You know something has gone very wrong when your other half is willingly putting his hands down his pants in public. In our case it's at the top of a snowy 4,800-metre mountain on the Sichuan-Tibet border, freezing cold and stuck in a blizzard. Thankfully, the only onlookers were a bunch of ominously horned yaks who seemed rather mystified as to why two white folk with fully laden bikes were interrupting their usual peace and quiet with various expletives about the weather. "I've read that your groin is the warmest part of your body, I'm trying to defrost," says Charlie, offering an explanation for his bizarre behaviour.
We had been cycling for hours, it was too cold and rocky to set up camp at altitude, and there had been no settlements for kilometres. To top it all off, the sun was rapidly setting."Why on earth did I agree to this?" I wonder, as we finally began our freezing cold descent, snot dribbling down my nose and my hands turning to ice. From the look on Charlie's face he was clearly thinking the same thing. "This" is cycling from Malaysia, where we had been living and working for the past 18 months, back home to Britain. Welcome to cycle touring.
A few hours later, warm water in hand, ensconced around a small fire in a village shop with a bunch of locals scratching their heads at our presence we remembered why; if you like travelling, cycling gives you a unique, off-the-beaten track experience, one I have never found elsewhere.
Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said: "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them."
It's been over a month since we left Tibet — and having left drops of sweat throughout Southeast Asia and China, but been rewarded by stunning views and the smug satisfaction of having hauled my backside up the said hills, I am inclined to agree with him.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
For me, cycling is not about transport but about personal connections. If you want your faith in humanity restored, I recommend getting on a bike. The vulnerability of it opens strangers up to you. We had people buy us lunch and cups of tea in Malaysia; in Thailand, we were given "lucky Buddha beads", food, and we had a broken spoke fixed for free. We've never had such a welcome as we did in Laos, with village children shouting and smiling, and waving so hard we thought their arms were going to come off. In China, excitable, gregarious crowds gathered to watch something as mundane as buying bananas; and in Kazakhstan, we had people invite us to stay in their homes, stop their cars to give us fish and bread, and were given numerous telephone numbers on the street "just in case you need help". All in all, a humbling and truly human experience.
NO EXPERIENCE REQUIRED
I should add that I am no cyclist — or rather, I wasn't. The most I'd ever cycled until we set off on this trip was to and from lectures at university. To answer the oft-asked question, "Wow, how much are you training for this?" I would nonchalantly shrug and reply: "Cycling every day will get me fit." I figured a healthy dose of the head-in-the-sand approach was needed to cycle 20,000km or so. In hindsight, this was probably a bad idea.
On week two of the trip, just outside Penang, Malaysia, with my legs burning, I threw my bike down, had a tantrum not unlike that of a three-year-old, and declared: "I hate cycling, I hate Charlie for coming up with this stupid idea, and I'm not pedalling an inch further." Thankfully, Charlie convinced me that it's a mental challenge more than a physical one, a mantra I tried to keep in mind as the 7,000-metre mountain ranges of Central Asia approached.
Prepared or underprepared, cyclist or couch potato, get on your bike. Whether it's a weekend jaunt around your city, or a fully fledged long-distance tour, there is no better way to involve yourself in a place than on two wheels — ideally without your hands down your pants.
A few things before you saddle up
We had no set route or timeline as we wanted to be flexible and ask for local advice. Consequently, a friend of ours joked: "It's amazing how little preparation you need to cycle half way around the world."
However, we were more organised than we looked. Get the big stuff sorted and then you can relax and enjoy the ride.
- Get vaccinated. You will be cycling (and probably camping) in remote areas.
- Invest in decent equipment (see kit section).
- Carry enough water and emergency rations, as there may be days when you don't find a shop.
- Get local maps. We used Galileo maps (can be used offline, galileo-app.com) and Google maps on our iPhone.
- Carry a maintenance kit with spare parts. We had to deal with broken spokes, chains and punctures while on the road.
- We carried a picture book,
- The Wordless Travel Book (amazon.com) depicting everyday essentials such as toilet paper, towels and basic food items — useful when you can't speak the local language.
- Surly's Long Haul Trucker (surlybikes.com) has a steel frame, which is easier to weld than aluminium or titanium if something goes wrong in remote areas.
- To allay the fears of our friends and family we had a SPOT GPS tracking device that can send out emergency SOS calls if we got in trouble. international.findmespot.com
- Our tent was a Macpac Citadel which has masses of porch space, ideal for touring panniers. macpac.com.au