Heh. Alot, actually. I would make a conservative estimate that several thousand have done it already. I know of at lesat 4 people doing a round the world tour even now...a woman in Pakistan, a crazy british guy in the Himalayas (last time i heard from him).
I have wanted to do a world tour for a long time. I first started bicycle tourng in the early 1980s and knew within a few years I was hooked. By 1986, the end of my third European summer tour, I settled on the millenial years as the 2 or 3 years I would spend doing my world tour. Heck way back then I knew that New Years eve 1999 was a Friday night!
There is alot more, though. As with any adventure, alot of people think about it but very few choose to do it. I have talked to alot of people who have wanted to remain single, wild, free. who have wanted to travel, have a glamorous international job, or be a tour guide in strange places. You name it. Alot of people think about it from time to time. Very few do it.
Why do you suppose thats true? I mean, what sets you apart?
Well, the usual answer is to suggest that people don't have the 'guts' to do it. But I think there is a simpler reason. I think most people are basically happy doing what they are doing. Not paradise, but happy. Take a suburban guy: a mortgage, 3 kids, a car, wife and in-laws, an all day job with a tough commute. Sure, every once in a while he thinks about breaking free...visiting India, hiking in the Sierra, going into business for himself in the country. But the thought passes. Why? Because when ya put him against the wall and ask him to REALLY think about what he does every day, he'll shrug his shoulders and say, ah...heck! Me and the lady have it pretty good. I like my sons and daughters.
Most people live for their families. They want their parents to feel proud of them. They want their children to carry on their values and they, in turn, want to see their children succeed. I never was like that. Call it selfish, but i never wanted anyone on my back.
Well, maybe. But alot of people look back when they are older and wish they had done something more venturesome?
Well, yeah. You hit a real sensitive spot with me on that one. I know I'll never be a family man. I'll never have a pile of grandchildren to sit around me when I am older and tell me what a wonderful guy I am. What I'll have to console me is what I have accomplished, not what people tell me.
Still lets not beat the issue till it bleeds. I still think the average Joe might wish he had lived a bit wilder when he was young, but most look back and say they made the right choice. When I was growing up in the wild and wooly tie-die 1960s, alot of people thought of hoppin' that ol' freight train and hittin' the road for a while. Few did. I think thats just as well...few of them would have been happy. I met people on the road and they realized I was on a two year bike tour. They admired it, maybe even envied me...but I think the feeling faded away soon after I was gone. I mean, after all..you are a journalist. Why don't you go on a world cycling tour and write a book about it? (Chuckle)
We'll leave right after this interview!
Can I come along?? I have this great route planned out....(laughter).
How did you set out your route, anyway?
It was actually pretty simple. Alaska to Tierra del Fuego--down the west coasts/mountain spine of the Americas-- is pretty much a gimme. Most world cyclists start there...up in Anchorage, or for the real hard cores, somewhere on the North Slope. I decided not to play the point-to-point game. Ya have folks who are really hung up on reaching Tierra Del Fuego, which is cool if that is their head space. I felt that if I had enough time to go to TDF and then back up thru argentina near Buenos Aires, then fine. As it turned out I did not, i had to keep stopping in Peru and Chile for treatment for a lesion on my lip. So I zig-zagged across the Andes several times between Chile and Argentina, and made my final crossing near San Carlos de Bariloche. From there i went almost directly to Buenos Aires. Most of that part of Argentina is featureless tundra with a howling wind. But at night the wind would die and it was just you and a zillion stars...stars that I, from the northern hemisphere, had never before seen.
You said to me once you had a solid background in astronomy. What was it like to see the Southern hemisphere?
Ahh!!! That was one of the major reasons I went on this tour! I had seen maps, and photos, and sketches of the southern skies and southern cross, and heard names like Canopus and Alpha Centauri since I was a little kid. Here they were! What a head trip it was to look at the sky at night. I didn't recognize half the constellations, and for all intents and purposes I could have been on another planet.
There is more. The moon was upside down and backwards! There was no man in the moon! The first quarter moon had the bright side on the left, instead of the right for us Northern Hemisphere guys. And the nebulae! The northern hemisphere has so few of them; but in the south you the magellanic clouds and NGC156 or whatever. One night in Peru, over 4000 meters on a crystal clear chilly night in a narrow valley called Callejon de Huaylas, I woke up and saw a glow through two layers of nylon in my tent. I thought perhaps it was kights from a small city over the horizon. I got out to look. It was the Milky Way! South of sagittairius, where most people in the north can't see, the milky way so fucking bright it was clearly visible through both my tent and rain fly! It just blew me away. I was bit disappointed in the Southern Cross; it was smaller than I expected. The 'Northern Cross' (Cygnus) is much bigger and noticeable. Anyway...half the constellations are upside down, and the other half I never had seen before. I may as well have been on Mars.
Your phsyical and natural science background helped?
Oh you bet. I appreciated so much more than your average cyclist would; and thats your average world touring cyclist at that....
(Laughter) Not a very average group. Can ya give us an example?
Countless examples. I studied geology alot, so I always noticed the mountains and hills and different rock formations. On the Karakoram highway in Pakistan there is a vast stretch--2 or 3 days-- where it is nothing but bare rock faces and the Indus river below, but I was in heaven as a geologist. There were dunes and sand bars in the river below where tributaries came in and dropped off silt...
oh...? what a thrill...
...Fuck you! To a geologist it was paradise. I noticed the sand was blown into dunes, almost like you would see in the desert. I stopped to take a picture. There was this shepherd walking down the road with a few goats. He looked at me with this 'what are you taking a picture OF'? Most people don't realize that the Indus actually crosses the Himalayas and Karakoram mountains. No other mountain range on earth is crossed by a river like these, the highest mountains on earth are.
Oh blah! Roll your eyes. I'll give ya another example. In the Chilean desert--the Atacama--
The one where it hasn't rained since Jefferson was elected?
