As for myself, I think that by now, I may be able to change an inner tube – but not like an Indonesian mechanic, oh no. They do it without taking the wheel off, and there’s no way a loser writer like myself will ever master that skill.

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Charlie Guest Posts

The Adventures of Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike: Iceland

This is a guest post from Kelly Diggle, a traveller and blogger who in 2015 became the 4th owner of Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike (read Charlie’s full story here). Here’s her account of pedalling Charlie around the perimeter of Iceland…

In the spring of 2015 I found myself boarding a plane to Spain. It wasn’t for a holiday, however, but to collect Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike. Tegan had recently finished her tour across the country, and now it was my turn to take him on an adventure.

To start, I needed to get him back to England. I deliberately booked my ticket home from a different airport 80km away, and gave myself one day to get there. This mini adventure resulted in getting lost, arriving 3 hours late at my host’s home and then subsequently locking myself in with no food (unless you count a fun-size packet of crunchy nut). But the real adventure was yet to come – a month circumnavigating Iceland alone – was I really cut out for this?!

Finally the time came and I felt as ready as I’d ever be. On the run up to this trip, I’d done everything possible to support the idea that travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. With the main component of my adventure – Charlie — costing no more than £25, surely I could keep costs down elsewhere. I set myself a £1,000 spend limit (flights, food, accommodation, missing gear), which became easy when a friend gave me an iPhone to document with and I spent most of my nights free-camping around the island.

Once again day one proved interesting; I reached Iceland to find Charlie was still in London. Having opted to wrap the bike in a clear plastic travel bag, rather than a box, we had problems fitting him in the scanning machine before departure. Either the man carrying him to the plane got lost, or he couldn’t resist a short tour himself before putting him on a flight a few days later. But of course with dark clouds there is a silver lining. This slight mishap meant I was able to take a bus to the city and avoid the face-on downpour, and I ended up cycling with a hilarious Texan during my first week as our departure day now matched up.

I soon realised that Iceland was a perfect destination for a first-time-tour. The wild camping options were endless, the roads quiet, the scenery stunning and as long as the sea remained on my left; I wasn’t lost. It was thanks to a cut-short trip I took to Iceland the year before that I returned with the idea to see more. Summer was an amazing time to explore, as I had 24 hour daylight and zero worry about time – I could cycle at my own pace, for as long as I wanted.

During the four weeks I experienced many new things and never let the somewhat changeable weather get me down. Well, aside from one day I remember well that had me cycling slower than walking pace face-first in to the wind (on a flat road, I might add). There were highs; climbing dormant volcanoes, swimming in a natural hot river and being invited in by strangers on soaking wet days. Of course there are always low points – that’s why it is called an adventure – but I’ve never been one to focus on them. If anything, I think it is important to turn a low into a funny memory, learn from it or push it aside and make way for the positives.

As it turns out, I was cut out for the trip. I had no previous experience cycle touring or wild camping alone. What I did have however, was sheer determination, enthusiasm and an open mind. My love for cycling has grown hugely, and I learnt many things including; the generosity of strangers and the capabilities of myself. It also prides me to mention that my total outgoings came to just £859 for this 4 week trip.

As for Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike? I got the pleasure of handing him over to Charlie (human) whom recently finished her 8 month tour from England to Hong Kong. Wherever he ends up going next, I can’t wait to continue following his journey, and feel genuinely honoured to be a part of it.

Thanks Kelly! For those interested to read more, do head over to blueyedview.com. By the way, Charlie did indeed make it to Hong Kong, but is now AWOL – the last reported sighting was a few months ago in Southeast Asia. Have you seen him by any chance…?

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Guest Posts

Meditation By Bike: Enjoy The Silence

This is a guest post by James Thomas, whose recent really big bike ride took him on a journey from South East Asia back to the UK via 26 countries. I wrote earlier this year about the parallels between cycle touring and mindfulness, and have long been fascinated with the idea of the long solo journey as a tool for personal exploration. Here, James generously shares his own spiritual experience while riding in India – an experience I am sure will resonate with many who have cycled there.

It was with a feeling of intense trepidation that I approached Dhamma Ganga. That moment in India represented a metaphorical halfway point of my journey around the world by bike. Not a conventional circumnavigation in any respect but a shambling meander across South East Asia up to India then westwards; encountering fading tribal cultures, a handful of prolific mountain ranges and countless smiling faces along the way.

