Friday, May 30, 2014

Summary thoughts

Well I've been back home for a while, so I thought I'd post my thoughts and a favorite picture from each country.

First, a map of every place I spent the night:

The best part about Europe was all the warmshowers hosts. It's incredibly nice to have a place to stay and meet people who live in the area. Since almost everyone involved is a cyclist, they know exactly what you want when touring. Many hosts I met with worked in cycle shops themselves so I spent some time hanging out with more cyclists, looking at weird bikes like the ones the Swiss army used to issue to soldiers.

Glencoe - Scotland

When I had a working cell phone, I had plenty of people walk up and ask if I needed help when I was stopped with the phone out staring at the map. Having a GPS was somewhat necessary when following those cycle paths, because while they were nice and went through interesting parts of the country they were often hard to follow.

Near Harrogate - England

I never really mentioned it before, but in Europe almost every single small town had a WWI or WWII memorial. Some had old tanks or statues of soldiers. The monuments to WWII never really stopped showing up, but sometimes they were overshadowed by monuments to other, more local wars.

Bapaume - France

In Switzerland it became quite obvious just how much the weather can effect you when you spend all day out in it. When you spend the night in a tent and it pours rain all day, you have no choice but to plow through it. I missed being able to just sit inside when the weather was terrible, and that's probably half the reason I decided to stop traveling.

Mürren - Switzerland

Spending a lot of time in hostels I noticed just how incredible it is to have your own transportation in cities. Overhearing people talking about trouble with Eurail passes or bus or metro cards and schedules or taxi prices and scams just made me laugh. It's very empowering knowing that you can go wherever you want to, and the only one you have to worry about is yourself. When you read guidebooks all the scams and dangers are focused around the common tourist gatherings like bus stations,train stations, and taxis, so avoiding those made me feel safer than the average backpacker.

Füssen - Germany

On the other hand, having a bike sometimes comes with its own problems. Making sure everything is running smoothly takes regular diligence. Fixing problems on the road takes time and effort. A lot of the flats I had were my own fault for riding too recklessly, so there was no one to blame but myself. I was lucky enough to not have any problems I couldn't fix or couldn't ride to the nearest shop, but I also like to think some of that had to do with planning and building the right bike for the job, as well as watching for more serious problems that I had to replace.

Vienna - Austria

That being said, when you're cycle touring you're instantly part of a club of other cycle tourists. Almost everyone else I saw on the road I said hi too, and exchanged stories or suggested routes or maps, as well as spares or tools.

Bratislava - Slovakia

Since I was carrying a tent and sleeping bag I was very self-sufficient, only needing food and water every few days. Often when talking to locals, there would be a point in the conversation where they would ask "where are you staying tonight?" and I could honestly answer with "I have no idea." It's very liberating knowing your most difficult decision for the day might be where you'll spend the night.

Budapest - Hungary

When I left western Europe it started to become a little adventure every time I switched countries. I had to make sure I had enough food and water to reach the nearest town that was large enough that I could expect to find an ATM. In some countries it took a lot of effort, such as Azerbaijan, where I went to 5 different ATMs before finding one that would take my card. In Uzbekistan there isn't a single ATM outside of the capital. The first hotel I arrived at (400km from the border), the manager let me book two nights without paying, and he loaned me about $8 in Uzbek som to pay for dinner.

Near Osijek - Croatia

Going through some border crossings, I couldn't help but notice the different treatment I got while on a bike. Having been through some borders before on a car it was interesting to see just how much they didn't care about me or my gear. In some cases when I would wander up to the border, looking for the correct place to be, I lined up behind cars as usual, only to be ushered on into empty lanes, essentially cutting hundreds of people in line. And I really felt bad for anyone crossing a border in a truck. Some countries had 3-4 days of waiting time for freight to get through the border. I met a Turkish truck driver, who fed me dinner, on the Uzbek/Tajik border who said he drove two months round trip from Turkey for his job.