And won't rain again till Bush is elected! No..seriously...this is the driest place on earth. Anyway..there are these massive hills and valley walls of nothing but sand...sand of slightly different hues...yellows, tawny, tan, in some places even dark reddish and almost black. The wind blows them around at different times of year in a regular pattern. Just like on the surface of Mars, which in fact resembles the Atacama very well. Anyway..it was sand blowing around on Mars that caused the planets' surface to change color over the course of the Martian year, which is why scientists thought there was life there. Here was the same thing going on. I'll bet if ya talk to 99% of the people who travel there, few of them know that. They are all hung up on this henscratch in some of the rocks that they think were made by aliens! So I got a lot more out of my trip there than most anyone else ever did. Most people told me not even to go that way--to stay inland, up in Bolivia or northwestern Argentina. Damned if I was gonna miss the driest desert on earth!
Anyway back to my route! Remember..that was your original question? I flew to Lisbon, Portugal from Argentina. I wanted to start as far west in Eurasia as I could, and thats the limit. From there across Europe, the middle east, south Asia, up thru Southeast asia and China. I crossed the yellow sea and landed at In'chon, like McArthur. I couldn't pass that up since the other half of my website it about the Korean War. Total distance: about 60,000 kilometers, or 32,000 miles. Some world tour people do more. Many do much less. But as far as straight-line riding goes, its tough to add more mileage without zig-zagging into Africa and Australia, and adding at least 1 additional year of traveling. I wanted this trip to be two years in duration. I can always add more later.
Do you think you'll do another world tour?
Definitely. I want to go when I am 65-67, exactly twenty years from now. You know, alot of people say 'do it while you are young.' Its part of the subject we talked about earlier..why people don't live their dreams as much as they'd like. Part of it I think is this damn youth cult we have in the West. People figure they have to be wild and free when they are in their teens and twenties; and if ya didn't let it all hang out then, well then, buddy, ya just blew it because now ya have to put on the suit and tie and toe the line. What a pile of crap! You can pick up and go anytime. In fact I would argue that i appreciated my trip more because I was older. I had the academic background to really appreciate what I was traveling through, for one thing. Alot of people i meet touring were hung up on the party and social aspects of touring; what I call the Lonely Planet psychology. Its odd they use the name lonely planet because wherever ya go, all the guides tell ya are where the bars and discos and hangouts can be found. I found the LP guides worthless as a cyclist! Nothing but how to find flophouses near the train station.
Darn straight! I bet you were capable of finding flophouses on your own....
Of course. And I was often able to wild camp, even in areas that were pretty heavily settled. In China for example--where Lonely Planet says the "trick is to find a spare blade of grass!", i wild camped in the rice fields and forests almost half the time.
Anyway alot of people tour for the people experience. I tour for the solitary experience. Just put me in the countryside, in the hills and forests where the rural and real people live. Thats why I loved India. 1 billion people, and yet, I think of it as a largely rural country.
You said before India was your favotite country for cycling?
Definitely. I skirted the big cities. I had to go to Delhi, for visa stuff--and I finished in Calcutta. But most of the time I was in the western Ghats, which are a range of hills down the west coast, and the central plain, which few people bother to see. I also spent time in the northern part, up around Simla, but I had to boogie out of there since winter was coming fast. There was alot of ice on the roads and bicycles don't have studded tires.
But what a country to cycle in! The roads are usually in decent shape. From december to February when I was there the mornings are cool and crisp, and the tilled fields ever more green. There is something about the sunshine in India; the sky is a gorgeous blue and the light diffuse. Yet the green hills seem to glow under a soft light, even at midday. And for a guy on a bicycle it was just heaven. Everyone in India loves to travel--to see relatives, make pilgrimages, go to market, you name it. The roads--especially the Grand Trunk Road-- are full of cars, trucks, buses, animals, carts, bicycles, and people---walking, walking, walking! Because of this there are many areas along the way which function as rest areas. Kipling used to call them paraos. They are a cluster of restaurants, where you can stay and sleep the night on rope beds that are used as chairs by daytime. So at the end of each day riding, you never had to 'seacrh' or 'find' a place to stay and camp! And it gets better. Each parao usually had a well with a big basin full of water for washing..your clothes, your body, even your bike if ya wanted to. It was heaven. Usually on a bike tour you are kind of grubby and dusty at the end of the day. But in India you can wash up and be fresh every sunset!
And even better is the food at these restaurants/paraos: curry, curry, and more curry! And chapatti, or baked flat bread. The indians usally have a piece with their breakfast. I would have four or five or six...they couldn't believe it. Oh goodness...telling you about it makes me want to go back!
You mention on your site "The India of Kipling still lives?"
Oh it does. I mean from his book Kim. I havent read much Kipling but that. In the book Kim and the Lama travel for a few days on the Grand Trunk Road--the mighty road from Peshawar in what is now Pakistan to Calcutta. The Brits improved it, but its been there for centuries. I wished I had a tape deck..i would have had a WAV file on my website called 'sounds of the grand trunk road.' Its all there...sure the traffic hurts, but you still have all the original feautures: the cattle, the carts, the cursing and shouting and commerce. I had been on my trip for 18 months when I was in India, and this was my high point. What a country...what a people!
Hindus, for the most part?
Well, probably. But you see Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Lamaists, Jains...like Kiplings Kim, you need to be able to recognize the differences in their dress and mannerisms. The Sikhs and Muslims were generous to a fault. I can't tell ya how many times they paid for everything I had eaten as their guest that evening.
Then it wasn't as solitary an experience as you said earlier, really, was it.
Yeah, Ok. I'll give ya that one. It was solitary in the sense that I traveled by myself. Alot of people ask me if ya get lonely that way, and I say, No way! Its alot easier for strangers to come up and start a conversation with you-- in a cafe, at a campsite-- if there is just one of you. Much less intimidating for them. So you meet many more people. People confuse being alone with being lonely, and they are two entirely different things. I think most people in the city are lonely, and they hide it in the crowded places where they gather. I have tried to talk to cycling groups at one time or another, and the experience is almost always an unpleasant one. They are so inbred, attached to one another, so clannish. I couldn't believe it--these groups would be riding for less than two or three weeks in alot of cases! The tour leaders often wouldn't help matters either, since if the riders realized they didn't need to have all the sag waggons and riding paraphernalia, they'd be out of business. Anyway, the vast majority of riders I see are solitary riders. Women tend to be in pairs, yes...but even there you have your fair share of lone riders; especially the French, and especially in Europe.
