Hi there fellow cyclists or soon to be fellow cyclists! My name is Guido, 33 years old, born and raised in the Netherlands and since three years a fervent long-distance traveler with my bicycle, a Santos Travelmaster 2+.
My growing fondness for traveling by bicycle began rather late, I must admit. It started mainly due to my work: as a policy advisor on sustainability, I noticed that I had more impact when I not only ‘talked the talk’, but also ‘walked the walk’. Therefore, along with some other lifestyle changes, I decided to stop using the airplane as a means of transportation six or seven years ago.
After traveling with the train and occasionally hitchhiking, I discovered long-distance cycling and began saving money to buy a strong, sturdy and staunch bicycle that could carry me to a country that, from an early age, truly had spoken to my imagination: the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Three years later, during the pandemic year of 2020 – on June the 19th, a long awaited moment had arrived: after six months, Ziggy Two-Shoes – this is how I baptized my blue, black and orange miracle – was ready. Skillfully advised by the people of Bike 4 Travel and carefully constructed by the mechanics of the Santos team, he stood there waiting for me in the showroom. Within two months after picking it up, Ziggy and I started our travel-by-bicycle-career with an adventure from our home country to the Danish isle of Samsø and back.
The following year, we would finish a second training trip. This time from the Netherlands to Italy and back. Upon returning I said to myself: ‘We genuinely love this way of traveling, we learned some basic things. This means: the final preparation for Bhutan can begin – we are ready to see the world by bicycle before the world escapes us.’
So after getting hold of the last necessary equipment we left for our endeavour to the Far East in the early Spring of 2022. The first part of the route we had planned, would take us through the flat Rhine valley in order to strengthen the legs. After that we crossed the Alps into northern Italy, descended a little, went back up to salute the Dolomites, cycled over the Slovenian and Croatian borders, explored the backcountry of Bosnia Herzegovina from Banja Luka to Mostar, climbed from the Kotor Bay in Montenegro towards Shkoder – Albania, swam in Lake Ohrid – Macedonia, headed back into Albania towards Greece, paid a visit to Metsovo, Meteora and Mount Olympus, said ‘hi’ to a friend in Thessaloniki and some orthodox monks on Athos before arriving in Istanbul.
Somewhere in Southern Europe it was where – with the help of some other cyclists we met in one of the bottlenecks where many cycling routes joined – we found the right rhythm. Up until that point we had been traveling, yet – in hindsight, we had not really been traveling: we didn’t give the people of the open road and the surroundings a genuine chance to leave a lasting mark on us and only sporadically did we stay long enough to, in return, leave a mark on them.
Shortly before Istanbul, this changed. We found our way to Lake Töz, teamed up with three other cyclists and set out to discover in a more gentle pace the plains, mountains and wide valleys of central and eastern Turkey. The different cultures, people, food, clouds, rivers, trees and animals, we started to see it all with a pair of fresh eyes, letting it all in.
With this new perspective, we kept on pedaling – this time bicycle and cyclist were alone again. Up north we went into Georgia where we saw the Caucasian mountains first hand, smelled the pine forests of Borjomi and took time to understand Tbilisi a little. It was also in this capital where we reached the planned halfway mark so we put new oil in the Rohloff hub, changed the breaking pads and gave Ziggy a thorough cleaning. After that we continued south towards Armenia where we picked up our visa for Iran in Yerevan, laid eyes upon Mount Ararat and crawled over some high passes before reaching ‘the cradle of civilization and culture’: Persia.
The journey so far had gone so smoothly, it worried us a little. More than 8.000 kilometers and not even a single puncture. Ziggy was more than capable of riding the highway shoulders filled with rubbish, the dirt roads, the gravel paths and the forest trails. Besides that, the support and help from the people along the way was of an eye-opening level. Water, food, shelter, company, it was all there for the taking and there were moments, especially in Iran, where we had to flee or hide to enjoy some privacy and quiet time – to be completely alone for a day or a night.
This all got me thinking: why aren’t more people traveling like this? Of course, you find yourself in moments filled with no clue as to where to spend the night, you will feel your heavy legs and experience biting muscle ache, and sometimes you are also unable to sit because of a painful butt… Surely, discomfort on a bicycle comes in many forms and shapes. Yet, you gain so much in return. Stripping away luxurious needs that bind you for instance, or letting go of unnecessary things you thought you needed, gaining deep knowledge about yourself, feeling the elements, the flowing landscapes, freedom, friendliness – feeling life itself, understanding how cultures are formed and influence each other – how forests grow, which mountains are solid and strong – which are fragile and dangerous, the age of rivers, the tale of birds… I could go on and on.