Belgrade - Serbia

When traveling by bike, after you enter a country you immediately start to see everything about it. You don't hop off a plane, take a cab to the capital, and see the biggest and best castle/cathedral/mosque/temple in the country. On a bike you see all the in-between bits. In many countries the motif of the most famous castle/cathedral/mosque/temple has been copied throughout history and is literally everywhere. After seeing the same thing every hour it sometimes got a bit boring when I finally reached the capital and saw the biggest and best. "Oh, this is exactly the same thing I've seen the last few days except bigger and surrounded with more white faces behind cameras."

Rila Monastery - Bulgaria

In Turkey I started to realize just how annoying it can be to not be able to communicate with people. Being at the mercy of the English skills of people you're talking to is very frustrating. Once you're through with "hello," and "what is your name," there's not much left to talk about. This was also the country where I noticed a huge difference between the large cities and tourist areas and the smaller, less visited places. Again, on a bike you see the whole country, and many towns or areas that you wouldn't give a second thought otherwise can be the most surprising.

Ankara - Turkey

In many parts of the world, being able to communicate with people is not a requirement to be a recipient of their generosity or their curiosity. It can however be a huge bonus, and it makes things so much more pleasant. Even with only about 6 months of formal Russian schooling and a bit of further learning on my own, some of the most interesting conversations I had were in Russian. I wasn't really surprised to find that almost everyone in the former Soviet republics speaks Russian. Some people, particularly in the large cities knew Russian as their first, and sometimes only, language. If someone walks up to you speaking English you have to be a bit wary because they might have alterior motives, but if someone walks up to you speaking their own language they're usually trying to be friendly or helpful.

Gori - Georgia

Another thing that was striking about most of the rest of the world is how little emphasis they place on names. I had plenty of conversations with people in Russian without them ever asking my name. Most of the shops didn't have names, or they weren't the primary focus. If you had a market it had the word market prominently displayed. If you had an auto repair place, it had the words "auto service" prominently displayed (usually written on a tire).

Near Yevlakh - Azerbaijan

I noticed that I take a lot of things for granted that many of the people in the world live without. Indoor plumbing for example is quite nice to have. Clean water provided by the government is not available in many places. Some form of social safety net means we no longer throw our poor, elderly, and disabled out on the streets. Electricity is certainly something I would've thought almost essential to have. Even material to burn to keep your house warm is not always easy to find.

Karakalpakstan region - Kazakhstan

I was also struck by the amount of trash everywhere in some countries. I doubt the government makes any effort to provide a way to dispose of it properly, but most of the citizens don't seem to care anyway. If there are no trash cans and nowhere to dump trash, it ends up on the ground, and in the gutters, and next to the markets.

Khiva - Uzbekistan

Another thing I got to see by going outside large cities, and into smaller towns is the incredible wealth gap created by corruption and exploitation of resources like oil. Seeing a 10 year old child riding a board on two wheels pulled by a donkey, and then a hundred miles later seeing a $50,000 car every 10 minutes gives you a hint of how a country is run. The story goes that in Azerbaijan there are two main types of cars sold: the Lada for the poor, and the Mercedes for the rich.

National Park of Tajikistan

Probably the most frustrating experience I had was being illiterate. It's a very weird experience not being able to read 99% of all the characters you see. In many countries with non-latin characters they transliterate the script. This is particularly important for major tourist destinations where the government knows it is almost impossible to find your way around if you can't read the signs pointing the way. On the other hand it was surprising to see just how many parts of the world translate signs and plaques into English. I was in a temple in Kyoto and they announced over the loudspeaker that it would be closing in 10 minutes, in five different languages. In some places this brought on some hilarious mis-translations.

Song Kul - Kyrgyzstan

When you're traveling, but particularly when on a bike you have to adjust your schedule to fit the weather and time of year. When it was too hot, I found myself waking up earlier, or taking long breaks during the middle of the day. Sometimes these breaks led to some interesting encounters since with nothing better to do I would often sit in the shade next to my bike to read and people would get curious.

