I think it is time to write something about the way we got around to the idea of bicycle touring. The fact we like to visit places we haven’t seen before and that recently we enjoy doing that by bicycles is already somewhat obvious. Hence this alone would hardly serve as an explanation – there is a bit of a difference between afternoon trip to the countryside meadows and journey across the continent that would take months… How we arrived to a decision to leave the homely cosiness behind and trade it for days and months of pedalling and sleeping in a tent? What made us to start seeking something more than just everyday rides around the city and lazy summer trips to lakes and castle ruins? Well, before we begin, make yourself comfortable, pour yourself fresh mug of tea and follow us “few” years back in time..
It was year 2011, we were living as freshly married couple in Edinburgh, Scotland and despite this city is dwelling on an ancient volcano and there is not shortage of steep slopes, we were riding our bicycles practically every day. And so did locals so soon we were greeting each other on green cycle paths, criss-crossing the city along old railway lines – discreet sing with your hand not leaving the handle bars, wink of an eye or smile in return. Despite the usual rain several times a day and loads of snow during winters bringing the public transport to halt, cycling retain its specific beauty that had major influence on our everyday experience and perception of the city. It was possible to cycle for miles along the seashore on wide promenades leading out of the city and we were truly enjoying ourselves. Bike also ideally fitted our lifestyle, where relative slowness, discomfort and a bit of physical effort do not present a problem, whereas disrespect to the environment and to people with whom we share it does. The amount of satisfaction and richness of everyday participation and experience of the environment mediated through cycling around thus establish for us a very basic aspect of our dwelling in the city, which would otherwise might seems boring, grey and full of cars.
That summer we’ve borrowed a tandem bike from our friend, a true cyclist to his bones. He salvaged it from a skip and putted together. I still wonder if it wasn’t a bit of a joke on our expense.. (something along the lines of a popular late 19th century hit Daisy Bell:
“It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
No matter how it was meant, we’ve borrowed the tandem gladly and one just a wee bit drizzly day we rode along the Union canal connecting Edinburgh on the east coast with Glasgow on the west.
We did not make it far though and after several unsuccessful attempts to fix the rear flat tyre we gave up and returned the same way we came.. on foot. Quite a disaster! Nevertheless, this first hand experience of synchronised cycling caught us to the extend we’ve soon borrowed it again for a bit more ambitious trip, roughly 40 miles southwards to Yarrow Water in the Borders, where Johana’s relatives live. This time it was an immediate affection! Preliminary awkwardness was soon replaced by an euphoria over a new way of cycling, a greater respect from others on the road, and over a possibility to share all the sensations instantly, to talk to each other without interruption. Less physically demanding ascents and phenomenal speed on descents, smiles and cheerful “thumbs-up” of the people we’ve passed by… If I remember correctly, it was on the way back to Edinburgh the next day, while having a break on the edge of the highland in the late afternoon breeze, enjoying a spectacular view over the flatland towards the Pentlands and Arthur Seat behind them, there we where dreaming for the first time about how splendid it would be to ride this way somewhere far away… That was however shortly before we tore the rear tyre dead and had to walk with the unrepairable bike the remaining 8 miles home. I remember we’ve bought a bottle of chilled ginger beer in the last open corner shop and have opened it right in front of the shop, when a perfectly synchronised, high-visibility couple on a tandem bike rode silently by…
By the end of the summer we’ve planned to take the same tandem bike – but this time thoroughly serviced – to Outer Hebrides and ride it all the way from Butt of Lewis to Isle of Barra. Unfortunately, such a lengthy bike did not fit the railway transport regulations and so we had to pedal our way against almost constant headwind on our vintage second hand city bikes. Our enthusiasm have reached a new level, became more clear and we gained the idea what is actually possible with a bike… not to say with a tandem bike!
