Well, it’s the 5th of July. I left Dublin on the 5th of January. In that time I’ve cycled 9700km, through 21 countries, eaten a couple of hundred snickers bars, drank 100s of litres of Pepsi, Chai, and Coffee, had 3 punctures, one broken wheel, slept in many random places and met so so many cool people. What a trip! And I’ve only just started in China! I’ll have so many stories to tell when I finish in two months’ time!
I remember when I wrote my first “reflections” post when I arrived in Istanbul. Istanbul was a big milestone for me. I’d cycled across Europe. A continent. Wow. I really really found that leg of this whole thing very difficult. Maybe I was complacent, arrogant, or even ignorant before I started. I certainly realise now that I didn’t have a clue about what I was getting myself into when I set off 6 months ago.
Do I have a clue about it now? I’d say a definite yes. There’s little chance of me being nominated for “Adventure Cyclist of the Year”, but I’ve really come a long way, literally and figuratively! In Europe, I was an awful, awful “traveller”. I had to plan out every section, never “winged it”, never camped, mingled very little with the locals and basically just cycled hard, slept, ate and moved on. Part of that was that I was just surviving this thing, definitely not enjoying it.
As I crossed Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan I really changed from the guy who cycled across Europe. I learned to be a better “traveller”, much of which I can attribute to the kindness of the Turks and meeting Will, my cycling chum in Georgia who helped me learn to enjoy camping a lot more.
When I crossed the Caspian Sea on a cargo ship I hit the 4 month mark and wrote reflections again, noting how much more confident I was and there was a clear change in my attitude towards the whole thing: I was no longer simply surviving, I was enjoying myself, relishing the never ending challenges. The cycling had become, dare I say, easy (by comparison to how it was before!), and the “other stuff” (visas, ferry tickets etc…) were the real challenges.
But as soon as I was feeling confident in the cycling, I had the sh*te knocked out of me by the Kazakh desert, an experience I talk about regularly and to be honest, it’s a great travel story now! I think the Stephen that cycled across Europe wouldn’t have survived the Kazakh Steppe and finish feeling so jovial about the whole thing. I then tackled the deserts in Uzbekistan and really had the sh*te knocked out of me. I was a broken man rolling into Bukhara, but felt proud of my achievement, delighted to have risen to the challenge and conquered it with all of my might.
Sadly, after all the desert cycling, I had to do the unthinkable: Take a train. In fact I had to take three! This was due to the visa restrictions in Uzbekistan. Although I didn’t write too much about it at the time, this took a huge toll on me mentally. I was furious with the people who’d let me down in sourcing parts to fix my rear wheel, which delayed me two full weeks in Georgia, a delay that meant I really had no choice but to take the trains in Uzbekistan. Crossing the country in time was practically impossible. For weeks I toiled in my head about the delay, fixating on it and what it had cost me, and was only satisfied again when I made up those miles later on in Kyrgyzstan.
But even the trains showed a shift in my “traveller” spirit – before I’d have stressed and worried about the practicalities of getting the bike onboard. It was always a bit of a pain as no one working on the train wants the hassle, but in Uzbekistan I saw it as a game really. I’d ask myself “How many times will he say no, and I’ll say yes, before I get the bike on board?”. As it turned out, the answer was 6 times! “Nyet…Da….Nyet…Da….Nyet…Da” (No…Yes…No…Yes etc…).
I really loved Uzbekistan. The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Even the police, who are EVERYWHERE were lovely. A genuinely great country to visit and I recommend it to all. Then came Kyrgyzstan and the incredible mountains. What a stunning part of the world. The extra miles there were to make up for my trains in Uzbekistan, but I still feel like I’m cheating a bit because they were beautiful, beautiful miles! Wow. Incredible. Take your bike and cycle in Kyrgyzstan, you will not regret it!
Sadly, with Kyrgyzstan came the corrupt cops. Such a shame. But again, the shift in me as a traveller shined through. The Stephen of Europe would have cowered away, probably cried or whatever, but I wasn’t overly phased by any of the experiences there either.
Then in Kazakhstan for the second time, the better traveller in me just relaxed, did the miles and enjoyed the ride despite the oppressive heat. I’ll admit, being asked “Atkuda!?!??!!?” 100 times a day still drove me nuts, but I did genuinely love meeting the people here, shaking hands and getting a hearty “Salam Alaikum” from the locals.
So, 6 months in. Am I a hardened cycle tourist warrior? Probably not. Have I changed? Yes, and for the better. Aside from trying to raise a bucket load of money for CMRF (thank you to every last one of you for your generous support), one of my main aims of doing this was to broaden my mind and “detox” from my cushy life back home. The Stephen who cycled Europe was still in that cushy bubble, nervous and afraid of the world, despite what I thought before I left, and how the blogs came across. I had to be positive! I’ve truly broken away from that and feel stronger, know a lot more about the world, and couldn’t be happier to have taken this thing on. I know that the road ahead in China is extremely difficult. I won’t delve into that here, I’m sure my next blog post will have plenty about it! But despite the difficulties I’m bubbling with excitement. My only fear is that I’ve opened a can of worms and this is only the beginning! I don’t think I’ll ever take on quite as big a trip again, but I have found travelling infectious and want to learn more and more about the world. It seems like a much smaller place now, and I want to see a hell of a lot more of it!
If this has come across as a philosophical load of garbage and makes you want to vomit, please accept my apologies! After 9700km, I’ve had a lot of time to think! I shall return to regaling you with tales of my broken ass, sleeping in strange places and the general misery I know everyone enjoys in the next post!