If only one knew how easy and fulfilling this way of traveling is, I thought.
I drift off, sorry for that. The real challenges for both bicycle and cyclist began appearing in Pakistan. The mandatory escorte by the ‘levies’ through Balochistan is where our patience and determination seriously got tested. Accompanied by two French cyclists and their beautiful bicycles, the six of us slept in police stations next to jailed Taliban warriors, saw machine guns everywhere, waited endless days for jeeps that wouldn’t show up, carried bicycle and luggage in police escort after police escort, brave yet over enthusiastic officers showed us to the public like we were some kind of circus animals, and in Quetta we encountered a bureaucratic system that instead of protecting us put is in more danger than strictly necessary.
Eventually it took us seven days to travel through the most southern Pakistan province under police protection. Normally, two or three days should do the job… You can’t be lucky all the time, I guess.
To relax, to connect with the Pakistani people, to see something of this magnificent country and its culture, we fled up north by bus, to the Karakoram Highway. Close to the Chinese border we started pedaling our way back alongside the Indus and surrounded by the three highest mountain ranges in the world: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas. It was spectacular and the views were so mind blowing that the food poisoning and the coronavirus had less effect upon our moods than otherwise would have been the case. We bowed to the Rakaposhi, went up hiking to Nanga Parbat base camp and crawled over the Babusar pass before returning to Islamabad.
Although, in hindsight, the Karakoram was giving generously, it also demanded a lot: the body had to recuperate. That’s why we hung around in Islamabad and Mirpur. After we obtained our Indian visa and were fully recovered, we flew towards Lahore and crossed the Wagah Border into the Indian side of the Punjab. Bhutan, for the first time, became a real possibility, we thought.
India was from the beginning mesmerizing, overwhelming, and incredibly intense. The curiosity of its inhabitants had almost no boundaries so we decided to go up north again, into the less densely populated green hills of Himachal Pradesh. Because we were just a few weeks too late, Ladakh was no longer an option: the passes had either been snowed in or closed off by the military. This meant we could go only east, which was not a punishment at all: the roads were good, the people nice and the food delicious. The only thing that bothered us was our front tire: it had begun to tear. After more than 12.000 kilometers, this was the first significant sign of our journey that was detectable on Ziggy.
In order to continue, we had to find a new tire. So we snaked our way across northern India before finding one in Chandigarh. The bicycle fixed, new worries arose. Despite sending dozens of letters to the government of Bhutan, we hadn’t heard anything from them. And with less than two thousand kilometers separating us from the land of the Thunder Dragon and no permission, it made us feel uncomfortable. To do something about it, we went to Uttarakhand, an adjacent state. Someone we had contacted before leaving for the journey was living there. With a touch of luck, he might be able to open up some sealed doors and, hospitable and friendly as he was, had invited us to stay and work on the matter at hand.
Fueled by optimism and hope, we went up north for a third time. Not only did our contact give us valuable Bhutanese contacts, through him and his family we learned a lot about Bhutan. Waiting for a response to freshly delivered letters, Ziggy and I continued riding east, closer and closer towards Bhutan. The decision to enter Nepal instead of traveling in the direction of Agra, Varanasi and Bhodgaya was probably one of the best decisions we made on the journey.
Home to the highest mountains of the world, Nepal, from the start, felt like a warm bath after a long autumn day of cycling through rain. Nepal was exactly what we needed. No news of Bhutan, the agreeable climate of Pokhara, the many smiling people around, it gave us enough courage to try something we truly didn’t know we were capable of: the Annapurna Circuit. Almost 400 kilometers around one of the most beautiful mountain ranges we laid our eyes upon, culminating with a pass that had to be crossed at over 5400 meters. Doing the loop in the beginning of December meant carrying and pushing Ziggy on steep slopes, chances of falling rock, landslides, sketchy stretches over ice and snow, the risk of altitude sickness and a few other things… Could we do it?
We will tell you this in a separate story about the Annapurna Circuit. Also we will let you know in three short stories if we reached Bhutan and got permission there to cycle.
For now to those who are on the road with their bicycles: we wish you nothing but strong legs, swift and smooth roads and above all a safe journey. For those who are at home: if you ever get a chance or an opportunity to go out there and start your own two-wheeled adventure, go. Don’t think, don’t hesitate. Pack up, fill your lungs and tires with fresh air – see with your own eyes what the world and the road have to offer, what they have to teach.
Happy trails to all of you!
Ziggy and Guido.