Dali - China

When I got my phone wet in Switzerland, I started leaving it off most of the day, and only using the GPS for the hardest parts. This was usually the first or last part of the day. There might be 10 different ways out of a city, but once you were on the main route you could follow it until the next city. Once you arrived at the outskirts however, roads started changing names, signs stopped pointing to the city name and instead switched to district names, and it was hard to tell when the suburbs ended and the city center started. When my phone stopped working completely in China, I was left with no GPS, and I realized I'd actually gotten quite good at finding my way around. It's hard to find decent maps in Asia, so I was left with terrible ones, and I spent a lot of time memorizing online maps beforehand. In Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, I couldn't find a map so I just went without one. It became pretty easy to distill a day or two of travel into a few simple directions to write down or remember.

Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

There aren't too many things I would've done differently on this trip. I wish I had known about the Chinese hand signals for numbers before I went there. I wish I had a "no honking" sign on my back through most of Asia. I wish had gotten the phrase "Please serve me one meal, I don't care what. Thank you." translated into a number of different languages. I was probably carrying too much weight with me, but on the other hand I was carrying a bunch of spares and things like a first aid kit that I was glad to have not needed to use even though I carried them the whole way.

Phnom Penh - Cambodia

When you spend a lot of time on the road you really get a feel for how the people in a culture drive. Some countries are very friendly towards cyclists, or just their road construction is good in general, while in other countries both the drivers and the roads are quite awful. Having a large shoulder to ride on can make a huge difference, but so can having polite drivers. I am honestly surprised I made it through a few countries, as I thought I would be run over every 5 minutes, and that really starts to get to you. It became really hard to divorce the way a culture drives from the way they can be friendly and hospitable off the roads.

Sukhothai - Thailand

The one thing I really didn't enjoy was haggling for prices. Even when there was a price tag on something it still generally didn't mean that the price was fixed. One of the weirdest experiences for me was buying a painting in China and haggling for the price. The artist was standing right there, using an assistant who spoke some English, and here I am trying to haggle down the price of his hard work. I realize he can probably paint much faster than he can sell so it's in his best interest to make the sale as long as it's above the cost, but it still felt incredibly rude for me to tell him how much his art is worth.

Yong Peng - Malaysia

I also didn't enjoy being constantly harassed to buy things. Particularly in Asia, if you're not Asian, you're a tourist, and people want your money. In large cities I was quite frustrated with it, but again, I had to remind myself that the rest of the country wasn't like that. That was an obvious trend that some of the nicest people I met were outside the cities, and some of the most annoying were around all the tourist places, but that's the price of admission.

Chinatown - Singapore

So what has changed? I'd like to think I've become a bit more compassionate after seeing the generosity from everyone. Particularly some of the poorest people in the world could be the nicest. I certainly will be hosting travelers when I have my own place again. I had a theory that the hospitality culture comes from living in a harsh environment such that you depend on everyone around you, much the same way all cyclists will help each other. I think I'm now better at making mental maps of places and finding my way around. I certainly know my way around a bike better, and have learned the importance of preparation, regular maintenance, and preventative care. I'm a bit less suprised at the similarities and differences between people and cultures, as well as new things. I suppose when almost every day is a new place and new things, even that becomes routine. I've become more confident, particularly in cycling. I no longer think twice about going a long distance since I know I might be tired, it might take me a while, but I will make it there. Also, I know that having a concrete goal of where I wanted to be in a few days usually made me cycle longer or farther. I love riding my bike now more than I ever did before, and I have come to hate walking anymore more than a few minutes away.

Osaka - Japan

All Together I was outside the USA for about 420 days, I was in 25 different countries, I visited 43 UNESCO heritage sites, I took 9500 pictures, I rode more than 15,000 miles, I climbed about 100,000 meters of elevation, and now I'm back home.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

Monday, March 24, 2014


I landed in Haneda airport at midnight, had my bike together by 1:30, slept in the airport until about 6, and then headed into Tokyo. It occurred to me that my layover in Denpasar was the farthest south I've ever been, and the only time I've been in the southern hemisphere.

I spent the first night in Tokyo in a capsule hotel, which turned out to be just as nice if not nicer than most of the dorms I've been in. I guess it was an atypical one though as it was basically identical to dorm bunk beds except with 3 walls on each side of the dorm, and the capsules weren't stacked side by side.

