“Is this a joke?”
My parents’ words were still echoing in my mind as I was about to finish the first of numerous kilometers to come. I do like to crack a joke or two, but I was serious when I told them my plan to cycle across a continent.
Not that I blame them for their reaction. People generally think it’s a mad idea. On a recent trip, I bumped into solo cyclists in the Salar de Uyuni and a car driver reacted as if meeting a rare species named “Locos.”
I was one of them.
A rare picture of the Loco species captured in the Gobi Desert (Mongolia)
Why would anyone go against logic and cycle to a faraway destination? Why would a sane man refuse what technology has to offer and struggle to get somewhere?What if the answer lay in the journey rather than the destination? What if we were missing the real meaning of travel: following the road to see where it takes us. I wasn’t exactly a bicycle enthusiast, to be honest; I hardly knew how to repair a flat tire and had barely exceeded 50 kilometers on my longest journey. But during those very first kilometers, I could forget about my fears and doubts, my professional future, even my anticipation of butt soreness. Only excitement prevailed.
My trip is over now, but I’ve had time to think about my experiences and conclusions. I’m sure they’re not unique, but if you take a bicycle long distances, you might experience some of the things I did:
- A sensation of extreme freedom, or of being lost – it’s up to you how you feel. Not knowing exactly where the road will lead you, not following a plan, and the recurring question, “Wait . . . Where are we now?”
- Exaggerated sensitivity. Sometimes you find yourself looking intensely at a random tree thinking that it’s the most beautiful thing you ever saw and that you should fund Greenpeace if you ever come back.
- Philanthropy, not necessarily as a product of long introspection during those countless hours on your bike, but more as a restored faith in humanity, when plenty of benevolent people you meet fight for the privilege of offering you a beer. Hospitality is what I recall the most. People hosted us so many times out of the blue.
- Feeling special – a strange one indeed, and you grow accustomed to it really quickly. People see you as a superhuman or as a weirdo. It depends, but nobody stays unfazed.
- Self-discovery. You reach or overcome your physical and mental limits. This state, and new horizons, are not everyday situations. It’s when you discover your true character.
- Hunger. In some remote area of the Gobi desert, I contemplated chewing my tires and would have gladly killed for a pizza.
One of the numerous feelings you will experience on a bicycle trip (Baikal Lake, Russia)
In a nutshell, all those feelings came thanks to something that fellow travelers will recognise: unpredictability. Indeed, I believe being out of my comfort zone for so long truly opened my mind. I am not saying every experience is an edifying one (try a bite of Mongolian cheese and you will know what I mean), but even in mistakes, there is a lesson to be learned. That might sound naive, but as your perspective changes on your saddle, so do your values and the hindsight you have. When you have a lot of time to think, you generally put it to good use! In the end, we cycled 8500 kilometers in less than six months, crossed eleven countries and ran into so many unknown situations!
But here I go again – talking, talking . . . I’ve not yet described the route . . .
First of all, we went through the rather flat part of Europe (get off my list, Switzerland!), enjoying the diversity of cultures the old continent has to offer. I mean, come on, in one good day of cycling you can switch from “Goedenavond” to “Guten abend”, from schnapps to vodka, from friendly gestures to middle fingers! France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Baltic countries, Russia, you name it!
Then the Trans-Siberian train . . . Yes. I know. We cheated. Shame on us. From Moscow to Irkutsk was six days of relatively unclean traveling and a unique experience – but you’d better be fine with proximity in those cramped cars though. Vast Mongolia, still to this day the most beautiful country I ever visited: the land where the Earth meets the sky. The least densely populated country in the world, and probably the reason why it is so dazzling. It’s just you and the wild.
-Mate? Is this our tent I see burning? (Hovsgol Lake, Mongolia)
- China: a secular country. A country under construction, with cranes everywhere! Unknown rules and behaviors – a culture shock in other words. But this is the kind of experience we were looking for.
The only piece of advice I can give is: take time for your trip, do not make too many plans, and do not stick to a tight schedule. Surprise is the spice you are looking for, not the pebble in your shoe you try to avoid.
More information on the trip: http://lilleshanghai.travelmap.fr/