IT was a bloody cold “summers” day in Inverness, Scotland when my boyfriend Scott and I pushed our two loaded bicycles onto the road with the vague plan of pedalling around the world. We were at the business end of our 20s, we could count the amount of times we’d camped on one hand and the longest bike tour we’d ever previously done was two days.
We were rookies, woefully naive rookies, but as that incessant Scottish drizzle sunk into our still gleaming Goretex jackets it was the sheer ignorance of it all that inspired us to put foot to pedal.
More than 11,000km and 18 months later we reached China. We cycled through 19 countries, we battled open weeping saddle sores, we spent days bakery hoping through European countryside, we pushed our soggy rigs up muddy passes in Central Asia and we even slept in a crack den.
We had massive ups, massive downs and long stretches of “meh” but through it all we couldn’t help but learn a few crucial lessons – and here they are.
- The bad things often turn out to be the good things. It was halfway through the “Roof of the World” in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan, that the nasty parasite known as Gardia struck and I lost complete control of my bowels. I didn’t quite make it to the nearest bush and one compromised pair of pants later I was lying in the foetal position hoping death would strike fast. It didn’t, I survived and a month later I even managed to laugh about it. It not only became my favourite travel story, but I found that times like these tend to bring you even closer to your loved ones.
- You will get a flat tyre, and it will be in the rain. Before leaving for our world cycle tour I pictured trundling along country roads with flowers blossoming besides me and relaxing campfire feasts amid a glorious sunset. Ok, I managed to get a couple of those days in but the reality was usually this: two minute noodles cooked in a wet and heavy dew, slogging and sweating my guts out up a washboard dirt track and wild dogs chasing me as I hoped like hell the road would dip down. Truth be told I wouldn’t have it any other way (especially as I write this from the comfort of my couch) but what I learned through it all is that the worst thing that could happen usually does at the worst possible time – and the best thing is you will survive it.
People are much nicer than Fox News would have you believe. In 18 months of travel I had just one thing stolen – a velcro strap, from inside my pannier, by a thieving dog in Portugal. To be honest it was my fault – I shouldn’t have left the bag open – but this cheeky pooch would turn out to be the most sinister fiend I’d find in 19 countries. Ok, not everyone has your best interests at heart (and there are thieves, murderers and just bad guys lurking in the shadows) but these people are few and far between and what we’ve seen is overwhelming generosity. A family in Iran (in the ferocious Middle East) put us up for a week, feeding us, caring for us and showing us the sites while refusing to take so much as a dollar) while countless others stopped to give us food, water or just kind words. We’ll forever be in the debt of the random strangers we met while travelling.
- The world might be round, but it’s also mostly uphill. A part from the very notable exception of Holland, I’ll swear on my life we’ve been pedalling up since Scotland. So while what must come up, must go down, don’t forget it often goes right back up again!
- Don’t be afraid to drink the local water – unless you’re in Central Asia. Remember that nasty parasite I was talking about? Well unless you want to spend three months panicking every time you fart I suggest you don’t just take a water filter and purifying tablets to Central Asia, but some bloody good antibiotics too. In saying that we guzzled down the water in Turkey and Iran (against traveller advice) and didn’t get so much as a gurgly belly. Moral to the story? Take risks, but know when to be sensible.
- Your budget is a load of dog poo and you’ll probably run out of money six months earlier than you planned. For two years we scrimped and saved our pennies in order to travel footless and fancy free for four years. Less than two years into our travels we were down to our last couple of thousand. Stuff happens, and when it does happen it’s often pricey. Visas, hotels (when you just can’t bare another night of camping), food from that delicious Roman restaurant because it would be a crime not to go and even just the odd museum pass rack up enormously. And you know what? That’s ok. Because at the end of the day you’re seeing the world and it would be a crying shame if you missed half the good stuff. At the end of the day money’s as fickle as the weather and you can always make more. Right now we’re teaching English in China to get the funds to keep going and our blown budget means we get to spend a year intimately getting to know a new culture.
- Nothing is truly waterproof. I’m not even going to tell you how much we spent on gear pre-trip because to be frank, it’s downright embarrassing. But what I will tell you is that the $500 Goretex jacket I bought turned out to be as useful as a plastic bag (perhaps even less). Just four months in, during a particularly nasty downpour in Morocco, I discovered just how rubbish my jacket was and as a result I had a pretty bloody wet and miserable night. The same goes for your tent and your shoe covers. Moral to the story? You will get wet, and if you’re that averse to it spend your money on a hotel room instead!
- Become a “yes” person. I’m like a lot of people – outgoing in comfortable situations, and ridiculously reserved in the opposite scenario. I don’t trust people, I get nervous around complete strangers in a foreign country and I’m pathetically paranoid about being ripped off. So for the first half of my trip I was a “no” person. When offered food, companionship or just a cup of tea from a local I made my excuses and moved on. Some fellow travellers opened our eyes to the latter way of thinking and it changed our trip. We shared feasts with families in the Middle East, we drank tea with a young soldier in Morocco who gave us his living room to sleep in for the night and we even hung out with an engineer in rustic Tajikistan who welcomed us into his home for a midday eating session. It made our trip all the richer.
Don’t be scared to ask for directions. And while we’re on the topic, don’t be scared to ask for other stuff either. People are usually willing to help and by simply asking for it we’ve scored some amazing opportunities. In Turkey a simple request for “somewhere to put our tent” landed us a room in the newly built house of a Kurdish man and in China the same thing allowed us to escape a blizzard and spend a night in the barracks of an ambulance station. People rock and you should remember this when you need help.
- Travel will change your life, but old habits die hard. While cycling down a dirt road in Kazakhstan Scott and I discussed our lives post trip. “We’ll definitely live more simply after this,” I announced to the agreement of Scott. “I just can’t see myself wanting fancy clothes and makeup again.” Two weeks after deciding we would take a year’s “sabbatical” in China I had some new jeans, lipstick and a gleaming new smart phone. I like to think my trip has made me a little more open minded, a little more courageous and a little more resilient – but let’s be honest: I’ll always like a nice shampoo, a laptop and a fluffy down duvet too!