This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.
Getting on a bicycle and going somewhere new is one of the most accessible ways to have an adventure.
It doesn’t need to involve quitting your job, spending years planning, or embarking upon an odyssey of self discovery. It doesn’t need to look heroic on Instagram. It doesn’t require “epic” days in the saddle, or energy gels, or a Strava subscription, or lycra. Nor does it have to involve physical hardship, highway traffic, vast mountain ranges, or crossing continents on one dollar a day.
It can involve all of these things – of course it can!
But most of the time it can simply mean going somewhere new, exploring your surroundings for long enough to unwind, and coming home refreshed.
That could be achieved in a weekend, or over the course of a year or more on the road. It’s totally up to you.
A bicycle adventure can be whatever you want it to be. And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, bikepacking, adventure cycling, cyclo-camping, travelling by bicycle; these are all different labels for the act of getting on a bike and seeing what you discover. The rest is detail.
While a short trip is enough for many, some choose to take things further.
Joff Summerfield has so far made three attempts to circle the planet on a penny farthing. Tom Kevill-Davies based a transcontinental bike trip on sampling and recording local recipes, which he later published as a series of travelogue-cookbooks. Emily Chappell found her adventurous calling by cycling across Alaska in the depths of winter on a fatbike. Ed Pratt spent several years riding round the world on a unicycle, becoming a YouTube sensation in the process.
Dig deeper and you’ll find dudes building custom surfboard carriers and riding coastlines in search of the perfect break. You’ll find people building off-road bikepacking rigs, loading them up with home-made frame luggage and charting the unmapped dirt trails of South America and the former USSR. You’ll find tribes of modern-day hippies forming bands and roaming Europe on busking bike trips. You’ll find families cycling across continents with children of all ages, home-schooling in ultralight family-sized tents and taking them on the best geography field trips imaginable every single day.
You’ll find people recreating cultural rite-of-passage journeys in traditional costume, people earning a living on the road by selling hand-made jewellery on exotic beaches, people riding from farm to farm as they work their way around the world. You’ll find cyclist photographers who spend months exploring on the profits of roadside postcard sales. You’ll hear of people serving bicycle-powered smoothies, not for money but just because they could. You’ll find people who travel money-free, bartering, dumpster-diving and volunteering their way across countries and continents. Whatever kind of eccentricity you might imagine, be sure that someone is out there doing it on a bicycle.
Yes, you’re allowed to have fun on a bike trip. Not Type 2 fun (the type you only later convince yourself you had). Actual, real fun. Sit by the riverside and read your favourite book. Wallow in a state of post-lunch, post-beer tranquillity for hours every afternoon. Cook elaborate banquets over your tiny camping stove. Eat ice cream. Brew coffee. Occasionally, ride your bicycle.
Sleep in wonderful, wild places that only you will ever know. Sleep in terrible, ill-advised places where no-one would dream of looking. Meet new people every day. Ride across deserts in a state of utter solitude. Ignore everything except what’s happening right here, right now. Daydream until you can’t remember where you are.
Leave your phone and laptop at home. I dare you. I double-dare you. Throw out your calendar. Spontaneously change your plans, your flights, your future. Travelling by bicycle can feel like the closest thing to freedom you’ll ever experience. Embrace it!
When you get into a car, or onto a train or plane or bus – even when you leave the house on foot – you do so almost always with the intention of arriving somewhere.
You have a destination in mind, and your chosen mode of transport is simply how you’re going to get there.
When you pack a suitcase, buy a ticket, plan an itinerary or open a guidebook, you are participating in a kind of travel that casts experiences as individual options, and places as destinations to go to and return from. Time spent actually in motion is something to be endured, and preferably minimised.
Yet in order to see the point of travelling by bicycle – and to understand why I and many others believe that it is the best possible way to see the world – you must abandon this contemporary understanding of travel completely.
I’ve tried to explain this in so many ways. I’ll say that when I left England and cycled to Istanbul, I was… no! Too late. He cycled from England to Istanbul! That’s a really long way to ride a bicycle. I could never do that.
Yes, I cycled to Istanbul. I rode a bicycle across a continent.
But what really happened was this:
I woke up every morning, usually in my tent or on someone’s couch.
I had my breakfast.
I began riding in the general direction of Turkey (ie: south-east).
And one day, many months later, I arrived in Istanbul.
In the same way, I cycled to Yerevan, to Cairo, to Djibouti and Muscat and Tehran and Ulan Bator and Tromsø and Vancouver and San Francisco and Bandar Abbas and Ranong.
I’ve spent years of my life in the process of getting to these and other destinations.
Why did I bother spending all this time just to get where I was going?
Because I travel by bicycle for everything it offers besides arriving at a destination.
The point – always – is being here, not getting there.
The act of arrival anywhere is little more than the pressing of a ‘pause’ button on a scrolling, living tapestry; a fly-on-the-wall reality documentary with no beginning and no end and no meaning other than what you choose to ascribe to it; one that unfolds as you pedal, right there before your eyes and ears and nose and mouth, beneath your feet and at your fingertips, every waking second.
Bicycle travel is a call-to-arms to engage with life – and to learn to accept and tolerate it all; for how is one anonymous and transient figure on a pushbike supposed to wreak her particular brand of change upon the strangers she meets with any kind of objectivity or understanding? Better just to watch.
The road is a cruel teacher, hurling bad decisions back in your face without mercy. But it is also one that rewards those who exercise patience and trust and openness with fuel for the soul of the kind that’s fast becoming one of the world’s most scarce natural resources: that of real, meaningful, spontaneous contact at an intensely human level.