How many tours did you do before the world tour? Did they help prepare you, much?
Before the world trip i went mostly in the summers, during the break in the college academic year. I did one trip across the USA, another on the west coast and Canadian rockies. Then 4 trips in Europe, before one back in the Canadian Maritimes. I've also done short trips in Japan, Korea, and Siberia.
They helped prepare me in the sense that I knew what to take touring, what kind of mileage I could do, those kind of things. But nothing can prepare you for what I saw and felt when i started in Anchorage May 31, 1998. Two years and alot of roadway lay in front of me. But there really was no great sense of awe and wonder; that came later, as the trip became accomplished, rather than at the beginning. The end, in Tsingtao, China, was also an anticlimax. By then I had LONG felt I had accomplished a great goal.
Any real 'adventures' along the way, or by and large was it just a 'great big summer trip?'
Ohh..oh ,my! (laughing). I never imagined some of the adventures I would have. Some never happened ever before on a bike trip. I was attacked by killer bees in mexico. I have a story about it elsewhere on this website. It was awful and scared the heck out of me. It took almost 15 minutes to get me out of the mess that I was in, and i was stung many times. I was hit by hurricane Mitch in central America, which stopped me dead in the water for almost 5 days. I came close to being killed by a few landslides. There is a separate story on that, too. They are just too long to relate here. In Eurasia the story was more about politics and visa snafus. I ran into some hostility in some places, too. We can talk about that later. Sometimes I was in an awkward position, too.
You look like ya have one time in mind?
Sharp conclusion. I do. I was in Iran, in a small town southeast of Tabriz. I got invited into a village and from there right into a family home. It was awkward in part because their muslim culture frowns on having women, and especially young girls, meet strange men. So the front room would be full of village men and boys. They'd all pack in! Word spread fast about the American guy on a bicycle, going around the world, no less! Not many people in the rural areas would speak good English, or English at all. Often I was surrounded by a semicircle of sitting boys. Well, this one time it was late and evryone had gone home, except for the host family. A man's picture was on the wall. I asked who it was...or they told me who it was, since I was looking at it for a while. it turned out he was their Son, an Iranian soldier who had been killed in the Iran/Iraq war. Of course, the USA had backed Iraq in that war. It was probably best that i couldn't say much; perhaps silence was the best remedy under the circumstances.
Ya know I loved being invited to peoples homes, but it was awkward in other ways, too. When you cycle you drink water by the gallon, and i often had to get up at night and urinate. I would have to walk outside in the dark, find the outhouse, and sneak back. If they had an outhouse. It was alot easier if I was wild camping; i would just wiz into the darkness outside my tent door.
Is it true they wipe their butt with their left hand in those countries?
Heh. Yup. Another reason i preferred to wild camp. It was less embarassing; when in the wood, do like the bears, and you can use vegetation of some kind. When i was in the desert, like the atacama, i had to use a rock or something.
(scribbling inquisitively)Let me get this down right. You wiped your ass with a rock?
Hey...a man's gotta do what he's gotta do. The rocks were kind of warm, actually and it wasn't that....
Enough enough already. I get the point. Where were people the friendliest? India, also??
Well, certainly India was up there. Iran and Turkey were just amazing. The turks always joined you in a cafe and offered to pay for your things; they often gave ya a place to stay. They fixed my bike at no cost several times. One group brought me to a water park near Tarsus. Much the same for Iran. It has to do with their Muslim culture, where the traveler is an honored guest and guests, in turn, are treated with utmost courtesy and generosity. Plus those two countries have such a sense of world history. Civilizations that go back millenia. Fruits, vegetables and nuts that grow both wild and cultivated. I mean, in Iran they had pistachios the size of your thumbnail! Dates that were so sweet. I remember joking with the Muslims there about Jesus eating only dates his forty days in the desert-- i said, "maybe he wasn't suffering so much after all."
The happiest people, though, have to be back in North America, in Mexico. Since it was so inexpensive to stay in the small towns in Mexico i often stayed at a hospedaje or casa de hospuedes. I would go out in the evening to enjoy the cool night and see this new country and the downtown plaza would be full to the brim! Whole families would be out. Older men and women sitting and talking, playing cards or chess, or reading. Young lovers sitting on the benches. Young children running amok, kicking soccer balls and eating candy. Everyone was out and happy. The small cafes and restaurants were open to the world. What a difference from the stale, cold and quiet suburban america we have! And infinitely better than our cities, which think that having people pour into pizza parlors for an hour or so after watching an overpriced sports event (and then hopping home in their cars before the shooting starts) consititutes vitality. Here the parks were full of vendors selling cotton candy, not ecstasy; the children dodged dogs and cats, not bullets. If it was a holiday or near the end of the week, the ruckus did not cease until after midnight; and even on Sunday night or midweek it was pleasant until the late hours. There was only one phrase i could come up with to describe the scene: glad to be alive. Not glad to have; just glad to be...simply, be.
Speaking of overpriced....mind if I ask the cost of all this?
Bad question...bad question to ask a professor of economics.
But i thought you were a geologist!
I teach about 4 or five different things at the college level. I am an environmental geologist, so I have studied economics, the physical sciences, and statistics. it adds up. Anyway..about the cost! The out-of-pocket costs for food, camping, repairs, and the flights between continents; plus visas and incidentals was about $20 a day. It adds up...for two years, over $14,000 dollars. But of course, the real cost was the opportunity cost; the wages I didn't earn the two years I was riding. Chalk up $60 grand in lost income. OUCH! But I think its a bargain at twice the price. I don't think I am worth $30,000 a year anyway.
You didn't get any sponsors?
Never tried. That was a point I made right at the start on my website. I wanted this to be my tour--nobody else's. I wanted to go when i wanted, where I wanted, how I wanted. In ansesne it was the independence thing we alluded to earlier. But there was a bit more than that. I didn't want to be a two wheeled ad for some product or some company. If ya watch the tour de france or NASCAR racing, you see these guys covered from head to toe with brand names and such. I just didn't want that. I think I will be able to recoup some costs from writing, but in general i want to share my knowledge about bike touring here on the internet, which, despite all the ballyhoo about its commerical potential, remains largely a medium for free exchange of information.