Rosie had wanted a house and a baby, I offered a tent and a bike. Rosie was still in London. This journey would be made alone. I had become used to my solitary life on the road, took some pleasure in it even. A spartan life of few possessions and abundant freedom. I had everything I needed strapped onto the bike; I had clothes for hot and cold, could cook for myself and had my tent for shelter; I was totally self sufficient. I’d begun to enjoy the silence.

It was ten months since I’d left England. I was now in Kolkota at Vipassana Kendra to attend a ten day silent meditation course. Rosie had attended a course some years ago in Australia and said that it was worth checking out. Beyond that I really didn’t know what to expect but despite my mild anxiety about availability of calories and sitting still for upwards of eleven hours a day, was open minded about what was to come.

When I read through the five precepts of Vipassana I realised with a wry irony that I’d been keeping them pretty closely for the past few months, three at least, maybe even four. I hadn’t been intoxicated with drink or drugs, lied, had sex or stolen anything and I don’t remember killing anyone either. Naturally, I felt more than a bit smug with this, importantly, I felt ready. This would be my first meditation and it appeared that I’d prepared myself rather well.

The first three days were spent perfecting Anapana breathing; cultivating an awareness of breath around the entrance of the nostrils and upper lip; this too was something I was already doing, not specifically focussing on the area above the upper lip but certainly I was aware of breath more than usual due to the aerobic respiration needed for long distance cycling; big climbs particularly induced a trance like state, similarly I imagined, to that of a meditation. I was on a roll.

The meditation itself focuses on the awareness of sensations of the body, by working from head to toe with the same level of concentration used in Anapana breathing to recognise different sensations throughout the body. The law of nature (Dhamma) says that these sensations are temporary, impermanent and therefore will pass. The key to the Vipassana technique is to observe without judgement or reaction when you become aware of experiencing any sensation, pleasant or otherwise.

Through this dedicated mental alertness and observation you are able to cut straight to the root of any and all cravings. Cravings are the cause of all unhappiness. End craving, live happy. A simple theory, tough in practice. Very tough indeed.

For ten days my mind wandered violently through the myriad thoughts and feelings buried deep in my subconscious. I’d walked away from a successful career, I was worrying my family with wild notions of uncertain outcome, and I’d broken up a loving relationship with a great woman- all that, to go on a bike ride. What was I doing? Each time I realised that I’d strayed, I brought my awareness back to the fleeting sensations passing through my body, the rhythmic repetition of breath, slowly but surely cleansing my ego of all craving.

The two final teachings on the tenth day of the course explained the principle of Metta and Dana. Metta means spending a few minutes at the end of each meditation fostering intentions of goodwill towards others. Dana simply means sharing that goodwill with others. It was this strand of Vipassana that really hit home.

Throughout this journey I’d been at the mercy of strangers time and again; in each instance I’d been treated kindly; taken into family homes for a hot meal, offered a bed for the night- it was extraordinary to encounter such kindness in every country I’d passed through — it was something to be thankful for. Yet, this unyielding generosity was not unusual, it was the norm. People are good. Smile and the world smiles with you. It may be a cliche, but it’s true.

The teaching of Dhamma and the Vipassana technique had reinforced my experiences from the road. I left the centre feeling elated, high even. For the first time I could see things as they really were. After months of challenging cycling, personal sacrifice and untold hardships, seeking the simple life, I’d found peace in the law of nature. My first meditative steps towards a happy life had been generous strides all because Vipassana and long distance cycling were such happy bedfellows. I continued my journey on the road headed west, to see the world on its own terms and to pass on the infectious enthusiasm found in traveling by bike. I set up camp that night with a feeling of optimism for what was to come — the long road to happiness.

Thanks James! Anyone in the UK interested in following up with the practices described here might find this link useful. James continues to blog at reallybigbikeride.com.

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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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Introducing CyclingTouring.org, A Social Network For Solo Cycle Tourists To Find Partners In Adventure

Today’s Q&A‑style guest post comes from Pete Ashford, founder of CyclingTouring.org, a new (free) social networking website aimed at finding cycle touring partners to join your trip wherever and whenever you happen to be riding.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I have been riding bikes all my life – BMXs, mountain bikes, road bikes, single speed, just about anything with two wheels. I dream about bikes, I scan the internet for them, I read cycling books/magazines, I listen to podcasts… at the moment I’m wondering if I need a fold up bike, just because I think they look cool and great fun to ride!