All the famous cherry trees aren't blooming yet. Instead they look like this:

It didn't take long to find some torii gates (considering they're everywhere)

As well as plenty of pagodas, gates, and temples

Tokyo also has the imperial palace, which is closed except for a few days a year

Japan is quite a bit different from anywhere else I've been in Asia. The traffic lights aren't signaled, and they're designed for high traffic all the time, so people get to wait at red lights forever. Despite that, people wont jaywalk, and they don't honk at each other. You would think Tokyo would have terrible traffic, but so many people ride bikes and the subway that the roads are hardly busy at all. Tokyo is the quietest large city I've been in. You're allowed to bike on the sidewalk and on the street. Policemen bow at cars in apology when they have to stop traffic. In the tourist areas there are tons of police, but many of them are 60+ years old, and still out patrolling the streets.

In Hong Kong they employ special conductors during rush hour to stand in front of the doors of subway trains and force people to move to the side to let passengers off before more force their way on. In Tokyo, everyone just does this on their own.

Since I had a while In Japan, and Tokyo was becoming too familiar, I took the train to Kyoto, which was way too expensive, and they wouldn't let me take my bike. So when I arrived in Kyoto, I rented a bike and wandered around. I ended up with much more of a road bike, and I was struck by just how much I felt every single bump I went over which made me love my own bike even more.

These roofs are made of layers of cypress bark, which is how they can make them in such an odd shape:

I had planned on staying in Kyoto for a bit longer but it was pouring rain, so I went to Osaka to see the castle:

Apparently this is high tourist season both domestic and foreign (because of the cherry trees about to bloom), so when I was looking at hotels in near Himeji, everything under $100 a night was booked, and without my tent, sleeping bag, and bike, I felt a bit helpless so I headed back to Tokyo, where the hotels were also fully booked. I went back to the hostel where all my gear was, planning on spending the night in a park/campground, but it turns out they did have rooms available. I have spent the rest of my time in Tokyo enjoying the noodles, and sushi on a conveyor belt (which is an amazing idea).

I will soon be boarding a plane that lands before it takes off, and I will finally be back in the USA.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore

Leaving Kuala Lumpur, the rest of Malaysia was more fairly boring riding through the tropics. Most of each day was riding through Palm farms. As I was making my way out of the city I ran into two german cyclists on their first day of 3 weeks around Malaysia. I handed them my map of the city and pointed them in the right direction.

I ran into a Chinese guy in Seremban who insisted on showing me around town, and even brought me back to KL to see the towers at night.

From there it was onto Malacca, which wasn't as interesting as I expected it to be. According to the museums it was a great place that was totally ruined by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. It does have some interesting mosque designs though:

The remains of the fort:

Also I finally managed to get a picture of one of the monitors I've seen once or twice a day while riding

From there it was onto Singapore. They have completely separate entrance and customs lanes for motorcycles, and they weren't bothering to search anyone. I was expecting to get hassled from what I've heard about Singapore being uptight, but I've had no problems. The drivers are still polite, with no honking, which is surprising since the city center is quite busy. There are tons of one-way roads though which is annoying.

About 60 seconds after getting my entry stamp, I got my welcoming gift of this through my tire:

Probably the best recognized building in Singapore is the marina bay sands hotel/casino

They also have the goofy looking merlion statue

Sentosa island to the south has been developed as a massive resort, featuring totally not disney world, and a bunch of fake beaches.

Chinatown has the standard temples, along with mosques, and hindu temples

Since most of the connecting flights back home go through Tokyo or Beijing, I figured why not spend a few days in and around Tokyo, rather than a few hours in the airport, so tomorrow I am headed there.

This is the last major bit of cycling for a while. While the bike still works fine, it could use some love. In 13ish months of riding, I went through 2 front tires, 4 rear tires, 5-6 chains, 2 bottom brackets, 2 front fenders, handlebar tape, a rear derailleur cog, and more tubes and patches than I can count. Somehow one of the adjuster knobs on my brakes disappeared, the plastic covering on both shifters is gone, my front rack has wear from the bags, my drive-train is very worn, my rear hub needs new bearings, and my seat is shaped like a banana. Also it could really use a wash.

But it got me here, so it did what I built it for.

(best glove tan line ever)