Have ya had much chance to share information? Who contacts you? Other than us, of course!
Oh I have had several dozen people write to me directly in the last year or so, when i wa still on my tour and even more now that I am done. Many people send me email thru my webpage. Others hear about me from various cycling networks and word of mouth. Again, despite all the promotional push on the internet, the most reliable way to become known as a source of inforamtion is thru word of mouth.
They usually ask about the routes I took and what they can expect along the way in terms of roads, countryside, people. Alot of folks want to know about some of the 'dangerous places' I have cycled thru, such as Colombia, and whether or not they should go. I have an entire page on my site devoted to Cycling in Dangerous Places, and I update it every once in a while. I'll redo it in a major way this January. Anyway, those are the most common questions. Most people going on world cycling tours already have alot of touring experience and pretty much know what to bring along; they want answers to questions specifically related to world touring. One of them you asked about--cost. Another is visas. Another is generally how cyclists are treated in the country; and the final one is safety. This has become a big issue among world travelers--not just cyclists--in recent years. Espeically for solo travelers, and even more so for women. It is a pity that women have even more problems traveling solo than we men do. The few I see I admire greatly for having the fortitude to put up with the harassment.
Well, other than Colombia, what were the most dangerous places? Are there places that tradiitonally are more dangerous than others?
Oh you betcha! Colombia has been dangerous for decades, not just for cyclists. In fact I might even backtrack and say that cyclists are less at risk in Colombia than many other travelers. The kidnappers and highway robbers in the country are after a quick buck or a good ransom, and cyclists just don't seem to offer much of either one! To boot, Colombia is a cycling mad nation. They have cycle races there that attract thousand of participants and spectators every year. Colombian cyclists almost always get the checkered jersey in the Tour de France for being King of the Mountains. When i was in Colombia I was nervous at first but after 3 or 4 days it faded away. You must always be careful; a discreet paranoia is best. But it definitely is a place worth cycling in. Perhaps not just now, because the internecine warfare between the FARC held regions and the rest of the country is getting nasty. And of course my good ol' USA is spending a few billion to wage war against guerillas who make billions of dollars selling drugs that would be dirt cheap if they were legal. So in fact, I have recommended to most riders that they steer clear of Colombia right now. When i was there a few years ago it really did appear that the cease-fire negotiated by Pastrana would be a big step forward, but that has not been the case. I won't take sides in print.
Another dangerous area is eastern Turkey and parts of northern and western Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. Here the problem is similar to Colombia--politics combined with general lawlessness. There were days in these regions when i would have groups of people--usually older kids but often adults as well-- throw rocks at me as I passed by. Or try and rush my bike and grab what they could! I was always amazed at how I managed, time and time again, to get thru these things with no loss of equipment or gear, even if I nearly lost my nerve a few times. Again, in my Dangerous Places page i recommend that riders not cycle thru these regions unless you are willing to take way above average personal and property risk. You must also have enough self confidence and poise to try and face down a confrontation if one occurs (I was in several) and yet be unflappable if something does happen. You have to be quick on your feet, quick with your mind, and generally quiet with your mouth.
A few confrontations? Can we hear about any?
Oh...the inevitable question. Still let me tell ya about one where I wasn't at my best and was lucky to get thru ok. I was in northwest Pakistan--the region, in fact, is called the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Its been a wild and wooly place for centuries...the brits had several brigades in the region there during the time of the Raj, and exercised minimal control. The Pakistan Government is similar. They control the roads, and little else. Well, I was riding on a dirt road toward a town called D.I. Khan. I already had had a few minor adventures fording streams and slogging thru the heavy gravel and stone on the road. But it got better! I came to a small town; and there was a gathering of people in the road. They seemd agitated or excited about something. Looking back, I broke one of my cardinal rules, which is never, never cycle into a crowd! Well...I did. They came all around me..maybe 10, 15 or more. And asked pretty pleasant questions, many in English; many Pakistanis speak English. Well...from my answer and from my accent they knew I was American, and that just set one guy off (actually two or 3) like a firecracker! He starts pounding me on the shoulder, and kicking the bike, and grabbing my handlebars, and kicking me, and generally yelling and causing mayhem! A few others joined in. But the rest of the crowd seemed to be telling him/tehm to back off. They would for a second, then they'd regain their anger and come back. He kicked my back tire a few times real solid. I couldn't get off the bike since so many people were near me I had no room to lift my leg over the frame. In the middle of all this, a guy runs up next to me on the right and says, "come on..come on! Keep moving forward...we got to get you out of this." He pushed me along and I waddled/straddled the bike. We eventually cleared the crowd. I shook my head a bit, and he walked along side while I rode up to a roadblock a 100 feet or so further on. This soldier says to me..."let me see your conduct pass." This was the first time i got any idea that this road was closed! When I couldn't show one he signaled me to a small barracks off the side of the road down below. My friend walked back with me to the barracks. The crowd was watching all of this...it was a big to-do, I guess. I flipped them the bird! My friend says, "NO..NO...don't do that!" I probably was silly to do it. Anyway. Down to the barracks. I put my bike on the porch in front and go in to see a Pakistani Army officer. He spoke good English. Again he asked for my pass. I told him i had no such pass...i had no idea this road was closed, no one told me, there were no signs. In fact some police in the town 40 KM back sent me this way!
"This entire region is off limits to foreigners without military permission. Where are you going?
" "D.I. Khan"
"The road is closed the entire way."
"I am sorry, I didn't know that," I said honestly. The tone was not confrontational, even though i was on edge since I didn't know what might result. I tried to appear conciliatory. "I would have taken the road to Zhob instead had I known that."
"That road is closed too. You are 40 kilometers inside of a restricted region. We have to get you a military escort out of here."
During all this occasionally people came up on the porch and started fiddling with my bike. I got up and shooed them away once or twice. The Officer put a sentry on the porch, but it didn't really help...the locals and the Army seemed to have a very tenuous relationship. I got up once more...
