I get a lot of emails with questions about going on long bike journeys. Recently I was CC-ed into an email exchange between an aspiring adventurer and John Watson, who cycled to India a few years ago. I thought it was worth sharing John’s answers here, and he was happy for me to do so.
At the bottom of the post I ask anyone who has been on a big bike journey of their own to submit a couple of bits of hard-won wisdom that you wish you’d known before you began…
How long did it end up taking?
About 11 months but you could easily do it in a shorter time-span. Mark Beaumont, who broke the round the world record, did the same distance in about 2 months! Then again, he didn’t get to stop off and see as much as we did. I’d allow at least 6 months, otherwise you won’t have time to see stuff.
What was your average daily ride?
It varied a lot and generally increased as we got fitter. Probably about 50 miles per day with a range of 10 to 100. If you are a reasonably fit bloke it is perfectly possible to average 80-100 miles a day.
What was your longest ride?
Just over 100 miles
What were the biggest unforeseen problems you faced?
Psychotic drivers, obtaining an Iranian visa and getting ill. We did encounter some Taliban in Baluchistan but rather than decapitate us they seemed more intent on checking out our family photo album. Running out of water can be an issue. Also, some of Iran and Pakistan involves military escorts – this is a real pain in the neck and I’m not sure what purpose it serves given that
a. most of the locals have issues with the government (and in turn employees of the government ) and not tourists and
b. they were generally a bunch of useless, irritating wazzocks.
I would say the hardest aspect is mental rather than physical. Once your body adjusts the cycling is fine unless you have to cycle when you are ill.† I’d imagine that if you were cycling solo, one of the biggest difficulties would be loneliness.
What was the approximate total cost?
We spent about 16,000 quid between us but you could easily do it on less than that. Alastair Humphreys spent something like £7000 in his epic 4 year cycle around the world. It depends how rigidly you stick to camping or, to be more precise, wild camping. We generally liked to decant into a hotel in the cities to scrub up, de-louse etc and this added to the bill.
Anything else you think may be helpful in my preparation would be massively appreciated.
My main advice is to go for it. It’s not the easiest way to travel but it is a proper adventure in the old fashioned sense. At the risk of sounding evangelical, it’ll change your life – mainly for the better!
If you can afford it buy a decent bike, tent etc but if you can’t don’t let that put you off.
Staying warm and dry is a priority, so invest in a goose down jacket which can also double up as a pillow. If you don’t own one already buy in a thermarest – it’s a lot comfier and a much better heat insulator than a roll up mat.
Learn how to maintain your bike and take the right spares.
We bought our maps in Stanfords in London. Don’t bank on buying them along the way. In fact it is nigh on impossible to buy any after you leave Western Europe. Europe is the hardest place to navigate because there are so many roads. These slowly peter out as you head east.
The security situation is in constant flux in Pakistan and Baluchistan, and our route may no longer be possible. In that case, if you time it right you can go across the top of Iran via the “Stans” and drop down into Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway (if the border is open at the time). This was our original plan but we were too slow and the snow would have blocked our way. After a lot of time wasting with second rate visa agencies – including those listed in the Lonely Planet – we used Magic Carpet† for Iranian visa. It was relatively expensive but quick and – best of all – they don’t require an itinerary of where you are staying in advance in Iran which is very handy if you are cycling and planning on camping in the wild and under roads like we did.
It’s worth doing it for charity – not just to raise money for a good cause but because it can provide an extra sense of purpose. During the bad times when you are thinking “why the f*ck am I doing this – it could be the difference between completing the journey and bailing out.
People are generally very friendly – the only violence I encountered between London and Delhi was in Kent, when a hoodlum leant out of their car and walloped me. Sometimes the friendliness can be overwhelming, particularly when you just want to retire to your tent, read a book and go to sleep rather than have to decline yet another invitation to stay in someone’s house.
Traffic is the main danger and your biggest risk: it’s not “cycle touring cool” and doesn’t quite go with the “rugged adventurer” image but we wore reflective vests and helmets. It’s hard to know what would be worse: dying in a road traffic accident or having to spend time in an emerging market hospital recovering from one. Hopefully I’ll never know the answer.
Lastly, it’s worth doing a website – not least because friends, relatives and people like me can then live vicariously through your experience. [Al - a very good reason to ignore my post on Not Blogging on Your First Expedition]
Hope this helps.
I receive lots of emails requiring sensible answers like these. They are not particularly thrilling answers, but is the sort of solid information that is gold to a nervous mind contemplating the unknown.
Perhaps then if you have done a decent length bike trip yourself you would consider adding two or three bits of information in the comments section below. The sort of things that you wish you had known in advance. They are often obvious with hindsight but really helpful in advance…