Franzi and Jona are currently riding the Great Divide route on fully loaded touring bikes; totally not what they had planned when they set off on a world-backpacking trip in 2012. Fed up with the regular transfers, slowness of progress, and inspired by travelling cyclists they had crossed paths with in India and Nepal they sent their backpacks home, replacing them with touring bikes and bike luggage. They haven’t looked back since.
This Journal piece follows the first leg of their bike travels, from Iran to Mongolia in 2014, before they travelled to Canada to zig-zag south through the Americas…
"We met a Swiss couple that were exploring Nepal by bicycle ... In the single evening we spent with them, they inspired us to change our journey plans, and lives completely for the next few years ... we decided to cycle from Iran to Mongolia..."
The heat, the tourist hassle, the overcrowded buses; we couldn’t stand it anymore. India had sucked the last bit of energy out of us. Our idealised dream of backpacking around the world was beginning to lose its sweetness. We spent hours in shabby hotel rooms debating what we really wanted from our trip, trying to decide where to go and even whether to keep going at all. It felt like the big dream we had nurtured for so long – the dream of seeing the world and all the exotic mystery of foreign landscapes and experiences – was about to come crashing down, revealing itself as another disappointing reality.
We had just finished hiking along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, a beautiful but touristy trail that was full of the crowded hassle we didn’t enjoy, when we met a Swiss couple that were exploring Nepal by bicycle. Both of them had been cycling around the world for over three years, and the stories of their adventures captivated us in an instant. In the single evening we spent with them, they inspired us to change our journey plans, and lives completely for the next few years. A quick look at the map and after hearing some good things from fellow travellers about Iran, we decided to cycle from Iran to Mongolia.
Finding any kind of outdoor or cycling equipment in rural India was a bit of a challenge, but in the face of the exciting new adventure ahead our spirits were high. We managed to order two pretty cheap hybrid-bikes, and figured out a way to make our own panniers, which ended up costing around $5
each. Then, once our flights were booked and our visas for Iran ready, we left India and our heavy backpacks behind.
The first few weeks were a crash-course in cycle touring. We were absolute newbies to long-distance biking, and the first legs of our journey left us with sore bums and raw hands. In spite of this, the frustrations we had encountered as backpackers seemed wonderfully far behind. The newly gained freedom to camp wherever we liked, and then to get up and hit the road whenever it suited us, was incredible. We were able to carry everything we needed to survive on our bikes, and felt more independent and free than we had ever felt before. Instead of searching through tourist guides for attractions to visit, we found ourselves simply riding through the landscapes and appreciating the things we happened upon. Instead of hopping from one place to the next, we could finally enjoy the journey in between, which was often even more rewarding. The locals in rural towns encountered us with an endearing mix of curiosity and disbelief, and we were able to connect with them easily. The bicycle brings you closer to your surroundings than a train or a bus; there is no protection between you and the world around you, which is what makes it so raw and real. Of course it wasn’t all easy going. Steep mountain switchbacks, sandstorms, dodgy places and bad weather were challenges that sometimes pushed us beyond our comfort zones to our physical and mental limits. But this was what we had craved, and why we had left the security of our jobs and homes behind. We wanted to face and grow from every challenge.
Travelling together as a couple made those challenges easier to cope with. We were able to share the misery and hardship and laugh looking back on things together. We also met a lot of fellow cyclists, in fact the further we headed into Iran the more cyclists we met, and they were almost all headed in the same direction as us. Sometimes we would ride a day or two together, sometimes even a week or a month. Iran is an extremely hospitable country to travel by bicycle. If we needed help we only had to ask and people would welcome us into their homes, or offer us food and tea.
Once past Iran, we crossed through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We enjoyed the diversity of visiting rural towns and bustling cities rich in culture. Even if we didn’t speak any Russian, the means of communication were always warm smiles and kind gestures. It was in Tajikistan where we started to encounter or first problems. The bad roads started to take their toll on our anything-but touring suitable bicycles. Spokes started to break, the first rim was about to crack, our tires were worn out and we stopped keeping track of all the flats we had during a single day. We could have just bought
replacements but this is where things started to become difficult – our bikes had 700C wheels, which don’t exist in Central Asia. The only parts we could find were for 26” mountain bike wheels. We spent hours in local bazars trying to find tires, tubes and spokes to fit our bikes, and the replacements we found were far from good quality. A new tire would sometimes last no longer than two days, with duct-tape helping to increase the lifetime by a day maybe. The brake pads would do the job for one steep pass until they started eating the rim. So we ended up hauling lots of spare parts around and spending at least half an hour of time every day performing maintenance.
In Kyrgyzstan our bikes completely started to fall apart. The endless washboard gravel roads had sucked the last bit of life out of them. But we were determined to continue. Spokes went from Franzi’s front wheel to Jona’s rear wheel. We replaced the spokes so many times that by the end we made it a challenge – 12 minutes was our best time, although we had to hammer the bearings of the cassette open each time because we didn’t carry a proper cassette removal tool…
"We replaced the spokes so many times ... 12 minutes was our best ... we had to hammer the bearings of the cassette open each time because we didn't carry a proper cassette removal tool…"
In Bishkek we finally knew our days were numbered. Kazakhstan and China’s paved roads were easier on our bicycles, but we knew that our equipment was on its last legs. So we decided to hop on a train from Urumqi to Beijing to cover a big chunk of the distance to reach Mongolia. Even if it felt like we had cheated a bit on our way by taking that train, when we arrived in Mongolia we still had a sense of accomplishment. With pretty basic equipment, minimal planning and no experience at all, we had crossed Central Asia on bicycles. But that finish line was only the beginning. Our plan to travel around the world seemed alive again. Despite all we had been through and the many troubles with our bicycles, we had fallen head over heels in love with cycle-touring, and both of us knew that this was something we wanted to continue.
After spending a month in Mongolia, we flew to Canada to work before the next leg of our world journey. We invested in new bikes and proper gear and are back on the road again, on our way south through the Americas right now. Travelling by bike is the way to go…