Over the years, as we’ve prepared for our tour, we’ve followed a number of cyclists who were already out there experiencing the world from the seat of a bicycle. Anxiously following their adventures online, their blogs provided inspirational fodder for our dreams. Although we hadn’t met a single one of these cyclists personally, we felt intricately connected to them somehow, and were moved by their online reflections, their struggles, and their triumphs.
We recently contacted some of these folks, to find out what motivated them to pursue long term travel, what challenges they faced, both in preparing for their trips and while on the road, and what advice they would offer others dreaming of traveling. Thus begins our “Cycling Shorts” – a series of short Q & A sessions with cyclists who are traveling or have traveled the world by bicycle. The answers we received in response to our questions were as varied and unique as the travelers themselves, but each of them offers us a glimpse of what it means to respond to the call of the open road.
Erin & Sam Barkley
Immediately drawn in by their journal’s tag line: “A Honeymoon to Remember: A Newlywed Test of Physical and Relationship Endurance“, we first discovered Erin and Sam’s journal on crazyguyonabike.com. We loved their photos, the flow of their journals, and their sense of adventure. This isn’t just another cycling blog — we found Erin and Sam to be highly engaging and refreshingly real. With a healthy dose of curiosity and a well-rounded knowledge of issues around the world, they put themselves in the thick of it, visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, an elementary school in the Kaghan Valley of Pakistan, and riding along the border that seperates Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
My husband Sam and I (Erin) embarked on our honeymoon in the summer of 2008 beginning in Kazakhstan. We traveled for 21 months through 31 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, riding 11,300 miles. We made a circle through Russia, Mongolia, China and Southeast Asia before we hit the mountains in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The we rode across the steppes of Central Asia before delving into conflict and culture in the Middle East and Levant. We finished in central Europe, a quiet ride after the thrills of Asia.
Why did you decide to travel full time? What did you want to accomplish by travelling?
We wanted to see stuff. There was a lot on each of our lists we wanted to see, and we decided we could get way more done in a large chunk than you can in smaller trips spread over years. Also, life isn’t that long, so we saw an opportunity and we took it. We were at a crossroads in our careers, and knew we wanted to quit our jobs to move closer to family. It was a good opportunity to take a couple year break while making that transition.
How long did it take you to plan for long term travelling?
We started day dreaming two years before our departure. For the first year it was almost joking about taking a big trip. We started to think about where we would want to go and how we would want to travel. It was a long debate about whether to do it by bicycle or by motorcycle. One year before departure we became more serious about it, starting to believe it might really work. We planned intensively for that year – Sam built our bikes the summer before so we could test them, we started buying and testing gear, creating spreadsheets full of visa regs and border access, reading more about different countries, lining up our house for sale, telling our bosses so we didn’t get assigned to long-term projects at work etc.
What was the number one personal fear you had about taking the leap and realizing your dream of full time travel?
Erin: The fear of serious bodily injury. We decided to forgo insurance (don’t tell my mom) because of the expense versus the accessibility of cheap medical resources abroad. Fortunately nothing happened to us.
Sam: not being able to pay down our student loan debt while we traveled. We both got a forbearance for most of the trip but interest still accrued.
What was the number one obstacle you had to overcome to be able to start off on your adventure?
The first day of our trip, when we landed at 2am in the middle of Kazakhstan. We couldn’t believe it was actually beginning, and were so psyched that we started riding immediately – at 3am through a large Kazakh city. It was Erin’s first bicycle tour, we were giddy and hyper with the novelty of it. We were giggling deliriously and so thrilled seeing that all our planning and dreaming was becoming a reality.
Describe a moment or experience on your trip where you felt low/tired/pathetically human.
Sam: a few of the arguments we had with each other.
Erin: Arguing with a taxi driver over a double charge. I got so irate and indignant that she would double charge us. This was in China, where we had quickly wearied of the obvious 10x increase in prices for foreigners, and when we had asked at the bus station for a bus to a distant village, everyone automatically funneled us towards this taxi – we thought hm, there must not be a bus available. Oh no, it was just that the whole system colludes to rip off tourists. It made us so mad when we discovered what had happened, even though it should be one of those things we shrug off and resolve to not let happen again. We threw the money we thought we owed her on her dashboard, and walked away with her screaming obscenities at us and a crowd gathering. It is instances like that which made us so grateful to be traveling by bike – the tourist trail is so well oiled and designed to extract money from foreigners; the bikes insulated us from having to deal with that 99% of the time.
How did your experiences on the road change who you are?
Sam: Now I don’t worry about things as much because after facing the unknown routinely every day, we learned that things always turn out alright. The trip also made us realize how lucky and fortunate we are.
Erin: I watch the news and world events with completely different eyes. It’s so transparent how overly dramatized and skewed towards sales it is, not representing the whole picture of a country or event. We can also better appreciate the cultures that shape world politics and economics.
What assumptions or preconceptions did you have before leaving that were changed by travelling?
Sam: we (Americans) might think different peoples or countries are isolated and distant, but traveling it was surprising how interconnected the world is – seeing everyone on cell phones across Mongolia, and DVDs and cable and internet everywhere playing American TV shows and movies, internet cafes in every tiny, remote village, full of teenage boys playing the same video games as they do here.
Erin: I thought it would be more dangerous or scary than it was. My misconceptions were blown away by how nice and generous people were virtually everywhere, especially Muslim countries, which seem to have a higher standard of hospitality than most. People flagged us down many times a day with offers for tea, food and accommodation. It is stunning to first experience it, you almost are suspicious of their motives, because it’s so different from stranger-stranger protocol that we have in the West, but they were so sincere with their generosity and wanted us to only be comfortable and took personal responsibility for our safety.
Has your relationship to material things/possessions changed by your travelling with only what you can carry on your bicycle?
For sure. We consume far less and I (Erin) still find it crazy to own more than two pairs of underwear. I’m actually having problems getting back into the habit of wearing underwear, even, or showering regularly for that matter. So much I was used to doing before seems like overkill and waste now.
Other than “just do it”, what one bit of practical advice would you offer to someone who is dreaming of touring or travelling?
Sam: Don’t spend too much money (you don’t have to) and don’t waste time on overpreparing and planning – rely on your ability to adapt to situations.
Erin: for cycle touring, start small, to experience and feel how easy it is. It is so easy and simple, I wish I had appreciated that before the trip because the thought of it was so daunting and complicated, when it’s actually not at all.