"Its not your bicycle I am worried about, Sir." said the Officer. He looked down at his papers. I was afraid i would have to pay for a bunch of Pakistani commandos to ride shotgun while I was transported to D.I. Khan in a humvee. I didn't have to pay...but then, the escort sure was weird, too! We all walked back to the road. Me, my bike, my friend, the officer and his sentry; and a few folks from the rowdy crowd came along for the festivities. Just at that time a small bus came over the hill going in my direction. They put me on the bus! There wasn't any real 'escort,' although quite a few of the passengers had rifles. In fact, some of the people on the bus were people from the same crowd who were kicking me before! But NOW...now...oh heck. Everything was hunky dory! I guess I now had permission, legitimacy, or credibility. The folks help me put my bike on the bus (not on top!), gave me a great seat up behind the driver, and smiled and talked to me some. Off we went.
Its just as well I got on that bus. The road to D.I. Khan was marked on the map as a road---paved! In fact it was not even a road in most places...it followed the riverbed for dozens of miles! I would have been biking it on foot for days.
The officer told me when I got to D.I. Khan I had to sign a statement that i had arrived in the city Ok and that i relieved the Pakistani authorities from any further responsibility for my safety! Arf! I slept well that night, I sure can tell ya!
All in a days ride for Roughstuff?
Oh...please. That was a full plate. I had a few days to recover, but the Karakoram highway in sections put me right thru the ringer again. I have a separate page on the Karakoram Highway on my site, so lets not go thru it here.
Ok. By the way where did the name Roughstuff come from..if ya don't mind us asking.
It was a nickname a guy gave me a bunch of years ago. Sort of rough in the rough-and-tumble sense. Sure fits given what i put up with on my bike tour, eh???
Sure does. Lets change the mood a bit. What was your favorite countryside for riding?
Too broad a question. I had numerous levels of favorites. My favorite highway I hit really early, between Jasper and Banff in western Canada. Its called the Icefields parkway, and it weaves its way thru national parks for over 200 miles of the most beautiful sections of the Canadian rockies. The highway had just the right mix, in my opinion, between services and scenery. They have campgrounds and wilderness hostels, and every thirty of forty miles or so thay have a restaurant/store complex for people traveling along the way. Maybe its more like every 70 or 80 miles or so...there aren't very many. But the whole road is mountains, glaciers, forests, lakes, alot of wildlife like moose and bear.
Another great highway was the road to the coast in Mexico at Mazatlan from Durango. It climbed over the mountains--the Sierra Madre Occidentale, if I recall--and then started winding and winding unbelievably across a series of rugged ridges. The finally, you descent to the coast. On the way down you go over the "Tropico de Cancer," and sure as hell, it gets damn hot! Steamy, stereotypical jungle weather. But in the mountains it was cool, even cold at night. I got hit by a late day thunderstorm and got soaking wet; wild camped underneath a big corrugated metal woodshed. I set up my tent to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos. I just thought the road was so great with its winding over the ridges...at times you would be on a saddle and could see for twenty miles in both directions. Plenty of nice little Hospedaje along the way to grab a nice meal. I especially liked the Huevos Rancheros, spiced mexican scrambled eggs. Yummy! Food food food...it always comes back to food, doesn't it?
One thing that is different about a cycling tour, and hard to understand if you are a 'destination' oriented tourist like most folks, is that on a bike trip you really are not 'going' anywhere. People would ask me...did you go to Calcutta? Did you go to Quito? Well, yea, i went to these places, but the real fund of riding is just that: riding! The fun of being on the road is just being on the road, and meeting people and seeing plaves along the way. When I was in China, there were many little villages along the way where I would stop and have a small meal, or something to drink. Everyone was amazed to see an American, and a cyclist, in their town. Most people just ride thru these places on a bus or train en route from one tourist spot to another. I was stopping in them, feeling them, breathing them. It makes the world much more real. Some of the parts of China I was in reminded me of industrial Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the 1950s: foundries, smokestacks. I was singing Bruce Springsteen songs! Yet it was such an experience riding thru. Most people have this idea about China being teeming mega cities filled with tenements and people riding old, steel bicycles to work. That is what ya see on the news. But get inland from the densely populated coasts and the world is different. It did remind me of appalachia--vast areas neglected by urban city slickers. Urban folks think the whole world is there to kiss their ass. Rural folks don't kiss ass, they kick it. And they are doing that in China big time.
Didn't you have trouble with the language and reading signs?
Well, by the time I got to China I was used to signs in a zillion different languages. Sure they have English script in the more popular traveled areas, but when you get off the beaten path, where us cyclists spend all our time, its almost always native language only. I got by mainly with the maps that I used. Plus there is always someone with a smattering of English who shows up if ya wait long enough! My final choice in some cases was just to go, and see where I ended up. China was the best example. After I crossed the Yangtze below the 3-gorges dam project, the map said there was supposed to be a big road continuing north. Well...no road! But what really could I do? I just took a local dirt road that looked like it went the right way. It did--after 1 1/2 days i finally got to where I thought I was heading to all along! The road was not paved but was in pretty good condition, and went over some very heavily forested mountains. I slept in the woods two nights in a row, and I'll tell ya, there is nothing like wild camping in a forested region when you are cycling. You can ride as late as ya want and then, at the last second, dash off into the brush and camp and no one ever sees you. Its great to be able to cycle till late in the day, because then the shadows grow long, the air is cool and calm. At night ya can hear the breezes in the leaves or nedles above you. This assumes the weather is good. But even in bad weather i prefer forest, since you can camp on well drained ground and sleep without being disturbed.
One thing I always dwelt upon when I was riding was the difference between riding on sunny days compared to overcast ones. I think most people feel ideal weather is warm sun and a cool breeze under a clear sky. They certainly can be ideal. But the cloudy days are so often underrated. There is a much softer tone to the light, with no shadows (so photographers love cloudy days). And the greens seem to stand out so much more. In bright sun the forest appears gloomy and forboding; but in the shade you can see, under the forest canopy, for hundreds of feet if you look carefully. The moisture is usually higher on those days so you can smell the forest smells much better also. There is the musty smell of dead branches and leaves, mixed with brown earth. So i don't mind overcast days at all.
Everyone must ask you about rain?
