Phillippa Stewart

Taking a tour of the world by bicycle comes with its ups and downs.

Phillippa Stewart

It wasn't until I was sitting in dirt on the side of a road in Malaysia, sobbing and sweating, that I really regretted not training for my bike trip. Goodness knows what the locals made of me, a disheveled and sniveling mat salleh howling profanities to my boyfriend, with hair clinging to my beetroot face.

“I can’t do this,” I screamed. “My legs hurt, I’m tired, and I’m pretty sure I am developing a nice red sore on my bum.”

By “this,” I meant a yearlong bike trip that covered more than 9,787 miles and crossed 23 countries, from Malaysia back home to London. Only three weeks in, I nearly gave up.

I was no cyclist. The most I’d ever ridden was around the university campus: hardly the Tour de France. Yet I still, however foolishly, made the decision not to train for this trip. But even on Malaysia’s flat, easy roads I regretted the decision. We hadn't even reached the challenging mountain ranges of China or Central Asia. 

Having spent the better part of two hours persuading me not to jack it all in and catch the first flight home, my boyfriend said something to I clung to for the remainder of the trip.

“Pip,” Charlie said, “this is a mental challenge, not a physical one.”

Motivated to trust my mind—and to ignore my howling muscles—I picked myself out of the dirt, and we continued on our adventure. 

To say the rest of the journey was smooth sailing would be a lie. On the Pamir Highway (the second highest road in the world), we narrowly avoided an unexploded mortar on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. We only discovered the rusty shell—which sat inches from where our heads had rested in the night—as we were packed down the tent.

And on China’s Sichuan-Tibet border we were caught in a blizzard. With only a herd of inquisitive yaks as witnesses, we shoved our frozen hands into our underwear to defrost our numb fingers. If you’re ever stuck at altitude and desperate for a way to warm up, it turns out Charlie was right: your groin is the warmest part of your body.

Biking is arguably the best way to really get to know a country—and its people—intimately. You will find yourself welcomed into people’s homes, and you will travel at a pace fast enough to get there but slow enough to see things in confounding detail.

From our bicycle seats, we saw the wilds of Kazakhstan and the unparalleled architecture of Uzbekistan. We saw men on horseback grappling over a headless goat in Central Asia during a rousing buzkashi match (perhaps the most unusual form of polo you will ever witness). We passed through Ashgabat—the gleaming white, marble city in the capital of Turkmenistan—and drank the sweetest wine in Georgia. In Romania and Bulgaria we out-cycled dogs we took a (much-needed) communal bath in Budapest. 

Over the course of a year we were invited into people’s homes dozens of times, offered meals, tea, and a warm welcome. In Uzbekistan we were literally hauled, hot and sweaty, off our bikes, and danced into a wedding celebration. In Kazakhstan we dined with policemen, learned to shoot (cans only) with a poet, and chatted to a 20-something woman who had shunned the convention of marriage to open her home town's first 24-hour convenience store.

In Thailand we met a Dutch family that had been cycling together for five years. The parents had taken their kids out of school when they were 10 and 11, and had been educating them on the road. And in China, we discussed the merits of the Tibetan sky burial, in which human remains are offered to the birds. After all those thousands of miles, after so many days of dirt roads and mountain passes, I was almost convinced of this back-to-nature approach—and of doing things just a little bit differently than everyone else. 

Related: Five Things To Do in Bangkok

I finished the trip fitter, both mentally and physically, and with a renewed faith in humanity. As many adventure travelers can attest: when you push yourself out of your comfort zone as amazing things can happen. The hardest part is always making the decision to take the leap.


Practical Tips for Bicycling Around the World

I’m a great believer in just following the road, but you do need to do a certain amount of organization for a successful tour.

Before You Set Off:

Phillippa Stewart

● Get the right injections. Very often you’ll be camping in rural areas, where medical care is less than, well, available. Be sure to get your recommended vaccinations. Avoiding them is foolish.

● Learn as much language as you can. Every word you can speak abroad is gold. I’d recommend picking up The Wordless Travel Book. It has pictures of everyday objects—useful when you’re trying to avoid miming the word for toilet roll!

● If you don’t know how to fix a punctured tire, it’s worth practicing before you go. Many bike shops offer maintenance classes to help get you up to speed.

● We had more punctures than I can remember, plus broken spokes and snapped chains. Definitely carry a maintenance kit with spare parts.

● Water is key so always know where you can find some, and carry water purification tablets or other devices if you’re sourcing water off-road. A particularly rough road in Kazakhstan meant we were slower than expected getting to the next town. We had to crack into our emergency rations—and nearly ran out. Make sure you’re carrying enough. Always.

● We relied on our phone for navigation using offline Galileo maps at galileo-app.com. Because electricity sockets were not a guarantee, we always made sure we had a portable charger with us, too.

● We traveled to some remote areas so we had a SPOT GPS tracking device that can send out emergency SOS calls if you find yourself in trouble. Give your mother some peace of mind.

Your Travel Essentials:

Phillippa Stewart

You don’t need to buy the most expensive kit to tour. We met people cycling around on busted up old bikes with postbags for panniers—so you definitely don't need to spend a huge amount.

● Bike-wise, I’d recommend going from something sturdy, ideally with a steel frame, especially if you’re planning on going off the beaten track. Steel is easier to weld than aluminum or titanium if something goes wrong. We used Surly's Long Haul Trucker (surlybikes.com).

● Our panniers were Ortlieb. Look for something waterproof and spacious enough to carry all your gear.

● The Macpac Citadel was our tent of choice as it has masses of porch space, which is ideal for touring panniers.

Country-Specific Info

Phillippa Stewart

● Always check out the visa situation before you set off, especially because how many days you have on your visa will determine your pace across a country.

● For traveling in Central Asia we found Caravanistan to be a fabulous resource for understanding visa requirements (like letters of recommendation) in the region.

● If you want local experiences (and to save money) I can really recommend spending a night with a WarmShowers host. Think of it as couch surfing for cyclists. Great fun and a good way to cycle with locals and make new friends.

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