You will be changed by the experience of open-ended, freeform bicycle travel, because if you choose to participate in it, you must be seeking a change. You cannot be content in order to want to do this. You’re feeling a faraway call.
It may not be obvious why the bicycle, specifically, is so enormously well-suited to delivering this all-encompassing experience of travel, as compared to, say, travelling on foot, or by motorbike.
The reasons are pretty simple.
There’s the momentum delivered by the machine itself – the fact that you release the brakes and stop pedalling and yet you continue to roll forward – that sets in motion that scrolling tapestry of life. The is what makes the bicycle beautiful and timeless. Our legs will never evolve into wheels.
Then there is the exquisite participatory nature of the experience. There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get out precisely what you put in. Each gruelling climb delivers a matching descent that you may spend at your leisure, whether you’re the type to blow it all in one go for a quick shot of adrenaline, or canter relaxedly down, savouring each tree and flower and blade of grass and friendly wave. In the same way, a long day’s pedalling will be rewarded by sleep of a depth to rival the dead. No motorised form of transport can deliver this.
Then there is the immediacy of your engagements with those you meet on the roadside. Your strongest memories will be of time spent with friendly strangers who became friends in a the space of a smile and a handshake. You will feel guilty that you ever viewed people through other eyes.
But of all the reasons “why” one should travel by bicycle, perhaps the most important for me is the stripping-back of life to its absolute essentials – mentally, physically and spiritually. Because to my mind, the greatest freedom one can have is to be self-directed, able-bodied, responsible, and fully aware of what matters most in life for each and every waking second.
Travelling by bicycle offers a rare and precious opportunity to be all of those things.
So, at the end of all of this, my question to you is:
Why on Earth would you not choose to see the world by bicycle?
Little did I know that I was putting into a motion a train of events that would eventually see him arriving in Hong Kong in time for Christmas 2016 – and in need of a new rider to take him further round the globe!
Could this rider be you? Do you have an inkling for a South-East Asian bike trip in the near future, but don’t have a bike to do it on? Read on to find out how you could write the next chapter of this fantastic little story…
* * *
In May this year, my sister Louise and I set off from our home in Hartford, UK, to cycle to our childhood home in Hong Kong. After 8 months on the road, crossing countries and continents, we are now just a few short weeks away from the end of our trip. Hong Kong is tantalisingly close.
It is hard to believe that just over a year ago I was sat having a cup of tea with Kelly, the previous owner of Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike, chatting about her adventures and our plans. I remember thinking, “oh my gosh, this is actually happening!”. It all of a sudden became very real. I had a bike and kit, and more and more people knew about our plan. I handed in my resignation and a few short months later we set off from home, heading East.
Cycling away from home was very emotional, especially because of how long it took to get out of sight of the house. The day we left was the first time we had cycled with our bikes fully loaded. Only then did we realise that we had massively over-packed. A quick about turn to take out the second towel, hair conditioner, and a few T‑shirts, and we were off again.
We had a fantastic few months cycling through Europe. One day in Austria we met four American girls. They were cycling the length of the Danube and we shared a lovely breakfast with them sheltering from the rain. Upon seeing my bike, they gasped and exclaimed, “you have Charlie the bike!” Turns out he has some fans from across the Pond!
Lou and I have found that travelling by bike is a fantastic way to see the world, discover interesting cultures and explore unknown parts of the map. However, as with all of the best adventures, things worked out quite differently to our original plan. Every twist, turn and visa rejection brought new experiences and actually led to some of our favourite moments of the whole trip, including meeting the wonderful Nina, a German cycle tourer who we spent 3 weeks with cycling through Europe; staying with an old Greek couple who had us helping pick vegetables in their garden; and trying camels’ milk (it’s fizzy!) with a local family in Kazakhstan.
Before we set off, we were asked if we were worried about travelling through certain countries, if it was dangerous, and if it was safe for two women alone. We understood that people might be concerned but we were confident that we were prepared and had enough common sense to not put ourselves in any unnecessary danger. What we learnt along the way is that the countries that people at home were most worried about were some of the most fun, friendly and welcoming. We found that travelling (and especially cycling) as two women opened a lot of doors. People want to help you, sometimes whether you want it or not! When we needed water in the desert or a place to sleep in the middle of the mountains, we found people to be lovely, helpful and genuinely interested in what we were doing, making for a really heart-warming experience.
It has been a fantastic trip and we have met many amazing people, including lots of fellow bike tourers, confirming that cyclists are the best kind of people! It was a scary decision to leave our jobs and set out on this adventure but it has been the most exciting, challenging and eye opening 8 months. We both plan to continue cycle touring and exploring the world on two wheels.
Now that our trip is almost over, Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike is in need of a new adventure. I hope I won’t be jinxing our last few weeks by saying that Charlie has been an excellent two wheeled companion… as long as you overlook his tendency to break kickstands!
If you want to be Charlie’s new owner and have an adventure in mind, no matter how big or small, drop me an email telling me about yourself and your plan, and I shall pick someone to be his new owner. You will need to pick Charlie up from Cheshire in January/February, or if you live in Bath I may be able to bring him to you, depending on timing.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip! You can find out more about us at awheelylongjourney.weebly.com. I look forward to seeing where Charlie the Scrapyard Touring Bike will go next!
* * *
Since Charlie (the human!) wrote this article, I’ve discussed with her an even more exciting idea than bringing Charlie the Bike back home: might we find a new rider to continue Charlie the Bike’s round-the-world adventure from Hong Kong itself?
If this might be you, or if you are based in Hong Kong and would be willing to look after Charlie until we find him a new owner, please get in touch with his current owner by email before December 25th to make arrangements. Let’s keep this little bike’s trip rolling!
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!