In February 2017 I met one of the most extraordinary human beings in
Beijing. A woman who cycled from England to China... CYCLED... as in
bicycled. Naturally, an interview was in order.
1 What inspired you to cycle around the world?
I have always been an outdoorsy sort. I grew up in rural Devon, spending lots of my youth cycling, camping, surfing and hiking and prior to leaving on this trip I had been living on a boat just outside Bath since 2001. However, reaching the age of 39 and realising that I hadn't done the travelling that I wanted to do spurred me on to make the leap shortly before my 40th Birthday. I had also read Dervla Murphy’s book “Full Tilt” about 6 years ago. It had been fermenting in my mind and eventually exploded into a eureka moment full of ‘wow .. the world .. cycling .. what possibilities there are’. Inspiration for me was a combination of long held dreams, fear of time passing and the chance reading of a book all colliding and leaving me with the sensation of ‘now’ being the right time!!
2 How long did it take you to cycle your route?
I left Salford, near Bath, on 21st March 2015, a sunny Saturday morning and a day later than I had originally planned. Dates (other than visa requirements) are all too often changed to suit my disorganised route ‘planning’ and general ramshackle style of cycle touring! I finally arrived in Chengdu, China on February 18th 2016, after a nice meandering route through Europe, the west part of Central Asia, the north west of China and a quick visa run to Hong Kong.
3 Why did you choose your specific route?
My routes are always planned close to the time of getting there. I have a very organic sense of route planning … the people I meet, the time of year, and the terrain at any given time all play a massive part in directing me. There have been too many instances of me making plans only to have them railroaded by very kind, well-meaning people who want me to see the best of their country or region. After all, who better to give route setting advice than the locals?! To my mind this practice of having a Plan B but allowing Plan A to evolve naturally is the best way to travel. I often get to see places that I would never have considered visiting and end up getting a ‘real’ feel of the country especially if I have had conversations with said locals, only later understanding why they suggested a particular route or place.
The initial part of my route through Europe was determined by my desire to have a positive ‘shake down’ (kit test) as I was going, coupled with my eagerness and determination to (as far as possible) avoid flying.
4 How did you maintain your physical and mental strength in order to complete your journey?
Interesting question!! Well firstly (spoiler alert!!) the journey is not completed and I am currently cycling on a rather unusual route towards India!! With regard to my physical fitness I am painfully aware that as a result of spending a lot of time in the saddle I am now very cycle fit but have much lower walking/running fitness. The muscle tone in different parts of my body has changed (decreased in some and increased in others). My entire system has changed to accommodate doing what some people consider an extreme activity! I am not good at stretching and doing yoga but after a recent knee strain these are activities that I am trying to put into daily practice. We all know that eating a varied diet and keeping well hydrated are essential in challenging climates. Nevertheless it is not always possible to have the varied diet that might be recommended for this sort of activity but I am conscious that I have to pay my body back when I get to big cities by resting and eating well!!
With regard to my mental strength I have been amazed at how my thinking has evolved and that I am very conscious of ‘time’. Nothing lasts forever .. no discomfort, no pain, no sadness, no joy … and with this has come an easier acceptance of the tough times (because I know they will pass) and a greater gratitude for the good times (because I know they will pass). I have never been afraid of time on my own and solo touring gives me plenty of that!!
5 What was the highlight of your journey?
Tough question! There are so many amazing things that happen that sometimes I feel like I am going to burst with it all!! Reaching the top of a mountain pass after a long climb and seeing the world stretch out beneath you, meeting children, women and men who want to chat about their culture and are interested in mine, seeing a wide expanse of water after an ‘eternity’ of being landlocked, eating a new food that gives me that intense and unknown taste explosion, communication with people in their first language and seeing the joy on their faces that I am making that effort …. so many things are amazing which is why I keep touring!!
6 What was your lowest point?
Hmmm … equally difficult to pin point one but I think instances of theft, sexual assault and of injury feature equally high but for different reasons. In several countries I have experienced men trying to assert power over me physically and through verbal sexual assault: cruising along side and hanging out of a car window demanding sex in a threatening manner and grabbing my breast in the middle of a conversation. These instances leave me feeling shaken and unstable for a time and then it’s important for me to have time on my own to feel safe again and to put them into perspective. I have also had an unfortunate amount of kit stolen which feels violating when I have so little and everything feels essential to my survival. Injury always ensures I temporarily grind to a halt and rest, both to salve the physical pain and also the emotional stresses that it causes. All of these instances have given me things to learn, it’s cliched but true … what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, more aware and more confident, after the events are over.
