I am sitting in an apartment in European Turkey, sipping my morning coffee. Outside the irresistible Istanbul skyline beckons, soon we will go out exploring.
A few days ago we crossed the Dardanelles, meaning we have cycled the Asian continent from Malaysia to Turkey. It was incredible setting our bikes down in European Turkey, a defining moment of our trip for sure. I can’t quite comprehend that 2 years ago today we wobbled out of Lewis Street and have pretty much pedaled the whole way to the gates of Europe. By the end of next week we will be in Greece. Obviously, like last year, we are behind in the blog. We are sorry for that, but a friend once said, ‘if you post more than every two weeks, you are not having enough fun. If you post less than once a month, you are having too much fun’. I guess we are having too much fun. And have suffered through some seriously dismal excuses for wifi as well!
So, two years on. I often find myself looking back on where we have come from and reflecting on the different elements of this adventure. Cycling through Australia will always be very close to my heart, even as I sit here, half a world away with plans to be gone longer than first anticipated. I am at the heart of it, a lover of nature above and beyond anything else. Give me an empty beach and a starlit sky over an exotic location any day. This is where I am most at peace, and cycling Australia is where this comes easiest. Perhaps it is also that I have some kind of romantic attachment to the landscape of the country where I have spent most of my life. I admit, I am the kind of person that gets attached to places in moody, nostalgic ways.
After the peace and space of the Australian bush and outback (and even Darwin, lets face it, Darwin isn’t exactly the worlds busiest city), Indonesia came as an assault to the senses. A good assault in many ways, but also a 10 fold increase in intensity. More people, more traffic and unabated curiosity. While in Australia we had attracted attention for sure, curious grey nomads, the odd person wanting a photo with us and to hear our story. In Indonesia we were the centre of attention wherever we went. Children in villages would scream ‘tourist, tourist!’ so hard I worried they might pass out. Everyone wanted to know where we were going and men and boys would follow and stare at us when we tried to find somewhere to camp.
Reaching Singapore was a relief. No longer were we the centre of attention. It was a slight culture shock too, being in this super clean, organised city after almost 3 months in Indonesia. We treated ourselves to the ‘western’ things we had missed. Good beer, bread, coffee. I celebrated my 30th year on this earth and then we pushed on towards Malaysia.
I will always like Malaysia more than most cycle tourists. I think coming from the other way, people find it dull (loads of palm plantations, flat boring roads) compared to Thailand. For me, I wanted dullness. I wanted not to be followed and stared at most places I went. Malaysia gave us that and I felt I could breath more easily. Sometimes I wonder how I would feel about cycling Indonesia now. I think I would find it a lot less stressful. After the relative isolation of Indonesia (in terms of other travellers), Malaysia felt full of tourists. We made some backpacker friends and it was fun to be more social.
In Thailand the social feeling continued and we even had our friend Marita and Astrid’s dad join us on the bikes, plus my parents for a visit. Thailand is perhaps one of the easiest countries to cycle tour. Loads of places for refreshments, good roads, good secondary roads and plenty of cheap accommodation. Not to mention the natural beauty. Thailand was easy and fun and we stayed longer than anticipated.
Laos was a different world, back to needing to be self sufficient, with mountain villages and not a lot of food. A stark contrast to it’s rich neighbour. We loved the challenges of Laos and getting back to basics. We realised we had really missed camping. It’s not that you can’t camp in Thailand, we had just gotten used to staying in accommodation as it was so easy and cheap when split between 3.
Vietnam was a side trip, mostly off the bikes where Astrid’s mum came to spend 2 lovely weeks with us. It was not a country we ended up being particularly fond of as we were hassled and ripped off more than we had been in a long time. Wallets on wheels is what I felt we were viewed as. In saying that, the last few days cycling back to Laos were absolutely stunning and I think we were able to make some peace with the country and leave on a good note.
We had a brief reencounter with Laos, where my sister helped us celebrate our one year anniversary of cycling in style. Then we pedalled into a country neither of us had been particularly looking forward to: China. What a surprise China ended up being. It was beautiful. The food was amazing and it was a lot emptier than expected as we stayed only in the South West and West. We had a brief encounter with fascinating culture of the Tibetans before tackling the harsh deserts of the far west. Here our trip took and unexpected turn as we met fellow cycle tourist, Neil and decided to join forces and head straight to Kyrgyzstan, rather than Kazakstan.
