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.
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.
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.
Cycling a dirt road through the Fergana Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.
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.
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…
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.