Now that you did, everyone has. Yeah...rain scares more people away from cycle touring-- outdoor adventures in general-- than anything else. I have to admit the rain can be tough to beat, but most riders will tell ya that some rains are worse than others. Thudershowers really are welcome as a break on those hot sticky days. Drizzly days or even days of heavy, steady rains aren't too bad, really. I have raingear, my clothes and gear are in plastic sacks anyway, so really the only thing that gets wet is you, and what you are wearing. That may sound silly but it really gives ya a clue of how to beat the rain...wear as little as possible. Your body generates so much heat while you ride, you rarely have problems staying warm in rainy conditions. I generally just have a waterproof jacket over one or two t-shirts for my upper body; my legs have just my cycling shorts. I might slip on long cycling tights if the rain itself is cold. The jacket has all kinds of zippers and snaps to adjust the air flow as conditions change. No GORE-TEX for me!
BUSH-TEX? You are a republican, right?
I just think Gore-tex is overpriced and ineffective. When you start getting wet with sweat while riding, its not because of lack of 'breathability.' Your body is just generating sweat so fast it can't evaporate, even if you were buck ass naked! Imagine jogging with no top on a summer day. You are dripping with sweat! Thats not due to breathability!
So what do you use for rain gear?
A couple things. One is plainly and simply waterproof nylon/pastic raingear, like what ya wore as a kid on the way to kindergarten. Yellow, and heavy. But it keeps those drops off of you! And unlike goretex it doubles as a cloth when you finally get to laying out on the ground in the evening.
I also have a water resistant windbreaker that i use when its only sprinkling. I switch it with my rain jacket after the rain stops so that T-shirt can start to dry out. But to be honest, there is really no way you can beat a steady, grim, day-after-day rainfall. After about 3 days of it, you just go crazy. Each day you get more stuff wet, and since its chilly and damp it never dries out. I had a couple stretches like that, including one quite early on the Alaska highway. It was chilly, too! Sometimes i'd ride all day and never really get warm 'till i snuggled up at night in my down filled sleeping bag. But it was forested regions, and the road was pretty straight and well paved, so i managed. It really was baptism by fire and water. I would light a campfire at night if i stayed in a formal camping area, which i often did. Other times it was rise and shine nice and wet. But hey...i made it. The Alaska highway was relentless in many ways...its distance, its vastness, its solitude. It is not easy to look to the west as I was riding down the road and realize that the only other road south was nearly 150 miles away! It was not unusual for me at the time, as I have ridden often in western Canada and am used to the big open mountains and spaces. But it was unusual in the context of the whole tour. Most of my world tour was through populated areas. Not urban areas, mind you, but populated. Again, look at India. One billion people! You started with grizzlies and glaciers and douglas fir. I ended with buddhists and Tsingtao beer.
Was there a point at which it 'became' a world tour? Before it wasn't, after that point it was?
Not as abruptly as I thought. In terms of duration, there really was no difference between this tour and any other until late October when i was in central America. It happened in steps. After the killer bee attack and Hurricane Mitch, I sure felt that this tour was gonna be one long series of adventures! Going to South America was a first time for me, i had never been south of the Equator before and this time i went almost to 43 S. Like i said the stars and sky were strange! So i sure felt something was 'up' by then.
I would say though my most significant single moment was entering Istanbul. It was hard to believe, on that day in August, 1999, that all of Asia---the vast, uncharted continent of Asia (for me) lay ahead! Within days my whole trip swept in front of me: I got my Visas for Iran, Pakistan, India. Suddenly the silk road swung open; almost like the scene in the Wizard of Oz (best movie ever made!) where the doors to the palace open. Suddenly there was nothing holding me back from reaching India from Europe.
You think Wizard of Oz is the best movie ever made?
Oh for Pete's sake this is a cycling interview...
Well, you're the one who brought it up...
Well then, which movie do you think is the best ever?
Ta ta ta...we ask the questions here.
See, you agree with me! Otherwise you would have said something like Reservoir Dogs or Groundhog Day. Anyway...the trip became a world tour, hook line and sinker, when I was in India. I had read about India so much before I left, and I love Kipling. So often when you go to a place with great expectations, you inevitably end up disappointed.
Must hurt like the Dickens.
I'll ignore that. I had incredible high hopes for India: the northern Himalayan border regions; the vast green plains of the punjab and the south; the hilly, forested Western and Eastern Ghats. I kept saying...no...no...don't build up your expecations too much! But when I got there, this is impossible to believe, but I was even more impressed! Even touristy places like the Taj Mahal. I was there new years eve, 1999--the dawn of the millenium. So it was crowded as heck. But the building really is just stunning. The marble gives a milky white, mother of pearl kind of look. Its almost as if the light is coming from the inside of the stone.
I just ate india up, day after day. It didn't rain much but even when it did it was beautiful. I tell people, if you have turned into a cynic and are really pessimistic about the future of civilization on this planet, go to India. The folks there are great. They have this weird body gesture where they shake their heads from side to side; almost more like a rotation. Its not a yes, a no, a maybe. Its kind of hello, or perhaps a general feeling of isn't life wonderful. India is the worlds largest non-aligned nation. They really should have a permanent seat on the UN security council. I say this even if i would probably disagree with most of their positions on international issues. The UN can't just turn its back on over 1 billion people! When I think that Russia has a permanent seat and India doesn't even get a bar stool, it makes me upset.
Anyway...such a remarkable place? I had to get there...had to be able to ride it all on my own. In order to do that I needed visas for Iran and Pakistan. I wasn't sure, as a US citizen, if I could get an Iran visa that easily. It took a while but I did. So the only thing between Istanbul and Lahore--where I crossed into India-- was alot of pushing the pedals. I was glad to leave Istanbul; the most beautiful city of my whole trip, but a city nonetheless. And I was there right after the earthquake! The city didn't suffer much damage, but towns to the immediate south and east--Golcuk is one--basically disappeared. The roads in Turkey are really granular and coated with oil. In Iran they are excellent in quality.
Did you have any trouble with the regime?
I never dealt with the 'regime.' A girl asked me the same thing when I was on a road not far from Teheran. It was this unbelievable climb over Chalus Pass, in the eastern Elburz mountains. I was in a good mood because I was going downhill. I told her I was granted a 20 day visa, and that a fellow at the border crossing gave me another then days. So I ahd all kinds of time to ride around Iran. She smiled. I kept going. As it turns out, the guy at the border had no authority to extand my visa and I was 7 days overdue when I went to apply for still another extension when I was in Shiraz! I walk in with this shit-eatin' grin hoping for another ten days....
