It wasn't until I was sitting in dirt on the side of a road in Malaysia, sobbingand sweating, that I really regretted not training for my bike trip.Goodness knows what the locals made of me, a disheveled and sniveling mat sallehhowling profanities to my boyfriend, with hair clinging to my beetroot face.
I cant do this, I screamed.My legs hurt, Im tired, and Im pretty sure I am developing a nice red sore on my bum.
By this, I meant a yearlong bike trip that coveredmore than9,787miles and crossed23 countries, from Malaysiaback home to London. Only three weeks in, I nearly gave up.
I was no cyclist. The most Id ever ridden was around the university campus:hardly the Tour de France. Yet I still, however foolishly,made the decision not to train for this trip. But even on Malaysias flat, easy roads I regretted the decision. We hadn't even reached the challengingmountain ranges of China or Central Asia.
Having spent the better partof two hours persuading me not to jack it all in and catch the first flight home, my boyfriend said something to I clung to for the remainder of the trip.
Pip, Charlie said, this is a mental challenge, not a physical one.
Motivated to trust my mindand to ignore my howling musclesI picked myself out of the dirt, and we continued on our adventure.
To say the rest of the journey was smooth sailing would be alie. On the Pamir Highway (the second highest road in the world), we narrowly avoidedan unexploded mortar on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. We only discovered the rusty shellwhich satinches from where our heads had rested in the nightas we were packed down the tent.
Andon Chinas Sichuan-Tibet border we were caught in a blizzard. With only a herd of inquisitive yaks as witnesses, we shoved our frozen hands into our underwear to defrost our numb fingers.If youre ever stuck at altitude and desperate for a way to warm up,it turns out Charliewas right: your groin is the warmest part of your body.
Biking is arguably the bestway to really get to know a countryand its peopleintimately. You will find yourselfwelcomed into peoples homes, and you will travel at a pace fast enough to get there but slow enough to see things in confounding detail.
From our bicycle seats, we saw the wilds of Kazakhstan and the unparalleledarchitecture of Uzbekistan. We saw men on horseback grappling over a headless goat in Central Asia during a rousingbuzkashi match(perhaps the mostunusual form of polo you will ever witness).We passed throughAshgabatthe gleaming white, marble city in the capital of Turkmenistananddrank the sweetest wine in Georgia. InRomania and Bulgaria weout-cycled dogs we took a (much-needed) communalbathin Budapest.
Over the course of a year we were invited into peoples homes dozens of times, offered meals, tea, and a warm welcome. In Uzbekistan we were literally hauled, hot and sweaty, off our bikes, and danced into a wedding celebration.In Kazakhstan we dined with policemen, learned to shoot (cans only) with a poet, and chatted to a 20-something woman who had shunned the convention of marriage to open her home town's first 24-hour convenience store.
In Thailand we met a Dutch family that had been cycling together for five years. The parents had taken their kids out of school when they were 10 and 11, and had been educating them on the road.And in China, we discussed themerits of the Tibetan sky burial, in which human remains are offered to the birds. Afterall those thousands of miles, after so many days of dirt roads and mountain passes, I was almost convinced of thisback-to-nature approachand of doing things just a little bit differently than everyone else.
Related: Five Things To Do in Bangkok
I finished the trip fitter, both mentally and physically, andwith a renewed faith in humanity. As many adventure travelerscan attest: when you push yourself out of your comfort zone as amazing things can happen. The hardest part is always making the decision to take the leap.
Practical Tips for Bicycling Around the World
Im a great believer in just following the road, but you do need to do a certain amount of organization for a successful tour.
Before YouSet Off:
Get the right injections. Very often youll be camping in rural areas, where medical care is less than, well, available.Be sure to get your recommended vaccinations. Avoiding them is foolish.
Learn as much language as you can. Every word you can speak abroad is gold.Id recommend picking up The Wordless Travel Book. It has pictures of everyday objectsuseful when youre trying to avoid miming the word for toilet roll!
If you dont know how to fix a punctured tire, its worth practicing before you go. Many bike shops offer maintenance classes to help get you up to speed.
We had more punctures than I can remember, plus broken spokes and snapped chains. Definitely carry a maintenance kit with spare parts.
Water is key so alwaysknow where you can find some,and carry water purification tablets or other devices if youre sourcing water off-road. A particularly rough road in Kazakhstan meant we were slower than expected getting to the next town. We had tocrack into our emergency rationsand nearly ran out. Make sure youre carrying enough. Always.
We relied on our phone for navigation using offline Galileo maps at galileo-app.com. Because electricity sockets were not a guarantee, we always made sure we had a portable charger with us, too.
We traveled to some remote areas so we had a SPOT GPS tracking device that can send out emergency SOS calls if you find yourself in trouble. Give your mother some peace of mind.
Your Travel Essentials:
You dont need to buy the most expensive kit to tour. We met people cycling around on busted up old bikes with postbags for panniersso you definitely don't need to spend a huge amount.
Bike-wise, Id recommend going from something sturdy, ideally with a steel frame, especially if youre planning on going off the beaten track. Steel is easier to weld than aluminum or titanium if something goes wrong. We used Surly's Long Haul Trucker (surlybikes.com).
Our panniers were Ortlieb. Look for something waterproof and spacious enough to carry allyour gear.
The Macpac Citadel was our tent of choice as it has masses of porch space, which isideal for touring panniers.
Always check out the visa situation before you set off, especially because how many days you have on your visa will determine your pace across a country.
Fortraveling in Central Asia we found Caravanistanto be a fabulousresource for understanding visa requirements (likeletters of recommendation) in the region.
If you want local experiences (and to save money) I can really recommend spending a night with a WarmShowers host.Think of it as couch surfing for cyclists. Great fun and a good way to cycle with locals and make new friends.