7 Did you ever consider giving up? and what made you continue?
I’ve never seriously considered giving up! I have some days that are harder than others but I am well aware that the positives of cycle touring for me far outweigh the negatives. It’s about being grateful for the opportunity I have taken and for being realistic and allowing myself to be angry, hurt, tired, hungry, scared (in that moment) but as mentioned before, realising that it won’t last forever and moving forward!
8 What advice would you give to somebody else planning the same trip?
Set a date, get a bike, enjoy planning a rough route, get a small amount of essential kit (you can buy more as and when you need it but consider where that might be as the further away from Europe you are the harder it will become), save up some money (but don't postpone if you haven’t met your target!), GO!!!!
You will work it all out as you travel. If you go through Europe you will have an amazingly long buffer in which to find any necessary kit, hone your (wild) camping skills and develop greater confidence in yourself. I’m not sure much else is needed!!!
9 Which home comforts did you miss the most? (if any)
Marmite!! Having a long bath!! My cats!! My friends and family!! The sea!! (not necessarily in that order!!)
10 Would you consider cycling the reverse journey?
Well not quite the reverse but a route back to the UK is part of the long term plan. Watch this space to see how things progress!!!
11 Did you meet any inspiring people along the way?
I meet inspiring people daily!! The playful, positive, curious children I talk to, the parents in different countries doing what needs to be done for their families, the students asserting themselves in their communities and focusing on the importance of their education, the individuals challenging the norm in their culture and following their own rules, the other cyclists and travellers who are all ‘on the road’ for different reasons, in different ways and at different ages. I love meeting people and finding that they are challenging my ideas and my prejudices (we all have them somewhere, if we keep them too under wraps they won’t change and hopefully evaporate). People inspire me to think, to learn, to dance, to play, to be joyful in the moment, to create, to try to understand, to love … I am also slowly developing a greater sense of gratitude. People are amazing!!
12 Were there any moments you feared for your safety?
I have had a couple of accidents (falling off the bike) and have felt uncomfortable/unsafe talking to certain people but I think the most consistent issues that I have with regards to safety are the behaviours of truck and car drivers in different countries. There have been too many instances where I have felt like the cat who has just lost another of its nine lives to the proximity and speed of a passing vehicle. I only hope my luck doesn't run out … but as I have said to people in the past, should anything happen to me whilst cycle touring it doesn't then make the whole journey a bad idea! It’s the best idea I have ever had and I wouldn't swap any of it!!
13 What was the first thing you wanted to do when you finally arrived at your destination?
If I consider the ‘destination’ to be Chengdu in this instance then … I ate a ton of Mapa Tofu!!! My favourite Sichuan dish!!
14 Did you train for long before embarking on your journey? and what training did you undertake?
The best training for a long bike ride is a long bike ride!!! No, I didn't do any training but have always had an active life with lots of cycling in it, so I wasn't worried about that. When you start out the weight you are carrying stops you from going fast and over the course of the following month you gradually develop the strength needed to pull that weight at greater speeds, for longer days and more easily up mountain passes! It’s all a dynamic process which is great as long as you listen to your bodies needs and respond accordingly. I’m not a fast tourer, I'm just steady!! I will get to the top of the pass at a consistently moderate pace and I'm happy with that!!!
15 If you could do the journey again what changes would you make?
I think I would start with less than I left with in 2015 and see how long I could manage before needing more kit! I like having more than bike packers do but definitely want to keep the weight down. In an ideal world I would have also learnt some Russian before leaving!! In Central Asia (which I love) it’s such a bonus to have more than just a few words at your command and Russian is spoken everywhere there … however, it is a point of principle for me to learn at least some of the local language or dialect so I can politely ask for things or attempt a conversation with people … it’s another aspect of learning: language and culture go together!!
Thanks for taking an interest in my journey Kavita! If you want to follow me further I use Instagram (boats.and.bikes), Facebook (@wideeyedviews) and my rather sporadically written blog is www.wideeyedviews.wordpress.com
Best wishes for your continued travels!!
(Big thanks to Rae for sharing her journey. K x)