Our team of 3 pedalled into Kyrgyzstan, a cycle tourists paradise. It was summer and we met tourers everyday. After meeting almost no one in over a year, it now felt like everyone was cycle touring. Kyrgyzstan, aside from being ridiculously annoying to spell, was a month of mountains, yurts, questionable fermented products, too much meat, horses and really bad but beautiful roads.
Tajikistan and the Pamir highway was another cycle touring mecca. We saw more cyclists than cars and at one point we were a group of 6. The beauty was extraordinary, the Pamiri culture fascinating and the altitude dizzying. The food was shit but we recovered in the capital, Dushanbe, in the wonderful house of Vero, which has an oven and is therefore sacred.
The police state of Uzbekistan is nothing to write home about it terms of cycling, but the ancient Khanates of Bukhara, Sammarkhand and Khiva and certainly worth a peruse. It was here that we began to get the creeper stares from men in a more intense way. I think we had been sheltered by having Neil along with us for so long.
Turkmenistan is a blip on most Asia to Europe cyclist’s radar and we pedalled as hard as we could through the icy, mostly empty desert country. Our trip culminated in us getting deported for overstaying by an hour, which sounds way more bad ass than it was.
The much anticipated Islamic Republic of Iran was a hundred times more difficult than expected. Two words: Men and Police. Both hassled us frequently, but the people’s overwhelming hospitality did win us over in the end. Iran was a time of the women cyclo gang as a fellow cyclist Barbara joined us. The 3 of us struggled to make sense of this country that seemed to constantly contradict itself. There were cold desert nights under the stars, juxtaposed with hot (over heated) nights piled on the floor, sleeping beside wonderful Iranian families.
Some of you know, other don’t, but we went home for Christmas. It was a difficult decision to make but it worked out to be the right one for many reasons. Seeing our families and friends was lovely and intense. A far cry from the relatively quiet and simple lives we had been leading.
Arriving back in Iran was a relief in many ways. Certainly not because it was Iran, but because it felt like this is where our lives are supposed to be. Being home was both lovely and unsettling. It felt like home in some ways, but wasn’t. It was almost like I was revisiting my old life, but unable to really take part. Our lives right now are on the bikes and once we got pedalling again I felt myself become at ease and at peace with life again. Certainly there will be a time for being home again, and I am glad we went, but that time is not now.
And then it was winter, well and truly. As we have had not had a winter since 2012 (and certainly not what many people would consider a ‘proper’ winter) it was tough. The last part of Iran we only camped twice, mostly relying on the incredible hospitality of the Iranian’s. The landscape was stark and frozen and our water bottles remained ice blocks almost the entire day.
Leaving the Islamic Republic was mostly a relief, although we will always remember the kindness of the people. After the oppressive nature of Iran, we found Turkey a very different animal. It certainly is the gateway to Europe. Everything has taken on an easiness that we have not experienced in many months. Credit cards work, the internet works, the roads are mostly great, the police doesn’t pull you over, and all the familiar brands are back. There are both good and bad aspects of this new found easiness. I miss some of the ruggedness of the other places, but having working wifi is nice! Oh and being able to buy a beer!
So that brings me to the present, sitting here in Istanbul, about to head into the European Union (at least for one country). After 2 years on the road, I now think I understand people who cycle around the world for years. It is only recently that I really grasped this. This feels like my life now, almost more real than anything else I have done. It is so simple and so beautiful, I could almost just keep going. I don’t miss the stable things as much anymore (aside from an oven!). I am more happy than I have ever been in my life (and I have mostly been pretty happy). It’s the simple things that really matter. Connection with people, finding a good campsite, the sun on my face, a clear night sky, dry fire wood, clean water. I think this adventure is starting to change who I am.
In my heart, I do know that we will be home some day though. Our wonderful friends and family mean the world to us, and we dream of our own bit of land, somewhere amongst the gums. Of growing food, sharing meals with our loved ones and being part of a community.
When this will be, I am not so sure. I feel like I am on this journey and one day Astrid and I will look at each other and feel like we want to come home. And then we will.