"Sir your visa is already seven days overdue. "
"But the fellow at the border crossing at Dogubeyazit extended it ten days. See? He wrote this note here and signed it." I handed it to him, innocently.
He chuckled. "You know what this says? It says you are riding a Cannondale bicycle. Thats all it says." He was laughing. He gave me a choice of paying a fine and getting my requested extension, or a 5 day extension on the spot but a guarantee of no more. I took the latter. Gosh! Of all the places to overstay a visa! I am lucky i am not in jail in Teheran.
Still it sounds like you liked Iran.
Well i suppose its monotonous but I liked everywhere. Iran had so much to offer. They have a history that goes back to biblical times. They had dates and figs so sweet you would pucker; and fresh pistachios the size of your thumbnail. They were the scholarly center of the world in ancient times; almost all stars and constellations have arabic names first given to thenm by people in this region. Thats no surprise; the air is so clear! While Europe was busy with the dark ages and black death, these guys were inventing Algebra.
Whats odd about Iran is how much water they have. But its all underground. You will be riding in the desert when you come to a city like Isfahan. All of a sudden there are treelined streets and parks and fountains. All from groundwater. I was able to see this as a geologist, as there are alot of high mountains that get rain and snow during the winter months; then the snowmelt replenishes the aquifers. Almost all of the country is very dry and barren, or only with thin pine forests. The one exception, is in the very northwest part on the Caspian sea coast near Azerbaijan. They have a jungle up there, because of the moist ocean breezes. In fact the whole Caspian sea coast is a chain of small towns and cities with a heavy emphasis on tourism.
So the trip became a world tour in stages, but the sense of wonder became greatest in south asia. I had so many miles behind me by then; i had lived on the road for so long. I would still get amazed, overwhelmed at what I was doing, but at the oddest times. Having breakfast, under a warm sun. Very often at night while i sat lstening to the radio. I bought a shortwave radio and used to listen in my tent to BBC broadcasts. It was an odd juxtaposition, because here I was detached from the world riding a bicycle for 2 years; yet every night for months i'd hear the latest world news. It was odd, as I switched from time zone to time zone: the programs would be on at different hours. Even more meaningful was gradually shifting from BBC broadcasts from say, the Middle East, to South Asia; then Hong Kong. The BBC is so much more sophisticated--i am tempted to say the world adult--than American news. Far more intelligent questions, sophisticated answers and analysis that doesn't insult the intelligence of the host, the guest, and most of all the audience.
Did you run into other cyclists--world cyclists?-- along the way?
Some. Harder to meet than ya think, since we are all moving in the same direction: west to east is the most popular route, both because of the winds and because most riders are from America or Europe and thus want to end in Asia. But yes, I met a few. Right at the beginning, in a small hostel along the Denali State Park road, i ran into a Danish couple who had been touring the world for many years. They would stop from time to time to work. It was a tour of the world, not just by bike. Many people do seem to need that break..but i kept going. Anyway, they soon would be leaving Alaska and crossing into Asia to tour for a few years. I thought i might see them again when i had gone all around the planet, 2 years later. I didn't.
You tend to run into other cyclists at 'choke points'; where long term touring routes came together. I identified three 'choke points' as I was planning this tour. One was Central America. The two continents are connected by that narrow Isthmus and there really is no other choice than the PanAm system. I ran into several riders headed north. I kept hearing about a rider in front of me--for several weeks, actually...it was almost like pursuing a ghost. I finally ran into him in Panama city! He was a Canadian guy and was going 'only' as far as south America. We shared horror stories about hurricane Mitch, which we had both endured a few weeks before.
A second choke point was Istanbul, where the roads from Europe into Asia minor come together. Sure you can take a ferry from Greece or across the Black Sea from Bulgaria, but I wanted to ride it all on my own. You do have to take a small ferry across the straights of the Bosporus. Anyway when I was in Istanbul I ran into quite a few travelers of all sorts. I was there twice. I left the first time in early August to hustle eastward and see the total solar eclipse, from the town of Kastamanou. Then i doubled back counterclockwise around the country, doing the west and Medittereanean coasts. I heard stories about other riders everywhere I went thru here; but i never saw anyone. We must have all been going in the same direction.
The third choke point was the city of Lahore in Pakistan, right on the India border and main road to Amritsar. If you are going across Asia minor into India by road, Lahore is the only way you can cross between the two countries. I have a friend who teaches at the University there, and I told him the city should try and capitalize on its unique location that way: become known as a cyclist resting point, all around the world. It was neat there, too. I had met Dr. Shoaib via the internet/email very early on my trip. So I had been writing to him over a full year before i got there! Plus Lahore is mentioned alot in Kipling's book Kim, and it was neat to see it firsthand. I suppose, if you are going to go from one choke point to another, it would be harder to have the endpoints be more amazing cities than Istanbul and Lahore. It really was a coherent whole in many ways: the dominant religion, culture, ethic, and social norm of the region was Islam. Once you cross into India you have Hinduism, or a great mixture of religions.
Do you think the problems you had in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan was related to the political conflict between islam and the west?
