Life on the road: questions & answers about the trip
Over the past 8 months we’ve been asked a lot of questions about the trip and what life on the road is like. Here we attempt to answer the questions that always seem to crop up…
THE GOOD BITS
– Beach camps
– Cycling the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan
– Food in Turkey
– Cycle paths in Korea
– Backcountry roads in Japan
– National Parks in America
THE BAD BITS
– Mosquitoes everywhere
– Tent condensation all the time
– Headwinds in the desert
– Will’s bike frame snapping in half in China
– Bad food and rough roads in Central Asia
– Being chased by dogs in Turkey
– Cycling through winter in Texas
HARDEST ASPECT OF THE TRIP
The schedule. Life was pretty relentless on the road. The hardest part of the trip wasn’t the actual cycling it was the living when we were off the bike. Waking up in an often wet tent, preparing breakfast, packing everything away into panniers, getting it out again to dry when the sun was up, packing it all away again, unpacking it all at night for camp, cooking dinner and then doing it all again day after day. I’m sure we spent the best part of 4-5 hours everyday doing some sort of packing or unpacking. As the trip went on and the days started to getting shorter, the schedule got more intense as we had live quicker and cycle faster in order to do the distances required in day light. . Throughout the whole trip there was actually very little time for reflecting on where we had been or what we had done. It would have been a lot easier if we hadn’t set return date, but then it wouldn’t have been the challenge that we wanted.
Uzbekistan. Rubbish roads, horrendous food, desert, mosquitoes. There was not much to love. We were both very ill in Uzbekistan from the food. We lived for weeks off cold oats soaked in water and the best food we could find was stale bread, eggs and the odd water melon. The diet took its toll on our energy levels and crossing the country seemed to take an eternity.
Difficult question as every country was different. In Serbia and Turkey the people were incredibly friendly. Kyrgyzstan was memorable for its stunning scenery and mountain passes. China was a huge learning curve as everything was so unfamiliar. Japan was probably the highlight though. It had everything and the food was the best of the trip.
WHICH COUNTRY WAS THE FRIENDLIEST AND WHICH THE LEAST FRIENDLY?
The least friendly was probably Romania. We had high expectations of Romania, but I think we went through a dodgy part as everywhere we went we just felt like you were being eyed up by gypsies on the side of the road and then chased by their dogs. The friendliest countries were Serbia, Turkey and probably China.
The hardship involved in our ride across America. We underestimated the terrain we would be crossing in the wild west of America. It’s a big country and because the infrastructure there is designed for motorists you can easily find yourself having to bridge huge gaps between food and water stops. When crossing the Mojave desert we had a 300km gap to bridge with one food and water stop on the way. The shop turned out to be closed. So we spent a whole day cycling without food and water.
STRANGEST THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU
A night of Georgian hospitality. We had pitched our tents in the corner of a field just as the sun was coming down. A group of men spotted us and came waltzing across the valley, clutching bottles of homemade wine. A few hours later we were back at their family home toasting Stalin and downing wine from cow horns. The next morning, feeling very ropey, we were served up a breakfast of cow hoof stew and vodka, which pushed both of our constitutions to the limit. Guia and his family were lovely but one night of Georgian hospitality was more than enough for us.
WHERE DID YOU SLEEP?
We carried tents and for about 60% of the trip slept in these off the side of the road somewhere. We slept in some odd places – under motorways, in building sites, on rice terraces, office car parks and in city parks. Sometimes we didn’t bother with tents at all and just slept out under the stars. Sleeping was never really a problem on this trip. In America camping became more challenging because of the lack of daylight hours and the arrival of winter so we spent a lot of time in cheap motels.
WERE YOU ABLE TO WASH?
Our hygiene standards definitely dropped once we entered the desert in Kazakhstan. We were rarely in towns and drinking water became increasingly precious as we entered the deserts in the hot summer months. We got used to washing the important bits with about 400 ml of water and a sponge everyday. The longest we went without a shower was 12 days through Gansu province in western China.
