Words & Photography by Alex Gandy
Design by Kat Charles

So I suppose it all started with that childhood notion of escapism. Of wanting to escape from the mundane and everyday in pursuit of a life of adventure and daring do. That combined with a sneaking suspicion that the life being laid out by my parents, school, university and work wasn’t necessarily the life I had much passion in leading. So for a long time, like many, I had the urge to escape and go see the world for myself, under my own steam and on my own terms. Remove myself from everything familiar and just go, live outdoors, have an adventure and see how life is lived outside my bubble.

As I grew and moved through university into work, that urge never faded. The more I began to speak with older people, I discovered many wanted something similar, but for whatever reason they never got round to doing it. And when they told me this there was always a moment of sadness; maybe a glazed look, a ream of excuses or a joke likening their job or wife to a ball and chain. Hearing all these mildly tragic stories of people not following their dreams gave me all the inspiration I needed. I was determined not to become yet another sad tale.

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Daniel, a touring cyclist I met in Tashkent shoulders his bicycle across a turquoise river in Tajikistan.

About a year and a half before I left, decisions started being made. Having had a taste for backpacking I wanted to find a more enjoyable way to travel than sitting on a bus and bumbling around cities with my nose in a guidebook. Hitchiking seemed fun, but I wanted more freedom. Motorbikes and cars were too expensive, walking was too arduous and so the bicycle began to make a lot of sense. It would force me to travel slowly and allow me to go pretty much anywhere so long as there was a road or path of some sort and I was open to having to push. So it was decided I would build a bicycle, put some camping gear on it, fly to Istanbul and start cycling east until I ran out of money or lost the inclination. I researched the first couple of countries and the visa situation for central Asia, but everything else was left to chance so I could change my plans on a day-to-day basis and follow a whim. Allow whatever or whomever I stumbled across to dictate where I went next and travel with no strings attached. Without expectations or responsibilities.

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A blizzard catches me out in the Tian Shan mountains of north western China.

Skip forward 18 months and I was sitting at Heathrow airport with the London office job quit, a few thousand pounds in a bank account, my bike somewhere in the luggage system and feeling utterly scared out of my wits. The excitement I had felt leading up to my departure vanished and was replaced with agonising loneliness and the unmistakable sensation of impending doom. I was fulfilling my long held dream and what should have felt invigorating felt absolutely dreadful. After about half an hour of feeling like that I began feeling light headed and nauseous and probably would have passed out were it not for a plump lady with three children who, seeing me “white as a sheet”, offered some water and told me to lie down. In retrospect, it was the process of leaving my old life behind which was the biggest obstacle of the whole journey. It seems forcing yourself to change can be more difficult than you might imagine, but with that first helping hand in the departure lounge of Terminal 5, I was off and didn’t look back.

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Cycling a dirt road through the Fergana Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.

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A herder sheltering from the wind provides directions on the Kazakh steppe.

Over the first few weeks, what was initially hard became easier and gradually my body and mind adapted to the ups and downs of travelling by bicycle. Surprise encounters, managing illnesses, spontaneous hospitality, maintaining the bicycle, finding somewhere to camp, dealing with the language barrier, eating properly and getting used to five to seven hours of exercise a day. It’s easy when you know how, but the learning curve can be steep for a solo cyclist and those first few weeks were all the memorable for it.

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A Turkish gent invites me for a game of backgammon in Ardahan, Eastern Turkey, and does not let me win.

Over the following year I have cycled 19,000km through ten countries, across deserts, over mountains and in winter, summer, wind, rain and snow. All the time camping, cooking for myself and living simply. I have holes in my shoes, clothes have been resewn, zips fail with annoying regularity and my tyre tread is barely discernible. I am ragged, worn in, spend most of my time covered in grit, grime and dust, but I am happy. Happy to be out working hard in the open air, enjoying the variety of environments I travel through and studying their people. Most important of all I am confident that the last 12 months have been some of the most rewarding of my life. And here’s why…

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An invitation for tea, Iran.
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Whilst talking with Hedelibieke (pictured) in a cafe in Xinjiang Province, China, a gentleman approached us and politely asked to see my wallet. I was obviously reluctant, but Hedelibieke insisted he didn’t want to steal it. This went on for some time until eventually I was convinced and handed it over: credit cards, keys, cash, driving licence everything. He removed the cash, counted it, put it back and returned the wallet before saying thank you and leaving. Hedelibieke explained shortly after that he paid for my meal, but had just wanted to see if I was rich before he did so.
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Stephane, a French cyclist making his way around the world, cycles a dirt road in Laos // Stephane, Daniel and I, reunited after crossing China, push our bikes through a river crossing on a dirt road in Laos.

 

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Having taken the wrong road in Kazakhstan I wandered onto a plantation in hope of directions and found a man butchering a sheep. Limbs cut, skin laid out to dry, dog chewing intestines out of shot and the remaining organs of value pinned to the trees. John, the manager, soon arrived and declared “we’ve been expecting you!” Sensing my bewilderment he explained that a bird had made a sign earlier that day signifying that a guest would arrive and they had butchered the sheep in preparation. So that night we sat around and feasted on lamb and potatoes washed down with lashings of vodka. I left the next morning feeling no less bewildered.
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Two delivery men on their morning rounds invite me for lunch in Yunnan Province, China.
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Zhang and her friend look up questions to ask me on their phones after inviting me in from the cold. Xinjiang Province, China.
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Whilst camping in a village in Sichuan Province, China a family came over and lit a fire to keep me warm. It wasn’t long before a crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of the foreigner in town. Through all the hubbub I spotted a child rummaging through my things and went over to investigate. I found a boy (pictured) tidying the mess I had left on my bicycle, folding clothes and putting all my clutter in a neat row.

Now that you have a taste for travelling by bicycle, maybe next time you take an aeroplane, go by car or train you will gaze out the window and think about all the experiences which are passing you by. Think about all the places which aren’t in the guidebook, where nobody ever goes and which are filled with people who will be delighted to see that you made it to their little corner of this world. It’s in those places that you will cease to become a tourist and instead you will be treated as a guest. So instead of paying a fortune to visit the tourist spots, travel light, travel simply and don’t just enjoy the destination, enjoy the journey.

To follow Alex on his journey, head over to his Cycling East blog, which he updates when he can. The lovely Kat Charles can be found over here and she is always up for a photography or design commission!