So I’m pretty obsessed with these two wheeled, pedal powered modes of transport. They make me happy. I think everyone should ride them, especially when it comes to travelling and discovering new places.

What is CyclingTouring.org and why did you start it?

The idea came to me whilst cycling alone one morning. It was early in the morning and shortly after packing up camp, I was looking for a bakery to feed me some great pastries.

Leading up to this tour, I had been chatting to a friend about joining me. It seemed like he wanted to come along on his first tour. I talked about not needing all the gear and his old mountain bike would be fine, making the point that cycle touring can be cheap to get started. Not long after, the excuses started to come and I knew that was the end of that. I didn’t push it and went alone.

Anyway, in a space of half an hour, I came across two separate people riding along on their touring bikes, fully laden with all the kit. They were clearly on an adventure, like me, and were also by themselves, like me.

I’m pretty comfortable in my own company for long periods of time. But not everyone is. I thought that there must be plenty of other people who’d had similar experiences to me – people who wanted to go cycle touring, but couldn’t find anyone to go with them. That’s where the initial idea came from.

What’s the goal of CyclingTouring.org and how does it work?

The simple goal is to bring people together to share their cycle touring adventures. It’s free for anyone to use, and it’s fun and engaging.

I haven’t just created a simple forum where people post about their cycle tour, though. That’s been done before. I wanted a social web site that is simple to use. I also wanted a big map of cycle tours, as well as a well formatted list of available tours to join.

These initial ideas turned into two key functions for the site. The first allows people to upload details of their own planned cycling tour. Complete a simple form with some basic details; it is then approved and added to the list of tours which are neatly displayed on a world map and central list that can be filtered. People can register interest in joining you, and exchange messages to sort out the details before meeting up.

The second is for cyclists already out on a tour. Riders log on and pin their current or future location on a map, including details of what they are up to and where they are heading to. These pins are visible on a world map for people to view. Anyone interested in meeting up clicks a ‘Contact’ button, exchanges messages and meets up.

This is great for people who don’t necessarily want to spend a whole tour with one person and maybe fancy some company for part of the trip, or for people who didn’t manage to find someone to join them from the start.

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How has the project been received so far?

The site went live 8 weeks ago and since then always has around 20 cycle tours available to join at any given time. The positive feedback from people has been awesome and it is great to see people using the services.

Over the past few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to receive help from some experienced cycle tourists. Positive words on social media is an amazing thing that brings the site to the attention of far more people.

My aim is eventually to bring the site to each and every cycle tourist. We need people to spread the word about what we do; to share it with friends, family, local bike clubs and anyone who likes cycling. It isn’t just about experienced cycle tourists either – if we can engage newly converted cycle tourists too, then that would be great.

Who is the site aimed at?

Anyone! Really, anyone can be involved. You don’t have to be die hard lycra-clad cyclist with a garage full bicycles. All you need is a desire to travel, a bicycle and some basic kit.

Multi month/year adventures are not the only kind of cycle touring, so the site is aimed at all kinds of tour. Even a single ride in a new area could count as a cycle tour. It’s about exploring on your bicycle, not how far you travel, and sometimes that can mean a quick night away cycling somewhere new.

Why should people join?

Anyone with a passion for cycle touring should sign up and give it a go. You’ll make new friends, and it is highly likely you will find someone to share in your next great adventure.

Whether you’re going for a 1‑night tour in the local area, stepping out on a year long adventure across a continent, or you have a touring holiday idea that you cannot buy anywhere, being a member of CyclingTouring.org will almost certainly help you connect with like-minded people.

Where is the project going from here?

Promoting what we do is taking much of my time right now. I’m always looking at new areas to encourage people to get into cycle touring – for example, people taking gap years. What a great to spend a year out that would be!

Ultimately, I want the site to become a hub for people to hook up and go cycle touring together, exchange touring photos/videos, talk cycle touring and tell the world about their cycle tours. Cycle touring is cool and I want everyone to share it!

Thanks Pete! Check out his excellent project and join up for free at CyclingTouring.org. You can also connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.