WHAT DID YOU EAT?
In Europe we ate well. We had lot’s of sandwiches from Carrefour supermarket to start with. Into Eastern Europe the food quality started going downhill, as there’s a lot of greasy sausage and pickled stuff. In Turkey the food was amazing (lots of kebabs and pides) and Georgia was outright gluttony – cheese and pastry everywhere. We had both gained a little bit of weight by the time we got to Baku. All muscle we tell ourselves. From there on food quality went downhill rapidly. In Uzbekistan there was very little edible food around and we were both very ill from eating in roadside chaikhanas. In China we subsisted off pot noodles from petrol stations for nearly 40 days. That was after we were served up a stew of chicken beak and foot smothered in burn your face off chilli on the first day. In Korea and Japan the food was excellent. In America the food was good when you could find little independent cafes, but we often had to live out of fast food joints (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway etc) as there was no other choice. They really took their toll and we were all thoroughly sick of them by the end of the trip.
HOW FAR DID YOU CYCLE PER DAY?
We averaged 100km every day for 8 months including days off. In order to have a day off we needed to buy ourselves time by doing extra distance. The furthest we cycled in a day was 225km and we averaged 122km per day on the days that we cycled.
WHEN WERE YOU MOST SCARED?
The most terrifying moment of the trip was our foray up into the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. We ended up in the middle of a huge lightning storm. Thunder was clapping around our ears and lightning was striking only a few meters off the side of the road. There was no shelter so we had to keep cycling up hill through the driving rain to the nearest town to find shelter. We both felt very lucky to be alive. We were also chased by dogs in Romania and Turkey and physically blown off our bikes by a huge cross winds in the desert in China.
HOW DID PEOPLE TREAT YOU ALONG THE WAY?
Despite what the news would have you believe it’s not such a big bad world out there. 99% of people that we met along the way were very welcoming and friendly. In Turkey we could barely cycle 10km without being invited in for a cup of tea. In Kazakhstan the long distance truckers would pick us up when we got stuck in the desert. In China, Korea and Japan you could leave your belongings unlocked and unattended for half a day safe in the knowledge that some locals would keep an eye on them. And in America people would stop their car on the side of the road and offer to buy you lunch. We’ve experienced all the best bits of human nature on this trip.
ANY ENCOUNTERS WITH WILDLIFE?
We’ve actually had surprisingly few encounters with wildlife along the way. We had an altercation with a wild boar in Hungary in the middle of the night and we’ve come across some pretty nasty looking spiders. It wasn’t until America that we started to see lots of wildlife. Unfortunately it was mostly roadkill, dead on the side of the road.
WHAT WAS THE WEATHER LIKE?
Overall we have been surprised by how little rain we’ve had. The day we left London was probably the wettest day of the whole trip. Across Europe to Turkey was generally pretty wet, but after that we hardly had any rain until we got to Japan. It rained once while crossing America. The heat was never really a huge problem despite it topping 40C in the deserts. We learnt to live with it, seeking shelter in the middle of the day when we could. The wind was more of an issue. We’ve cycled through some very exposed places where there is no escape. In western china we were completely at the mercy of the wind. If it was against you, life was miserable, if it was with you, you were flying.
HOW DID THE BIKES HOLD UP?
The bikes (Pearsons, ‘I may be some time’, touring bikes) did really well. We had quite a light weight set-up as we planned to stay on tarmac roads as much as possible. That said we were still carrying 25 kg of kit each. We changed the whole drive train once in Baku because of the wear from the wet weather in Europe. After that we changed our chain every 2000-2500 km and the drive train then lasted all the way to Miami. The bolts on our pannier racks snapped a couple of times, we replaced our tyres once, my right break leaver broke in New Orleans and Johan’s back wheel lost 5 spokes across America. We had our fair share of punctures but solely from little bits of wire from blown out truck tyres in the hard shoulders of the major highways. My bike frame did snap in half in China after a crash in Kyrgyzstan but that was self-inflicted and nothing to do with the bike. The steel frame meant it was able to be repaired.