Almost one year later to a day, on the verge of an apocalyptic year 2012, we’ve finished our master degree on a University of Manchester. We had very little time and energy during the past 12 months to adventure outside this huge rainy agglomeration and thus we were merely getting used to urban traffic. The idea of a grand cycling adventure had never truly abandon us, so when we found by a pure coincidence an advertisement selling a solid foldable tandem bike, we did not hesitate. Miraculously, we got the response and in one week time, we were returning from a 600 mile trip to Hampshire with a tandem neatly packed in the boot. Mrs Chantal threw in a complete set of pannier bags, pump and a handle bar compas… I hardly believe it even today!
Now we could seriously start to plan and scheme, read through cycle touring blogs and journals and let ourselves be inspired. Soon we were trapped in a wast world of bicycle touring – not that we were unaware of its existence, but certainly not in a scale that some practice it: people pedaling all the way from Patagonia to Alaska, ticking off continents they cycle one by one (all but Antarctica I believe), or criss crossing the world in a saddle of a bicycle for years and years. Try some of our links and you will get the idea… It is worth pointing out that people are doing such incredible things for more than a century now. Pioneers of cycle touring, such as Frank Lenz, Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky, or Louise Sutherland, who cycled the globe long before GPS, ATMs and worldwide insurance, often introducing the bicycle to amazed and suspicious locals for the first time (needless to say that they were not always welcome). In the light of these adventurers, contemporary style of travelling seems more like a Sunday ride in a city park with the safety wheels on. Nevertheless, despite the advancement of age and technology, there is still enough adventure and amazement in the world left for everyone!
So, how did we came to our plan?
Inspired by various adventurous stories and terrified by yet another upcoming winter we wanted to head to the nearest sunny place available – to Africa (local humid winter gets literally into your bones). The original plan was to encircle the most of the Mediterranean Sea, visit our friends in Spain, Cyprus and Greece and finally get warm along the way. Initially a very tempting idea of cycling through the countries breathing with post-revolutionary euphoria was soon to get less appealing with growing number of news about spreading violence, instability, coups and tension in the whole region.. Even though we do not put much weight on corporate media news, we eventually dropped this plan and hope to have an opportunity to realize it sometimes in the not so distant future.
Another suggestion was to risk crossing through Egypt and Sudan and follow the East African coast all the way south to the Republic of South Africa. But while making our way through the list of the visa requirements of countries we will have to cycle through, we realized that the main challenge of such journey will not be the pedalling, but fighting bureaucracy and administrative marathons neither of us felt for (not that we have any illusions of bureaucracy elsewhere..).
So, by pure elimination we arrived to our last option where to go from Europe by land – that is eastwards as far as we can get. With the requirement of more pleasant climate then the English one we’ve chosen the southern way to South East Asia and return via northern route through China and Central Asian states. How it will be in the end is still a bit of a question as transit through some of the countries on this line seems very problematic so far (speaking about Myanmar/Burma and Western Pakistan/Balochistan). However, based on my experience of travelling to India along the same route with friends back in 2004/2005 (by buses mainly) we believe that not all the obstacles and difficulties will be as grave and impossible to overcome as they’ve seem at the beginning.
Leaving a space for improvisation, we have a clear goal and focus and the rest is more or less only a matter of time, luck, and power of our legs (and luck again and a bit of coincidence).
By the time we arrived to a final decision about the destination of our trip, it became clear that it is not going to be only about enjoying the sun. Our growing passion for cycling and everyday confrontation with the grim reality on mancunian streets made us dig deeper into the topics of alternative and sustainable urban transport, intelligent design of infrastructure and public spaces and equality of users’ rights to it. In other words, we realized that our trip should easily be more than “just” a lifetime cycle touring adventure. That is, it might become a testimony of the people we’ll meet and places we’ll visit. By collecting evidence of their cycling realities – not as a sport, or leisure activity, but as a means of transport, with their up- and downsides reflected by our own insight as cyclists. And so the idea was born to merge cycle touring with our anthropological background in order to bring a unique, first hand experience and description of the cycling cultures across Eurasia.