A year in the saddle

I’m writing this on 12 August 2014 exactly one year to the day after I set out on this trip to cycle around the world.  One year ago I cycled out of a sleepy English village called Aldbourne, population 2,000, in fine summer weather and today I am sat in Xi’an a Chinese city of 7.5 million hiding from torrential rain.
Needless to say a lot has happened in the intervening period which has seen me ride across Europe and most of Asia.  In summary I’ve covered over 20,000km by bicycle, visited 24 countries, two continents and one subcontinent, I’ve reached over 3,700m above sea level by bicycle and have ridden in temperatures above 40 degrees and below 30.  I’ve learnt Russian for three weeks and cycled most of the length of the Silk Road.  I’ve travelled on ferries, ships, planes, trains, trucks, minibuses, cars, vans and tuk tuks with my bike.  I’ve ridden alone for 7 months, with someone for 3 and been becalmed in Bishkek for 2.
I’d like to say I’d loved every minute of the trip so far but that as you might expect isn’t the case.  I have instead savoured every down I’ve experienced because they have made any ups that have followed that much sweeter.
I don’t know if this year has changed me as a person or if the rest of the trip will, I do know that I’ve had a great time and seen things I have never expected that I would.  I’ve also learned a lot about the world and about myself.
The plan for the trip has also changed dramatically as it has continued.  One thing I have learned is that it is very easy to look at a map in the comfort of your home and to draw lines in your mind between the places that you want to go and quite another to actually cycle between those places along those lines.
Originally I had planned on riding across Europe, through Turkey and Iran then through Pakistan and India and into China.  Unfortunately due to visa issues I decided not to ride through Iran and instead my route went from Turkey to Georgia and Azerbaijan, then across the Caspian sea and through Central Asia.  I then flew to India and rode through there before flying to Singapore and riding to Bangkok.  I then changed plans again and decided to fly back to Central Asia and cross into China from there before riding across two thirds of China to Xi’an.
The country I have spent the longest time in on the trip is probably one of the last places I would have expected to find myself in: Kyrgyzstan.  That said, this could change depending on how much longer it takes to cross China…
I remember the first three months as being incredibly easy, crossing Europe, Turkey and through Georgia and Azerbaijan presented few challenges in comparison to what came after.  The weather was in general good and the roads excellent.  People were kind and the terrain was beautiful and in general not harsh.
After I took ship across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan some of that changed.  The weather was now in general cold, very cold and got colder.  The roads were no longer always good or even what I would call roads.  People were still kind but now the land itself was less amicable with rather more freezing desert than I would have liked.
So on arriving in Almaty I flew to India and moved from the freezer to the furnace.  India was a whole different set of challenges for cycle touring.  The weather was incredibly hot and the sun very strong – the food as well.  People were still kind but in different ways from in Central Asia.  The roads were now incredibly random – sometimes they were perfect and sometimes they were close to impossible to ride.  Culturally everything was very different as well, as you might expect.  Before I had ridden gradually across the land and cultural changes had happened gradually in most cases, with the flight from India I was dropped in a completely different place, with different and various gods and a completely changed landscape.
After India I shifted again to South East Asia, flying to Singapore where I got an almost reverse culture shock as I returned to a developed nature and it was like landing in the future.  Suddenly everything worked again and I could get anything I needed…at a price of course.  Once again the riding was effortless as I rode up the Malay peninsula to Bangkok – the only thing I had to contend with was getting a bit sweaty with the humidity.
That changed again as I flew back to Bishkek and I rode off again towards Central Asia.  Now I had an inexperienced companion in Meka who I was in a way responsible for.  So now I not only had to make sure that my bike was working but that hers was as well.  I also had to make sure that I had enough food and water for two and that we could make distances that she could cope with.  This brought its own set of challenges.  At the same time I had to contend with the rather mountainous Kyrgyz landscape myself.
Then came China and more desert, this time in summer and also the myriad bureaucratic challenges that China brings.  Trying to find an affordable hotel that foreigners can stay in after riding for 10 hours has to be one of the most frustrating things I have gone through.  Hopefully the more touristy east of China will be easier going forward.
After a year I now know that standards are things that can gradually be relaxed.  Before I left I would have been a bit disturbed at the idea of not having at least one shower a day, now I can go five if necessary albeit feeling a bit grubby by the end…
I’ve also learnt a lot about cycle touring.  I’m much better able to look after my bike as long as nothing too major goes wrong.  I’m also a lot more efficient at a lot of things.  When I started it took me about 15 minutes to load my bike, now it takes about three.  I’d spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to get my map case sorted out, now I do it without thinking. I can make and break camp far more quickly and I’m better able to feed myself in different places.
Annoyingly I still end up with nicks and cuts on my ankles and legs when my bike slips and I still get lost more often than I’d like.
I suppose the most important question is whether or not if I had the choice I’d take this year again.  The answer would definitely be yes.  It hasn’t always been easy and I sometimes feel that I’ve spent a lot of the past 8 months either being frozen or boiled but I’ve seen so much and met so many amazing people it has all been worth it.
The people have definitely been the most amazing part of the trip.  Sitting at home in England I couldn’t have imagined the kindnesses I have received.  I’ve been given countless gifts by complete strangers from melons to wrenches to flags.  People have opened their homes and their hearts to me from France to China across the whole trip.  It has been incredible in many ways and I wonder if I would have done the same for a stranger before I set out.  What has been most humbling is that sometimes the people who have been the kindest have been those with the least.  The tradition of hospitality really means something in many homes.
Also I think there is something about travelling by bicycle that makes people more likely to help you.  I don’t know what it is exactly, maybe the vulnerability and openness of being on a bicycle.  You are right there riding past them, they can see you and call to you as you pass, sometimes very slowly.  There is much more scope for them to engage with you in a way that there isn’t if you are in a car or bus or in a train.  This trip has been a way of travelling unlike anything else I have ever tried and I can’t recommend it enough especially in Europe and Turkey.


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