DID YOU HAVE PROBLEMS WITH OTHER VEHICLES ON THE ROAD?
Some of the driving in Eastern Europe was pretty ropey and the same in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Navigating our way across Istanbul was probably one of the worst bits of the trip in terms of road traffic. After Kazakhstan, cars and trucks were so few and far between that they were never really an issue. In Japan our bikes were bigger than most of the cars on the road, so redressed the power balance slightly. We had to spend some time on the interstates in America to cross some big gaps which wasn’t fun and the roads in Louisiana were probably the most scary of the trip.
HOW DID THE TRIP AFFECT YOU PHYSICALLY?
We have both returned slightly heavier than when we left. That’s largely down to American food and their super-size portions. In Central Asia we lost quite a lot of weight due to illness and pot noodles in China probably weren’t adequate nutrition so by the time we reached Korea we were both pretty slim. It’s amazing that you can cycle nearly everyday for 8 months and still gain weight.
DO YOU NEED TO BE A STRONG CYCLIST TO DO A TRIP LIKE THIS?
No. About 1/3 of the trip was about cycling and 2/3 about life off the bikes. You build your fitness in the first few weeks on the road and Europe is an easy place to survive so it’s a nice way to relax into camping and life on the go. As you get stronger on the bike you become less tired when you’re off it making life easier and giving you more time to relax. Having said that it probably wasn’t until China that we properly felt relaxed about our routine.
HOW WAS IT HAVING TWO FRIENDS JOIN YOU IN AMERICA?
By the time we arrived in Tokyo we were definitely ready for a bit of company as we had both become quite feral. If we’d flown home from Tokyo I think it would have been a huge shock, for everyone. We were both so excited to see them in San Francisco but also wary the trip was about to become very different. And it did. We rode as two separate pairs (Will & Anna, Johan & Reece) for the first month and then as a four for the rest of the trip. Group dynamics was the biggest challenge as it took a while for 4 people to synchronise and understand each other completely. It was probably only the last few weeks when we were truly comfortable cycling as a four. Having said that we had a lot of fun and experienced people and places in different ways making the last stretch across America more enjoyable than it otherwise might have been.
HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
All in the trip cost £10,000. This includes everything from buying all the kit beforehand (bikes, panniers, tents, cameras etc), visas, travel insurance and so on. This roughly breaks down as £3000 pre-departure, £4000 London to Tokyo (£25/day/person) and £3000 (£40/day/person) San Francisco to Miami. America was expensive and because we had a bit more fun along the way (Las Vegas casinos, American football games etc).
WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?
Will: Yes, but in a different and less relentless way. By the time we hit Japan I felt like I was so in zone and comfortable with life on the road that I could keep going indefinitely. It was a great feeling. But to be honest I probably won’t take on anything again that takes so long. I’ve got the confidence to survive pretty much most places now, so there’s nothing stopping me getting on my bike and heading for the hills for a week or so.
Johan: No. I have no regrets. It was a once in a lifetime adventure and I loved it, but for me it was definitely a once in a lifetime trip. Such a prolonged length of time on the road living a nomadic lifestyle takes its toll in invisible ways and I’m feeling the effects now. That said, cycle touring will likely become my preferred holiday but I think two weeks at a time is enough. I have loved the freedom that comes with bike touring and I imagine myself escaping the city on weekends to explore with a small tent on the back to camp under motorways again…
WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO DO NEXT?
Will: I am heading back to my old job at Farmers Weekly. I was enjoying it before I left and hope that will continue to be the case. I am also flat broke so need to start earning money again.
Johan: Before the trip I was sure of what I wanted to do next. However, after eight months of thinking time I am much clearer on what is important to me and it has all but ruled out the original plan. I’m currently exploring a couple of different options, which are potentially very exciting but also a bit scary. Watch this space!