Yes, but not for the reasons you probably have in your head while you ask that question. I had no problem with Islam and Muslims per se. They are the kindest, most generous and gracious people I have ever met: part of the religion, part of the culture. Where you have problems is in areas where that culture is in jeopardy. The stories about enclaves of muslim fanatics in the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountains are true. They have fierce devotion to their religion and their way of life, and there is just no way it can come in contact with the west (or western values) without being permanently changed, even destroyed. I believe this and I am a westerner; just think how they must feel. It is not a problem that is ever gonna go away...you cannot shut the world out forever. This region of the world is becoming strategically and economically more important by the day--due in large part to the Karakoram Highway itself. Still, except for us crazy world travelers passing thru, i can't see alot of people migrating to this region. The situation is not analogous to, say, the White Man slaughter of the plains Indians. There the soils were fertile and the ground for the taking. In these valleys it is a herding, hardscrabble existence. So the fanatics will be able to adjust at something much closer to their own pace (which for many is, zero!). But the conflict for them is they would like their children to have better education, better job opportunities, a better life overall than they have had. I don't see how you can finagle both, if you are as unwilling to adopt liberal (in the British, Constitutional sense) values, at least 'in the privacy of your own home!' I mean, as a college professor I can't stress hard enough that learning is a creative, freewheeling, explorative process. That means we give students books that ask questions--not provide answers, as religious texts such as the Bible or the Q'uran (Koran) do. When i was in Rawalpindi i spent a few days talking with a guy i had seen before in Istanbul-- i nicknamed him 'Talibanman'! He had spent alot of time in Pakistan near the border with Afganistan, and even rejected what he felt was a bona fide offer to visit Kandahar. He emphasized that for many Afghans and Taliban folks the answer to everything was in the Q'uran. He was so tired of hearing "but the Q'uran says" he almost went batty. Keep in mind that as westerners we have a bit more credibility on this issue than you might think. We have freed ourselves from the shackles of the "Bible" or the "Talmud" in western societies and yet, there still exist enclaves (usually in the cities...NY, Tel Aviv, etc.) of Orthodox Jews, Strict Muslims, Born Again Christians, Cults, etc. While i think the clock is ticking for the folks in those valleys along the highway, it is ticking mighty slowly.
You have special page on your site about the Karakoram Highway, you say?
Yeah. I was just so amazed I was able to do the Karakoram at all. Most books I had read suggested it closed shortly after November 1st. So when i visited Dr. Shoaib in Lahore in early November, i was stunned to hear people tell me, NO! It is chilly up there, they said, but the road remains open until the first snows, which are not until early december. And thats at the very top of the pass; the lower elevations remain clear even longer. Well, I hemmed and hawed a bit but decided--heck, i'm here, lets do it! So up I went. My plan was to ride up as far as i could and then just come back down by bus..no sense in retracing all those miles.
Bu didn't ya want to go downhill all that way? We would have taken the bus up and ridden back down!
I must chuckle. Its not really all that 'uphill' going toward China or downhill as you come into Pakistan. Sure, the final ascent to Khunjerab pass is nasty..but most of the rest of the raod is alot of up and down local relief. Sometimes you are on cliff or shelf abouve the river; other times you are in broader valley and it is easier. I might add that while the word 'highway' is used, in most cases the road is only two lanes wide, with a dirt and gravelly shoulder. It sure is a tough road to maintain, with the variation in climate and instability of the terrain. Landslides close the road quite often in places, and one time the road was closed for months due to a massive collapse of a valley wall. The road is getting more popular with cyclists every year, though-- few roads in the world can match it for significance of the countryside it snakes thru. Sure, the road from Katmandu to Lhasa crosses the himilaya and goes into tibet. But the Karakoram passes right thru the place where the worlds 3 greatest mountain ranges come together. The Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya all touch the highway at one point.
Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Andes, Alps, Pyrenees. Doesn't it overwhelm you sometimes at how easily the names of these distant places just roll off your lips?
Yes. Going way back to the start of the interview, when I was talking about being a kid. I never travelled much till I was in college. Until I was a Sophomore I had never been west of Syracuse or further south than Washington, D.C. I always wanted to travel of course, but had neither time nor money to do it. In contrast, now I am the world traveler of Roughie Clan. I have one cousin who was in the Air Force back in the cold war days. He was everywhere....Guam, Phillipines, Iceland, Germany. But heck...thats the military. My head is fucked up, so I travel to chill out and relax. People in the military are pretty straight and together, and the services make them travel to fuck them up. In any case, I am the only one who has traveled this much on my own initiative and at my own expense. To some of my younger nieces and nephews I am the 'wierd uncle' who lives far away and comes back with strange stories from strange places. They love it when i give them foreign currency, for example. What other kid on the block has Pakistani Rupees or Peruvian soles?
I have never gotten jaded about travelling, travellers, tourists, or tourist attractions. With some people out there you run into the 'been there done that' mentality, which is just so unfortunate. I was on Khao San road in Bangkok during my stay there. Of course, it is a western backpackers mecca. But many people enjoyed it for being part of the city: the temples were nearby, museums, wats. Most people who I talked to seemed to be happy to land, for a short time, in a tourist enclave. But soon they'd be off to some other spot, and right back to seeing the countries and there people and their cultures. I am the same way. Even if I go to an area I am familiar with--say, the Canadian Rockies-- I always see more each time I go.
Nor have I gotten jaded at how easy I find it to just plan a trip, hop on the bike and go. I am planning to do a tour this summer in Manchuria, since I am so close to the area being on the Korean Peninsula this year. Well, its basically all planned...within a day or two of thinking about it. I'lll hop a ferry at Kunsan over to Yantai on the Shandong Peninsula in China, ride up to Manchuria, and wander around for a few months. There are some mountains on the border regions with Mongolia and Russia that I'd like to see; and even some old growth forests in the regions near the North Korean border. Not what you normally think of in China. I'll leave the Forbidden City and Beijing Proper to my backpacker friends. I am worried that some areas I want to visit are closed regions--especially near the borders--but even if you hear 'they are closed' it doesn't necessarily mean you can't get in. There often is alot more tolerance on the spot than there is amongst the rule-makers in Beijing. I'll take a mountain bike this time, though.
You told us earlier you might even try to tour in North Korea?
Heh! There is a pipe dream if there ever was one. But the only way you can find out is to try, and then try harder. The rapprochment of north and south goes in fits and starts, and there is alot of international politics. Bush, for example, may chill things. On the other hand there soon will be search parties allowed for the first time at the Chosin Reservoir. Not only is this my webpages' namesake, but it would give me a chance to get up there if I could be part of the overall effort. I had to wait till Stars and Stripes published my article about my bike tour (December 24, 2000) until I could go any further, since only the folks who know about my website know any thing about it. I am actually quite publicity shy. If I could get up there I am sure i could spring some loose time to do some riding around the reservoir (given the state of the NK economy, a bicycle might be the best way to get around!), which would be fantastic not only for my cycling website, but for the Korean War Part, as well. Sure, right now the Cycling pages are the largest section, but that mostly because of all the pictures and stuff. If I can ride up around the Chosin, my pipe dream will come true. Not for the first time! After all, my world tour looked quite undoable for a while.